“To meet the Queen, you must wear a hat”

 

The Queen, her hats always made to match her coats.

“ I say,” said the gentleman in his pin striped grey pants, tails and  top hat, “Would you happen to be interested in two tickets to attend the ceremony at Windsor Castle this afternoon?”  It was a warm June day in Windsor, just outside of London, and my husband and I were touring around in our little rental car. On the spur of the moment, we turned off the highway following signs to Windsor Castle. Something was obviously going on because ladies everywhere on the streets were in frocks, hats and little bags dangling from their arms, while the men, despite the heat, were in three piece suits or tails with top hats.

The distinguished elderly gentleman whom we had approached to learn the reason for all of the festivities, explained “Oh, don’t you know?  It’s the Order of the Garter Ceremony with the Queen up at the Castle.”  Then he asked if he could have a lift to the back of the parking lot where he had left something in his car.  He pushed aside all the clutter on the back seat of our little rental, climbed in and we drove around the lot, looking for his car.

It was a big lot and it took a while to locate his vehicle, and find a place for our own little car  In the meantime, we chatted and he seemed rather fascinated that we were from America, and thought perhaps we might be curious to see the Queen. “Look here,” he said, reaching into his inside pocket, “I don’t suppose you might be interested in two tickets to the ceremony this afternoon? Two members of my family aren’t able to attend.” We both turned to face him, astonished, eyes wide in surprise.  Not waiting for my husband to protest, I said eagerly “Oh, that would be wonderful.  Thank you so much.”  He paused for a moment, still clutching the tickets and said, “You, madam, will of course need to wear a dress, hat and gloves…. and you sir, will need tails or at the very least, a formal suit.”  “No problem!”, says me, images flashing in micro seconds through my head as I see us heading over to Moss Bros. to rent a suit for hubby and a trip to Marks and Spencer’s for a dress for me.

Tickets securely put away in the back pack, we parked the car and went in search of clothes suitable for meeting the Queen of England!  I gathered what I needed in no time.  Dress, check; gloves and bag; check.  Hat, well that was a whole other problem.  I don’t look good in hats.  Never have.

Winter hat

Hiking hat

Flapper hair piece

Ascot Hat?

To meet the Queen?

So truth be told, any old hat would look as bad on me as any other.  I don’t seem to remember being too fussy but at least I ended up with something on my head. Sadly I don’t have a photo to remind me how ridiculous I looked (hopefully not quite as silly as this Valentine’s Day get up)

I mean, wearing the right hat is serious business when it comes to the Royals, even if they themselves can verge on the ridiculous at times.

Order of the Garter 2011
Camilla and Kate

Finding a man’s suit was much more of a challenge than I realized.  No rental suits to be had anywhere in town.  Resigned, we then switched to thinking we had better purchase a cheap suit. Back to Marks and Spencer’s in search of suits.  None. How about second-hand charity stores? Nope, no luck there.  We were getting a bit anxious.  It was already noon and we had just two hours before we had to walk the red carpet in “formal” attire.

As we walked along the street, my eyes searching for any sort of store that might possibly sell cheap suits (not exactly your most common type of store in Windsor), we passed a real estate office. Being a realtor, I was naturally curious as to what a real estate office in Windsor looked like.  The window was open, and there, hung over a chair, was a jacket, beige or camel in color, a nice contrast to the slightly darker brown pants my husband was wearing. Without a thought (I do have a spontaneous streak at times!) I went inside. “Can I help you” asked a young lady.  “Yes, please, I would like to speak to the owner of that jacket”, and I pointed towards the window.  “That would be Brian” she said and called over a young man in his thirties.

“Brian, we have to meet the Queen this afternoon and we need a jacket and tie.  Would you mind loaning us yours”, and I pointed over at the chair.  A big grin spread across his face and I think he was rather tickled by the idea that even if he couldn’t personally meet the Queen, at least his jacket could.

My husband and I popped into a cafe for a quick bite and changed into our clothes.  Leaving the jeans and tops in the car, we joined the other “toffs” and headed for the Chapel.  Those of us with tickets were led into a “holding area”  where we briefly waited before beginning the procession. Finally, there was a fanfare of trumpets, a band started playing, and the group began to move towards the roped off walkway leading to St, George’s Chapel.

First in the procession were the Knights wearing their blue velvet robes, hoods of red velvet over the right shoulder, and on their left shoulder, the large emblem of St George surrounded by radiating silver beams.  On their heads, were black velvet hats with white plumes.

The Order of the Garter

Behind them were various other officials and dignitaries, followed by distinguished guests (including us).  Music from the military band wafted through the warm air, dismounted squadrons of the Household Cavalry dressed in ceremonial uniforms lined the route, and hundreds of people crowed along the path.  It was all very British and very thrilling!

We proceeded to walk the red carpet, shoulders back, noses in the air, while the “ordinary folk” lined the path on the other side of the ropes .  I had watched the Oscars enough times to know how to do this walk.  You take your time, smile nicely, gentle nod of the head, don’t let the bag swing, and perhaps a gentle wave of a white gloved hand held in a condescending way, as if to say “I am one of the chosen few.”

We left the warmth of the street and entered the coolness of St. George’s Chapel, our eyes adjusting to the dim light.  A footman checked our tickets and we were positioned next to our generous benefactor who had already arrived.  Oh dear, if looks could kill! He glanced over at us, my husband not in tails (not even in a formal suit), and me in my department store dress and cheap hat. He turned his head completely in the other direction and never said a word to us the rest of the afternoon.  No worries because at that moment, the Queen and the Royal Family arrived.

Incredible!  There they were, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip and Prince Charles. Had I had a longer arm, I could have reached out and touched the Queen.  It was a most remarkable experience to actually view a ceremony that has been going on for seven hundred years.  The Order of the Garter is bestowed on those men (and now women) chosen personally by the Queen to honor those who have held public office, or who have contributed in some way to national life, such as Sir Winston Churchill.

After the service, which is relayed via loudspeakers to the crowds outside, there is an open-carriage procession back up the hill to the main part of Windsor Castle.  We decided to quietly slip away without embarrassing our host any further,  feeling a sudden responsibility to return the jacket to its rightful owner.  At the real estate office, my husband slipped a 20 Pound note into the pocket of the jacket as a thank-you to Brian, the agent.   As for my hat, it got left in the rental car along with a pair of white gloves.  But the memories of that day will be with us forever.

 

 

 

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A visit with Agatha – that would be Christie!

 

Agatha Christie as seen on the flyleaf of many of her books

You could say I grew up with Agatha Christie. Well, not exactly with her because she was born in 1890, considerably before my time. But growing up in my Gran’s house, it was almost as if Agatha Christie was part of our lives. Every one of her Crime Club books sat propped up against the wall on the little table where we took our meals. It was small table with a lot of books, bound in paper, some fraying and looking a bit tattered. I would read the titles as I chewed on my vegetarian meatless patties.

My Gran was a bit of a health nut and we were vegetarian, unless we were dining “posh” at Peter Jones in Sloane Square, in which case I was allowed a poached chicken breast. Gran did not go out very often and so when we did, she dressed up in her cloche hat and a fox fur she wore around her shoulders and attached at the neck.   She was pretty old fashioned, even in the 1950’s, and I think that is one reason the Christie novels had such appeal. Christie wrote so often of life in grand houses, before the war, when there were servants and butlers (who never did the deed! ) My Gran spent her childhood in such a home and so the writings must have brought back fond memories of a less complicated life.

While Gran liked the Miss Marple mysteries, she was a huge fan of crimes solved by the little Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, with his brilliantined hair, carefully manicured moustache and his “little grey cells.” I think that perhaps Hercule, despite being Belgian and not French, was a thin link between my Gran and her sister who was obliged to live out her life alone in the south of France.

They were separated at a young age, when her sister, my great aunt, had eloped as a young girl to France with the French chauffeur. It was a real Upstairs Downstairs sort of thing, and my dear Aunt Violet, having dishonored the family, was strongly discouraged from returning to England. The relationship between upper class and working class English life in the 1930’s is a thread that runs consistently throughout Christie’s work.

I started reading at a relatively young age – beginning with Enid Blyton and “The Famous Five” who set out to solve mysteries of a less sordid nature. It was an easy and yet exciting transition into Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.

Fast forward some sixty years and I recently found myself in Dartmouth, Devon, in the southwest of England. Dartmouth is a picturesque town on the River Dart, famous for being the port from which Sir Francis Drake set sail for the new world, and, as it turns out, is also well known for the house that overlooks the river, the summer home of Agatha Christie. Of course as soon as I heard that my heroine actually had a home just ten minutes away, I wanted drive over immediately. But no, you can only arrive by train, or boat. To arrive by car you have to make arrangements with the National Trust!

No worries, arrangements were made, and the next day my sister and I in great anticipation set out to visit the summer home of Agatha Christie!

Greenways

When we arrived at the gates, the attendant consulted his clipboard, noted we had special permission and with a big smile and small bow, waved us in. We felt very special, almost as if Agatha were waiting for us and had the kettle on for tea!

“Greenway Estate” is what one might call a substantial home but certainly not remarkable in any way. It is Georgian in style and built in the eighteenth century. It was purchased by Agatha and her second husband Max Mallowan in 1938 and she enjoyed retreating to this home until her death in 1976, which just happened to be on the same day as my Gran’s birthday, had she lived that long. Upon her death, Agatha Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks and her husband lived in the home until their deaths in 2004. The National Trust actually took possession of the home in 2000 and have maintained it exactly as it was.

We were invited to sit on Agatha’s couch in her living room.

So many of Agatha Christie’s novels drew inspiration from this home and her other properties, as well as from the surrounding villages and the River Dart. In “Dead Man’s Folly” for example, a murder occurs in the boathouse at the bottom of the gardens and another of the characters is pushed off the dock to drown in the River Dart.

Boathouse – where a “murder” took place

Old photos of Agatha and her family show them lounging on white canvas deck chairs on the lawn out front.  Today the Trust has provided these same chairs for visitors to bring a picnic and to sit and watch water craft on the river below.

View from Agatha Christie’s lawn – the River Dart below.

As a woman who wrote mysteries, Agatha Christie also had a few personal mysteries of her own. In 1926 her first husband, Archie Christie, had an affair and took off one weekend to be with his lover. Distraught, Agatha left the house late at night in her car and disappeared. The car was found, clothes strewn about, but no Agatha. For eleven days, a nationwide search failed to uncover the whereabouts of England’s most famous writer. While some claimed she was faking her disappearance as a publicity stunt, it is quite possible that she had a nervous breakdown insofar as her mother had died just a few months previous. She was located in a hotel some distance from her home, and she had registered using the last name of her husband’s lover. She never discussed those missing days, even in her autobiography.

Then there is a bit of mystery surrounding her brother Louis Montant Miller. When we visited her home, there were two oil paintings on the wall, one of her daughter Rosalind and the other of her brother. Louis or “Monty” is shown as a young, rather vulnerable sort of person, arm raised, cigarette between his fingers.  Its an odd pose and I found it rather intriguing and asked the guide for more information on the brother.

Agatha Christie’s brother, Monty

I found it rather intriguing and asked the guide for more information on the brother. “Oh, we are not allowed to talk about him,” she said. “The family has forbidden it.” Perhaps Monty and Oscar Wilde had something in common, I thought to myself, and if that was the case, back in the 1930’s, it would be something the family would have wanted to have kept private. Furthermore if any such suspicious were rumored, it might possibly have affected sales of his sister’s books.

Her own mysteries aside, Agatha Christie went on to write sixty six detective novels and other short stories and romances. She was knighted Dame Agatha Christie in 1971 by the Queen. Her spirit is alive and well at her summer home on the banks of the River Dart. Discovering her home purely by chance, was just another delight in the serendipity of travel. Let the journey unfold!

 

 

 

 

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Foibles of Youth (Part II)

There we were, three young women, floundering around inside a VW bug that had come out of a skid and landed upside down.  It was 1962, over fifty years ago, and many of the roads of Australia were not yet paved, nor was the Outback much populated.  My friends and I had been traveling for quite some time and on these back roads, with nothing but endless vistas of scrub land, rich red soil, termite mounds and eucalyptus trees.  We rarely saw a car.  Gas stations were few and far between and always a welcome sight when we could turn on the water hose at the pump and wash our hair and dirty bodies.

Once the shock of finding ourselves upside down in the car subsided, we checked that no bones were broken, and knew it was up to us alone to get out of the car.  Reality quickly set in and there was mild panic when it became obvious that we were not going to get the doors open.

As stories go, this must seem anti climatic, when I tell you that at that moment and out of nowhere, an old beat up truck came down the road.  It was a miracle!  Harold came to our rescue!  He heaved open the door and helped us climb out.  I think we were all ready to hug him at that point!  Together we were able to turn the car up the right way, but the ordeal had been too much for the car and it wouldn’t start up again.

Turns out that we were not too far from a small town (more like a truck stop if truth be told).  Harold told us that his buddy owned a garage in town, as well as the hotel, so we were in luck.

Climbing up into the back of his truck, we left my little car looking quite forlorn, on the road.  Harold promised to get the right gear and get the car hauled to the garage.

Today I am a good sight more wise than in those days.  Really, I mean, what a coup for Harold – bringing three young pretty (I say modestly) young girls back to a hick town with a 9 to 1 ratio of men.  Remember, this was Australia back in the days when Australia was looking for emigrants to come settle the country and England was shipping out those willing to go for just a mere ten pounds for the ship passage.  (About $15)

The Outback was all about copper mining, sheep raising and shearing and a lot of beer drinking.  This was the Wild West of the Outback.  Wood houses were built on raised platforms with metal caps at the top of each riser to keep out the rats and torrential rains.   No one had heard of Betty Freidan and her book “The Feminine Mystique” was yet to be written.  A woman’s place was in the home. Women were put on earth to take care of men.  That at least, became pretty apparent soon after we arrived at the so-called “hotel.”

We were housed three to a room behind the saloon.  The shouts, laughter, taunts, yelling became louder as the evening wore on.  But we were exhausted and fell asleep despite the raucous sounds on the other side of the door.

Then it happened.  There was laughter, drunken laughter and the handle of the bedroom door turned.  We were awake in a heartbeat.  If we had watched enough movies and if there had been a chair in the room we would have known to put it against the door and under the lock.  Instead, we all leaned on the door to stop anyone coming in.

“Go away. Leave us alone.” we cried.  More laughter, more pushing on the door.  We were in dire peril. Hearts beating fast we looked around at our options.  The window had bars on it and there was no bathroom in the room (in movies they climb on toilets and out little windows).

Then a loud commanding voice was heard above the drunken belches and lascivious jeering, “Get the hell outta here. Leave those young ladies alone.  Show some respect, won’t ya.”

Our savior was Eddie, owner of the hotel, owner of the “restaurant,” owner of the saloon and yes, owner of the garage.  Basically Eddie owned the town and people listened to Eddie.  You mess with Eddie, you might find yourself out of a job.  Or worse.

Eddie also owned cotton fields outside of town. Who knew cotton fields were in the outback? Certainly not us.  So Eddie had a proposal for us.  We work in his cotton fields, doing a second picking, and we would be paid for our cotton which would pay off our hotel and garage repair bill.

Seemed like a decent plan. I mean, what other options did we have? (No, don’t go there with those other thoughts….) So the next morning we were directed to the bar where we were each given breakfast before we were to get back on the pickup truck to be taken out to the cotton fields.  Breakfast that day, and every day thereafter was the same.  T-bone steak, two fried eggs, lots of bread and cups of strong tea (British style with milk.)

Cotton picking is just not fun.  You grab these balls of white stuff, pluck, stuff into the burlap sack tied around your waist.  It was hot, it was dirty, it was darned right uncomfortable. It was not easy to even find those damned cotton balls because this was a second picking. The first harvest had been pretty thorough.

By the third day, the proverbial light bulb came on.  We were getting paid just enough, only just enough, to cover the hotel bill and not enough to pay to fix the car.  We were slaves! We were being held hostage.  Well, Cynthia and Peaches had had enough. “Its your car. You fix it. We’re leaving.” And they did. They got someone from the bar to give them a ride back into Townsville where, presumably, they got on with their life.

Once again a guardian angel came to my rescue.  After a few more days of slogging along on my own, feeling very bereft, hopeless and frankly, very unhappy, a regular at the bar, a farmer said to Eddie that his wife could use an extra hand on the farm.

So that’s when I went to work with the Showalters, their son Chris and hired help Ashley. There were no extra bedrooms so I shared a room with the boys, my privacy created by a thin curtain strung across the corner of the room by my bed.

For the first few weeks all went well.  I swept the kitchen after every meal, washed dishes, helped prepare meals, collected and cleaned eggs for market, harvested food and prepped it for sale, and generally did everything asked of me.  But then it happened…

Chris, good looking Chris with a mop of blonde hair and ready smile, got a crush on me.  But my heart had gone out to Ashley, rugged, brown eyed, swarthy dark hair and strong muscles.  I rejected Chris and had a fling with Ashley.

Talk about a woman scorned, Chris was beside himself.  Here was his family helping me out and I had the audacity not to return his affection but choosing instead to hang out with the hired help.  I was given my final payment and asked to leave.

I had saved enough to pay off the car and the two of us, my little blue bug and I, high tailed it back to civilization and the next chapter in my life!

 

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Foibles of Youth! (Part 1)

“ Slow down,” I screamed, as the car careened from left to right, rushing headlong down the road, spewing up red dust in its wake. “Use the break pedal – it’s to the left of the accelerator.” By now there was panic in my voice. Cynthia had never sat behind the wheel of a car before and hadn’t a clue how to drive

It was 1962 and the three of us gals were on a road trip around Australia. Well, not exactly around Australia. We were not going over to Perth on the west side. The plan was to drive into the Outback from Adelaide in the south, across to Melbourne, up to Brisbane , then north through Townsville and inland to Darwin, and finally down to Ayres Rock and Adelaide. We reckoned this round trip would be about six thousand miles all told.

We were doing all right chugging along in my second hand blue VW bug. I was the driver (experienced, since I had now been behind the wheel of a car for four months) and there was Cynthia and Peaches. I have no idea where she got that name except that the name suited her well. Blonde, clear skin, full breasts (to match the rest of her that was not skinny and flat chested like me) lovely bright teeth always ready to be on show, and alluring eyes. She didn’t know how to drive either.

We had managed to get as far as Townsville on the northern coast, above Brisbane. For days Cynthia had been nagging me to let her drive. It began as a plea, then begging and then became downright assertive and well, positively irritating. Its not as if there was much traffic on this dirt road from the coast to Darwin.  Apart from copper mines around Mt. Isa and a few very small townships, there was nothing much but red rock, red dust, eucalyptus trees, ant hills and car tracks. Occasionally we would pass Aborigine settlements of family groups around huts made out of branches and native shrubs. Today I would stop and make contact, curious to learn how they live in such seemingly inhospitable surroundings, but we were young, on a mission, and drove past. (Just for the record, most of these nomadic people now live on reservations or have migrated to large towns. Their treatment by the government is not dissimilar to the conditions now existing on Native American reservations.)

We rarely saw more than a car or two a day. What harm could come of letting Cynthia take the wheel? It would shut her up anyway…. so I did. You could say that decision ultimately changed my life. I suppose all our decisions change our lives in one way or another, but that particular moment at least changed the course of our journey, and our relationship to one another was never the same.

The car was completely out of control. Cynthia found the brake pedal, pressed down hard. Too hard. The car spun around, it careened from one side of the road to the other, as if it couldn’t make up its mind whether to tip over on its left side, or its right side. It was a scene from the cartoon, “Cars”. Unable to come to any decision, the car simply rolled and turned completely upside down. Now it resembled its name sake, a Bug, on its back, its wheels turning helplessly in the air and three young girls flung about on the inside.

Reflecting back on this memory, still vivid in my mind, it’s a wonder none of us was injured beyond bruises, hurt pride (that would be Cynthia) and anger (that would be me.) Peaches, who was in the back seat, legs over her head, found it all rather amusing and there were those teeth, in one big grin. I mean really, this was not the time to be smiling. My car, my beloved little blue bug, was lying on its back, in the middle of the Australian outback, and here we were, stranded, miles from anywhere.

What on earth were we going to do?

 

(See Part II)

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Pass the S’mores!

The other night I invited my British friends over for our monthly get together. After dinner I thought it would be nice if we gathered around the wood fire with our cups of Tetley tea.IMG_1732.jpg

 

When I brought out the graham crackers, bag of marshmallows and slabs of chocolate there were giggles of delight from some of the gals. Memories of days in Brownie Scouts, or Girl Guides back in Britain, were told along with camping tales that strayed from the roasting of marshmallows to animals in the wilderness. My dog Hannah barking at seemingly nothing in the darkness, reminded us that coyotes live just a few hundred yards below our garden in the arroyo and mountain lions are never far away either. A little chill ran up our backs.

 

But tonight the only movement we could see were far away lights of planes following each other at even distances as they came in from the south, headed to the airport at San Jose. or San Francisco.  They looked like shooting stars. An off-the-cuff comment was made that perhaps it was planes such as these that led the Three Kings to the stable in Bethlehem (an idea resulting from more empty bottles of wine left on the table than two hours previously).  This reminded my friend Nikki of a complaint made by an American tourist in Windsor, England, who observed, “what a shame that they built the castle so close to the airport!”   More giggles all around.

But I digress! Back to the S’mores.There were nine of us and two had never ever tasted a S’more. Now I ask you, how can you live in America for sixteen years and never have roasted a marshmallow? Furthermore, why on earth are they called S’mores? Wikipedia points out the obvious, that it is a contraction of the phrase “some more.” The first recipe seems to go back to around the 1920’s where it was already popular with scouts and camping.

Not one to be left out, the Guiness World Record book shows the largest number of people making S’mores at one time was 423 in 2016 in Huntington Beach, California. Trivia fans, you never know when you might need that fascinating piece of information!

Back around the fire I handed out the one “correct” marshmallow stick (handle, long metal round skewer thing with a “fork” at the end) and a bunch of coat hangers that I save just for this occasion. Over the years, with four grown kids and four grand children, I have purchased any number of manufactured marshmallow sticks over the years (now you can purchase a telescoping kind through Amazon for a mere $20 for four)….but they have mostly disappeared.

How can I end up with just one? Where did all those other marshmallow sticks disappear to? Nothing wrong with a coat hanger or if we were in the forest, a twig. That’s America for you, always marketing something to us consumers. Remember those funny little yellow corn cob holders (Williams Sonoma 8 for $19.95!) that we used once and then they rattle around in that kitchen drawer, poking you every time you search for the apple corer or that gizmo that slices hard boiled eggs.

Marshmallows secured, my friends …..impatient to relive their childhood,….poked the marshmallows into the flames. “No no” I urged, “you need to wait for the coals. “ Poof! They caught fire and there was a lot of huffing and puffing and burnt fingers. Pure bliss spread across my friend Jane’s face when that gooey melted mass oozed out of the graham crackers and made a sticky mess in her fingers. My friend Anita said how she somehow always ended up being the one roasting the marshmallows at boy scout events and never seemed to have the opportunity to make a S’more. So she was very content to make S’mores just for herself.

However, my friend Anita is a vegetarian and I feel simply awful that I did not think at the time to purchase vegetarian marshmallows. Gelatin is the main ingredient of marshmallows (and is also found in gummy candy, yogurt and ice cream). It is an animal protein coming primarily from pigskins and the bones and hides of cattle. Perhaps if more people knew the ingredients of commercial marshmallows, they might want to think twice about popping one in their mouth.

But who knew all this? Anyway, there is actually a National S’mores Day celebrated annually on August 10th. Boy, I must put that on my calendar. I wouldn’t want to miss that big event.   Had better order some more of those fancy skewers!

 

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Walking The Way

Exactly two years ago today, I was walking the Camino de Santiago trail across Northern Spain. I had started my journey in France, at St. Jean de Pied, went up over the Pyrenees and on to Pamplona (famous for the annual Running of the Bulls) where many other Pilgrims joined the pilgrim trail.

The Camino trail, also known as the Way of St. James is the name of the pilgrim routes to the shrine of St. James the Apostle in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where relics of the Apostle are believed to remain.

Popularity for hiking this trail of 550 miles has increased exponentially over the years. In 2000 the number of walkers registered was 55,004. In 2015 the number had increased to 262,458. Not all hikers complete the journey all at one time. Some walk just part of the journey and perhaps return to do another part in another year.

               

Taking a Siesta!

But why do they go at all? For many Catholics there is a strong religious motivation to walk in the footsteps of pilgrims who for centuries walked this same trail. But today, I suspect there is more the appeal of a personal challenge and a desire to experience another country and culture up close and personal.

Octopus, a local delicacy

Torta de Santiago – almond tart unique to this area. Delicious!

There is an emphasis on the “up close and personal” aspect of walking The Way because accommodations in the hostels can be quite cramped, with as many as 40 bunk beds to a dorm room.

        

There are single room options occasionally and B and B’s scattered along the way. But for me, it was Albergues (hostels) all along the way. I loved the anticipation of where I might end up at the end of the day. That bed became my little home for the night, as it did for each and every resident. In the communal kitchen there would be introductions, talk about incidents we might have incurred along the road that day, what could be expected the next day, and so forth. Friendships sprang up and while we all walked a different pace, it was not uncommon to arrange to meet at a certain town down the path for dinner that next night.

I have read that for some folks, walking the Camino changed their life. For the more devout, it was an intensely religious and emotional experience. When I reflect back on those 32 days of walking I have to say that it is the greatest physical achievement of my life and quite honestly, the most satisfying.

After setting out at 6.30am and walking five miles, I found a spot for coffee and almond cake!

To awaken every morning, pulling on your boots, grabbing your poles and stepping out of the Albergue onto the street with absolutely no idea of what to expect that day, was truly liberating.

Boot storage in a municipal dormitory

All I had to do was follow the yellow arrows or scallop shell directing me on the path to Santiago.

      

When I began, I worried about how I would get over that big mountain that loomed ahead, how would I deal with the rain I could hear tapping on the roof at night, where would I find food, rest rooms and would I find a bed the next night.

What I learned on the Camino, and what I have brought home to incorporate into my Post Walk life, is to worry less! Somehow, when you adopt this point of view, it always turns out for the best! That doesn’t mean I didn’t plan ahead to some degree (I had a poncho for rain and carried extra snacks) but The Way taught me to let go of a lot of the anxieties we carry with us, unknowingly, in our everyday lives.

Like little leprechauns we move through the woods!

When I want to “go to my happy place” in my mind, it is inevitably the Camino.  One foot in front of the other, the tap tap of my hiking poles, as I walk  a seemingly endless road with nothing visible for miles but open fields with crops, vineyards, poppies or cows is the most fulfilling experience I have ever had.

        

The thrill of passing through a hamlet where cows are being milked in an old stone shed that has not changed in hundreds of years.

Discovering springs that feed into ancient fountains with the inscription 1492 and imaging those brown cloaked pilgrims with nothing but a staff and gourd for water, refreshing themselves and washing as they journeyed on to pay their respects to St. James.

Losing my way (it happens!) and coming across a tiny chapel where prayers are written on Post Its and stuck to the area around Christ;

                

a tiny chapel with an amazing altar, a bell tower with narrow steep stairs and a sign inviting the visitor to ring the bells.

 

The memories collected on such a voyage live within me forever.  I have the Camino inside me. I think I am a better person for having survived the challenges of The Way and paid my respects to St. James in his Cathedral in Santiago.

 

 

 

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Cafe or Coffeeshop? – It all depends!

 

You have to hand it to the Dutch – they are surely one of the most pragmatic of people on the planet. One of the first nations to explore and conquer foreign territories, they have always taken the initiative and especially when it comes to social issues.The Netherlands was the first country to fully legalize marriage equality with the first same-sex marriage occurring in 2001. The Dutch believe that every human has the right to decide matters about their own health, even their own death and have written these rights into law.

Typical narrow street between canals

In a previous blog (March 20, 2017) I wrote about the Red Light District and the legalization of prostitution. The Dutch recognize that pushing an inevitable behavior underground, only invites corruption, violence and even death. To this end, controlled suicide (euthanasia) for terminally ill patients was available in the Netherlands long before it became a possibility in the United States.

The Dutch also have an enlightened view when it comes to an individual’s use of drugs. The commercial production, trading and stocking of drugs remains a criminal office in the Netherlands.  However, for the Dutch, the individual use of marijuana and other “soft” drugs is treated more as a health issue, along the lines of alcohol and tobacco use, rather than a criminal activity.

Free spirited Amsterdamers decorate a “dead space”

They seem to have taken a hard look at prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the years 1919-1933 and have recognized the level of criminality created by total prohibition.  With all the monies wasted on ineffective drug-law enforcement here, and the culture of terror extant in Central and South America by drug cartels, it’s somewhat surprising only a few States in the US allow personal recreational use of marijuana.

Amsterdam is well known for the easy availability of these “soft” drugs, which include weed, hashish and until recently magic mushrooms or paddos. But how does one find these places since they are not allowed to advertise? Even without the help of social media, it is not difficult to locate them.

Waiting for a favorite Coffee shop to open

A real give away of course, is the smell when you walk past the door of a certain “coffee shops”!   Usually there are groups of younger people, primarily young men, gathered outside, waiting to get into a crowded shop. When you do enter, you are usually welcomed, shown a seat and then asked how you can be helped. Just as in the old days of Speakeasies, when you would whisper some code word through a slot in the door to gain access,  here you ask : “May I see the Menu please.”

Cannabis popsicles anyone?

The menu will list all the different grades and types of cannabis available that day. Staff is on hand to answer questions about the effects of the various offerings. Prices vary but its around $12 per gram for a decent puff. To really fit in, roll a joint yourself.

Initially, back in the seventies, this kind of “coffee shop” (if you want coffee, go to a “cafe”) popped up everywhere. Lately their numbers have been reduced. There have even been efforts to restrict access to these coffee shops to residents only but that ban never came into effect when research showed that ninety percent of those frequenting these establishments are not the locals themselves, but foreign tourists. Amsterdam authorities quickly realized banning these shops altogether would have a devastating effect on the local tourist industry. There are still around 250 sprinkled across the city so there is no problem finding one with the right ambiance.

The Bulldog Coffee Shop – one of the originals.

The tourist industry not only depends on business at “coffee shops”, there is an incredible burgeoning business in cannabis edibles, creams and other accessories.

                   

I have to say, my very favorite, most imaginative product were the Girl Scout Cookies made with marijuana!  You may need to squint carefully to read the label.

Speaking of Girl Scout Cookies, as I was getting ready to post this blog, a wonderful cartoon appeared today in our local paper.  Enjoy!

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