Like many American teens at the time, my knowledge of geography was infinitely impressive in its limits. My imagined world consisted of a large brilliant technicolor America, never back then referred to as "the U.S." or "the States," a slightly tattered and faded Europe, maybe a parchment-colored India and Africa, topped by a blobby shaped China and Russia in menacing shades of shadow. So when I met a man from Wales I asked, like some drunk or dotty Margaret Mead, "Is your country in Europe?" OK, so maybe I was an idiot.
Somehow we got past my geographic deficiencies and his tendency to put consonants at the end of words ending in vowels and remove them from words' beginnings until I could decipher "mander in a miracle" as reference to his friend "Amanda in America" and eventually I followed him home to Merthyr Tydfil. I was invited. My husband went to school in a castle. Seriously. The head master kept office in a stone turret. The castle entrance is flanked by canons which I think have metal detectors beat as deterrents to carrying weapons to school. The castle dungeon doubles now as a museum to the town's industrial history. My husband told me his grandfather's lung is on display as a particularly fine example of black lung disease though I regret I've been unable to locate said organ in the Hogwarthian dark passages. My husband's Welsh childhood seems so olde worlde that at times I imagine he sees life in sepia tones. In any case, what I meant to say is that just read "Sixpence House" by Paul Collins. I'm a little behind in my reading. The book came out in 2003. I only recently discovered it whilst standing on tip toe, stretching my right arm and reaching to pull it down from a long, lost and nearly forgotten high spot . . . of my own book shelves. Embarrassing. But apt considering the delightful "Sixpence House" is the true story of the American author moving to Wales and Hay- on-Wye, a town almost literally buried in books. I've been to Hay many times. I've tripped over books in Hay, been dirtied by dusty titles in Hay, and even been clobbered by a falling book in Hay. There are 40+ secondhand bookstores in Hay and a whole lot of nothing else. I avoided Collins' book for years because I thought it was "A Year in Provence" in Wales, or "Under the Tuscan Sun" in Wales or that genre of urban-sophisticate-moves-to-quaint-small-town-and-hilarity-ensures. It's not. It's more like an amble through a dusty, dirty, book shop on a rainy afternoon when you have no prior commitments and so pick up a faded copy of a long forgotten attempt at a novel, or biography, or collection of useless facts made even less useful with age, and read a few paragraphs only to find yourself sucked in. It's lovely. And any writer stringing words together in obscurity -- attention all bloggers! -- will be grateful for Collins' peculiar fascination with we kind of people. It's a lovely little escape. The British have a phrase, "A busman's holiday" which means when a driver of a tour bus goes on holiday . . . and rides a tour bus. It doesn't quite translate. But I think of "Sixpence House" as a writer's holiday. You'll keep the snapshots in your head for a long time.