Experiences with Welsh and a town full of books by Kate Bargerhuff

Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend traveling around Southern England – I saw Stonehenge, the Canterbury Cathedral, the White Cliffs of Dover, the Roman Baths of Bath (appropriately named) and more. It was an absolutely amazing time, but what struck me most was the sense of relief I felt on the train back to Cardiff. After two days of going from train to train, bus to bus and getting lost in multiple different English cities, arriving at Cardiff Central unexpectedly felt like coming home. Signs written in both Welsh and English were a comfort to me and the familiar pubs and shops I passed on my way back to my flat were like friendly signposts. I’ve just barely been in Cardiff for a month now and it’s amazing how easy it is to feel at home here.

Not that this home doesn’t still present its difficulties. My craving for Mexican food (which, in my opinion, is truly the best form of American cuisine) is growing stronger every day. Last week I actually discovered a Mexican restaurant about five minutes away. I thought it was fate, but in actuality, it was a bitter disappointment – apparently the British idea of Mexican food excludes all forms of spices. I also still cringe every time I shell out £20 at the grocery store because I know I actually just spent about $35, and I just recently finally figured out the values of all of the different British coins (who would’ve know coins can come in that many shapes and sizes?).

Another struggle, though a slightly more entertaining one, has been my attempts to learn Welsh. Obviously you will never become fluent in a language with just three months’ worth of hourly classes once a week, but I’ve had a fun time even just attempting to pronounce things. I thought, mistakenly as it turns out, that I had escaped the need to roll my ‘r’s after five years of Spanish, and double f’s pronounced like v’s and double d’s pronounced ‘th’ will continue to confound me. So far, I have learned the numbers and days of the week, which are obviously the most important parts of any language, and ‘bendigedig,’ which means ‘fantastic,’ is now topping my list of favorite words of all time. It is, however, in close competition with ‘os gwelwch yn dda,’ which seems like a lot of effort just to say ‘please’. But the Welsh do like to be polite.

Other than filling my time by learning Welsh, I’ve also been doing a lot of traveling over the past month. Though Stonehenge was appropriately eerie and Canterbury Cathedral was nothing short of awe-inspiring, so far my most entertaining experience has been last weekend’s trip to Hay-on-Wye, a Welsh town with a population of only 1,500 people but no less than 39 bookstores.

Aware of both my extremely tight budget and my propensity for purchasing every book in sight just because I can, I was initially wary of visiting a place where just one store holds over 500,000 books. But I am easily convinced, and consequently, last Sunday morning I found myself standing in the town square of Hay-on-Wye (named for its proximity to the Wye River – the British are nothing if not creative) clutching a map full of possibilities.

I visited no less than 14 bookstores that day, and only stopped because everything closed at 5 o’clock. There were bookstores in 19th century houses, bookstores in old cinemas, bookstores in castles and even bookstores outside (which seems like a bad idea in a country where it rains practically every other day). Some bookstores had themes, like “Murder and Mayhem” or the Poetry Bookshop, though most just featured stacks and stacks of books – everything from second-hand John Grisham to early edition Charles Dickens and Jane Austen novels. What was most amazing was the sheer number of books – they were crammed everywhere: on staircases, in creepy basements with dirt floors and low ceilings and on mile after mile of shelves.

The Hay Castle Bookstore

Every time I was able to lift my eyes from yet another row of books, I was struck by something else just as amazing – the beauty of the Welsh countryside. You look around you and there is just hill after rolling green hill, dotted with trees and hedges and sheep. It’s the very definition of picturesque, and certainly nothing I’ve ever seen in the United States comes close in comparison.

Countryside outside Hay-on-Wye

At some point during that day I unearthed previously unheard of amounts of self-control and I only purchased five books, a few of which I plan to give as gifts. For me, though, the best gift from the day was simply the chance to experience a tiny, inconsequential but wonderful Welsh town most people have never heard of, and to come away with just one more amazing memory from my time abroad.


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