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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Royal Visits

William and Kate Wedding Cake Topper,
created by Melissa in honor of the
Royal Wedding.
Copyright Melissa Gariepy 2011
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have arrived in the United States and, at this hour, are about to enjoy dinner with some of the good and great of California society.  It's nice that one of their first trips abroad together should include the U.S., and nicer still that they decided to visit the West Coast rather than the more frequent stops of New York and Washington.

Many Americans are fascinated with the Royal Family, while others ask what all the fuss is about.  I'm firmly in the first camp, having had an expensive obsession with the royals since the age of six. 

My first exposure to the Windsors was a large format, very colorful photographic record of the Queen's 1977 Silver Jubilee travels.  I have no idea just what caught my eye, but from that day on I was in pursuit of every book about the Royal Family that I could find.  The Royal Wedding in 1981 was one of the most exciting events of my childhood, and I've kept all of the magazines and newspapers that came out around the wedding.  I couldn't get enough!  As far as I can remember, there was no downside to this hobby.  In fact, much of what I know of history, geography, art and culture comes from reading endlessly about royalty and presidents.

Even more than acquiring books about the royals and presidents, I wanted to meet them.  My first plan was to host a star-studded gala to present awards to all the living former presidents and first ladies.  I think I had just seen some sort of Bob Hope tribute to Gerald Ford on television and decided to get in on the act.  Being seven, I didn't fully understand that my plans were unlikely to work, and that made it all the more fun.  I worked for hours on those awards.  I used my best penmanship, my best copier paper and lengths of blue ribbon to embellish the documents.  To my eye, they were marvelous.  I'm not sure what became of this project, perhaps it just sort of fizzled out, but I can still remember the delight I took in planning and hoping.

A few years later it was announced that the Queen was going to be in Victoria, B.C., Canada.  My mother, knowing and supporting my interest, decided that we'd go to Victoria to see the Queen for ourselves.  It's important to know that growing up, we had no money.  Really, none beyond what was absolutely needed, and I am sure even that was in short supply sometimes.  How she scraped together the money for that trip, I'll never know, but it is one of my favorite memories, and one that I look back on every March 8, the anniversary of the Queen's visit.  Before our trip, I wrote to the Queen asking to meet her personally, but it wasn't possible.  I did receive a very nice letter from her private secretary who, after being "commanded by the Queen" (if you write to the Queen now, your reply will say that the Queen has merely "asked" her private secretary or lady-in-waiting to respond to you...  evidently, the Queen has lightened up a little over the years), wrote to explain the situation.

A letter from William Heseltine, the
Queen's Private Secretary

I can recall just about every moment of our visit to Victoria.  As we came into her lovely harbour on the ferry, five bearskin clad soldiers in red uniforms came to attention on the waterfront.  Looking back, I am sure that they were practicing for the Royal Visit, but at the time I was sure it was for me, or at least the ferry I was on.  Disembarking, we walked past the beautiful parliament buildings and up a rather long tree-lined street to our hotel. 

The following day, a Monday, we spent walking around the city, visiting the wax museum, touring the parliament buildings and shopping.  I have such happy memories of Roger's, a wonderful old chocolate shop, where I found tins of toffee commemorating the Royal Visit, as well as leftover memorabilia from the Silver Jubilee, only six years before.  I bought a few of the toffee tins and two Silver Jubilee trays, which I still use today.  I also developed a love for Murchie's, Victoria's famous tea shop.  Their Royal Silver Jubilee Blend, now just the Royal Blend, was, and is, the very best tea ever made.  The smell brings back that time in my life with great clarity.

Tuesday dawned very dark, very wet and very cold.  Walking from our hotel to the area around the parliament buildings, it seemed that the only other people up at that time were the news crews preparing to cover the Queen's visit.  Pitying our damp and chilly state, they offered us styrofoam cups of hot tea.

Although the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh weren't scheduled to arrive for a few hours, we took our place along the drive up to the parliament buildings and soon the huge lawn was covered with hundreds of others wanting to get a look. At the appointed time, the Royal Yacht Britannia entered the harbor, something that you could see clearly from our spot.  I'll never forget seeing her slowly sail into port and being so impressed with it's length and beauty.

The Royal Yacht Britannia in Victoria's
Inner Harbour
March 1983

Although interested in the royals in general, it was the Queen that I'd come to see.  That being the case, I was more than a little disappointed when it was Prince Philip who came up our side of the driveway, but I quickly got over it and joined the rest of the crowd in enjoying the music and speeches of the official welcome.

Now, I've seen the Queen and a few other dignitaries on a couple of occasions, but the best encounters have always been those that occurred quite by chance.  Just a few hours after the ceremonies at the parliament buildings, we were passing by the Empress Hotel and noticed a crowd gathering.  It so happened that the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh were inside having lunch and were expected to emerge from the hotel momentarily.  Pushing myself forward, perhaps a little aggressively, I found myself at the front of the crowd lining the walkway.  After a few minutes, the couple came out and made their way slowly down the line of well wishers.  Although I was completely stunned and speechless at seeing the Queen, who was working my side of the aisle this time, I managed to take a marvelous picture.  Every time I look at it I can remember the moment exactly.

The Queen outside the Empress Hotel,
Victoria, B.C.
March 8, 1983

Looking back, I wonder if Royal Visits are quite the same today.  I imagine that now, so soon after the Royal Wedding, they are getting their glamour and excitement back.  But I also have an idea that I was lucky in my timing - the Royal Family was going through a period of intense public interest and adulation that was to end later in the decade.

You really can't imagine the excitement of seeing someone like the Queen until it's actually experienced it.  Regardless of the circumstances, or even whether you are as personally interested in the person or not, the anticipation and excitement of a crowd, the tension created by the security and the novelty of seeing someone so famous in person is overwhelming.  I've had a couple of other experiences in seeing the Queen and others since, but that first time was particularly memorable.

So, why is royalty interesting or important today?  The glamour and pomp, the music and the jewels, the uniforms and carriages and horses all add tremendous color to our sometimes humdrum world.  If you happen to live in a monarchy, the sovereign also puts a human face on your nation's history and heritage and, hopefully, represents the good that your country has to offer.  This is certainly true in the case of Queen Elizabeth II, but it also seems to be true of her grandson and his wife.  What people feel to realize is that after the novelty of palaces and servants, jewels and couture wear off, you are left with an all-consuming job.  A job that puts duty before self and that pits your personal wants and needs against the expectations of millions.  For me, far beyond just enjoying the show that is the Royal Family, I've long admired the Queen and some of her more recent ancestors (at the same time seeing that there are some really unfortunate examples of royal uselessness) and, especially when younger, appreciated their example of dedication, civility and duty.

So, as you watch the coverage of the latest Royal Visit, and if you are tempted to carp about the privilege accorded this young couple, consider what a real contribution people like this can make to our lives.  As far as I am concerned, royalty remains...  Dapper and Dreamy.

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