People Places

The Queen and The Tower

June 17, 2017

Though the date on this post may not reflect it, it’s actually been a few months since I last added an entry to this blog.  This is mainly due to the fact that I am not a fast writer, and I was finding that I was spending beautiful summer days in London cooped up in my flat, trying to keep up with social media and my website.  It seemed crazy to be focused on telling the story instead of living it.  So I set aside a lot of my efforts, put my shoes on and went out to enjoy whatever adventures this experience would bring me.

I did keep an online journal just for myself, so everything would be there when I went to write the book later.  Going on for a page or two each night or morning seemed to take far less time than writing a few carefully worded paragraphs for the blog.  It’s the old idea of, “Sorry I wrote such a long letter.  I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

For the next two months, I lived the experience and hung onto every moment of it as best I could.  It all went by so terribly fast.  Now it’s autumn, the summer’s journey is a couple of months in the rearview mirror, and it’s time for me to finally write all of those overdue blog posts.

It might have been easier to start up again before now, if the next entry was one that I was looking forward to posting.  But I’ve known for a while what needs to be said at this point in the journey.  I just hope I can get the words out right.

My first couple of weeks in London were such a happy time for me personally.  I was really doing it, really having this adventure I’d dreamed of.  I was just at the start of it all, with so much of Cornelia’s and Emily’s story still ahead of me, to unearth and recreate.  I was seeing friends from the States who were in the UK at the same time.  I was seeing old friends from my two years living abroad.  I was making new friends in Chelsea.  And I was meeting a distant cousin with whom I had become friends, thanks to Ancestry.com.

But life has a way of interrupting.

On June 4, 2017, our fifth day aboard the QM2, sailing for England, we learned of the attack at London Bridge and the Borough Market in which 8 people were killed.  This was only two weeks after the Manchester bombing where 22 people were killed.  The date was May 22nd, when I had been in Canada, traveling from Quebec City to Les Eboulements, following in Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps.

A week after I arrived in London, the news was filled with images of a horrific fire in the Grenfell Tower apartment building, which killed at least 68 people (the final death toll isn’t expected to be known until 2018).  It was a senseless, needless tragedy – too many heartbreaking stories to recount.

And then there was all of that noise coming from the other side of the pond.  The incessant anger raging throughout the States.  Every day was a new affront, a new argument, a new division in our magnificent, imperfect, beautiful nation.  I became so thankful for those two summer months abroad, to be away from the fight, where the cacophony was somewhat muted by the BBC filter.

All of this was as much a part of my summer as going to tea, and the theatre, and almost getting lost in the maze at Hampton Court.

Cornelia’s and Emily’s summer abroad took place in 1922, a relatively joyful, exciting time.  But when they sat down to write their story, the year was 1942.  America had just entered World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  The U.S. and its allies were facing some of the darkest days of the war.  Cornelia and Emily were penning their happy memories of London at a time when the city was just trying to put itself together after surviving the Blitz.  They wrote of their idyllic weeks in the little Normandy town of St. Valery-en-Caux, knowing that the wonderful people of the town who had welcomed them into the community in 1922, were now living under Nazi rule.  They wrote of visiting the Arc de Triomphe at twilight, not long after the world had been subjected to crushing images of German troops and their leader, Adolf Hitler, marching past it, down the Champs-Elysees and into Paris.

Yet within Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, there is not one mention of the times they were living through.  Not one whiff of anything unpleasant.  Not the slightest hint of comparison between 1922 and 1942.  Whatever heartache the current situation in Europe must’ve caused Cornelia and Emily – and for these two women, who traveled to Europe often during their lifetimes, it had to have been quite a lot – they focused solely on the story of their funny, lighthearted journey.

Perhaps it was for the sake of escapism – giving people an amusing story to take them away from their cares for a moment or two.  But I believe Cornelia and Emily, those two savvy women, understood what the true purpose of the book could be:  to remind all of those fighting for the Allied cause of just what they were fighting for.  The world they shared in their story was worth fighting for, worth saving.  More on just how much this little book did for the war effort will follow in a later post.

I thought of their choice often as I was writing in my journal, feeling torn about how much I would speak of not-so-pleasant current events occurring during my time in Europe.  Though it remains to be seen what I will say in the book, I intend to speak of the troubling headlines only here in this one blog post.  You see, I love that little book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Love it so much that I desperately want to produce a story as joyful as the one Cornelia and Emily gave us.  If they can create such a delightful tale in the midst of World War II, then I owe it to them to keep my focus on the good and positive in just the same way.

This post is dreadfully long now, but I felt this needed to be addressed and explained.

This post was supposed to be about attending the Queen’s Birthday parade with my English cousin Sean, and seeing members of the Royal Family for the first time.  It was a beautiful day, with huge crowds, all cheerful and cheering, not letting an attack on their city just two weeks earlier stop them enjoying the celebration.

Unblinking and unafraid.  These are the people who survived the Blitz.  And decades of IRA bombings.  They keep calm and carry on, and never let a random act of evil break their stride.  They are my heroes.

Top, left to right:  Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip travel along The Mall in an open carriage during her birthday celebration; the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower, where it is a miracle anyone survived.

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