Home Away From Castle

    The house was tall and crème colored, with narrow stained glass windows. I’d imagined it differently but it charmed me all the more for the surprise. Standing on the doorstep like an abandoned child with four overstuffed bags, I heard a stampede of pitter-pattering feet rush to greet the doorbell’s chime.  

            An Englishman’s home is his castle. My aunt shared this adage on that first day as I toured the family’s charmingly chaotic Southend home. In the course of the next week I would visit many homes and many castles, but would struggle to discern the similarities. Home may be many things: it may be a place where the heart lies, or it may be merely a room one returns to nightly, but regardless of its meaning a house is a house and castle is a castle. They are dissimilar, I thought, in both architecture and purpose. But time and travel change minds.  

The first home I visited on the four day, four cousin, four wheel trip was alien yet familiar—a university, but one quite unlike my own. I shall say this of Cambridge: for the students who manage to elbow their way through Cambridge’s selective gates, home is a very fine place indeed. Depending on the college, home was built by Henry VI, VII, or VIII along the banks of the River Cam. The students’ modest dorms sit under soaring, ornate spires inset with sculptures of its patron regents, and are no more than a few blocks walk from a townful of teashops and boutiques. Compared to the dorms at my cozy university, these certainly did appear to be castles. They even bore names like “Kings’” or “Queens’” college, as if to emphasize the fact that minds molded within them adhered to royal standard, (although our guide insisted that Queen’s college had been named after Sir Elton John). Upon understanding the magnitude of the University’s history, my feet began to palpitate with respect for the celebrity ground.  

            Just for contrast we toured a real castle the next day, in Windsor. Windsor castle is ensconced in layers of protection: walls and hills and a moat (now a garden) stand to protect it from outside invaders, red coated soldiers daily march its borders, and towering halls bear the crests of centuries of security guards, the ever shining knights in armor. But the interior threats have tortured the Queen’s fine home away from home—fires have twice raged within its walls, the latest one having occurred as recently as 1992. With their history one would hope that the English would have adopted some better fire safety habits, but it seems they still find moats more important than fire alarms. Never one to sit idly on her throne, the Queen has conducted various fundraisers for the castle’s expensive repair, including opening (to paying customers) the hallowed halls of Buckingham Palace, the most exquisite and artistically endowed home I have ever seen. I am happy to report that Windsor castle is now as un-charred and sootless as ever. Still, the fires reminded me that, for all the measures taken to secure one’s doors, it is often threats from within that pose the greatest risk to a home.    

Blenheim palace

 I sense that the phrase my aunt quoted may have taken inspiration from the homes of the English high society; Blenheim palace, the humble home of the Churchill family, being one of them. Hardly smaller than the palace of the previous day, Blenheim was built in keeping with royal tradition. The endless corridors were decorated with flags of family coats-of-arms, as well as the first animal heads I’ve ever seen used as décor in a non steak house setting. Their tumultuous, political family history was also reminiscent of the blue-blooded line.              

Blenheim palace sits on a lovely little plot of land that conveniently has its own waterfall, and enough space to ensure that the owners never have to settle for only one type of garden. After a stressful hour spent navigating two strollers and a posse whining children through winding hallways stuffed with highbrow crowds, we retired to the rose garden, the Italian garden, and the not-so-secret garden. Then, to the children’s (and consequently our) delight, we found a creaky, open-air train that bore us to the Churchill children’s back yard play area.

Parents with unruly children may want to consider adopting this castle’s handy technique for your own evenings away from home: build a high hedge maze, the bigger the better. Just set the kids at the entrance of the maze before a movie, and, if they find the maze as challenging as we did, they will sit panting by the exit upon your return. This will surely save on babysitting fees. See the conveniences of having a castle as a home? Despite the impressive ostentation of Blenheim palace, as houses go, the English play-house rivals the castle in importance and grandeur. The high pedestal upon which drama now stands in English culture was built chiefly by its most famous architect, William Shakespeare. For those who still claim that “Shakespeare” may have been several people rather than one man, please visit his historic home in Stratford-upon-Avon. I assure you it is not large enough for more than a few Shakespeares. The thatched roof hangs low over the squat walls, and the floorboards creak and threaten to drop its visitors on the dusty kitchen floor below. Attracting nearly 500,000 visitors annually, the Bard’s former floorboards have been tread by the likes of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. 

Shakespeare's Globe

But whereas his childhood house was not terribly grand, Shakespeare’s true home, in the play house, was splendid. The Globe that stands in London today still boasts the glamour it might have during a bout of Shakespearian success, with three tiers of circular splendor. I watched The Comedy of Errors there one London evening and found many occasions to look around and wonder why I had thought it was a good idea to purchase a Yard ticket (the yard audience stands in the space before the stage for the duration of the play’s 3 hours). Still, with international high school students reading Shakespearian works hundreds of years after their original debut, and aspiring actors heading to London to train at the finest academies, the play-house and the Castle seem to stand almost equally high in the English eye.  

            I’ve often felt that language is a sort of house we live in. Language certainly provides that sense of familiarity and inclusion, and as such it often the most noticeably foreign aspect of a new place. At first glance, the English language barriers appear almost non-existent to an American tourist. As one breaches the barrier, however, one finds slippery footing and unexpected shifts. Not only did I attempt to enter the wrong door of the car that brought me to my cousins’ house, but I deigned to call the car a stick-shift rather than a manual. With the passing of days I found myself not only adopting the accent but also the phrasing of the locals, bidding my cousins to “mind” passing cars and “bin” their “rubbish.” In speaking with the sensitivities of the British affect, my tongue seemed to curl and my lips to purse in a way that made my mouth feel more elegant. I felt as though I was learning linguistic manners. By the end, when even my American accented speech seemed to take on a loftier tone, I found myself wondering whether, if language is indeed like a home we live in, the platform from which we view the world and choose our behavior, the English linguistic home might not indeed be a castle.

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Their Majesties, the Purple Mountains & the people who live there

The mountains of Colorado are not shy about their majesty, or their purple. From a plane window view they stride regally through the landscape, sporting crystalline white crowns and violet robes. But more humbling, and perhaps more self-agrandizing than the Colorado Rockies are their rare breed of people who inhabit them: cowboys.

Cowboys claimed a piece of Hollywood fame in the good-old-days of Westerns, but outside that unique genre so little is known of them in the 21st century American North East that they may as well have ceased to exist. The name “cowboy” only contributes to a misunderstanding of the field; if anything defines a cowboy it is the horse, not the cow. The horse is to the cowboy as the cow is to the Hindu: sacred.

On the Wilderness Trails Ranch in Durango I met cowboys of many forms, all involved with horses: wranglers, breakers, poets and cooks. They came from all over the country: the southeast, southwest, and northwest, (there was a curious lack of northeastern cowboys). But of all of these, the pair with whom I journeyed into the wilderness, a man named Joe and his daughter Tierra, helped me best understand the essence of cowboy existence. In my ill-informed, northeastern opinion, they were the closest to the “real” (read: non-holywood) thing.

Joe looks like a cowboy; his sun-worn, dirt-strewn skin is clad in plaid and his weather-beaten hair is permanently covered by a Stetson. Joe eats like a cowboy: a steady diet of meat, often self-hunted, and foods cooked over open fire. He rides like a cowboy, drinks like a cowboy, speaks and twangs like a cowboy. But I couldn’t pin down what it meant to be a cowboy. One definition of “a true cowgirl” that runs among the community is someone who’s been thrown from a horse three times.

Joe and his sidekick, Tierra, led my siblings and I on a day long pack trip to the mid-mountain campsite where he takes visitors to hunt, fish and ride for up to a week at a time. Joe led the way up the mountain, turning backwards on his horse to drawl out a steady stream of stories of horses and hunting and smoky, starlit nights. Tierra brought up the rear on the back of Max, a wide eyed paint horse with color as splotchy as though he’d been decorated by Jackson Pollack. Max was known for bucking every cowboy who’d ridden him. At 12 Tierra had already fallen off the horse three times, but she still sat unflinchingly atop Max, whom she’d taught to smile on command. That horse raised his lips at her behest like she was holding a gun to his head! Surely, she was a true cowgirl.

Still, as much as I tried to define a cowboy, the cowboys defied definition. In a week of dude-ranching I encountered two indefinable aspects of cowboy culture. The first was the food. While legend has it that cowboys exist on canned beans and jerky, a good cowboy cook can whip up the most scrumptious meals with tools no gourmet would dare go near. Using the scant ingredients and tools he had, and cooking over the ungovernable tongues of the campfire, Joe managed to serve up the best broccoli I ever recall tasting. Smothered in nothing more than butter and pepper, and delivered into a pair of chattering, chapped lips, that broccoli had a warming effect that could turn any protesting child’s heart. As a pescetarian I did not partake of the sizzling steaks Joe shunted off the grill, but my brother’s face, despite the lack of A1 sauce, spoke volumes of that carnivorous delight.

The best thing on the menu was the also the freshest: a brook trout caught not 20 minutes earlier by my rod-happy brother. When he had been away from the campsite for an hour I went to look for him, only to be sucked into the position of flag bearer; the unglamorous task of carrying the fish, speared onto the edge of a long stick, its rigor mortis causing occasional spasms reminiscent of a flag’s flashes in the wind. Still, the sumptuous, unparalleled freshness of the fish caught and filleted before my eyes convinced me that brook fishing was not a fools’ errand, but rather a singularly delicious and rewarding experience.

Aside from roasting marshmallows, favorite fire-side activities include telling stories. But cowboy campfire stories are of a different breed. On a different star-spangled evening, around a different campfire, I soaked in the Seuss-like rhythm and tone of cowboy poetry. Yes, cowboy poetry, a rare art form that manages to wrangle the essence of the wild-west into a presentable media. “Dirty” was the evening’s poet, named thus for his habit of chewing tobacco and depositing the resultant saliva into whatever receptacle was most immediate. Those who found the snuff in their coffee mugs or untended sneakers affectionately coined the name.

Thoroughly unaccustomed to poetry of the cowboy persuasion, I found myself riveted by tales spun in primitive meter. My favorite of the many rambling, pastoral scenes was one about a homicidal chef who shot doughnuts with rifles to create holes, and beat eggs with the ferocity of a bee-stung bear. Before my ears was true organic, local art: close to the land and its people. Locavores should add art to their list of things best consumed indigenously.

As best as I can define them, cowboys are, at core, simple, great outdoorsmen who value shooting stars over movie stars, and prefer a good hook over a good book. Cowboys and girls are the rootin-tootin types who know the lay of the land better than the back of their hand, because the back of their hand is covered in dirt after too many showerless days. Their expertise is ironically, and somewhat unnervingly, reminiscent of the people whose land they forcibly occupied: the native tribes whose ancient dwellings can still be spotted among the Colorado cliffs. But as the crown has passed from the Indian to the Cowboy dynasty, the latter now reign supreme over the regal Colorado range. From atop their horses, they surely know how to hold that reign.

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Come fly with me!

Welcome! Ahlan wasahlan! Bienvenido! Bruchim habaim! I invite you, in all my linguistic capacities, to the space in which I hope to share tantalizing travel tidbits. I invite you to indulge in the treasures and curiosities that I will here veritably describe. In invite you to see the world through my eyes, which I intend to keep world-wide-open for as long as I can manage, until they water to the point of flooding or droop with the inevitable, unfortunate force of sleep.

In the upcoming four months I will be studying in Alexandria, Egypt, also known as umm al-dunya, mother of the world. These months will find me dedicating my sorry brain to the mastery of Arabic language through Middlebury’s program at Jaamiyat Aliskandariya (Alexandria University), and gorging myself on all Egyptian culture within my reach. Preceding that upsetting undertaking, I will have dude-ranched in Durango, Colorado and stolled through London and various English sites. (With any luck I’ll be getting hung up all day on smiles and walking down Portobello Road for miles.) During and after my Alexandrian adventure I also plan to do some poking around the Middle East, at the leisure of my calendar and wallet.

If you are tired already, please consult your doctor before continuing to read; I don’t want any liabilities here, and this journey is not for the faint of heart. Along the way I fully expect to encounter quirky characters, stupefying obstacles, dastardly villains, heart-stopping hunks, death defying dangers, and of course, morals to tie up the tale. Barring that, however, I can at least hope to find a  thrill or a spill now and then, and perhaps even a tasty meal or a brag-worthy bargain.

An Arabic proverb claims that, في الحركة, بركة In movement there is blessing. All I can say is that I certainly hope so, for this blog will do nothing if not move.

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