I knocked on the door of my temporary upstairs neighbor.
My dog might bark while I’m out, I said. I wanted him to know that I wouldn’t be gone too long. But no worries, he was going out as well.
When I got home there was a note on the red rain boots outside my door, letting me know that you can’t hear Beesly from the other apartments, only when you walk by the door. He also mentioned something about books, so I wrote him a note in return and left it outside his door, asking if he wanted to go to Archive Night at the library the next day.
In the morning, there was a note on the red rain boots again, Yes, I’d love to go to Archive Night. So I took the stranger to the library with me, which is just half a block from the apartment, providing not much time to even ask, so where are you from? And before we even approached the steps of the library, we were being called into an open door by a woman with dark blue hair.
Are you here for Archive Night? Come in, we’re about to start!
Start? I thought it was just a casual thing: look at old stuff, ask questions, maybe take some photos–you know, be on your own. But no, it was a formal program. I didn’t mind, but wondered if the stranger from upstairs was asking himself how he got roped into such a thing. Whatever, I thought, he’s free to leave if he wants.
But how could you want to? The archivists were full of enthusiasm for the things in the collections–photos of criminals from the 1800s, recipes for getting rid of freckles, marriage registries, English phrasebooks for Welsh speakers. We were told to be thinking about the homework assignment: To create something from the inspiration of the archives. They said someone was making a knitted Welsh woman in a hat, others were baking things from the “Workhouse Cookbook” from 1845….all forms of artistic responses are welcome, they said.
Are you going to send something in? I whispered to the stranger, knowing he was leaving in another day.
The stranger and I were from the same country, the same city even, New York, and had similar sensibilities, so we shared a lot of laughs about only things the two of us in that crowd of people could understand. We were outside looking in and it was nice to be on the same side of something with someone–even a person I didn’t know.
Where are you two from? The archivists asked as if we were a couple.
We’re both from America, but we actually don’t know each other. They all laughed as if we were joking.
No really, we just met yesterday, he said.
For like one second, I said.
It’s funny to feel culturally, but not personally, connected to someone. After living abroad for a while, people from home are like nectar. They just know the things you know and it’s relaxed. We must have seemed like a couple to the people in the archives because we were comfortable in our shared sensibility.
To look at the past through photographs, newspapers, ballot sheets, language guides, potions, recipes and maps of rivers with water sprites sketched in, is to begin to piece together an understanding of the cultural and historical identity of a certain place and time. How much further away did I stand in relation to the material based on the identification that night with someone else who was outside the culture?
My response to the evening in an artistic form can only come as a character who is three steps removed from the archives of Welsh history: One for time, one for place, and one for the enjoyment–a welcome change–of being an outsider.
After the event, my temporary neighbor and I walked the half block and I could hear Beesly barking from the street. It had been a strange evening and I was tired, but grateful for a little bit of home in the Welsh archives.