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Thursday, 19 October 2006

Hold the Fries: Moving to Wales

Written by Katherine H. Breen
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I come from America, land of the free and home of the super-sized. We super-size, oversize, and jumbo-size everything from fast-food meals to roadways. One of the first tasks I faced living in Wales as an expatriate was learning to drive on roads the width of American bike paths. Even as a passenger in my new country, I stomped imaginary brake pedals, clutched arm rests and audibly sucked in what I often believed was my last breath as colossal livestock lorries careened toward me from the on-coming lanes, with what seemed like millions of sheep eyes staring back at me in matched horror.

My husband David had taught me to drive twenty-two years ago and planned on doing so again. He had arrived in the UK three months before our boys and I, so he would have mastered enough driving technique to get me started once I arrived.

goats“Don’t worry Kathy. I’ll take you for rides after I get home from work and we’ll stay on the farm until you get comfortable driving on the left.” My husband comes from a family of accountants so there is no detail small enough to escape consideration, especially when it involves the safety of the children or me. He had allotted a weeklong intensive driver-training session before I was to officially hit the road.

The best laid plans…

“Please Mom, Dad, please! We won’t have McDonald’s again for a year…just this one last time. It won’t hurt and I bet Wales doesn’t even have McDonald’s,” I remember our thirteen year-old son David’s pleas had come at a weak moment.

As parents, we were trying to do all we could to lessen the stress this huge transition across the Atlantic could involve for our two children, David and Michael. As we were departing New York and were sealed into the lounge of Kennedy Airport, it had seemed reasonable to honor our eldest son’s request for his “last meal.” In fact, we had all had our favorite American fast food before boarding our plane.

I had just fastened myself into the seat--my youngest son who was eleven years-old, on my left and my eldest son two seats across the isle to my right. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard BA flight 0178 departing JFK to London-Heathrow… We encourage you to watch as our flight attendants demonstrate our safety procedures. We should be arriving at London-Heathrow in about six hours’ time…” Though convinced that the only use these demonstrations have is to keep a doomed passenger calm before impact, I had been ready, even eager to play along and learn how to slide down the plane’s gigantic chute into the Atlantic’s watery safety or don my oxygen mask before helping others similarly doomed, and then the next announcement came.



“Ummm, Mom…” his forced whisper had done little to mask the panic in his eyes, “I left my top retainer on the tray at McDonald’s!” His announcement had coincided with the wheels being sucked into the belly of the plane and my breath being sucked out of my lungs in disbelief.

“We are moving 3,000 miles away from your dentist. Where do you think I can find a new retainer?” I hissed over the heads of passengers dutifully ignoring the safety procedure demonstration.

After a yearlong process, David’s braces had been removed from his teeth the day before our move from the States to Wales. Sun streamed through the cabin and onto his teeth, perfectly white and situated in exquisite American straightness. As they gleamed at me, I could see the teeth plotting their escape route back to their more comfortable origins. The search for a new retainer was an immediate concern and could not wait the anticipated 10-day delay during which I was to “acclimate” to the roads.

We arrived at Crickhowell, Wales, late in the morning and by 5 that night, I remembered to call a dentist. The simple fact that Dr. Nigel Jones himself answered the phone at such an hour was the first clue that I had, in fact, left America. My dentists in the US never answered phones--ever. And about twenty years ago, they stopped cleaning teeth or checking them for cavities. Teams of specialists inhabited my mouth for about an hour doing all those sundry tasks pertaining to teeth. “My Dentist” came in for the last twenty seconds while I was swishing flouride around in my mouth to ask, “Do you have any questions? No, well then see you in six months.” I would spit and he was gone.

Dr. Nigel Jones of “Smiles Better” in the neighboring town Abergavenny began by demonstrating the difference between Welsh dentistry and American dentistry. The first tool he used for the visit was the phone, “No, Mrs. Breen, I understand your concern about driving and parking. Tell you what,” he had a spry English accent, “I’ll stay late and wait for you to arrive. That way, traffic will be calm and you will have no problem parking. See you when you get here.” There had to be a catch…perhaps when I got the bill there would be an American-sized reconciling.

I had my son gather the empty retainer case, brush his teeth and we were out the door and onto the roads of Wales weeks before I was scheduled to make my debut. Between the two market towns of Crickhowell and Abergavenny lie about five miles of A-road driving. In the British motorway system there are A roads (well marked two-way traffic), B roads (no dividing marks, can funnel, without notice, into single lanes with lay-bys) and M roads (large carriage ways with up to three lanes traveling in either direction).

“Other side Mom, remember?” I had tried to get into the passenger side of our new CRV. I couldn’t enter the car properly, and I was not sure I could drive it once behind the wheel, but we left the safety of Glanusk Estate’s farm lane and headed through town.



“Mom, my neck!” David yelped and held it still as we jerked to a halt. “You don’t have to stop every time you see a truck coming! They are on the other side of the road, remember?” The problem, as I perceived it, was that these trucks were driving toward me on what I considered “my side of the road.” I could feel the blast of air collect between the six inches which separated my vehicle from theirs and this set off the automatic reaction in my leg to stomp a brake.

It took us thirty minutes to travel the five miles, but we made it. Dr. Nigel Jones poured the retainer and by seven thirty that night, I was safely tucked into the estate driveway of Jubilee Cottage.


Soon, the demands of life required me to share space on the carriageways with other drivers under the illuminating light of day. It was then I saw speed-limit signs which really were wordless symbols with variable meaning. For me, British speed-limit signs were just one mysterious part of the whole driving odyssey. The national speed limit of 70 mph was indicated by a circle with a slash mark but could fall to 60 mph IF either side of the roadway was reduced by one lane.

Villages greeted visitors with huge signs such as, “We welcome safe drivers,” but never clued me, the new driver, into the speed they wanted me to use. Instead, they expected me to make that determination by checking to see if there were street lamps through the village. If street lamps were present, I carried on at 30 mph. If there were no street lamps, I traveled through villages at 40 mph. But most importantly, I was warned, I needed to go the correct speed limit to avoid fines the size of mortgage payments and points enough to label myself an international driving terrorist.

Two months after my debut and subsequent recovery, school began for my boys at Rougemont Academy in Newport. I really hadn’t time to count street lamps or measure dividing swaths as I raced through Newport on my boys’ first day of school. I had left 90 minutes early for the 45 minute drive, not thinking I needed a full 120 minutes to accommodate my three passes across a bridge which I failed to realize was always the same. The roundabouts on either end of the bridge kept shooting me back into the same lane using a type of vehicular centrifugal force, found only on British Isles.

I thought I would be picked up on my second time down the A4051 for driving under “some unidentifiable influence” for it was here that I began to cry. It wasn’t out of pure frustration but shear agony that I was crying. My hands developed insidious cramps from clenching the steering wheel at white-knuckle strengths and I knew, so very well, that there were no parking areas on this road to rest them. Unable to hold the wheel or my head up with any dignity, I missed all the clues recommending 30 mph. It was a speed camera that led me to magistrate’s court and Anne’s door.



Anne was Crickhowell’s driving instructor. She had taught all the children of Glanusk Estate how to drive and came highly recommended by Lady Legge-Burke, the estates heiress. Anne and I spent many hours cooped up in my Honda CRV. Anne was an inveterate Yankee-phile and seemed to have visited more places in America as a tourist than I had in my forty-two years as a citizen. Our conversations always found their way toward comparing Britain with America.

She was a woman who loved bargains--a true American virtue. So I felt comfortable telling her how I went to Abergavenny to a “real butcher,” totally unaware as I was that my own town of Crickhowell had two of its own. She became suddenly quiet and stared hard at me. I mistakenly thought she was interested in what I was saying and dug myself deeper into the tale. I told her that the boys were with me and were left spell bound as half-pigs (with cross-sectioned views of their thin pink lips and tiny white teeth) swung on meat hooks as they were pushed into the shop.

“You don’t see that in Stop and Shop…” Ha. Ha.

It was all she could bear as we passed the centre of Crickhowell, heading back for Glanusk after what I considered a productive first lesson. Anne immediately stopped my musings and set me straight. “Kathy pull into that that space there.” I knew it was urgent, because we had never practiced parking. Head-on would have been a challenge at this stage, but her choice in insisting on parallel parking in the centre of our Crickhowell’s busy market made even less sense to me.

“Richard’s is adequate.” She tapped her tapered nail against the passenger window drawing my attention to the butcher shop named “RICHARD’S.”

“I’m sorry Anne, what did you say?”

She went on to explain, perhaps, one of the most critical cultural nuances I was to learn…One does not purchase meat outside the village in which one resides, and should one do that, one never admits it.

I felt I committed a huge village sin and instead of the identifying red “L” (for Learner Driver) stuck to my car hood, I should have a red “BB” (Butcher Betrayal) instead. In tiny Crickhowell, there are only two doors between the two butchers; how could I have missed them?

Anne strongly recommended Richards as the “better of the two.” When I suggested it would be fun to visit both, Anne repeated, Richards was the “better of the two” and added there was “no need to shop anywhere else.” Fearing she would inform the local driving authorities of my ineptitude on the roads, I steered the conversation away from any further thought of meat selection infidelities.



But months later, I forgot to get my boys their Richard‘s “pork and leek” sausages and found myself in Abergavenny on market day having just made the realization. It was half-past four and I had nothing thawed for dinner. Though I thought of returning to Richard’s, I knew the shop would be closed by the time I got back to Crick. All alone and pulling my hood tightly around my face, I snuck into the very butcher’s which I hadn’t dared visit in two months though I was in town once weekly. I looked over my shoulder before whispering my order of “pork and leek.” I was handed the sausages and tucked them beneath all the “veg” I purchased at the farmer’s market.

I scurrilously served those Abergavenny sausages that night to my two boys. Staring down at their plates after their first bites, noses positioned above the sausage for inspective sniffs, they grumbled, “Mom, these aren’t right!”

Then, they cocked their heads in suspicion and hissed, “Where did you get them?” I begged them not to reveal a whiff of my indiscretion to anyone and I swore allegiance to Richards and all things Crickhowell.

Village loyalty paid its dividends over the year. Jane and Collin, the owners of Richard’s Butcher Shop had acted as culinary paramedics as I learned to use an Aga Cooker. Aga Cookers, and mine was 27 years old, had four compartments of varying degrees but no temperature gage or dial. I navigated cooking speeds just as I did driving speeds--I guessed. I was particularly thankful when Jane and Collin prevented me from serving a healthy dose of Salmonella to ten unsuspecting Welsh guests who came for an American style Thanksgiving. The turkey was fine, it was the rock hard pie crust that sent them home in pain.

It was through the wise intervention of Anne, Collin and Jane that my family harmony was restored and we learned to live in rightful communion and homogeneity with all in our village. We, like them, enjoyed our town’s natural beauty, zipped along at adrenaline pumping speeds and proudly carried our meat purchases in Richards sacks.



©Katherine H. Breen

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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