Queen of Canada
To you, she was your Queen.
To us, she was the Queen.
— Emmanuel Macron, President of France
I don’t remember how old I was when I became aware that I shared my name with Queen Elizabeth. But you can bet I thought it was pretty special.
I mean, what little girl wouldn’t? (Even though, in truth, I am named after my grandmother.)
My first trip overseas — the one where I caught the travel bug — included a stop in London. It was 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. We were there in mid-August, long after the festivities were over, but while the Mall was still adorned in Union Jacks and silver beads. I remember those beads so vividly.
My mother bought a tiny Silver Jubilee souvenir plate on that trip to London; somehow it ended up on my kitchen counter where it now holds my bottle of extra virgin olive oil (to keep the oil dribbles from ending up on my counter — as you do with jubilee souvenir plates).
On that trip, my first of many visits to London, I wallowed in all the pomp and ceremony that makes London unique among European capitals. I was dazzled by the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, and I was mesmerized by the palace guards.
Last June, when I turned on my TV and watched the Trooping of the Colour and then, two days later, the Platinum Party at the Palace, I thought to myself, “Wow, I so prefer the under-stated British patriotism to the over-the-top American version.” I wondered what it must’ve been like for the Queen, grieving for her father while undertaking a massive job much earlier than she anticipated, and in a man’s world to boot. She was a young, working mother before society ever came up with the term (as if mothers are ever “non-working”). I marvelled at how the Queen found a way to make her mark so early on, surrounded by all those old men in suits.
I thought about how long seventy years is. Much has been made of the fact that Winston Churchill was her first prime minister, but I was shocked to realize she acceded the throne while Stalin was still ruling Russia. Twelve of Canada’s 23 prime ministers have served under Queen Elizabeth. She’s been our Queen for almost half of our existence as a country.
World War II and the Covid-19 pandemic bookend the second Elizabethan Age, which seems fitting. She made her first radio address in October 1940 to the children of the Commonwealth, many of them evacuees, while still a child herself. One of her last TV addresses (not counting her annual Christmas message) was in April 2020, where she referenced that 1940 radio broadcast and talked about the pain of separation from loved ones.
We’re told the Queen loved Canada. She visited us the first time as a princess, and then 22 times as Queen. I remember standing in front of Edmonton’s Government House for a chance to see her during one of those visits.
It was 1978, and the Queen, Prince Philip, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward were in town for the Commonwealth Games. My dad rather spontaneously decided one evening that our entire family should go watch in person as the Royal Family arrived for a formal dinner. After a very long wait, we were ecstatic to see how close we were when the cars pulled up. Just feet away from us! Except, much to our disappointment, all we could see were the backs of the Royal Family as they turned away from us to be greeted by the premier and other dignitaries.
Those of us on the far side of the cars began hooting and hollering. We were noticed — the Queen and her family turned towards us and gave us that royal wave. And then — whoosh, they were swept indoors.
The crowd felt it was much too quick of a glimpse and we all began hollering again. “We want the Queen,” we yelled. And not long afterwards, the Royal Family obliged us and came out onto the balcony of Government House to give us another royal wave.
It wasn’t Buckingham Palace, but it was a balcony.
Like the rest of the country, I woke up on September 8 to news that the Queen was under medical supervision. I tried to work, but kept the live feeds of both BBC and CBC open on my computer, watching, listening, waiting. I was quite surprised at my reaction when the news came. Tears, yes, and shock. And I realized that I somewhat bizarrely thought she would live forever. How silly of me.
What hasn’t surprised me since is the outpouring of love and affection for her from all over the world. That people would queue overnight to see her lying-in-state? You only have to watch it online for a few minutes to realize what a moment that would be, walking past the Queen’s coffin in person.
What has surprised me is all the ritual surrounding King Charles III’s accession. Who knew there would be so much ceremony, both in the United Kingdom and in the Commonwealth? It’s made me wonder about my monarchist tendencies for the first time ever. Yes, the rituals of accession go back thousands of years. Yes, tradition is important. But when you live in a time where change happens at lightning speed, it’s become commonplace, you might say traditional, not to hold on to traditions.
The notion of a hereditary head of state does seem pretty strange and out of date in today’s world. But when I look at countries like Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, … Canada … and then compare those democracies to republics with elected heads of state (especially the one to the south of us), well, I’m still all in when it comes to a constitutional monarchy. From where I’m standing, it looks like a stable and reasonably effective way to run a country.
I’ve always known that the Queen is Canada’s Queen, and Head of the Commonwealth, but it wasn’t until these past ten days that I clued in to what the realm is. That’s us — the fifteen countries that had Queen Elizabeth II as our Sovereign, and now have King Charles III.
I know there’s going to be a lot of rumbling about whether it’s time for Canada to become a republic, like Barbados did just over a year ago. Except for one little problem. When we patriated our constitution back in 1982 — that’s when the Queen made a special trip to Ottawa to sign what I always thought of as the divorce papers — we gave ourselves an impossible amending formula. Instead of having to go to the Parliament of the United Kingdom to amend our Constitution, we now have to sort it out ourselves. Dumping the monarch would require an amendment, and the chances of us ever coming to an agreement about how to do that are pretty much nil.
Canada is the largest realm, after the United Kingdom, and our delegation to the Queen’s funeral was also one of the largest. This morning’s procession from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch was led by four Royal Canadian Mounted Police on horses gifted by the RCMP to the Queen. In addition to the current and former prime ministers and the current and former governors general, the three main Indigenous leaders went along: the President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and the President of the Métis National Council. Their attendance goes far beyond symbolism. It’s a recognition that there is still much work to be done in terms of reconciling Canada’s colonial past. There are calls for King Charles to make a public apology to the Indigenous peoples who live in Canada. I expect it will come, eventually, because all institutions, even the British Monarchy, must adapt and change to stay relevant.
Near the end of our 1977 trip to London, I remember my dad asking each of us kids what we thought of when we heard the word “London.” I said Parliament Square.
My family was surprised. They expected me to say the Crown Jewels or the Changing of the Guard, knowing how enamoured I was with both, but Dad understood my thinking. At Parliament Square, you can see both the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey — the monarchy, the parliament, and the church — in one sweeping glance.
There’s a portrait of the Queen that was taken after her coronation. You know the one: she’s wearing the Imperial State Crown, and holding the orb and sceptre, all of which adorned her coffin this past week. Behind her is a backdrop showing the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey. That’s the chapel where fifteen kings and queens, including Elizabeth I, are buried. It takes your breath away when you stand inside it.
If Parliament Square is what I think of when I think of London, then that portrait of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II is what I think of when I think of the Queen.
Tilting at Windmills
Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them ….”
“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quixote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”
― Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
One adventure I was keen to experience for myself on our two-week jaunt around central Spain were those very windmills that Don Quixote had confused for giants. A photograph of the mills somewhere sometime had caught my eye, and I promised myself I would one day see them for myself.
And so I did. Windmills are a big part of my heritage, so maybe my love of windmills is in my genes. Or maybe it’s just because windmills are so beautiful.
The windmills in Spain were modelled after the Dutch windmills, but the difference between them is the Dutch mills are mainly used to pump water, whereas the mills in Spain were built to grind grain, mostly wheat.
This first group of windmills are at Consuegra. Built in the sixteenth century, there were 13 mills originally, of which 12 have been reconstructed. They were in use up until the 1980s.
The next group of windmills we visited are the ones at Campo de Criptana. Here, there are ten mills altogether, situated at the edge of a village. It was very windy when we were here and we kept moving around the mills, trying to find a calm place in which to eat our picnic lunch, but to no avail.
The last group of windmills we stopped at were at Mota del Cuerro.
The landscape of this part of Castile La Mancha is flat, dry, dusty, and windy. Way off in the distance, there are mountains. It reminds me of parts of Alberta, actually, and that may be why I fell in love with this part of Spain.
My memories of our visit to Castilla La Mancha and Castile and León are dim and faded, but revisiting the region through these blog posts has brought it all back again. Which has been lovely. It’s a region of Spain that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but deserves far more.
Remembering John Keats
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love; — then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
— John Keats
Back when I was a child (no, really — I was still in my teens), I took a course on the English Romantic poets. The first semester was all about William Blake and the Lake Poets (Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others). The poets known as the Late Romantics— Byron, Shelley, and Keats — took up the second semester.
It was a challenging course; in her feedback to a paper I wrote on Keats, my professor gently suggested I was perhaps more inclined towards studying history than literature. (She was right.)
But those young poets never left me, in their way, and so, less than a year later, I found myself wandering through a Roman cemetery looking for John Keats’ headstone. He died of consumption — what we now know as tuberculosis — on February 23, 1821. Like so many ex-pats in Rome, he was buried in the Protestant Cemetery. Unlike most people, he insisted his headstone not bear his name, but rather “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”
On that same visit to Rome, I also visited the Keats–Shelley Memorial House beside the Spanish Steps. It’s the house on the far right in the next photo. It was sobering to see where Keats died, but also thrilling to see the incarnation of my entire Romantic poetry course in three rooms.
I stopped by the Keats House in Hampstead, in the north part of London, on my next trip overseas. Hampstead Heath, a marvelous open space of almost 800 acres that beckons when you are museumed out, lies just behind the house.
Since I keep bumping into Keats on my travels, I thought it only right that I acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his death.
But back to the Romantic poetry course that started it all for me. One morning, my prof began class by asking who among us had life insurance. Her point was how unusual it was for someone as young as Keats to be so aware of his own mortality.
Unusual, but understandable. Keats lost both parents before he was grown and then watched his younger brother die of tuberculosis. He had also trained as a doctor. By his early twenties, Keats had seen far more death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime. His sense of how fleeting life is inspired him to write poems like the sonnet I started this post with, which he wrote a month after his brother died.
More death and dying than most of us will see in a lifetime — that, of course, refers to those of us who will live through this pandemic more or less unscathed. And those of us who do, have far more privilege than most.
The Hill We Climb
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
— Amanda Gorman
Boats in a Storm
So. Here we are. The last day of the wildest, craziest year I’ve personally ever experienced.
You know what were the last words I wrote on this blog in 2019?
“May we all see more of the light in 2020.”
Ha. What a sweet, summer child I was a year ago.
So many strange words are part of our vernacular now. Physical distancing. Lockdown. Bend the curve. Quarantine. Bubble. Circuit breaker. Phase 2. Red zone. Tier 4.
One word I never want to hear again?
This is a travel blog, but, like everyone else, I’ve stayed still this year. But here’s something I’ve learned while bird-watching: it is only when you stay still that you really hear the bird song.
This assortment of boats on English Bay is my photo choice for my last post of 2020 because it illustrates something that British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said at a press conference a lifetime ago way back in May.
We’re in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat. For some people, it’s been a luxury yacht, and for others we’re really an open skiff adrift without a working engine.”
Despite my naive wish a year ago that we put a miserable 2019 well behind us and all my hopes for a much better 2020, I will still, in faith and in hope, wish all of us a happy new year and all the best for 2021, whatever that may bring. May your seas remain calm, may your boat stay afloat, and may we all hear the bird song.
Happy Birthday, William Wordsworth!
I wasn’t planning on writing a post to celebrate the birthday of the English poet William Wordsworth, but somewhere on the Interwebs today, I came across the last verse of his most famous poem. That would be “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” — or, as many people call it, “that daffodil poem.”
Here’s the verse I’m talking about:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
What hit home for me about this particular verse today is the realization that the one-time Poet Laureate of England was doing exactly what we are all being asked to do right now: living a virtual life. Long after he wandered through those daffodil fields, Wordsworth wrote about the feelings he experienced as he did so, and how those memories sustained him.
As our memories are sustaining all of us during this pandemic.
Here then, as a nod to Mr. Wordsworth and on the happy occasion of his 250th birthday, is a photo taken back in the time of before, when we could walk side-by-side without a care along a seawall adorned with daffodils.
The Chanteur of Montreal
Some say that no one ever leaves Montreal, for that city, like Canada itself, is designed to preserve the past, a past that happened somewhere else.
— The Favourite Game, Leonard Cohen
I can’t leave Montreal behind without writing a word about Leonard Cohen. Because, even though the man spent much of his life living elsewhere, Leonard Cohen is Montreal.
You can’t avoid him when you are there. Stand on any street corner in the city centre and his face stares down at you. When the news broke of Leonard Cohen’s death in November 2016, an impromptu memorial sprang up on the doorstep of his Montreal home. Vigils took place in the square just opposite. Like a pilgrim, I visited both.
I also read The Favourite Game, his first novel, to prepare for my visit to Montreal last spring. The members of my book club were not happy — none of them enjoyed the thinly disguised autobiography. I thought it was laugh-out-loud hilarious.
I’m still making it up to them.
This was a rough year, on so many levels. Almost everyone I know is counting the hours until 2019 is over. All are hopeful that 2020 will be better. I myself had a pretty good year, more or less. But I find it tough to feel joy and gratitude when everyone around me is hurting and weary and sick. Some people call that empathy.
I call it exhausting.
And that’s before we even bring up the news cycle.
In times like these, some of us turn to prayer, some of us turn to poetry, and some of us turn to music. Leonard Cohen — poet, novelist, songwriter, chanteur — gives us all three.
To close out 2019 as well as my series of posts on Montreal, I’m going to finish with these words:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
May we all see more of the light in 2020.
To the Moon and Back
Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969, AD. We came in peace for all mankind. — Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.
I took this photo of our moon two years ago, during my summer in Amsterdam. At the time I set it aside, not thinking it would ever be an appropriate photo for a travel blog.
But with all the build-up this week to the anniversary of Apollo 11, it seems like an appropriate photo for today, the 50th anniversary of the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. After all, isn’t space the ultimate travel destination?
I was too young in 1969 to remember much of Apollo 11. I have a vague memory of looking up at the night sky and asking my mom if the astronauts were on the moon at that very moment. “Maybe,” she said, but as I think about this memory, I know it was highly unlikely at that age that I was taking a walk outdoors after dark in the middle of July. And so, as we say in my family, I probably dreamed it.
As I watch all the documentaries on TV this week about Apollo 11, there are two thoughts that keep coming back to me. The first is that walking on the moon seems so very concrete compared to what we’ve seen of space travel in the past few decades. A man or woman taking a spacewalk from the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station leaves no trace. But a walk on the moon … there are footprints.
And the second thought is that, for a while at least, all of humanity was united in aiming for and achieving a common goal.
Would that all of humanity could be that unified again.
If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your minds, get up off the couch, move. — Anthony Bourdain
Walking and Drinking Our Way Through San Francisco
San Francisco …
Bridges, fog, food …
It’s crunchy granola, but it’s also double martinis and thick slabs of beef.
A city of towns, neighbourhoods …
A tough town for a stick shift. — Anthony Bourdain
So. What to do when you don’t know what to say about a new-to-you city?
Me? I turn to Anthony Bourdain. And as I did so, I had to laugh.
I laughed because he seemed particularly fixated on martinis while he was filming his San Francisco episode.
And I laughed because as my friend and I spent our week climbing the hills of San Francisco (hence, “a tough town for a stick shift”), we finished each day with an adult beverage. Or two.
Double martinis indeed.
This was my first one, which I sipped as we listened to jazz in a bar that time forgot at Haight and Ashbury.
Haight and Ashbury, of course, was the epicentre for the Summer of Love. With a little imagination, it seems like the entire strip is one that time forgot.
See what I mean?
We spent a morning strolling through Chinatown — one of the largest in North America, and certainly the oldest.
Then we hit the Castro, San Francisco’s gay village.
We finished our day in the Mission, enjoying cold beers in another bar that time forgot.
The Mission got its name from Mission San Francisco de Asis, one of the 21 Catholic missions established in California to convert Indigenous peoples. From Dolores Park, in the heart of the Mission, you have a great view of the entire city.
We also spent time in the Embarcadero, which is where my home exchange condo was located.
We bought fresh produce at the Ferry Building Farmers Market. (Being a ferry building, this is also where you catch any one of several ferries to get across the bay.)
And we ate sushi overlooking Alcatraz in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
We finished up our last day in North Beach, the Little Italy of San Francisco and home to the Beat Movement. We rested our aching feet at Francis Ford Coppola’s bar in the Sentinel Building (the green building) …
… and imbibed in yet another late afternoon cocktail.
San Francisco is known to be a foodie town (be sure to try the tacos), but during our short week, it was definitely the adult beverages that sustained us.