Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Glynneath, Wales: Musings from the Road

”Musings from the Road” is any post where the content is not constrained by chronology. This gives me more freedom to write about whatever comes to my mind, though the content will almost always be influenced by the tour in some way.

Travel begets travel

Often, a funny thing happens when you travel: you're given reason to travel more. When I was headed to London everyone said, “Go to Cornwall.” On the way to Cornwall, many people I met had suggestions for other things to do (perhaps curiously -- and I didn't remember it existed until it would have been a ways backwards to visit it -- nobody said anything about Stonehenge). When I was with Shaun and Dani in Dawlish, saying I had a day to get to Plymouth, Shaun said I really needed three – and indeed, while going through Dartmoor was beautiful, I didn't see any of that coastline (not the Cornwall coast). Once in Plymouth, my host Ian informed me that if I visit Scotland in the summer I'll get eaten alive by midges, which are small enough to get through mosquito netting, and require netting of their own that is more or less the fineness of a stocking.

I was originally going to swing back around to London and Scotland, having two people to visit that way, but in the interest of time (making it to Africa eventually...) I'm going to have to come back for them, and for London, and for Scotland. Maybe I'll do Europe: round 2 after going around Africa? We'll see...

It's heartbreaking to think of all the people out there I will never meet; but, it's heartwarming to know they are out there. If the sampling of people I have met is an accurate sample of the rest of the world, then there are hundreds, probably thousands of places I could go and feel like I belong. Because yes, the landscapes are beautiful, the history is rich, and the adrenaline of getting to everything by your own power is an enviable high. But the people are really what make you feel like you belong.

So the problem is doubled, then: there are the places you hear of when you visit the places you go, and there are the places you go that you then want to go back to. You can bet when I was cycling the north coast of Cornwall it crossed my mind to go across the peninsula and revisit Dani and Shaun in Dawlish.

That's Alright Then, or, British English

England's primary language is English, but it's British English. This doesn't just mean speaking with a British accent, it also means some different words and phrases. The one that caught me the most off guard was “that's alright then” instead of “you're welcome” or just as a conversion closer. For the British English speakers out there, saying “that's alright” in the US might be considered passive aggressive. So for my first week in England I was wondering how I managed to offend everybody. One conversation in particular got a little out of hand:

British dude: “Good morning.”
Me: “Good morning.”
British dude: “That's alright then.”
(pause), me: “Um... can I help you?”
British dude, over loud traffic: “I just said good morning.”
Me: “What?”
British dude, yelling: “I said, GOOD MORNING!”
Me, timidly, “Okay, good morning.”
British dude: “That's alright.”

Here are some other noteworthy differences (British English on the left, American English on the right):
- Bubble and squeak = Leftovers.
- Pastie (pronounced “past-ee,” “paste-ees” are something you wear on your chest) = Meat calzone, sort of like farmer's pie... but shaped like a calzone... but a pastie.
- Cream tea = Tea, scones, jam, and clotted cream. If you're in Cornwall, the jam goes on first; if in Devon, the cream goes on first (one of my hosts explained this to me and, upon stating the opposite of what he does, he said that “just seems wrong.” There is even a story about this that will go on the map at some point).
- Clotted cream = The fattiest part of the milk skimmed off the top.
“That's alright then” or “Thank you” = You're welcome (yes, this means when you say “thank you” the reply is sometimes “thank you”).
- Rosette = Ribbon (an award for placing in an event).
- Route (way to get somewhere) = route, but in British English it's pronounced “root;” a “ra-out” is the first part of the word “router,” the tool used to engrave wood.
- Cycle track = Bike path or bike route.
- Boot (Shaun: “Our caravan's small enough we just put it in the boot”) = Trunk (of a car).
- Caravan = Mobile home.
- “Course you can” = Response to “can I please have...” (eg when ordering food or a product behind a counter).
- Mudguards = Fenders.
- “Can I use the tap in the loo?” = “Can I use the sink in the bathroom?”

Hospitality and Invisible Rules

I've been doing a lot of thinking on this trip about when it's appropriate to ask someone for help and what it means to be a good guest. It would be sweet to stay with someone every night, of course, but that feels... dirty? I am capable of camping and I don't want to take advantage of people. I stay with people primarily to get to know them, because touring by myself without ever spending time with anyone would get quite lonely, and because people are awesome and part of the point of this trip is to prove to myself and anyone who cares to listen that complete strangers from other countries really aren't that scary. As a secondary reason, if I need a shower and someone is willing to give me one, I just saved $50-200 over a motel/hotel. Often my host enthusiastically cooks, cleans, etc. on my behalf (last night I camped in someone's field; an hour after “Thanks, see you in the morning” they walked out with a beer, a sandwich, and chips, concerned that I looked “a little skinny”), but I am more than willing to cook, do the dishes, and make and strip the bed to save that cost.

My conclusion thus far is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all rule, either in the sense of the person touring, the tour they are on, or the country they are touring through. I stayed with people just under 1/2 the time in the US, though almost every stay with a Warmshowers host was instigated all or in part by weather. I can camp in the rain, it's just... annoying. Not to mention after a day of pedaling in the rain a warm shower and a bed are that much more morale-raising. Despite being instigated by weather (there was one last-minute call after a forecast change where all I asked for was a roof over my head, specifically stating that the garage would do), there isn't a single host I spent less than an hour or two getting to know.

I've been in Europe 13 nights and spent 5 indoors; the rest have either been stealth camping or camping with permission (“Can I put my tent in your yard for one night/do you own a field nearby?”). I expected to spend only 3 of those 5 indoor nights indoors; the other two, I was invited in without asking. It's felt about right.

For a while, staying with people made me a little nervous. I had a stay with one host that more or less exploded in my face when I wrote about it on my blog. I won't get into details for the purposes of privacy, but suffice to say I didn't feel I did anything wrong during my stay, yet I was told I somehow did everything wrong, so I was a bit rattled. Maybe I was off my game and was being rude without realizing (I make mistakes from time to time, sometimes egregious ones!). In any case, for the next few hosts I was very sure to ask if there was anything I could do – the dishes? Strip the bed? Cover the tip? – but the answer was always “no.” Finally, one of them said to me that, and I quote, “my good manners were getting in the way of me enjoying myself.” Their policy was that when they invite someone into their home, their only expectations are that the guest doesn't kill them and take their stuff – that's it.

I often get into arguments with my friends over whether we can judge people based on “invisible rules:” rules that people “just know,” but of course there are some people who don't “just know.” I once shaved my head in college just to see what it was like, and I was quick to be told about all the things I could no longer do: I could no longer talk to children, wear camouflage, act like a clown, etc... because there were invisible rules that if you were bald and did those things, you were a frightening person. I had no idea! (I have no desire to shave my head again, not because of those prejudices, but just because I like having hair more). There is still an outstanding debate between some of my friends and I about whether wearing a fedora automatically transforms you into a bad person. I've written before about localized prejudices – in some countries it's polite to sit in the front of the cab, in some the back; in some you tip, in others you can but rarely do, in others it's rude; etc.; etc. I don't want to discuss whether these prejudices are “right” or “wrong,” I am simply stating them as food for thought.

If you invite someone into your home that you have never met before, I don't think it's reasonable to expect them to know your house rules unless you tell them. I absolutely want to be polite and not make anyone uncomfortable. But isn't the best experience a host can give a guest to feel like they are at home? If someone came to my home and it was their custom to, I don't know, only eat after 7, or eat all the bread in the house, or get up at 2 AM and pray to their god, or make their cream tea jam first – I, personally, wouldn't feel comfortable telling them to do it “my way.” Yea, I might be out of bread, but... honestly it would be a really interesting conversation learning where that custom came from. And if I wanted them to, for instance, clear the table, or not eat my super-expensive imported diamond-flour bread, I wouldn't expect them to know that unless I communicated it to them. If I wasn't ready to learn something about the way someone else lives their life, I wouldn't invite them in, or I would state clearly my expectations.

As a cycle tourist, I know after pedaling 60-80 miles, often up hills, in 90 F weather or in the rain, the last thing I want to do is cook or clean or make the bed. I am absolutely willing to; but, I think most people who host do so because they want me to feel at home. They want me to be able to recharge. And I think they want that because they've been in my shoes before and know how awesome it is to be able to relax and be yourself. They get pleasure from knowing that for however brief a time, despite being hundreds or thousands of miles away from home, despite not having seen anyone in person I've known for more than 12 hours, I had a home away from home. That knowledge alone seems to be, more often than not, the only thing they expect in return.

It can be a fine line, of course, and I'm not saying I'm perfect, or giving myself permission to do whatever I want when I'm a guest in someone's home. Mostly what I'm getting at is, it's been interesting seeing the different perspectives on expectations towards guests and how those expectations are communicated. The places where I've felt most at home are the places where I get to put my metaphorical feet up, and unless those people are lying or keeping it to themselves (possible), they didn't mind. I've also been asked to, for instance, do all the dishes, and I was happy to do so.

It's also been interesting considering what my expectations of guests might be if I one day settle down. I think I'd want them to feel at home, and I like to think I'd be understanding if they didn't know all of my customs. Time will tell.

What are your thoughts, dear reader?

Cycling in England

I've heard many a time that cycling in Europe is better than cycling in the States. I think that's true. It's hard to explain why, really – the roads aren't as straightforward, they tend to curve around and end suddenly and you end up taking 5 right turns in a row and still going the same direction you set out going. I often navigate by memorizing the next few turns (right, right, left; or second right, then left; or I actually take out my compass (yes I actually have a compass) and always turn east) so I don't have to pull out my map as often to save battery on my phone. There are, so far, about the same number of bike paths/cycle tracks as compared to the states.

I think it's mostly a cultural thing: more people bike, and (for that reason or another) the cars are better around bikes. Often I'll think I'm on a road not intended for bikes, either because it's busy or because it's hilly, but often when I am most in doubt is when I am passed by another cyclist. The cars very politely wait behind you if they can't pass you safely; only once or twice have I been passed a little closer and/or a little faster than I'd prefer. If I pull over to let cars pass, or just wave them by, a good chunk of the time I'll get the two-honk “thank you” I was once so startled and embittered by. One time I heard a huge truck coming from a mile away and pulled over; after passing, he honked “shave and a haircut, two bits.” Sometimes people just wave.

It is certainly hillier. I remember biking through Pittsburgh in the States and thinking, “The good news is, this is as bad as it's going to get.” Wrong. There was Devon. Then there was Cornwall. Then there was the Mendips. Now there's Wales (to be fair, Wales has been very well graded so far). I would bet the majority of cyclists here are fitter than the majority of cyclists in the States, both because cycling seems to be taken much more seriously here and because of the hills.

Of course, I'm a tough judge. I grew up in Minneapolis, which regularly contends with Portland for the most cycle-friendly city in the US. Even the least cycle-friendly city here has been very cycle-friendly. I don't intend to put the US and Europe head-to-head, at least not until I've visited France and the Netherlands. Just musing.


  1. It is always fun to read your blog entries. And just so you know I look forward to the next.
    I would have to agree with you. That when staying with a host, every situation is going to be different. And maybe you will have to ask more questions as to what is okay or not. It will be interesting to hear more of your findings on the different cultures as you go on your way. Something as simple as when to put jam on bread is what I call fun fact knowledge. Also thanks for the British English to American English comparison! I find it sad that you couldn’t take more time to do and go places that you missed or that are suggested to you. Who better to get advice on where to go than the local people. Do you have to have a time frame? What is the hurry? Ether way have fun and thanks for the update!

    1. Thanks for the comment Rachael. :)

      The time frame/hurry question is one I spend a lot of time thinking about. Part of the reason I move on is anxiety -- I plan to post more about this later. But for some reason there is a fear within me that if I'm not moving on, something bad will happen. Maybe like I'm using up all my karma in one place. Maybe I just need to have a sense of progress; stagnancy worries me. It's nonsensical, but that's anxiety for you.

      Another part of the reason is that there is so much so see, I'm worried if I stay in one place I won't see anything elsewhere! I could spend months in England, but I wouldn't get to see Wales, Ireland, France, etc. before the money, my visa, or the good weather runs out. It is a balancing act I'm not sure there is a way to win -- except perhaps to come back... or to win the lottery and have all our governments give everyone indefinite visas.

      I want to explore the anxiety thing and this trip is helping. I also want to see as much as possible while I'm not "tied down..." I'm not sure if there's a "right answer" on how to do it, but I'm just doing the best I can.

      Does that answer your question?

    2. Yes! I know this anxiety friend. She hangs with me in the most inconvenient times. As much as I try to get along at time we are at odds. I am also a FRIM believer that you know when you need to go left instead of right. If that make sense. Enjoy the ride and have fun.

  2. It is too bad that you can't see it all, but that's a different sort of agenda. It seems that wanted to go back is the sign of a great trip and a good experience. Frank used to always say that you should save something for the next time.

    Interesting thoughts on hospitality and invisible rules. I like your conclusion about how you would be as a host, but alas, I think that there are many variations in people and their expectations. At least with total strangers, there are no preconceived notions. I thinks that their extension of hospitality comes with no expectations in return that they don't make clear. I'm proud of the way you are navigating these encounters. I think that the one that blew up in your face was more about what you wrote in your blog than anything you did or didn't do while staying with them.

    England, again, sounds like a lovely place to bike and visit - slower and more accepting that the American way of life.

    Love the British English!!!

    Love you, Mom