Friday, December 30, 2011

fluctuations on the festive front

I am very fortunate that I have lived almost 59 years before having a bad Christmas.

The buildup and preparations for the big day were wonderful and full of the spirit, so that is coming back to me now in the aftermath, however this 25th of December put me into an emotional tailspin.

It was the first Christmas I have ever worked and I thought I was prepared for it. The hotel is usually only half full with groups of pensioners staying for three to four days and physically not demanding. However it went rather sour quickly -- upon asking what time lunch was that day we were told by our supervisor that there was none.

What? You're joking surely -- we were still to be working a full day, and it was, well, Christmas. As well the coffee vending machine, which serves excellent drinks, was dry on Christmas Eve and stayed that way until the 28th of December. After a frenzied time the supervisor informed us that someone in the kitchen fried (overfried) bacon and we could have bacon sandwiches on the gummy white bread of which the British are overly fond.

An hour after finishing a rushed meal we were cleaning rooms and informed that, in fact, we were supposed to be only doing the 'bare basics' in order to leave extra early. This may sound as if it should have been good news, and may have been if we had been told before beginning our shift. At this point it made no sense that we had stopped for a meal, and the joy of doing of a job well done and at a rare, sensible pace was stripped away.

I cried walking through empty streets on the way home and as I passed through the University of Cardiff campus was rescued from a full-blown sense of isolation by a blessedly-timed Christmas call from my brother Kevin and his family. So wonderful and so wonderfully timed. It did not escape me that if I had still been at work I would have missed the call.
On Boxing Day nothing opened. As Christmas fell on a Sunday, the bank holidays were extended until Tuesday, so it wasn't until Wednesday that people began to appear on the streets and stores opened, albeit with half-empty shelves. I don't remember last Christmas being so desolate and quiet, though I was probably just happily relaxing in my flat. It was actually worse, I think, because I was out and about and no one else was.

I am very glad life is getting back to normal again. I work New Year's Day, cleaning up hotel rooms after the big celebration for my first time, and will be even gladder once the New Year is in full swing. Last year I attended the fireworks at City Hall which was a wonderful gathering and great way to begin the New Year. I would like to attend it again this year but not if it is raining, and at this time the forecast is predicting unholy weather.

On the up side I have been bathing myself in whatever uplifting films or programs have passed the TV screen. One of my all-time favourites, The Wizard of Oz, appeared on the bleak British landscape just in time for me as it did for Dorothy of Kansas. The Muppet Christmas was one of the rare versions of Dickens' classic Christmas Carol programmed for Yuletide viewing this year or last. In fact it has been difficult to find Christmas-related films at all and I think I won't see It's A Wonderful Life or Shirley Temple's Heidi until I return to N. America.

I have viewed five Rocky's on five consecutive nights, and though hardly what I would call holiday fare, have come away with an abiding respect for Mr. Sylvester Stallone and his many talents.

And, I have discovered two gems. Son of Rambow, a 2007 British movie about two young boys making a film, is an absolute delight filled with rare, innocent, true performances by the two young leads and universal truths wisely observed by the screenwriter and director. Brilliant. Also on the feel-good front and a prop person's delight is the recent BBC adaptation of The Borrowers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


A few weeks ago our housekeeping department had an evening out after our Secret Santa exchange of gifts and an afternoon of food and games. It was scheduled to be a late afternoon of karoake at the Vulcan Pub (not to be confused with the popular Vulcan Lounge).

Only a few blocks from our hotel we went to a dimesize establishment standing in the midst of a parking lot like a forgotten soul, forlornly facing the stylized glass-faced Atrium college across the street.

I'm not sure I have ever been in such an old pub. I probably have, as so much in the UK has been around for hundreds of years, but you could feel the creak in this place. The crooked rooms, the thick wooden-slabbed floors, the soiled walls all cried out in a strange, cozy welcome. Where have ya been? We've kept the place going for you. Are you alright?

The proprietors through the years have barely kept it going. The Vulcan has been facing demolition for years and an online petition hopes to dissuade the landowners from wiping it away to create eleven more parking spots.

The tiny front room with a piano in one corner and probably only five tables besides a few wall lounges leads to another room behind the bar in which the pool table just fits, surrounded by magnificent ceiling-high wall seats and an old unused fireplace. A jukebox from the 70s hangs on the wall leading to the gents' toilets. One of the women in our group suddenly goes through the door. Oh, it's alright, she says, that's where the smoking is. The men's toilets are half outdoors with the wooden doors opening to the elements.

Beyond the pool room is yet another smaller room filled with books and games for obstensibly quieter entertainments and at the end of the reading room is the ladies' toilet, which is completely indoors with no smoking allowed.

As some of us sit around the pool table I feel pleasantly at home, as if I'm in the basement hideaway of friends or an old Polish church hall wedding celebration. As we continually duck our heads and drinks to avoid the pool players and their sticks, I feel as if I'm waiting for some shy, gallant gent to ask me to dance.

A blackboard on the opposite wall outlines the names and numbers of food establishments where you can order take-out and eat it in the Vulcan.

The karoake that was supposed to start at 4 p.m. still hasn't begun at 7 p.m. as the Wii version the owners were going to use apparently had a meltdown and they were on the hunt for another system. After interminable pool games and 70s songs on the jukebox the karoake began in the front room. So bad. Only one of the microphones worked properly, the words were too small for most of us to see, and no one could sing. So bad that it was hilarious. A few people from 'outside' came into the pub which certainly felt like our own and it was good to welcome them into this wacky, headache-inducing scene.

I've definitely developed a soft spot for this old place. Cheers! or as the Welsh say: Iechyd Da!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fright Night

Trying to channel Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly for hotel's Fright Night
(I don't think the employee change room is successfully passing for Tiffany's)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

keeping warm

It is December already and I've finished my Christmas shopping and have all my parcels mailed off to Canada and the U.S. Amazingly, instead of the usual six weeks, I've been informed one of the packages has arrived at its destination within a week's time. It must have had its own wings.

This upcoming Tuesday afternoon we are having our Secret Santa party for the hotel's housekeeping department. Everyone brings a wrapped present under £3 and a dish of some kind and after the festivities we are heading to a bar for some karoake. I am informed we have some real singers in our group, of which I am sadly not (a singer).

Finally this week, after a month of sporadic heating problems and two weeks of  no heat, I have a warm flat. It is seldom cold here like a Canadian winter but because of the constant dampness and a ground floor corner apartment with concrete floors and little insulation, it can feel as cold. Because my heat was only working when it felt like it, instead of on the timer as it was supposed to do, and because it naturally worked the first time the plumber came to fix it, I was being patronized by my landlord and plumber.

Even though I worked the easy system perfectly fine last winter, they didn't believe I had a problem even when the plumber arrived following a totally heatless week and I greeted him in three layers of woollens, a hat and scarf. He turned the system on and it worked! I said, it won't stay on -- it will probably go off in half an hour. Fortunately, he stuck around. After 15 minutes the heat died. It took him awhile, but he found not one, but at least two problems.

So now I have heat! Having no heat, fighting an unrelated head cold at the same time, and wondering if the boiler's problems and the presence of the plumber would ever happily coincide is very wearing. I didn't realize until after Roger, the amazing and genial plumber and part-time DJ, married to a woman who taught in Medicine Hat, Alberta for years, plumbed the problem that I had been a deeply unhappy camper. I had been able to sleep well in all my layers, but I also had visions of me living like that for months.

All's well with heat!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

swansea by the sea

In early November I took a train to my favourite day trip destination: Swansea; went to the city market, ate fresh cockles out of a bag -- and wandered down to the sea and dunes.

Marina Towers Observatory and Tower of the Ecliptic on the east beach

And the tide comes in

santa in cardiff

Santa and some of his reindeer (a few were on holiday) took a ride through Cardiff's city centre on November 10. The special occasion was marked with the illumination of the city's Christmas lights and street performers spreading smiles with their guerrilla attacks on bemused folk.

St. Nick in his sleigh on Queen Street

MusicalRuth -- a nun like none other
Pink faeries -- big ones

Reindeer chow down on lichen and moss

bute park in early november

November anywhere seems to be a bleak, dark month, especially once Daylight Savings Time ends and the clocks 'fall back'.

But November has its own beauty. Here are a few shots from Bute Park with its magnificent trees:

Thursday, October 27, 2011

back home away from home

I've been back in Cardiff just more than a week already. It was wonderful being back home in Canada and seeing friends and family. The weather was amazing with sun and heat for the first week. This poor deprived sun-starved Canadian just basked in it.

I ate turkey and risotto for Thanksgiving as the family gathered at my niece Kate's new home in Windsor and the next day most of us went for a walk along the Detroit River in glorious sunshine. It was good to be in Windsor as I'd been living in Toronto for most of the seven years before I came to Wales.

I saw the insides of probably four to five hockey arenas in Essex County and travelled to a tournament in Caledonia as my 10-year-old niece and 8-year-old nephew impressed their Aunt with their constantly improving hockey skills. I went apple-picking and walked through my first corn maze. I met up with long-time friends from well out-of-town who happened to be in the area around Thanksgiving. I met up with long-time friends from in-town.

Two of my Windsor/Toronto friends were running in the Detroit Marathon the weekend after Thanksgiving and I rose very early in the dark and was able to meet up with one on the Windsor side of the race before his relay stint began and hang out with the other after her relay stint ended.

One of my brothers picked me up and dropped me off at the Detroit Airport. The flights were smooth and good in both directions. I visited the small museum at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam where they have a Rembrandt on display -- no cost for entry. From the air I could see canals everywhere and wondered with the flat terrain why there weren't more Dutch people in Essex County, Ontario. As we were taxied in I could see the many bicycles used by airport employees to get to work. I was amazed at how many of the Dutch women working at KLM or at Schiphol are close to 6 ft. in height.

It was pouring rain and cold in Amsterdam on my arrival but the landing in Cardiff was sunny with a welcoming rainbow. I shared the bus ride back into town with a handsome Welshman whom I shall probably never see again -- an athletic man with an easy Gene Kelly grace and smile.

I'm back at work and my body is remembering how tough this job of room attendant is, but also that I enjoy it. Yesterday, on a day off, I had great success shopping at the charity shops for bits and pieces of a Halloween costume for an employee Fright Night at the hotel this Sunday. I am going to try and channel Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Have the sunglasses, the little black dress, the pearls and shoes and am pretty confident I have an easy way to make a cigarette holder.

I doubt though if I can stay in character on the dance floor.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

leaving on a jet plane

I'm Canada-bound -- via Detroit -- tomorrow. I'm so excited!

I will probably sleep for two days. I'm coming off a long seven day stretch at work and have to catch a train at 6:40 a.m. tomorrow to take me from Cardiff to Cardiff Airport. I'm guessing I will be trailing my luggage behind me on the half-hour walk to the train station. Thank God for wheels on luggage.

The plane from Cardiff takes me to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. It will be, technically, my first setting foot on mainland Europe, though officially it will be International soil. Kind of counts, but kind of doesn't count. The time for European wanderings will come.

Flying into unknown airports is always kind of intimidating as I'm not a frequent flyer. I always feel much better once I'm finally in the waiting area and ready for take-off.

My waiting time in Amsterdam is only two hours - probably just enough time not to have to rush crazily. I hope. Then it's a direct flight to Detroit where my brother Kevin is picking me up and taking me to Harrow, Ontario, Canada.

Now, I'm off to buy some Welsh cakes to bring over for Thanksgiving dinner.

Friday, September 16, 2011

throughout the summer

Raising the May Pole as part of the Gywl Ifan Welsh Folk Dancing Festival

Welsh dancers in folk dress

Roath Park Lake

Fish and Ships Festival -- end of August

Welsh National War Memorial at Alexandra Gardens

Marigolds and ornamental corn (?) at Alexandra Gardens

ma bicyclette rouge

Finally, I have a bicycle! And a very sexy one at that. I bought it for a nifty £35 from Pedal Power, the charity that reworks bicycles for the handicapped and rents and resells them as well.

With the red suspension, it screamed 'Steal me!' when I first laid eyes on it, so hopefully after I sissify it with a back fender (or mud guard as they say here) and a pannier, it will be less tempting. Bicycle thievery seems to be a thriving trade here as I've seen many bikes in pieces locked to cycle stands.

My plan was to buy a bike when I first arrived, but economic realities put that idea aside -- as did my mistaken belief that a bicycle in my yard came with my 'furnished' apartment. (The neglected cycle actually belonged to my neighbour who reclaimed it after a month.)

In actuality I haven't missed having one as much as I thought as I am a fair weather, flat ground cyclist. I would much rather walk in the rain with an umbrella than ride a bike through a downpour. But August and September are gorgeous months here and now I can go down to the Bay and Penarth in half the time.

These wheels are made for rolling, and that's just what they'll do .... (with apologies to Nancy Sinatra)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

un blwydd! (one year!)

It's hard to believe, but it's been one year today since I arrived in Wales. I still know very little Welsh (I think 'blwydd' is pronounced 'bleweeth' -- but I could be wrong). The language is stronger than one might think. Most people speak English, but children learn the language in schools, all the signs are bilingual (like Canada with its French and English) and often the Welsh is placed first.

There is a BBCWales which broadcasts original material in Welsh and English. I've watched the Welsh language station a few times for short periods of time, mainly to just hear how it's spoken. BBC Wales is headquartered here in Cardiff.

In this past year I've lost 20 pounds (a little more than one and a half stone, as they say here. A stone is equal to 13 pounds.)  This loss was in the first three months of my room attendant job with an international hotel chain, working my butt off literally after too many years sitting on it at a computer. I'm coming on my first year at the hotel in early October. It's taken a (long) while, but this older body has finally gotten some lean muscle mass.

I've also let my hair grow and haven't coloured it since I left Canada. This began because it's four times more expensive here to get your hair washed, cut, styled and coloured. I rather like the grey mixed in with the dark brown and plan on keeping close to Mother Nature's palette. Most often now I wear it in a short pony tail.

I think the hard part is behind me. It's scary when you're starting everything from scratch and you don't know what to expect from the winter or the coming fuel bills. I've gotten through all that, know what to expect and how to find necessities and luxuries and have met good friends at work. The connection I felt with Wales on my first visit years ago remains and I can feel the rhythm of the land and its people.

Thanks to a healthy tax return from the Canadian government I am going home to Canada for two weeks in October, in time for blue autumnal skies, clear sunny days and Thanksgiving turkey -- and FAMILY!

Friday, September 2, 2011

'fish and ships'

'Fish and Ships' -- the last big summer festival down at Cardiff Bay, wins hands down for the city's best summer celebration and best title. The last Monday in August is a Bank Holiday, similar to Labour Day weekend back home, and the rain held off, the sun shone, and everyone was having fun.

There were masted ships and working boats, food booths with better food (and even better prices) than the International Food and Drink fest earlier in the season, and fishmongers sharing the secrets of their trade and competing for the U.K. championship.

The fishmongers were selling their wares and bits and pieces from their exhibitions. For £1 I was able to buy 8 salmon tails with which to make soup broth. But the fishmonger (love that word) said I'll give you 10. When I got home with the iced double-bagged tails, I had an even dozen. That's a lot of delicious soup set to stew. Many of the tails had half a fish attached.

Airplanes flew over the Bay in an air show, however, I don't like watching them. I'm always afraid a plane will stall and spin into the water or land. Still, you watch.

This weekend marked the official end of the summer festival season. It hasn't been my imagination that the skies have been sunless and rainy. Recent reports say it is the coolest summer since 1993 -- uggh! -- though August was much better here than the previous few months.

Totally unrelated to the 'Fish and Ships', but likely related to dampness, I began reading Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes. For years I resisted this book, especially after seeing the bleak film, but though McCourt's Irish childhood was tragically marked with deaths and extreme poverty, he was a remarkable writer and he mined a deeply rich vein of humour and resilience. There are few books that can make you laugh out loud and despair so easily. Hugely deserving of all the accolades.

His story is mainly set in Limerick, Ireland and when I was waiting at the bus terminal there in May for the airport shuttle, the two Irish people who were conversing about the economy also spoke about McCourt's book. I hadn't realized before that the autobiography was set there. The woman said her mother, from Limerick, originally doubted anyone could have been that poor, but a friend of hers remembered otherwise and said, yes, we used to take food down to the very poor people.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

brains, please

Brains Brewery on the River Taff

Brewery as seen from a side street

Anyone who knows me, knows very little beer has ever passed my lips. This is definitely a waste in the U.K. where it is the drink of choice for millions. Cardiff has its own local brewery Brains, which as you can imagine, has borne forth many clever advertising slogans such as 'You need Brains' 'Its Brains you want.'

I've always found beer too bitter for my taste, but I have been told before and recently that I should give a good stout a try. Plus, there are actually nutritives in a stout, they say. I've tried Guinness before and found it smooth. Last week I went into a local bar/cafe The Pear Tree, asked if they had Guinness, found out they didn't but they recommended Brains Black. With half a pint being cheaper than a cheap coffee, I can see why so many flock to the pubs.

I liked Brains Black so much I've had three in the last week. Wow! Don't worry though, it's only the flush of first love. And I may cheat soon and try Brains Dark.

assault on my sense

Recently I watched what was a pretty good thriller on T.V.  -- Assault on Precinct 13, a 2005 remake of a classic John Carpenter film which I haven't seen.

I would say the operative words here are 'was a pretty good thriller' up until the last 10 minutes when a movie set in downtown Detroit inexplicably grew a conifer forest.

What drew me into the film at the beginning was the scene of an urban street in a blizzard. Gee, that looks like Detroit, I thought. Sure enough then came along the River Rouge and Zug Island works and the city of Detroit skyline. It had an excellent cast and moved quickly. Though there were obvious flaws in its plot: why didn't the bad cops use tear gas in the beginning, or just set the place alight to accomplish their aim? I would have given it a hearty thumbs up.

But this film is an extreme example of how to ruin a good film with very sloppy handiwork in the last 10 minutes. The van carrying the 'good' guys crashes in an industrial site and in the next frame the main character is hiding out in pine trees with obvious fake snow and one of the protaganists from the crashed car appears unscathed in the same woods (though others have clearly died in the crash). Listen folks, there are NO FORESTS IN DOWNTOWN DETROIT -- especially pine forests. IF there were trees near a Detroit industrial site they would be Carolinian, such as maples and oaks.

The filmmakers, just to prove they hadn't totally forgotten where their movie was set, ended the movie with a shot pulling away from the forest to show a badly airbrushed fake city skyline, which was set rather high on a hill. THERE ARE NO HILLS IN DOWNTOWN DETROIT.

With all the money spent on films and all the meticulous work involved in their making, how do things like this happen?

Monday, August 8, 2011

cardiff big weekend

This past weekend was Cardiff's Big Weekend. It's not a holiday weekend, just a big, three-day free music festival with a summer midway and fireworks every night at City Hall. I pass through it on my way to and from work and was able to hear a bit of the music on Saturday and a bit more on Sunday. I was hoping to sit on the grass and enjoy the lineup Sunday afternoon but the skies, which had co-operated until then, opened up in typical UK fashion and dropped the rains pretty steadily all day and evening amid spells of respite. Check out the BBC coverage for proof that the weekend was not a washout.

Still, I saw King Charles and enjoyed him and his randy band very much -- excellent musicians with a rogue's touch. During the band setup I visited the National Museum, seen below to the left of the stage. I have spent several rainy days off at this excellent free museum.

Also, in the midway, was what was billed as a reverse bungee. IF I were ever to attempt anything like a bungee jump, this would be the way to go, caged-in sitting on padded seats with someone by your side. Most midway rides were £2 to £4 each (certainly not cheap), but this bungee thrill went for a whopping £12.50, with the option of an £8 DVD to commemorate the event if desired.

King Charles plays late Sunday afternoon

Reverse bungee -- for the ride of your life

Thursday, July 28, 2011

langland bay

Langland Bay, Gower Peninsula

Last Saturday, after a few days where I was basically sick at home with a bad cold, I took a train ride to Swansea again for a great escape. Swansea trips really do the trick of setting everything back into perspective.

I wanted to spend the day on one of the beautiful beaches west of Swansea on the Gower Peninsula. This time I caught a bus from Swansea into Mumbles which landed me at the beginning of the cliffside walk along the Gower. So beautiful. One could walk for days, from beach to beach, with a little town or cafe within easy reach. On the other side of the Mumbles Pier one climbs to the path and there is lovely Bracelet Bay, compact and inviting, the rocks circling the fringe like a bracelet. Above the bay there is an affordable, nice Italian eatery with a stunning outlook towards the Mumbles Lighthouse.

The walk from Mumbles to Langland is an easygoing 45 minutes, with a few steep climbs. After Bracelet Bay is Limeslade Bay. These are both rocky, though Limeslade has pockets of sand. A few people sit here. Each beach feels as if it could be your own secret, private beach. It is busier at the larger, sandy Langland Bay. Mothers and small children check out the tide pools, girls and boys clamber over the rocks, families claim their spot on the wide expanse of sand while several brave the cold waters. Langland is fringed with a few cafes and rows of prettily painted beach huts, where people view the sea and scene as if from their front porches.

I climb onto a rock with my packed lunch and book and sink my toes into the warm sand and all is right with the world.

Heading back from Langland

Mumbles Pier

Balancing act -- Mumbles on Swansea Bay

Thursday, July 14, 2011

and the sun came out

A day after I wrote my 'sun-starved' post, the sun came out for most of a weekend and I went down to the Bay with my book, read and got gloriously sunburnt. Not a moment too soon. I guess it was just July for which the sun was waiting.

It is feeling more summerlike and the weekend festivals have begun. Just this past weekend the skies were blue on Sunday and I went down to the Bay to enjoy the Cardiff International Food and Drink Festival. Of course, things were a bit pricey (everything down at the Bay is on average a little more costly than in the city centre), but I was fortunate and found a baker at the end of the day selling off tempting chocolate cakes and other goodies for only a pound. Then after I had my dessert I enjoyed, for the first time, some whelks, or sea snails, which though they looked like some kind of rubbery sea monster, actually were quite satisfying and filling.

And here are a few pics of the day:

Festival goers at Roald Dahl Plass with Millennium Centre in the background
Enjoying the day at the Norwegian Church cafe

'tarnished earth'

On St. Mary's Street in Cardiff's city centre there is an amazing photo display of the tar sands production in Fort McMurray, Alberta. I was hoping to post a photo here, but they are all licensed. Even the ones online are not necessarily the same as the images being displayed in cities across the U.K. this summer. I'm not sure these images online pack the same wallop as they do on the street, one after the other, but if you get the chance check out the Tarnished Earth website, which is against tar sands production, and is presenting a very good case against it.

All I can say is that it is sobering and the destruction to the landscape unbelievable. One image in particular has seared into my mind, that of a scarecrow on a black lifeless wasteland dressed in orange hazmat gear, one of several spread out across a 'pond' to scare the birds from landing on the poisoned 'water'. View it here. Shameful and embarassing that we have done this -- and continue to do this -- to the Earth.

I saw this exhibit a day before reading that British Gas is raising prices drastically and all of its customers can expect an 18% increase in their bills starting in August. I imagine this impact will be felt in Wales as well. I will need to invest in a few more layers of woollens it seems.

Friday, July 1, 2011


June has come and gone and taken my delusions of a summer in Wales with it. Today is the first of July -- Happy Canada Day! -- and I am struggling mightily with sun deprivation.

I am certain this is the longest I have been in my lifetime without continued sunshine and its basking warmth and it is affecting my mental health and attitude more than I would like. At least today it is not raining.

I am beginning to dress like the Brits, wearing sandals and inappropriate summer gear when the weather clearly calls for the continued use of sweaters and jackets. When I first moved here I couldn't realize why people did this. Are the British uncommonly tough? Maybe. Now I find myself doing it -- don't know if the reasons are the same or not -- it may be delusional optimism, but I fear it really has more to do with a perverse stubbornness: if the skies are not providing summer I will nonetheless pretend it exists.

So far, the warmest days of blissful sunbathing occurred in a heat wave in April.

I was fortunate last night though. On my third attempt this week at capturing solar heat at Roath Park I was finally successful for more than a ten-minute interval. I'm reading a book on Audrey Hepburn and found a bench stirred by the evening sun and away from the constant winds. (I did have to submit, however, and replace my flipflops and capris for the standard long pants, socks, shoes and jacket.)

And then ... strawberries from heaven! Literally. A young woman approached me, said hello, and offered me an unopened box of fresh strawberries. She was from a local church and she and her friends were handing out boxes of strawberries to people. At first I wondered if I looked homeless and destitute, but realized I was just sitting on a bench reading.

I actually hadn't bought any strawberries this season as they are expensive. I forget I have an 'accent' here, and after only a few words the young woman asked me where I was from (often a good conversation-starter as well). She herself was from South Africa and was in Cardiff to attend university. She hoped to get to Canada one day to see the autumnal colours. Aah, I agreed -- very beautiful (I am more than a little homesick for friends, family and differing seasons right now). The fall here is damp and yellowy-brown, not as crisp or colourful as back home.

After she left, with an invite to attend her church (I find many of the churches here have a very involved student population), I waited awhile and then opened the box. Warm sweetness in an evening sun, with a surprising taste of wildness that I wasn't expecting, reminded me how Cardiff and Wales always surprises me with unexpected kindnesses, people creating their own sunshine.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

cardiff singer of the world

When I first saw the street banners for BBC Cardiff Singer of the World I thought the claim was uncharacteristically boastful and exaggerated of the Welsh. The U.S. claims World titles for many of its internal contests and I was wary of how a competition could make such a declaration-- especially a competition of which I had never heard.

Was I wrong. This singing competition gives young opera singers from all the continents except Antartica (and possibly Africa) a dazzling platform in front of the Welsh and all the premier powers-that-be in the opera world. It is a first-class and truly international showcase and I'm sorry it only takes place every other year.

I know next to nothing about opera, except the general knowledge that it is most often sung in foreign languages and is likely a long night at the theatre. What was marvelous about this event, which took place all last week, was that it was not only open to viewing live at reasonable prices, but was also presented expertly on television. At the end of an evening's competition a half-hour snippet of the night's singers was shown on TV, followed the next night by their performances in full with extraordinarily concise and educated commentary by international experts of opera and voice. The world of opera and the talent in it is deep and I found the whole experience fascinating and making me want more, more. Canada had a representative too, Sasha Djihanian from Montreal, and she sang beautifully.

Also, in a lighter vein, but along the same line, is a TV show called Popstar to Operastar, which is coincidentally or not, also airing for several weeks. Its name pretty well describes what it sets out to do, and it also is a great primer for the ABC's of the opera world.

In a vein even lighter, the hotel I work at had free tickets this week to the tour of the latest finalists of Britain's Got Talent. So, I went to my first non-sporting event at Motorpoint Arena in central Cardiff and had a better night out than I was expecting. Some of the finalists can only be classed as entertainers -- others carry some serious talent.

It's been quite the week for culture. Last Saturday I was passing by the Tabernacle Welsh Baptist Chapel in the city centre where the free Nativity show was presented last Christmas. On this day there were signs outside inviting people in to hear their restored organ in an hour's free concert. It was the first time I was in the church proper and the organ is like nothing I have ever seen or heard before. More classical music with which I am unfamiliar, played beautifully. This church holds services in Welsh on Sundays and this past week, after work, I could  hear the men's choir singing in Welsh as I passed it. I will probably visit it sometime if I can to hear them.

I have just read more about this Chapel and its organ (apparently fixed last fall) online and will definitely need to visit it more often.

Monday, June 13, 2011

merthyr tydfil

The River Taff running through Merthyr Tydfil
For the price of an hour's minimum wage I am able to buy a return rail or bus ticket to several places in south Wales and England. A week or so ago I went inland to the town of Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh Valleys and enjoyed a very fine hour's train ride through beautiful countryside and a day in a town that once held four ironworks.

I think I decided on the visit to Merthyr simply because I liked the name. From Welsh it translates as the 'memorial to St. Tydfil,' a daughter of an ancient king. Today, the town feels as if it's looking for a new start. It may be badly in need of a planner (the train station arrives on the doorstep of a shopping mall and its architecture is a jumbled mixture of the old with badly aging 60s renovations), but somehow Merthyr seemed to have a strong heart beating defiantly beneath its fractured surface.

There isn't much to do in the town's centre except shop, but outside the town is the Victorian-era faux-castle home of one of the ironworks industrialists which has been turned into a good little museum on Merthyr's time as a hotbed of the Industrial Age. The nice lady at the information centre told me it was 'only ten minutes' away, but in reality Cyfarthfa Castle is a twenty-minute walk from the town's centre -- uphill (which means it's downhill on the return!)

The museum relates the disparities between workers and wealthy employers and it gave me a good sense of how horrid conditions were while also pointing out that for many people industrialization gave them a chance to move away from backbreaking subsistence farming. Tough choices, sometimes no choices.

View from Cyfarthfa Castle with Cefn Viaduct in background

Not surprisingly, given the sense I had about the town today, Merthyr has been a hotbed for lightweight boxing champions.

While having a bite to eat at Anne's Pantry on High Street, I met another little big man. Walking purposely through the cafe a young boy of about four, tousled haired in a pair of capri-length military pants, surveyed the tables and clients proudly. He carried a small cloth with him, walked to the back where his mother, the owner, was in the kitchen and complained that he wanted to clean some more. She gave him some cutlery to set at a table. Following that, like a captain proudly striding across his ship's bridge, he carried salt and pepper shakers to a table outside.

When I got to the train platform for the ride home (trains running every half hour until almost midnight), I met three young boys of about ten years of age on their bicycles and skateboards. A red-haired lad (or ginger, as they say here) immediately engaged me in conversation, asking if I was going to Cardiff, to which I replied that yes, I was. They were going to Newport, just beyond Cardiff, and had come up to Merthyr to use the skatepark, he told me. They were also going to visit the skatepark in Cardiff Bay before returning home. How wonderful and rather marvelous, I thought, that these boys use the train to broaden their skateboarding options. They were nice and well-behaved but nonetheless young boys and got thrown off the train for going up the aisle one time too many for the conductor.

High Street

Local lads bareback at the local

eire play

Cliffs of Moher with O'Brien Viewing Tower on top

Sister-in-law Wendy and brother Kelly O'Brien, niece Kate de LaPlante and husband Neil,
Kate Rozwadowski and boyfriend (nephew) Michael O'Brien, nephew Shane O'Brien:
at the Cliffs of Moher

Doolin Bay near boat docks for Aran Islands

Inch Beach

Leacanabuile Ring Fort -- 9th or 10th century

Ballycarbery (McCarthy) Castle from Ring Fort

My time in Ireland with my brother Kelly and his family was much too short. I was only able to join them for three days of their week-long trip through the west of the Emerald Isle. My photos do not do justice to much of what we saw either, I'm afraid.

Kelly, Wendy and Shane picked me up at Shannon International Airport in Limerick on our way to a two-night stay in Ennis, where Kate, Neil, Katie and Mike met us the next morning, flying in from Boston and Chicago respectively. On the first night in Ennis we were able to hear some good Irish music at a local pub and introduce my brother to the exciting game of rugby, via the telly. On the second night, with everyone on hand, our Irish music never materialized as the Eurovision Song Contest final played out on television. While waiting with incredulity for the final results, my nieces and nephews played a storytelling game they've played since they were young, with everyone in the circle extending a sublimely ridiculous storyline that ended with Kate and Neil as mad scientists saving (or was it destroying?) the Earth with the help of Air Oars (or -- was it Errors -- or was it Eire Ores?). Having never played this game before, I was surprised at how difficult it can be to keep a story going and to think creatively and quickly.

The next morning we were off to Dingle and a housekeeping 'cottage' we were renting for much of the week. We spent the next two days in the car for the most part, driving around the Dingle Peninsula on Day 1 and around the Ring of Kerry on Day 2. This was most certainly too much time in the car for many of us, not least the drivers Kelly and a jetlagged Neil, but as is often the result at times like this, one sees unforgettable sights. At the end of Day 2 around the Ring (another term for a driving loop) of Kerry, as night beckoned, we found ourselves passing through two spectacular isolated mountain passes -- with rocks and sheep and twisting narrow roads that led to a summit silhouetted by the fading light of day.

On the Ring of Kerry, on the way to a ring fort (the fortified farmstead of a wealthy 9th century landowner), we came across the best climbing castle I have seen -- and I've seen a good share of castles throughout Wales. Regrettably, I left my camera in the car for this jaunt, but fortunately Neil and others took some great shots of the ivy-covered stronghold. My Dad used to rub it in to his friend Bob McCarthy about how the O'Briens defeated the McCarthys in ancient Ireland. This castle, Ballycarbery (a McCarthy fort), was amazingly solid still and a thrill to clamber over. Consequently, we claimed it once again for the O'Brien clan.

The fishing, tourist town of Dingle is a fine one, and I wish I had been able to stay and see more of it. The Irish music at the pub was the best I was fortunate to hear on my too-short stay. The traditional music scene is very much alive in Ireland.

Ireland is very expensive though. Pub fare and most daily costs were twice as high as here in Wales, so my limited budget was pretty well blown after two meals. Also, we were charged 6 euros a head to see the Cliffs of Moher -- highway robbery in my opinion. Accommodation costs seem to be on a par however, and many places we drove through were overcrowded with available B&Bs and places to let. In Dingle we stayed in a house with four very large bedrooms and there were many homes specifically built for tourists that lay empty. On my way back to Shannon Airport, while waiting for a connection at the Limerick bus station, I found out one of the reasons for this surplus. Waiting for the airport shuttle with me were a man and a woman of Irish descent, unrelated, who both happened to have lived, or were living in England. They began talking about the high cost of everything in Ireland and how 'Ireland is the only place in the world that raises prices instead of cutting them when there's financial problems.' The man spoke of how the government a few years ago gave people money to build hotels and places to let, but that there were now too many of them, and none of them were making money. He said it was cheaper for these people to let the new places operate at a loss rather than pay the government back with a forfeit on their loans. In the meanwhile, older established places couldn't compete and were closing. And, of course, many of these newer places will close as well.

When you're back in North America the European Union seems much stronger than while you are here. I've noticed much discontent for the Union among people -- not necessarily the Welsh, but among some of the people I work with: Latvians, Portuguese. There is good and bad in it. I fear the whole world is built on an economic house of cards.

I hope Ireland can hold on to its traditions and beauty as it battles its very difficult financial status.

Erin Go Bragh!

O'Briens lay seige to Ballycarbery (McCarthy) Castle -- photo by Neil de LaPlante