A Welsh Story
Gwen wanted to stay in her homeland. She loved the green mountains dotted with shifting white cotton droplets, the smell of grass and wild flowers. Her dad worked at the quarry in Nantlle Valley. Mounds of slate pieces, randomly piled up behind their disheveled row house, were her constant companions since she was a little girl. She enjoyed the occasional sunny days when the veneered rock absorbed the heat and she indulged herself by placing little warm pebbles on her hands and hair, her most prized attribute. She was shy, but quite self-determined and sharp in her teen years.
Her mom did not survive her twin brother’s labor; they never came back from hospital. Gwen lived with her dad whom she did not see much due to his strenuous work at the quarry. There was not much talk in the house, she took care of the household chores and he hardly ever spoke to her during the rare moments they spent together. At times, she got help from Mrs. Powell, a neighbor who was empathetic of the young girl’s circumstances, left so early to bear so big a burden.
Slate production was dwindling. Roofs and other construction were no longer made out of the dark rock. Even school blackboards were replaced by synthetic materials. People started leaving the area searching for better opportunities. Gwen’s school friends were no longer around. An abandoned barn replaced the town’s school building; the few children who remained in the village were taught by one teacher in the same room.
Gwen’s uncle Owen left Wales right after the war. He went to America. Lots of Welsh people settled in Pennsylvania and named the towns with familiar old country toponyms: Saint David’s, Bryn Mawr, Gladwyn, North Wales. Uncle Owen came to town for Gwen’s mom funeral. He was well dressed and spoke with a peculiar American accent. Gwen was fascinated with her uncle; “what a charming and stylish guy”! —she thought when she first met him. Her dad did not share this appeal, quite the contrary, he resented him for abandoning the family.
The funeral was imminent and Gwen was getting things ready. She wanted to impress her uncle and decided to ask Mrs. Powell if she could do her hair, she had been a hairdresser in the past. Gwen had light brown, thick and shiny curls. The former stylist enjoyed working on Gwen’s hair and the end result was stounding; the young village girl was unrecognizable with her new up do. Gwen and her uncle were talking at the kitchen table when her father entered the room in the evening, after a hard day’s work. They were drinking tea and enjoying their conversation about life in America. Gwen’s dad stumbled towards his daughter and stared at her transformed looks. With an irate red face and swelling veins on his throat, he took the only knife on the kitchen rack, grabbed her by the hair and pushed her out the door. When she came back, her gorgeous mane was gone. Uncle Owen was nowhere to be seen. An envelope with funds for the journey to America arrived a month later.
April 23, 1960 was the last day Gwen made tea and porridge for breakfast in the old rickety kitchen. The grown weeds outside the house hardly allowed her to carry her beaten suitcase to the town’s center bus stop. Departure day had finally arrived.
–Take care, father. There is enough food in the pantry to carry you for a week. I will write when I get to America.
–No need to bother writing, daughter. Silicosis will take me before your letter arrives.
The immensity of the ocean fascinated Gwen: shades of blue, gray and green offered an array of forever shifting colors and textures. She remained on the deck contemplating the water and thinking about her new destination, envisioning a vast open world. The horizon vanished at night time. Big waves sent the crowds to pile up in the steerage lower deck of the ship. Many people got sea-sick, including Gwen. The stench of bodily fluids and the grumbling of the mob prevented Gwen from sleeping.
–What’s your name and surname? —a huge immigration officer asked her. Gwen could not utter a word after the long journey. She tried to respond but couldn’t. The man grew impatient.
–Don’t you have a tongue?
She was nervous and the more she wanted to say something, the less she could talk. A female officer approached her and asked gently to hand the immigration paperwork. Everything was written in Welsh, but her name and last name were clear on the piece of paper. She took her to a different area and helped her through the process.
The real journey to Saint David’s, PA just started. She was to work at the Radnor Hotel in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. Uncle Owen never picked her up at New York’s harbor.
After leaving the customs/immigration area, she sat on a street bench to collect her thoughts and find a way to catch the train to Philadelphia; the ticket came in Uncle Owen’s envelope delivered to Wales a few months ago. Rushing people in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors and attire passed her by. Flashing lights, honking sounds, yellow cabs, loud ambulance sirens and the blue blinking lights of police dissipated her perplexity, –everything is so big here! —she thought in awe.
She knew a little English and recognized a few words in the billboards. The urban street net arranged numerically gave her comfort and confidence. She made it to Pennsylvania Station a few hours later. The journey to Philadelphia was trouble-free.
Esther came to pick her up. She was a Welsh woman who knew uncle Owen and had lived in Pennsylvania for a while.
–“Croeso,” welcome to America! How was your journey?
–A bit long! But I am happy to have finally arrived—responded Gwen.
The hotel was luxurious, as if taken out of a movie. Shining floors, colorful rugs, perfectly uniformed attendants, elegantly dressed guests, it was a dream come through!
The American version of St. Davids was opposite to the Welsh one: wide roads, heavy traffic, no people walking in the streets, lots of modern, tall buildings. What a contrast to the medieval city in Wales she visited with her mom on a pilgrimage to St. David’s shrine on a long- gone March.
A few months later, the glamour and anticipation were replaced by a strong feeling of “hiraeth”, longing for her home town mountains and the simplicity of life there. The piles of material things that surrounded her in America could not supplant the warm slate pebbles that comforted her back home.
—Trigonos, Wales, July 2018-Rose Valley, PA, August 2018
El mercat de Vic
Saturday is market day at Vic. The vendors come from all around to sell their goods. The “Plaça Major” (Main Square) is transformed into a buzzing medina where all kinds of thigs are displayed on the make-shift stalls heaping with local products: honey, herbs, fresh cheese, sausage, fruit, vegetables and myriad recently harvested foodstuffs. The air smells ripe with a combination of distinctive food scents. A countless selection of clothing, baskets, pottery and articles of different shapes, colors and textures are on display at the center of the square. People have been gathering at this market since the middle ages.
The multicolored canvas, together with the strong aromas in the hot morning sun made us dizzy as we wandered around the market. A Moroccan man surrounded with teas, herbs and piles of “tagine”, the cylindrical pottery to make his homeland dish, lauded the exquisite flavor of lamb and other Moroccan meals cooked in the tubular artifact. His unwavering words oozed pride and nostalgia, clients clad in traditional “chilabas” and jihab covered women were questioning his prices.
Once we left the market towards the quieter narrow streets behind the square, I saw a young family from a different African country strolling away. The father was pushing a late-model stroller and wore jeans and a white fitted t-shirt, the mother donned a dress with a colorful red, green and yellow pattern that revealed her far-off origin; her beauty enhanced against the light-colored stone houses in the background. They were walking around the Cathedral, like many other families on Saturday morning. I heard them speaking in their native tongue, maybe they are from a Sub-Saharan country—I thought. Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe? Their presence in Catalonia’s core impacted me. How did they get here? Did they arrive in a crowded “patera” (makeshift dinghy) to the southern Spanish shores? Did they have family or friends who gave them a hand to emigrate from their African land? They looked at ease in their clothes, language and difference. Their young son, comfortably riding in the super deluxe carriage. I could not help but think about the boy’s future in his new land. In a few years he would enter a local school. His mother would take him there dressed in her original garb, adding to the mosaic of new faces in Vic’s recent diverse environment, clashing with the traditional and proud Catalans. She will be part of the new Catalonia, enhancing this millenary culture, so immersed in atavist ways. Her son will speak Catalan and ask her to wait for him a few blocks away from school, evading his class-mates scorn when they hear the mother speaking an unfamiliar language. His family’s divergent appearance and manners will cause him shame. The sensitive mother might exchange her exquisite African clothes for a western outfit made in China. She may learn Catalan and join other immigrant women contesting a closedminded society that doesn’t accept differing ways. Yet, she may be too busy to claim her rights. Her work and domestic chores may present too much of a burden; keeping quiet would be a better way to keep her family safe. Her own needs might wash away, joining a community of women whose silence speaks louder than words. In time, they may find their way into a blank page.
—L’Avenc, Catalonia, July, 2015-Rose Valley, PA, August, 2018
Stone, oak wood, gray, brown, hard surfaces, deep tones. As you enter the house a feelingof stern and traditional old ways overcomes you. Lower level animal quarters send warmth and stench throughout the house. All senses blend at this point: the coldness of the stone, the rugged surrounding mountains and cliffs, dotted with patches of green to soften the hard surfaces. The brightness of the outside is replaced by the darkness within the house; the long shaped narrow windows are to keep the warmth in and the light out. Animal smell blends in with freshly baked bread, the best antidote to the cold and rough outside.
Women are in the kitchen getting ready for the upcoming big holiday. Chicken bones and vegetables are intermingling in the hot stock pot, the base of many dishes. The intense smell of the soup blends well with the aroma of the “pilota” (big meatball) sautéed right next to the big crock. A turkey is roasting in the open fire pit, warming the room and dissipating the unpleasant smell. The long table at the “sala,” (formal dining room) covered with an embroidered cloth with a capital A, multiple dishes, goblets, and cutlery impeccably placed awaits the big occasion. The whole family will gather for the meal, the grandmother, Sra. Avenc, at the head of the table. Blessings will be complemented by Occitan poems and a few traditional songs. No assigned place settings, aristocrats and farmers will seat together without any previous arranged order. Women outnumber men due to young males participating in the crusade battling the insurgent Muslims. The two Avenc sons are in the campaign against the Jews, a more conspicuous group in the Catalan area. Sra. Avenc opposes this confrontation given her friendship with Guillem Ferrè, a Jew who helped her financially. There are two empty settings at the table for Armand and Gifré Avenc, facing Colom’s (Christopher Columbus) face, sculpted on the closest entry door on the left. The old matriarch keeps on looking at the head of the explorer, with his rosy cheeks and cocoa nuts sculpted around his head, adding an exotic and luxurious air. Colom’s blushing gaze and disdainful aura replaces the Avenc brother’s absence. Sra. Avenc grows steadily uncomfortable with the pervasive Colombian look as she keeps on spooning the first course’s soup. The juxtaposition of the conqueror’s presence and her son’s absence becomes too painful. The exotic flavors of cacao and other condiments are a reminder of Colom’s findings, but also a sign of fluctuating times. The persecution of the Jews started when the Catholic sovereigns, who subsidized Colom’s adventure in the Indies, gained so much power they would not share it with different ethnic groups. It was time to impose a new way of living to secure the power of the crown. Armand and Gifré had no option but to abide by the ruler’s persecutory imposition. There would be two empty table settings in future celebrations at Sra. Avenc’s table.
—L’Avenc, Catalonia, July, 2015-Rose Valley, PA, August, 2018
María Luisa Guardiola was born in Barcelona Spain. She lived there until she moved to the USA to attend graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA. She teaches Spanish language and literature at Swarthmore College since 1996, a wonderful profession that allows her to write and read a lot, although in the academic field.
She started writing creatively when she was very young, winning a prize for a short essay when she was a teenager that transported her virtually through an emblematic city; later on her travels became a reality, inspiring many stories. She started writing again after many years of learning to take life in its own terms. A few years ago, she attended a few writing workshops in different European locations and enjoyed them thoroughly; this was an opportunity to write creatively and meet like-minded people. This is the first time she publishes her creative writing pieces, having devoted most of her earlier work to academic essays.