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.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A brief update

I was walking to the Union today, when I started to hear trance music coming from somewhere behind the arts centre building. I went around the corner, and there was a DJ spinning on two turntables underneath a multicolored tent (it was raining). He had been there since midnight the night before (last night), doing a 24-hour, non-stop mix to raise money for the BBC Children in Need fund. Without a doubt the highlight of my day.

Get ready. One month from today, I'm heading home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

In Flanders fields

So I went to England yesterday.

It was just for the day, and I went to see the small town of Hay-on-Wye, known for having the greatest number of books per square mile of any place in the world. My advisor at WU had recommended it to me when I told him I would be coming to Wales this fall, and it was definitely worth the trip.

I took the morning train from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury, and then another train from Shrewsbury south to Hereford. While having lunch, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two older men at the table next to mine, one of whom was saying that “they need to just get all the young people together and figure out the problems in this country.” I also noticed, even in my short time there, a significant difference in how people acted around each other. There was less of the genuine kindness that I’ve gotten used to in my time in Wales; people seemed to walk around with neutral, inquisitive expressions, as if to ask who you were and what you were doing there. I tried some of their famous brown sauce on my chips – not what I had hoped it would be.

From there, I caught a bus out to Hay-on-Wye, a remote village on the border of Wales and England, situated just above the River Wye, considered by many Britain’s most scenic river. On the way there, I wound up talking to two students from Biola (small conservative college in LA), and I mentioned to them that not only had my stepmom gone there, but my cousin (and his fiancĂ©e) were students there at the moment, as well. They were studying abroad too, one at Oxford and the other at Roehampton, in London.

I spent a few hours in the town, walking around to many of the bookstores and shops, one of which was inside an old castle, and had many books lined on metal shelves outside, some under tin roofs and others completely exposed to the weather. There was an “honesty policy” in place, where you were asked to pay for the books you wanted by placing money inside a metal receptacle. It was kind of an odd setup, but somehow it just made sense. Another bookstore was housed in what used to be a cinema. I found a first-edition copy of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned for only ten quid, and bought a couple postcards as well, mailing one of them to Prof. Ellis (sort of a “hey, I took your advice” kind of gesture).

On the way back, I met a lady from Tasmania (yes, that Tasmania) who lives in London. It was interesting meeting her – another one of those chance encounters between two people from entirely different corners of the globe, whose paths in any other era would probably have never crossed. I took the train from Hereford station back to Shrewsbury, and then back to Aber, sharing the car on the last leg of the journey with a large group of Welsh teenagers, obviously well into their Saturday-night celebration.

Today is Remembrance Day in Great Britain, the 89th anniversary of the ending of World War I, and the armistice that fell on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of that year. There was a short ceremony at the war memorial this morning, with a two-minute period of silence at eleven o’clock marked by the firing of two small fireworks shells into the November air. Two groups of people in uniforms – one made up of scouts, I assumed, and another of soldiers – stood around the base of the memorial, wearing red poppy emblems. A crowd of people gathered together for several minutes, and then dissolved, everyone falling back into their usual weekend routines.

The sun is setting once again over the bay, and seagulls are flying around my window. About ten minutes ago, three people strolled down the promenade below, one playing a Mexican tune on an accordion and another keeping the beat on a small drum. It’s weird to think that I've long since passed the halfway mark in my time here in Wales, and that I only have a little over a month left before I take the train back to London and fly out of Gatwick on the 16th. I can’t decide if the last month and a half-plus has gone by quickly, or if it seems like just yesterday I was stepping off the train on that Saturday afternoon in late September. Either way, I know that I still have a good amount of time left in this place, and as much as it sounds like a clichĂ©, I really am going to make the most of it.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Less words more pictures!

I've responded to your requests.
"Remember, remember the fifth of November ....."
Conwy Castle

Trinity College
St. Stephen's Green
St. Patrick's Cathedral
Christ Church Cathedral

Guinness storehouse
Climbing Pen Dinas
Outside the town of Borth
St. David's Cathedral

My dad and stepmom at the Dylan Thomas Festival
Harlech Castle

Saturday, November 3, 2007

"Nothing is worth more than this day."

"This side of the truth,
You may not see, my son,
King of your blue eyes
In the blinding country of youth,
That all is undone,
Under the unminding skies,
Of innocence and guilt
Before you move to make
One gesture of the heart or head,
Is gathered and spilt
Into the winding dark
Like the dust of the dead.
Like the sun's tears,
Like the moon's seed, rubbish
And fire, the flying rant
Of the sky, king of your six years.
And the wicked wish,
Down the beginning of plants
And animals and birds,
Water and Light, the earth and sky,
Is cast before you move,
And all your deeds and words,
Each truth, each lie,
Die in unjudging love."

- from Dylan Thomas' This Side of the Truth

A belated entry. As you can imagine, I've been a little busy lately. Last Tuesday my father and stepmother arrived in town, and on Wednesday we went down to Swansea for the day for the annual Dylan Thomas Festival. My father is somewhat of a Dylan Thomas fan, and it was interesting to see another part of the country. One noteworthy thing that happened while we were there: as we were having dinner, a woman approached my dad and told him that his voice was just like the announcer on the BBC’s radio broadcasts of the “Met,” the New York City Metropolitan Opera. You just never know.

Speaking of radio, last Tuesday was also the day that I went “on the air” for the first time with Aberystwyth’s student station, Bay Radio. The radio show that I mentioned here at an earlier point in time is now a reality, and my co-host Raj and I broadcast two days a week from the student union building. We’re calling it “Across the Pond,” and the show features the usual amount of music, news, trivia, etc., from a dual perspective (that of an American and a Brit). I thought it would be a good way of getting involved in student life on campus for the short amount of time I’m here, and I’m really enjoying it.

Last night I went out with a few friends, and ended up having a good conversation at one point with a classmate of mine from Poland. We talked about the future, which involved me reciting my usual “I want to work on political campaigns because they’re the greatest thing ever” speech, and her admitting (as is the case with so many of us) that she really doesn’t know what she wants to do after she graduates, but that her philosophy is to just take everything one day at a time, and not worry excessively about what is to come. It brought to mind the words of the German author Goethe, when he wrote that a person should live each day as if it were the only one they knew, and that “nothing is worth more than this day.” (relying on memory, here … those probably aren’t his exact words). I mentioned this to her, and she said she had heard the expression at one point, too. A brief moment of common understanding, shared by two people of entirely different backgrounds, whose paths eventually crossed and led to sitting together in a pub, pretending to be philosophers and talking about what life really means.

Today I made a trip up to Harlech Castle, located on the shores of Cardigan Bay to the north. It’s a beautiful place, situated high up on a cliff above endless fields and streams, and the ocean beyond. I spent a few hours there, at one point joining up with a group of senior citizens, one of whom had an information brochure and was pretending to be a tour guide. And that’s about the best way I can think of right now to bring this posting to a close. Vote yes on Measures 49 and 50!