Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Eight things I loved about July

~ 8 ~ My masters graduation ceremony: My masters degree showed up in the post a few months ago and has since disappeared into some corner of my desk to collect dust. Such physical testimony of my MA in Welsh-language creative writing is unnecessary. Honestly, the degree is so useless, who would lie about having it? What job is going to hinge on its existence?
The other people on my course would appear to agree. All dressed up in cheap suits and rented robes for the 22 July ceremony, we were easily the least mature of the postgrads. Others sat respectfully, still clinging to the belief that all the stress and exhaustion and emotional turmoil they had put themselves through will one day pay off. Anni, Gwilym and myself knew different. We giggled at students with funny names and played a game in which the goal was to see who could keep applauding long after the rest of the auditorium had stopped.
Still, somewhere underneath it, I felt a sense of accomplishment -- a greater sense of pride than I had in earning my BA. I felt a sense of pride in myself, something I don't allow very often. I seem to be too hellbent on attacking myself to ever take a moment and think: "Actually, well done, me."
It is a pointless accomplishment but a big one, none the less, and though I certainly wouldn’t go back and relive that period of my life, I am glad to have done it.

~ 8 ~ Sleeping sans duvet: What we call summer in Britain -- and what others would call spring -- arrived in ernest in July. There were days sunny enough to allow for barbecues, and evenings warm enough to throw off the duvet ("comforter," for those of you playing along at home) and sleep with only the top sheet. Such evenings are not to be too romanticised. Whereas hot nights of my childhood were accompanied by the sounds of crickets and cicadas, any slight rise in temperature in Britain will always be met with the evening sounds of drunken chavs shouting at each other in the street. But I've enjoyed the weather all the same. Our old flat has a particular knack for capturing the cold and somehow focusing it to my fingers and toes. When the weather is warm enough for me to wander about without socks I feel a greater content.

~ 8 ~ The perfect summer day: The second day of July provided the perfect British summer day. A late morning lent itself to a big breakfast, followed by a trip to the Wye Valley to walk a section of Offa's Dyke Path, the hiking trail stretching the length of Wales. I have visions of hiking the whole of the trail in the not-too-distant future (next summer, perhaps), but for the time being I am content with day trips to specific sections, like the one running south from Tintern Abbey.
That section of the trail is thick with forest, something frustratingly rare in Britain. Wales was once covered with trees. Demand for lumber for houses and shipbuilding took their toll over the centuries, I realise, but I find it odd there are no major efforts to renew what was lost. Autumn in Cardiff would be overwhelming were the surrounding hills covered with deciduous forest. But at least there is that tiny corridor of the Wye Valley. I look forward to visiting it again in a few months when the leaves turn.
Though, I was quite happy with the state of it in summer. The whole valley is soft with green and a fresh, almost mountainous, air pushes along with the river.
Jenn and I wandered the England side for a few hours then crossed back over to Wales for ice cream and lounging in a large field behind a pub. A family played makeshift cricket on one end of the field, teens lazily threw a Frisbee on another end. We sat beneath a tree and listened to the babble-chatter of people in the pub's beer garden.
Driving home along the M48, windows down, some part of me remembered driving across the United States and I felt that happy-melancholy-longing-content that comes when one good experience induces memories of another. Jenn put her feet on the dashboard and I felt I was in a country music song.
Barbecues are an ever more established part of the British summer, thanks to American and Australian influence, I think. When I lived in Portsmouth 15 years ago an American friend and I had to create a makeshift barbecue using cement blocks and a bit of fencing. Now a person can buy a small, one-use barbecue at almost every petrol station. These sorts of things are handy in a climate as un-barbecue-friendly as Wales. We got one and set it out in the concrete area that is otherwise the domain of sea gulls and trash bins. Jenn brought out a pitcher of Pimms, we ate grilled salmon, grilled asparagus and potato wedges and sat happily until the sun set. After dinner, we took part in our ridiculous post-hiking tradition of taking a bubble bath in our tiny tub, then finished off the evening with tea and cheesecake.

~ 8 ~ Celebrating 4th of July: Despite the presence of perfect summer days, I couldn't help feeling homesick in the run up to my nation's birthday. I wanted to be back in Minnesota, swimming in a lake, drinking cheap beer with friends and watching fireworks. Holidays are when homesickness is worst. The collected memories of past experience mesh into a single "always" and your heart aches more than you can stand.
I taught Welsh on 4th of July. I mentioned it to my students and they looked at me blankly, as if it meant nothing to them. Of course, that's because it meant nothing to them. I went through my day as normal and did my best not to think about what I was missing back home.
Then I got home from the gym and Jenn had lined the stairwell to our flat with American flags. Inside, more flags were hanging from the ceiling. Jenn packed up a bag and a one-use grill and the two of us set up a wee camp at nearby Cosmeston Lakes Country Park. I drank Budweiser, Jenn drank California zinfandel. All around our picnic blanket Jenn staked American flags to ensure that anyone within 100 yards could see which holiday we were celebrating. We lit sparklers and stayed until the last light burned from the horizon. It was unquestionably one of the best Independence Days I've ever had. And all of it thanks to an English girl.

~ 8 ~ Penarth: The village of Penarth is indistinguishably close to Cardiff. Most people would probably think it is simply a part of the capital city, rather than being a separate village in a separate county. But it is different. Those who have grown up here hold to that otherness and it is something that still exists here and there. In mid-July Penarth held its annual summer festival, a series of events throughout the village lasting roughly a fortnight. The highlight of the festival was on 9 July when a parade led people down to the seafront for a day of archetypal carnival activities like live music and a soapbox derby. The highpoint for Jenn and I was seeing a Lancaster bomber and Spitfire fly overhead. Those two makes of plane were used heavily in the Battle of Britain -- growling chunks of metal that held off the Nazis. Seeing them always chokes me up.
The planes we saw in Penarth that day were the exact same ones we had seen flying over Hyde Park on the day of the royal wedding. The same planes that caused Jenn to scream at the top of her lungs: "Go Britain!" The Penarth crowd's response was slightly more subdued but Jenn and I were no less pleased to see them.
Later in the day a soapbox derby was held on one of the hills leading down to the seafront. The winner was a 12-year-old boy who said his strategy to winning was simply: "Don't brake."
I have since taken this aboard as a strategy for living life.

~ 8 ~ Having my parents come visit: The graduation ceremony allowed my parents an excuse to come for a visit. I hadn't seen them in roughly a year and they had not been in Wales since 2009. A visit from parents is a weird experience, emotionally. The old teenager part of you starts moaning as soon as they get off the plane ("OMG, Mom and Dad, you are soooo embarrassing!") but another part of you is happy to be in the company of those people who have always supported and cared about you, even when you've done really stupid things like quitting your job and moving to another country to pursue a degree in an obscure language.
In my years of living in England and Wales my parents have visited this island of rain four times, and I'd say on the whole this last visit was the most successful. My mother, especially, seemed to have a good time. And I think a great deal of credit for the positive experience has to go to Jenn, who had gone to the trouble to create itineraries and worked hard to keep everyone in good spirits -- a not-so-easy task when all four of us were staying in the same one-bedroom flat.
Yeah, that was a bit of an error. Four people spending two weeks in a one-bedroom flat is rarely going to come off hitch-free, regardless of who the four people are. But, as I say, Jenn made it work. And it could have been worse: just before my parents' visit a friend was telling me via email of having his parents come visit him in Boston. His mother ended up breaking her leg and his father gave everyone pneumonia.

~ 8 ~ Dyffryn Gardens: My parents visiting brought a number of highlights -- a trip to Tenby, high tea at the Angel Hotel in Abergavenny, and so on -- and I think my favourite was discovering Dyffryn Gardens, a large collection of gardens stretching several acres around an old mansion home. Located near Cowbridge, Wales, the gardens are a short drive from the peaceful confines of Penarth -- close enough that Jenn and I are eligible for locals-only discount season tickets. And it is nice enough we are seriously considering taking advantage of that fact. Jenn fell in love with the place and its endless flora, expressing a sense of wonder at the fact there really exist such beautiful things on Earth. It's not that she had never been exposed to such beauty -- she is the daughter of a professional gardener, after all -- but that she was reminded of that fact. Being there seemed to spark something in Jenn, which delights me. Jenn has a capacity to find in things a joy that I wonder if I've ever had. I am a naturally cynical person and I am envious and in love with Jenn's ability to find unfettered happiness in the myriad facets of life. I loved Dyffryn Gardens because Jenn loved it and her being happy delights me.

~ 8 ~ Elbow del Muerte: Jenn's capacity for joy leads to our doing all kinds of fun and goofy things together. We dress up in silly outfits, we sing along to songs at the top of our voices, we take bubble baths, we eat dinner on a mountaintop, we do impressions of animals on the train, and on and on and on. I enjoy it, of course, and am particularly tickled when we manage to capture some of our silliness for the sake of our vlog (which, in itself, is a very silly thing for adults to be doing). To that end, one of my favourite vlog moments thus far took place in July, when we dressed up as professional wrestlers and grappled on the bed for the sake of thanking someone for subscribing. We are ridiculous people. I wouldn't want it any other way.

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