Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 24

IMG_1614So, Saturday the 20th after we stopped by Hougoumont, our tour group got a chance to go into the encampments that were set up around the battlefield. Well, the allied one. Nobody really wanted to go to the French side(guess how many French people were on our tour?) Actually, I think this was my favorite part of the entire reenactment. Because anybody familiar with reenactors and reenactments knows that no one knows better about the details, nobody is more faithful to their role(while on site), than a reenactor. You might see Civil War reenactors at a McDonald’s in full kit, but you’ll never see McDonald’s on a battlefield bivouac.

The same held true here. If I wanted to get a real feel for the period in which I wrote, this was the place to be. The gate into that bivouac was like the standing stone on Outlander. We walked straight back into the beginning of the 19th century. All across the rolling hills of grass and grain, tents were pitched almost as far as you could see, their sharp white lines softened by the last mists of morning. Horses, staked over by the makeshift stables, were plucking at the lush grass, and children ran by with hoops and balls, all in broadcloth and cotton(I dare you to find a polyester blend anywhere). Women clustered by fires stirring pots of something or playing with the kids and chattering with their friends, all in bland-colored everyday regency dresses and aprons, some in bonnets against the clearing sun. Soldiers gathered in crimson bouquets, smoking pipes as they cleaned muskets or honed sabres or fed horses, their units differentiated more by facings and hats. Red and scarlet were the colors of the day, although you certainly saw the dark blues of the Prussians and the black death’s-head insignia of the Brunswickers(when I saw them, I wondered if I should commiserate on the death of their Duke).

IMG951585As each unit progressed into camp, they did so at the march, led in by their fife or pipe and drum bands, their colors wafting in the chilly breeze, their feet stomping in rhythmic unison, their backs straight as swords. When a soldier happened to be standing along their route, he immediately snapped a sharp salute to the flag until it passed. These guys weren’t just throwing on a Halloween costume for the weekend; they were living the part. All of them were. Even the women dressed in their best silks and furs and feather-adorned bonnets who strolled among the officers. And when the troops marched in, the women and children followed right behind.

I admit I was amazed at the commitment. I shouldn’t have been. The Civil War re-enactors certainly live their parts. But there was an extra sharpness, a heightened impression of reality that I couldn’t put my finger on. Well, until I walked among the men with my tour guide, who happened to be a very recently retired General, and more than one man saw him and came to rigid, respectful attention until he smiled. It turns out that not an insignificant number of these re-enactors knew my general quite well, because they’re active military. Not only that, they reenact in their own units–or the fore-bearers of their original units. It makes perfect sense, after all. If you have a loyalty to the Guards or Fusilliers or the Dragoons, if you have been imbued with the glory of your unit’s history and the sacrifices that were made before you, the perfect way to honor them would be to show others just what they had done. And heaven knows you already know how to play the role.

IMG951567One near-casualty of that devotion, though, came the first night of the reenactment. Our friends in the 41st told us that the Life Guards who were guarding the plywood Chateau Hougoumont were in actuality active Life Guards. The problem came when the French soldiers who attacked decided that this time the results would be different, and they would take the Chateau(keep in mind that the Chateau had to survive until at least the second night of the reenactment) (especially since the actual one survives until today). You can imagine that the guards protecting the chateau didn’t look on this plan with favor, and retaliated. As our friend said, “There was a right old scuffle” and most of the walls of the Chateau were destroyed. The French, however did not get in. (Of course, the next morning the Guardsmen were heard to complain of certain stiffnesses….with a smile)

It was amazing to see the reenactment; to see the lines of men snake along the ground swells, up to their waists in wheat, the horses canter past in order, the pennants flapping and the swords and sabres glinting red in the sunlight, the horses snorting and the tack rattling as over 300 of them passed. To hear the odd, paper-tearing sound of a volley and see the slash of fire and smoke, to wince at the hard crack of cannon shot and follow the giant, jellyfish smoke rings into the clouds, to feel the rumble and growl of battle in your chest. But what made it all real to me, what imprinted this battle in my mind so sharply that I think I can write far better about it, was meeting those who fought it. Even if they were pretending. They weren’t.

 

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Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 23

So this blog is more about a friendship than about a battle. Anybody who has followed me knows that a few years ago I lost a friend named Dave. For those of you who don’t, let me explain. His wife Katie was my first friend in my first job as an ER nurse, and we’ve gone through the years celebrating each other’s highs and commiserating over each other’s lows. And somewhere in there, Katie married Dave, a paramedic/firefighter who used to frequent our ER. Dave was someone special, the kind of person who made you smile just knowing you were going to see him. He was a Renaissance man; engineer, math wizard, classic music expert, scuba instructor, sailing master, climber of the Colorado 14s, and he built and flew his own bi-plane.

Well, when Dave died, everybody who loved him was shattered. Especially Katie. We couldn’t just let him go; not somebody that special. So Katie cadged some empty pill bottles, and she filled them with Dave’s ashes. And every time we go somewhere Dave loved or would love to go, we take him along. And then we take his picture, usually wearing an appropriate hat and sunglasses, wherever we go, and especially where we’ve left him. He’s been to the Grand Canal in Venice, the Andes in Chile, The Ganges and the Taj Mahal in India, and the whorehouse in Pompeii. We had an Irish Wake for him in Dingle and a Jazz Funeral in New Orleans, with more and more people joining in.

And now, he’s been to Waterloo. Okay, he hasn’t just been to Waterloo. Saturday we got to go to the Allied forces encampment and see the soldiers muster behind their pipes and fifes and drums, helmets flashing, kilts swirling, feet thundering against the dry earth. We followed them as they marched to their encampment and set up. And then John, our tour guide, introduced me to some of the reenactors, who portray the 41st Foot. And while Jon was speaking to his friend Tom, who was a captain, I asked three other gentlemen if they would mind having their picture taken with Dave(I had thought of putting a shako on him, IMG_1617but the physics just wouldn’t work). You can see the first reaction(which, considering the fact that they’re playing battlefield, I find pretty funny). But as I was explaining to them about Dave and what we’re doing, Tom turned my way.
“Do you want us to leave  him on the battlefield for you?”
I admit. I crowed a bit. “Would you? Dave would love that!”
The one guy still looked a bit disbelieving. But Tom kept nodding. “Come to think of it, we’re just about ready to work our powder.” (the gunpowder is strictly controlled, so one of the duties at the encampment is to wrap the wads for the guns and cannons). “Would you like us to mix
him in and blow him at the French?”
I have to tell you, I was utterly speechless. I swear I could hear Dave laughing. “Are you kidding?” I demanded. “You’d do that?”
He shrugged. “Why not? It’d sure be something special. Leave a little of him here and we’ll do it. We’re supposed to be supporting Hougoumont tonight(at the reenactment). “Why don’t you leave a little?”
“A little? I left what was left after dropping him in Amsterdam and Bruges canals.
I couldn’t wait to get back and tell my friend Sally, who’d been taking the tour with.
“Where’s Dave?” she asked when she saw me. “Did you get his picture?”
“I did better than that.”
“He’s been sprinkled on the battlefield.”
“No. He’s going to be blown from a cannon all over the feckin’ battlefield.”
Oddly enough, we were overheard by other tour members. I never know how people are going to take our tribute(witness the expression on the soldier). But this group regularly went to the reenactments of great battles. They couldn’t think of a better send-off(as it were).

IMG951684And when, later that night, as the smoke poured out of the cannons and the distance cheers of hussars could be heard, when Green Jackets traded shots with Voltigeurs, and men on horses circled tight squares of men bristling with bayonets, I saw the artillery tamping a wad into the cannon and men lining up in the windows of Hougoumont. And, just as they said they would, they fired a magnificent volley. And everyone in the group yelled “Dave!” I mean, how can you top that?

 

 

 

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Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 21

Today(actually June 20th) was pretty intense. It would be when you start your day going through what is left of Chateau Hougoumont. For some reason, that section of the Waterloo battlefield has always spoken very clearly to me. I truly think that people write history because in a way they can hear it, taste it, smell it better than others. And it’s always worse when you do it inside closed walls. And Hougoumont is enclosed. And I felt it.

The original chateau was a collection of buildings surrounded by a wall, extending to a garden surrounded by a wall. Today the chateau itself is gone, lost to the horrific fighting that day. The house split the farmyard in two, and was connected to the tiny chapel that remains. Beyond that, the farm buildings along the walls have been restored, even the great barn, where so many of the wounded, put there for protection, were killed in a fire caused by shelling.

I didn’t go into the great barn. I just couldn’t. Instead, thinking it was a better idea, I walked into the chapel. Silly me. It’s tiny and stone, and above the door hangs a giant wooden crucifix that looks as if its right leg was amputated and charred–because it was burned in another of the fires. I’d forgotten that. More wounded burned to death in this tight, tiny place, thick with stone and age. More terror and pain and despair caught irrevocably in the thick walls. It’s hard to breathe in a place like that. The old pain is like a weight on your chest. And yet, for the longest time, I simply couldn’t move. It was as if all of Hougoumont–the fierce, frantic fighting, the screams and shouts and pounding of cannon-fire, the sharp snap of rifle-fire, the desperate yet futile attempts to save the wounded, the inevitability of another wave of French battering against the walls–was caught light lightning in what is now a cool, echoing little sanctuary, where Jesus watches in commiseration, his own leg lost to the battle. It feels as if you had been left behind, a survivor of this hell.

In Les Miz, there is an absolutely shattering song: Empty Tables, in which Marius sings of his lost friends and how painful it is to have survived when they didn’t. Can you imagine the pain of those men at Hougoumont who saw their friends burn and couldn’t stop it, or else the enemy might take the position and put countless more men at risk? Can you imagine going on, with those shades always following you, their cries for help still harsh in your ears? Can you imagine going back to the normal world and having to put that away, where no one else is scarred by it?

When you go around to historic sites, inevitably there will be people laughing and joking. There were none within the walls of Hougoumont. The walls caught us all and wrapped us in the weight of that terrible moment. And then, as a way of walking back out from hell, there is a monument. Simple, striking, a portrayal of the desperation, the incomprehensible bravery, the fierce determination of the men inside to hold their positions(which they did. It was a pivotal point in the battle) The monument was unveiled just this week by a committee including Prince Charles, the current Duke of Wellington, Prince Joseph Bonapart and Prince Blucher von Wahlsatt. The last three shook hands, a lovely symbol that signifies the lasting effects of what happened here that day. I just wish we could have learned something from it. Like there should be better ways to solve differences. That we shouldn’t force our sons and daughters to carry the burden of our political stratagems. They don’t rest easy from it. Not after a dozen years, not
after fifty. Not even after 200. They wait for those who came later, I think, so we take some of that memory home.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue with the day, culminating with the second and larger reenactment.

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Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 20

And how is the tour, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. Mind you, I am not by nature a tour bus kind of girl. In fact, if I’m traveling and I hear the door of a Greyhound open, I run as far away as I can. I have to say, though, in cases like this, a tour bus full of people who speak your language (Waterloo, not English) (although the English helps), helps make your trip more fun. Add to that experts in the field(we have a British ex-general who was deputy commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and a captain of the Welsh Fusiliers who’s been and done everything.), the sights you’re seeing become even more meaningful. I mean, how can you not love it when you’re sitting next to a nice little old lady who went on a Waterloo tour with Bernard Cornwell, or share time with a man who paints toy soldiers and shares them with friends. I’ve had discussions about Heyer, Sharpe, touring the peninsular battle sites, the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, and the socio-political ramifications of the war, the battle, and the players.

IMG951513Today we spent most of the day studying the battles that led up to main scuffle at Waterloo; the conjoined battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras. The tour company had made up gorgeous booklets along with very detailed maps, pertinent paintings and concise commentary to go along with our walk. We strolled along the ridge above Ligny where the Prussians lined up, and considered the positions taken up by not only the various Prussians, but the French(Napoleon spent his time watching from atop an ancient barrow). We walked through almost full-grown fields of wheat and barley, which would have been comparable two hundred years ago, to see how it affected line of sight for everybody, and we walked through the narrow streets of Ligny itself, although only a few of the original buildings remained(Ligny was forever being overrun). And then, after lunch(at a place called the American Diner), we moved on to Quatre Bras. Again, spent our time considering the terrain from both points of view that helped us understand the decisions made. It was all quite lovely. (It’s even better when you have a British general describing the monument to the Belgian/Dutch troops under the Prince of Orange as a tribute to the troops who so bravely ran away). It was also great fun to be able to remind him that it was those selfsame troops, along with the grieving Brunswickers bring the body of their commander back, who scared the spit out of the civilians in Brussels. So far I’ve pretty much known everything they’ve been teaching, which makes me feel very proud (now if they only would have had a Waterloo category on Jeopardy!)

And then, after a dinner at Pierrepont(another place that had been on Napoleon’s wish list for conquering), we went to our first reenactment. I’ll do a complete blog on Belgian reenactments at the end of the trip, because they deserve at least one whole blog by themselves. Suffice it to say that they were masterful at organizing the coming and going of over 200,000 spectators and I don’t know how many reenactors. On the other hand, the entire spectacle would have been far more fascinating, if they had just done the commentary in not just French and Dutch, but ENGLISH. Who exactly did they expect would want to come see the reenactment of Britain walloping France in battle? Not only that, but we had tickets in the K sections of the grandstands. Great, we thought. Right in the middle.

IMG_1520Not so fast, tourists! Here is how the Belgians lettered their stands A-B-C-…….X-Y-W-V-U-T-S-R-Q-P-….. You get it. We were behind even the French cannons(which were very loud and impressive). The vast majority of the battle took place on the other side of the slope in front of us. NOT the best vantage point, although it was good for understanding why the generals wanted to be a bit away from the action to assess it. Oh, and one other thing that I have a sneaking suspicion didn’t actually happen in the original battle. In between the cannonade and the first cavalry charge, Napoleon came out with an escort of Imperial Guard and rode along the stands waving. And a good 10% of the people cheered back(the vast majority booed, which was pretty funny until you realized that there was probably nothing funny about Waterloo.

So more tomorrow. I’m crashing now. We had to walk over a mile each way, and most of it was uphill. At least I didn’t get lost. In the dark. With 200,000 of my closest friends.

 

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Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 18

Today is the day. I can’t believe it. I conceived this plan almost five years ago. I started calling B&Bs three years ago, asking if they were taking reservations yet. They were all polite, but thought I was nuts. When a call went out for help in renovating Chateau Hougoumont, the farmhouse that was the lynchpin of Wellington’s defenses, I did my bit(although they didn’t invite me to the reopening. Harrumph). And then I contacted my friend Sally Hawkes to see if she wanted to come along, since she’s the one responsible for getting me interested in the era in the first place. Not that I hadn’t had an interest. Long before Sally convinced me to read my first Veryan or Heyer, I had been reading Bernard Cornwell, Forster and Alexander Kent, who all did military series based on the period (actually not as odd as it sounds. I grew up with 5 brothers. When I say I didn’t know who Shirley Temple was until she was a delegate to the UN, but I know every movie John Wayne died in, I’m not kidding). But Sally helped me add tiaras, white gloves and barouches to the red jackets and shakoes.

I planned the rest of this extended trip around the fact that from the 18th to the 21st, Belgium was to honor the people who changed the world 200 years ago. Sally and I would traipse along behind a general as he explained positions and strategy and consequence. We would meet reenactors in their encampments and take our reserved seats as 100 cannons, 300 horses and 5000 reenactors recreate the greatest battle of the 19th century. And it begins today. (okay, actually it began last Saturday at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball. But that’s a different story. We only found out about the ball some two months ago and really had to scramble to be ready. I feel as if I’ve been ready for the battle for 5 years)

On one hand, I’m so excited I can’t stand it. On the other, I’m already sad, because it means that the thing I’ve planned for and anticipated and worried over for 5 years is too soon going to be over(it’s one of the downsides of being a trauma nurse. We know that everything ends, and prepare for that as much as the enjoyment of the thing itself). I have no idea what the next few days will hold, except for what has been advertised. I’ve already spent time with the Duke of Wellington(sort of). I’ve chatted with modern day pipers and been saluted to by men in Guards’ red. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

And when I do, I’ll share it with you. Now, I have a train to catch.

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Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 17

IMG951473Today is going to be pathetically short, as I am in between engagements, as it were, and I want to actually get to bed before 2AM. Today we were in Bruges, a city I’ve wanted to see since I watched the seriously under-rated movie IN BRUGES with Brendan Gleeson(Mad-Eye Moody) and Colin Farrell(no introduction necessary). If you haven’t seen it, run now to get it. It is irreverent, wildly imaginative, snortingly funny and tragic at the same time. Seriously. Don’t miss it. It’s about two hapless Irish assassins who kill the wrong person and are sent into exile. Gleeson is delighted, because he’s always been enamored of the history and architecture. All Colin Farrel can say is, “But it’s feckin’ BRUGES!”

The other thing the city is known more recently is that it played a big part in George Clooney’s Monument Men, when they rescued a Michelangelo statue called the Bruges Madonna and brought her home. I’m embarrassed to say that that was the first time I heard of her. But I had to see her. I had to see Bruges, with its medieval homes and quiet canals and swans. I had to walk the cobbled squares and sit inside the silence of ancient churches. (Okay, and I had to eat french fries and waffles. They’re so famous here for their waffles, they actually have Waffle on a Stick. Now, how can you resist that?).

IMG951481And finally, yes, I have seen the Madonna. Something you should know about my Irish Catholic family. We’ve always had a thing for madonnas. My aunt and godmother gave me her collection when she turned 80, figuring she wouldn’t be around long enough to enjoy them(she’s now 91). So I have some 63 madonnas in my ranch house. The good news is that my nieces and nephews are getting married. So I hand them out as needed. But the thing is that when we have a chance to visit a great madonna, we do it (and light a candles. Catholics love lighting candles). I’ve seen Michelangelo’s two pietas, and more painted Marys than you can shake a stick at. So I came to see the Bruges Mary.

First of all, she isn’t the fancist madonna in the church. She isn’t the biggest. She it tucked into a niche in a side altar of the Church of Our Lady(are you getting a theme here), which is currently under renovation. So the stage isn’t exactly set for such a piece. It doesn’t matter. I caught sight of her down the nave of the church and began to cry. She is exquisite. In a facebook post today, I called her a miracle. Michelangelo catches her as she holds onto her toddler son, who is anxious to escape. You can see on her face that she already knows her future and his. you can see the heaviness, the resignation, the grief and the love for that rambunctious little boy. The statue has life and grace and pathos. (of course, you say. It’s a Michelangelo. I know. But even though I’ve seen his other work, I still find myself surprised all over again at its power.).

In a few days I’ll go to the anniversary of a slaughter. I will stand where blood soaked the ground of other rambunctious boys whose mothers had to let go into the world to die. I will think of those boys, those mothers, and the soft, sad eyes of the madonna Michelangelo left us, who really represents every mother who sends a child out into the world she knows all too well. And then, as opposed to those other mothers, I will get to go home to hug my son. But I will still think of them, empty-armed and lost, their future bleeding into the ground. And I’ll ask that other lady to watch over the other mothers now, who follow the same path.

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Waterloo ’16 Tour: June 16

Eileen Goes to the Ball Part 3

Let’s see. I’ve dressed up in my finest togs, burned my hair to a crisp trying to create the kind of curls that would seat a tiara well, ruined my feet for years to come and donned perfect gold and coral jewelry to show up at the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball. I had some champagne with my close personal friend the Duke of Wellington(won’t he be surprised when he finds out), ogled a couple of military men(and quite a few lovely reenactors) in all their finery(one of which included the Order of the Bath) (and no, smart aleck, it isn’t who gets washed first). I’ve listened to a military band and watched Highlanders dance about swords. And then, invited back into the foyer of the palace, I was invited to eat. And here was where the rubber met the road. Or shall we say, this was where Cinderella was reminded that she cleaned fireplaces for a living instead of sat in front of them.

You see, there were two large, chandeliered, frescoed, gilded, mirrored rooms in which to enjoy dinner. There were many round tables(I admit I was a bit disappointed. I had an image in my head of one of those state dinners at Windsor Castle where the glasses march down the 30 foot table like Guardsmen on parade and enough crystal and silver is on display to redeem the national deb. Alas, we ate like normal people at a banquet). The fun thing was that each table had the name of an original participant: i.e., the Richmond Table, the Wellington Table, the Blucher table. We were so far down the list that we had a German commander I didn’t recognize. No problem. But we were forced to walk by all the cool tables and on into the second room(or as one wag called it, the kiddie tables). We were, in fact, at the colonies table. Sally and I from the US, two women from New Zealand, a couple from Australia, and a German gentleman and a Russian lady for diversity, I guess. I have no complaints. We had a lovely time. Everyone commented appropriately on Sally’s and my attire(appropriate being sincerely impressed, of course), they shared witty stories about their lives, travels and families. And most important, when we began talking Waterloo, they not only knew all the history we knew, they read the same sources(and yes, that did include Georgette Heyer and Bernard Cornwell). They knew the same anecdotes and argued the same strategies that we had been trying to understand (Napoleon, you had a whole day before it rained, and more importantly Blucher could get to Wellington’s aid. Why didn’t you do anything? Who exactly thought riding great warhorses right by the canons was a good idea? Where was Napoleon during that time they couldn’t find him, and why?) It was such a relief. When I bring up these topics at home, the Engineer, as much as he loves me(and he must if he puts up with these unending one-sided discussions), tends to go glassy-eyed and look longingly toward the TV where he could be watching Alaska Wilderness Survival instead of listening to the gruesome story behind Waterloo teeth. All the people at our table had pertinent opinions, ideas, and information that added to the discussion.

As your faithful correspondent, I couldn’t fail to mention the repast we enjoyed with our white and red wine. We began with Tartare de Salmon D’Ecosse, Pomme Fruit et Concombre with Creme Anglaise, (white wine) followed by Noisettes D’Agneau en Croute de Pain Poilane a la Moutarde douce, Asperges Vertes and Grantin Dauphinoise (red wine), and Notre Sable aux Fraises du Pays a la Menthe Fraishe, Marquise au Chocolat Amer, Coulis de Franboise au Croustillant de Muesli(no wine. We were supposed to get coffee, but there seemed to be some communication error which kept the main room waiting. So no coffee either until later when they brought out a cake) And yes. The food was absolutely delicious, the service impeccable, and the wine a perfect complement. Sally asked me if I was going to translate the dishes to you, but I ask you. Would Georgette?

As we ate, one of the organizers read an excerpt from Byron’s the Eve of Waterloo, which was lovely. With desert they finished off the auction for items such as tea with Hugh Grant in the Savoy. It should come as no surprise that I couldn’t afford any of it. In point of fact, I’m not sure they expected anybody in our room to bid, as they seem to have forgotten us completely. The lady in charge kept exhorting someone named Tommy to bid higher. I think poor Tommy went home with commemorative books and a large bag of Belgian chocolate. Sally and I drifted off toward the main hallway where they were displaying the cake and my friend Jeremy, who helped me with the technicalities of paying for my ticket, begged us all to go dance to the swing band in the other salon. Instead we ended up outside in the cool courtyard with many of the other attendees. We spent the time speaking to a lovely lady named Margery, a journalist from Belgium who also dressed up in period attire, and was fascinated by authors.(and yes, Barbara Vey. I did bring along my PR book postcards to hand around). I admit, I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to wear my pretty dress and tiara for days, just because I could.

But I couldn’t. All good things come to an end, and we caught our pumpkin—yeah, that would be a taxi–back to the Metropole Hotel with its cage elevator and gilded ceilings and concierge in Edwardian dress, who simply smiled when they saw us. Sally helped me undo all the various closings(Regency attire has a confusing array of tapes and buttons to master), and I prepared for bed. The tiara didn’t come off, though, until I had to put my c-pap strap on my head instead. But you’d better believe that I’m wearing it to the Beau Monde at RWA this summer. No tiara should go unappreciated.

And now, the clock has struck, the princess is home from the palace, and life goes on. Fortunately for me, it goes on in Bruges for a few days, and then we catch the tour to the battlefield. More history for me. I can live with that.

Adeiu for now. This princess has to turn back into a field mouse.

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Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 15

In Which Eileen Sees Kilts and Swords

When last we heard from me, I’d just been told(along with 300 of my closest European friends and Sally Hawkes) to gather on the steps of the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels to enjoy the military entertainment portion of the show. And just as I settled in alongside a lovely old thing who reminded me of a well-to-go Michael Gambon(Dumbledore#2), who should step right in front of me, but the British Ambassador, and the Duke and Duchess of Wellington? I admit I got quite a kick out of that. I’m not sure if the duchess was so sanguine, since I spent a lot of time peering closely at the large diamonds circling her neck and dripping from her ears.

IMG951392Fortunately, just about that time, there was the rill  of a military drum, and another shouted order. Then trumpets, tubas, clarinets…and red-jacketed bandmembers marching out of the far archway in precise order playing martial music. It actually gave me a thrill. The brass echoed around those old marble walls, punctuated by the rhythmic stamp of booted feet. The drum major(I know there’s a military term I’m missing) with his great gold baton swinging up and down, his posture ramrod straight, led the band into a few complex maneuvers, the most moving being the hesitation step(Dumbledore assured me that that was a particularly difficult move. In fact, he whispered it in my ear, as if we were having a tryst)(but then, he tended to do that to everyone he talked to–if he wasn’t smacking them on the arm and laughing, anyway). As the band played, an audience gathered outside the palace fence, and I could see them holding onto the railings like children watching a party they weren’t invited to (was it terrible of me that I felt a bit smug, since I was on the right side of the fence?).

Well, they played and marched and created geometric shapes on the cobblestones for a good half hour as we all stood there, still as statues. And oh, howdy, did my feet ache(they still do). I don’t do high heels much anymore, and especially these, the sandals I bought to go along with my sari. I thought of getting flats, but if I did, how could anyone see my Barbara-Childe-Tribute-Gold-Painted-Toenails? So I stood, champagne(well, English sparkling wine) glass in my hand, grinning like an idiot because I couldn’t believe I was positioned there with the Duke of Wellington listening to the kind of music that made him straighten into a military rest position, hands tucked behind his hips, fingers gently fisted as if he were about to swing into a huge, boot-stomping salute.

And then something inexplicable happened. I’m still trying to figure out the logic behind it. From martial music the likes that you know accompanied men as they marched down dusty roads everywhere from the Iberian Pensinsula to the Malay one, the band suddenly swung into a completely anachronistic piece. I admit it took me a few minutes to believe what I was hearing. That was because it was Duke Ellington’s Caravan. From a military band. At the anniversary ceremonies linked to a war that had nothing to do with the US, except for the fact that according to the Brits, we were on the wrong side. In fact, we were responsible for them not having their full contingent of experienced troops available for Waterloo. And if that’s so, then what the hell were they doing playing an American jazz piece for a British/Belgian/Dutch celebration? I asked Jeremy, the guy who helped me get my money transferred for my ticket. I asked the old guy who was pounding on my arm telling me that I had to pay attention to the guy in a full uniform kit on my other side. “Important lot, that,” he whispered. “Look at all the decoration.” Decoration meaning, we later realized, the huge diamonded cross on his chest and the blue enamel one around his neck that signified the Order of the Bath. The old guy didn’t even know who Duke Ellington was. (he was probably trying to figure out if he was a royal duke or just your run-of-the-mill-your-great-great-great-grandfather-won-a-big-battle kind of duke). It is still a mystery, but I am determined to get an answer. Watch this space.

And of course, after that, the band part concluded with a selection of national anthems; Dutch, Belgian and British. You’ll be very proud of me. When they started playing God Save the Queen, I did not sing out “My Country Tis of Thee”. At least out loud. I might have mouthed the words. I remember the lovely trumpet flourishes as I mouthed “…from sea to shining sea.” Quite moving.

IMG951403But the surprises weren’t over yet. The drum major slammed to attention right in front of the Ambassador, asking permission to dismiss his band. She gave it, so he had them play themselves out the same way they came in. We were all about to turn back upstairs towards the bar, when once again we heard the skirl and snap of a pipe band(well, pipe trio, actually). And out steps four men in Gordon Highlander uniforms, swords held high. My mouth actually went dry. Now, if you know anything about the actual Duchess of Richmond ball, one of the most notable moments was when the Gordon Highlanders did a sword dance, kilts whirling, arms up, feet tapping over and around the crossed blades in the center of the floor as the pipes moaned them on. The legend is that every one of those dancers was dead by the end of the next day at Quatres Bras.

IMG951404For some reason I never thought this committee of charitable organizers would think to include such a famous incident. I wasn’t really sure anybody would…well, get it. They did. The pipes paused. The men took up positions. And, chills chasing down my back like sleds on a snowy hill, I watched Gordon Highlanders recreating the famous sword dance, right there in the courtyard of the Palais d’Egmont(I know it was probably supposed to be done inside to remain completely accurate, but what do you bet the Palais officials suggested that their pristine wooden floors and Oriental rugs simply weren’t made for swords and tapdancing). No matter the anachronism, it was a very moving moment. And I was watching it at the shoulder of the Duke of Wellington. In a beautiful Regency gown, white gloves and tiara(me, not the duke. He was actually in rather pedestrian evening clothing. It would have been kind of anticlimactic if his wife hadn’t been sporting all those diamonds). Not something I ever anticipated in my entire life. (not something anyone who’s ever met me would have anticipated in my entire life). I think it might have been enough right there. But wait! There’s more! Which I will share tomorrow. So stay tuned.

 

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Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 14 Duchess of Richmond Ball

In Which Eileen sups with the Duke of Wellington: Part I

Okay, so I didn’t eat WITH him. But we were at the same party. And I have to admit, it was quite a show. It’s the next morning now, and my feet hurt, my hair looks like I’ve been  cross-bred with a poodle, and my tiara is back in its bag(that was the hardest part. I only remembered to take it off when I tried to get my CPap mask over it). I feel like Cinderella trying to tuck herself back into the kitchen after the shoe came off. And really. Who could have in their wildest imagination thought they’d hear me say that?

As for the Duchess of Richmond Anniversary Ball itself, I admit that I’m still feeling overwhelmed. It was fantasyland start to finish, with enough amazing moments for this historical girl to last her a lifetime. And all of them in an actual palace, with the portraits of the original owners fifteen feet tall and recognizable from history books. The lowpoint of the evening was struggling into the support garments that allowed me to so comfortably wear my beautiful bespoke Regency ballgown–okay, maybe the lowpoint was actually seeing my hair burned to the curling iron Sally brought. Evidently it wasn’t dual-voltage. This morning my hair looked a bit ragged. It did hold a curl, though, which looked perfect with my tiara(although at first I thought I was going to look more like Prinny than the duchess), dress and white gloves. Again I have to thank Matti’s Millinery and Costumes on Etsy for making me such an exquisite gown in only 2 weeks, along with a stole long enough to wrap dead bodies in and a reticule that fit in not only my wallet but my i-phone and book postcards(it’s amazing how many I handed out last night. Evidently there weren’t a lot of authors attending stuff like that). The only thing I’m sorry about is that I was so busy trying to record everything around me, I didn’t get a good shot of my jewelry, which were antique gold and coral pieces from my great-grandmother and my dear friend Joy Jalbert, and my tiara, which fit a bit too neatly into the brand new curls to be easily seen.

It’s amazing the looks you get on the streets of Brussels, even when you come out of a great historic hotel like the Metropole, when you’re dressed up like Jane Austen and ask to go to a palace. One lady asked if we were going to the opera(now I know what to wear when I’m going to the opera in Europe). And then, of course, we got the cab driver who didn’t know where the Palais d’Egmont was. He knew where the Petite Sablon was, which was the neighborhood. So when we got there, we kept looking for the palace, until Sally tapped me on the shoulder and pointed left. Yeah. That would be the place. The one with the door flanked by gentlemen in period Guards attire, standing at attention as women in ballgowns passed by.

IMG951381So we walked through the archway and gave our names to the nice young man at the desk, who pointed us toward the inner courtyard. The minute we stepped through, we heard a drum and pipe salute. We looked around, but it was just for us as we passed along a line of men in period uniforms at attention. We just got to the steps of the actual palace and received our glass of champagne, when there was a command barked, the men snapped to rigid attention and saluted, and another fanfare echoed through the courtyard. And there, walking in just behind us, were the Duke and Duchess of Wellington. We could tell not just because we’d seen his picture when his father died this winter, but because of the salute and all of the other party-goers who immediately straightened skirts and evening jackets before rushing forward to meet him. And that included the British Ambassador and all of the party committee(you could tell because they’d actually pinned little badges with the DoRB logo on their good clothing). Everybody was very kind and a lot more friendly than you’d think, especially considering the fact that they all looked like they’d just seen each other at Ascot the week before.

IMG951410I have to say that the general attire was magnificent. What it wasn’t, was period(which the officials had asked for, even though they didn’t wear it either). Except for Sally and me, there were only about 3 or 4 other women in period dress(one of which looked like she’d just unpacked her gr-gr-gr-grannie’s evening attire from the trunk. It was some serious silk and lace), and several of the men. Two very senior military gentlemen were in full dress kit, one with his Order of the Bath paraphernalia (we know because we looked it up this morning), and several more were in formal kilts. But for the most part, everybody was in the same clothing they could have worn to last year.s ball or the one next year. Exquisite ball gowns, white tie and tails, uniforms. (Well, all right, there was one kid who went full Brideshead Revisited and had on an evening jacket with horizontal black and white stripes that made me think he’d repurposed Sheldon’s Dopplar Effect Halloween costume from Big Bang Theory). He was joined by a good dozen beautiful young men, the kind you imagine down from Oxford for the Proms or a boating party, all moving in a solid group, like a murmuration of swallows. The difference between the formal attire here than anywhere else I’d worn it was that this stuff had serious designer labels, and the big, gaudy diamonds were just that. Big, gaudy diamonds. Oh, and one perfectly lovely briolette emerald that had the owner casting a wary eye on my own covetous glances. I was close enough to the Duchess of Wellington to almost get a loup on hers, and they were amazing. And genuinely old. Not “I found them at a second-hand shop” old. I was imagining Georgiana tucked into those bad boys, and it wouldn’t have been a stretch. (We did get quite a few lovely comments on our attire, however. Everyone seemed most impressed).

The palace itself was exquisite, with the kind of look that made you think Audrey Hepburn would come floating down the twin marble staircase and Ronald Colman would greet you at the door. Flowers everywhere, crystal chandeliers, and free-flowing English sparkling wine(which cannot by law be called champagne, just as only Scottish whiskey should be spelled with the e–but excellent nonetheless. I know, because they kept refilling our glasses). There was a very nice lady playing a harp as you walked in, and the welcoming committee to…well, welcome you. There weren’t a lot of people there when we arrived(thinking we were late), but when the duke and duchess showed up, it was like the dinner bell had gone off. Suddenly we were surrounded by chattering upperclass accents in English, French and Dutch. (that’s Belgian French. I don’t think the other kind showed up).

I learned an important lesson at that point. We were waylaid by another lady in period attire, who turned out to be a Belgian journalist named Margery, who offered to show us how to take pictures on our i-phones with gloves on. “You have to press with something organic,” she said. “And if you can’t manage with your gloves, you use your tongue.” At which point, she exhibited the technique. Sally and I, deciding discretion being the better part of valor(and afraid of getting tossed out for behavior unbecoming a ball attendee), simply took off one glove. Because in fact, it is damn near impossible to get your i-phone to behave with gloves on.

IMG951404Part one of our story ends with the announcement that we were all invited back out into the lovely evening air(the weather was too perfect to believe: high, blue sky, soft breeze, temps in the low 80s) so we could enjoy the band that was about to perform. That being the Royal Engineers marching band(did you know engineers wore stirrups on their boots?). We all trooped back out and backed up right against the palace steps where we could see and not interfere. I, of course, was in the front line, since everybody could see over me, and then, somebody stepped directly in front of me, and stayed. But since it was the English ambassador, the Belgian ambassador and the Duke and Duchess of Wellington, who am I to argue? (how I got close enough to assess the value of the duchess’s jewelry. I don’t even want to attempt an evaluation of the cost. It was some serious bling).

Tomorrow, the band and what they have in common with Duke Ellington, or Eileen almost gives herself away as an American.

 

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Waterloo ’15 Tour: June 13

A Reflection on What the Battle of Culloden Has in Common with Waterloo:

It’s not what you think. I was in the Rijksmuseum today where they have an entire room devoted to Waterloo, from a massive painting by Jon Willem Pieneman of the decisive moment of the battle, to portraits of the players, to the horse ridden by the Prince of Orange, or Slender Billy as he was known, into battle(yes, that would be the actual horse. After he died many years later, they had him stuffed for posterity and put into a museum). (I have a picture, but I can’t get it off my camera. Maybe later).
https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-1115

Anyway, it was while considering the horse and the painting that I found myself thinking of the Campbells. And not just any Campbells, but the ones that became Dukes of Argyll and lived in Inverary Castle in Scotland, which my husband and I visited some years ago. And when we were taking the tour, it amazed me how benign the Campbells were if the person telling the story did it wearing a Campbell plaid. A lot of philanthropic stories without a mention of a McDonald. And when the tour guide proudly pointed to a huge painting in the main salon and said, “And this is the duke with the Duke of Cumberland after Culloden…” and you say, “Do you mean BUTCHER Cumberland?” the tour quickly moves into another room.

There are shades of that in the Rijksmuseum display on Waterloo. Not that the Prince of Orange was a beast, as many considered Cumberland. It’s just that he wasn’t quite the “Hero of Waterloo” he is portrayed to be in the museum. Not that I can blame them. I mean, he turned out to be their second king, and from all accounts a good one. But the devotion over his service at Waterloo might be a weensy bit misplaced. Yes, he was injured(that’s him being carried heroically off the battlefield to the left of Rieneman’s painting, looking amazingly like Paul Bettany, who actually played him in Sharpe’s Waterloo). His horse was injured. He led troops with enthusiasm and panache. And from the military historians I’ve read, led his troops to slaughter. As Bernard Cornwall put it, “Probably the greatest contribution he made to the battle was getting shot and taken off the field.”

Of course a father would want to honor his son’s service, leading King Willem I to construct huge anthill over the spot where Billy was shot(although mutilating the battlefield beyond recognition so that it is now impossible to discern why certain land was fought over and other overlooked seems a bit counterproductive). Of course a nation would wish to pay tribute to a popular king. But all I could think of was, it was amazing how much more heroic Billy was if the person telling the story was wearing Orange.

 

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