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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wales


Without warning, the English on the road signs along M4, one of the UK’s main motorways, became the secondary language. Coincidentally (or not), it also started raining the first time I crossed the England/Wales border. The misty rain transformed the dreary English countryside into a mythical Welsh wonderland filled with mountains and sheep, accompanied by an incomprehensible language intended to guide drivers through a new territory. The translation of “Croeso i Cymru” is “Welcome to Wales,” written in one of the oldest surviving languages in Europe.
St. John’s Church has stood guard over Cardiff’s changing cityscape for more than 800 years.
From a single road sign, it is evident there is a strong sense of “hireath” and “hwyl,” Welsh words for longing, passion and pride for one’s country. As I stroll along Queen Street, Cardiff’s pedestrian shopping center, there is an undeniable buzz in the air. Just last year, the city celebrated its 50th birthday as Wales’ capital, and its centenary year as a city. The construction of modern high-rise buildings distracts me as I try to savor the white marble façade of Cardiff’s traditional architecture.
Youthful moms and trendy teens hunt for the latest London fashions at Top Shop and H&M. Tourists flock to the legendary Cardiff Castle for a dose of Welsh history and culture, while rugby enthusiasts pour out of the pub, stumbling toward the Jetsons-inspired Millennium Stadium.Huddled in the corners are buskers and street musicians, aspiring to become the next Manic Street Preachers, Stereophonics and Goldie Lookin’ Chain — Welsh rockers and rappers who are defining the “Cool Cymru” movement. Amid the chatter on Queen Street, I eavesdrop on conversations in English, Arabic and, increasingly, Welsh.
During centuries of British occupation in Wales, the use of the Welsh language was quelled, because it undermined the legitimacy of the British Empire. Recorded history shows the Welsh always felt they were different from their English brethren. In fact, the word “Cymry” denotes the Welsh as “foreign.” Nevertheless, the Welsh language refused to die. The 17th century first standard Welsh Bible “saved” the language from possible extinction, while the coal-mining industry helped the Welsh language flourish and expand across the countryside during the Industrial Revolution. Welsh visionaries created the Plaid Cymru movement in 1925, thus creating the inaugural Welsh National Party to preserve a sense of “Welshness.”

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