August 14, 2010
Conwy, North Wales
I got your letter fax when we came in after our time at Mt. Snowdon. I only had a short time to read it before we needed to leave for Ruthin to go to the medieval banquet that looked like such a hoot in the Rick Steves travel video. Lainie, I couldn’t take it in then or now. I am both too keyed up and exhausted. I need time to think before I react. Do you have any idea of the implications of what you said?
So instead I am going to indulge myself in reliving the highlights of our trip thus far not recorded, and your penance is to read it. Romans! Have you ever considered how many pages of words are summed up in that single one? Caesars! Gladiators! Empire! Togas! Legions! Aqueducts! Senators! Spartacus! Pilate! Antony and Cleopatra! The Forum! I think I’ve made my point. Personally I’ve always thought of them as thugs with genius for building (including bureaucracy) and a genius for being world class thugs with an intellectual class of sour old men who were incapable of a middle ground. They were Greek wannabes who could not even come up with their own pantheon of gods.
Going to Caerleon, Fortress of the Legions (Caer Lligion), didn’t change my reaction exactly as much as it did finally force me to admire what they did well. Only three ruins remain, one set of legionary barracks, the arena just outside the fortress walls and the excavated Roman bath within the walls, over which they’ve built a museum. These are impressive, but what awed me was the scale and size. A small town (I wouldn’t mind living here; a sinfully sublime bakery) sits directly on top of where the fortress was, but they have done a remarkable job of marking the limits of the walls and various gates, so the town itself serves to stress that this was a Roman town as bustling with the everyday amenities as the modern one.
The two museums are worth seeing, but best of all are the period impersonators. Not just soldiers, but healers, metal workers, gardeners and cooks whom we could watch go about their work with the instruments and supplies of first century Roman Britain. Two of them, when they realized I was researching a book, took me to each craftsperson and had them demonstrate and explain exactly how the work was done. They were patient, informative and funny, and a tight-knit group of people who enjoy each other. I think I will introduce a metal worker and a healer with a set of old (and fiendishly sadistic) instruments handed down in his family from the early days of the legions in Britain into the time travel portion of my second novel. Which character’s skull should I have my healer drill a hole in for medicinal purposes (trepan)? You don’t even want to see the instruments they used on the private parts. This is almost as happy a find as the medieval Welsh law that has the woman who accuses rape holding the man’s ‘member’ in court and swearing on it. Victor Frankenstein move over.
Today was pure fun, and Yr Wyddfa (Mt. Snowdon), the grand old giant of Wales, may have had the last laugh, but we pulled up a chair and joined him. Harry and I only had a few hours so we took the lazy person’s friend, the Snowdon Mountain Railway. It was a gray, drizzly morning. We went to Llanberis on a dice throw. The website said they had no more tickets available, but we were at the door waiting at 9 a.m. and on our way up by 9:30. The scenery was dramatic the first third of the way up, but Wyddfa was playing with us, reeling us in. By halfway up we ogled the sheep pastures and neighboring peaks through a dewy gauze. By the top Wyddfa had wrapped himself up good and tight in his best hooded cloak of tightly-woven cloudy wool. Visibility zero, and was he ever passing wind from every orifice.
One man we rode up with had brought his 6-year-old son from Leicester on his sixth trip up. Wyddfa 6-Andrew 0. Once we passengers knew our fate, the trip took on a carnival atmosphere. The nine of us laughed and told our funniest travel disasters. Harry and I stood at the peak tip around the brass disc that points out the sights holding each other in a fit of giggles trying not to blow away. The mother of three with us was actually happy as a lark to be walking around in a cloud. She was afraid of heights. Not seeing the glories of Eryri/Snowdonia just may have been the better part.
The people are so warm, and we have had great conversations everywhere we go. I realize how much I have missed that as part of my days–meeting new people and hearing their stories. The medieval feast tonight was a case in point. An Annapolis couple told us of their meeting in the U.K. and that they were back for their 30th anniversary. The Rhuddlan couple who shared our meal was also there for their anniversary, a present from their teenage children. We heard about each children, and then we plunged into a discussion about modern Wales and the struggle to preserve the land and culture with the influx of ‘outsiders’ buying up so much property for summer and retirement homes.
No one can keep help laughing while downing mead libations (sadly, mead has joined Guinness and English meat pies on my list of things that were romantically appealing than tasty. Mayhap, I am simply taste bud-challenged.) to eating poultry legs in veggie stew and lamb with sides armed only with fingers and a small serrated knife. SH did not mind the sweet, pretty maiden flirting with him as she tied the full torso snowy linen napkin around his neck either.
The MCs were note perfect, managing the feast with exuberant humor bawdy to sardonic (wink! wink!). My worry that the perspective would be very English (Ruthin was built as an English royal castle and remained so into the 17th century, if memory serves). Yay, Edward I! Boo, the native princes! It was just the opposite, and the music was glorious! We had wanted to hear a Welsh Men’s Choir, but the all-female ensemble that sang for us were professional caliber voices. The rich-dessert-harmonies wove lovingly about the melody, from Welsh language folk and patriot songs to naughty medieval lyrics. But none of that would have been enough to make it one of those rare perfect, self-contained experiences without our fellow hundred guests who entered in with merry abandon. I did not understand how uncommon a thing it is they did until I was part of it, not a person hanging on to pride or appearances, childlike but not childish.
What a gift to be here! Fifty-some people gave me this day and themselves if only for a few minutes, and they will never know that because of them I sit here tonight with pockets, hands and a heart sloppy with joy.
Good night, my friend.