Anyone who did music lessons is probably familiar with the concept of an eisteddfod – a festival in which artist not only performs but also competes. From the spelling you have probably gathered the word is Welsh. However, if you are an Australian, you may not realise that you have been saying the the word wrong for your whole life. It is not an eisted-fod. The word has a double ‘dd’ which makes a soft ‘th’ sound in Welsh, much like in the English word ‘others.’ Eisteddfod (pronounce correctly please) is made up of two Welsh words: eistedd, which means to sit, and bod/fod which is the verb to be. The closest correlation you will probably get for eisteddfod in modern English is a ‘session.’
These days Eisteddfodau (the correct plural of eisteddfod) occur throughout the year in Wales. But the main eisteddfod – the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol (national eisteddfod) is held during the first week of August. It receives over 160,000 visitors over an eight day period. It is the pinnacle of the Welsh cultural calendar Here’s what the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol website says about itself:
“All visitors have an eisteddfod story to tell. Whether they’ve competed annually for many years or if they’ve just been to the Maes (field) once a few years ago. They’ve all experienced the magic of the National Eistddfod.”
Which, I guess, is a convenient segue for me to tell you how this year’s magic worked for me.
As with any outdoor festival there is a massive caravan and camping site attached to the Eisteddofd. The less intrepid book B&Bs and self catering Accomodation close to the Maes. I drove from Corris – a distance of about thirty eight miles – thirty eight, misty Welsh miles sharing the road with tractors, buses and the occasional stray sheep. Google maps told me it would take an hour and ten minutes. But … I tend to slow down on hair-pin bends. A sensible strategy. Though it doesn’t seem to have occurred to some drivers in Land Rovers and luxury cars. One of the best things about driving to the Eisteddofd is the flags and banners strung up along the houses. The closer you get the more flags. Somehow the excitement seems to mount too.
I put my name down to volunteer in Maes D – the learners tent. This involved serving coffee and tea and wandering around Maes D and chatting to people interested in learning Welsh as well as those seeking a safe place in order to practice their Cymraeg. For my first shift, I teamed with two local women. This lead to the inevitable conversation:
“Where do you come from?”
“Australia. But I was born in England. My mum was Welsh.”
“You learned to speak Welsh from her?”
“No. I learned as an adult.”
“But… how did you learn Welsh in Australia?”
I’ve had this conversation so many times I have requested Say Something in Welsh business cards.
Monday night, I went to a concert in the Pavillion. It was called a Noson Llawen, which is traditional way of spending an evening in Welsh culture – an informal evening in which people stand up to sing, recite, or tell stories. In this case a host of local performers provided the entertainment. In between, the announcer told jokes in Welsh. I got one … maybe two of them. The highlight of the evening was Dafydd Iwan (a local legend) singing: Yma o hyd. This song is a kind of unofficial national anthem in Wales. It basically details the history conquest. The chorus between each verse can roughly be translated as:
“We are still here,
We are still here,
Despite the worst of everyone and everything,
We are still here.”
The first time round, everyone joined in the singing. For the encore, everyone stood and sang louder. Then there was a silence. Red dragons flickered across the stage screens. The music for the anthem started.
I had no trouble driving home after the concert. Though, the road was long and winding. I had lit up like a glow worm inside.
Thursday evening, was the parti penblwydd (birthday party) Say something in Welsh. Forty of us were scheduled to meet at a hotel in Trallwng (Welshpool). A number of us gave lifts to friends without cars who were staying in Maes B (camping ground). I ended up with a friend from Missisippi in my passenger seat. We got to the hotel okay and had a pleasant evening catching up with far flung members of our learners community. When it came time to leave, my friend suggested we drive back exactly the same way we had come. I agreed … In theory. But I hadn’t accounted for the one way roads in the centre of Trallwng. I couldn’t find the way we had come. In frustration, I punched Meifod (town closest to Maes B) into Google maps and activated the directions. I’m not sure what the staff at Google maps were drinking the night they mapped Wales but we had a dark, snaking tour through the Welsh back roads with hedgerows brushing the car on both sides. It was late. My friend wasn’t talking much. Just staring at the movie blue dot. Every so often I asked.
“How’s it going? Are we heading in the right direction?”
To which question he replied:
“I think so.”
This went on for what seemed like hours – same words, over and over, with a ghost-white mist drifting across the roads. I was tired. About to hit a jet lag wall. After Maes B, I would face a further hour and a half drive back to Corris. I started feeling tense. But trying not to show it. Not sure, I succeeded entirely. I think maybe my friend felt a little jaded too. When we turned the final corner and a saw blaze of the Eisteddfod lights, he said:
“Here. Drop me off here.”
“I can’t. The sign says Buses Only.”
“It’s empty! There aren’t any buses.”
I left my friend in the bus parking lot and drove home. As the clock turned the night into the morning and the Welsh language radio service ended, I heard an Australian man being interviewed about Australia’s disastrous loss in the cricket. I haven’t inherited the sporting gene. The results didn’t bother me overly. But the man’s accent caused a wave of homesickness. If I’d been a character from Harry Potter and found myself able to Aparate, I think, I might have wished myself home.