Saturday, 11 April 2009

A Senecan Sort of Day

I have visited a few of the ‘big cities’ in Europe so far – Paris, Barcelona, Venice – so it was inevitable that at some point I would be drawn to the internationally renowned charms and splendour of…


Some of you will no doubt react to that with the same muffled enthusiasm I did when my sister Laura suggested it to me. But for those of you who grew up somewhere on the Persian rug of Europe*, you will probably react the same way the Persian rug-bred fellows of my acquaintance did: by raising an eyebrow, peering at me carefully to see whether I meant to say ‘Casablanca’, and then adding, with a hint of Persian rug schadenfreude, ‘Why?’

For all of my sunblushed Australian tomatoes, apparently if you want to go to Wales – especially South Wales – Cardiff should not be high on your list. Through snippets of conversation and between bow-and-arrow onslaughts of taunting, my Persian ruggian friends led me to expect a concrete jungle where nothing ever happens apart from a thrice monthly ten minute community dance to celebrate breaks in the rain.

So lesson 1 in the Cardiff saga was: don’t go to Cardiff. Lesson 1b, to be learned shortly afterwards, was: if you are going to Cardiff from London, don’t make it a day trip.

In both cases Laura is to blame for not doing her research. And I am even more to blame for saying, ‘A Day trip? To Cardiff? Why not?!’

The bus trip from London to Cardiff takes three hours, so it turned out that we had less time to explore the city than the time it took to get there. We had 1 hour, to be precise. 1 hour to explore the entire city of Cardiff. We spent almost as much time at the rest-stop on the motorway, poking around the Waitrose and looking at squidgy travel pillows shaped like elephants, pigs and frogs.

I don’t know why such a tour exists at all. I can only guess they are cornering the market for that rather large group of people who don’t know what they’re doing, but only have a day to do it in.

And so it was that at 8am on a bright London morning, two girls from the market of people who don’t know what they’re doing (but only have a day to do it in), boarded a bus bound for Cardiff, soon to learn lesson 1a and 1b.

Now, when the curtain of European wisdom is pulled back and you find yourself peering at certain misery in the form of grey buildings and lengthy bus rides with other members of this elite squad of ignorant travellers, you can either:

(a) Turn into a droplet of Welsh rain and be cold and incessant all day, or

2.) Decide that idiocy should be celebrated, and try to find the humour and the joy in each new nail hammered into your travelling coffin.

Luckily it didn’t take too long to put plan 2 into action, as tour buses being tour buses, there were many curious specimens of humanity to keep us chortling the whole way. (Funnily enough, at the time there didn’t seem to be anything ironic in our feeling of superiority…).

First off, there was our British tour guide, who I shall call Pierre (because I like French names, and setting up poseurish alliterations). He quickly earned himself the nickname ‘Pierre of the perplexing pauses’ because he punctuated his pontifications with perplexingly prolonged pauses. When he spoke, it went something like this:

‘When you go to…………………. (a full minute later, which is quite a lot when someone’s talking) Birmingham, you have to………………….. (another full minute) go to the………………… (one minute) unique shopping centre.’

Of course I completely understand nerves and ‘mind blanks’, considering I would rather hold a live tarantula in my mouth for ten minutes than speak in front of a group, but I had never heard pauses like this before. Pierre’s perplexing pauses kept us entertained for at least some of the way, and even without him there were:

The Tourons. Thank you to Marc for introducing me to this term; a mixture between a tourist and a moron. When we reached the tollgate on the motorway entering Wales, some of the people at the front of the bus pulled out their handy-cams and started filming the bus’s progress from behind the tollgate to that mysterious and untouched patch of motorway on the other side. Presumably they were doing this for the benefit of their home-schooled children, who only leave the house to attend quilling classes at the local Plymouth Brethren ministry. “Please Daddy! Play the bit where the gate goes up again!”

Once in Wales, we stopped to pick up our Welsh tour-guide. He was a short, stout little man with a white beard who looked like Thomas Kenneally. Unlike Pierre, he did not pause at any point throughout the day. He chattered about any little thing that we passed, only hesitating to figure out which joke was next in his well-oiled repertoire. I found him immediately likeable. He explained early on that he was ‘Welshman born, Welshman bred, strong in the arm and weak in the head,’ and when we were driving by the Cardiff markets he said that here you could find the ‘Three Fs’: ‘Fruit, Flowers and Vegetables’ (apparently in Welsh the word for ‘vegetable’ starts with an ‘f’). God help us, Laura and I thought this little man was hilarious.

Thomas Kenneally took us around the main sights in Cardiff by bus – the Bay, the Millennium Centre (which is actually quite a striking building), Cardiff Castle, the City Hall and the National Museum. All of this was crammed into about half an hour, and then – just as the rain decided to introduce itself – we were deposited onto the sidewalk and told we had one hour of free time before we had to meet back at the bus to move on to Caerphilly Castle.

A word about Welsh rain (or Cardiffian rain at least). It does not obey the rules of gravity. Bored with ‘conformity’, it turned on the TV one night and now models itself on what it saw there: lotto-ball machines. It goes up and down and all around, floating and swirling and managing to lick your hair even when your umbrella is only one inch from the top of your head.

By the time we’d found a bathroom and I had bought a cup of coffee swill, we had 50 minutes left. The rain was still practicing its lotto-ball machine dance routine, so we decided to head to the National Museum (or Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd), because it was indoors and it was close by.

Perhaps it was because by this point each new nail in our travelling coffin really was hilarious that I decided that there was no use in trying to take the Museum seriously. There was nothing sad about it; I just turned to Laura and proposed the following:

The Speed Museum Tour


1. See every item in every room

2. No stopping allowed

3. Finish in thirty minutes

No time for discussions, no time for clarifications. We trotted from room to room, past paintings and sculptures and stuffed animals and mounted insects and ancient porcelain:

I hate clichés, but in this case I think our whole day was an exercise in stoicism, or ‘accepting the things you cannot change’. People had told us Cardiff was boring. We had to spend six hours on a bus with people who had either speech or brain impediments. We had a ridiculously small time to explore the biggest city in Wales, and when we finally got there it was raining. What can you do?

You can leap around like morons (or Tourons, even), pretending to be Mary Poppins in a town square:

I had a really great day. I would encourage people to do this. Whether it’s Cardiff or another place you know nothing about. Just go there, laugh at any restrictions, see how ridiculous you can be, and go home again.

That said, when I go back to Cardiff, I would like a little more time to see it properly.

That’s right. I just said ‘when’…

* I am aware that Persian rugs are not ‘European’. It was just the first thing that popped into my head when I was trying to think of something beautiful, complicated and ‘plush’ to compare my wiser-than-I-am friends to…