America is awful, a possessive egregore from which it’s near impossible to escape.
There, I said it. It feels better to say it. It feels possible to say it here.
It feels less possible to say that in the United States, or to say it with meaning, anyway. American Leftists complain all the time about how awful the United States is, sure, but their words have no import when they are still within the country. Our complaints feel hollow and impotent, like slaves rattling their chains remarking on the cruelty of their master, or battery hens clucking in protest of their cages.
States inhabit the people who inhabit them. They do not leave you even when you leave them, except by exorcism.
You bring America with you. You carry it with you, it claws at you as you trudge through ancient cobbled streets and up sacred mountains. You cannot leave it at home, as long as America is still your home.
America is awful.
I’m in the southernmost part of France at the moment with my friend Alley Valkyrie. It’s her first time in Europe–she’s thrilled, it’s fantastic to see her so happy and in awe. But most importantly, it’s nice to see the Spirit of America slowly slough off her, just as it does for me each time I leave the country.
The first few days are always the worst. You’re still inhabited by the Nation you inhabit, even though you are far away. And for most, this is the perpetual state until you leave. Thumbing smartphones, searching out the nearest local variation of familiar things, speaking in the mothertongue, going to tourist towns…all those things are ways the modern traveler fights the horror of being someone else, all things that will keep the foreign out in lands where you are the foreign.
The English and French colonialists, particularly, re-created bits of England and France in the lands they occupied, just as US military bases overseas are crammed full of American junk. Outposts of ‘civilization,’ walled enclaves like the plantations in the American South, the Green Zone in Baghdad (where you could get Pizza Hut and Starbucks mostly free from suicide bombs and the body parts of dead children). Spanish missions. Roman forts.
We all resist becoming something new. It’s no different for the mystic than for the tourist, the immigrant or the occupier.
The difference of course is power. The immigrant and mystic explore new lands without it. The tourist and the occupier wield it over the new lands, by money or by bullet.
Forest, Stone and Chapel Sex: Cardiff, May 18th-May 20th
You remember this guy?
That’s Nick. He’s my best friend, the greatest man you could ever know.
It takes years to cultivate the kind of friendship we have, one composed of silences rather than speech, of knowing nods rather than exuberant proclamations.
You don’t have to talk to Nick, and Nick doesn’t have to talk. Everyone else wants to talk, needs to talk. And you want to talk to them, and need to talk to them, because you don’t yet know enough about them to be silent with them.
That sort of silence is what I crave most when I travel. My life in Seattle is all words, all negotiations and discussions, arguments and questions. When I’m around Nick, I’m released from all that. Nothing needs be said, and so I can just exist.
Nick is also a lot like traveling to a foreign country, foreign but familiar. In France, I get to speak French, which is also a relief. English gets tiring, so little poetry and so many words devoid of nuance. English consists of sounds better at organising commerce and schedules rather than describing spirit or meaning. French and Silence are better for the things I actually prefer to talk about.
Three years ago, Nick and I were both trapped in America, and three years ago we both tried to escape. He succeeded, getting a student visa for Uni in Cardiff. He’s lived there since.
That’s why I arrived in Cardiff after parting my host in Bath. That last morning we did little, which is really nice when you are traveling. I have previously made the grave tourist error of planning too many things, stopping in too many cities and visiting too many of the sites everyone tells you must be seen. You leave Europe after such trips exhausted and embittered, with the sense that Europe is just another place and it’s ‘good to be home’ when you arrive back in the States.
But just like in the rest of life, the unaccounted hours are what constitute bare and brilliant life. It’s better to have very few plans when traveling than to have too many. Meet fascinating people in a town just before you’re scheduled to be elsewhere, and you’ve no time to explore their worlds. You miss a lot by trying to see everything, and anyway, planning is a means to wall out the Other.
So I arrived in Cardiff and was met by a friend who’d offered to host me, Barsha. We’d never met in person, but I recognised him immediately in the train station. Tall, broad shouldered, blond dreads and a very comfortable punk demeanour. He’s all smiles and far-away glances, charming and earthy and really damn pleasant. We hugged and then walked to his flat in the old village of Cardiff called Roath.
Cardiff is quite fascinating, a melange of close row-houses which remind of Dublin and broad, American-style arterial roads flanked on either side by massive Archferydd, or “superstores.” The town centre is the same: old stone buildings disappearing instantly as you stumble onto a concrete and glass shopping promenade.
Capital does some awful things to ancient cities. Dublin has a similar area, built during the heady rush of the “Celtic Tiger” days. Walk along the river towards the port and old stone gives way to Capital’s masturbatory fantasies of what a city should look like. Those fantasies are later tossed aside like cum rags, but the structures remain for years afterward. Old stone is meant to last; concrete, steel, and glass crumble faster, look awful and dated.
No one ever calls a castle or cathedral ‘dated.’
There’s plenty of old stone in Cardiff, though, and also something I had not dared hope to find: forest. The night I arrived, Barsha led me on a walk to the Howardian Nature preserve. Like many of my favorite urban forests, it exists in an in-between space. On one side is a highway and on the other is a line of high-tension power lines. The space betwixt them is too narrow to develop, and few humans would want to live there anyway.
However, the rest of Nature is quite happy to take up residence.
The paths through the reserve meander as first before turning enigmatically. When you enter, you are in a pleasant marshland refuge from the uglyness of the superstores.
Just before entering the refuge, though, we visited the Rhymney (pronounced Rumney). For a little while I loved a man who bore the name of that river, around whom I still do not quite know why Arianrhod often breathed. I hadn’t thought on him for almost a year, and had forgotten the connection to this river.
But there I was, standing on its muddy banks, talking to it a little, listening to it a lot. It’s a good one, that river.
The next morning, Barsha and I walked to Cardiff Bay. I wanted to see the ocean, as I had not yet seen it since arriving. The area around the port is significantly over-developed yet uninhabited. One gets the sense that the Capitalists in Cardiff had been aroused by the grunting sounds of the Celtic Tiger and hoped to join in. But all that noise from the other room was pre-recorded; pornography and Capitalist exuberance always begin and end the same way.
We returned from the bay. I was quite exhausted, and had rather damaged my feet from so much walking on pavement. Still, the moon was full that night, and I’d not yet seen nightlife in Wales. I showered, changed, and set out to see what drunk Welsh folk are like.
Turns out, they’re loud and obnoxious, at least the young business class amongst them. Men in their 20’s and early 30’s wearing button-down shirts and too much cologne howling at each other across the boulevards in search of some distraction from the misery of the work week.
It’s the same in any city, really, though Cardiff is notorious for violent revelers.
I saw no violence that night (though I’d watched a group of children punch a drunk man earlier that day). I bought a pizza, ate half and gave the other half to a homeless kid and his dog, then wandered into a gay bar.
As a rule, I generally don’t find myself unclothed inside of chapel conversions in decaying coal towns in the Welsh mountains. At some point that night and into the next morning, I did. It’s a bit of a long story, perhaps a bit lurid. Hot muscled mohawked 61 year old Scottish punk with a massive inheritance and one 22 years his junior (not Scottish, without an inheritance) suddenly find themselves throwing each other against the walls of a Welsh gay bar’s urinals and then end up 45 minutes north of Cardiff on the top floor of the elder’s recent old-building conversion. And they throw each other around some more and then sleep a bit before doing so again.
All pilgrimages go this way, right?
The next morning I stared in awe at the hills surrounding his village, their black-hearts dug out by long-dead miners. It was all Brân, and the lingering dreams inform me still.
Briefly, Beers: London, May 21st
I was to meet Nick at 10:30 in front of Cardiff Castle. “I’ll be a bit late on account of a naked medieval chapel coal town adventure,” I texted him.
I returned to Barsha’s and thanked him for his incredible hospitality, threw my rucksack on my back again and trudged to the castle.
When one has seen many castles, they become less remarkable. Europeans don’t obsess so much with the medieval the way Americans do, because they’re still living in its fragments. Another time, though, I’ll write about how they obsess over the Native American, particularly the French and Germans.
Nick and I sipped tea. He’d just returned the night before from the Isle of Skye after meeting up with me in Manchester. He looked different, the way he always used to look different when he’d travel there from Seattle and return. I think I looked different too. I felt different, anyway, lighter, less haunted by the miasma of America.
We bade farewell at the train station. It was the second time we’d seen each other, and we’ll see each other at least once more before I am scheduled to leave Europe.
From Cardiff, I traveled to London.
One of the things you learn quite quickly about traveling is that it is really wise to avoid major cities unless you’re rich and your time is very short. Have lots of money but only a week to see France? Just go to Paris. If you have very little money and want to stretch it for as long as possible, though, avoid Paris like your life depends on it, because it costs to breathe there.
London is the same, but I had to go. I was flying out the next morning to Marseille from London Gatwick, and anyway, there was someone I needed to meet.
Alley had arrived the day before in Manchester. Experiencing an oddly parallel journey, she ended up in a rented room four blocks from where I had rented mine, ate at the same Indian restaurant as I had (by my recommendation, once I’d realised where she was staying), and had the very same sentiments about that city as I had.
She left Manchester a little before I left Cardiff, and I found her sitting on the floor against a pillar in the station, looking precisely as I figured she would on her second day in Europe. Exhausted, awestruck, giddy, disoriented. Happy.
Our plane left at 6:45 am the next morning, and so we’d planned to sleep in the airport. But it was still early evening, and so we traveled to the Embankment station to meet Lee Davies.
Lee’s fucking awesome. He’s a Brythonic polytheist and utterly charming man. He’s like a not-short version of a Tolkien dwarf, with a stout laugh full of mirth and amusement. He met us at the station and we walked along the Thames a bit while music played from a Spanish food festival a hundred feet away.
He kindly lingered with us until we had to catch a bus to Gatwick, and he bought us beers at the station in a pub crammed full of football revelers popping balloons and acting quite boyishly unruly. I’d not yet seen the phenomena yet; I don’t think I’ll need other instances to get a more full understanding of what they’re on about.
Lee walked us to the bus station, and Alley and I left, hugging Lee (he gives amazing hugs) and traveled through London to the airport where we waited for our plane to France, which is where we are now, shaking off the last bit of America.
Previous Pilgrimage Journals:
Can You Tell Me How To Get? (Brooklyn: May 10th-12th)
Across Water Are Other Memories (Manchester, May 12-13th)
What We Are Becoming, Waiting (Shrophire, May 13th-15th)
A Language of Growling Earth (Bristol, Bath, May 15th-May 18th)
Next: Marseille, Arles, Perpignan (France)