Monday, December 17, 2007

"Goodbye is not a good word"

The greatest travel map you have ever seen

So I’m home. The end of three months in Wales, and elsewhere. After three days of traveling and running around London I arrived at PDX late last night, and now surrounded by piles of paper and with an unopened suitcase still in the corner, I’m writing the final entry in my blog of this trip.

It’s been quite a ride. I thought to myself the other day that in some ways, you could describe my experience these last few months as having been one of chasing after buses and trains, eating way too much fish and chips, chatting up British girls, and bonding with housemates and friends over pints at the pubs. Since September, I’ve had the chance to travel all around the British Isles, study international politics in the oldest department of its kind in the world (some would also consider it one of the best), and see some of the best sunsets of my life. And through it all, I’ve made the kind of memories that will stay with me for a long time, meeting people and seeing places that I know I’ll never forget.

When a friend of mine returned from studying in India last spring, she wrote in her last entry online that although it was the end of her blog, it was by no means the end of the conversation on her experiences abroad. So again, if you want to hear more, let me know. Many of you are already more than familiar with my storytelling ways, and I have a lot of stories left to share that didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another.

Thanks for reading, and best of luck to you all in the future.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The last few days

Another beautiful afternoon in Aberystwyth. I had my last lecture this morning in the international politics department, and now I’m sitting in my flat with less than forty-eight hours to go before I leave, reflecting on the events of the last few days.

Saturday morning, I found a ride out to the town of Pontrhydfendigaid (or Bont, if you’re a local), and the ancient ruins of the Strata Florida abbey. Strata Florida was built as a Cisterian monastery in the 13th century, and was the setting of many important events in Welsh history until about a hundred years later, when, recognizing the significance of the location, the invading armies of King Edward I destroyed the abbey as part of their campaign to conquer the region. Little remains of it today, aside from fragments of the once-mighty stone-and-mortar walls, a large, fifty-foot high archway at the entrance, and a series of ceramic tiles from the original monastery floor. Walking amidst the ruins on the well-manicured grass, I thought about all those who had been there before. This was the place where the next-to-last Welsh king, Llywelyn the Great, held several of his meetings, where the great Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym and eleven of the original “Princes of Wales” were buried, and where according to the traditions of some (though admittedly, not many), the Holy Grail was kept at one time. Following its destruction, it lay forgotten for several centuries until the mid-1800s, when a main railway line was built nearby and several important individuals took an interest in uncovering the remains of what was once the “Westminster Abbey” of Wales, and promoting it to tourists. During the Second World War, it was used as a playground by British schoolchildren who had been evacuated to nearby towns, and today it attracts a considerable amount of visitors for its great significance – at least, when the weather is better.

The abbey is located in the middle of a small valley in the mountains near the headwaters of the river Teifi, and adjacent to the ruins there is a large cemetery and church of the same name. I hopped the fence and walked past endless rows of gravestones bearing the typical Welsh names of Jones, Edwards, Davies, etc., and looking behind myself, suddenly felt very far away. The clouds had settled in by that point, and gusts of wind blew sheets of mist across the valley floor. I looked around myself at the nearby hills and the random clusters of sheep, and realizing where I was, standing in the middle of a field in rural mid-Wales, felt about as remote and isolated from the rest of the world as I had ever felt before. Soon it began to rain heavily, and I walked back to the entrance and, huddled inside a small phone booth, waited for my ride to return.

The following morning, I went to a service at the local Presbyterian church of St. David’s. It reminded me a lot of a small Welsh church that I went to a few times this past summer, and the people there were very nice and welcoming – surprised, I’m sure, to see a college student in their midst. One noteworthy, and unfortunate, thing happened while I was there, though. Shortly after the sermon we were all standing to sing a hymn when I noticed some activity out of the corner of my eye. An elderly man was having a heart attack, and a few members of the congregation were helping to get him to the back of the sanctuary. Realizing what was happening, the minister asked for someone to dial 999 (the local emergency line) and cut the service short with a blessing, and most of the attendees began to slowly file out of the sanctuary. “That’s Mr. Williams,” I heard someone say to another, “his wife died recently.”

I had my final seminars on Monday, and on Tuesday morning I went back to Cardiff, the capital city, retracing my steps from several weeks earlier. I had wanted to see more of the city before I left Wales, and I spent the afternoon walking through museums and historic buildings, even doing a bit of Christmas shopping while I was there. Late in the day, I walked into a shop across the street from the castle that housed the world’s largest wooden love-spoon (a traditional Welsh gift), and when I got to the front to pay for my gifts the cashier pointed out the window to a site just across the street, and told me that they were working on carving an even larger one. Once evening set in, I hopped a train from Cardiff Central to Shrewsbury, and then traveled down the now-familiar Cambrian line back to Aber.

For several days now, people have been asking me if I’m ready to leave. Until yesterday rolled around, I usually prevaricated and gave different answers to different people, mainly because I didn’t want to give the impression that I was anxious to go but also because, in the back of my mind, there were still things I wanted to do. Sitting in the near-empty car of the train last night as it rattled and swayed and made its way through the Welsh countryside, however, I realized that I was, in fact, finally ready to go. I didn’t know exactly what made me feel that way, other than that I knew my time was up, and that like it or not, I would be leaving in a matter of days. In my almost-three months in Wales, I’ve had the chance to see more or less every part of the country that I’ve wanted to, and as I sit here in my room and look out over Cardigan Bay at another beautiful sunset, I know that pretty much the only thing left for me to do here is say my goodbyes, pack up my things, drop off my key, and go. I’m having a going-away party here in “No. 10 Ceredigion” tonight (yes, that was a reference to 10 Downing Street, for all you non-politicos out there), and on Friday morning I’m taking the train to London via Birmingham, staying with a friend from high school who is studying at a university on the south bank that evening, meeting up with a fellow Willamette student the following day, and flying out of Gatwick airport early Sunday afternoon, bound at last for home.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Another brief update

Turned in my last paper today (sixth one for the semester), and did my final radio show of "Across the Pond." The end of an era, if you will. As the chords of the last song we played faded away, my co-host Raj and "special guests" Alex and Annie gave me a standing ovation.

I have a little over a week left in this place, and now that I'm more or less free of my obligations, I'm going to make the most of it. Which probably includes making another journey to Cardiff, and elsewhere. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 30, 2007

As introspective as it gets

“… the strength to change things that need changing, the courage to accept things that cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I’ve been taking inventory of things lately. You know, things having to do with my life. For a lot of people, going abroad is an opportunity to really grow as a person, and for me it’s no different.

At the risk of turning this into a journal entry, I want to air a few thoughts. As much as I have been able to change certain aspects of who I am in my time here in Wales, there are things about myself that I just have to accept. One of them is that I like politics more than I probably should, as evidenced by my involvement in campaigns and such over the years (exhibit A, my time at George Mason in the fall of 2004). Another is that I am a pretty good writer (yeah, that’s right, I’m confident enough about it to say it). Oh, and I tend to romanticize the past quite a bit too, making things generally seem rosier and experiences seem a lot better and more enjoyable in hindsight and with the benefit of some time having gone by.

Something else about myself that I have come to realize I must learn to (or at least try to) accept is that I can be an awkward person to be around. Honestly, I lack confidence at times, and fail to always project the kind of image that I want to. I don’t really know why. As much as I try, I can’t just be a badass who lives in the moment and lets things slide off his shoulders; life is hard, and shoulders are broad enough that things pile up on them from time to time.

I have also come to understand just how important it is for me to be in an environment that is at least somewhat familiar to me. I’ve never been one to adjust to great changes in the smoothest manner, and after the “honeymoon period” of my time here (see some of my earliest entries) wore off and I started to see this place for what it really is (in many ways, a somewhat typical college town where, despite all of its scenery and “quaintness” and such, there’s hardly anything to do after nightfall except study or go out to the pubs), suddenly things became a bit more difficult and less endearing. The whole walking-everywhere-I-had-to-go thing became less of a novelty, and I started to get irritated when people would look at me differently for my American accent. I began to reach out to my friends back home a bit more, with a sense of longing for what was familiar.

Despite the fact that I’ve met some great people, had many great experiences (many of which I’ve dutifully documented here) and seen some incredible things in my time here in the British Isles, I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t at times wished I was back at WU, in the capital city of Salem, generally living the life of convenience that I’ve become used to over the past few years of undergraduate life and being around the people I most enjoy. I read an e-mail just now from the great university president Marvin (aka M. Lee) Pelton – he never uses his first name, but sooner or later everyone finds out what it is anyway – about the annual Star Tree lighting ceremony on campus this Saturday, and it made me nostalgic for some of the Beta events we’ve done in the past (including the annual pennycoat drive, to raise money for the Salem homeless population -- if you're in the area, stop by the house tomorrow night and drop off a spare coat). Seriously, my friends at Willamette (who haven’t studied abroad, that is) have no idea how good we have it, when all is said and done, on our small, relatively isolated bubble of a campus.

Anyways, I figure that’s probably enough touchy-feely goodness for now. I think that what inspired me the most to write this was reading a note that a friend of mine posted online a while back, and thinking that you know, if he has the guts to admit these things in a forum as public as his Facebook account, it wouldn’t be too bad of a thing for me to own up to some of my failings as well. Let me know what you think.

Oh, and by the way, Gordon Brown is in (even more) trouble:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


A few days ago, my dog passed away.

Annie, the bichon frise that our family had owned for over five years, was dying of cancer. My parents decided to put her down on Sunday afternoon.

Losing a pet, while not quite the same as losing a “regular” family member or friend, hits many of the same emotional chords. It’s because you’ve spent so much time with them over the years, and because whenever you’re home, they’re there too.

Having Annie around helped me through a lot of hard times growing up. We adopted her when I was still a sophomore in high school, so she saw a lot of changes in my life, just as a saw a lot of changes in her. Towards the end, she began losing her hair, and became a lot less active (which is saying a lot, considering she was never that energetic to begin with). Small things that we had always overlooked before, like the way she would drink water out of her bowl for maybe a minute at a time, became more noticeable once we realized she had serious health problems. Supposedly, things deteriorated a lot more rapidly after I left for Wales, and they weren’t able to keep her around long enough for me to return home.

I will miss Annie just as much as I miss the other people that I’ve lost in my life. When I go home, she won’t be there to jump up and down and bat her paws in the air in what soon became her signature gesture. She won’t be there to chase after flies in the air, or have Chloe (our other dog) jump on top of her as she waddles around the house.

After my mother told me the news about an hour ago, I went and dug up an old blog entry I wrote in the spring of last year, just after we lost our first dog, Maddy. In it, I wrote about how Annie had just gone through knee surgery at the time, and how much we knew she was hurting, both from the pain and from the loss of her companion. Now it’s another dog that’s feeling the loss, as Chloe is having to adjust to a world in which she really does “rule the roost.”
We knew Annie’s days were limited, and that we wouldn’t have her forever. It’s just tragic the way it ended – she was in a lot of pain. And yet, as my mother said, we can rest in knowing that she’s in a better place, wherever that other place may be. Annie helped me grow into the person I am today, and I’m glad we had her around for as long as we did.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Letters, postcards, etc.

Thanks, everyone, for the mail lately. It's always good to hear from people back home, especially now that I'm in the midst of knuckling down for the final few weeks of my Welsh experience.

Three essays due in the span of two days next week, including one I'm working on right now, in which I do the whole "compare and contrast" thing with the major political parties in Great Britain and the US. Not my cup of Welsh cream tea, surprisingly enough, and not the easiest thing in the world to do either -- as one of the authors I'm citing describes it, "to search for a single consistent Conservative Party ideology this century is a pointless exercise." I'll have to write a couple more by the end of the semester, in place of the exams that I won't be around to take in January. Brings back good memories of IB senior year ..... (not).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

On football riots, and being the token American

Yesterday I took what may end up being my last weekend trip here in Wales. I went to Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, not returning to Aberystwyth until late.

I took an early-morning bus to Carmarthen, a small town in southwest Wales, and then a train to Cardiff via Swansea. On the train there was a group of guys about my age, all graduates of a prep school in the area, all headed to the Wales v. Ireland football (soccer) match in the capital city. Cracking open cans of Strongbow and Carling, they serenaded their fellow passengers with Welsh national songs, and when a group of Ireland fans got on the train at Swansea, they mockingly sang the national anthem to them. Kind of a preview of things to come.
By the time the train reached Cardiff Central station, I had decided I wanted to see the game (when else would I have the chance to see the Welsh national team play in front of a home crowd, at Millennium Stadium), and as we all disembarked at the station, I befriended the group and asked if there were still tickets available. They told me they were going to buy them when they got to the stadium, and I tagged along with them for a while. Being the token American in the group, I was the center of attention, and they all introduced themselves to me, one of them explaining that it was his twenty-first. “Why aren’t you fat?” asked one of the guys, hearing that I was from the states. They tried to convince me to have my face painted with the red dragon logo, but I declined. About that time, I decided I wanted to see some of the city before the game, so when they all headed in to a pub I told them I might see them at the stadium, and one of the guys gave me a bear hug as we said goodbye. I had only known them for about ten minutes, and already it was as if we were old friends.
I wandered around the city a bit, and saw Cardiff Castle and the Civic Centre (where the National Museum, City Hall, old National Assembly quarters, and the campus of Cardiff University are located). There was a war memorial in the middle of a large park in the center, with bouquets of flowers surrounding it and a wreath of artificial red poppies. All the while I was seeing these sites, though, I was hearing the whistles, horns, chants, and yells in the air that signaled that the game was soon to begin, so I began to head back to the area around the stadium. The pubs were overflowing with fans dressed in red (the color of the Welsh national team), and a few green jerseys here and there to signal Irish support. When I got to the ticket line, I noticed a sign that said that tickets were only being sold to Wales supporters – and that, therefore, if you were from Ireland, you were out of luck. Fortunately, though, before having to prove my Welsh pride I was offered a ticket for ten pounds. I accepted the offer, and no sooner had I found my way to my seat inside than I ran into the same guy who had sold the ticket to me – apparently, he had been trying to get rid of a package of seats in his same row. And once again, I was the novelty American student, with everyone in the group he was in asking the usual questions of what in the world I was doing at a European football match in the middle of November, halfway around the world.
It was a good game, even though it ended with a tie score, both teams scoring one point. Afterwards, I walked down to the Cardiff Bay district, where the Wales Millennium Centre, Mermaid Quay, and the Senedd (Welsh Assembly parliament building) are located. It was a cold and windy night, and I didn’t stay long. I found a bus back to the train station, and hopped on a train back to Carmarthen.
The train was packed, and I was lucky to find a seat, sitting down at a table with two others. And lo and behold, there was the same group of guys I had rode the train with before. The next sequence of events was a blur, but what I do remember is hearing them start trash-talking the other, rival groups of fans on the train, guys from Cardiff and Swansea, respectfully. It was a hard dynamic to describe – football allegiances are strongly held here, so it was in many ways like a confrontation between rival gangs, only in this case, surrounded by families with small children, the elderly, and everyone else just trying to make their way home on a Saturday night. Suddenly, one of the Cardiff boys decided he couldn’t take it anymore and began to approach the group of young men, leading his mates in a chant of “who do you think you are” (you would know what I mean if you heard it), and inspiring the others to stand up as well. The two groups came within near distance of each other, separated only by a row or two of “neutral” passengers in the aisle who were holding each side back, all of it happening literally right above my seat. Soon enough the tensions boiled over, though, and the St. Clair’s boys moved to the back of the train, scared off by having nearly come to blows with two groups of die-hard, middle-aged football fans (keep in mind, these guys were even younger than me). “Honey, you almost witnessed your first football riot,” the lady sitting in the seat next to mine said to me after the moment had passed. On a train, no less, packed with people just heading back from a day in the capital, me just trying to get back to Aberystwyth after an already long day.
The vast majority of the passengers got off at the train at Swansea, leaving only a handful of people – including, yes, the same boys from St. Clair’s. It was at this point that they noticed me, and they asked what I had done with the rest of the day. The guy who had just turned twenty-one came over to my seat and, seeing that I was writing in my journal, took the pad and wrote:

Hi Casse if I spelt your name right, my name is Matthew McCabe or Muff if u really know me. I love the american way of life I would love 2 experience ur way of life and live in america. u are an ambition for my life and i would like 2 live my life as freely as u do. All my luck and success in the future

yours sincerely
Muff or Matthew McCabe

Needless to say, he was enjoying his birthday to the fullest, and it made for an interesting conversation that ensued. “It's good to see an American,” he said. But again, as much as it made me feel out of place, and reminded me of the fact that I really was (most likely) the only American that anybody around me had seen all day, it made me proud to be who I was, a lone representative of a country that, for all its faults and shortcomings, still is looked up to by a lot of people around the world. “I’ve wanted to meet an American for some time,” the guy who sold me my ticket had said to me earlier in the day. And when I saw the sign of a restaurant that said “USA Chicken” later that evening, it was as if, for a brief moment in time, I was home.