4 weeks in ‘a’ New World

It never ceases to amaze me that so many of my associates and countrymen and women do not know that Wales was half empty last June, hadn’t they noticed that there were no craftspeople, no choirs or musicians, no Only Men Aloud, no First Minister (and very few civil servants at the Welsh Assembly Offices) and definately no me !! And why, because Wales had moved once again to the Capital of the New World, just along the road from the newly installed Mr & Mrs Obama (plus a couple of kids and a puppy) on a cabbage patch of ground locally known as the ‘National Mall’.  Wow, me and 150 odd other ‘odd’ Welsh people (well, alright some ‘white settlers’ but they ‘badged’ Welsh for the duration) got to enjoy a life changing experience, well it changed for many of us.

I need to take you back… “Why were you chosen?” was the often asked question by a visiting U.S. citizen at the festival. My stock answer ? “I was the default choice  (as was everybody else)”.  Certainly, with the probable exception of myself, those that came were indeed the best choice, albeit it took the festival for some of us from Wales to recognise it ourselves.  (O.K. there was the odd exception but not many).   But me ?  Nepotism I’m afraid…

A phone call back in the autumn of 2008 from a darling ‘by marriage’ member of my extended family was the first I knew.  I was housebound, indeed chairbound, having ruptured my achilles tendon in the previous July – in fact the week before the Royal Welsh Show, Wales’ most prestigous and ubiquitous social get together (only because it ranges far and wide in its appeal and content, no offense to the National Eisteddfod) where I was required to be present at the Wales Dry Stone Walling stand – and was in a full leg plaster.

Those of you who know AJP need no further information, to the rest of you, Angharad is the default artist blacksmith, feisty blodwen of all things female and Welsh, a mother, wife, business woman and master at getting what she wants.  She wanted me  to come to Washington to create an image of the Welsh landscape, to build dry stone walls on the National Mall.

I listened to her proposals, answered her questions about what I felt was possible, kissed her goodbye, and thought no more about it…

Sometime after Xmas I started to get e mails and letters from strange civil servanty type people, come to a meeting, fill in a form, have you ever been in prison or c0nvicted of ….. (apparently many had and probably wouldn’t be coming to America !).  Even as late as February I was still saying “no way” (not least because I was still in plaster and I had my darling molly to think of – more of her later) but then it all changed, we met Betty and Dory in Llandrindod Wells (an Edwardian spar town deemed to be in the middle of Wales – but only by the WAGs in Cardiff!).  That two day meeting changed everything for me and many others.  I was hooked, even the WAG ladies inspired, especially darling Ifona and Gwenno, two ladies I came to love and admire in the heat of the Mall – and the dark of the Marriott ballroom…

Come May panic began, not least over in Brynamman and no doubt in small workshops all over Wales, where shipping deadlines loomed and projects were still far from ready.  Unfortunately in her manic, stressed-out state, AJP forgot to tell me of changes she had made (admittedly some forced by our esteemed ‘crew’ stateside) in the original design.  Not a huge problem –  except half way through the second week of construction when we ran out of stone…..

By mid May I was walking without plaster or strange boot but still relying on crutches for any distance.  I still hadn’t worked and sitting in a chair since the previous July had resulted in an extra 30lbs of unsightly flesh plus a fitness level below zero.  I did a walling course at Ty Mawr – who were also panic stricken and still undecided whether they were going to be able to come along, thankfully they did,  with difficulty.  I then had to go to an old friend’s house to sort out some tree planting and that was when my world crashed even deeper than the day my achilles ‘banged’ broke. My dearest friend, the love of my life for the previous thirteen years, my constant companion, my housemate, my Molly, was killed on the road.  My fault, no one else, I should have watched out for her, she was very deaf, her eyesight was failing and she got confused and lost sight of me, in attempting to get back to the farmyard where the van was, she ran across a fast and busy main road and died. 

I won’t go into how I was.  I was bereaved, heart broken, use your imagination.  Strangely APJ phoned as I was burying her, what could she say.  I buried my Molly at the foot of a tower I had built for the Millenium.  It stands on a ridge in a wall which we had rebuilt (she was a constant during my wall building, always sniffing out small creatures which I could then save from being crushed by falling stone) on a piece of land where I had worked for twelve years and had rebuilt two miles of wall.  Its where my ashes will go, we’ll be together again.

The major obstacle to me going away for four weeks was, in an instant, gone.  A dear friend convinced me she had committed suicide, nice thought.  I filled in the visa waiver and began to plan.  Get some fitness, get some suitable gear (those of you who experienced my ‘gear’ may find this a dubious claim), get some $, get some !  Eventually everything seemed to have been addressed.  AJP and me had even chosen the stone I was to use from a rather geologically pornographic website – the Stone Store – not the most expensive by far, but very very nice sedimentary flat bedded stone, that should show ’em !

On June 11th 2009 AJP and I got on a coach in Swansea and a long long long time later – she booked the ‘stopping tour of south Wales’ bus – we arrived at the Heathrow Hilton.  Here we experienced our first lesson in how ‘out of touch’ we were with the modern city cost of  living – well cost of drinking actually – when we paid £11.80 for a glass of wine and a G & T !!  Thankfully WAG were buying dinner – or at least Geno had the company credit card, we had good food and good wine and a good night’s sleep.  Me, AJP, Geno, Evs and Howie, the ‘famous five’ and Wales’ advanced party – recondo squad – got on a big silver (and red) bird and crossed an Iceberg speckled North Atlantic until, many hours later, well actually many hours earlier, we landed at Dulles outside Washington D.C. scary, hot, exciting, full of trepidation, but mainly laughing like fools.

A quaint guy I called Albert met us – great, he had one of those cards held high as we walked out – and drove the biggest black van any of us had seen.  An hysterical ‘guided’ tour into D.C. – well actually Arlington – got us to the most amazing hotel I’d ever stayed in, the Key Bridge Marriott.  Apparently the first hotel the Marriott brothers had built, and my room, oh boy, my room.  A ‘King’ room, twenty six pillows on a bed big enough to roll over five times before falling out and into either the bathroom or the mini bar… One of the great suprises was that I got to keep the room for the whole of the trip despite having been forwarned by our Smithsonian hosts that would not be possible – poor Howie coughed a lot of money to ensure his single status – and for the record neither of us ever spent a night other than alone ! True !

The other four went off for a meal in Georgetown, but I listened to the jazz band, had a great meal and unpacked, we were due on the Mall at 8.00am the next morning.  Saturday June 13th, our first sight of the site…


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