As somewhat of an outsider looking in at the people of Wales over the past two months, I have had a convenient opportunity to observe some of the more wonderful aspects of Welsh life.
At the top of that list is rugby. If you thought Americans loved football or that the rest of the world loves soccer, that’s nothing compared to the way that the Welsh love rugby. It’s a part of their national identity, and a “pre-eminent expression of Welsh consciousness,” as one rugby historian (who knew they even had such things?) put it.
This love was particularly brought home to me one Saturday afternoon as I rode a bus through western Wales. A heavily pregnant woman got on board the bus and, speaking to a few others on board (presumably acquaintances), announced that she was a week past her due date. She then continued on to say, “They wanted to induce me today, but I told them to wait until after the rugby.”
Now that is dedication.
Rugby itself, in my opinion, is a confusing and yet fascinating sport. Before coming to Wales, the extent of what I knew about the sport of rugby came from having once seen the movie Invictus, and honestly, I still don’t know too much more. I do however, now own a Welsh Rugby Union jersey and scarf, and I attended my first (and probably only) rugby match last week.
Risking sounding distinctly un-American, rugby players are probably the toughest athletes of any organized sport. Compared to American football players, who wear helmets and what amounts to full body armor, rugby players wear next to nothing – just a close-fitting jersey, shorts and ‘optional’ helmets (most players don’t wear them). And yet, rugby matches are full of tackling, pile-ups, pushing, shoving and even a particularly mesmerizing sequence called a ‘scrum’ where everyone on the team basically links arms and shoves into the other team with as much brute force as possible (I never exactly figured out the purpose of that particular move).
Moving on to a completely unrelated – and yet similarly fascinating – aspect of Welsh life, while working at the National Assembly I have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time watching the way in which the Welsh eat. The way people use a knife and fork certainly isn’t something you would expect to vary too much across cultures, but vary it certainly does. Here, both knife and fork are in constant motion, scooping, stabbing, spooning and shoveling massive amounts of food at one time. Using a knife to slice a piece of chicken and then laying it down while you use your fork is simply unheard of, and I have unfortunately discovered that using utensils in this manner must take years of practice and significantly larger amounts of hand-eye coordination than I possess.
However, this method is clearly more efficient, because it also never ceases to amaze me how quickly people eat here. Every day at lunch people come to the table with plates absolutely piled with food of every kind, and yet they are done eating before I’ve finished my sandwich.
And yet, while I’m watching in awe as these Welsh people eat their food in ways previously unimagined, I also feel extremely at home, comfortable with the standard lunchtime conversation that involves ragging on the food, no matter what is being served. This must happen in every cafeteria in every country in the world, because complaining about the food while at the same time, continuing to eat it and planning to buy it again the next day is one aspect of life here that is exactly the same as at home.
It has never been hard to feel at home here. I’ve written before about the extraordinarily welcoming and hospitable nature of all of the Welsh that I have encountered. These traits were never more brought home to me than a couple of weeks ago when, for the first time ever, I celebrated Thanksgiving away from home (it was also the first time on Thanksgiving I have ever done more than sleep in and eat food all day – I still had to go to work). When I walked into work that Thursday, I was surprised by a large American flag draped across my desk, along with a ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ card from the people in my office. Throughout the day, numerous people, despite the fact that they clearly have never celebrated Thanksgiving in their lives, stopped by to wish me a happy Turkey Day. Having determined that attempting to cook myself would be a fire waiting to happen, I also received numerous excellent restaurant recommendations, making my quest for turkey on Thanksgiving in Wales a surprisingly easy one. All in all, it was a rather atypical and yet wonderful way to spend the holiday.
In my personal opinion, however, the Welsh, and the United Kingdom in general, could benefit from adding Thanksgiving to their holiday calendars. As it stands, they currently have no significant holidays between Halloween (which is also much less exciting here) and Christmas, creating a giant two-month hole in the calendar. This also creates a seriously lengthy Christmas season. I mean, I walked into my local grocery store on October 31 and they were selling Halloween candy. I went in again the next day and Christmas candy and decorations filled the shelves. People I work with finished their Christmas shopping two weeks ago. One girl even made a special trip out over lunch in the rain last week to find a specific item for her father. Cardiff Castle has been decorated with Christmas lights for over a month, and last weekend there was an artificial snow machine set up in the center of town, where people were posing for pictures next to fake snowmen. Sometimes I feel like just walking up to people and asking them if they are aware that Christmas is still over a month away.
As my time of departure from Wales draw nearer I am starting to realize that it is these little things that may someday mean more to me than all of the traveling and all of the huge experiences. How often does someone have the opportunity to stay in one place long enough to really experience the people, to notice the little details and to grow to love a country that is so different and at the same time so very similar to your own?