It was nice of President Obama to urge Americans to visit Wales, but I'd like to sound a note of caution: the Welsh are very, very chippy. If a visitor does or says anything that could be construed as an insult, however unintended, the natives are likely to take offence. Indeed, several Welshmen will probably take umbrage at that last sentence, accusing me of indulging in a grotesque caricature, and thereby confirming that it's true.
I speak from experience. Back in 2001, when I was promoting How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, I had an unfortunate experience in Bangor. I was heading towards the local BBC studio for a radio interview, but got lost on the way and called the studio manager.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“I’m standing outside somewhere called Gorsaf Station so I think I’m in a town called Gorsaf, ” I replied.
“Oh no, Mr Young, Gorsaf is the Welsh word for station. You’re in the right place. Wait there and I’ll come and fetch you.”
During the broadcast I retold this story, pointing out how ridiculous it was that all road signs in Wales are in Welsh and English when only a small percentage of the population actually speaks Welsh. Obviously, saying such a thing on BBC Radio Wales was a colossal blunder, but I didn't realise quite how much of a mistake it was until afterwards.
As I was leaving through the green room, I was buttonholed by the station manager.
“I’ve got some rather bad news, Mr Young, " she said. I noticed that she couldn't repress a smile as she said this – a characteristic I've come to associate with the Welsh on delivering bad news. She continued: "One of our listeners took rather an exception to your remarks about the Welsh language and he’s come down to the studio to ’ave it out with you, like.”
“Well, you’d better show me out the back way then, " I said.
“Oh no, there is no back way. I’m afraid you’re going to ’ave to face the music.”
She pronounced music with an upward lilt on the second syllable, almost as though she'd broken into song. By now it was clear that she was absolutely delighted by the turn events had taken.
I stared through a little porthole separating the green room from the reception area and saw this little red-faced man stamping up and down, ears flushed red with anger: Rumplestiltskin! I braced myself and stepped through the door.
"I'm terribly sorry about my – "
"You carpet-bagging, English b–––––––, " he said. "You have the audacity to come to my country – my country, mind you – and tell me I don't have the right to be speaking my own bloody language!"
For a second I was convinced he was going to hit me – by now the studio manager was openly laughing – but he managed to stop himself by exercising superhuman restraint. Instead, he treated me to a 45-minute lecture on the importance of the Welsh language as the linchpin of Welsh national identity. To describe it as "fascinating" would not be accurate.
So be warned, Yanks. Soak up the beautiful scenery. Enjoy the lamb. Go and see Swansea beat Manchester United. But don't whatever you do make a light-hearted remark about the Welsh or their language.See also: