Wandering in Wales
Various people have asked if I have culture shock while studying abroad, and I always answer with a resounding no—I was practically British before I even hopped on the plane to Wales. One of the things to which I’ve had to adjust is how different Cardiff University is from Vassar, which really drives home the fact that Vassar is not the real world, but a bubble filled with love and glitter.
Cardiff University has ten times as many students as Vassar does. At Vassar, everyone’s connected by about two degrees of separation (or less)—if you don’t know the guy with the skateboard and the beanie on the Quad, it’s likely that one of your suitemates made out with him at the Mug, your lunch date will invite him to join you for Chili Wednesday in the Retreat, and/or he’ll be in that poli sci class you decided to take next semester. This is not the case at Cardiff—the guy on the skateboard might not even go to your university; he might just be on his way to the city centre, which is a little unsettling but also liberating. As of yet, there’s no sign that having a way bigger student population leads to healthier relationships. It still seems to boil down to a Friends episode. So some things are the same.
Also, I think I’m going into hipster withdrawal. It’s a thing, though you’ve probably never heard of it. I’m going to have to start an infusion of Portlandia if this keeps up, assuming my cavalier jaywalking doesn’t get me hit by a car first. I’ve still not gotten completely used to cars driving on the left side of the road, which I’d better do quickly because I think I’ll be driving over spring break—scary. Being called “Love,” on the other hand, is fantastic and I want to bring it back to the states with me. So if I start calling you “Love” when I return this summer, just accept it.
I have class on only two days a week, which gives me a lot of time to explore castles and eat ridiculously delicious scones with clotted cream, strawberry jam, and English Breakfast tea. Between these shenanigans, eating fish and chips, and drinking Brains (a local beer) while watching rugby games, I’m pretty sure I’m eligible for British citizenship. That’s how that works, right?
The best place at which I’ve had tea so far was this place called Pettigrew’s, located right next to Cardiff Castle, that resembled a sort of gatehouse. Of course, such images coupled with the word “Pettigrew” drew my mind instantly to Harry Potter. Luckily, the cakes here did not at all match Gatekeeper Hagrid’s rock pastries and squashed birthday cakes. After enjoying scones and finger sandwiches, I had a piece of lemon-drizzle cake that tasted so good, I considered proposing to it to keep it in my life forever. Having to cook all my own food here (no meal plan) means that whenever I go out for a meal, I reach new levels of joy; considering that I’ve always believed myself to be a foodie, that’s saying a lot.
Besides tea and food, Wales also has castles. I’ve always adored castles and cathedrals, and Wales holds the title of having the most castles per square mile out of any other country.
The first castle I visited was Cardiff Castle, located practically in the middle of the center of Cardiff, Wales’ capital. One of my absolute favorite things about Cardiff is the mix of old and new—the city’s history is so entrenched that you can walk down any random street and see a church that dates back to the 12th century right alongside a pub and a travel agency.
The coexistence of the modern and medieval is amazing. I thought I’d be a bit perturbed to see a Burger King next to a castle, assuming that it would lessen the monument’s historical impact, but it really just goes to show the dynamic nature of a place like Cardiff. In the states, I don’t think Americans were ever big on castles, and a lot of historic buildings were torn down as bustling cities grew up around them. I’ve decided that I’d rather the castle stand next to a fast food or clothing chain than converted into one.
Cardiff Castle, once the site of a Roman military fort, has gone through many periods of destruction and reconstruction. The latest period happened in the 1800’s and imbibed the castle Victorian splendor. Each room is thoroughly decorated according to a particular theme, such as time, fairytales, or Welsh history. There’s even a depiction of the Devil located outside the drawing room that is meant to scare the women away from entering the men’s domain. To this, the Vassar girl in me can only say “Puh-lease.”
The next castle I visited, and probably my favorite castle to date, was in Caerphilly. Caerphilly is a small town located about an hour outside of Cardiff and known for two things: the exquisite cheese and the castle. Right in the middle of the town is a massive castle with an intricate water defense system (aka two moats). Surrounded by water and with a backdrop of impossibly green hills (apparently the grass didn’t get the message that it’s February), this castle is astoundinly gorgeous, yet for the people of the town, seeing it is just an everyday occurrence. I visited the castle on a Wednesday and saw people walking around the grounds carrying briefcases. Obviously on their way to work, they were saying to their cell phones, “Tell my secretary I’m running late, I’m only just now walking past the castle.”
Clearly, the Welsh use castles as landmarks to tell where they are and give directions, which can lead to some confusion. For example, on the day of the Six Nations Rugby home game, Wales vs. Ireland (side note: Rugby is a huge deal over here), multiple streets in Cardiff were closed off to traffic, full instead of red-and-green painted fans, some wearing hats with dragons or daffodils (Wales’ national animal and flower, respectively). I think I like rugby more than football, but it could just be that I got caught up in the crowd’s tremendous energy. The game itself was a bit frustrating to watch, given that the players have to pass backwards. Although Wales pulled it together in the second half, their comeback began too late and Ireland crushed them. My loyalties in the match were a bit confused—obviously I was in Wales, but I’m also of Irish heritage (one of the players on the Irish team even shares my last name). Amidst the excitement and the unbelievable energy, I was trying to locate some friends at a pub to watch the game. All the pubs were insanely crowded by 9:00 am—four hours before the game started—with people staking early claim to seats. My friend kept saying that she and the rest of my group were at a pub near “the castle”, which is about as helpful as a Vassar student saying that he or she danced with that hipster guy at the Mug last night. Luckily, I found my friends before the game started and had a fantastic time.
The final castle I’ve visited so far in Wales is Castell Coch, which a random football (soccer) fan tried to explain to me is not technically a castle because it is too small. I’m not entirely clear on what he was saying (a thick Welsh accent and several pints of Brains, the Cardiff-made beer of which I am not a fan are not a good combination), but I guess “castell” translates to something along the lines of “castle lite”—all the grandeur with fewer calories.
Either way, entering Castell Coch feels like walking into a fairytale. After a long trek uphill and through the woods, the castell appears before you with all the classic turrets—I’m pretty sure Snow White uses it as her summer home. The internal courtyard of the castell reminds me of a mix between the Globe Theater in London and a miniature Roman amphitheatre; I was waiting for the lions to come out and spout lines Hamlet (*cough cough* Lion King, pun very much intended).
The view from the castell looking over the town is also pretty amazing. On a clear day, you can see forever—but we don’t exactly get clear days here in Wales. On an overcast day, however, you can see the River Taff or Cardiff, depending on in which direction you look.
Because I only have two early morning classes, I can take full advantage of Cardiff’s clubs, pubs, and bars. I’m pretty thoroughly cheating on the Mug, although certain things about the club experiences at Vassar and in Wales are eerily similar.
Overall, Cardiff and Wales are amazing and I love them! I miss Vassar, of course, and I’ll be with you guys in spirit on Thursday for the WBC protest.