This is a very early letter home from Wales - long before I learned to speak and understand Welsh, long before I came to know the people in this letter better than I knew old friends at home - long before many mysteries opened the door to enchantment. But as it is a Christmas letter, it is topical, if not entirely representative of whom I was to become because of these people, because of Wales, so here it is:
Some of the memories we will carry with us of this Christmas have their origins in other places, other times. For example, although it takes a long time for Welsh people to become friends, they are at least open to the idea and so many a pleasant interchange prior to what might be called the first degree of friendship (and there are countless degrees) are not banalities but the building blocks of the road to a genuine relationship. Take Alun (pronounced “Ah – linnn”)
Alun is the post office man. One of them. The others are an older man, whose name I do not know, a woman, both very nice and Timothy, a stout, youngish man who (I am told by several friends and colleagues) has such a fine voice that he has been offered lucrative contracts to sing professionally outside Wales, but he values his life here in this lovely town so much that he has turned them all down. He is widely known - and does sing in public when he feels like it, on television, in concert halls around the United Kingdom, and he has several CDs out. The latter by the way are displayed discreetly in the Post Office and can be purchased there if one fancies a bit of Puccini with one's stamps. (Can you imagine what the USPS would say to that?)
Well, Alun and I seem destined to be friends since every single time I go to the Post Office I get in line like everyone else and when my turn comes, I always get Alun. It is beyond the law of averages, and strange things happen. One day he was not on duty but came in to help out and opened the wicket at the very second my turn came. Another time it was my turn and I was just about to go up to another wicket, when the person ahead of me decided she needed to buy a money order and so I was moved over to Alun. This happens over and over - and since the British post office is much more than an American post office - you buy your tv license there, you can pay your bills there, or deposit money in a savings account, or register your car etc.- it seems uncanny.
Presumably there are other functions of the Post Office that I have not yet discovered - I can't wait.
Unfortunately, every time I see Alun, I seem to have some problem to deal with – and to be completely incompetent about it. The car registration was a major mystery, and Alun had to interpret the vagaries of the language and intent of what would be the DMV if there was one. I don’t seem to be able to decipher what they mean, even though the forms are in relatively simple English. Sort of like those instructions that come with toys made in China: “Bend part A until it gets into the Part B. Do not bend.” That sort of thing. British logic isn’t quite compatible with American pragmatism. Everything is much more complicated than seems necessary or efficient. Still, there are compensations, like these very pleasant encounters with Alun.
Once he had to explain how to fill in the baffling forms and *pay the fees* (they charge fees!) for re-routing the mail - which is a completely unnecessary exercise as we recently discovered. The post office doesn't even put a change of address sticker on the mail that is addressed to the cottage that we rented when we first came here. They just know where we live, I guess, since it arrives at our new flat, with the old address on it. Or as we found out the other day, if we aren't home, it somehow mysteriously ends up at the university in my department mailbox.
To make a long story short, Alun and I have forged a respectful and ethereal bond over these and several other cultural mysteries. He is very tall, very quiet, very nice looking and very polite. I know how polite he is because I used to steal a look at him when I first came in and asked for information or stamps and could see how very hard he tried not to smile at my accent (or lunacy or stupidity – I am hoping it’s just the accent).
He still obviously thinks something is highly amusing when I come in but clamps his lips together in what must be rather painfully suppressed laughter out of sheer courtesy. Usually I help him out by making a little joke so he can laugh without thinking that he is hurting my feelings. He knows that I do this on purpose and I know that he knows and he knows that I know that he knows and we get along just fine. So fine in fact, that he has conferred upon me some of the privileges of native status - a sort of honorary, mini-Welshness. I came to know this in this manner:
A friend of mine has a rabbit. It is an uncommon rabbit with high sensitivities and a vocabulary of fifty eight words. (Understanding them, not speaking). That being the case, we sent it a Christmas present, included in the Christmas box that we sent to her. The present was an edible treat - delectable (to rabbits) seeds and dried vegetation pressed into a little bar.
Everything in the box was wrapped carefully and the box taped up and I took it over to Her Majesty's Post Office (just across the street from the entrance to the University), and stood in line, reading my book, until I got to the front of the line, where of course Alun was available. His face brightened. Undoubtedly, he foresaw a little entertainment.
"Hallo," says he, very cheerfully in his musical Welsh accent. "What will it be for you today?"
"I would like to mail this box," I say, trying to be Extremely Normal and Proper as I feel confident that I will not be making a number of ludicrous mistakes about cars and address forms and acronyms.
"Oh, fine," he says, slightly disappointed. "Where is it going then - New York?" (He remembers everything, including the fact that I had sent my son an early Christmas present of a fleece jacket because it seemed silly to wait until Christmas since it was a cold November in NYC and he would be leaving for the Malibu house right after Christmas where the jacket would be useless.)
"No" I say, "New Mexico."
"The States, then," he says a little uncertainly, making quite sure that I had said “New Mexico” and not "Mexico". I nod - so he weighs it, I pay for the postage, and then I ask casually, as he opens a drawer to get a customs declaration sticker, "It's okay to send rabbit food to the States, isn't it?"
"Oh." He looks doubtful. "I don't know. Is it?"
"Well, I don't know - that's why I am asking you."
"Well," says he in his soothing Welsh-English, "We'll just find out now shall we?" He bends back slightly. "Timothy," he calls over to the next wicket, "Can we send rabbit food to America?"
"Noooo," booms out Timothy, in his great melodic voice, "No animal food. No, no. Not allowed."
Alun turns a sad face to me. "Not allowed." he says, sympathetically.
"Oh, well, then," I say quickly, "Good thing there isn't any in this box."
Both Alun and Timothy stop dead for a moment and look at me steadily.
Then - "No rabbit food?" they ask simultaneously.
"Nope." I say.
Alun starts to laugh – he really can’t help it this time. Timothy joins in. The people behind me in line are listening intently – all conversation has stopped. When he stops laughing, Alun says, “Anyway – we don’t know what is in this box, do we, Tim?”
“No idea at all,” says Timothy. “No, no.”
“Well, but you’ll have to fill out a form for the customs,” Alun says, closing the drawer he had been opening.
“Unfortunately,” he adds sombrely, “We only have Welsh customs forms at the moment. No English left.” He opens a different drawer.
“Hmmn,” I reply. “No English. Do British customs read Welsh?”
“I shouldn’t think so,” he says, putting a form on the counter.
“No,” says Timothy complacently, busying himself with a new customer. “I shouldn’t think so either. And,” he adds with operatic satisfaction, “I know the American Customs don’t.”
I take the form.
“Shall I fill it out for you?” Alun asks me, taking it rapidly back.
“Okay, thanks,” I say. “Just put ‘pet toy.’”
“Pet toy, is it?” he says, scribbling rapidly in Welsh. “Ah well, we never know what’s in these boxes anyway, do we?” Alun remarks to Timothy.
“Never,” says Timothy.
There is a pause.
“Merry Christmas, Harrison,” says Alun, putting my parcel in the ‘Out’ bin.
“Merry Christmas, Alun,” I reply.
I walk past the long line of people, hoping that they are not irritated at having been kept waitin for so long, but as I turn to raise a hand in thanks to Alun and Timothy before going out the door, I see they are all smiling. And it seems to me that all their smiles are conspiratorial.
I love Wales.
PS It is now Christmas night and we are just about to go to bed but since you are all in the middle of your celebrations, I just wanted to give you a sense of ours: The whole village is decorated and is shut down for two days. We had a rather beautiful peace descend. Roast fowl and mistletoe and berries. Gifts of elderberry wine and rich cakes. Plum pudding and cream. Naps by the hearth. Friends dropping by. Long walks and churchbells. Welsh legends told by firelight. More pagan than anything. The merriment of midwinter. Happy Christmas to those who celebrate it. Happy Hanukah to the rest of you!
Causes Harrison Solow Supports
Lupus Foundation of America
Museum of Tolerance