When I first arrived in Wales many years ago, I didn’t know how profoundly it would affect me and change my viewpoint of everything. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the word for what I was feeling: hiraeth. Hiraeth isn’t homesickness, but a longing, a yearning for one’s homeland, and it is not so much that you know it when you feel it, but the emotion of hiraeth is so much more than its literal definition. In fact, it doesn’t really have a literal definition, but a broad emotional meaning. It’s spiritual.
Wales, that first time, was in so many ways, a surprise. I wanted to visit a castle, not realizing that the castles I associated with Wales were English castles used to subjugate the Welsh people rather than built by the Welsh to protect them and their interests.
Wales is a surprise, and never what you’d expect. If you expect rain, the sun will shine. If they say hill, they mean mountain. Their lifeblood is slate and coal, daffodils and leeks, but most of all the people. It’s palpable. No matter where you are in North Wales it seems that you can see the mountains. The English call it Snowdon, but it is Eriyi in Welsh – the haunt of eagles. So much more evocative, isn’t it? So much more poetic like the Welsh lilt and cadence.
That cadence of the Welsh tongue is much like the valleys and peaks of Wales itself. They know their history and remember their independence, although that mostly ended in 1282 with the beheading of Llywelyn the Last and the drawing and quartering of his brother, Dafydd, their blood as much a part of the land as the craggly rocks and the rivers.
My first trip to Wales came about by accident. Luck. Fate even. I was asked to join my college roommate in England. Sure, why not? Of course, there was more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it. I borrowed the money from my brother, who was better at keeping his than I was with mine and off I went.
My roommate asked me what I wanted to do. My only response was, “I don’t care. I want to see Stonehenge and a castle; I don’t care about the rest. I’ll follow you.” She planned it all through trains and buses and hitchhiking, hostels and B&Bs. I followed along, collecting pictures and memories.
We made our way from London at this first day of 1987, a new year. We went westward and south and west again, and eventually entered Wales. I don’t remember crossing the border but Wales was different. Welsh had made a resurgence so all the signs were bilingual. I began keeping a little dictionary in my journal although no one made us speak in consonants. W is a vowel by the way, but that’s another memory.
Wales was different.
The air was different.
The sky was different.
The sheep were different.
It didn’t rain in Wales; at least not the Wales I was in. This was January, and Britain was grey; very grey. It held the first patch of blue sky I’d seen in the two weeks I’d been on this island. It was that perfect cloud peppered Crayola sky blue color that exists nowhere else, its reflection off the quarries deepening it and the snow evening out its perfection. It must be special.
But the sky wasn’t all that made it special. There was a feeling I’d never experienced before, not deja vu, but I had been here before. I don’t know how or if, but physically I’d never, but I was.
How can everyone not feel it?
It was overpowering. I needed to be here, high in the mountains, midnight hikes, counting the stars, not having an historical clue, but knowing that I walked in the footsteps of ancestors, of family, of specialness, feeling as though I’d taken these steps before. This wasn’t restless spirits like I’ve felt at other historical holy places; these were memories, memories of feelings.
Crazy, I know.
There was a weightlessness, a joyful singing in my soul that nothing else compares to. I only imagine this is something of the feeling that people get when they travel to Israel, but I don’t actually know.
It is my spiritual home, an ancestry I wasn’t born to, but I was called on to feel, to be a part of, to let inside and settle into my soul. It is always there, this feeling of Wales and the Welsh, the people as much a part of the land, and as much a part of me as my own children.
When I went back almost twenty-three years later, I found the feelings still strong with only my research and readings that gave me more context and made it more tangible to breathe in. My footsteps following Welsh princes, understanding how remote a castle stronghold really was breathing the same air, wondering if I would ever understand these feelings.
Even home, I get fleeting glimpses through a looking glass – the wet colored leaves on a rural road and I forget that I’m not in Wales. The hesitation at a roundabout, confused about which way to enter it. The tree outside my church’s window when it rains – it is always a surprise and always a physical reaction and then I realize it’s through a window and I’m not in Wales. These come upon me through no special thought, but there is the realization that Wales is a part of me and who I am, and maybe one day I’ll find out why and maybe even how I have this connection.