Sunday, June 12, 2011

A letter home: 12 June 2011

My dearest Emma,

It's been a while. Last time I wrote, I did so from the corporate safety of a Starbucks, having spent the day at the glorious synagogue of savings that is IKEA. A visit to IKEA, of course, is part of the rites of passage in modern life -- birth, puberty, moving house and marriage are all marked with visits to IKEA. That cheap, self-assemble coffins are not available for purchase is clearly a sign of laziness in IKEA's research and development department. They are resting on their laurels, Emma. There should be a DÖD coffin, available in white, beech effect or silver.

Back in January, that IKEA visit was to commemorate a move to the village of Radyr, just within the northern border of Cardiff city limits. I think I told you, Emma, that at night I could hear the Taff River running some 100 yards to the south of the house on its journey toward the sea.

Just south of Radyr's unvaried collection of new-build homes, the Taff slows enough for rowing clubs to practice, then runs shallow past Llandaff Cathedral -- where I would often roam in those days when my heart ached so miserably and my house was so cold. Onward, the river slips past a university, beneath a roaring thoroughfare and then beyond another university into the solace of city park. On weekdays, men stand waist deep in the river and lure trout from their rocky hiding places. In summer, lovers wade in and kiss; children scream and jump from footbridges. The river curves and then widens as it reaches the city centre, carrying rugby fans' discarded plastic pint glasses to Cardiff Central Station and past the perpetually "up and coming" neighbourhoods of Riverside and Grangetown. Eventually its mouth grows wide and it spills out into Cardiff Bay.

A Victorian village sits atop the cliffs of a promontory at the bay's southwestern edge; you can see the tower of a church peeking out above trees. That church is St. Augustine's, the village is Penarth. And Penarth -- located just outside the southern border of Cardiff city limits -- is the reason I have again been spending quite a lot of time in IKEA.

Well, actually, Jenn is the reason. Jenn lives in Penarth. And now, so do I.

This is the part, Emma, where you stop reading for a second and think: "Wait. Who's Jenn?"

It has, indeed, been a long time since I last wrote. I've mentioned Jenn in previous letters, but not by name. For a long while I think some part of me feared that if I wrote her name some magic spell would be broken, that all the fun and happiness would crumble under the weight of reality. I suppose some part of me still fears that. Some part of me fears that Me and Jenn is like that moment in a dream when you realise you are in a dream, and for a tiny fragment of a second you manage to stay in that fantastic place before your eyes flutter open. I don't want to open my eyes yet, Emma.

Some part of me is not yet comfortable expressing to others my feelings for Jenn. But I will tell you she is a beautiful, joyful, brown-eyed girl from Devon. I delight in waking up to her each morning. I am mad for her. We've known each other for nigh eight months; somewhere along the way we found ourselves waking up to each other far more often than not, and Jenn decided it was time for me to move in.

I struggle to think of how to phrase this in a way that isn't maladroit, Emma, but I think of my short time in Radyr as rehab for the soul. The name Radyr derives from an old Welsh phrase meaning "the chantry," where souls were prayed for. You might remember my telling you that many hundred years ago Radyr was nothing more than a plot of land reserved for a cave-dwelling hermit whose days were spent praying for salvation of wealthy peoples now long-forgotten. At night, I would lie in bed listening to an owl call and imagine the spirit of that hermit was still out there, praying for recovery from the long dark bitterness that gripped me.

I don't know I can really say everything is better now, Emma, but I know rehab is temporary. I was never supposed to stay in Radyr; I am ready to move on. I am ready to try to write again, to read again, to be more the person I want to be rather than the bundle of cliché I had become.

So, now I am a resident of Penarth. Even before I officially moved in, Jenn had bought a desk so I would have a place to write. This is a place for me to live, to feel at home. And already I do, Emma. Already I feel more connected to this village than any other part of Wales. Much of that is due to the presence of Jenn, obviously, but Penarth is lovely in its own right.

Literally translated, Penarth means "bear's head" in Welsh, but there's some suspicion (due to the fact that no part of Penarth necessarily resembles an ursine skull) that the name has been misheard over the years and it was originally called "Pen y Garth," which means "top of the promontory." Most people, though, prefer the bear-related translation. Who wouldn't? As your grandfather used to say, Emma: "One should incorporate bears when- and wherever possible."

Penarth often reminds me of why I wanted to move to Britain. Much of the village was built toward the end of Queen Victoria's reign and the architecture possesses that sense of promise and God-willed purpose -- arrogant ambition -- that seems to have been lost in both Britain and America by now. Any attempt at ornate stonework in the modern age would be met with cries of government waste. Intellectuals no longer wave flags. Narrower still and narrower shall thy bounds be set.

But the old architecture remains, lending grandeur to pasty shops, pubs, restaurants, coffee houses and scaled-down versions of major supermarket chains. In content, Penarth is hardly distinguishable from dozens upon dozens of other British towns, but it is far prettier in its sameness.

And its sameness is within easy walk of our flat. This is British/European experience that many Americans romanticise: able to do the day-to-day things sans automobile. The life of my old Peugeot is being extended thanks to lack of use. And within the sameness there are unique things to love: Jaflon is my new favourite restaurant; on Saturday Jenn and I found a cafe that serves amazing waffles.

I am happy here. I worry at times I am too much so. It has been such a long time since I've written anything of worth. I seem to have lost grip of whatever it is that has always pushed me to write. I worry I have fallen into the trap of telling my own story rather than living it; claiming to be a writer rather than actually writing.

Too often I am happy to simply wander my new village rather than isolate myself at a desk. I am happier to explore my little world than create new ones in my head. That is OK. For now. But inside me, churning in my soul, I can feel a building panic and anger at myself for not working.

If I am not working I am, at least, earning a bit of money. I teach a number of Welsh classes through the week. This bores me so much, Emma, that I will tell you no more of it. James Joyce was not an English teacher, Ernest Hemingway was not a staff writer, and I am not a Welsh teacher.

But refusing to tell you about teaching Welsh leaves me with little upon which to expound. I go to work; I wander Penarth; occasionally Jenn and I do silly things. I am usually happy, sometimes dizzy with worry and sometimes overwhelmed with homesickness.

Six months after sending my visa application I am still trapped in a kind of bureaucratic vortex, Emma, so still not able to leave this island of rain. With summer here I find myself aching to see my friends, to sit up with them in the warm Minnesota summer night drinking beer and hearing their stories. I feel I am being made hollow by the homesickness, like when bread is let to sit too long before baking. The excess of time causes gaps to form and when one cuts into the baked bread one finds emptiness. Each day those feelings are exacerbated by the absence of a visa; it is another day when I cannot plan to go home, another day when I cannot build a concrete picture of when I'll next get to hug old friends.

So life, Emma, is what life always is and what it always will be: a state of flux. As I settle into a new place my heart aches not to lose connection to the old places. I am, for the most part, happy with my life, though unhappy I have lost the knack to capture it in words. Each moment is new, though, Emma.

I miss you.

I remain your faithful friend,
Chris

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beautifully put. I'm so happy for you (both !!).

Me - I love Penarth as much you. Well I would, wouldn't I. I went to school here and spend most Saturday mornings around the town centre. My kids went through the Welsh language medium school too.

I laughed at you eating at The Glendale and Tony( the crazy Italian bloke) giving Jenn a rose. It's a top place and we go there a lot..

All you need now is to join the library and pretend to like the stuff on display at the Turner Art Galley (next to the Glendale) and you can then consider yourself an honourary local.................

Huw

ps you can swim and lift heavy things at Cogan Leisure Centre and have one less reason to leave the Town. From where I'm guessing you live( can't help it but I know the church out of your window)you could probably cycle there in 5/10 mins. It's cheap too.

Where's my bobble-hat?. Why it's in the wine-shop right outside Penarth train-station!

S said...

I'm super confused. I admit I have been away from your blog for the better part of 3 years. What are you doing? I think I have missed something, but I can't put it all together. I was actually in Wales last year and thought about where you might be. Anyway. If you ever in Dublin, drop me a line. I will drag you out for a pint.

Chris Cope said...

S - Yes, if you've been away for three years there might be some pretty big holes. If you have any specific questions, I'll have a go at answering them, otherwise I reckon you can probably sort it all out via context.

Chris Cope said...

Huw - Do you work at Arth Wines, or are you simply a frequent visitor? If the former, I'll be sure to drop in to say hello.

Anonymous said...

Chris - it's the latter unfortunately.

You see I often cycle from Dinas Powys ( I assume you know it's a village that is "next" to Penarth)to catch a train to Pontypridd and back for work, passing said purveyor of alcohol and peanuts regularly.

The train from Penarth to Cardiff is virtually empty compared to the rammed Barry one, so my two wheels aren't a problem at peak times and I enjoy the ride ( past where I guess you now live actually - don't worry I'm not a weirdo !! (much) ).

Passing the wine-shop on a summer Friday evening is too much for a man to bear sometimes...................

Keep up the writing and vlogging, again it's funny to see and hear your views of my home town.

You might remember I wrote to you saying I spent a year in Kemah and Galveston an age ago - but still the heady delights of an ice-cream on Penarth pier brought me back. Silly me eh?

Any queries about Penarth and the Vale please let me know. I think you have my work email?.

You never know I might introduce myself as we are probably both around the town centre on Saturdays I imagine. I'm the bloke with 2 grumpy kids........

Regards, and lets hope this poxy weather improves

Huw