Tuesday, April 20, 2010

On The Road Again

I'm in Edinburgh, and man, this place is awesome. I would consider cheating on Copenhagen with Edinburgh - that's how dishy it is.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I've had a week of adventures, and should write about them so I can remember them once I'm all elderly and forgetful. After a great few days in London where I stayed with Alice and played tourist with Ian, I packed up my bag and left London the Sunday before last, bound for Cardiff. I was really excited to see Cardiff and, while it didn't quite live up to my expectations, I really enjoyed it. My first afternoon there, I went to the art gallery and museum, which I kind of raced through. It had great displays of French and Spanish art, but I was there to learn about Wales, so I raced through them. Then I went to Cardiff Castle, which was amazing: remnants of a Norman keep, a fantastic motte and bailey castle in the centre, and opulent Victorian living quarters. There was in introductory video with the production values of a primary school Christmas play that involved a lot of nonsense about a modern day girl with a magical notebook that conjured up medieval soldiers and such who chased her around, but it more or less achieved the commendable goal of conveying history without language, so non-native English-speakers were just as confused as the rest of us!

The next day, I made three day trips. Three! The first was to Saint Fagans, a cute town in the hills which has a museum on the history of Welsh life. I arrived before the museum opened, and so wandered around the local church and graveyard for a bit, where I learned that Ebenezer was a very popular name there in the nineteenth century. The museum eventually opened, and it was awesome. First up was an extensive and well-preserved medieval manor and its surrounding gardens, but the real highlight was the open-air village. They had transported and restored buildings from many different Welsh regions and eras, and cobbled together a little town with houses, schools, churches, bakeries, shops, even a cockfighting ring, most between three and four hundred years old. It was really interesting, and each of the buildings was manned by informative employees. Some were frightfully dull - going into great detail about parquetry and other bullshit I didn't have time for - but some were great. One guy gave me an impromptu lesson in Welsh pronunciation, and gave me a run-down on the history of English-Welsh relations. He hadn't heard English until he was six years old, and was really passionate about preserving the Welsh language. I think it's a beautiful language, and would love to learn a bit of it. I really enjoyed seeing it on all the signs, marvelling at how a language could cope so well without vowels.

After that, I went out to Caerphilly, where there was an excellent dilapidated castle. It had an enormous moat, and one of the towers was nearly toppling into it. From its towers, you could see all the way back to Cardiff, and look out at the beautiful Welsh countryside. Then I trekked out to Llandaff Cathedral, which was enormous and stunning. I also wandered past the school that Roald Dahl attended (and wrote about in his book Boy) and saw the church where he was baptised. That evening, I went to see Cerys Matthews, who used to be the singer in Catatonia, one of my favourite bands as a teenager. That was wonderful. I've been waiting twelve years - half my life - to see her sing. She was wonderful. Her new solo material is fantastic, but when she sang an old Catatonia song, suddenly I felt like I was a teenager again, sitting outside the art rooms at my high school listening to my Discman (remember those?). My favourite moment though had to be the couple of Welsh standards she sang. The whole room sang along, and I had no idea what they were saying. That's what I love when travelling - being lost in the midst of a bewildering culture.

From Cardiff, I went to Sheffield, where my friend Patrick and I had a date with out favourite band. We went to see Angelspit in Manchester and then Sheffield, and both gigs were awesome. They're a cyber-punk electro-industrial duo from Sydney, and were awesome. The second night, we planned to stand up the back, but ended up dancing and singing along to everything again. We even got a shout-out from the band for being such nerdy fanboys who know all the lyrics.

From Sheffield, I went to York, which I remember fondly from my last trip to England with my family in 2001. I visited the York Minster, which is a truly spectacular cathedral, but decided not to pay the enormous entry fee. I craned my neck and saw as much as I could from the entry foyer (which was still larger than the church I attended in childhood) and wandered around the outside. Then I walked around the town's intact defensive walls, which takes in most of the town's loveliest features. I even found the precise spot where my brother, sister and I had chucked a hissy fit nearly a decade ago: it began to rain, and we refused to wear the ugly ponchos our parents had bought along. We demanded they buy us umbrellas, which they did, at £10 a pop. (This was when the exchange rate was $3:£1 - yikes!) What brats we were. But that umbrella had a good run: it lasted me until I arrived in London last year! In the evening, I met a lovely Melbourne girl in my hostel. (Oh! The hostel! It was awesome. It was a renovated eighteenth century manor, complete with a grand staircase and servants' quarters, which now served as the laundry and television room.) I tagged along with her on Time Tour, a gloriously tacky boat trip with a recorded commentary on York's history. Cue lame sound effects and bad French accents. It was great.

From York, I went to Glasgow, where I stayed again with my friends Michael and Callum. I'd visted before, so we it was an enjoyably restful few days, with not too much running around. (Although lots of dancing. We were out until the wee hours both nights.) I was there to see Amanda Palmer, one of my favourite singers, perform in the basement of an old church. She was stranded in Iceland when I arrived due to the volcanic eruption, and might not have made it to the gig. I would have been disappointed but not devastated if that was the case - I've already seen and interviewed her three times, but this was the first gig of her new side project, so I was looking forward to it. As it eventuated, she made it to Glasgow, but the rest of the people involved in the side project didn't - they were still in New York due to the flight freeze. So she kind of enacted the whole thing by herself. The side project is called Evelyn Evelyn, and tells the story of a pair of musical conjoined twins who are exploited by their evil manager, and then they get their own back. She got the other Evelyn on Skype, and he played and sang his parts in the songs. Isn't technology amazing? Then Amanda would do everyone's dialogue, and cobbled together props from the audience. It was a strange, chaotic gig, but a lot of fun for how different and manic it was. And it ended with the whole crowd singing along to Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, which was nice. The next morning, I hopped on a train to Edinburgh.

Well, Edinburgh, as I said, is awesome. I'm staying with my friend Anna, who walked me through the streets my first evening here. It's a small city, and you can walk everywhere, but it's crammed with beautiful churches, houses, castles and cobbled streets. It's where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, which doesn't surprise me: every second building looks like it could be one of the lesser buildings in Hogwart's. Nearly everyone is homeless - I have been asked for money more than two dozen times in two days, and that is not an exaggeration, and one guy even made farting noises at me when I declined to give him forty pence - or missing their teeth, but everyone else is really friendly. My first night there, we went to see Angus and Julia Stone, a lovely Australian brother-sister folk duo. The next day (yesterday, really) while Anna was at work, I visited the National Museum of Scotland, which was great. The displays were extensive, but in no particular order, so just as I was about to give up and move on, they announced a guided tour. So I did that. The guide was this adorable grandmotherly woman who added an extra half hour to the tour to show us everything, and she gave me a good basic understanding of Scottish history.

With all due respect to my English friends, the English are jerks. They spent so much time subjugating the Scots, the Welsh, the Celts and various other ethnic groups, who really have their own identities. Even today, it is hard for them to assert their cultural differences. That interesting guide in Cardiff was telling me about how often people complain about the fact that the signs are in Welsh first and English second. That made me very cranky. If you want to experience English culture, stay in England. Wales is fascinating because it is different. Like many people, I used to use the terms England and Britain interchangeably. I never will again. Whatever similarities the nations of Great Britain have, their differences are still enormous - it's like comparing the Dutch and the German.

Anyway, enough boring cultural commentary. I'm hardly the first person to note that Britain's cultural steamrolling is a bit shit.

In the evening, Anna and I walked up Arthur's Seat, the enormous mountain formed by volcanic rock in the centre of Edinburgh. It's just at the end of Anna's street - I can see it when I poke my head out my window - and it is stunning. The climb is difficult, but the scenery is beautiful. i'll definitely be up again a few times before I leave next week.

And now, I'm off. Expect another entry when I reach Belgium in a couple of weeks.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece but why repeat the myth that Welsh has no vowels? It has a e i o u as in English plus w and y are full vowels in Welsh.