Monday, May 28, 2012

bangor write

“From yon prospect now I’ve ventured down
And stand delighted in my native town;
But whence the noises that assail my ear?
What crowds before me with their goods appear?
‘Tis market day- loud dealers strain their lungs
And High Street echoes with two different tongues:
The Welsh and English their alternate cry
‘Rhai’n, rhai’n, yw pethau rhad’ - Come buy, come buy!”

~ John Jones (called Poet Jones), Holywell

Bangor will always stand as my introduction to Wales, and it had been for my mother a half-century ago. For me, it had been by bus, two flights from New England, and a train trip from Cardiff; for her, it was a ferry from France and a train trip from southern England. Of course, I wanted to begin in a place about which I’d heard so much for so many years. As well, there were people expecting me that I hadn’t met in person before. From the small north Welsh coastal university town, I began my pilgrimage of paths, roads, views, and words. Indeed, it was also clear to me the travels had somehow begun during all the planning, preparation, and packing.

Bangor Pier

Bangoreans liked hearing about how much I admire their city (playfully referred to as Bangorai, which sounds like“Bangor-aye”), but seemed generally surprised at my enjoyment of the occasional rainy weather. Well, I come from a similar- though colder- climate, and I happen to thrive under shadowless overcast and all manner of cold precipitation. Falling back on “it’s fine; I’m from Maine,” reminded me of another time I used that excuse when Russian tourists gawked at me for wading through a cold stream in eastern France. My honest answer to the weather apologists was that everything I saw and experienced was better than fine. And the wavering skies presented themselves assuringly and familiarly.

Rainy spells lend well to writing. Getting acquainted with a town does require a balance of interiors, and indoor venues invite great opportunities for conversations. One of my favorite shops in Maine displays a sign that reads,“Enter as a stranger, leave as a friend,” and this came to mind during my month in Wales. Somehow, having had so many introductory descriptions of Bangor from my mother, along with those awaiting me, I was never quite the “stranger” -at least until my accent was detected. But that invited still more conversation. A local journalist and I compared notes about our respective home towns, each in beautiful parts of the world. In response to my praises of northwest Wales, he observed, “we don’t always appreciate what we have at our own doorsteps.” Indeed, we can surely remind each another.

with the wonderful staff of the Bangor Public Library

collecting thoughts, and thinking of my mother, at the Bangor University Library

Just as pilgrimage manifests in numerous ways, the benefits and effects do so as well. By definition, this type of travel finds its meaning at many levels: the destinations, the unique attributes and histories of these places, and the careful journeying as well. Often, the purpose centers around discovery and experience. We may arrive with specific addresses, but the serendipitous demands margins of its own. While I followed my mother’s footsteps, saw places she knew, and met the family that remembers her, there was also a town and region to explore. Pilgrimage travel is to be savoured and cannot be hurried. There must be time to observe, to listen, and to interact.

Bangor Cathedral (Saint Deiniol's Cathedral)

Thankfully, with a month to experience three regions of Wales, there was enough time to find some favorite places and writing perches. As it is publicized, the city of Bangor is a center of study (Dinas Dysg, in Welsh). The city has a centerpiece in the steeply situated upper town’s gothic university buildings, paralleled by Bangor Cathedral in the lower town. The cathedral’s foundation dates back to the 6th century, was founded by Saint Deiniol its patron saint, and is the place of Owain Gwynedd’s tomb. The cathedral is along the Pilgrim’s Way across the north coast of Wales. (I covered the portion between Llandudno and Caernarfon, but that will be a topic for a later essay.) Woven through Bangor’s center is a colorful High Street, lined with small shops, with a clock tower at its center- a few blocks from the Cathedral.

Gromit followed me out of Gerrard's Bakery,
and took interest in my typewriter.
A roving BBC Wales reporter interviewed me,
asking about writing and typing. I was sure to speak about the Typosphere.

Provisions on the Bangor High Street.

One of my Maine friends likes to say, “you can live anywhere, as long as you’re near a good bakery.” Bangor’s High Street has that aspect well covered, along with cafés and tea shops (including a good one at the end of the scenic Victorian Bangor Pier). Of Bangor’s Blue Sky Café, one of my Welsh friends offered, “that’s as good reason as any to live in Bangor!” Fair do’s, as the local parlance goes; I couldn’t disagree. In between visits, forays, and spells of sun, the loftlike Blue Sky made for a great writing perch.

Feasting and writing at the Blue Sky Café

The Blue Sky during a rousing Folk Night

With Bangor Cathedral, the city’s sacred spaces include an array of historic chapels, parish churches, and a downtown Quaker meeting house. A circle of large standing stones faces the Menai Straits on a sloping field, and across the straits on the Isle of Anglesey- among many ancient sites- is the 12th century Penmon Priory (built on a 10th century foundation). Aside from the Menai Straits, Bangor’s proximate perimeters are determined by the mountains of Snowdonia.

For a writing pilgrim, I found essential comforts and hospitable spirits in a city I hope to visit again. Now having some experiences of my own in Bangor, to go with my mother’s stories, I have some modest strata upon which my musings can build. This voyage concluded barely a week ago, and with thoughts hardly settled, the whole experience is as yet undistilled. One of my neighbors looked at me and said, “the dust of Wales is still freshly on your shoulders.” During several days in Cardiff, on my way home, I visited an extraordinary sacred space- the celebrated Cardiff Tabernacl, which is an elegantly plain 19th century Baptist chapel in the big city. When the ministers asked about my travels, I regaled them about my personal history in Bangor, and how I found the small city amiable and beautiful. At these words, an elderly gentleman strode toward me, shook my hand and said, “I’m a Bangor man, and you’ve truly made my day.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

mother countries

"In search of my mother's garden,
I found my own."

~Alice Walker

For as long as I can remember, since childhood, I’ve wanted to see the places of my mother’s recollections in Wales. Storing my mother’s words, stories, and image fragments from photos and artifacts into my own dreams, I’ve carried a kind of transferred memory within me. Now I’m profoundly thankful to be able to say I’ve just returned from a month of having been to these iconic places as a pilgrim on a beautiful trail which I consider to have been transferred to me by my mother. Coming from France as a young adult, she lived a short while in north Wales as a working college student; shortly after returning to France, she married and immigrated to America. Naturally, as a child- and up through my teenage years- listening to my parents’ memories captivated my imagination. Once upon a time they were like me, I’d think to myself, and I may become as seasoned and sage as they are. We spoke French, the mother country was clearly France, and from there I have a lifetime of lived memories of my own. But there were those sweet little maternal anecdotes about the small country that I was always told resembled Maine, between England and the Irish Sea, and with an ancient language so beautifully sung. “You should go to Wales,” my mother would say, “you would love it.” I’ve listened, and after all these years finally made the journey. The experience was an extraordinary one, with a strong sense of somehow visiting an additional mother country.

Surely, just about everyone can remember their own wide-eyed childhood absorption of their elders telling their stories and interpreting their artifacts. My mother would show me postcards and the notebooks she kept when studying at Bangor University, with sketches of the people and things that interested her- and how she had been learning the English language in a largely Welsh-speaking school. The notebooks even had crayon rubbings of the different British coins of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Now that I think about it, everything must have looked fascinatingly different and new. Being an undergraduate and a nanny in a foreign country is enough of a liminal stage in life, but this was also the postwar Europe of rebuilding and rationing. Yet the stories passed along to me were lighthearted and entertaining- and most of all, enchanting. I kept them all in my thoughts, and that archival soul safe steadily gathered more images, words, and dreams.

Bangor University

Enshrined in choice interior compartments, alongside treasured images and moments, my grandmothers’ words memorized, and things both Judaic and French, have been all things Welsh. That which is well-sown will grow and appreciate. With my parents’ encouragement, I grew to admire the introspective words of Dylan Thomas, the bold genius of Richard Burton, the cinematic How Green Was My Valley by John Ford (of Portland, Maine), and the immortal lullaby Ar Hyd y Nos. Implicit in being shown works of literature, films, and music with “it’s Welsh, you know,” was an equivalent to advising me that these are worthy- things to cherish and keep close to heart. Over the years, growing up, I now realize, my affinities and sensitivities cultivated simultaneously. King David, the harp-playing shepherd composing Hebrew sacred poetry in the Bible, was for me a grand chieftain and brilliant bard. I would think about this when, in my twenties, I delved into the words of ancient Welsh poets. With one exception, every journey I’ve made to Europe has had Paris as its destination. My thoughts always had the “someday” suffix about travelling to the Wales of my mother. I longed to go, and I needed to see.

One of the great realizations about actually making the journey of a lifetime’s anticipation is that it is possible. There were many instances during the past month when this came to mind. Enjoying a cup of coffee, with my journal open in front of me, are very familiar activities. But then I’d look around at the shop signs near the Welsh tea shops, with mountains behind the town streets, and remind myself of where I was. The possible was actual. Arriving in Bangor, in north Wales, after some 30 hours of travelling on buses, planes, and trains, I needed to see the waterfront before resting my head for the short night. The sight of the Pier, the Menai Straits, and the Isle of Anglesey- places I’ve heard about all my life- told me I had surely reached my destination. “I’m here,” spoke my thoughts, “I’m really here.” Then I took some very deep breaths of the sea air. At that moment of arrival and wonder, I experienced an unusual combination of longing and recognition. The aromas of the sea, the trees, and the sloping greened earth strongly reminded me of Maine. It was a sensing of both the recognizable tangible and of the palpable unseen. Indeed, we tread upon holy ground with our souls.

Walking as many of my mother’s footsteps as I could find was a humbling experience. With the gracious help of the town library, I was able to meet some of the members of the family with whom my mother lived, and even walked to the house I’d heard about since childhood. Though I didn’t want to make too much out of the journey, admittedly not having any regional ancestry, it was even more humbling to be told so often that I was welcomed “home.” To be embraced with lighthearted and familial inclusion was simply extraordinary. Somehow, coming from Maine added a fraternal affinity; there were many comments about “the two Bangors,” as well. Anticipating the exchanging of gifts, I brought boxes of maple confections from Maine. My mother was brave to go to an unfamiliar country at a young age, with very modest means, having survived World War II. Such thoughts accompanied my explorations of the roads, the university campus, and the shop-lined streets I’d long heard about. These paths are now shared with my own steps, and I’ve added a great many of my own. The ancient and enchanting Welsh landscape now lives within me, as treasure cherished in an earthen vessel.

Certainly, this past month has comprised many adventures. Through twice traversing Wales, I wrote and photographed all along the way. Some of the journeys will surely appear in these pages. Now being back in my obligations, I’ll begin to reflect upon the travels. Pilgrimage always includes the return voyage, after which the pilgrim can recognize their own transformation. There’s still mud in the stitching of my shoes, from the miles and miles of walking paths. And, happily, even now when I close my eyes lingering images of terraced row houses, steeples, verdant hills, winding roads, and valleys emerge.

Saint Deiniol's Cathedral, Bangor