Thursday, June 23, 2011

cardiff singer of the world

When I first saw the street banners for BBC Cardiff Singer of the World I thought the claim was uncharacteristically boastful and exaggerated of the Welsh. The U.S. claims World titles for many of its internal contests and I was wary of how a competition could make such a declaration-- especially a competition of which I had never heard.

Was I wrong. This singing competition gives young opera singers from all the continents except Antartica (and possibly Africa) a dazzling platform in front of the Welsh and all the premier powers-that-be in the opera world. It is a first-class and truly international showcase and I'm sorry it only takes place every other year.

I know next to nothing about opera, except the general knowledge that it is most often sung in foreign languages and is likely a long night at the theatre. What was marvelous about this event, which took place all last week, was that it was not only open to viewing live at reasonable prices, but was also presented expertly on television. At the end of an evening's competition a half-hour snippet of the night's singers was shown on TV, followed the next night by their performances in full with extraordinarily concise and educated commentary by international experts of opera and voice. The world of opera and the talent in it is deep and I found the whole experience fascinating and making me want more, more. Canada had a representative too, Sasha Djihanian from Montreal, and she sang beautifully.

Also, in a lighter vein, but along the same line, is a TV show called Popstar to Operastar, which is coincidentally or not, also airing for several weeks. Its name pretty well describes what it sets out to do, and it also is a great primer for the ABC's of the opera world.

In a vein even lighter, the hotel I work at had free tickets this week to the tour of the latest finalists of Britain's Got Talent. So, I went to my first non-sporting event at Motorpoint Arena in central Cardiff and had a better night out than I was expecting. Some of the finalists can only be classed as entertainers -- others carry some serious talent.

It's been quite the week for culture. Last Saturday I was passing by the Tabernacle Welsh Baptist Chapel in the city centre where the free Nativity show was presented last Christmas. On this day there were signs outside inviting people in to hear their restored organ in an hour's free concert. It was the first time I was in the church proper and the organ is like nothing I have ever seen or heard before. More classical music with which I am unfamiliar, played beautifully. This church holds services in Welsh on Sundays and this past week, after work, I could  hear the men's choir singing in Welsh as I passed it. I will probably visit it sometime if I can to hear them.

I have just read more about this Chapel and its organ (apparently fixed last fall) online and will definitely need to visit it more often.

Monday, June 13, 2011

merthyr tydfil

The River Taff running through Merthyr Tydfil
For the price of an hour's minimum wage I am able to buy a return rail or bus ticket to several places in south Wales and England. A week or so ago I went inland to the town of Merthyr Tydfil in the Welsh Valleys and enjoyed a very fine hour's train ride through beautiful countryside and a day in a town that once held four ironworks.

I think I decided on the visit to Merthyr simply because I liked the name. From Welsh it translates as the 'memorial to St. Tydfil,' a daughter of an ancient king. Today, the town feels as if it's looking for a new start. It may be badly in need of a planner (the train station arrives on the doorstep of a shopping mall and its architecture is a jumbled mixture of the old with badly aging 60s renovations), but somehow Merthyr seemed to have a strong heart beating defiantly beneath its fractured surface.

There isn't much to do in the town's centre except shop, but outside the town is the Victorian-era faux-castle home of one of the ironworks industrialists which has been turned into a good little museum on Merthyr's time as a hotbed of the Industrial Age. The nice lady at the information centre told me it was 'only ten minutes' away, but in reality Cyfarthfa Castle is a twenty-minute walk from the town's centre -- uphill (which means it's downhill on the return!)

The museum relates the disparities between workers and wealthy employers and it gave me a good sense of how horrid conditions were while also pointing out that for many people industrialization gave them a chance to move away from backbreaking subsistence farming. Tough choices, sometimes no choices.

View from Cyfarthfa Castle with Cefn Viaduct in background

Not surprisingly, given the sense I had about the town today, Merthyr has been a hotbed for lightweight boxing champions.

While having a bite to eat at Anne's Pantry on High Street, I met another little big man. Walking purposely through the cafe a young boy of about four, tousled haired in a pair of capri-length military pants, surveyed the tables and clients proudly. He carried a small cloth with him, walked to the back where his mother, the owner, was in the kitchen and complained that he wanted to clean some more. She gave him some cutlery to set at a table. Following that, like a captain proudly striding across his ship's bridge, he carried salt and pepper shakers to a table outside.

When I got to the train platform for the ride home (trains running every half hour until almost midnight), I met three young boys of about ten years of age on their bicycles and skateboards. A red-haired lad (or ginger, as they say here) immediately engaged me in conversation, asking if I was going to Cardiff, to which I replied that yes, I was. They were going to Newport, just beyond Cardiff, and had come up to Merthyr to use the skatepark, he told me. They were also going to visit the skatepark in Cardiff Bay before returning home. How wonderful and rather marvelous, I thought, that these boys use the train to broaden their skateboarding options. They were nice and well-behaved but nonetheless young boys and got thrown off the train for going up the aisle one time too many for the conductor.

High Street

Local lads bareback at the local

eire play

Cliffs of Moher with O'Brien Viewing Tower on top

Sister-in-law Wendy and brother Kelly O'Brien, niece Kate de LaPlante and husband Neil,
Kate Rozwadowski and boyfriend (nephew) Michael O'Brien, nephew Shane O'Brien:
at the Cliffs of Moher

Doolin Bay near boat docks for Aran Islands

Inch Beach

Leacanabuile Ring Fort -- 9th or 10th century

Ballycarbery (McCarthy) Castle from Ring Fort

My time in Ireland with my brother Kelly and his family was much too short. I was only able to join them for three days of their week-long trip through the west of the Emerald Isle. My photos do not do justice to much of what we saw either, I'm afraid.

Kelly, Wendy and Shane picked me up at Shannon International Airport in Limerick on our way to a two-night stay in Ennis, where Kate, Neil, Katie and Mike met us the next morning, flying in from Boston and Chicago respectively. On the first night in Ennis we were able to hear some good Irish music at a local pub and introduce my brother to the exciting game of rugby, via the telly. On the second night, with everyone on hand, our Irish music never materialized as the Eurovision Song Contest final played out on television. While waiting with incredulity for the final results, my nieces and nephews played a storytelling game they've played since they were young, with everyone in the circle extending a sublimely ridiculous storyline that ended with Kate and Neil as mad scientists saving (or was it destroying?) the Earth with the help of Air Oars (or -- was it Errors -- or was it Eire Ores?). Having never played this game before, I was surprised at how difficult it can be to keep a story going and to think creatively and quickly.

The next morning we were off to Dingle and a housekeeping 'cottage' we were renting for much of the week. We spent the next two days in the car for the most part, driving around the Dingle Peninsula on Day 1 and around the Ring of Kerry on Day 2. This was most certainly too much time in the car for many of us, not least the drivers Kelly and a jetlagged Neil, but as is often the result at times like this, one sees unforgettable sights. At the end of Day 2 around the Ring (another term for a driving loop) of Kerry, as night beckoned, we found ourselves passing through two spectacular isolated mountain passes -- with rocks and sheep and twisting narrow roads that led to a summit silhouetted by the fading light of day.

On the Ring of Kerry, on the way to a ring fort (the fortified farmstead of a wealthy 9th century landowner), we came across the best climbing castle I have seen -- and I've seen a good share of castles throughout Wales. Regrettably, I left my camera in the car for this jaunt, but fortunately Neil and others took some great shots of the ivy-covered stronghold. My Dad used to rub it in to his friend Bob McCarthy about how the O'Briens defeated the McCarthys in ancient Ireland. This castle, Ballycarbery (a McCarthy fort), was amazingly solid still and a thrill to clamber over. Consequently, we claimed it once again for the O'Brien clan.

The fishing, tourist town of Dingle is a fine one, and I wish I had been able to stay and see more of it. The Irish music at the pub was the best I was fortunate to hear on my too-short stay. The traditional music scene is very much alive in Ireland.

Ireland is very expensive though. Pub fare and most daily costs were twice as high as here in Wales, so my limited budget was pretty well blown after two meals. Also, we were charged 6 euros a head to see the Cliffs of Moher -- highway robbery in my opinion. Accommodation costs seem to be on a par however, and many places we drove through were overcrowded with available B&Bs and places to let. In Dingle we stayed in a house with four very large bedrooms and there were many homes specifically built for tourists that lay empty. On my way back to Shannon Airport, while waiting for a connection at the Limerick bus station, I found out one of the reasons for this surplus. Waiting for the airport shuttle with me were a man and a woman of Irish descent, unrelated, who both happened to have lived, or were living in England. They began talking about the high cost of everything in Ireland and how 'Ireland is the only place in the world that raises prices instead of cutting them when there's financial problems.' The man spoke of how the government a few years ago gave people money to build hotels and places to let, but that there were now too many of them, and none of them were making money. He said it was cheaper for these people to let the new places operate at a loss rather than pay the government back with a forfeit on their loans. In the meanwhile, older established places couldn't compete and were closing. And, of course, many of these newer places will close as well.

When you're back in North America the European Union seems much stronger than while you are here. I've noticed much discontent for the Union among people -- not necessarily the Welsh, but among some of the people I work with: Latvians, Portuguese. There is good and bad in it. I fear the whole world is built on an economic house of cards.

I hope Ireland can hold on to its traditions and beauty as it battles its very difficult financial status.

Erin Go Bragh!

O'Briens lay seige to Ballycarbery (McCarthy) Castle -- photo by Neil de LaPlante

Thursday, June 9, 2011

9 months

Hard to believe I've been here in Wales nine months already. In many ways, it feels like two weeks.

The Eire update is still to come. The long bank weekend here at the end of May was an incredibly trying and exhausting one at work. Even given three days off following it, I had no energy and consequently caught a bad head cold that is only now fading away. A co-worker (the superwoman of our housekeeping department) said it was the worst she'd experienced in two years. She had four days off and spent them exhausted as well. (It was a perfect storm -- hen and stag parties, small children and cribs, a broken service elevator -- five days of nonstop craziness at the hotel.)

However, because of the gift of three days off in a row, I managed to get away for a day trip to Merthyr Tydfil, a town in the Valleys about an hour's train ride away. I'm getting back intoa work/play rhythm and hope to get some serious blogging done within the week.

And, the sun has come out as well. One thing I've learned since being in the U.K. is that if the sun is shining you don't sit inside a library in front of a computer. You get outside and bask and work on your tan!