I like travelling, and there’s still plenty of the world left for me to see. Distant lands and the ever reaching horizon are out of sight but never entirely out of mind. There’s a rush to it; of planting your feet on unfamiliar soil, amongst unfamiliar faces. I’ve been eating and drinking since I was born, but in a new country, the act feels new again. I’ve been talking and making sarcastic comments since I can remember and yet it’s not the same a border away. The more of the world I see, the more I learn, the more curious I get, the hungrier for more I become. But this is not a once in a lifetime experience. You need not even cross the pacific or take to the skies. These sensations can be found in more domestic trips, and in my case, this would be Wales.
Wales resides upon the same landmass as England, and it’s another country, or part of my country, or simply my country (I’m not just English but also British, so I get to associate myself with all of it. I’m greedy that way). But being someone who has lived most of his early life in the south of England, I have not been fully exposed to everything the rest of the United Kingdom can offer, and so a trip to Wales carried the promise of fresh history, culture and language, no less exotic than lands across the sea. And who better to introduce this Welsh escapade than my very own patriotic polyglot and native singing dragon, Kara. So after returning to the UK from our study in Yokohama, I packed by bags again to go visit my friend in Cardiff.
It’s an interesting point to mention that Kara is not her real name (although I am indeed called Poncho, son of Overcoat, grandson of Cape). Her actual name is something altogether different, and although common in the UK, it’s also uncommonly a common name in Japan. Although the Japanese meaning of the name is different, that’s beside the point, because this name, Japanese or otherwise, is not her first name but rather her middle name. Her family name is not too unlike a first name making it easy to confuse when written, while her first name is shared by a mutual friend which makes the name when spoken, confusing too. This mutual friend would undoubtedly leap at the chance to speak Welsh which might complicate matters further. But her first name, her real name if you prefer, is so rarely used that she herself not answer to it when called, which begs the question why her parents chose it to begin with when they had no intention of addressing it. I’m sure that clears that all up, but for the sake of convenience, and because explaining this again might prompt me to throw myself off a cliff, I felt a nickname was in order (I’m informed this is what friend’s do sometimes). Kara, you see, likes karaoke and upon shortening this auspicious noun, I tumbled into a stroke of personal and linguistic genius. But nicknames, like languages, only live as long as they are used and our circle of friends refused to adopt this title. I alone carry it, the same way historians carry ancient Greek, and Catholics carry Latin, and the Welsh carry Welsh, so that through sheer bitter willpower, they can never die. So whenever you read this name, please imagine the stubborn tone behind it and kindly forget my minor bouts of insanity.
The journey to Cardiff went better than I could have expected, and those familiar with ‘megabus’ might comprehend the degree of that miracle. Through complete accident I had booked myself on a premium megabus, and I boarded to find luxuries including extra leg room, tables, curtains, reading lamps and even complimentary sandwiches (as opposed to standard megabus which lacks all those qualities and offers instead a cosy egg box for you to curl up into and only a 50% chance that the bus will arrive at all). I gazed out the window as the bus rolled through the country, looking for signs that I had crossed the border into strange new lands. And soon I discovered it; the legions of sheep that stared back up at me in bemusement, the one true sign that I entered Wales (of course the road sign that said the same thing cropped up almost an hour later so there’s a chance I had preempted the entry).
I got off on the wrong foot with Wales, and by that I mean in more of the literal sense. One hop off the bus and the end of my umbrella snapped in two, a reliable chap named Clive. From what Kara had told me, the Welsh in spite of the rain are content to get wet, and it is my theory that this culture was indeed so grave, as to break Clive’s soul (I’m rather fond of umbrellas, if you hadn’t already guessed. Although fortunately I hadn’t spent enough time in Clive’s company to hold any strong emotional attachment, cruel as that must sound). To make matters worse, my period of mourning was interrupted by mild disconcertion when I couldn’t spot Kara who was due to meet me. Blond hair and blue eyes are usually easy to spot in a crowd but there was nobody of that description. Just a sea of blank faces, and one crazy woman waving wildly at me from across the road. I waited longer, arched my neck and still no sign. The potential psychopath, all shining teeth advancing on me through the crowd, but my friend was still nowhere near to rescue me from my second clash with the country. Until of course she called out my name with Kara’s voice, and my first conspiracy theory in adulthood was born (it has been debunked already. I think). Apparently Kara has (or had. Not sure which story this doppelgänger was going with) a tendency to change the colour of her hair on a regular basis, a fact so unknown to me, I had been unaware she wasn’t blond. Nothing like a bit of mystery to begin a visit.
Cardiff is a nice city to go around but I was more interested in signs. I was in the United Kingdom and there was Welsh all about me, from roads to shops to atm machines. Nothing special perhaps in reality, but as someone who has only ever seen English displayed (and who has an invested interest in languages himself), this served as more than ample tourism during the day. So much so, that I declared I wished to learn some myself, and Kara was more than happy to tutor basic words and phrases.
“What do you want to say?”
“Where are we going next?” I asked.
“Great. What’ the word for castle in Welsh?”. Language in context you see.
“Castell” she said. (I think ‘said’ is still accurate here).
“I’m sorry, could you say that again?”.
Allow me to describe this particular word’s pronunciation. From an amateur English perspective, it seems the ‘cast’ is pronounced fairly the same as you would in English, which leaves only the ‘tell’. It does not rhyme with ‘bell’, which is unfortunate for my tongue. There’s no way I can sound it out in letters, so I’m afraid a highly descriptive image will have to do. This half of the word sounds approximately the same as an uncomfortable cat having a hard time with a hairball. It sounds like a wheezy owl with chronic asthma. It sounds like a steam train has just gasped because it’s been informed it’s actually a kettle and recently undergone a mental breakdown. It sounds like the last dying breath of a henry hoover when his smile finally drops.
“Castell” I think I say.
“Ah, no. Close”
The castle was our first historic site and although I could not address it properly, I’m sure the stones felt my determination to try. Kara considered purchasing a key to this castle, a year’s subscription to the glorious rubble and gift shop which was quite a steal. I’d love my own castell. Welsh was not the only language on topic however as Kara was studying Arabic, and the two compliment each other well. So well in fact, that we stumbled across something called an ‘Arabic Room’ within this Welsh castle. I’m still not sure what it was doing there. It might have been lost.
The rest of Cardiff city centre was a labyrinth of modern shops, quirky music stores and one retro video game shop that I need to visit again someday (I’m sure Kara only took me there to see if Shenmue was hidden away in a crate somewhere. It’s the next great vice after singing). But what I was more impressed with was the number of dragon plushies. I’ve been to Chinatown in Yokohama; I’ve seen a damn lot of panda plushies in my time. And yet, Cardiff has beaten China on cute toy marketing (you read correctly. It’s incredible. Half these dragons were probably made in China too). In shop windows, on counters, hanging off bags, sitting in pockets, winking at you, waving at you, dangling off strings from the ceiling. They are everywhere. It’s impossible to forget what country you’re in when you wander around Cardiff.
Kara, being the kind and gentle soul that she is, took me to the place I’d like the most; the dr who museum. The only place that could fill me with more dread than a Piago supermarket. As with many of friends, friends being a term used very loosely, she took pleasure at watching me squirm in pain at the sight of a Tardis and my dire insistence that I in no way resemble the doctor, regardless of my fondness for bow ties or formal wear. It’s a fact, and you’ll have to just get over that (although Cece has lately requested a position as my assistant so perhaps the nightmare is not yet over. This would be the fourth time someone has requested this of me, so I can only pray this isn’t the fourth time I’ve regenerated).
One of the more interesting (less soul clenching) sites Kara showed me was a village developed and preserved to show how Welsh people lived in the past (similar to Hokkaido’s Jidai Mura but with significantly less ninjas). Normally I’m all up for history, but there were certain distractions. Finding onions sparked a tirade of vegetable hate from Kara, who has declared her holy war against them. Stories of past etiquette, spurred memories of Kara’s love of pejorative language (a love even greater than for Welsh itself).
But our journey was not yet complete, for I had discovered in my travels, that there was a melon flavoured soft drink on sale in the UK. Kara became addicted to a beverage named melon soda in Japan, and whenever she suffered withdrawal and her tongue resumed its normal pink colour, she began studying a new language. It was a difficult situation and Kara had refused to go to rehab. Had I let it go any further, she might have ran out of languages to take up and then who knows how her system would have reacted. The drink we had found, melonade, was not the same but it was a medical substitute enough to stave off any more Arabic dialects for a month or two.
“Oh oh, you had it! Do it again!” she cried to me.
“Ok, ah, ah. It’s cast…mhvschjchjbckszbkbcxhvcv”
“…No. Sorry, you didn’t have it. That’s entirely wrong”.
When I left Wales, I was still unable to say any Welsh word with a hint of accuracy. But I had Welsh cakes, walked around historic Welsh homes, had plenty of cwtches, and found as much passion in myself for travelling as I ever had anywhere else.