The big red Welsh dragon and Croeso sign in Trelew airport marks entry to “a little Wales beyond Wales”, where I landed just nearly two weeks ago now. Arriving with zero expectations but immense and immeasurable intrigue, I couldn’t help but smile with the comfort of something so familiar as our flag so very far away from home. A fifteen minute drive later (past Treorcki, home to many a Bolivian, they tell me) we arrived in Gaiman, one of the “welshest” of the Welsh-Argentine communities that punctuate the river Chubut like a dot-to-dot puzzle: home to about 5,000-10,000 (depending on who you ask, apparently) and the place I have chosen to “settle”, or at least base myself for the next ten weeks.
My first night in the beautiful Irianni home was a treat. The entire family had come to visit, to celebrate Sol, the youngest daughter’s fifteenth birthday. An asado (in this particular case, a lamb cooked on a cross on an open fire) was being prepared and we ate and chatted and laughed, in a home filled with Welsh poetry on the walls with predominantly Spanish conversation but with snippets of Cymraeg. I stayed at the mamgu’s house, just next door, just like home. Some call me “la Galensa”, a common nickname for the many people in the village with Welsh ancestry, or “la Gallega” for the Spanish accent I’ve picked up in Spain which differs quite significantly to theirs and is the subject of much amusement. To some I’m GaGa, the Spanish Welshie, a bit of a hybrid weirdo, let’s say. Mission Argentization is in full force to stop me lisping my way through my words. Speaking like an Argentinian for somebody that’s lived in Madrid is like learning Gog Welsh for a hwntws. In a week it’s crazy how some things have stuck, perhaps it’s my subconscious to avoid their teasing or simply to be understood, relearning new vocab for everything from bus to pool to hockey ball yet trying to hold on to a little bit of Madrileña.
My first full day in Chubut didn’t disappoint, either. When asked if I’d like to accompany a group of children who were going to sing and dance to traditional Welsh music in Trelew, I jumped, or as it were, skipped to it. A group of 6-10 year olds singing half in Spanish, half in Welsh was a surreal and special moment. Then came the folk dancing (dawnsio gwerin) hitting me hard with nostalgia of Urdd days, twmpaths in Llangrannog, flat caps, bonnets and clueless spinning and clapping. Little did I know that what was to come next would transport me a million miles away from my own childhood and culture. In South America, a girl’s fifteenth birthday is a hugely important rite of passage. Think “Super Sweet Sixteenth” à la US, or even better, a wedding without a groom and you’ve hit the nail on the head. An amazing amount of preparation went into a spectacular event and this tradition of a banquet, a waltz, cutting of the cake, dancing, eating, gifts, chatting and enough Fernet and Campari to sink the Mimosa was something I felt very lucky to experience. I got teary as the parents and siblings serenaded the birthday girl, and, although I’m not one for much PDA, my time in Spain and here has softened me: maybe we have a thing or two to learn about showing each other how much we care. I also came to the conclusion that going to sleep at 8am is something I’m going to have to get used to here, apparently.
The Welsh culture here is visible. The street names, the surnames, the folk dancing in Games lessons, the local rugby club “Draig Goch”, the Siop Bara bakery, the toy store named “Teganau”, the information centre, a carpenter whose business is named “Saer Coed”, the music school… Everything . Tai tê, or tea rooms/casa de tes are numerous and tourists visit by the busload. Where I’m staying the mamgu has a tea room. For anybody that knows me, they’ll know that I’m quite keen on a cup of tea and have the sweetest tooth going. Dulce de leche is my new nutella and this is my paradise. Here, the culture has been preserved and the people are proud. A lady spoke to me of the shame when visiting Wales and nobody in the bank could attend her in Welsh. Cywilydd, (For shame!) she scorned. Everybody I encounter jumps at the chance to tell their story about their great uncle Gwesyn who travelled on the mimosa, almost boasting about their heritage, and I’ve lost count of the number of “galensos” and redstone Welsh shirts I’ve come across. It’s surreal when teenagers spout random phrases at me “sut da chi”, “ti eisiau bara menyn?”, “enw fi yw Gonzalo” just like we would with “Je m’appelle John”, “J’aime jouer au foot” after our first term of French lessons. Despite the fact that not one student came to the class I went to help in – they were packing for their end of year trip – and that the six year olds learn Welsh lyrics with phonetics it’s impossible to be disappointed when they are learning a language whose relevance even within Wales is so often brought into question. I find myself every so often chatting away with somebody with a lovely hybrid hwntws-gog Patagonian Welsh and just for a minute I forget where I am.
The first week involved visiting the town, introducing myself to the people, reading a book about mental health to an elderly lady for an hour, training and playing hockey for the first time in four years for “Draig Goch” Hockey Club, winning 9-3 and scoring four goals which we will pretend were scored against a team of under 50 year old ladies but I can’t lie to save my life… I have been to an asado with a political party formed by quite disgruntled yet dynamic, bold youngsters frustrated with the system, visited the museum and ended up talking politics and football for three hours (something I’m getting used to) and eaten many lovely dishes and run many dusty, muddy miles. My plan is to see as many Welsh classes once settled into a routine, help where I can with English lessons and junior hockey groups, attend Eisteddfods and avoid singing at all costs. This is not Wales and if anybody travels here expecting a home from home I advise you to stay put. But a warm welcome you’ll receive and it’ll make a lovely home full of change, warmth, new ideas and experiences for these next few weeks.