Monday, April 25, 2011


Monday morning I took buses, trains, subways, and TGV's to find myself in Cardiff, or Caerdydd in Welsh, by noon. Traveling in Europe with trains is incredibly easy, if a bit expensive. I discovered that coordinating it all and catching them all really wasn't worth a stomach ulcer. I did notice that trains in the UK are more classy than Belgian trains; they're more like airplanes, complete with interior carpet, meal service, and tray tables. Their security level is also higher.
I was almost in tears of excitement to see Hazel while waiting for her to find me at the train station. Our mothers grew up together as best friends and we've known each other since we were born; she is the kind of person I haven't seen for 8 months. She got married and moved to Cardiff since I had seen her last. When we finally did find each other, bear hug mania ensued. Throughout the week it was wonderful to catch up with her as well as reminisce together about our families and homes in Alaska. Speaking English tripped me up a bit for a while (not to mention that I couldn't understand a word of what the Welsh cashiers said to me the first day or so. I wasn't even sure that it had been English!) but it was really exciting to see signs and books in my first language again. So I had a little taste of what readjusting to the USA will be like. It's going to be so incredibly strange.
As we chatted and caught up on every topic under the sun, we also managed to do quite a bit of other things. The weather was gorgeous all week, so we spent a lot of time outside. I can hardly believe it, but I actually had a mild sunburn and many freckles from April sunshine! Monday we drank tea, walked through town, relaxed, took a picnic to a nearby park where we ogled the flowers and found an adorable puppy, and went out for British-beef burgers at the Wetherspoon Pub. British beef is superb, and the Swedish pear cider we discovered was also wonderful. I have to say that the 'chips' (meaning fries) were good but not as good as the Belgian variety. The Belgian frite ain't famous for nothing. I do like the British tradition of vinegar on fries, though. I also really appreciate their policy of free ketchup and mayo and toilets after having to pay extra for all these things in Belgium!
Tuesday we packed a hearty picnic in a super duper specialized picnic backpack and set out past the animal wall (a wall with carved stone animals, including panthers, raccoons, beavers, seals, baboons, pelicans, and others peaking over it) for Cardiff Castle. We sat out on the grounds and enjoyed our bacon sandwiches (British staple. Butter is a mandatory ingredient), pork pies, scotch eggs (breaded meatballs), a teensy bottle of champagne to go in the special picnic champagne glasses, cucumber, and authentic cheddar cheese (did you know cheddar is a place? So is badminton) with traditional Welsh cakes. We then wandered about the fortress, enjoying the historical anecdotes and info ranging from Roman times to Normans, from Victorian renovators to WWII with our audio guides. There were hordes of French speaking tourists around, and it was satisfactory to understand the snippets of conversations I overheard and know that I could translate for them if they needed. We thoroughly enjoyed the trebuchet, the Victorian luxury, the WWII patriotism, and the incredibly thick Roman and Norman walls. When we had exhausted the grounds we hopped across the street to the Cardiff Museum to ogle elegant china and a few classic paintings before heading to a friends home for supper. Fish and chips from a nearby renowned shop (The Albany Fish Bar) was worthy of its reputation and some Welsh Brains (the local beer) was a nice accompaniment. I also learned about the different British meals (Breakfast, elevensies, lunch/luncheon, Afternoon Tea, Tea, and Supper. Tea is like dinner and Supper is like a late-night snack. Think like a Hobbit!) and got a glimpse into the local devotion to football and rugby. I also learned that while calling Welsh people British is acceptable, NEVER call them English. There is a huge difference. Also, the flap I had always thought was English (considering it's always shown for London and on historical ships and things) is actually the British flag. These are NOT interchangeable terms!
Wednesday we slept in and went shopping downtown in the afternoon. I was introduced to Primark, a cute and incredibly cheap clothing store and of course we had a ball there and everywhere else. During the week I noticed that Brits dress a lot more like Americans; they have no fear of the casual or bright funky colors and styles. It was nice to see. That night we made curry chicken for 'tea' and watched the old Planet of the Apes. I hadn't realized it, but there is a strong, logical link between Indian and British culture. There are a lot of ethnic Indians around, and curry in all its Bitishized variations has come to be considered the national dish. There are also a lot more Muslims around than I'd noticed in Belgium. So I learned some things.
Thursday Hazel wasn't feeling well so I took the morning to do a bit more shopping and track down some book stores. I had fun in several thrift shops and discovered the wonders of Cardiff's second-hand bookstores and marketplace. I didn't get much marketing done for our children's book (Musk Ox Magic, written by my mother and co-illustrated by my sister and me. More information and orders can be placed by emailing since the one independent book store I found was closed for good friday. Brits also get Easter Monday off. Why don't we do that in the US? Anyways, I found some treasures and toddled back through the park without getting lost. That afternoon we dedicated to St. Fagan's, an open-air museum/garden complex that is also Hazel's favorite place in the world. It's probably near the top of my list as well. The gardens were really and truly gorgeous, with trellises and topiaries and towering trees occupying terraces around pools and streams. Taken with the Manor house, I kept expecting Jane Austen or one of her characters to come sweeping up the lane or across the thick carpets. St. Fagans is also a National History Museum; they have collected buildings from around Wales that visitors can explore. We wandered through farm houses ranging from the 1500's up through the 1800's, a cock fighting pit, a men's club, a traditional Welsh Chapel, a muraled church, and a really cool row house exhibit. They had the row houses set up so that as you went down the row you also moved chronologically from the 1800's all the way to 1985. Row houses play an important role in The Magician's Nephew by CS Lewis, so it was cool to see these connected, mirror-immaged houses in reality. I also got to stay in one; it's true that you hear all kinds of strange noises the seem are in your house but are really next door. Luckily Hazel warned me so I didn't get spooked. Anyways, we enjoyed the exhibits, ate our picnic under the trees, enjoyed Welsh icecream, and chatted to a friendly museum employee for an hour or so. He talked to us about Welshness in general; apparently spoken Welsh is on the upswing and there are supporters of an independent Wales. He found that Americans were actually more open and willing to give the Welsh language a shot than other Brits, probably because they had never even heard it before and weren't intimidated. It's always nice to hear good things about American culture. On the way home we found a delightful detour through some fields and stopped at a pub named The Robin Hood for a half pint of Guinness. Just had to.
Friday we walked around the bay, soaking up the sunshine. We didn't see any seagulls up close, fortunately. Cardiff seagulls are very well-fed, large, and aggressive. Think The Birds with bigger, nautical fowl. We saw the stadium up close and the area where movies and tv shows are often filmed before heading across the bridge and across to the other side of the bay to pay a visit to some relatives. We enjoyed a piping hot cup of tea (it doesn't matter what the temperature is---tea is the mandatory beverage. And it is never anything but piping hot.)and a chat with them before heading back. We stopped at Nando's, a chicken specialty spot with a particular atmosphere, for dinner. Another note: British food does not come in Medium. Only large and small. By the time we had polished off our mushy peas, mash, and chicken burgers the friday parties had kicked off in the street. It was still relatively quiet, but singing and coppers were present. We also noticed two beefy looking bouncers guarding McDonald's. Only in Europe.
Saturday we took it easy and I packed up my bags. We determined that that visit would not be my last, so it wasn't impossible to say goodbye. The train to London was full of football fans; I guess Cardiff was playing someone in London and the already booze-happy supporters were heading down. I sat next to a Bulgarian lady and had a nice little chat with her, but enjoyed the enthusiastic singing for all 2 and a half hours. I got home just fine, happy to see Belgium and French again. What can I say? I've been assimilated.
Other random things I learned:
Americans eat with one hand because back in the day on the frontier holding a knife in your right hand was conducive to stabbing your neighbor during the meal. Thus, it was considered more polite to keep the knives in the center of the table and only use it occasionally or cut with the fork than to eat with both. Totally logical.
Daffodils are Welsh symbols, and sheep are also important.
Love spoons are a Welsh tradition. These hand-carved and symbolic gifts are basically like engagement rings given by the groom to his bride. We saw both the largest (close to 10 or so feet high) and the smallest (smaller than a matchstick).
I also noticed that British English is closer to French than American English. For example, Brits might say 'pardon' instead of excuse me or sorry. That's the same word as in French.
They also say sorry for 'excuse me' a lot more than in the US. Or that's how it seemed to me.

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