My first year in Wales was awful. Ranked among my thus far 38.5 years on this planet, I would say it was the second worst of my life — edged out of the top spot by my fourth year in Wales. I am willing to bet that the third worst year of my life also took place in Wales, which sort of begs the question as to why the hell I am still living here.
Despite it being so generally awful, there were in that first year some highlights. One of which being the day Mormons showed up at the door with a TV.
My ex-wife was (and presumably still is) a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, and had found a welcome in the nearby Rhiwbina ward soon after our arrival in Cardiff. I am thankful she did. I doubt very much that we would have survived that first year on our own.
For those of you playing along at home, if you are considering a move to the Old World, be prepared to suffer at least eight months of unemployment. Jobs are a hell of a lot harder to find. Before moving to the United Kingdom, the longest my ex-wife or I had ever gone without work was two weeks. Having arrived Cardiff in early July, we were by late October in dire straits.
We were living off my student loans and minimum wage earnings from a part-time gig at Starbucks. We ate a lot of rice; I can’t now remember a meal that didn’t pad the stomach with rice. We didn’t have a car. Getting groceries meant walking two miles and stuffing everything into backpacks.
We couldn’t afford to go out; we couldn’t afford a television. Meanwhile, my university experience was turning out to be far less enjoyable than I’d ever imagined. I was in over my head. No one wanted to interact with me. I slipped into depression and madness. It was awful. We both hated it and the mood it created in our house would ultimately lead to our divorce a few years later.
But before all that, as I say, were her fellow Mormons. One night, amid the rainy creeping darkness of October, a group of people from her ward showed up unannounced and armed with gifts.
There was the TV, of course – a 27-inch-screen beast that one of the congregation had had lying around spare. He insisted upon giving it to us because, he joked, he didn’t want us to miss seeing Wales playing rugby. More touching, though, was the huge care package the group had brought. It was full of foodstuffs like canned goods, pasta, rice (more rice!), and a few jars of Caro, which is what British Mormons drink instead of tea.
There were a number of Welsh items: local jam, honey and chocolates, a little stuffed dragon, and a tea towel featuring a map of Wales.
A few years later came that aforementioned fourth year in this country. That was the year that put the “ex” in ex-wife. Our lives had gotten better, but they hadn’t gotten good. And all the years of struggle had worn us down and made us miserable. In particular, both of us had developed a very deep, angry bitterness toward Wales. My ex-wife wisely responded to it all by leaving the country. I still don’t really understand why I stayed.
Ultimately, we are both much better off these days, and staying here was the right decision for me. But if you’ve read this blog for very long you will almost certainly have picked up that much of my old bitterness remains. I don’t want to make myself angry by trying to express just how deep that well goes, but suffice to say it is a motherhugger. And it is so intense as to be a hindrance.
Quite some time ago I learned through the grapevine that my ex-wife had actually returned to the UK after our divorce, for a visit. Apparently she had come expressly to “make peace with Wales,” keen to bury and move on from her own negative emotions toward this little wet nation. It’s a good idea, and something I have tried to do myself, though without much success.
And here’s where we get to the point of all this. I still have that tea towel given to me by Mormons back in 2006. As I say, it’s primary image is a map of Wales. Though there are also a few drawings of notable buildings, such as Harlech Castle and the Swansea Guildhall…
“Wait. The Swansea Guildhall? What the hell is so special about that? It’s just an office building used by the council. Who would list that as a tourist attraction?”
That was the thought that came to me recently as I found myself actually looking at the tea towel for the first time in a number of years (rather than simply using it to dry dishes, or watching Jenn accidentally set it on fire whilst cooking, as she does with most of our tea towels). And upon further examination I saw that little of this representation of Wales made sense.
Effectively it is just a random collection of places. There is no rhyme or reason here. This is certainly not a map of places that you should or necessarily would want to visit. I mean, Borth –– a city that Morrissey described as a “seaside town that they forgot to bomb” –– makes the list, but Hay-on-Wye, home to one of the world’s best known literature festivals, does not. The thoroughly unspectacular town of Barry is listed, but tourist honey pot Abergavenny isn’t. The map mentions Port Talbot for Pete’s sake. The thinking behind the selection process here is impossible for me to grasp.
But, see, in its randomness, its that-doesn’t-make-a-damned-bit-of-sense-ness, this tea towel map is so very, very Welsh. That is such a Welsh thing to do. Welsh people are often clueless about what might make Wales appealing; it’s part of their charm.
So, from this ridiculous tea-towel-based map I came up with a ridiculous idea: to visit every single one of these places – all 66 of them. Because why not? Any excuse to ride a motorcycle is a good one, and maybe this excuse can help change the way I think of Wales. Maybe riding to pointless corners like Ammanford and Knighton, and, more importantly all the spaces in between, can cure me of my Welsh hate.
It shouldn’t be too hard. Wales is a tiny place; in the case of all the locations on the map, I can ride there and back within a day. The only trick is hitting these places in good weather. After all, if your stated goal is one of improving your impression of Wales, definitely don’t go visiting places in the rain.
We’ll see what happens. I’ll be keeping an eye on the weather and seizing whatever riding opportunities I can.