When I told members of my Melbourne Welsh class I would be living in Wales for six months, two of my classmates announced their intention to visit me. I wasn’t convinced this would happen. Promises made in the bar after Welsh class are not binding. So, when I dragged my case across the Abergavenny railway bridge, it was something akin to a miracle to see Sue and Nicky walking towards me. It was Nicky’s first visit to Wales. For Sue, it was a return to the country of her birth. For all of us, it was pilgrimage towards something in which we have a tangible investment – yr hen iaith.
Sometime during the planning process, we had decided a canal holiday would be an essential part of the experience. Which is how, half an hour after meeting in Abergavenny, we found ourselves taking possession of a narrow boat. The training took over an hour. We learned how to tie knots, clean the propellor, charge the boat, steer with a tiller, fill the water tanks, turn on the power inverter and a host of other grubby, miscellaneous tasks. As I stood in owl-eyed concentration, listening to the man from Castle Narrow Boats explain the various procedures, I know I wasn’t the only one thinking: what have we got ourselves into?
It rained torrentially the first day. The words: ‘this is a bit miserable’ may have been uttered. But around mid-afternoon, as we sat drying our socks, skirts and shoes on the radiator the sun decided to put in an appearance. After that, we enjoyed slow mornings over coffee (an addiction to which we all freely admitted), traveling at a snail’s pace, coffees in cafes, dinners in pubs, and discussing every small decision and manoeuvre. We laughed far more than we could have imagined, especially when climbing into our coffin like bunks. After a glass or two of Reverend James, one of us (who shall remain nameless) decided the very Anglicised inhabitants of Crickhowell needed educating. A black texta was the proposed implement of instruction. The all English banner advertising a forthcoming literary festival need the words Gŵyl Lenyddiaeth added. Not to mention every-second retirement cottage with an English name. Fortunately, the shops were closed and we didn’t have a black texta, so Crughywel (proper spelling), missed out on the bi-lingual transformation. But we did enjoy making up wildly bigoted statements in Welsh as we walked back to the narrow boat that may have involved the words Sais and cropian and dros y fin.
After our canal boat holiday, we headed up to North Wales where it soon became apparent that the ‘opportunities to practice speaking Welsh’ that one eager member of the group had organised, were causing quite a bit of consternation in the breasts of others. The word fanatic may have crossed lips. Along with an observation that some were far more interested in Welsh men than yr hen iaith.
These differences established, we did all the touristy things one would expect in North Wales – Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), Beddgelert, Betws-y-coed, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerwchwrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (yes, I can say it), photographing an ancient burial chamber and, of course, visiting castles. An unexpected highlight was Barmouth which is truly the tackiest seaside town outside of Y Barri. But you see, Sue and I were born in the UK. We have tacky seaside memories. In a wave of nostalgia, we purchased, rock candy, some truly dreadful coconut ice and Jack Straws, a game I played often in my childhood.
I didn’t know Sue and Nicky well before the holiday – apart from our weekly Welsh classes and the occasional Saturday night dinner. But over the last fortnight, we have discussed language, relationships, faith, our family histories, hopes for the future, the experience of ageing, and have simply explored Wales together. We will have these memories for ever. No one can take them away from us. Or the friendship we have forged.
It has been a month of holidays for me with no great progress on my manuscript. But Sue and Nicky are the last of my scheduled visitors. The days are getting shorter and more greyscale. The landscape around me variegated. This will be the first winter I have spent in the northern hemisphere since childhood and, like the squirrels I have seen gathering nuts, I am looking forward to hibernating and making final pre-submission changes to my manuscript. By the time the trees begin to bud again, I will be back in Australia, hopefully, up to my neck in the submission process, as well as working on my next project.
Tan wythnos nesaf!