Learning the Welsh tongue

Sian's on holiday in North Wales, taking a break from politics and enjoying that great country's cul

London, elections, politics – all banned from my blog this week on the orders of me. I’m officially on holiday, in North Wales for a few days for a bit of a party, lots of wandering around on local trains and buses, plenty of eating and tons of touristy stuff amongst the mountains.

I haven’t visited Snowdonia since being brought on hiking trips when I was at school. Given that this time I haven’t been dragged out of bed at 6 am, fed on baked beans and reconstituted ‘breakfast slices’, made to use an outside toilet or walked uphill in the driving rain all day, I’ve come away with a very different view of the place, although it’s no less spectacular than I remember.

I am leading by example here, because getting people to holiday in Britain is a personal project of mine at the moment. Along with everyone except Landrover, I’ve given up on carbon offsetting, so have switched to persuading people to replace holidays abroad with trips to our own shores instead. The biggest success so far has been to get my whole family to join me in the Lake District this May half term. I’ve estimated that, if it displaces a flying holiday to Europe for each of them I’ll have helped save about 3 tons of carbon dioxide, even if we leave the lights on all week.

Perhaps, in order to convince my nephew our trip to the Lakes beats another beach in Spain, I should have gone for North Wales instead. This part of the UK isn’t just beautiful, it’s also more of a change from London than any European city I’ve been to lately. This impression is helped by the fact that the Welsh language is so widely spoken in daily life.

Contrary to what my name suggests, I have no Welsh in me and hardly know a word of the language, but my travelling companion is fluent and most of the people we’ve been spending time with are Welsh speakers too, so I have found myself being the ‘foreign one’ in conversations, with people kindly speaking to each other in English for my benefit.

This has helped start a few good discussions about how best to put concepts that can only be properly expressed in Welsh. The best of the resulting new Welsh words in my nascent vocabulary are therefore ‘malu cachu’ (bullshitting – literally ‘mincing shit’) and the neologism ‘poptŷ ping’ (microwave – literally ‘ping oven’. If I had a microwave I’d definitely call it that).

Of course, tourism can itself be a force for homogenisation and low-wage economies, which would undermine the sense of difference that makes this area so attractive. So it was a bit disheartening to see a new Tesco just on the edge of Porthmadog, a town with independent butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and clothes shops along the high street. How long they will survive is anyone’s guess and I am a bit confused as to why the local council has allowed a supermarket to be built. Surely localism, tourism and the culture of the area would all be enhanced by keeping the likes of Tesco out of towns like this?

After a busy few weeks, I’m using this trip for emergency relaxation. Looking at the sea is brilliant for the soul, and the coastline around Bangor, Harlech and Porthmadog is some of the best I have sat and gazed at in ages. Thoughtfulness is further stimulated by this part of the world being absolutely stuffed with stone circles (put up for druids at the annual Eisteddfod arts festival) and gorgeous mediaeval castles.

Built by Edward I from the 1270s to ‘contain the Welsh’, fourteen of these are dotted around the top left corner of Wales. They seem to grow straight up out of the bedrock in many places, and the most famous include Conwy, Beaumaris, Carnaerfon and Harlech, all World Heritage Sites. We spent an afternoon clambering over every inch of Harlech Castle – home to an early Welsh seat of government after being captured in an uprising by Owain Glyn Dŵr in 1404 (and then captured back five years later by the English under Prince Harry of Monmouth, later Henry V).

The castle is now home to hundreds of crows doing aerobatic displays and, though it originally had the sea lapping up against its walls, is now about half a mile from the beach in Harlech, as the enormous and growing sand dunes have gradually reclaimed the land below. This is something rising sea levels may rectify if we don’t do something soon. Perhaps that’s what Rhodri Morgan meant when he said climate change “will not be entirely unhelpful” for Wales. Oops, I’m on the way back to London now and politics is creeping in again. Time to shut up.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
European People's Party via Creative Commons
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Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.