Monday, July 12, 2010

The responsibility of youth

I'll admit I've never been a fan of the Valleys. The mythology of them I've never bought, the reality of them I've wanted little to do with.

For those of you playing along at home, several long and narrow valleys run just to the north of Cardiff and across a large stretch of southeast Wales. They are rich with coal: that black, deadly, flammable rock that defines the nation and its people to this day. There were a few coal mines north of the Brecon Beacons mountain range (in south-central Wales), but outside its borders, if Wales -- the whole of Wales -- is known for anything at all beyond its dead anorexic princess, it is known for its coal.

People from north Wales hate this fact. North Walians want so much for you to know they are different. They can barely get through saying their name in introduction before they alert you to the fact they don't like rugby, and the south -- Caerdydd, in particular -- is dirty, crowded and crime-ridden. They write tedious novels about slate quarries in an attempt to stress how different they were and are; they are aching and desperate for you to know they are far more miserable than anyone else ever has been or ever will be. But no one listens.

Throughout the 19th century especially, Wales' valleys of coal were aerobic with activity. Workers poured in and resources poured out. Within it all grew the culture and accent and mindset that came to represent Welshness. The industrial and spiritual soul, the reason Welsh influence is so minimal in the United States and elsewhere as compared to Ireland and Scotland (people in Wales were able to find work without emigrating), it is why we refer to the area via proper noun: the South Wales Valleys. Too many important things happened here to not use capital letters.

It was all starting to die out, though, as far back as the early 20th century. Just before WWII, the British government was drawing up plans to level the town of Merthyr Tydfil and transplant its few residents elsewhere -- a plan that was scrapped simply because post-WWII, no one had the money to make it happen. In the Thatcher years, the decline was accelerated; the cancer was cured with a shotgun. The heart and soul was ripped out of Wales. In the present day, not one deep-pit coal mine exists in the country.

The mines, of course, were far more than income. They were the centre of everything. Without them, many people fell apart. They have not recovered. They have lived on welfare ever since. They raised children to live on welfare. Who are now raising children of their own who will almost certainly grow up to do the same.

And therein you have the source of the negativity I've long felt toward the area. It is just another place with an industrial past, something that really isn't all that impressive. We dream of art and culture. Who the hell pines for industry? When you play that game of stating where you would go if you could visit any place at any time period, no one ever says: "Ooh, I'd like to visit Cleveland when industry was so intense the Cuyahoga River would occasionally catch fire."

And in the present, with its industrial vibrance long gone, the Valleys seem like a parable, a cautionary tale of what not to do and how not to do it.

I was thinking about all this several Saturday mornings ago, as I sat outside the pride of Hirwaun's house, propped on her window ledge with a plate of toast and mug of tea, taking a break from helping her father and brother-in-law load a van full of her things to move to her new flat in Caerdydd.

Caerdydd: the city that punches above its weight, the city that is expanding, the city where art and culture are starting to properly blossom. How could this be anything other than good? Leaving a broken, forgotten Valleys village and moving to a city with present and a future. That's progress. Hooray progress. Hooray for her, I thought.

Her family, though, don't exactly see it that way. Even though the village and Wales' capital city are separated by only 30 miles of easily traversable highway, Hirwaun and Caerdydd are infinitely far apart in the Valleys mind. In an emotional sense, she might as well be moving to Tokyo. They support her, but what family is going to be totally happy about that move? What father is going to be clicking his heels at the thought of his daughter moving into a less-than-upscale neighbourhood at the very centre of a city of hundreds of thousands of people?

Sitting there drinking tea while said father was continuing to pack was certainly not the best way to get on his good side. I looked lazy. And I've always found it intelligent policy to try to be on a girl's father's good side. Especially when he is taller than me. And a police officer. So, I decided my laid-back attitude wasn't really appropriate to the situation; I gulped down the remainder of my tea and pretended I didn't want the second piece of toast. I quickly went at it to simply grab whatever thing I could find in the house and pack it into the van, and then into Lisa's car, and then into my car. My eagerness to avoid appearing a slacker is the reason a manky duvet she had planned to throw away ended up following her all the way to her new home.

Packing things into her car's boot (FTYPAH: "trunk"), I happened to look up and see Mynydd Cefn-y-gyngon -- a 510-metre promontory looming just outside the village.

"Can't fault the view," I thought.

And some part of me felt very sad for Lisa that she would no longer be able to wake up every day and see that mountain right outside her door. Instead she will see Millennium Stadium. And instead of mountain air she will breathe in the smell of hops from the Brains Brewery. Arguably she ends up with more interesting neighbours. The Valleys are a place of Superdry T-shirts, Next jeans and badly done tattoos; her new neighbourhood is a cultural diversity pop quiz with its burqas and sarees and lehangas, taqiyahs and salwar kameez and jodhpuri.

The people of Lisa's new neighbourhood seem friendly. If you stand still long enough the children will introduce themselves to you, rattling off names of all their brothers and sisters. There is constant noise and life. But possibly she will not experience the same warmth of person as in the Valleys. At least not in the same way. I suspect it unlikely she will be invited in for a cup of tea, that the women will offer the same sympathetic hum of understanding/listening as she speaks, that the men will laugh as heartily at their own jokes.

Shuffling around trying to look busy, I found myself listening to the song of Lisa and her family, as well as the gas man and electrician who had come to take care of final bits and bobs. Not the words, but the loop and pop of the words. The way emphasis comes at odd places: "You takin' thAT DOwn are yOU?"

As if the rhythm and content were separate things, the latter simply placed on top of the former. There is a quaintness and comfort and honesty. I have once heard South Wales compared with the American South, and there is some veracity in the observation. The accents of both places have the capacity to represent such different things depending on the listener's opinion of the place the accents come from: insufferable ignorance or uplifting warmth.

When I feel homesick, even when thinking about Minnesota, my old Texas accent affects its way into my speech. It is the sound of "home," regardless of where I deem home to be that week. A South Wales accent is considerably less difficult to find in South Wales than a Texan one, obviously. And to the untrained ear, Cardiffian patter is indistinguishable from that of the Cynon Valley. It is difficult for someone from outside the area to comprehend feeling any sort of longing for something not so far away. But almost certainly a need to hear that specific sound, the distinct thrum of her mother and father and sister and best friend, will be what spurs Lisa up the A470 from time to time.

And in the morning sun, looking up at Mynydd Cefn-y-gyngon, I felt I could totally understand that. Would I live in such a place? Probably not. Not even if you paid me. But I could completely get why someone would, and why leaving might be a Very Big Thing to everyone involved.

"Hey, did your dad leave already?" I asked Lisa, noticing the moving van had disappeared somewhere in the midst of my contemplation.

"Yeah. He and Gavin went down to start unloading things."

"Ah, I suspect they are eager to get everything done in time to watch the match," I said, trying to come up with some sort of reason as to why her father and brother-in-law wouldn't be as lazy as I am.

Clearly they should be drinking tea and getting lost in esoteric philosophising on the issues of identity and place rather than, you know, working.

For no real reason other than that I could, I pushed my old red Peugeot to 100 mph as I sailed down toward Caerdydd (for those of you playing along at home, Peugeot makes cars). I rationalised driving so fast for the sake of catching up with the moving van. Lisa's father and brother-in-law had left without telling me, which is a quiet sign they felt I wasn't needed. I was eager to redeem myself through manly acts of Lifting Heavy Things and Not Complaining. But really, I was just driving fast because driving fast is fun. Because I wanted the speed to match the feeling in my heart. The A470 corridor is lined with trees that were soft leafy green in the late-May sunshine and the weather the warmest it had been since the August before. I was wearing short sleeves, my sunglasses were on, the windows were down and the radio was blaring. In some small way it reminded me of almost exactly a year earlier, when I had set out from Boston on my two-month road trip across the United States.

"The only thing ahead of me is possibility," I would shout to myself on that trip.

The same spirit of energy and eagerness for the future was there as I powered to Caerdydd. I felt unharnessed, pardoned of the misery that defined a winter lasting from September until late March. I don't want to describe it, don't want to remind myself of it in depth, but those months were hell. A hell I haven't yet completely escaped. I still adhere to my rule of not drinking more than three beers in an evening, because any more than that is likely to result in my starting to cry. I work out every day of the week to keep it all at bay. I lock myself into schedules. But I feel myself lifting out of it. Slowly.

I put 21 March as the start. Me and Dónal and Isobel were sitting in a restaurant in Dublin; I was talking about my life in Britain and made the comment: "It occurs to me I may just not be a very likeable person."

"We like you, Chris," said Isobel, putting her hand on my arm.

For narrative purposes that is where recovery began. But obviously that was built on the foundation of the day before with everyone at Donal and Isobel's watching rugby, and the day before that, spent at the pub with Elisa, and then all of us meeting up with Annie that night.

I love you, Ireland. You saved my life.

On that Saturday morning in May, I felt love for Wales, too, and my heart soared. Shaking free of the evil long winter, done with the academic semester, a summer ahead of me with time to write a book, a job lined up to start in September, trips to the United States and Ireland to look forward to, beautiful warm weather, and, well, a certain girl.

Whose father and brother-in-law had thankfully not yet started unloading the moving van when I arrived. And so we all went to it, seemingly trying to race against ourselves to see how fast we could move all of the things up three flights of stairs on the hottest day of the year so far. Tables, chairs, chests-of-drawers, dresser, bed, sofas, boxes, bags -- all up and in the flat before noon. The pride of Hirwaun's mother and sister arrived with a few more odds and ends. Amongst them bottles of Corona that were distributed to all as we waited for the flat's new occupant to arrive.

I sat in the window well, catching the breeze. Lisa's mother insisted on tidying things, which spurred everyone else to start arranging furniture. What is wrong with these people? Don't they know how to do nothing? I often say I like Wales because it is so laid back, because nothing gets done in less than a fortnight, but perhaps, in fact, that is just me. But Man Code No. 29 is: "No beer should be rushed." So, I just sat happily, lazily, in my little corner. Outside I heard the neighbourhood kids singing in two-part harmony. Seagulls shouted at each other. A man on a mobile phone held a loud conversation about the price of something. Two punjabi women gossiped in a doorway. In the distance, engines growled on dusty city street and trains squealed on hot tracks as they rolled to Cardiff Central station.


Lisa and I walked upriver to the Mochyn Du, where we sat outside in the shade of old trees, eating our lunch. Her family had sped back to Hirwaun shortly upon her arrival. Inside the Mochyn Du, people packed in eager to watch Cardiff City FC take on Blackpool for a chance to play in the Premier League. For those of you playing along at home, I would explain what this means but it makes me sleepy. Suffice to say it was a Very Important Game. I was happy not watching it. One of the few positive side-effects of the evil long winter has been that I am now more honest with myself. I have come to terms with the fact that soccer is on-the-whole boring and of very little interest to me. I'm European enough in my socialist tendencies; I don't need to pretend to be enthralled by 22 stupid men chasing a ball and faking injury.

Cheering inside the pub indicated that Cardiff City had done something well, outside we drained our pint glasses and set out down the Taff Trail in search of ice cream. The newly opened Baskin Robbins was full of people but its fucktarded manager had apparently only scheduled one person to work that day. A Saturday. In Summer.

We headed elsewhere.

People were spilling out of the Old Arcade pub, all eyes on the televisions. We cut through Cardiff Market, where the stall owners were buzzing with excitement, relaying details of the match to one another, shouting out their analysis of the two teams, dreaming of the strange sort of civic pride that comes from having a Premier League team.

"It's exciting," I said.

"Did you want to watch it?" Lisa asked.

"No," I said. "Definitely not."

There was almost no wait at Cadwaladers, thanks to the fact that its manager understands the concept of consumer demand. A rare win for a local business against an American chain. Hooray Wales. Hooray Kendal Mint Cake ice cream. We took our cones outside to sit on the benches and people-watch.

When the people on this island of rain see the sun it causes a sort of madness. Suddenly they don't know how to act or how to dress. For some it means that they should behave as if they are going out clubbing, which means slapping on fake tan and dressing like a whore. But in the light of day fake tan makes you look like an Oompa Loompa, and dressing like a whore means only that you look like a whore. An Oompa Loompa whore. For others the weather is an opportunity for them to do their best impression of an American -- wearing baseball caps and T-shirts with brand names -- with all the authenticity of Tim Westwood. And others just abandon all fashion hope, wearing the warm-weather clothes they bought in 1993 for a trip to Orlando, not having invested in sumer clothing since.

Our ice cream disappeared and suddenly I became aware of my own lack of fashion, wearing worn out running shoes and a pair of cheap jeans. Clothes for helping someone move, not for sitting around being catty about other people's looks. My self-confidence eroded, I suggested we head back to her flat and tackle the task of transforming the mess of things dumped in her flat into a place where someone actually lives.

"Yes, and me looking as if I've just come out of a hedge," she said.

"What were you doing in that hedge?" I asked.

"You don't want to know."

Walking past the Queen's Vaults pub, the misery on people's faces told the result of the match. Cardiff City were labelled "fucking useless" by a man who had drunk so much Carling he couldn't properly raise his eyes to the person he was speaking to, the person he was holding on to. Another man, in a Cardiff City shirt, hands jammed in pockets, kicked at nothing. We walked through it, their misery not ours.


When I first came to this island of rain four years ago, one of my first purchases was a barbecue grill. I reckoned it was an absolute necessity not only because use of a grill had been so central to my culinary technique back in the United States, but also because I had pictured my house as becoming a Welsh-language hot spot. I dreamed of hosting soirées galore, mixing Welsh and American culture, and making this tiny house a kind of conduit. A look through my cupboards will reveal far more plates and bowls and glasses and mugs and forks and knives and spoons and so on than you would expect for the number of occupants in the house. People were supposed to come here. And central to that, in the summers, at least, was to be the barbecue grill.

The people never came. Not that it mattered. After that first hot summer the weather was rarely conducive to barbecues -- rarely cooperative enough that you could invite someone over on anything other than a moment's notice. But most frustrating was the actual charcoal. There appear to be no name brands of charcoal in Britain, as there are in the United States. No Kingsford. No Royal Oak. Just store brand. So, in my idiot days of shopping at Tesco, that was the brand I bought. But Tesco charcoal is clearly designed to be fire-resistant, burning only slightly better than granite. After a handful of utterly unsuccessful attempts it was concluded that Britain's weather is shit and the only use for the grill was burning of papers with personal data on them.

On that Saturday, though, my confidence was at a staggering high. The pride of Hirwaun had come to my house to shower -- the hot water not yet turned on in her new place -- and I went mad with ambition. Looking out at the garden I suddenly got cocky and decided this was the day to try the Sainsburys coals I had bought for one final outdoor cooking attempt.

And in a shocking turn of events, it was successful. Not just successful in the sense that the food was cooked through and we didn't die of salmonella poisoning, but in the sense that the food actually tasted good. A totally impromptu marinade had resulted in my cooking chicken that actually, really tasted good. Wow. It was as if I had known what I was doing. Hooray Team Me! I did my best to play this off as the sort of thing that always happens when I cook -- "Yeah, this awesomeness? All the time and every time when the double C is involved" (If I were a trucker, I would insist people refer to me as: "The Double C") -- but wasn't able to adequately hide my glee. This was turning out to be one of those days: the days I will always remember.

I have long hoped it is true that your life flashes before your eyes right before you die. I hope and pray that all the wonderful moments will rush back to me in that instant. I hope that they will overwhelm me, so I die not of cancer or cattle stampede, but of joy. There will be memories of going with my grandmother to get rootbeer floats, of swimming in lakes and creeks and rivers and oceans, of perfect sunsets, of tender moments and hugs and kisses, of blizzards, of thunderstorms, of mariachi bands, of blues guitarists, of that time I almost (almost!) scored a try in rugby, and of this Saturday in late May.

With happy full bellies we went for a walk in the late-spring warm, eventually finding ourselves in the churchyard of Llandaff Cathedral. The two of us lay in the grass, looking up at the stars and listening to the call of an owl in a nearby tree. Cardiff melted away. There was me and her and the confidence that that was enough -- no need for my usual endless filling of the air with words. We sat quiet. I could hear her breathing.

For those of you playing along at home, the dead are much more closely linked to their earthly places of worship here than in the United States. In the U.S. you worship in one place and they put your body somewhere across town when you die. But here -- especially with those places of worship that have been around for a while -- the two experiences are closer. If you visit Llandaff Cathedral, where Christian worship has taken place for more than 1,000 years, you walk past graves. If you lie in the churchyard grass, you lie in the ashes of people's loved ones. It's a perhaps morbid image to think of us lying there, but I don't really see it that way.

Life is about hope. That is the very essence of living, it is why living always wins out over dying. As long as your heart beats, there is hope. There is a chance. There is a possibility. I hope that when we die our souls carry on; and our bodies melt away, no longer needed, to eventually be recycled into some other carbon-based material -- a plant or animal or whatever. But I imagine that many of the hopes we carry work themselves into the body's very molecular structure and continue to emanate, softly, after death. So, in a strange sort of way, I could feel the hopes and dreams of Caerdydd's faithful pushing up from the ground trying to find someone new to carry them onward. As if thousands of souls were gently saying: "Everything is alright for me now. But here, take this bit of hope off me, mix it with your own and fulfil it. Push. Go. Do. Become."

I wasn't alone.

"I think, in a way, I have an obligation to follow my heart and my passions. I should be making the most of all my energy; I feel a kind of responsibility to do that. I have a responsibility to pursue my dreams. That's what I want to come from this move to Cardiff: I am going to try to fulfil the responsibility of youth," said Lisa.

The pride of Hirwaun. The blue-eyed beauty of Cwm Cynon. Now the big-hearted girl of Riverside. The only thing ahead of her is possibility.

And the old city of Caerdydd sang, because another soul had come to her full of hopes and dreams.