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"So, How's Wales?": The First Three Months

I have to confess: I’m not a big fan of texting. For one thing, I feel like I can never tell when the chat has come to an end, conversations and jokes bouncing back and forth then slowing to a dribble ... Is it over? Are they waiting for me to say goodbye? Am I being rude in not replying with at least a thumb’s up emoji?

I also think people tend to use texting as a sort of shorthand in situations when a more in-depth form of communication -- such as email or phone or even (gasp!) a letter (how retro!) -- would be more appropriate.

So, then, you can imagine my dismay upon receiving texts from friends back in the US: “So, how’s Wales?”

Geez, I don’t know -- how long do you have? And how much do I feel like typing? And how much detail do you want me to go into? Or would a simple “Fine” suffice?

I realise this is mostly my friends' way of saying “I’m thinking of you,” so I oughtn’t be so bristly about it. They mean well. And it’s not their fault I’m a talkative old codger who enjoys the sound of her own voice, who wants to convey some of the details, the colours, the textures....

“Huh?!?” you might be thinking. “If you’re so talkative, then where the hell have you been for three months, whilst I’ve nearly given up following this blog site at all, thinking maybe you dropped off the face of the earth?”

Fair point. I haven’t been a good blogger. In fact, as I type this, I can’t even remember the last thing I wrote, but I do know it was a while ago. I apologise.

I’ll be honest: It hasn’t been great. In fact, many aspects of it have been downright terrible. A pandemic. Lockdown after lockdown. A job I truly abhor. Loneliness. Really it’s been a series of disappointments, though which I keep swimming, convincing myself I just need to hang in there just a little bit longer and then things will be better. When the vaccine starts to work. When the weather gets warmer/lighter/sunnier. When ... I don’t know, just keep swimming. It was a lot of work to get here and I would hate to give up after only three months.

... Has it really only been three months?...

So I haven’t wanted to write. It’s boring and depressing to read such drudgery. I keep thinking something charming will come along in my new UK life, then I can regale you readers with delightful stories of centuries-old buildings or quaint village traditions.

Still waiting.

So, then, how’s Wales?

In the spirit of texting, the short version is this: “It’s OK. Not horrible. Very green and wet and squelchy/muddy. Grey skies. Even if it’s sunny it still might rain, in, like, five minutes. People are mostly friendly but sometimes completely incomprehensible, between the accent and the COVID masks. The food is mostly atrociously bland. Most people take COVID lockdown very seriously so all the interesting things are shut, including hiking -- the trailheads are patrolled, and visitors are being told to go back home, or fined, or both. TV (telly) is mostly of excellent quality, thank god, because there’s not much else to do any given day. The job is atrocious but I’m not sure how much of that has to do with Wales/UK versus me just having chosen a shitty practice. On my days off it’s OK. On my workdays, I fucking hate it and want to come back to the US.”

See? This is why I don’t text. Even in my shortest version, that’s a way lot more words than your average texter seems interested in reading. And that’s the short version.

So, then, the longer version:

Where to start? Well, I should see where I finished with my last post. Hang on a sec. [insert “Girl from Ipanema” MUZAK here]

Right. End of November was the last blog post. I’d only been at the job for ten days. Wow. I forgot all that happened so quickly. Trial by fire, I guess.

Since then, I have to be honest, it’s been more of the same. It would be hard for me to chronicle a blow-by-blow description of the past two-plus months, and probably not very interesting. But maybe it helps to at least flesh it out a bit.

Housing: I finally convinced the real estate company my savings account is not the result of years spent trafficking drugs, and they graciously allowed me to rent their enormous four-bedroom converted farmhouse for an exorbitant amount of money, once I agreed to paying six months rent in advance. (No matter. I have to pay it anyway.) But the house has no appliances, which is not atypical for the UK, especially rural dwellings. So whilst working and in lockdown, I had to somehow acquire a fridge, a stove and a washer. (People don’t really have clothes dryers here, mostly because electricity is wicked expensive.) And arrange for delivery. At Christmastime. And when I asked for the day off from work, I got a sniffy and shitty response from my employer, who did ultimately “grant” me the day off but not without pushback (“You really couldn’t arrange it on any other day?”). I also cleverly arranged for the heating oil to be delivered even before I moved in so I could be certain not to run out of fuel during the Christmas holidays, only to be billed for the company having filled both tanks (I didn’t even know there were two tanks) because I wasn’t there when they delivered. $$$, or I should say £££.

Housing, part 2: Television & WiFi -- My house is a bit adorable, if entirely too large for my needs. It’s an old stone farmhouse with foot-thick stone walls, painted white (as are my neighbours’ homes, all of us clustered together on some old earl’s estate or fiefdom or whatever the hell they call it when someone owns acres and acres of Welsh farmland and all the buildings on it), with bulletproof hedges lining the single lane “Unnamed Road” (per my car’s SatNav) between here and the main road. There’s an open stone shed which is just big enough for me to nose my SUV’s hood (bonnet) underneath for protection from rain & frost, but not big enough to prevent its modern and far-too-large arse (boot) from hanging out into the elements. A white picket fence. Most of the time, the air smells like cow shit. Or sheep shit. (My olfactory senses not yet refined enough to distinguish the two.) The dogs and I walk the perimeter of the surrounding pastures as our morning walk. They routinely snack on god knows what. -- The point is, this house wasn’t really designed with WiFi in mind. The stone walls alone are an enormous obstacle to the signal, and while there are ways to get around it, I have yet to find one that seems to work here, in this particular house, in spite of having paid several trained professionals to investigate, assess, and then shrug their shoulders before handing me a bill. Admittedly, I don’t know what I expected, living in rural Wales, but I will say that it’s a lot harder suffering through a pandemic lockdown without Netflix or Amazon Prime than I suspect it would be otherwise. Similarly, WiFi is what supports the app that helps me talk to my sister in Ohio, and since neither of us are especially tech-savvy, we both tend to blame ourselves and our “ignorance” rather than the system itself. We’ve wasted a lot of time trying to figure out if it’s her phone or my phone or the WiFi or if it’s better if I sit in the kitchen directly next to the router. Though it was reassuring to hear her voice, even if it was just her saying, “Hello? ... Can you hear me?? ... I can’t... Hello??... Oh damn...,” we were both nearly in tears around Christmas time when we couldn’t seem to speak for more than three or four minutes before the call would drop.

Fortunately, I did get someone to hook up the TV to the antenna (aerial), so I do have the reliable old BBC and iTV to fall back on, if all else fails.

Christmas: Well, Christmas was cancelled here. It might have been everywhere else, as well. I confess, I don’t watch the news. But we were not supposed to travel, and the new “superstrain” of the virus had just been detected, and I confess I was worried about being a carrier mostly because of my job and all the half-masked humans I encounter on any given workday. I had planned to visit a friend in Cardiff (about an hour away) but first the hotel shut and then I felt worried I might infect my friend and her family were I unknowingly contagious. So I stayed home. No big deal for me, honestly, as I’m not a huge Christmas person anyway. But still kind of a bummer and made people all over generally grumpy.

Weather & Hiking: I lump these together because, well, they go together. As I mentioned above, nobody is supposed to be going anywhere, and one morning when I was searching for a place to walk the dogs (legally we’re allowed to drive somewhere to exercise but it’s supposed to be within five miles of your home -- I try to adhere to that), my car got a bit stuck in a turnaround (well, it wasn’t stuck, it’s just that my car has a really tiny turning radius so I have to do a thirteen-point turn every time I need to turn the car around) and some very angry Welshman came raging out of his car to shout at me about how walking dogs isn’t essential and “why don’t you just go home, go back to wherever it is you’re from” which I suspect was also an immigrant dig, though who knows. I should mention the angry gentleman was not wearing a mask and was smoking a cigarette as he was spewing his angry droplets all over, so, y’know, take it with a grain of salt. -- The point is, we aren’t supposed to be out & about. Trailheads are monitored, shut, and patrolled. Fines are imposed. And, to be honest, with a seemingly endless barrage of grey and glowering skies, the weather has been far from inspirational, anyway. The few clear-ish days we’ve had since I arrived have all been on my workdays. Just now I’m watching the birds at my backyard feeder station, but I’m having difficulty seeing them clearly due to the blowing spitting rain spattered against the windows. And even a clear day doesn’t guarantee to remain that way, as I’ve had workdays where one minute I’m running a dog out to the parking lot under balmy sunny skies, and two appointments later it’s pelting down buckets of rain. Hardly pleasant or relaxing weather for hiking, much less for hiking up to a nice “viewpoint.”

Lockdown: Everything here is shut, really. Or the things that aren’t, aren’t interesting. There’s only so many times I can go to the grocery store and look at the housewares section or the pharmacy offerings. A few magazines. Birthday cards. -- I did have to return some library books to the village depot the other day and noticed the local butcher shop was open. Restaurants are probably open for takeaway, but in case I haven’t mentioned it yet, I have so far found British food mostly terrible. Bland. Uninteresting. Subtle as a brick. I honestly don’t know what the Brits have against spices. Truly. The point is, the things I’d hoped to do and experience here, like cute little local cinemas, the town swimming pool, maybe a community French club, none of those things are available and are furthermore unlikely to become available for the foreseeable future. My Cardiff friend said yesterday the news is saying maybe by the end of this year things might start getting back to normal. Another year of this, then. Gosh.

The job: Is shit. It is. I won’t even go into it here, but I will say that I was warned, in advance, by other American vets who have practiced here and either left, or remained in spite of (not because of) the quality of work they can do here as practicing veterinarians. I have sadly found their predictions and experiences true and valid. Perhaps there are a a few diamonds in the rough, workplace-wise. The question is how hard do I want to work to unearth one of those. Unfortunately, my ability to remain in this country is tied inextricably to my job & sponsorship, not just for now, initially, but for the next six years, should I choose to remain that long. Hmm. Gosh (again).

Obviously (Spoiler), I stayed. Or have stayed, thus far. Still (obviously) undecided. Yesterday was a reasonably good day. I did work but was farmed out to one of my clinic’s branch practices which is, I confess, more of what I had in mind when I started thinking about working in the UK. A small quiet practice, a cup of tea to start the morning. Sure, the pay is shit and maybe the job is slightly boring, but at least there’s a bit of dignity in providing a service well done and not having the crashing chaotic stress of emergency medicine driving up my blood pressure all day. Also, it was a Saturday morning shift, so only three hours of work, then I went home. As I drove home, I drove past Raglan Castle, which is shut, but, hey, there’s a castle on that hill over there!

I arrived home at my little stone farmhouse and started a fire in the woodstove which cosied things up a bit. I watched one BBC show after another, even a bit of rugby, listening to the referee’s Scottish-accented advisories to the players, all in genteel tones and phrasing to the brutish & hulking players surrounding him yet respecting his instructions -- so much less abrasive and aggressive (and, I have to say, self-congratulatory) than American football seems to be. And the day didn’t seem so bad.

I’ve heard it said it takes about three months -- ninety days -- to settle into a place, at least getting over the initial adjustments. That’s where I am now, three months. I wish I could say I look forward to settling in further and branching out to explore some of the experiences I hoped to have here as a citizen of a non-American country (gee, how Americo-centric is that phrasing, eh!), to experience the culture, to hop trains to various destinations, to road-trip to the coast of Wales or up to Scotland, to day-trip to Hay-on-Wye’s city of books, to take the trains to London for the day, ... But I don’t honestly know how I feel about any of it. I’m glad I came. I did manage to “do it.” I’m here, living and working in Wales, in Britain. My timing is shit but, well, even before COVID, there was Brexit looming. Now there’s both. Maybe it will never be “like it was,” ever again, or not in my working lifetime. Maybe there won’t be any more fifty-quid flights to Madrid for a long weekend, or Glastonbury music festivals, for years to come. Or Brexit will restrict travel so much as to make it so difficult as to become more trouble than it’s worth. Certainly the Abergavenny Food Festival, which I'd really been eagerly anticipating, seems incredibly unlikely this year.

I don’t know. I can’t predict the future. I can only decide what I want to do with this life that I have, for as long as I have it. As of right now, I'm still not entirely sure what that means, for me, for now, for the next three months or three years.

Just keep swimming.


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