After the upheaval of the past few years, I am still marvelling at what a treat it is to be able to meet up with friends in restaurants again. Such a little thing, really. And yet such a big thing.
And so it was that I found myself on Robson Street for a lunch date yesterday. Paul is as ubiquitous in Paris as Starbucks is in Vancouver and I was thrilled when I heard that a location of this longtime French institution was coming to my home city.
The bakery and café’s Vancouver location — the only one in all of Canada — has been open since 2021, but yesterday was my first visit (because, you know, pandemic).
You have to suspend disbelief to think you are in Paris, though. Although my crêpe aux champignons et aux épinards (mushroom and spinach crepe) was excellent, the size of the pastries we perused in the display case on our way out were supersized, not small and delicate the way they are in French bakeries. And the seating area was light and airy with tables quite far apart, not squished together as they are in Parisian cafés.
But the service was very Canadian and it was a wonderful way to while away a couple of hours with a friend. I will be back.
Many years ago, I toured the Tower of London with my parents and my siblings. Included in our tour was a viewing of the Crown Jewels. I remember entering a room that seemed (to me, anyways) something like a vault. I think we might even have been underground. The room was cold and quite dark, but that was so the jewels would shine. And shine they did, lit in such a way that they dazzled and shimmered. Each piece was on its own small platform covered in purple cloth, all at various heights, and all contained in one large display case. It was quite a thing to see.
I bought myself a souvenir booklet —The Crown Jewels and Coronation Ritual — which I still have. It’s worn and dog-eared because I studied that book from cover to cover.
Thanks to my viewing of the Crown Jewels all those years ago, and my souvenir booklet, I had a pretty good idea of the regalia that would be used in today’s coronation service. What I didn’t know, and what I was most curious about, was how the service would flow. It was the mix of civic and religious rites that was a mystery to me, as much as the beliefs involved are my own. The only thing I have to compare it to is a church wedding, of which I’ve been to many. But a coronation? I have no point of reference.
What I saw on my tiny TV early this morning (no, I didn’t watch it live — I recorded it on my PVR and started watching it when I woke up) was nothing like I have ever seen before. I had heard that King Charles wanted a more modern coronation, but everything I saw seem steeped in centuries of tradition.
So when the historical commentator on the CBC’s broadcast summed up what he had seen as “weird, wonderful, and wild,” I nodded in agreement. It was weird. Weird in that the ceremony seems spectacularly out of touch with our modern world. But it is also spectacularly wonderful in that a thousands-year-old tradition is still being practised. And wild in that so many of us can still find meaning in it, even as we declare ourselves citizens of a modern world.
Did you know the Dutch don’t crown their sovereigns? Apparently this is because when they regained their independence in 1815 (in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars), the Kingdom of the Netherlands included what is modern-day Belgium. The Dutch were Protestant and the Belgians were Catholic, so rather than fight over which religious leader would crown the king, they just skipped that part. In fact, most of the European monarchies don’t bother with coronations.
There may well come a day when the United Kingdom does away with theirs, especially as the idea of a state church becomes more and more antiquated in a world where freedom of religion is considered a human right. But I suspect the ritual will stick around for another British king or two.
The photo at the top of this post is of the towers of Westminster Abbey peeking out from behind Victoria Tower, which is part of the Palace of Westminster where the Houses of Parliament reside. I chose this photo because, well, first of all, I don’t have one of the Crown Jewels, but secondly, because it shows both church and state, the meeting of which was what today’s coronation was all about.
And thirdly, it shows continuity. The English kings and queens have been crowned at Westminster Abbey since 1066. Victoria Tower used to be known as the King’s Tower, but was renamed in 1897 to honour Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee — just as the Clock Tower (where Big Ben resides) was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012 to honour Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.
That’s a whole lot of heritage in one photo.
Belfast After the Troubles
“How long are you going to be in the UK?”
“Two weeks,” I replied.
“And where do you go when you leave the UK?”
“Belfast!” I said cheerfully.
The passport control officer raised an eyebrow. A few awkward seconds go by … and I realized my mistake.
“Um … I guess I’m in the UK for four weeks,” I said sheepishly. “Sorry!”
He chuckled, repeated his question, and I replied again — correctly this time. But that exchange at London Stansted Airport Passport Control many years ago only affirmed for me that Belfast is and always has been an enigma to me.
I deliberately avoided Belfast on my first European walkabout, done by Eurail. I was young, the violence the Troubles had brought to that city was still very much in the news, and I did not have enough confidence in my travel skills to navigate such a city.
Since that, ahem, youthful time, I’ve had the good fortune to visit Belfast on four separate occasions, thanks to the hospitality extended to me by close friends. But it’s been more than a dozen years since my last visit, and with all the attention this past week on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I’m realizing I am long overdue to go back.
On my first visit to Belfast, only three years after the Good Friday Agreement came into being, my friends took me on one of those Black Taxi Tours popular with tourists. The driver takes you around to places significant to the history of the Troubles. My American friend was coy and did not let on that she lived in Belfast. Her Irish husband was careful not to speak while we were in the taxi to avoid betraying his East Belfast origins. He told me the drivers were on either the IRA payroll or the payroll of one of the Loyalist paramilitaries — we figured out pretty quickly that ours was a Republican.
One of the stops we made was in front of Divis Tower, a 20-storey tower of flats, which at that time still had a British Army observation post on its roof. The top two floors of the building were also occupied by British soldiers. At the worst of the Troubles, they accessed the post by helicopter only.
Another stop was at the Sinn Féin headquarters. We drove along Falls Road and Shankill Road, two flashpoints of the Nationalist and Loyalist communities, respectively. One of the interface areas we went by was much cleaner than any of the other streets we had driven along. I asked my Irish friend about it later and he told me that the reason was because every morning the mess created by the previous night’s rioting was cleaned up, courtesy the British government.
We also stopped at a so-called peace wall. These walls were built in the interface areas to minimize intersectarian violence. They have increased in both number and height since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
We finished our day in the centre of Belfast where my Irish friend showed me the security gates still standing at the entrance to the shopping district. The gates were wide open, but he explained to me how you used to have to go through a bag search before you could pass through them, and there would be another bag search at the entrance to each individual shop. The shopping area was a pedestrian zone long before such zones were fashionable — to prevent car bombs, naturally.
I learned some new vocabulary on that visit. Those of us outside the UK tend to define the conflict as between Protestant and Catholic, but in Northern Ireland, the division is between Loyalist or Unionist on one side, and Republican or Nationalist on the other. And interface refers to the areas where the Nationalist and Unionist neighbourhoods meet, or intersect.
One morning before we all headed out for the day (my friends to work, me to play tourist), the Irishman earnestly asked me not to go see the interface areas on my own. I assured him I had no intention of doing so. But his question made it clear: there were no-go areas of Belfast that tourists best avoid.
One day when I was on my own, I stopped by a tourist information office. One of the staff asked if I could spare a few minutes to answer some questions.
“Sure,” I said agreeably. But I smiled at her last question. Would I recommend Belfast as a travel destination to friends and family?
“Nope,” I said. I was being my usual direct self, so I elaborated and explained to her that the only reason I was in Belfast was to visit friends. When I told the story at dinner that evening, I said that it was clear to me, from what little I’d seen of Belfast, that there had been a lot of trauma, and there was still a lot of healing to do. My friends did not disagree with me.
That’s not to say the legacy of the Troubles overwhelmed every visit I made to Belfast. My friends always made a point of showing me the beautiful countryside that surrounds their city. The Giant’s Causeway is not to be missed. Nor is any place that gives you a view of the Mourne Mountains. One sunny morning, I had a delightful long walk on my own alongside the River Lagan.
It’s probably fair to say that without the Good Friday Agreement, my Irish friend might never have returned to Belfast after a decade of study in Canada, or chosen to raise his family there. But even so, I could see that life in Belfast was nothing like what I knew in Canada. Once, while we were out running errands, my friend braked suddenly at the sight of a group of police officers standing on a street corner.
“What are the police doing here?” she wondered. But her voice was full of tension. Police officers on a street corner in Belfast elicited a much different reaction from her than police officers on a street corner in Vancouver would elicit from me. I would be curious. She was afraid.
Although the Good Friday Agreement eventually brought peace to Belfast, and although an entire generation has grown up without the Troubles, there is still tension. Brexit has jeopardized two key elements of the Agreement: the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, known colloquially as Stormont, which has not sat for more than a year. These are not easy issues to sort out. Hopefully, they will be sorted without resorting to violence.
And maybe, one day, the peace walls will come down.
Through My Lens: Aachener Dom Pulpit
I’m by no means a short person, so judging by the angle from which I took this photo, my best guess is this pulpit is at least ten feet off the floor of the Aachener Dom. Quite an imposing perch from which to preach a sermon or read from the gospels.
The pulpit is sometimes referred to as the Ambon of Henry II. Ambon simply means pulpit. Henry II was another of the Holy Roman Emperors, who ruled from 1014 to 1024, some two hundred years after Charlemagne.
The pulpit is just to the right of the altar of the Aachener Dom and is my photo choice for today, Palm Sunday.
Through My Lens: Behind the Altar of the Aachener Dom
Last Sunday I showed you a photo of the altarpiece of the Aachener Dom, and mentioned that the shrine containing the remains of Charlemagne was somewhere behind that altarpiece.
Here then, for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, is a view of the area behind the altar, and in the far distance of this photo, beneath the stained glass windows, is the Karlsschrein.
Through My Lens: Aachener Dom Pala D’oro
For today, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of the magnificent Palo D’oro of the Aachener Dom, which is believed to date from 1020. Palo D’oro means golden altarpiece.
Behind the altarpiece is the Marienschrein (Shrine of Mary), which holds the four relics that make the Aachener Dom a place of pilgrimage. And behind that, not visible in my photo, is the Karlsschrein (Shrine of Charlemagne) containing the remains of Charlemagne.
Charlemagne is what you call a Big Deal for students of European history. In 768, he became king of the Franks (who lived in northern France and the German Rhineland). In 774, he became king of the Lombards (a Germanic people on the Italian peninsula). And in 800, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. All that is why Charlemagne is given credit for uniting Western Europe.
Charlemagne is also credited with bringing about the Carolingian renaissance, even though he himself was barely literate. Libraries and schools were established, and Charlemagne invited scholars from England, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain to study at Aachen. A new and simplified system of writing, known as the Carolingian miniscule, came into use. And he created a new currency system based on a pound of silver divided into 20 parts, which were further divided into 12 parts, for a total of 240. This three-part currency was used for many centuries throughout Western Europe. Ireland and the United Kingdom were the last to drop it when they converted to the decimal system in 1971.
Through My Lens: Barbarossa Chandelier
For the Third Sunday of Lent, I’m posting a photo of the Barbarossa Chandelier that hangs in Aachener Dom. Four metres in diameter and suspended four metres from the ground, this magnificent chandelier holds 48 candles. It was commissioned by Frederick I, also known as Frederick Barbarossa, who was Holy Roman Emperor from 1155 to 1190.
Through My Lens: Aachener Dom Ceiling
What sets the Aachener Dom apart from other cathedrals — and what you notice as soon as you step inside — is its shape. Unlike most cathedrals, it’s built in the shape of an octagon, not a cross. Charlemagne is said to have placed a lot of significance on the number 8. Four is another significant number in the Christian faith and, if you’re mathematically inclined, you know that an octagon can be formed by laying one square on top of another after rotating it a quarter turn, and then lopping off the protruding triangles.
For the Second Sunday of Lent, here is a photo of the ceiling of the Aachener Dom, in which the eight sides of the octagon are clearly visible.
As of a month ago, Vancouver had received more snow this winter than Edmonton. As someone who spent her childhood in Edmonton (where, in the coldest part of each winter, I would stand in our snow-covered driveway and try to remember what summer felt like — I could never do it), I find that fact rather astonishing.
A bunch more of the white stuff arrived this past week. Our streets have been a sloppy mess since Saturday night as the temperatures hovered just above freezing during the day. Every street corner I had to cross was an ankle-deep puddle that reminded me, ironically, of those early spring days in Edmonton when the snow melts all at once. Our schoolyard was always a giant puddle on days like that, and I often walked home from school with soaking wet feet.
Here, in Vancouver, more snow was forecasted last night, but it rained instead, and now most of the snow in my neighbourhood is gone.
Typically after a heavy snowfall, I head to Stanley Park to take photos of snow-covered trees. After the big dump of snow we had just before Christmas, I decided to head instead to Gastown. Here are a couple of the photos I took that day.