Like many North Americans in search of cultural roots older than the late 18th century, I grew up on stories of the “old country,” handed down through my grandparents. This mostly amounted to my grandmother’s inherited anecdotes of Italian village life; though, I was aware that my father’s side came to the States from Ireland and Wales via Canada in the early 1900s.
|The architecture is distinctive.|
A coherent ancestry and anything resembling a genetic timeline for me has suffered from name changes, relocations, periods of political upheaval, and all the things that families traditionally leave unsaid, things that exist as lacunae for descendants, who can only speculate on what may have been omitted and why. I know some of them. Many others remain a mystery. But it would only be tragic if I cared. I don’t.
I could use the internet and modern DNA tracking to learn more, but I’m far less interested in the ghosts of the past than in the vivid persistence of the present in all its terror and beauty. While it would be fun to meet a particular great uncle, verify some of the more outlandish family legends, or travel back along the hereditary chain to see what my ancestors got up to in different eras, such curiosity is feeble compared to what can be thought, felt, and accomplished first-hand in this life. My goal is to experience as much of it as possible before I, too, am nothing but dust and a name. So when I entered Wales last week, I felt completely open, completely willing to experience the place apart from pre-conceived ideas about what it could or should mean ancestrally or in terms of some ethnic memory.
Given that most people are already linked genetically as distant cousins, feeling an affinity with a place or a culture seems more a matter of personality (and maybe spirituality) than what genomes might imply. I don’t mean to disregard the value of DNA fingerprinting in genealogical research, but my approach is impressionistic and intuitive. In most things, I focus on one simple yet incredibly challenging question: what am I feeling? Being able to answer that as sincerely and intelligently as possible is at the root of all my blogging, articles, fiction, and journaling. And it is the question I asked myself when I took the train into Wales from Bristol to Barry.
|A view of the ocean in Swansea.|
My first impression was that Wales has never fully assimilated (or has never been assimilated) to English culture. Celtic nations seem to have a certain inborn resistance to imperialism, passing down their distinctive attitudes and traditions in spite of those in power. As soon as I stepped off the train, I could see it.
The signs, as in Ireland, are dual-language in English and Gaelic. And I heard young people speaking their native language, which, as an American, I find fascinating. My native language is borrowed from another country. According to my birthplace, I should probably be speaking a version of Kumeyaay or at least Spanish, but I suppose that wouldn’t be right, either. As a white American of Mediterranean-European descent, I have more in common culturally with the countries across the Atlantic; though, there are some hallmarks of growing up in southern California that are hard to miss (I do say “dude” from time to time).
The disposition of the Welsh is noticeably sunnier (someone called it “affable”) than what I’m used to in Oxford. And the countryside seems hilly and lush. One stops seeing the Union Flag and spots the Baner Cymru everywhere. Since Edward I’s conquest of Wales in 1282, the line of Welsh princes is said to have ended; however, Welsh independence has apparently remained at issue to this day. And that is a very tangible reality, especially with all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
|Dylan Thomas' House|
For whatever reason, I felt more relaxed and welcomed in Barry and then in Swansea than I ever have in Oxford, taking my time to go to a few pubs, spending time at the beach, and generally absorbing the sense of the place. As usual, I also had work to do, which meant locating a decent café with internet, but that was part of it. And I came away with a very positive view of the country, having asked nothing more of it than an impression of its everyday life. As I did when I stayed in Paris for the first time, I walked everywhere, keeping in mind that that true character of a place is most intensely felt “on the sidewalk.”
So what was I feeling during my time in Wales? I didn’t approach the visit as a tourist (which I think is inherently exploitative and obnoxious—over the years, I’ve come to despise tourism). I didn’t do tourist things or throw my (largely non-existent) money around the way tourists are encouraged to do. I came more as a bystander and a witness, maybe as a writer, as someone on an introspective journey. And I discovered a place that is entirely unique.
The English, especially those in Oxford, tend to speak of the Welsh as if they “still have sheep in the kitchen,” as an Irish friend of mine put it. English cultural slurs tend to present Wales as a never-ending episode of Jersey Shore, but that wasn’t my experience at all. The Welsh I met (and the Welsh I know) may not all be wealthy or driven by Oxbridge status, but their culture is intricate, subtle, and stubbornly dedicated to the idea of its own distinctiveness, which is admirable and, for me, an ongoing fascination.