Monday, 12 September 2011

You Can Go Back

Ten years ago, I stepped off a plane in Gatwick Airport for what was to be an incredible experience. I was 18-years-old, wide eyed and ready for life in a castle. Oh, yes, I was headed for a year abroad in a castle. Do you remember what else happened the fall of 2001? Probably not, if you're over 30 and didn't have a child under 16 at the time - the first Harry Potter film opened! I flew 3,000 miles on a fluke that turned out to be the best decision of my life. Lets face it, very few of the decisions anyone makes at 18-years-old can ever be classed as the "best of their life, " but this one was.

Life at the Queen's University International Study Centre was amazing. It introduced me to some fantastic people, both classmates and instructors, it afforded me the opportunity to travel like very few people ever can (I went to France for a history class - it was mandatory) and it let me live my Harry Potter fantasy. The ISC, now called the Bader International Study Centre, really is located in a castle and is nestled in the bucolic landscape of beautiful East Sussex. Herstmonceux Castle was first noted in the Domesday Book in 1086 as a mansion and was crenelated in 1441 making it a castle, though not one that ever saw any defensive action.

In 1777, the owners, who had inherited the castle, thought to themselves, you know, we're not really digging the idea of restoring this old castle. What could we do instead? Well, their architect, Samuel Wyatt had a cracking idea. Why not dismantle the castle and use the bricks to build a massive, modern mansion down the road? Then you can have both a toasty, new, flashy house and a romantic ruin.

Well, this just seemed like a brilliant idea so that's exactly what they did. They left the exterior walls standing, while demolishing the majority of the interior. Nothing says romance like demolishing a perfectly good and historically important castle.

Fortunately for me and many others, in 1913 restoration began on the castle, which made it, once again a habitable building. 1992 is really the crucial year for the BISC, however, as it was the year that Alfred Bader happened to see a castle for sale. He turned to his lovely wife, Isabel, and asked her, What do you think of buying a castle? Her immediate response was to tell him, That's far too many rooms to hoover. And thus, with one woman's desire to avoid hoovering, a fantastic opportunity for me and many others was born. Alfred bought the castle anyway and gave it to his alma mater, Queen's University of Kingston, Ontario, Canada as an international study centre.

Last weekend we went back to the castle, to the moment I knew I never wanted to stop traveling, to the year I met my husband. Oh, and we brought the in-laws. My family came in hoards when I was there, including both my grannies, but my fella's parents had never seen where we met. We had the most wonderful weather to wander through the gardens and getting wonderful weather in this part of the world is no small stroke of luck. It was odd having to pay for a tour of the building and grounds where we used to live, but worth it to be able to see it again, a decade later.

Unlike visiting my old elementary school, which seemed so much smaller, nothing seemed very different at the castle. It was and always will be one of the homes I've made for myself in this world. One of the little spaces that has opened itself to me, shared its secrets with me and, in turn, heard mine.

I'm reading The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, right now, and in it she describes the walls of an old English mansion as "ancient walls that sing the distant hours." No matter the renovations and modernizations that Herstmonceux Castle has suffered, the walls that have stood for over half a century still whisper and sing to me. They whisper of the ghosts, the Grey Lady and the Headless Drummer, they sing of the children who have run through the halls and the great arc of history they've seen, and they whisper to me of my own not so distant or dramatic past.

So, it turns out: you can go back and you can bring your in-laws with you.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

My Tragic Flaw

On Monday we braved the warnings of all sorts of people and headed to the Notting Hill Carnival. No, nothing to do with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. It is a celebration of everything Caribbean. And by "everything Caribbean" I mean Red Stripe, jerk chicken, music and pot.

We had heard all manner of warnings on the news about pick pockets and gangs planning more riotous behavior, a friend here told us how a policeman was killed by a machete at the carnival in recent years and getting off the tube at Notting Hill we were greeted by enormous signs warning us to mind our belongings and beware of pickpockets. Before we went we empty our pockets of all non-essentials, but suddenly I was wondering just how valuable my Oystercard would be considered by the raving mad thieves that were no doubt over running the event.

As we approached the carnival parade route there were police everywhere, over two dozen on one block alone, but no trouble. The worst we saw all afternoon were four teenage boys getting tickets for something that didn't seem too serious. Neither they nor the officers appeared too put out about the situation. The police seemed mainly there to provide tourist information. And boy, were they helpful about pointing you in the right direction. I'm not sure if everyone was just mellow because of all the pot being smoked, but it seemed like everyone was just out to enjoy the sunshine, the long weekend and the various Caribbean products for sale.

It was definitely a celebration and I think it's great to celebrate Afro-Caribbean culture in London, which has a cultural influence. Thanks, colonialism. It certainly has as much cultural value as St. Patrick's Day parades and green beer. The one thing I really didn't understand, though, was that while some people were draped in various Caribbean flags and lots of people had whistles on lanyards with the names and colours and names of different island nations there were white girls everywhere with little flower garlands in their hair. Did they get confused by the marijuana and think it was a hippie festival or are the garlands a white Caribbean tradition? I don't remember anything like that on my visits there.

A friend of mine from university once said to me, "Everyone has a tragic flaw and yours is your love of parades." Granted, at the time we were standing on the side of the road in -30C weather and in the dark and she's Australian so it wasn't entirely unwarranted. Or untrue. I do love parades, but I think I can do without the Notting Hill Carnival parade. It was unbelievably slow (one group of performers had time to eat lunch while standing in front of us) and had almost no live music. Just a lot of people standing around, some of them in costumes of varying quality and copious amounts of incredibly loud music.

The music was so loud it made me wonder whether that was the reason that a lot of shops and some houses were boarded up with plywood or had their windows taped up. Maybe it gets crazier later at night, but everything was scheduled to end by 7pm anyhow, so I doubt we missed that much. We did get to see a very impressive show who's plywood had been covered in one enormous piece of artwork. It wasn't your standard graffiti, so it could have been commissioned by the shop. Either way, it was nice to have artwork over the signs of fear. A little ironic perhaps to have what can be vandalism brightening up the boarded up shops?

Despite the sub par parade and the horrible whistles and horns - I guess the vuvuzela made it out of South Africa - it was a very nice afternoon. The police seemed to have excellent control, the organizers did a good job with crowd flow and control. Even getting there and away by tube was surprisingly pretty painless. The only major downside is the issue of toilets, we saw fewer than twenty portable toilets all afternoon and all of them had at least thirty people waiting in a queue. That's at least a 45 minute wait if each person in front of you gets in and out in less than a minute an a half. In an attempt to alleviate the public urination that apparently plagues the carnival they had temporary public urinals set up. If you've never seen one of these (we hadn't until Monday) they're plastic X shaped stands where four men can all have a pee with a modicum of privacy. At least as much privacy as you can get when you and three other fellas are peeing on the same plastic stand in a row of twenty stand in the middle of the street next to a high rise residential building with 1,000,000 people attending the same event as you.

Will we go next year? We'll see, but if we do, we'll know not to listen to the people who tell us how dangerous it is. Not a single machete in sight, no wild, raucous crowds, no rioters, no over abundance of pickpockets, just a lot of high people with jerk sauce smeared all over their faces and whistles for countries they've never even visited. If we go, though,  I'll definitely bring the camera, if only to capture to awkwardness of public urinals.

**I'll be away from Blogger until next week, so fear not, I haven't forgotten you, I'm just out gathering more experiences and composing amazing posts to keep you entertained, or more likely just helping you waste time when Facebook is banned at work. Enjoy the weekend!**