Welsh Secrets

“Wales is a backward country.” I am sitting on the train from London, heading toward Carmarthen, Wales, where I am going to spend the upcoming semester. A young Englishman, after learning of my destination, is half talking to me, half to himself. I have already heard what he is telling me – that Welsh culture is a bit “behind” its progressive neighbors, the British.

“Backward? How so?” I ask him. He gives me a funny look and raises his eyebrows. “Have you heard the accent?” I shake my head and look out the window, watching the landscape slowly change as we head west. Sitting here in the train I see sheep running everywhere, in front of cars and around the streets of the villages. Drivers seem to ignore the sheep the way we ignore squirrels, letting them go about their business, patiently waiting as they cross the street. I become aware that the grass is a color green I have never seen before – a brighter, fresher green than the grass back in my home state of Michigan. The Welsh hills roll together, creating a depth that makes me wish I could paint.

I start thinking about what this English boy has just said about the “backwardness” of the Welsh. Of course they are not “modern,” like the British and the Americans. No one could expect a place with such intense natural beauty, like that of Wales, to boast the cosmopolitan lifestyle of London or New York. I knew that about Wales; it was actually a deciding factor when I selected Carmarthen as my location for my semester abroad. Now, I sit happily on the train, dreaming of the simple, easy days to come.

The train pulls into Carmarthen station in the late afternoon. The station is at the bottom of a large hill, and the city of Carmarthen gradually works its way up. In the early evening, the sun casts a pleasant sheen over Carmarthen’s quaint buildings.

On the way toward Trinity, the cabby takes a route that weaves through the town. As we pass all the pubs and restaurants, I am delighted to see that everything is just as I have envisioned: The Boar’s Head, King Cross, The Angel Vaults, Spread Eagle, Blue Boar. Fish and Chips! Fish and Chips! I feel as though I have entered old England, and am half-expecting to see men tipping their hats at curtsying women. Ah, the easy life.

I soon meet my flat mates and instantly I realize what the young Englishman on the train meant by the Welsh accent. He was right. I feel as though I have entered a country that speaks a completely different language. The accent is laced with a rhythm much different than American or British English. They speak words with a pulsating beat, like a heart or the flow of a wave. Everything is a question, dragging out the last word just a bit too long, hanging on to each remark.

I settle in. I meet my fellow Americans. By Friday night we are ready to explore. Unsure of where to begin, we decide to head to town to check out the pub scene of Carmarthen. The temperature is around 50 degrees, but the dampness and chill in the air here is sharp and cuts through clothes right to the bone. So, taking the weather into account, I put on a thick sweater. I assume that we will have a pint in a pub, watch some rugby and be home by one.

I am wrong.

Three other American girls and I begin the two-mile hike toward town. The pub we are headed to is Weatherspoons, one we will come to recognize all over the UK. When we enter, the place is packed. We can hardly find the bar itself. And then we hear it:

Born in the USA, I was, born in the USA!

We giggle together at the coincidence of the song upon our arrival. But we quickly realize that people are looking at us: girls giving us glares, men examining us head to toe. Within 30 seconds of our arrival at Weatherspoon’s we have been spotted as Americans. Smiling stupidly, we wait a moment then grab a booth in the corner, ordering drinks as quickly as possible.

We sip our Snakebites (a mixture of Carling beer, cider and black current flavoring…a drink I still miss dearly) and start replaying our awkward entrance. It is then actually look around and begin to understand. I glance back at my girlfriends and attempt to inconspicuously examine what they are wearing. We are all decked out in North Face jackets, bright reds and greens, Birkenstock clogs, loose jeans, hair in pony-tails and little to no makeup. (After a month of traveling around Europe I become very good at identifying on the streets what I call this “American uniform.”)

A common sight in Wales … spring lambs!

I turn my attention back to the pub scene. The women here are wearing blacks and whites, browns and neutrals. All are in heels with low cut shirts and high cut skirts. Skin is everywhere. The men are wearing pressed button-downs with khakis or dress jeans. I am no longer in a small local pub, but a bar in downtown Chicago. These people did not just get done with a day’s work on the farm; they are just starting a night out on the town. The Welsh knew us to be Americans instantly because we were the ones looking unsophisticated, simple and definitely unsuspecting of such cosmopolitan nightlife.

We finish the night and begin the uphill trek back to Trinity College. We are already discussing plans for the week to pick up a “few things” downtown to wear out. None of us had been prepared, and such a cultural faux pas will not happen again.

Again, I am wrong.

Most of the Americans at Trinity had previously signed up for an Outdoor Pursuits course, which promises to expose us to some of the natural beauty and adventure of Wales. I expect some pleasant walks along the shore or a few hours roaming the hillside with the sheep. I spend one Wednesday walking the Pembroke path along the coast of west Wales, spotting otters and seals, even surfers in the chilly water. The next week we explore the base of the Brecon Beacon Mountain range in central Wales. However, we all fail to realize that we have been “hill walking” at the base of the mountain range. Little did we know the intensity of the Welsh when they really go hill walking.

The next week, we head toward North Wales to Snowdonia, the home of the tallest peak in the UK, Mt. Snowdon. In the beginning, we marvel at the beauty. Yet after about an hour, something about the landscape starts to look suspicious. The ground is covered in a thin white layer…of snow! I look down at my meager hiking boots and continue on. An hour later, my group and I are trekking up the side of Snowdon with eight-foot visibility in three feet of snow. It is icy, and our instructor starts to hesitate, saying that death on Snowdon is not too rare. I glance around and can barely see anyone; my eyelashes are frozen and I definitely have lost feeling in one foot. But we continue. (Did I mention that my guide, Mr. D., is a 75-year-old Welshman?)

After four hours of struggling up the side of Snowdon, closely followed by training Army boys, we summit. Exactly five minutes after summitting, we turn around. Half-way down, however, the entire struggle becomes worth it. Within minutes, the storm passes and the sun peeks out behind the dark clouds. The view from Snowdon shows me a Wales I have never imagined. This is a Wales of harsh elements, power, beauty and resistance. I look at Mr. D: at 75, he has just taken us up the side of a 3,560 foot mountain! I am in awe.

The six-hour ride home from Snowdonia, weaving along the narrow, hedge-lined roads of Wales, is silent. We absorb the mountains, hills, valleys, sheep, cows, lakes and streams of Wales, the little villages hiding a secret cosmopolitan world. It is then I realize that Wales is not backward, or simple, but rather modest and humble. She stores her secrets quietly. Understanding Wales is like understanding her people – the accent is only hard to understand until you lean in a bit closer.

This article was written by one of our contributors filed under travel.