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Living Amidst the Bunk Beds

July 11, 2019

Hostels have a rhythm and atmosphere of their own which (dare I say it?) I think I prefer to hotels.

Don’t get me wrong. Certainly there is nothing to rival the treat that is staying in a nice hotel, preferably one with a grand lobby where one can take a seat in a wingback chair, alternating between reading and people watching, and with an elegant, moody bar where visitors from around the world mix with local business folks meeting up for drinks after work. And after being on the road, a charming room, luxuriant bed, spa-like shower and plush hotel bathrobe are the stuff of nirvana.

But there is something about the communalism of hostels which has consistently proven to be a source of fascination and pleasure for me. In order to make my travels more financially feasible, I have spent a great deal of the last six months bedding down all over Europe in these funky domiciles for backpackers. And from Porto to Prague, Inverness to Istanbul, each hostel has its own individual personality and style, yet all of them offer the same engaging, relaxed atmosphere and homey vibe which engenders camaraderie and friendships among their guests.

When I was in my twenties and backpacking around Europe, there was always this one weird old woman staying in the youth hostel who was traveling on her own for six months or so. Now the torch has been passed, and I’m that weird old woman. Turns out, I’m very lucky and proud to be her.

It helps that, mercifully, they don’t seem to be called youth hostels anymore. These days, they’re just hostels, with folks of all ages staying in them now. Still, most of my roommates in the six- to twelve-person rooms I tend to land in seem to be in their twenties and sometimes early thirties. But you never know. Along the way, I’ve shared space with three generations of family traveling together, and backpackers ranging from barely drinking age to pushing seventy.

No matter what the age or story, we are all kindred spirits, sharing a mutual passion for traipsing about the world, exploring, taking in and immersing ourselves in whatever place we alight. What’s more, we share the identity of being strangers in town, which allows for fast friendships to be formed as we stumble around on unfamiliar streets, discovering a place’s history, hotspots and treasures.

Together in the hostel’s kitchen, we cook meals of varying complexity, oftentimes sharing our creations as we exchange stories of who we are and where we’ve been, offering up recommendations of “must-see” places. In the lounge, we make plans with our new friends for the next day’s adventures even as we’re texting loved ones around the world. And flopped down in our bunk beds, we swap ideas, secrets and dreams just as we did at childhood and adolescent sleepovers.

(I should probably mention, one change in this new era of hostel living is that mixed dorms are the norm, with males and females sharing a room. The only thing I found surprising about this is how relaxed and natural it feels. Well, that, and the fact that college-aged young men nowadays seem to have no qualms about walking around in mixed company in just their underwear. Even in the morning. You know what I’m getting at here?)

Yes, there are the irritations which are part and parcel of communal living – people coming and going at all hours, snorers, a complete lack of privacy, the rustling of others’ plastic bags when you’re trying to sleep (hostel-goers know exactly what I’m talking about) – but the enjoyment, the fun, the novelty of it all far outweighs any drawbacks. My time in the hostels has provided me with a number of my favorite memories of the last six months, along with the best of gifts: some of the closest friends I’ve made in my travels.

And, oh, the conversations I’ve had – from the cutie-patootie theoretical physicist from Cambridge who was so amazingly brilliant, he was able to explain the universe in terms my little brain could understand, to the scientist from Algiers (the first Berber I ever met) and his unshakable faith in the goodness of people, to the divorcee from Shanghai who was beginning a new chapter of her life not with timid baby steps but with a gusto and exuberance I found dazzling.

As this round of travels concludes for me, I know I will miss the noise and high spirits of the hostels – and probably even more than that, the way they make me feel young and carefree and quite the bohemian vagabond.

Even if, in reality, I’m just the token weird old woman. I’m cool with that.

 

Photos:

Above: My ten-person room in Edinburgh.

Below, top row: Abisko’s hostel on a winter wonderland day; the perks of staying in a mansion-turned-hostel — a grand piano and glorious antique heater in my room; packing for a journey in his anime underpants.

Below, bottom row: The utterly beguiling and oh-so-fun hostel in Instanbul; sometimes amenities are spartan — and strange, like the non-existent bathtub and shower; some kitchens are sleek and modern, others are cozy, but they are always a great place to hang out.

 

People Places Things

The Magic of Mythical Inverness

July 5, 2019

The remains of Urquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness.

After the weeks of exuberant fun in beautiful Edinburgh, I’ve come farther north in Scotland, my first stop being Inverness – another city, with another vibe. Smaller, a bit chillier, with the scenery of a river instead of a beach. Though it’s a city, Inverness has the spirit of the highlands and the enormous sky which surround it. There is a crisp, simple certainty to everything – the folks here are warm in spirit, and unflappable.

It’s far enough north now that Gaelic words have begun creeping into conversations, and road signs are printed in two languages, with Gaelic often taking precedence over English.

On the bus ride up from Edinburgh, I hit it off with an engaging, intelligent young woman from Germany named Sophie. She and I were staying in different hostels (for this, I had hostel envy of her, as the one she had chosen was directly across from the bus station, whereas mine was a fifteen minute walk away… up a hill… with my big backpack…). We connected through Instagram and made plans to meet up the next morning to go do some dolphin watching as the high tide came in. Sophie had given herself only one night in Inverness, so she was determined to do as much exploring as she could.

I, on the other hand, had arranged to stay for four nights. For me, at least, one or two nights isn’t long enough to get more than a glimpse at a place, and soon it all becomes a big blur. Of course, I have the luxury at present to take as much time as I like in a place. And I’m finding that I prefer to focus on just a few places over trying to pass through many.

There’s also the element of fatigue which factors into this. As much as I loathe to admit this, I just don’t have the stamina to put my backpack on my back every thirty-six hours and take off for somewhere new. Now, I’m not about to accept that this is due to my age, or that I’m “slowing down.” Rather, I blame it on the fact that both my backpack and I could stand to lose some weight.

Given the amount of daily exertion I’ve been getting, coupled with the slow whittling down of the toiletries and essentials I’m carrying around, I do believe we’re both starting to shed a few ounces.

Back to the other morning…

Sophie and I met with little success in spotting any dolphins, but we had a lovely time sitting on the shoreline talking about life, priorities and courage. We also decided that we caught a glimpse of Nessie (a.k.a. the Loch Ness Monster, though I believe that term has fallen out of favor, at least with the locals, who speak of their most famous resident with great affection).

Then again, it was probably just some seaweed floating in the water. But you never know…

After Sophie and I said our goodbyes and parted ways, I hopped on an afternoon boat tour of Loch Ness which traveled from Inverness to the ruins of Urquhart Castle. It was cloudy and cool, with not even a hint of sun, but there wasn’t any rain and the winds weren’t terribly strong or cold –  which, in the Highlands, you have to take as a win, weather-wise.

Cruising the expanse of Loch Ness is a beguiling experience. The slopes are sparsely dotted with homesteads, with more cattle and sheep than humans residing along the shoreline. Occasionally there is a fine stately manor to be seen, dating anywhere from the 18th century to the 21st century. It’s all very quiet and serene, and feels as if it has remain unchanged for untold centuries, that the Vikings and the Highland clans who claimed this place as their own would recognize it today. The only thing missing on the day I visited was a nice, mystical fog rolling in to cover the hillsides.

Once again, no Nessie, but no matter. After all, it’s the possibility of her, of just maybe seeing her, which is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Leaving the boat tour, I meandered over to an ancient cemetery residing at the base of a sizable hill. At the top of the hill, there were more gravestones and memorials, a few of which could be seen from the boat as we were docking. I was curious to climb up and investigate them, but the boat tour operator had cautioned me about wandering up through the wooded hillside.

“There are mischievous fairies which dwell up there, and if you encounter them, they will be very friendly and invite you to come sing and dance with them at a party in their cave.

“But don’t go,” he warned me. “At the end of the party, the fairies give you a bag of gold and a bag of silver, and you think it’s all been lovely. But when you leave the fairies’ cave, you discover a hundred years have passed, and you have only twelve hours before you turn to fairy dust.”

Armed with this intel, I made my way to the top of the hill without incident, where I had the captivating weathered headstones all to myself, save for two other visitors stationed on a bench at the far end of the cemetery. I grabbed a few pictures, took some time to enjoy the panoramic vistas of Inverness and the Highlands, and then was able to get back down the hill without encountering any fairies.

Walking through the lower cemetery, it occurred to me that I might have ancestors buried here. My family tree is rife with at least a few dozen folks whose surnames begin with “Mc” or “Mac”, not to mention a host of other Scottish names. I hadn’t done my research, though, so I couldn’t be sure who might be here. So I spoke as I walked through the lines of graves, saying who I was and when I was, and that if anyone there shared my DNA, they should know I was here, I was their American descendant — if they knew what that was — and that I wished to say hello to them.

Heading back into town, I decided to take the scenic route through the River Ness’s Five Islands. This is the prettiest walk, along connecting footpaths through a series of small dollops of land in the middle of the river, which are linked together by graceful iron bridges. The ground beneath the covering of trees has been cleared of the undergrowth, giving one the feeling that they have stumbled into a secret glade. The paths are lined with old-fashioned streetlamps, with long chains of string lights running between them. What an enchanting little world this must be in the evenings.

As I was strolling along one of the paths, I came across a man riding/walking bikes with his daughters. We talked about the islands, and they told me how there are events on the islands all year round, including a big Halloween shindig. The daughter explained that the best part was that they have a smoke machine to make the woods look foggy. Ah, a kindred spirit.

Something led me to mention my visit to Tomnahurich Cemetery and the hill, and the dad asked me if I’d run into the fairies, in a tone which implied I had accidentally wandered into a bad neighborhood which was beset with ne’er-do-wells. With this confirmation of the tour guide’s warning, I could only conclude that the fairies story is true.

And to think, at the beginning of this journey, I wondered if there would be any magic along the way.  I needn’t have worried.

 

Photos below:

Top row: Road signs in Gaelic and English; Sophie and I make a quick stop in the marina.

Middle row: Aldourie Castle, on the banks of Loch Ness (there is a terrible story associated with the current owners of this home, which I found too sad to include here); monuments at the top of Tomnahurich Hill.

Bottom row: Oh, no, Nessie?! No, just a petrified fallen tree; charming Inverness.

People Places Things

One Last Pin in the Map

August 12, 2017

New York City at sunrise, from the deck of the Queen Mary 2

It was over.  All of it.  The starting trek across the US.  The weeks of research in New England, filled with Cornelia’s and Emily’s “rapturous plans and lyric anticipation”.  The quick visit to Canada for the “false start” part of the story.  Sailing to England on the Queen Mary 2.  The month in London, followed by the month in France.  And then the last hurrah on the QM2.  It was quickly becoming my past.  My three and a half months of traveling with the girls – my dear friends at this point –  was at an end.  Saturday, August 12, 2017 had arrived and my enchanted summer came to a close as the QM2 pulled dockside in Brooklyn.

On September 9th, less than a month after we arrived in New York, The Greatest Generations Foundation reported that Colonel Douglas Dillard had passed away at the age of 91.  He was very fortunate, really.  To have lived such a long life, and been well enough only weeks before to cross an ocean, speaking to crowds and enjoying a marvelous vacation, was a blessing, for sure.  But even understanding this didn’t stop me from being terribly saddened by the news.  RIP, Colonel.

After stopping in to see my QM2 friends Matt and Marianne in Chicago and New York City, respectively, I would spend the autumn following my enchanted summer in the idyllic New England town of Hudson, New York, living in a converted 1900 schoolhouse which sits between two cemeteries – and in the process, make a new friend in the artist-owner, Laurie.  There I would finish the first draft of my book at 1:28pm EST on November 9, 2017.

In early 2018, I would spend three months in Lake Worth, Florida with Cornelia and Emily – not the girls in the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, but the two accomplished women who wrote it.  Doing my best to emulate their wit and style, and occasionally whispering a plea for their help or guidance, I edited and worked through various drafts of my book, trying to sort out what the journey had been about.  That is, I worked on the book in between making good on my promise to Steven the World War II veteran.

I needed to learn the foxtrot.  And so shortly after I arrived in Lake Worth, I signed up for dance lessons with Grigol Kranz, a brilliant pro dancer and teacher, as well as a witty, wonderful, and extremely patient soul, who managed to get me dancing passable versions of every dance I would need for the ballroom on the QM2 – the most important being, of course, the foxtrot.

From him, I even learned the tango, just as Cornelia and Emily had done in 1922, when it was still quite new – and quite scandalous.  They had been taught by a fellow hotel guest, Jacques Ventadour, in the parlor of their Paris pension.  This was symmetry I found extremely pleasing. 

(In addition to somehow teaching me to dance, Grigol worked overtime as therapist on some of my rougher writing days, and his bright spirit would lift mine when I was doubting my work or myself.  He also gave me a marvelous gift:  some of his other students.  They are a phenomenal group of intelligent, charismatic, talented, beautiful women – Jean, Anna, Andrea, Jill, Bimika, Carolyn, Susan and Hannah – who I’m thrilled to have as my friends.  Grigol and my dancer friends, along with pros David and Alexis at Palm Beach Ballroom Dance Studio, would end up turning those three months of work into lots of a brand new kind of fun.)

On March 14, 2018, Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76.  In the summer of 2018, his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey, and one of the last things I did on my return visit to London was stop in and pay my respects.  I whispered to him how sorry I was that I would never get to ask him about the phenomenon of time and space blurring.

But maybe, just maybe, that me from thirty years ago can find a way to ask the him of thirty years ago about it, as we pass each other on the sidewalk in front of King’s College, Cambridge.  Because time is not linear, and everything is happening at once.

In May 2018, I would once again sail to England on the QM2, traveling with some familiar faces, and making new friends along the way, most especially Patrick, Anette and their darling daughter Flora, as well as Kate and Greg (my nomad role models) and their golden doodles Lucy and Gracie.

I would spend a couple of weeks in Oxford (see my post “Home Can Be More Than One Place”) before returning to London, to the same flat I’d lived in the summer before.

The plan had been to finish the book in London, but it seemed that there were too many people to see and too much fun to be had.  In addition, I would continue my dance lessons with the kind, talented group of teachers at the Karen Hardy Studios, as well as attend weekly forro dancing lessons at the Lighthouse Bar in Shoreditch, learning this Brazilian street dance from the brilliant, fun foursome of Chinedu, Graziela, Gala and Jonathan.

My longtime traveling buddy Daron and I would get a week to run around London, a couple of decades after our first “Cornelia and Emily” visit to the UK.  I’d also get an all-too-brief visit with my friend and fellow writer, Betty, who was over from Hawaii to visit with her son and his family.  And I got some – but not enough – hangout time with my ex-pat neighbor Sabrina and her beautiful poodle Tigger.  There were shows and dinners and drinks and, of course, afternoon tea…

As always, it wasn’t easy to leave England, to get back on the ship, when the time came to leave.  But it helped that I had Grigol and Marianne with me, and that I made some amazing new friends, including Matt, Nick, Ciaran, Margaret, Christelle and Andy.  Most happily on this voyage, I discovered I was sailing with some other friends from the past – Amy and her daughter, Hannah; Maite and her daughter, Hannah; and Vicki and Bill, my fellow spa-rats.

It was another magical summer.  Though it meant I would return to the States short of my goal – a completed book – my time had been extremely well-spent.  The stars had aligned, and I had found my next book idea.  All because of that promise I had made.

So here’s how it worked.

Thirty years ago… I dated a guy in Oxford, and through him and his family, I met Tom, who would give me the idea for my first book.  And it would be Tom who, over drinks one night this past June, would implant in my brain the notion that I needed to find an inventive angle for my next book, which was to be about my upcoming travels.

Meanwhile, a year ago…  I make a promise to learn to dance.  Ballroom dancing leads me to social dancing, which leads me to other dances – bachata, then forro – and making a lot of amazing new friends.

Meanwhile, this summer… In reading tributes to the late, great Anthony Bourdain (which he was), I am reminded of how he learned about the world through food, and it made me realize I had my own way to see a place, learn about the culture and meet the people… through their dance.

All those bits and pieces had fused together to become my next book project.  And on May 24, 2019, I shall begin A Twirl Around the World by dancing across the Atlantic on the QM2 with The Greatest Generations Foundation, as they sail to Europe for the 75th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day invasions.

But first I have to finish this first book, which I’m calling Enchanted Summer.  In a few weeks I will be stationing myself back in that schoolroom in Hudson, and only emerging when I have a completed manuscript.  If I appear to go missing, check there first.

 

Photos below:

Top Row:  Colonel Douglas Dillard, holding a picture of his WWII self which appeared in Life magazine (photo courtesy of John Riedy, The Greatest Generations Foundation), with Matthew at Chicago’s Union Station; my room in the old schoolhouse in Hudson – the perfect place to write a book.

Bottom Row:  With Daron at the artist Christo’s installation in Hyde Park; Stephen Hawking’s gravestone in Westminster Abbey; afternoon tea with Grigol at Fortnum and Mason.

Places Things

A Realm of Enchantment

July 27, 2017

On Tuesday, July 25th, I woke up in Paris.  One three-hour Chunnel ride later, I was back in London, and within an hour of that, I had the keys to the Chelsea flat back in my hand.

It was good to be in the flat again.  It was almost like coming home.  But it didn’t feel the same as it had the first time.  These were two separate visits, not a continuation of one.  I hadn’t expected that sensation – to borrow a phrase from the girls, “it hadn’t quite the flavor I anticipated.”  But neither did it dampen my enthusiasm for the place.  I was thankful for this last week I was getting, and was ready to make the most of it.

On my first full day back in London, I visited the National Portrait Gallery to view the BP Awards for 2017, and one of those winning portraits in particular.  It is a study of Dr. Tim Moreton, a former Registrar of the National Portrait Gallery, painted by a wonderfully talented artist, Lucy Warner Stopford, who also happens to be a longtime friend of mine.  I had learned about her prestigious honor when I was visiting her father and stepmother in Oxford (which I cover in my next post, “Home Can Be More Than One Place”).  In the Gallery, I studied her compelling portrait, dazzled by the palette of colors Lucy had fused together and formed into Dr. Moreton’s likeness.  I then took some time to view the other BP Award winners before returning to Lucy’s work, where I hovered for a good half an hour, for the sole purpose of boasting to other museum-goers that I knew the artist.

After that satisfying experience, I walked up to New Bond St to the Allies Statue, an outdoor art piece which is comprised of a wooden park bench on which sit life-size bronze sculptures of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  It captures the friendship and mutual admiration of those two men who brought us to victory in World War II.  What is especially compelling about this piece is that the artist left space between the two men’s sculptures, so that a person can join them on the bench.  I was looking forward to that.

I arrived at the block of New Bond street where the statue is supposed to reside, only to discover that there was construction work taking place right in that spot, and the statue has been moved into storage somewhere.  This was an annoyance I hadn’t been expecting, and I was pretty darn disappointed.  With as much as World War II was figuring into my journey, I had really wanted an opportunity to visit the sculpture and take a seat, but it would just have to wait for another time.

I had far better luck on another outing I was excited to make, to the Globe Theatre to see “Much Ado About Nothing”.  It would be my first time attending a performance in the replica of the famous Shakespearean theatre since it opened in 1997.  “Much Ado About Nothing” is a play I already like, but this production sounded especially intriguing because it was set in 1914 Mexico, with Latin music and dancing.

It was an engaging, spirited production, and I have to think the men, especially, enjoyed their costumes.  Instead of sporting Elizabethan stockings and frills, these actors were dressed as caballeros, with cowboy boots, gun belts, a scruffy appearance and all of the boisterous swagger that goes with it.

The Globe Theatre itself lived up to all of my expectations – the building had been meticulously recreated, and the experience was as authentic as one could hope for, right down to when the audience members standing in the stalls got spritzed with light rain during the performance.  But no one seemed to mind in the slightest.

From there, the days slipped by fast, and the next thing I knew, it was Monday, July 31st, the day of my move from the flat in Chelsea to the Grand Hotel, where Cornelia and Emily, along with the Skinners, had stayed.  I would remain there until Friday, August 4th, when I would catch the boat-train to Southampton and board the Queen Mary 2 back to the States.

(Okay, so “boat-train” is an antiquated term from Edwardian times, referring to trains that ran to a port for the specific purpose of catching a passenger ship.  But it applies well to my particular journey plans.  And also, I just really enjoy saying, “I will be catching the boat-train…”  After all, how often does one get the opportunity to utter those words?)

On the morning of the move from the flat, I woke up feeling terribly, feverishly sick.  Up until that day, I hadn’t had so much as a sniffle, but the months of traveling had finally caught up to me.  It was a nuisance, to be sure, but I could feel only gratitude that it was happening now at the end.

I managed to get everything together in time to catch the river bus one last time from Chelsea to Embankment, and was still holding up fairly well when I entered the Grand Hotel, even feeling excited for the novelty of being steps away from the West End instead of a couple of subway rides.  Not that I would have the strength to take advantage of the situation.

I spent most of the next few days lying in bed, in various states of consciousness.  Occasionally I would venture out for something to eat, or to soak up some sun in the Embankment Gardens while my hotel room was being cleaned.  I knew that if I didn’t baby whatever illness this was, and really take care of myself now, I would be sick at sea.

By Thursday, twenty-four hours before I would be leaving London, I was finally starting to feel better.  After being cooped up for three days, I decided the best thing for my recovery now would be to get some fresh air and sunshine.  I started the day by walking over to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was quite a haul, but I didn’t mind – it was just good to be out of doors.

I never can approach the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral without thinking of that iconic photograph from World War II, which had stiffened the backs and strengthened the resolve of the British to fight on.  Thank God it survived the Blitz.

After my visit to the cathedral, I took my time meandering back through central London – wandering through Covent Garden, strolling along the Strand, then making my way down to St. James Park, where I whiled away the afternoon.

There was nothing new or particularly exciting in anything I was doing.  But everything about the day was amplified.  It was all in sharper focus because I would be gone from it soon.  I was completely connected to this time and place, as I felt – and tried desperately to hang onto – every moment as it passed.

That evening, I was happily still energized and feeling well enough to attend the performance of “Queen Anne” at Theatre Royal Haymarket.  It was the first time in at least 20 years that I had been there, and I was glad I had made the effort to go.  The play itself was good, and just being at the theatre allowed me to spend a little time with some lovely memories from my twenties.

After the play, I walked back from the theatre through Trafalgar Square.  The daytime crowds of tourists had pretty much dispersed, and the lions and fountains of the square were left to the young, flirty people.  I made my way down to the Thames, where I stood for a long while gazing across it to the South Bank, which was bustling with lights and music and voices and bodies, all under the watchful London Eye, as the twilight disappeared into darkness.  Sometimes life is perfect.

I could’ve stayed forever.

 

Photos:

Above:

Top:  Swans grace the lake in front of Bletchley Park.

Middle:  Dr. Tim Moreton, by artist Lucy Warner Stopford; afternoon tea with my friend the artist, fittingly at the National Portrait Gallery; Lucy tidying up after making a start on a portrait of me!

Below:

Top row:  “Much Ado About Nothing”, playing at The Globe Theatre; Shakespeare would be shocked at the lack of bawdiness in the crowd.

Middle row:  Packed and ready to leave the flat; last look at my cozy London home; leaving Chelsea by boat.

Bottom row:  Herbert Mason’s iconic 1940 photograph of St. Paul’s Cathedral; the London Eye, Big Ben and Parliament, from the Jubilee (Embankment) Bridge; finally scoring my photo with the Allies, a year later.

Places Things

If It’s Two O’Clock, It Must Be Bayeux

July 15, 2017

Road trip!

During my time in Normandy, I needed a rental car in order to visit some of the more remote villages I had on my list.  This was my first time driving alone on foreign soil, but (naively) I’d always felt up to the task.  For some inexplicable reason, I had been under the misguided notion that I could find my way through the French countryside simply by using old-school road maps.  I clung to this belief in the weeks, then days leading up to the “Time in the Car” portion of my summer journey, and staunchly fended off the international smartphone data plans which would provide me with satellite navigation.

It was only when I was picking up the car at the Rouen train station that doubts began to creep in about how I might manage reading an unwieldy paper map while simultaneously driving, and I was beginning to suspect that this road trip could (and probably would) end in any number of disastrous ways.

Thankfully, there was a guardian angel looking out for me somewhere because, by some act of Providence, the rental car assigned to me came equipped with a built-in navigation system.

Thing was, it was set up to deliver instructions in French.  Summoning every last bit of French I could remember, I managed to work out from the car manual how to get my navigator speaking to me in English.  And not just that, but I had my choice of what kind of accent my navigator would have – either British English or Australian English.  Without pausing to dwell on the “oversight” of there being no American English option, I selected the Brit because he sounded a bit like a butler, which made me feel rather elegant.

The rental car itself was a Renault (this being France and all), just spacious enough for me and my luggage.  Its exterior color was an unmissable “rouge clair”, which translates roughly to “screaming red” in English.  Not even the most retina-burning shades of fingernail polish could rival the car’s neon glow, so the pressure was on for me to get through my road trip without putting any nicks in the paint job.

It had been in Claire the car that I had visited St. Valery-en-Caux, and then Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery.  After an afternoon spent on the hallowed sand and soil of the D-Day invasion, I was emotionally spent by the time I was in the car and on the road to Bayeux, which was my next destination and stopping point for the night.  God bless that navigation system, for it made quick work of my journey, and delivered me without incident to my hotel in the center of the city.

Stepping through the hotel’s front door, I instantly fell head over heels for the place.  Housed in an ancient building – a converted something-or-other – the hotel was a sublime mix of medieval architecture and swinging modern furnishings.  My appointed room was huge, with three tall windows and a fireplace.  The bed was modern groovy – padded white vinyl with some sort of remote-controlled colored lighting effects built into the underside of the frame.

(It would turn out, unfortunately, that I would never figure out how to work the remote, and in the end I would be too tired to pursue the matter.  Oh well.  I wasn’t cool enough for the bed anyway.)

As soon as I dropped my bags, I hit the streets of Bayeux, and it was love at first sight there, too. Creamy yellow sandstone buildings, ancient, narrow cobblestone streets, a gorgeous cathedral.  It was one of the prettiest cities I had ever visited.

If Bayeux wasn’t already wonderful enough, I discovered walking around town that when it came to restaurants, I was spoiled for choice.  It took a while, but finally I elected to have dinner at a place where I could have some of those delicious mussels in curry sauce.

It was a cozy place, with the tables quite close together.  To my left, there was a French couple who were very polite and very patient with me as we exchanged a bit of small talk in their language.  On my right side was a German family complete with two adorable dogs, one of whom put his paws in my lap and gave me kisses. The family was friendly and we were able to speak a little as well, in French — a second language for both of us.

After my day on the Normandy coastline – the French soil where that watershed battle between Americans and Germans known as D-Day had taken place – Bayeux had brought me back to a happier time: now.  The French, the Germans and my American self all enjoyed our food and wine together, and there was only friendship amongst our tables.

It was just what I needed to reaffirm that goodness and the human spirit can – and always will – prevail.

After a heavenly sleep that night, in the bed that was way too cool for me, I was ready the next morning for a day of balls-to-the-wall sightseeing that would make any “12-countries-in-6-days” tour company proud.  I hit the ground running, starting with a hot-footed trek through the Bayeux Cathedral.  While perhaps not as storied or famous as Notre Dame or Rouen, it is exquisite, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, and worth every moment of the eight and a half minutes I spent touring it before heading on to the next stop, which was a biggie:  The Bayeux Tapestry.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this iconic piece of needlework, especially what sort of reaction I would have to it.  Like most people, I find that when something is historic, legendary, and altogether a huge deal, it’s a real roll of the dice whether or not it can live up to one’s expectations, and what sort of response it will elicit.

Take the La Brea Tar Pits, for example.  One would be lead to believe, simply from Bugs Bunny’s insatiable quest to see them, that they would be “all that”.  Not so.  As many of us have learned upon making that pilgrimage, it’s really a pretty serious letdown.  Yes, the Tar Pits have geological significance (luckily for everyone’s sake, I can’t expound on what it is).  But, for me at least, the whole thing looked like nothing more than a pond with a cloudy black puddle in one corner.  I found myself more excited over a random pool of tar that had broken through the asphalt in the parking lot.

As for its power to inspire awe, the Bayeux Tapestry seemed a bit iffy, and so I prepared myself to be underwhelmed.

Happily, I found the tapestry to be both exceptionally beautiful and interesting, impressive in its scope (but who wouldn’t be dazzled by 68 meters, or 230 feet, of intricate needlework), and I applauded not only its artistry, but marveled over the amount of effort it must’ve taken to produce the piece.  I was so taken with it, in fact, that I even lingered over the tapestry for longer than the allotted fifteen minutes I’d given it – to the point of robbing myself of precious time in the gift shop – before I headed out to where Claire the car was waiting to get on the road to Falaise, our next stop.

As I steered Claire out of Bayeux, I got it into my head to switch the accent on the navigation system from British to Australian.  I was now on Day Five of my isolating Time in the Car, without even Cornelia and Emily to keep me company.  After St. Valery-en-Caux, I had veered off their path, with every place I visited a detour I had designed for myself.  These were my travels.  I was on my own, and wouldn’t meet up the girls again until I returned to Rouen.

Seeing as how I’ve always had a soft spot for Aussies, I figured it would be nice to have someone from the land down under keeping me company as I drove.  With just a little bit of imagination, an Australian navigator could perhaps start to feel like a companion, almost-kinda-sorta like having a boyfriend in the car, riding shotgun and sharing the journey with me.

At first, it was nice.  But soon, I began to feel like my Aussie boyfriend wasn’t so much navigating, as he was telling me how to drive.  Which I really didn’t care for.  Whether it was something about the accent, the voice of the speaker, or just my imagination, it really seemed as if the Aussie was second-guessing my driving.  He began to irritate me, and I grew increasingly annoyed with him each time he told me to turn here or stop there.  It wasn’t long before I had to pull Claire over to the side of the road, and go back to my reliable British butler/navigator.

Still, we made good time to Falaise.  The town of Falaise is famed for its statue of William the Conqueror and his predecessor Dukes of Normandy.  Being a descendant of William the Conqueror – one of many, many millions of descendants – this visit to my grandfathers’ statue was a sort of mini-pilgrimage.  Leaving Claire at the first certain parking space I could locate, I made my way through town over to the square where the monument stands.  Just a few steps away, there was a mammoth castle which perhaps needed exploring.  I took a few minutes to study the figures who encircled William the Conqueror, as well as the Big Duke himself, before making a start towards the castle entrance.  Thankfully, cooler heads quickly prevailed and I chose instead to blow it off.  After all, I’d already done a cathedral, a tapestry and a statue today.  And I can take only so much culture before “museum legs” set in.  That’s what Cornelia and Emily call it.  They suffered from this affliction during their travels as well.

Plus, I still had miles to go before I slept.  So I hustled back to Claire the car and got on the road to Combourg, a neighboring town to Mont St Michel, which I would be visiting the next day.

Full disclosure:  I stopped at a McDonald’s on the way to Combourg.  Yes, in France.  I was in France, with all of that fabulous French food, and I went to McDonald’s.  In my defense, I need say only this:  Coke with ice, free wi-fi, and a respectably clean restroom stocked with toilet paper.

And a parking lot for Claire.

It had been a hectic day, but I managed to make it to Combourg while it was still afternoon.  Combourg turned out to be a handsome little town. The hotel I had booked turned out to be quite nice, with an unexpected sort of New England feel to it, and I managed with half-French, half-English to communicate with the staff.  I was finding that as time went by, at least I wasn’t including as many Spanish words in my sentences as I had been early on.

This was my third town in six hours.  Not normally the way I travel, but sometimes a full-on, hardcore tourist day is called for.  I got to set my own schedule and go anywhere I wanted to.  And it was all made possibly by Claire and my navigational butler (with help from the overbearing Aussie as well, I suppose).

 

Photos:

Above:  Looking up to the statue of William the Conqueror from the base.  In the foreground is William Longsword, his great-great-great-grandfather.

Below:

Top Row:  The Villa des Ursulines, second from the left (my room spans the three windows on the second floor); my way cool hotel room; no, it’s not a movie set, it’s Bayeux.

Bottom Row:

An imposing bit of the Bayeux Cathedral; the Cordeliers’ Gate, part of the ramparts surrounding the city of Falaise (Claire the car can be seen waiting outside the gate); photo-op with some of my kin (a small hint of the massive castle can be seen to the right of the statue).

People Places Things

A Fishing Village With a Great Divide

July 13, 2017

Twenty miles west of Dieppe along France’s Normandy coastline is the town of St. Valery-en-Caux.  It is in this picturesque village that Cornelia and Emily spent numerous days honing their French language skills, and filling their afternoons with bike rides through the countryside and swims in the sea.

It was with a lot of affection that they wrote of St. Valery and its people.  From their stay in Madame Corue’s charming and homey pension to their adventures with Therese, the daughter of the local wine merchant, it’s clear that Cornelia’s and Emily’s time here was one of the best parts of their entire summer.  Which made me eager for my own visit to the town, to see how much I could step into their world and share their memories.

I arrived in St. Valery-en-Caux on a cool, gloomy, drizzly day, but the weather couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm.  So after getting settled into my hotel in the Place du Marche (the market square), I hurried out to go exploring.

Cornelia and Emily don’t mention in the book specifically how long they stayed in St. Valery, but it was probably at least two to three weeks.  They wrote extensively about their time here, providing detailed descriptions of the town, so there was a lot for me to look for.  And I had given myself just a few days to cover it all.

I began with a stroll around the bassin, or “inner harbor”.  Right in the thick of it all, the Henry IV house was there, exactly as Cornelia and Emily described.

“There was a 16th Century gem with leaded casements and ornately carved beams known as the Henri IV House, no one knew why, but it was a popular belief, or hope, rather, that the amorous monarch spent a night of love there.”

And then it was back around to the other side of the bassin for a stroll along the promenade, where the girls most likely went in for their swims.  I crossed my fingers that the weather would improve enough for me to swim at least once while I was in St. Valery.  It was a biggie on my checklist, but I would need a sunny day for it.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t looking good.

The next day was a repeat of my first – cold, gloomy, blustery, with the added attraction of choppy seas.  So I opted out of a swim, choosing instead to climb up one of the hills to get pictures of paths that the girls had talked about:

“Rising on either side of St. Valery were great chalk cliffs, twins of the Dover ones… along the edge of these cliffs went winding paths, worn by the generations of lonely women who, of an evening, after their work was finished, would pace the high promontories, sometimes knitting a sock or crocheting a bit of lace, their eyes searching the horizon for the sight of a home-coming sail.”

The day before, I had noticed a set of stairs cut into one of the hillsides flanking the town, and now I set off to climb them.  Taking a different route through town to the stairs, I came upon something I hadn’t seen, or noticed, on my first day’s outing.

There, cut into the white cliff that the girls had written of, were the remains of a Nazi bunker. 

It was an ugly, concrete rectangular box, which would have served as a great vantage point for scouting and for firing weapons.  Suddenly I felt very much on my own.  The girls weren’t with me now.  Cornelia and Emily wouldn’t have ever laid eyes this atrocity.

It was in this moment that I first began to understand, and what would be made painfully clear in the days which followed, that the idyllic village which the girls had visited was not the place I was seeing today.

I felt as if a defining line had been drawn between their experience and mine:  the line of World War II.  And as the days went on, in spite of the nice moments I would have, and the charms which St. Valery offers today, that line would seem to widen into a chasm.

A bit unnerved, I made my way up the hill, stopping at the point along the steps which sat directly over that hideous bunker.  I was standing where Nazis had once stood.  It had happened before, in my past travels through Europe.  I knew that for a fact.  But this was the first time that it felt so personal.  The sensation of time and space blurring was not a welcome one now.  I took a few photos from that spot, but didn’t remain there long.

After summiting the cliff, I found a winding dirt path that ran along its edge – well-worn as if it had been tread by those fishermen’s wives, of whom the girls had written.  Cornelia’s and Emily’s world did exist in this place.  At least some of it did.  I was just happy that this one lovely, poignant detail from the book was still intact.

Whatever miscalculations I might have made with Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey timeline, I was in no doubt that by Thursday, July 13th, they were in St. Valery.  As if to reward me for my efforts in bringing the girls back here exactly 95 years later, the heavens offered up welcome sunshine on my Day 3, just warm enough for me to go swimming.

Just before noon, I walked along the sea wall to where steps lead down to the shoreline.  The girls had prepared me for the rocky beach, but even their use of the word “agony” didn’t seem strong enough for the punishment my feet took as I made my way to the sea.

At first, the water was cold to the point one might call bracing, but soon it seemed to get better and was really quite pleasant.  I swam for about half an hour, and had wanted to stay in longer but the tide was coming in, pushing me most fervently back to shore.  I obliged its wishes, allowing the waves to deliver me to water’s edge.  Once again I traversed the brutal rocks, and made my way back up to the sea wall, where I sat soaking in the sunshine as the summer breeze dried me off.

There was still one major item left on my St. Valery checklist, the one I had been putting off.  Leaving my happy spot on the sea wall, I walked around to la Place de la Chapelle.  It had been important for me to find the church that Cornelia and Emily visited in 1922, and I was pretty certain it would have been situated in the “Chapel Square”.

Only that church didn’t exist anymore.

A late 20th century church now stands in la Place de la Chapelle and as soon as I entered, I knew I had the right building, or at least the right location.  This church, like the one the girls had visited, was dedicated to la Vierge Marie.  I found further confirmation of my hunch in the form of a large picture of the former church, displayed on the vestibule wall.  In the corner of that picture was the shrine to the Virgin Mary that the girls wrote about.

“… before her altar, a touching assortment of offerings, some dating from days past, some freshly recent… Some were in payment for a vow made when a ship had been nearly lost in a tempest, some waited there in prayer for those who had set forth gaily with the fishing fleet but had not returned.”

Knowing that I was standing where the girls had been, but not exactly, I became a bit weepy for what had been lost, and that chasm between our worlds.  I lit a candle for Madame Corue and Therese and all of the inhabitants of St. Valery who in 1940 would’ve had to witness a brutal battle for their town, then its surrender to General Rommel and enemy forces.

What had never occurred to me in my first hundred readings of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, was all too painfully apparent now:  At the time Cornelia and Emily would’ve been putting words to paper about the people of St. Valery, these dear souls would’ve been living under Nazi rule and undoubtedly enduring losses about which I could only speculate.

That connecting strand between the girls’ world and mine now felt twisted and strained as it stretched across the widening divide between our experiences.

Soon after, I returned to the sunshine.  The day was still bright and lovely, and as it was to be my last one here, I made the most of it, taking pictures of the shoreline at high and low tides, and of fishermen bringing in their catch, which they would then sell right there on the dock.

From there, I trekked over to other side of the harbor, and meandered through narrow cobblestone streets lined in ancient buildings which had been spared from the bombs that had taken down so much of the village.  As I made my way along a picturesque medieval street, I met a lovely older lady who spoke to me as I was taking photos.  I managed a brief conversation in French with her, asking about the age of her home and complimenting her on its beauty.  I couldn’t tell if she had made sense of anything I said, but she was very gracious nevertheless.

It was a happy note on which to end my days in St Valery, and I was awfully thankful to have it.  For tomorrow I would be heading to what was surely to be a profound and emotional experience:  the beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery.

 

Photos:

Above:  A medieval street in St. Valery which was spared by the bombs.

Below, top row:  Fishing nets and lines rest along the bassin; white cliffs and a Nazi bunker on a sunny day; a well-worn path overlooking the sea.

Below, bottom row:  The rocky beach; a new church on an old foundation; a photo of the original church’s interior.

Places Things

The Eternal Embarrassment of Safety Pockets

July 1, 2017

The Victoria & Albert Museum.

An incident which I consider to be one of the funniest in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay involves an item known as a “safety-pocket”.  A forerunner to today’s money belts, this Victorian accessory served the same purpose for female travelers in the late 19th century, safeguarding their passports, money and important papers.

At the very beginning of the Our Hearts, Cornelia explains that her mother has coerced her into wearing one for her journey abroad, describing it as, “a large chamois purse that dangled at the knees in the manner of a sporran and was attached… to an adjustable belt around the waist.  It was worn, supposedly inconspicuously, under skirt and slip…”

But Cornelia’s slinky, skin-tight 1920s wardrobe is no match for this bulky object, which not only protrudes from the outline of her dresses, but also tends to swing out of control at the slightest movement.  Her only consolation comes when she discovers that Emily has been forced by her mother to wear a safety-pocket as well.  There is a darling illustration in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay of the girls showing each other those dreadful appendages that have been fastened onto them by their mothers.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for these items to become a terrible embarrassment to the girls.  It happens when they try to make the best of the fact that the ship they’re traveling on to Europe is stuck on a sandbar and listing to one side.  They attempt to dance on a slippery, tilted floor with some nice young men whom they had met earlier in the day.  Cornelia explains:

“Gradually I became aware that something soft and strange was bumping against my knees… [My partner] began glancing downward uneasily and I realized that something was, in all probability, hitting him too.  Then, with a wave of horror, it dawned upon me what was happening.  That mortifying safety-pocket of mine had got swaying and was rhythmically and indiscriminately thudding first against my limbs then against those of the mystified young man.”

At that same moment, Cornelia sees Emily, her face beet red, walk off the dance floor with her partner.  Clearly the same thing has just happened to her.  That pretty much spells the end of the safety-pockets.

On my first sojourn abroad, my mother sent me off with a 20th century version of the safety-pocket, which was a pouch suspended by a cord worn around my neck, that hung down to my waist.  So instead of flapping beneath my skirt (as if I was wearing skirts as I backpacked through Europe!), my pouch bounced beneath my shirts and tended to give me the appearance of being roughly five months pregnant.  The next time I traveled, I went with the much-derided fanny pack, which strangely enough has suddenly made a (presumably short-lived) comeback in the fashion world.

I decided early on in this project that I wanted to make the safety-pocket one of the subjects for a blog post.  Riveting, I know.  Hey, they can’t all be tabloid-salacious.  But don’t worry, there’s one of those coming.

Safety pockets.  Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to locate a photo of anything that resembled the illustration in Our Hearts.  But in my research, I had come across references to early women’s pockets in some books and articles from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textiles and Fashion Collection, which sounded similar to Cornelia’s description of their safety-pockets.  And yes, there are whole books written about the evolution of pockets.  Makes my post seem electrifying in comparison, doesn’t it?

Armed with these bits of information, I headed over to the sublime V&A Museum.  It was buzzing with large crowds who were there to take in the Pink Floyd exhibition and/or view a collection of over one hundred garments from designer Balenciaga – just two of many focus-pulling attractions the V&A had on offer.  My plan was to knock out the safety-pocket question first, then spend some time looking at the pretty fashions before having tea in the Gamble Room.  It was going to be the most lovely, girly, prissy day.

I went to the general information desk to ask one of the nice ladies behind the counter where I should inquire about an item in the textile and fashion archives.  She asked for specifics, and I explained that I was doing research on a safety-pocket, and stated ever-so-helpfully, “It’s sort of a 19th century version of a fanny pack.”  The woman blinked a bit at what I said and then hastily pointed me in the direction of the textiles hall, saying, “they might be able to help you better”, while another woman passing nearby with a group of school kids in tow looked at me somewhat disapprovingly.

There wasn’t any sort of research desk in the textiles and fashion area, so I stepped up to the reception counter where a couple of staff members were collecting tickets from a steady stream of visitors to the Balenciaga collection.  The young woman noticed me and moved over to help.  Once again, I explained what I was looking for, again making the fanny pack reference.  She hesitated, then got the young man’s attention and she took tickets while he helped me.  For the third time I went through my spiel, at which the young man drew in his breath before breaking into a wry smile.  In a flash, it hit me why everyone seemed so perplexed and a bit put off about helping me, and I was mortified.

Had it really been so long since I lived here that I could have forgotten about the word fanny?  How that gentle American word for backside, as innocuous as “tushy” or “derriere”, to the English, is a vulgar slang term for lady parts.  Though not as bad as the c-word, it’s still quite crass, pretty much on par with the kitty-cat word.

I had just been a potty-mouth in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

I had basically been telling everyone I encountered that I was looking for a “pussy pack”.  On realizing this, I apologized profusely to the two people at the counter and then explained again, using the proper English term “bum bag”.  At this, they suggested I speak with one of the curators, who didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight, and then gave me the names of a couple of books they had on display which might contain what I was looking for.

I checked out the two books, but couldn’t find any photos which resembled the illustration in “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay”.  Still stinging a bit from embarrassment, I decided not to seek out a curator, and gave up the search.  I even skipped on tea in the Gamble Room.  I wasn’t feeling very prissy anymore.

Cornelia and Emily had been humiliated by safety-pockets, so in keeping in sync with their journey, I suppose it’s only fitting that I should be humiliated by them as well.  There seems to be no end to the trouble those silly things can cause.

Top Row:  Cornelia and Emily expose their shameful secret in an illustration by Alajalov; my vintage, sweat-stained travel pouches.

Bottom Row:  The closest thing I ever found to a photo of a safety-pocket; the Gamble Room at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I didn’t have tea.

People Places Things

The Day Saw Advances, None Miraculous: Spelunking in the National Archives

June 30, 2017

I’ll get right to it.  I am almost OCD in my drive to explain every pop culture reference (of which there are hundreds) and solve every puzzle within Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  During my time in England, this zeal led me to making an appointment at the British National Archives at Kew, where I hoped to cross off a number of items from my laundry list of questions.

Kew is best-known for having some of the finest gardens in all of the UK… but there’s no time to discuss that here.

After arriving at the Archives on the day of my appointment, and following the check-in protocol (which involved stashing everything but my phone, notepad and a pencil in a locker, then placing those remaining items in a see-through bag and passing through a check point where it was all inspected by a guard), I found the research cubby assigned to me, which was supposed to contain all of the materials I had requested.

The only item in the cubby was a book written in the early 1900s about the mail route that ran through southern England.  I had hoped that it might be a starting point for enlightening me on who was at the reins the day the Skinners and Emily rode on top of an old mail coach to Hampton Court.  All that I had to go on was that the man looked like Rudyard Kipling, and was a member of the British peerage.  But the book offered no information about the Royal Mail route to Hampton Court, or the four-in-hand club members who drove the coaches.  It was a bust.  Not a promising start to the day.

The other items I had requested, a staff member informed me, would have to be viewed inside a special room with stricter access.  Wow, classified info!  It would take twenty minutes or so for someone to bring the materials to the room.

I used that time to access a record that I had learned of in earlier research, which would verify the exact dates of Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey.  It was a crisp photo image of a page from an immigration log book, with a header showing that the “Empress of France” had docked in Southampton on June 21, 1922.  Below this header, the list of the ship’s passengers included the names Emily Kimbrough, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Paul Dudley White.

It was a victory tinged with defeat.  I was thrilled to have proof that I had worked out the correct year of the girls’ journey, but this information simultaneously deepened another mystery for me.

It had started with that photo in Margaret Sanger’s papers of the girls with The Great Educationalist in the garden of H.G. Wells’ house.  As far as I could tell, Cornelia and Emily went the rest of their lives never knowing the identity of that man.  I wanted to crack this case, and had enlisted the help of the H.G. Wells Society in my investigation.

I sent them all of the information I had, along with a copy of the Sanger photo.  Within a week, they had gotten back to me with a name:  F.W. Sanderson.  He had been a longtime headmaster at the Oundle School in Northamptonshire, and Mr. Wells had thought so highly of the man that he had written a book about him, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster.  A schoolmaster was certainly an educationalist, and a portrait of Sanderson which I located seemed to resemble the small, blurry image of the man in the photograph.  Jackpot!  It simply had to be him.

There was just one problem.  F. W. Sanderson died six days before Cornelia and Emily arrived in England.  I wish I was kidding.  Six days!

It seems that on the evening of June 15th, 1922, F.W. Sanderson had just delivered an address to the National Union of Scientific Workers at University College, London.  Suddenly, right there at the podium, he dropped dead of a heart attack just as – does this surprise you? – H.G. Wells, who was moderating the event, asked him his first question.

Just for good measure, while I had access to the periodical records, I pulled up Sanderson’s obituary, and then some:  all of the London newspapers had carried the story of his shocking, unexpected death.

For weeks I had clung to a crazy, desperate hope that one of those two dates had been recorded wrong, but there was no mistake, and no question about it now.  F. W. Sanderson couldn’t have been the man Cornelia and Emily met.

Unfortunately, he had been the one and only name proposed by the experts who know H.G. Wells the best.  There were no other viable candidates.  If H.G. Wells scholars couldn’t sort out this mystery, then there was no chance I would.

For a good while, I was disheartened by the fact that I would never know the identity of The Great Educationalist.  Truth be told, I’m still a bit bummed about it.  But then again, Cornelia and Emily never knew the answer, so it’s only right that I shouldn’t either.  It’s in keeping with the symmetry between their journey and mine.

After the partial win with the immigration record, I was ready to enter the inner sanctum of the special reading room, and hopefully locate the source of a seemingly unlikely story.

A staff member let me into the small, locked room where a few others were inspecting photos, ancient-looking papers, and other bits of history.  I sat down to a set of large log books labeled “Secret” and “Most Secret”, which contained the correspondence of a man named Hugh Trevor-Roper to his superiors in the British intelligence office during World War II.

This was follow-up research to the visit I had made a few weeks earlier to Bletchley Park, where Hugh Trevor-Roper had been stationed for part of the war.  I had been searching there for the origin of an odd reference I had come across on Wikipedia, claiming that Mr. Trevor-Roper had discovered that Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was used by the Nazis as a codebook for their Enigma machine.

Say what?

In the Spring, I had contacted the editor of the digest cited as the source of the reference, and he had referred me to a college history professor who was the author of the article itself.  I got in touch with the professor, who couldn’t recall, let alone physically locate in his records, the origin of this information.  All we could conclude was that the story had to be true, only because it was a very precise statement, about a specific person and a specific book (which the professor had never heard of).  It was highly implausible that the professor could have invented the story himself, given that it included the title of a book he didn’t know existed.

This proved nothing, though.  And I wanted to be certain of the truth.  The answer, the proof, had to be somewhere in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s papers.   So I scoured the top secret logbooks, but came up empty-handed.

How could that professor have stumbled upon a discovery which I, who had spent months actively looking for that same information, couldn’t locate?  It was wildly frustrating.

But I came away from those logbooks feeling more unsettled by something that I hadn’t known to prepare myself for:  my first experience reading about World War II in the present tense.

It caught me completely off guard.  I felt like I’d been sucker-punched as I read Hugh’s missives about upcoming Nazi military campaigns which, he noted, were being financed with assets stolen from the Jewish community, while they themselves were presently being rounded up and sent to work camps.  Presently?  Work camps?  A passing reference to an unspeakable horror.  And it was happening right there, in that moment as those words were being typed onto the page.

There were notes on spy operations involving Agents ZigZag and Snow, two names I knew from the history books.  But here in these pages, those men were alive, moving in and out of intelligence reports which were tracking their current movements.

Page after page, there were details of events that I had only ever studied in the past tense, with the reassuring knowledge that the Allies had triumphed in the end.  But within these logbooks, those uncertain, frightening days in 1943 were happening in the here and now.  Once again, I found that the edges of time and space were blurring, but this time it was not a welcome experience.

It had been a roller coaster of a day, my first foray into serious research.  I was wrung out by the time I left Kew, thankful to have the strain on my brain over and done with.  It was time to get back to the spirit of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, to the lighthearted pleasure of traveling and seeing the sights with the girls.  Which I would definitely do.  There was just one more thing I needed to check first…

In my next post, I make an ass of myself in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

 

(Fans of the TV series “Deadwood” might recognize the title of this post as a line spoken by the infamous Al Swearingen, owner of The Gem Saloon.)

Top Row:  My work table in the National Archives; illustration of a mail coach, the only useful bit I found in the entire book.

Bottom Row:  Passenger list from “The Empress of France”; a book of reports written by Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Things

When “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” Went to War

June 29, 2017

The pocket-sized Armed Services Edition of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

And now, a brief timeout from my travels to share a bit more of the story surrounding Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

In December 1942, when Cornelia’s and Emily’s book was published, America had been at war for over a year, and the country was galvanized to not only supply the troops and arms needed to defeat Germany and Japan, but to support in any way they could the soldiers fighting on those fronts.

A number of New York’s largest publishing houses had formed the “Council on Books in War”, as a response to reports that had been coming out of Germany for almost ten years of state-sanctioned book burnings.  The Nazi campaign to obliterate any literature they deemed “un-German” was so pervasive that it is estimated, by the end of the war, Germany had destroyed over 100 million books.

The Council on Books came up with a plan to supply American soldiers with books, not only for entertainment and to boost morale, but to fight against Hitler’s “war on ideas”.  Working within the severe paper rationing restrictions which had been in place ever since the US entered the war, the Council designed small paperback versions of popular books which could be sent overseas.

Printed on magazine paper, the books, known as Armed Services Editions (ASEs), could withstand damp weather conditions and rough handling better than traditional books.  They were lightweight and cut to the exact measurements of a soldier’s uniform.  Smaller books were designed to fit into a soldier’s pants pocket, while larger books fit exactingly into the shirt’s breast pocket.

Beginning in September 1943 and continuing until 1946, the Council printed and the US government supplied over 123 million copies of 1,227 different book titles to the troops.  The selections included both fiction and non-fiction books, with genres ranging from history to humor, thrillers to romance, great works of literature to current bestsellers.  Instantly, they became widely popular with the troops, as Molly Guptill Manning explains in When Books Went to War:

“… Armed Services Editions… were everywhere:  servicemen read them while waiting in line for chow or a haircut, when pinned down in a foxhole… They were so ubiquitous, one sailor remarked that a man was ‘out of uniform if one isn’t sticking out his hip pocket’… Books of humor made them laugh when there was nothing funny about their circumstances.  Tales of life back home transported them to the places they missed and hoped to see again.  By reading, the men received the closest thing to a respite from war.”

“With books in their pockets, American GIs stormed the beaches of Normandy, trekked to the Rhine and liberated Europe; they hopped from one deadly Pacific island to the next, from the shores of Australia to the backyard of Japan.” — Molly Guptill Manning

Having spent five weeks at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List at the beginning of 1943, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was selected as one of the titles to be printed in the second series of books being sent to the soldiers in October 1943.  Emily would write to the Council on Books to thank them for the honor, stating that she and Cornelia were more proud of the Armed Services Edition than of being chosen as a book of the month.

And do you know, as it would turn out, this sweet, funny story of two girls traveling to Europe in 1922 would be such a hit with the battle-hardened GIs that it would be reprinted and sent to the troops again in February 1945?

What’s more, there would be, not just one, but two anecdotes which would emerge from the war about the ASE version of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  The first was recounted by Private Robert Healey, who had taken part in the Normandy invasion.  On returning to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, he came across a fallen soldier, his arm outstretched, and just a few feet from his hand was a copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

On the other side of the world, a similar story would come from Saipan, by a Captain J.H. Magruder, who wrote to the Saturday Evening Post about coming across a fallen marine with an ASE sticking out of his pocket.  The book was Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  This incident would later be taken up by Hollywood, and fictionalized in the John Wayne movie, “The Sands of Iwo Jima”.

It’s astonishing that, with over 1,200 different tomes distributed to the soldiers, there should be two of these accounts involving Cornelia’s and Emily’s book and, as far as I could find, no similar anecdotes about any of the other ASE titles.

Especially given that, on its surface, Cornelia’s and Emily’s book seems like an odd choice to send to the soldiers.  But then again, in between those most-welcome, laugh-out-loud moments, the book must have also served as a reminder of better times, of what the boys were fighting for.  And the lively, lovely England and France that Cornelia and Emily had captured was very much worth fighting for, a world very much worth saving.

Which is what those young men did.  We can never thank them enough for that, but we can try.  Thank you, boys.

It’s amazing where a story can take you.  When I started out to follow the journey of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, I was completely unaware of its compelling connections to World War II.  I use the plural “connections”, because there is a strange flip-side to this tale, which involves that mysterious trip to the Bletchley Park archives.

I will divulge the rest of that story in my next post.

 

(With many thanks to Molly Guptill Manning, author of “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II”, for telling this little-known story.  Many of the details I’ve included here are taken from her beautifully written book.)

Left: A first edition and an Armed Services Edition, both complete books.  The pocket-sized ASE is 3/4″ thick.

Right: A display case at the American Cemetery in Normandy, captioned “What They Carried With Them”, containing copies of Armed Services Editions.

Places Things

A Day at the Races

June 22, 2017

While the majority of this summer’s journey is all about me following in the footsteps of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay – going where Cornelia and Emily went, doing the same things they did whenever possible – there have also been times where I ventured off and did things that the girls didn’t.

Royal Ascot was one of those occasions.

Full disclosure:  I have absolutely no interest in horse racing, but I am a big fan of the movie My Fair Lady and, in particular, the scene where Audrey Hepburn attends the Ascot opening day in that liquid silver gown with the enormous, simply delectable confection of a hat.

This summer was my first opportunity to attend Ascot, or, more accurately, it was when I discovered that there was no mystery or magic or secret handshake, to going to the races.  One simply got online and ordered tickets.  Even for the oh-so-exclusive Royal Enclosure, yes, there were tickets available inside that inner sanctum.  As lovely as that would have been for my first time going to the race, to be in the Eliza Doolittle Royal Enclosure, I was pretty certain that I hadn’t brought anything elegant enough to wear for that level of formality.  So I purchased a ticket in the Queen Anne enclosure, which appeared to be geared toward a younger, more lively crowd.  And as long as I wasn’t going to be in the Royal Enclosure anyway, I opted to attend on Ladies Day instead of Opening Day because it also sounded more fun.

When it came to the check-out webpage, the first drop down menu item was “Title”, which offered not just the standard choices of “Mr, Mrs, Ms and Miss”, but everything from “Admiral” to “Dowager Duchess” to “The Marquess of”.  For a wild moment, I considered listing myself as “Viscountess”, but then got panicked that there might be “poser police” who would bust me for falsely claiming to be a member of the peerage.

Once the ticket was booked, all I needed was a really good hat.  Ladies always wear hats to Ascot.  Audrey Hepburn had worn a hat.  A really good hat.

I spent the better part of a day in the stores on Oxford St, and finally settled on a quite pleasing fascinator in electric orange – less Eliza Doolittle and more Aunt Eller in Oklahoma, which was where I had first heard of a fascinator.  Of course, everyone knows – right? – that a fascinator is basically a headband adorned with frills, feathers and frippery, formed into a wonderfully sculptural bit of nonsense.  Well, I was simply over the moon about mine, especially when the saleslady wrapped it up in its own hatbox.

Ever since my arrival in London two weeks earlier, I had been seeing numerous women walking along the streets carrying hatboxes, and now it was intensely satisfying to be joining their ranks.  I felt transported to a different time, when ladies routinely wore hats and gloves and pretty dresses – so glamorous.  I suspect it was like how Cornelia and Emily felt when they purchased their white rabbit fur coats, and carried home their enormous boxes from the store.

On the day of the race, I took the train from Waterloo station, which was a treat in itself.  Everyone was dressed for Ascot, and the champagne and various beverages were flowing.  There was laughter and high spirits even with a standing room only crowd in the train car.  In no time we arrived at Ascot, and I found my way to the Queen Anne enclosure in the center of the racetrack oval.  There was music and food and cocktails.  And milling around amongst the crowd was like being in the middle of an enormous, incredible fashion show.  It was all quite splendid.

I managed to maneuver into a spot on the front line in time to see the royals arrive in a procession of carriages.  It had taken me almost 30 years to see a royal in person, and now within the span of five days, I had seen a whole pack of them – twice!

I was struck especially by the notion that I was seeing not only the reigning monarch, the only one most everyone alive today has ever known, but two future kings – Prince Charles and Prince William – as well. But from what I could see, their turns would have to wait for a good while – Queen Elizabeth II was looking bright as a penny.

I mingled and chatted with a number of fellow attendees, sampled the dainty sandwiches and pastries, had a couple of glasses of champagne, and never again made it close to the track to see the races.  Occasionally there would be the low rumble of horses’ hooves, and some cheers, and I might glance at a TV monitor to see the finish.  But that was pretty much the extent of my experience with the races themselves.  As I mentioned earlier, horse racing really isn’t my thing.

By mid-afternoon, I was ready to head back to London.  I left before the races were done and the after-parties began, but I needed to get out of my shoes.

I had seen the fashions.  I had worn my fascinator.  That is what Ascot had been about for me – the pomp and pageantry of it all.  And I had not been disappointed.  My day had been perfect and complete.

There is a wee bit more to the story of my day at the races, involving the train ride back to London with a Bafta Award-winning actor dressed as a woman, who led me to consider, for the first time ever, the notion of dating a transvestite.  But I think I’ll save that bit for the book.

Top Row:  So pretty, so prissy, my fascinator in its hatbox; Audrey at Ascot; a lively morning commute on the train.

Bottom Row:  The only horses I saw on race day were the Queen’s; a proper dandy, surrounded by hats; end of the day selfie, and I just want to be out of my shoes.