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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A letter home: 1 February 2011

My dearest Emma,

I am writing to you from a Starbucks. Within my line of sight is a massive superstore, a chain restaurant and the remains of a Roman fort -- the latter being the only thing to clue you in to the fact I am in Britain. My exact British location is a tiny southern corner of Cardiff that estate agents like to call "The Bay." My self-locating phone says I am in Butetown. Most Cardiff residents, however, would probably refer to it as: "Down by there near the IKEA, like."

And it was that great temple of cheap modernity that drew me to this part of town today. Walking through its maze of oddly named products -- "Hüffpôtegan" "Yökïlhü" -- I found myself wondering what we all did before IKEA. Then I remembered: I slept on the floor and made bookshelves out of cinderblocks and planks of wood. Have you noticed, Emma, that the popularity of IKEA in both the United States and Britain has corresponded to a rise in right-wing politics? Perhaps IKEA, with its Borg-like blue cube buildings spread across the globe, is somehow the harbinger of fascism.

But its products are so reasonably priced, Emma. Sieg heil to savings!

Generally, if one finds oneself at IKEA it is because he or she has recently moved house, or scored the big £15 scratch-card windfall. In my case it was the former; last Sunday, as the sun was setting, I locked up my old house, said goodbye to my neighbours and drove away with tears in my eyes. The tears were not for the house, itself possessing all the personality of an unsuccessful Burnsville mayoral candidate, but for what the house once meant -- the dreams, hopes and expectations now gone.

Walking through it one last time, ensuring nothing had been left, my mind flashed back to that first day I saw the beige carpet and cream walls of 3 Kirton Close: 12 July 2006. Rachel and I had flown 11 hours from Minneapolis-St. Paul to London Gatwick, rented a car and driven several more hours to Wales' capital city. Discomfort and excitement had kept me from sleeping on the plane; we arrived Cardiff in a state of exhausted delirium, myself driving on an auto-pilot state rendered from the hours upon hours I had previously spent staring at the city via Google Maps. Our new country. Our new city. Our new home. Our new life. Our future. Our place to belong.

That new life, too, was christened by a visit to IKEA. Our first meal in Britain was at the cafeteria there; I had fish and chips. I insisted upon buying a dozen tea mugs that day because I was certain our house would become a kind of social centre. I envisioned people always popping by for a cuppa, barbecues and big meals -- the house warm with talking and laughter. I envisioned Rachel and I finding roots, building a family.

I left all those tea mugs in the cupboard last Sunday. Many of them had never been used. That house had become a mausoleum. It was a decaying memorial to What Was Supposed To Have Been.

Have you ever seen pictures of Michigan Central Station, Emma? It's the grand and imposing train station built in Detroit in 1913 in that bold, fearless style of architecture that punches you in the chest with pride and purpose. Do an internet image search for Michigan Central Station now, though, and you will see pictures of an abandoned building in a kind of decay that seems impossible for America. There are no wars to blame, no violent uprisings; it is simply neglect. Absence on such a scale that it induces a person to shake with weeping -- absence to create anger and searing bitterness.

That old house had become the Michigan Central Station of my soul, Emma. After Rachel left, I touched nothing for almost a year. When she showed up this past summer to collect things while I was visiting the States, she found her bible exactly where she had last set it. Even after that, things were simply hidden away rather than dealt with. In preparing to leave the house I had to venture into the attic, where I was confronted by our wedding album. Just touching it hurt. I opened it up and caught a glimpse of just one photo -- me scrawny and grinning stupid, she so beautiful in the desert sun -- and fell down crying. I cried for at least 20 minutes before I even thought to move.

In 1913, Michigan Central Station must have been a reason in and of itself to take the train. Now it is a reason to never set foot in Detroit.

In Britain during the Middle Ages, Emma, those who could afford to do so would occasionally set aside a plot of land, known as a chantry, to help sustain a priest who would then be tasked with the job of praying for that person's soul. A chantry is an attempt at redemption, an attempt to make things right, an attempt to rise above the misery.

The old Welsh word for chantry is "adur." The Welsh for "the chantry," then, would be "yr adur." And that, of course, becomes Radur, the name of the village where I now live -- also spelled Radyr. Roughly 150 metres and 1,500 years from my new home, a hermit named Tylyway lived in a cave and spent his days praying for the soul of a person long forgotten. The caves are now places for teenagers to smoke cigarettes and make out; the land that sustained Tylyway is populated by brand new town homes.

Predictably, that collection of town homes has been given an utterly misleading name by the company erecting the uninspiringly similar brick buildings: Lychgate Gardens. We have a large green that looks a bit like an alien landing field, Emma, but I have seen no gardens.

For roughly a century, the area where Lychgate Gardens now stands was one of the busiest rail junctions in Britain. Trains pouring down from the valleys with coal and tin and iron ore and copper and whatever else they could rip out of the mountains would be held up there before being dispatched to one of South Wales' various ports. Most of the tracks have since been removed but for the City and Rhondda-Merthyr rail lines. Still more than 200 trains a day pass through Radyr station, about a 10-minute walk from my house.

When I first moved to Cardiff, the area was brownfield. Almost nothing grew in the place that would become Lychgate Gardens. A family of the most depressing mud-caked horses you have ever seen would pick at whatever grass they could find. It is unlikely the land sustained them enough that they were ever inclined to pray for a person's soul. If unimaginative new houses must be built, Emma, I suppose it is best for them to be built in such places. Trees weren't torn down to build the home I now live in. Mud was shifted.

And just because a place is unimaginative now, perhaps that doesn't reflect future opinions of it. Those grand homes that line Merrion Square in Dublin were once seen as unimaginative blocks to throw people in. Oscar Wilde was raised in one and detested it. Now the cost of those homes is so extreme I cannot actually imagine what it would be like to live there; I can't fathom having the means to do so. Perhaps, then, 150 years on people will speak in breathy, excited tones about the life I am now living.

Whether one can in the present romanticise the life I am now living depends on perspective. On the negative side, I am a divorced, unemployed man who has been forced financially into renting a room in someone else's house. On the positive side, I am a single artist who is sharing a home with two younger women -- one who used to be a gymnast and the other a competitive ballroom dancer. I am either to be pitied or envied.

Let's go with envied, Emma. Because I haven't even told you about the burlesque performer.

Admittedly, this is not exactly where I would place myself. But life in the chantry is not so terribly terrible. Radyr has not one pub, but there are eight trains an hour to city centre and the journey only takes 10 minutes. The house is actually quite nice, despite my natural aversion to a new build. That aversion comes from the fact so many new houses are slapped together and look like they could not weather the 150 years or so it will take for them to have character. But this one seems sturdy enough. And since the house is not mine, it's unlikely I'll live here long enough to be affected either way.

Up the hill lies a small alpaca farm. Literally a stone's throw away runs the River Taff. On quiet evenings I can hear the river rushing past and an owl somewhere in the trees. On those rare nights in Britain when one can see the sky, light pollution is minimal enough I can see Orion from my bedroom window. I can see a castle from my living room. And, as mentioned already, I live with two women.

I'd like to stress that point, Emma. Two women. There is no point in my life at which you could have said to me, "Chris, as you near 35 years of age you will be living in a big house with two women," and I would have seen that negatively. Whether 7, 17, or 27 years old, I would always have identified that as success.

Helen, who owns the house, used to trampoline for Wales. With her living on the top floor of our three-storey house, some part of me oh-so-slightly wishes we would have a fire just for the sake of seeing her leap out the window when the fire brigade arrives. The firemen would be out there, poised with the blanket to catch her and I'd be shouting: "Put a spotlight on her! This is your moment, Helen! Triple flip! Triple flip!"

My other housemate, Lydia, is from Poland. I sang her a few verses of "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" and she was unimpressed. Probably because she is from Poland. The only other Polish woman I am aware of is "Strictly Come Dancing" star Ola Jordan, who also has a rather straightforward nature that doesn't lend itself to humouring stupid Americans singing ditties from the 1930s. And like Ola, Lydia was a competitive ballroom dancer for a time. Lydia gave it up when her competition partner developed an affection for folk dancing.

"This is not real dancing," she explained. "It is jumping up and down. It is sort of thing you do after being stuck in cave, wearing silly clothes and bells and like this."

And that is my life, Emma. I am living the premise of a sitcom. I can only hope that at some point this results in walk-on appearances of celebrities in my kitchen and occasionally having to pause when entering a room to allow for the applause to die down.

I hope you are well. Say hello to everyone back home. Please send nude photos.

I remain your faithful friend,
Chris