Today’s piece is a lovely reflection on living in Cardiff, written by Mary Ocana, who originally hails from South East LA. Also just like to say it wasn’t a deliberate move to publish this on the day the President Biden was inaugurated but what a nice piece of synchronicity, eh?
“Croeso i Gymru” – “Welcome to Cardiff” is a sign I read as soon as I exited the M4 towards Cardiff. A warm and honest welcome.
I have lived in Cardiff for the last three years and every second has been nothing short of a wonderful time. Wales is a country that I have come to see as widely diverse and exciting, and Cardiff now holds a special place in my heart. While it may not be the place where I was born, or where most my family and friends are, it has grown to feel like home in many aspects.
My love for Wales started in 2016 when I first stepped off a train in Ebbw Vale. At that moment, everything felt both foreign and welcoming to me. I remember the surrounding trees and splashing of water from the river stream nearby, and the giant valleys leaning over as if to say “welcome”. Driving around the winding roads, I could hardly grasp what I was looking at. It was beautiful – the only thing that I could compare it to would be scenes in films I had seen in the past, like the green Irish countryside in P.S I Love You. I could see hundreds of sheep sprinkled like sugar atop the valleys, quietly whispering to myself “I’m home”. The cold-yet-inviting air that filled my lungs that day is something I’ll never forget; sometimes it still happens when I get off the train in Ebbw Vale or Rhymney.
See, I grew up in South East Los Angeles, in Maywood, California – home to a large Latino population. My parents uprooted their life in Mexico and settled here in their early 20s. It has now become their home and is far more familiar to them than anywhere else. Maywood is only 1.8 miles in diameter, but it is filled with a lot of character and is still a place which harbours memories that will stay with me always. As an only child and the daughter of two low-income immigrant parents, it was difficult to think of the future. I felt like a failure after graduating High School because I did not get into the colleges I applied to and I ended up attending community college.
At the time, it felt like I would never get to have a study abroad experience – which is something I had always wanted to do. I appreciated LA and the OC, but I just simply wanted to see what else there was outside of my comfort zone. Even if it was just upstate, somewhere like UC Davis or somewhere in Rhode Island, far away. I wanted to experience growth in this way.
A few months away from my Cypress College graduation, I found myself staring at an opportunity I had only dreamed of all these years. It was difficult to imagine that I, a 21-year-old from Maywood would ever get the chance to study abroad, but yet here it was – a study abroad experience in Wales. It was a frightening thought, as it meant moving 3,000 miles across the Atlantic ocean and creating a life far away from everything I had ever known. It is a decision I am truly grateful I had the opportunity to make. I am glad I went for it.
Two months after arriving in Wales I found an apartment in Canton. It was a small one-bedroom apartment nestled by Thompson’s Park, and only a 30-minute walk from Cardiff Metropolitan University. It wasn’t long before I eased into my new life in Cardiff. This was something completely new and exciting because I had never lived on my own. I started to develop my own routines and found solace in walking to places like the Canton Fruit Market – partly because of the 50p banana bowls, but mainly because everyone I ran into was so pleasant. Breakfast at Crumbs, coffee from Lufkin and sandwiches from Bee & Honey quickly became my new favourite treats.
On the days that I had to go into university, I walked through Llandaff Fields, I used to cut through the field because I liked the way wet grass felt on my boots. Walking to school was a huge breath of fresh air – back in LA I was used to driving in one-hour traffic just to get to my 8AM lecture, but here I was, walking, witnessing dogs off their leads and the trees welcoming the autumn season. I could not be happier.
I discovered that, for the most part, Wales is a rainy and cloudy place. This wasn’t a bad thing, however. Coming from a place where it hardly rains, experiencing the rain, whether it was manic or calm, was a lovely contrast.
The first few months I lived in Cardiff, I visited all the “tourist-y” bits. I took a train to Penarth, walked through Alexandria Park (a favourite of mine) and Penarth Pier. Beaches were not foreign to me, but this was the first time that I had ever seen a pebble beach – pebbles as far as I could see and seagulls waiting for the opportunity to swoop in and steal my chips. I took a train to Cardiff Bay, to see the Wales Millennium Centre and the Pierhead Building, it was interesting to read about the history and see what Cardiff Bay used to look like. Barry is one of my favourite places, too, and I feel as though the beaches around Cardiff are hugely underrated.
But, by far, my favourite place I visited and still escape to often is St. Fagans. Turog – the bakery there – is the perfect place to grab a snack to hold on to whilst walking around. When you are at St. Fagans it truly does feel like you are experiencing a piece of history, it is a wonderful feeling. The best thing about visiting all of these places is that they are not far. They are only a short train or bus stop away.
In LA, driving is an absolute necessity. Public transport is decent, but I have to admit it is not the safest or most reliable. In Cardiff, however, I have the pleasure of walking everywhere. If I needed to go into town I could just hop on the 61 bus and be there in ten minutes. On my first day of school, I remember walking down the River Taff trail through Pontcanna Fields and through Bute Park, and it was the first time I witnessed Cardiff Castle – I had never seen a castle in my entire life! I’ll admit I was a bit giddy. Sometimes I still feel that way as I walk past and the clock chimes its tune.
I find myself in the city centre quite a bit, whether it is looking for beetroot wraps in M&S or just wandering around to take in all the Victorian and Edwardian architecture beauty. I enjoy walking through the arcades; the feeling that I get when having a stroll through them is something I can’t quite put into words!
In close proximity to the arcades is the Cardiff Market which, believe it or not, used to be a prison, and now it is home to a wide variety of food stalls and vendors. Cardiff Bakestones is a favourite of mine here because of their vegan Welsh cakes, which are always baked to perfection. I spent a lot of time there, whether it was to drink a flat white from Hard Lines or pizza from Ffwrnes. It is a lovely place to spend an afternoon.
It was also at this time that I experienced snow for the first time! It snowed in January of 2017 and it was super exciting for me. I witnessed a snowy Bryn Bach and Thompson’s Park; they were completely different when they were covered in snow, it was magical, albeit cold but still a wholesome new experience.
I thought I knew what celebrating Christmas was all about in California, but Christmas is truly something special in Wales. It is in the air. During the Christmas season, the city centre becomes a luscious Christmas paradise. There are vendors and stalls and the excitement of Christmas right around the corner. It was the place where I tried mulled wine for the first time and it is the place which I keep coming back to each year for churros, from the lovely Emilio of Churros and Chocolate. Winter Wonderland feels genuinely festive, and we don’t have anything quite like it in California, mostly because of the weather. Celebrating Christmas in the UK has made me appreciate the season more.
I lived in Canton for two years and in those two years, I remember how thankful I was that I only had to walk 15 minutes to get to work. I worked in Bloc, at the edge of Victoria Park, and if I got there early, I could hang around the park, watch all the dogs and have a coffee. Getting to work in a coffee shop, and getting to know the regulars and people that lived in Canton was such a lovely experience – everyone was always very friendly and forgiving. Working there was refreshing and it did not compare to any places I had worked in before – I will always be grateful to Bloc.
After living in Canton, I moved to Roath. Roath differs from Canton significantly but it has still been a wonderful place to live in. Because my 50p banana bowls were long far I had to find something else, and rightfully found Sammy from Fruit and Veg Barrow and slowly the routines were settling in. Now I only live twenty minutes away from Roath Lake and the Roath Rose Garden and these places have comforted me throughout these difficult times. Walking around these places and checking out nice spots like Roath Mill Gardens helped me throughout lockdown, and reminded me of how many lil’ gems Cardiff has.
As a Mexican-American, it has been an absolute joy being surrounded by Welsh people and immersing myself in their culture. Maybe it’s because Welsh people remind me of who I am as a Mexican-American, as there are parallels between each culture and their hard-working attitude.
There is just something genuinely honest and special about Welsh people: they are kind, hardworking, and always up for a good time. Getting to know my partner’s Welsh family was a joy – they were all welcoming, and I quickly began to see them as my own. I didn’t grow up with a lot of family, but Wales and my partner’s family – from their caring attitude to treating me to Sunday dinner – made me feel like I was in one straight away. My eyes begin to water when I think about how proud people are to be Welsh and I am overwhelmed with happiness that I get to experience it.
Wales has taught me more than I could have ever imagined, not only about how fantastic other places in the world can be, but how to love myself. I feel a lot more independent, and I feel like if I can move across the country on my own then I can do absolutely anything. Cardiff and the Welsh Valleys will forever be with me. I cannot thank both my parents and friends enough for believing in me and always encouraging me to follow my heart.
Mary is an Interior Design graduate from Cardiff Met. Thanks Mary for this wonderful account of your past few years living in and around Cardiff!
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