Some years ago my husband and I decided to visit Wales (starting from London). We bought a Rover coach ticket for one week which allowed us to roam around as much as we wanted to. Together with the ticket we got a map with all the existing routes in Wales.
What we didn’t get was a timetable and so we learned what dis-coordination means. It happened more than once that we wanted to go from A to C via B which was possible according to the map, but got stuck in B, because the one coach which went from B to C hadn’t bothered to wait for us, but left an hour or so before our arrival.
The one town I have vivid memories of and which I’ll never forget is Cardigan on the river Teifi. It‘s small and cosy, has around 4. 500 inhabitants, and is situated between rolling hills and the Irish Sea. It looks back on 900 years of history, and the ancient ruins of the medieval castle, the narrow streets in the old quarter, the stretches of the old town wall - all that conveys an antiquated atmosphere and an old world charm.
Cardigan Bay is famous for its seal, dolphin and otter population - the town even has a monument showing an erect otter - which can often been seen along the coast. But when we were there, it wasn’t their day out obviously.
We arrived in the afternoon, got off the bus and went to the tourist information. On the way there we passed a manifestation, a group of people shouting and stomping around in front of a shop, holding up placards telling the world that they had found a shop assistant who wasn’t bilingual and demanding the shop owner to sack her at once.
Now I must tell you that I studied English philology at the university of Heidelberg in Germany. I had already learnt that many people in Wales wanted more or complete independence from England, but it’s one thing to learn from books and a different one to see and experience oneself. Our B&B landlord was very pleased that we had come from so far away, from Europe in fact (Where’s Wales then?), but he wasn’t astonished. He was sure that we had come to see the Eisteddfod. The what?
Eisteddfod, plural Eisteddfodau, is the Welsh word for session and means the formal assembly of bards and minstrels. It originated in the traditions of the court bards of medieval times. Cardigan can claim to be the home of the very first National Eisteddfod in 1176. The modern National Eisteddfod is held each summer alternately in a site in North or South Wales and includes competitions in music, mostly singing and the playing of harps, prose, drama and art. The subjects were traditionally taken from Welsh history or the Welsh countryside or from the Bible. The bards of today have turned to more private matters and the Eisteddfodau are now seen primarily as a forum for young poets to gain a hearing. The highpoint is the chairing and the investiture of the winning poet.
After so much information we went to experience Welsh culture first hand. As a philologist I was fascinated to hear a European language of which I couldn’t understand a word, and the music was of a kind we’d never heard before. We had chanced upon that Eisteddfod and were really happy about that.
Before we left the area, I wanted to go to the bathroom, but couldn’t find a sign, so I asked a man in English where the ladies room was. He told me in English (!) that all signs were in Welsh and that people who came to the Eisteddfod should be able to read and understand them, everybody should be bilingual. I pointed out that I was German and my husband Italian and that we didn’t feel concerned, but he insisted. We offered him German, Russian, Italian, French and one Sardinian dialect, but he would accept only Welsh. In the end a compassionate lady who saw me shifting my weight from foot to foot took me to the loo, she knew the way from the day before. She told me that the signs had been in English, but were painted over during the night.
All over the town I had seen posters announcing boat races on the river Teifi, and I wanted to go there at all costs. Not only because I love boats and water very much, but also because there was a picture of a boat I had never seen before. As I found out, the name of the boat is coracle, it looks like a big, oblong basket. It’s about 1.5 m long, about 1 m wide, with a wooden board between the sides to sit on, has a flat bottom and weighs 40-50 kg. Around the body of the boat runs a handle made of willow or beech, and a man can carry a coracle on his back quite easily. It’s moved forward with a paddle. The design is probably thousands of years old, it certainly has a stone-agy, Flintstone-like aspect. But the race didn’t take place! The people I asked couldn’t tell me why, but they pointed out that there were many others.
That was cold comfort and I was deeply disappointed, but we stayed on the banks of the river Teifi as there was nothing else we wanted to do in Cardigan. Up to that day I had thought that when races are to start the participants are firstly known and secondly ready. But no! In Cardigan I learnt that it is possible to organize a race completely differently. The ladies’ rowing race was about to start, but there was only one participant, a young lady who couldn’t very well compete against herself. The man at the loudspeaker invited all ladies present to come and take part, he cooed and flattered, but I didn’t see anyone stirring.
Once in a while it overcomes me to do something unexpected; I suddenly got up and told my husband that I couldn’t stand that loudspeaker anymore and that I would go and row! Do you want to know how he reacted? He wasn’t proud of my courage, he was ashamed! He didn’t want me to make a fool of myself.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about rowing, the last time I had rowed was ten years before. I had a folding canoe in those days and used to paddle. But the rowing boats I had already seen on the Teifi were of the tub type, very broad and with hardly a keel line. That was reassuring in so far as it is nearly impossible to fall out of such a boat, but then they are difficult to steer, to make them go in one direction when you have no practice.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I had to go round a corner to reach the starting point and when I arrived there, another woman was surprisingly showing up as well. The loud speaking man nearly collapsed with joy, a minute before he had no race at all, and all of a sudden he had an international rowing race, Wales v. England v. Germany!!
I somehow got in and it took only some metres to make clear who rowed how and who would win. The young local woman was the champion, I was second best and the English lady third. She took it lightly, and when we were nearing the buoy which we had to round, she said to me: "After you!", fair play at its finest!
I somehow got out of the boat, too, was given the second prize, 2 pounds, and interviewed by two reporters of the local newspaper. They were interested in my description of our trip, the dis-coordination of the bus routes. They told me that people were complaining all the time, and hoped that the authorities would listen to my, a tourist’s complaints, more than to theirs.
Before we left Cardigan the next morning, we bought a newspaper. There it was, the article about me! Poor champion, nothing about her, but nearly half a page under the headline 'Fraulein steps in to help' (We weren’t married yet then). By the way, my now husband/then boyfriend wasn't ashamed any more, he was proud of his rowing Fraulein! While we were reading it at the bus stop, a group of men appeared in the early morning mist, clad in long white gowns with laurel wreaths on their heads, they crossed the street and disappeared in a park. After the time spent in Cardigan nothing could surprise us any more! We knew at once that we had seen Druids on their way to whatever Druids do in a park at an unchristianly early hour. There was nobody around who we could ask if that apparition was part of the Eisteddfod or the normal everyday life in Cardigan.