Photo Credit: Spencer Jones
Traveler Story: 'I Never Thought I'd Visit Wales, Let Alone Live There'
I never thought I’d visit Wales, let alone live there to do my graduate degree, but life takes us on detours all the time.
While studying writing at Oxford University one summer, I got acquainted with a professor who was the head of the Creative Writing department at Aberystwyth University in Wales. Familiar with my prose, he suggested I apply for a master’s degree after college.
In the fall of 2009, I arrived in Aberystwyth, Wales, an adorable, coastal town that was, unlike many other Welsh names and phrases, pronounced exactly as it looked. And thank goodness for that, because if I’d gone to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, the longest town name in The United Kingdom, I would have surely struggled.
The university was on top of a steep hill, and just beyond it was a community of student houses, where I lived for the year. My housemates were nice, but my core friendships were with international students who didn’t live with me.
There wasn’t much American presence, which wasn’t surprising, and even less of a Black one. Invariably, I stood out in groups, but I wasn’t discriminated against in any way. It felt like I was the only Black person not only at the university, but in the town, even though that wasn’t entirely true. There were other Black people in Wales, but they were few and far between, and we made sure to acknowledge each other when we crossed paths.
The weather was typically British; overcast, chilly rather than cold, and rainy sometimes. Even on a hot day, the sea was never warm enough for a proper swim; we’d put our toes in the water, or maybe wade in to our knees before retreating to the sand. There was one afternoon in the summer when several of us braved a swim, but I’m not sure if it counted, as we were on inflatable boats most of the time.
I was moved by the kindness of the Welsh, their animated way of speaking, and their unyielding commitment to their language. If I went to the supermarket, all announcements were made in Welsh followed by English. The same applied for the signage on the university grounds and in town. I would have liked to learn a little Welsh, though it shared no discernible roots with any language I spoke. But I was too busy with daily writing assignments to get around to it.
There were many great things about the program I’d joined, and American students weren’t expected to write certain words the British way. Even though our core language was the same, there were some expressions that inadvertently caused confusion and laughter.
One American student shared a story he wrote about a man being “tossed off” the side of a mountain, which elicited laughter from the British people present, because to them, the connotation was vulgar. When I was working on a short story for my thesis, one of my characters described his girlfriend as thick. My advisor, an English woman, thought it was rude for him to call her “stupid” seemingly out of the blue, and I explained that thick was a synonym for curvy in American English.
Aberystwyth, Wales wasn’t exactly a party capital, but if I wanted that, I would have stayed in New York. I was serious about my studies, and always had been. Still, my friends and I made sure to paint the town red a few times a week; drinking, dancing, doing karaoke, and playing games at the arcade on the pier. The Student Union at the university often put on some fun events like Drum n’ Bass night, and you really felt like you were in an actual club. There were parties on Saturday nights at Aberglasney, one of the student houses facing the beach, and everybody brought their own booze and carried on as students do. Nothing countered a hangover like a hearty English breakfast at a pub or tavern, and I’ll never forget the incredulous look the waitress gave me when I told her I didn’t need milk or sugar in my tea.
When I experienced writer’s block, I’d go running, or take a long walk by the sea with my headphones on. I’d either go up Constitution Hill and watch the waves crash against the rocks below, or to the castle ruins in the other direction. My friend, a woman from Croatia, sometimes accompanied me for these head clearing activities. We connected on many fronts, but I was intrigued by her love of African-American literature which was, to be frank, not something I’d seen in many white people. We had plenty of discussions on social justice as it related to Black people, women, and the gay community. I can’t recall a single time when talking to her wasn’t a pleasure, which is why we’re still in touch over a decade later.
Going to Oxford gave me my first taste of being a student in The United Kingdom, and having spent all my life visiting England, I knew it well. Deciding to study in Wales was a gamble, because I knew nothing about the country, but sometimes there’s reward in taking risks. I acclimated quickly to Aberystwyth’s slower pace of life, and if I needed a bit more action, I went to the capital city of Cardiff, or took a scenic train ride to London in three or four hours. But I didn’t do too much of that, because I genuinely loved where I was.
It’s unbelievable, and a little unsettling, that eleven years have elapsed since I earned my degree. When I look at it on my wall, printed mostly in Welsh, I feel such gratitude for how that year of studying helped me better my craft. I visited Aberystwyth in 2013, and was able to connect with a few friends who were still working on their degrees, as well as the professor who was one of my earliest allies in my creative writing journey. But most of those I knew had left; a testament that life marches on and nothing stays the same.
I hope to get out to Aberystwyth again soon, grab a pint at one of the fifty or so pubs the town is known for, and take a happy trip down memory lane.