Sunday, May 8, 2011

Eight things I loved about April

~8~ Staying legal: My woeful lack of blogging means you likely never heard my tale of immigration shenanigans. Yes, you heard me: shenanigans. I call shenanigans on the British immigration system.
Back in January I filled in a multi-page visa application, bundled it up with my passport, a handful of Other Extremely Important Bits Of Paper and a cheque for £550, then sent it off to an immigration office located in what Nick Clegg would describe as "one of the great cities of the north," Durham.
A few weeks later, I was called in to an office in Cardiff to have my picture and fingerprints taken by a nice UKBA official who spent at least half an hour discussing house prices with me. I assumed this act (the fingerprints and photographs, not the pleasant conversation) to be an unspoken confirmation of a successful application. After all, it would be terribly inefficient to collect a load of data on a rejected applicant.
And just by my saying that, you can guess where this goes. A few weeks afterward, my passport was returned, along with a letter that said, effectively: "Thank you for playing, but it's time now for you to go home."
I appealed the decision, of course, and a hearing was set for 4th April.
(Here's the vlog post from that day.)
When I had first received the rejection letter, in February, I had been relatively confident the whole thing was a simple paperwork issue. I felt the UKBA, required to be farcically stringent by the current government, had simply chosen to reject my application rather than make any attempt to interpret the oh-so-slightly confusing documents I had sent. I was pretty sure one or two follow-up bits of paper, better explaining things, would sort everything out.
But that was in February. The hearing was in April. And the interim was more than ample time for my imagination to come up with any number of negative scenarios. So, I had managed to work myself into a sustained panic by the time the hearing date actually arrived. As Jenn and I drove to the tribunal we were bracing ourselves for the possibility of needing to get a sham marriage. Indeed, some devilish part of us was hoping for such a thing; it would have made for a hell of a story.
But as it turned out, all was well. It was, indeed, simply a matter of paperwork, which was sorted out so quickly between a Home Office lawyer and a judge that I did not even get a chance to speak. My visa was granted. I became legal once again.
Interestingly, the visa I was granted had ceased to exist at the start of the month, but was awarded because I had applied so many months before. In addition to scrapping the post-study work visa, a number of other changes were made to the immigration system on 1st April that, had they existed in 2006, would have prevented me from ever coming here in the first place.

~8~ The royal wedding: I'm sure one or two Welsh nationalists would suggest my never having come here would not be that great a loss. After all, I like the royal family.
I also almost always like a bit of ridiculous pageantry. So, of course, I was keen to be in London for the wedding of Wills and Kate. Indeed, I would have cursed myself for not going. I mean, why not go? Why miss out on an historic event, even one that is ridiculously cheesy, when it's taking place so nearby?
Admittedly, Jenn had not felt that way. At first. The thought of doing anything other than marking the occasion by maybe-but-probably-not watching it on television didn't really cross her mind until I invited her to come with me. She agreed to go because, well, it was a trip to London and she's a good sport. Here's the vlog post from that day. In it you can see that Jenn properly gets into the spirit of a wedding celebration by wearing one of her best dresses and jumping with excitement as we head to watch the event.
In the run-up to the wedding, many people on this island of rain sought to express a great deal of pessimism toward the whole thing. Royals. Harrumph. No one cares. Harrumph.
And then, according to police estimates, more than 1 million people turned out along the procession route. Spots along that route were full when Jenn and I arrived that morning (police turned us away from Green Park, St. James' Park and Trafalgar Square) and we ended up joining roughly 120,000 people who watched the thing on giant television screens in Hyde Park. After the wedding, a live band performed for the crowd and we all danced like fools in the warm spring sun. It was a brilliant day.

~8~ Visiting Anglesey: One of the reasons I enjoyed the royal wedding so much, of course, was that it provided me with work. Thanks to the event, I was commissioned to write nine articles related to the wedding, the royals and so on.
One of the articles required travelling up to the island of Anglesey, in north Wales, where Prince William is stationed as a helicopter pilot at RAF Valley. I went to get a feel of the place and chat with people about their opinions of William's drawing worldwide attention to that otherwise forgotten corner of the world. But more importantly, the experience gave me a chance to explore Anglesey, something I had never done.
The area, with its wealth of history (St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is thought to have been born there), has always fascinated me. Upon looking at a Cadw map (Cadw being an organisation in Wales that looks after historic monuments and sites) one sees that Anglesey is littered with ancient burial chambers, castles and various other spots to spark an overactive American imagination. Also, it has a relatively high proportion of Welsh speakers. But somehow I had never been there, save for trips to Holyhead to take the ferry to Dublin.
One reason I had not yet been was my expectation that Anglesey would be a shit hole. This expectation was based on my experiences of visiting Holyhead, one of Britain's most disappointing towns. But it turns out that a good bit of Anglesey is, in fact, lovely -- especially the southern and eastern coasts. They offer the mix of British countryside, mountain views, and sandy beach that the Wales tourist board really should be promoting better, rather than encouraging people to visit some miserable slate quarry or ridiculous fictional village. I have long been convinced that the Wales tourism board is run by people who hate Wales.
There are two vlog posts covering the days I was in Anglesey:
- Day One
- Day Two
I also took several photos, which can be found here.

~8~ Spring weather: In one of the videos from Anglesey I mention a suspicion that my fondness for the area is somewhat borne of the weather experienced whilst there. The majority of April has been sunny and warm, pushing this island into that wonderful stretch of year when Britain feels like the most beautiful place on Earth. The unending misery of winter is forgotten.
Almost. There are times when I find myself driving along with the windows down, sunglasses on, and suddenly I think: "This won't last. The Long Dark will return. It will envelope you, sap you of your energy, hope and creativity. It is coming, Chris. You cannot escape the Long Dark. Woe. Despair. Moan."
But that is still several months away. And in the meantime there is the wonderful spring-summer of Britain. Never too hot, the trees leafy green, the air sweet. And with it the promise of little adventures. Jenn and I are keen to celebrate the summer. We hope to find various cheesy folk festivals and take part in the revelry. For example, I remember watching a feature piece several years ago on Cornish wrestling. In the piece, it talked about a tournament where anyone who's game is allowed to participate in the ancient sport (which is a bit like Judo). So, one of my ambitions for the summer is to take a weekend trip to Cornwall so I can get beat up in an old-school style.
No, I will not be taking part in any shin kicking or cheese rolling, but if you can think of any unique festivals taking place this summer, let me know.

~8~ Sunrise on Pen y Fan: In early April, Jenn and I took advantage of the unusually warm weather and clear skies to see the sun rise from atop Pen y Fan, the tallest peak in south Wales. We woke up at 3 a.m., drove out to the Brecon Beacons mountain range and hiked up Pen y Fan in the dark in order to be there at 6:28 a.m. for sunrise.
In planning the outing, it felt like a quirky, unique thing to do -- the sort of thing one does mostly for the sake of being able to tell others that one has done it. But it turned out to be one of those incredible life events, one of those moments I pray will flash back to me in my last breath so I'll know I've lived a full life.
There is, of course, a vlog from that day, and it does a relatively good job of showing you some of the beauty, but I'll be honest that it comes nowhere near to capturing the moment.
The great blessing of life, and the curse of any attempt to accurately capture it, is that life is too big to be placed within the confines of pictures or words or sounds. Life, at its best, is similar to the Nevada Problem.
"The Nevada Problem" is a term I made up when driving across America in 2009. Soaring across the great stretches of the Silver State, one is often confronted with vistas that are literally stunning. The mind goes blank from the beauty inherent in immensity. But if you stop and try to photograph such a thing, it doesn't fit in the camera lens. You'll get home and find your camera filled with images of dirt and sky. I took pictures of Nevada, but none of them really show what I experienced.
Sunrise on Pen y Fan presents the same problem. You can watch the video from that day, watch the sun pulling itself into the serenity of morning, but it simply can't convey all that Jenn and I felt. It made me cry, yo. I would liked to have thought myself the sort of person to not tear up at a meteorological event, but that was before I saw sunrise from atop a mountain.

~8~ Visiting London: Jenn and I decided to make the best of my royal wedding assignment, turning it into a proper little holiday. Thanks to the awesomeness of my friends Jen and Dave, we had a place to stay free of charge, so we were able to spend all our money on barbecue and Mexican food and caramel ice cream and various other delicious items that can't be found in Cardiff. And we had a great time. Obviously, the wedding day festivities were a highlight but I also simply enjoyed wandering about with Jenn, each moment a wee adventure.

~8~ Great British Menu: Some people mark their years by the seasons, the migrations of birds, etc.; I seem to track the passing of the days by what's on British television. It is now GBM season, when top chefs from across the realm compete to take part in a banquet to be held in late June. Written out like that, it probably doesn't sound like great television. Cooking shows rarely are. Yet they have a strange ability to not only draw us in but instil a kind of loyalty to the programme. I don't simply want to watch, I feel I must. Admittedly, it's not "Iron Chef America" but you take what you are given.

~8~ Getting a phone call from Google: I have been out of work for a very long time. Over the past several months I've spent more than enough time raging against fate for the fact I was totally ensnared by the lie that speaking Welsh helps a person get a job, but that hasn't really done anything to resolve my unemployed status. Since no one is hiring, I have taken to sending letters to people I would like to work for. Thus far this tactic has produced the sort of result you might expect -- the same result that poring through newspapers and websites looking for actual jobs has produced.
One of the companies I sent letters to was Google, both their offices in London and Dublin. In the letter I told them that I am awesome and claimed that if the Welsh language were kung fu, I would be a Shaolin monk. No, really. That's what I wrote in the letter.
And a few days after sending it I got a call from the Dublin offices. Unfortunately, the phone call was one to inform me that there is no real need for Welsh-speaking skillz at the moment. But the thing I loved is that Google actually responded. No one else has. A number of actual jobs I've applied for haven't even responded. That Google would be considerate enough to read my letter and respond to it made me wish even more I could work for them.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The day Jenn and I went to a royal wedding

For some reason, despite doing so on Twitter and Facebook, I feel somewhat averse to promoting my daily vlog on this website. But Jenn and I had such a great time on the day of Wills and Kate's wedding, I just want to draw a little extra attention to the video from that day: