Don't "fall in love" with your travel destination

I’ve been to Wales 30 times in 40 years. I’d rather have my tongue pierced than say I "fell in love" with it

Published May 27, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

The river Usk winding its way through the Welsh countryside. (Getty Images/Andrew Holt)
The river Usk winding its way through the Welsh countryside. (Getty Images/Andrew Holt)

I cringe when I read that so-and-so fell in love with someplace.

Come on, I think, you can do better than that.

“I fell in love with _____!” (Fill in the location of your choice — everyone does.) It’s the most over-used sentence in travel writing. I’ve been to Wales 30 times in 40 years, yet I’d rather have my tongue pierced than say I fell in love with it. Editors and publicists often try to push me into the love corner, but I snap and growl, as cornered creatures do.

I know I sound grouchy. But only because I want to get this right.

I love a woman — my partner of 36 years. I love a dog — my Welsh Corgi of three years. My parents are dead, but I still love them. I also love ice cream and seasons 1 and 3 of "Ted Lasso." And I’m OK with all that. Love is an elastic verb.

When I was 23 and an American graduate student in Wales, the rolling pastures of Ceredigion at dusk, sweet-smelling of dung and the day’s photosynthesis, quiet with sheep and centuries of secrets, teetering on the edge of darkness, silence, and poverty, brought me to my knees with an aching need to do more than testify to their existence. More than take a photo or write a description. I needed to know the Welsh countryside in time as well as space. I strained against the edges of mortality to grasp the whole of it in a way off limits to humans. I felt compelled to imagine, to resurrect all those who’d stood alongside the darkening fields before me, tending animals, dreaming of home, praying to gods whose names were unknown to me.

Up until I was 20, when I studied in Paris, I thought I’d find my place in France. It turns out I found Marguerite instead.

Is this love? Is love wanting to scream in frustration because even though all you did was watch the sun set over a line of receding hills, it felt like the planet was offering you a gift you didn’t have the age or wisdom to be able to accept?

I don’t know, but it’s where I draw the line. To say I fell in love with Wales collapses the relationship of person and place into something sentimental and two-dimensional, in a way that saying I fell in love with my partner, Marguerite, does not. Maybe that’s because when we apply love to people we understand that the verb “love” turns and twists like a multidimensional kaleidoscope — we’ve all seen the colors and patterns change, been dazzled, furious, confused, contented. And we know what “I love mint chocolate chip” means, too. We understand that “love” contracts in that sentence to convey something like flavor lust + icy mouth feel = ten minutes of happiness. And nothing more.

Love of place is just as complex as love of people, but we’re not used to excavating all that the word can mean when we say, “I fell in love with Wales.” There’s a whole lot more going on than a hearty appreciation of sheep, interlaced, rolling hills and Iron Age forts.

Up until I was 20, when I studied in Paris, I thought I’d find my place in France. It turns out I found Marguerite instead. France — a place I deeply admire — embraces centrality. Paris is the center of France and France is (arguably) the center of the universe. I didn’t articulate any of this at the time, but a previously unknown, murky appendage in my brainstem lifted its head and howled disagreement.

When I arrived in Wales three years later, it changed its tune. Wales is central to … well, nothing. As I wrote in my 2023 book, "The Long Field – Wales and the Presence of Absence, a Memoir," the very name “Wales” is a Saxon word meaning “Home of the Foreigners.” The name Wales calls itself, in Welsh, is Cymru (KUM-ree), which means “Home of Fellow Countrymen.” The difference between the two is the difference between “Us” and “Them.’ To the world at large, after Wales became the first colony of the future English empire in 1282, it was defined as a negative: This is the place where we are not. It became the home of “Them.”

Ever since, the view from its minority rung on the UK geopolitical hierarchy has been alternative. A strong social­ist bent in politics, nonconformist in religion, working class. The Welsh language has been a marker of difference, too. Far more so than other Celtic strongholds in the British Isles — Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall — Wales has hung on to its tongue, about which shifting opin­ions have formed over the years. It’s preserved our identity; no, it’s held us back. Whichever you believe, Welsh remains stubbornly spoken in shops, on TV and radio, in kitchens and government conference rooms throughout the country.

The landscape’s clarity sliced through my memories of over-built New Jersey, slicing down to the mental bedrock beneath — a primary place of understanding where memory and concept conjoin.

As a young woman lurking on the edges of Welsh sheep pastures, I sensed Wales’ marginality before I understood it. While there was a grandeur to the geography, the towns’ and farmhouses’ lack of studied prettiness—a hallmark in England—testified to Wales’ exclusion from generic British prosperity. It was far from London; it was hard to get to; it was different. And you know what? That felt familiar. I was a middle-class kid from New Jersey, but like a poultice, this ancient, colonized country drew out an answering difference from my bones.

I grew up as part of an American anti-establishment generation against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the feminist movement. All of that led me to shy away from the center and naturally embrace the edge. Not to mention my hunch, shoved into the depths of my psyche, that I might be gay.

Marguerite and I had already met in Paris, but it was Wales’ nearly two-millennia-old embrace of its alternative path in the UK — the place where people speak “that funny language with no vowels” (not true: “w” and “y” are vowels in Welsh, so it actually has more vowels than English), where there are more sheep than people, where Americans don’t visit—that suggested to me that an alternative path might not be so bad. More than that: it helped me realize I’d already been on one, all my life.

When I went home to New Jersey after grad school friends demanded a sentence about my experience. “School was OK, but I loved Wales,” would’ve sufficed. Yet every time I gave in and said something along those lines, I felt like I was betraying the extraordinary experience the Welsh call cynefin. (I was relieved that my family never used the “L” word; they just called my connection to Wales, “Pam’s Welsh thing,” as in, “Is Pam over her Welsh thing yet?”)

When I was researching "The Long Field," Gillian Clarke, the former National Poet of Wales, introduced me to the word cynefin. (Pronounce it Kun-EV-in. In Welsh a single f is pronounced as a — it takes two fs to make the noise in “fight” — and the emphasis is always on the penultimate syllable. Even speaking English the Welsh stress the second-to-last sound. I love the soft way they skid into “seven,” pronouncing it SEV-un, dragging out the “ev” and swallowing the “un.” When they say that I hear the tide receding.)

Gillian wrote in an email, “Cynefin is the word used for the way a sheep passes on to her lamb, generation after generation, the knowledge of the mountain, the exact part of the mountain that is hers.” I understood why that would matter to the lamb, but not to me. Then Gillian continued: “Or it can mean that sudden sense you have that you belong to this particular place though you may never have set foot in it before.”

Ah ha! I understood. Cynefin is a way of describing the threshold where the interior imagination meets the outside world — the place where love resides.

It wasn’t just marginality that coaxed cynefin from me in West Wales. It was the landscape, too. I’d grown up in suburban New Jersey, where the geography of the planet is hidden beneath a barnacled crust of 20th-century houses, highways, and shopping malls. As a child I felt there was nothing to hold me in place — no anchor in space or time to keep me from floating away. And then I went to rural Wales and found a world with few trees and a distant horizon. A place where you could climb a hill and understand instantly how the earth had been made, where the glacier had passed and how rivers sculpted out valleys. The landscape’s clarity sliced through my memories of over-built New Jersey, slicing down to the mental bedrock beneath — a primary place of understanding where memory and concept conjoin. And that place looked like Wales. I’d always seen it in my mind’s eye, and now here it was beneath my feet. I remember writing in my book, "I felt I’d found the key to a map I’d carried in my head since I was a little girl but had never before been able to read. And until I could read that map, I’d had no perspective on my species’ place on the planet," and shivering with the understanding I’d never written truer words.

Surely this is love—but I didn’t fall into it. Falling is just too easy. Although cynefin may be sudden, it requires preparation. There has to be longing first, and a fiercely imagined “geography of the soul,” as novelist Josephine Hart calls it, before there can be cynefin. And only once you’ve felt it comes the real effort. I had to work for decades to earn the right to love Wales. I had to learn its language—well…let’s say I had to try to learn it — and its myths and history, to read its poets and novelists, to listen to its hymns and folk songs and bands, descend into its mines and walk its paths. Let its rain soak my hair and creep inside my bones. If anything, my love for Wales has been more of a climb than a fall. I suspect it’ll take a lifetime to reach the summit.

By Pamela Petro

Pamela Petro is the author of "The Long Field — Wales and the Presence of Absence, a Memoir" (Arcade Books, 2023).

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