Saturday, August 20, 2011

Minnesnowta

I'm in Minnesota, sitting on my parents' deck and listening to cicadas sing. And as happens each time I come back to visit, I am asking myself why I left.

"Well there is that matter of you getting a college degree. Or two," noted my best friend, Eric.

True. And I need only turn on any of the myriad 24-hour shouting channels, formerly known as news networks, to be reminded of other reasons for going. Yesterday, driving to Eric's, I found myself stuck on the freeway behind a truck with the words, "AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT," emblazoned across the back. I said a quiet thank you for the fact I have the option.

But still some part of my mind swoons with visions of returning, living in the Saint Paul neighbourhood I loved so much. They're getting a light rail line soon; I used to say that was the only thing missing. In the beauty of Minnesota my mind spins with visions of what my life would be like were I to return.

Conveniently, those visions assume me to be in a far higher pay scale than I am now. They magically erase my financial woes. Often they assume some sort of ridiculous shift in personality or taste ("Oh, if I lived in America again, I'd go see Kenny Chesney in concert").

As much as one part of me aches to move back to the United States, another part fights to remind me why I left.

I dislike this dichotomy, this inability to be happy in whatever skin I'm in. But, at least, for the moment I have ready access to lots of really good ice cream.

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.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A letter home: 4 August 2011

My dearest Emma,

I didn't get much sleep last night. At some point I found myself staring at the ceiling unable to move from the terrible weight of realisation I have no connection to Cardiff but Jenn. I suppose it wasn't so much realisation I was experiencing, but the sudden ache of feeling what I already knew. I have no friends in Cardiff; that's been a lament for quite a while now. On my phone there are no numbers of people I could phone up if I wanted to go out for a pint, no people I could text to come to a barbecue. Last night that loneliness managed to reach up from the floor and jab me in the ribs. I don't belong here, Emma.

Not yet, at least. Jenn's friends have been good at welcoming me, and friendships -- especially those formed beyond the age of 21 -- simply seem to take a long time to develop where I'm concerned. I suppose you know that better than most, Emma; I struggle so much to find confidantes I have to create them. It is possible that with time I will be welcomed into Jenn's group of friends to the extent I no longer identify them as "Jenn's group of friends." It is possible that with time, as I extend myself beyond the Welsh-language world that rejected me, I will develop contacts that will become acquaintances that will become friends. But last night some vaporous agent whispered into my ear: "What if that doesn't happen?"

It's likely, Emma, this was brought on by thoughts of an impending visit to Minnesota. The distance between myself and my old friends seems to have increased over the past half decade. I feel further away. I feel forgettable. All my friends are parents now; that's the sort of thing that turns a person's focus hyper-local. They have to concentrate on the immediate and unending task of nurturing a tiny living thing. Most energies must be spent on worrying about things within arm's reach: food, shelter, etc. Then those friends get to go to work for a bajillion hours a day (does anyone in America still work a 40-hour week?). In the tiny moments they can relax, my old friends do so in the company of people who are actually there, and, more often than not, people who are living the same kinds of lives.

The times when I cross those friends' minds must be minimal, Emma. Once a month, maybe? Perhaps I'm being optimistic in that. What is there to make someone think of me? I am far away, to be seen once a year, at best. I am far less exciting or rewarding than Thanksgiving, Emma, and how many times have you thought of that holiday in the last month? If turkey and parades and football have no place in your thoughts, what chance have I? I don't think the old powerful bonds will ever be broken, but I do feel them loosening. How could they not?

Meanwhile, I find myself thinking of old friends constantly. Here in this place where I have no friends, the old ones mean more to me than I can stand. At times I am overwhelmed, Emma. And last night that thing jabbing me in the ribs kept asking: "What if it is always like this? You are sure to stay in Cardiff a while; what if the welcome you hope for never comes? And what if the welcome back 'home' slow, slow, slow wears away?"

All these are incongruous thoughts, perhaps. Things have been going pretty well in the month since I last wrote you, Emma. My parents came out to visit, I took part in my masters graduation ceremony, the weather hasn't been 100-percent summery but I am, at least, able to walk about the flat without socks. In a fortnight I will be on a plane to see my old Minnesota friends. I'll wade in Nine Mile Creek and drink cheap beer and laugh in my high-pitch manic yelp. I'll drive slow along Summit Avenue with the windows down and eat barbecue and listen to country music on the radio.

I suppose, Emma, the thing that makes me sad is knowing how temporary all these things will be. They will be an exception to my day-to-day life, rather than a simple continuation. I'm going to get to see my friends and after that first 30-45 minutes of stutter-start conversation we will get lost in the anything and the everything of life and we'll come up with in-jokes for the evening and have running gags and talk and talk and talk.

But then I'll give them a hug and say goodbye, with no idea of when I'll see them again.

"OK, well, I'll see you at Christmas. I hope. Though, last time I said I would visit during Christmas it turned out to be a lie, as was the same promise a year before."

And I think, Emma, I am also sad because I can't even entertain the fantasy of moving back. As much as I miss that old life I would miss the one I have now even more. My saying I have no connection to Cardiff but Jenn is misleading. It glances over the importance of Jenn. It's like saying I have no money but for a 20-storey golden castle full of diamond furniture and dollar-stuffed pillows. Jenn is awesome.

Unfortunately, Jenn won't be on this trip. Finances prohibit. A flight from Cardiff to Minneapolis costs roughly 34¢ per mile, which maybe sounds reasonable until you consider the need to travel 3,897 miles. So, some of the melancholy swimming in my brain today comes from knowing she won't be there with me. As we grow closer and closer, I am eager for her to see the places and meet the people who define me.

But maybe Jenn has had enough of that sort of thing for the time being. Just Sunday my parents left after a two-week visit. Two weeks, Emma. A fortnight. Fourteen days. That is a long time to have one's parents about -- especially when they are staying in one's single-bedroom flat. Four of us in a one-bedroom flat for two weeks. I am surprised Jenn has not broken up with me as a result.

In other news, Emma, I am doing a whole lot of nothing at the moment. The course I was teaching in July finished up about a week ago, leaving me with roughly a month of nothing time until I start teaching again in September. Hence the trip to Minnesota. I am telling myself I will also use this time to refocus on writing. Four days into my summer holiday, and telling myself things has yet to lead to my actually doing them. I don't know what's wrong with me, Emma. I don't understand why I stopped writing. I also don't understand why I'm not more upset about it. I fear some part of me has given up.

Once I get back from Minnesota I'll have a mountain of paperwork to climb and then be teaching four or possibly five Welsh courses throughout the South Wales area, depending on whether I was too late in staking claim to a course in Caldicot. In addition to that far-flung potential location I'll be teaching in Ebbw Vale and Caerleon. Have Welsh will travel. I am looking forward to it in a strange way. I am looking forward to routines and steady income. Some part of me enjoys the drives. Which is good because no site is less than 22 miles away. If you know of any good podcasts that teach Spanish, let me know; I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the car.

I am also looking forward to the autumn, Emma. I always do. It is my favourite time of year. I think all my years in education have imbued autumn with a feeling of expectation, a sense of hope. Each academic year would start with dreams of getting things right, big plans and thoughts of friends to be made and things to be done. Autumn is a time of the new. I am looking forward to walks through technicolor forest with Jenn, fresh challenges, writing inspiration and, of course, "Strictly Come Dancing."

Which reminds me, I need to go to the BBC website and apply for tickets to see the programme live. Tickets are free but issued via a raffle. I applied for the same raffle last year and the year before without luck, but, hey, perhaps third time lucky, Emma.

I hope you are well. Please send nude photos.

I remain your faithful friend,
Chris