In Other News This Week…

It’s been a busy week for the international news media. A series of Saudi-led strikes pounded rebel targets in Yemen. Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 people aboard, and as of now, it appears to have been brought down at the hands of the co-pilot. American Amanda Knox’s second trial for the murder of her roommate in Italy is declared closed by Italy’s supreme court, March Madness continues with many surprises and upsets as college basketball teams battle it out for a place in the “Sweet Sixteen” and then on to the “Elite Eight”. And, today, March 27, 2015, the Duchess of Cambridge made her last public appearance before the impending birth of her second child.

In other news this wbean plant on haireek, however, three 7th grade boys grew a bean plant in a Styrofoam cup filled with … hair. Along with springtime temperatures and March Madness, this time of year also brings that rite of passage for every middle school student: the science fair.

The K-8 Catholic school where I teach is no different. This week was the culmination of a three-month process where students in grades 6-8 selected a topic, researched it, created the traditional three-panel corrugated board, and brought their projects in for the school assembly and judging. Each year, a lot of bean plants are grown demonstrating various scientific theories from which beans grow the fastest, which light source encourages growth, and what to best feed a bean plant. This year, the three 7th grade boys initially wanted to try growing bean plants in a hydroponic system but the topic had already been reserved by one of their classmates. So, they pressed on, deciding to grow bean plants in just about everything other than water, to see what medium worked best. They “planted” beans in soil, on hay, on pebbles, and yes, on hair.hair science fair board

When I first approached the table, I looked at their board for the topic. It said, “Grow with the Flow”. I looked down at the tray of cups on the table and pointed to the one in the bottom right hand corner, “What is that in that cup?”

All three in unison, “Hair”.

“What?”

“Yep, we grew a bean plant in a cup of hair,” one of the boys said beaming from ear to ear.

Being a teacher and being quite used to outlandish stories, I asked if they had planted the bean in soil, waited for it to sprout and then transferred it to the cup of hair. No, they assured me, they just put the bean in the cup of hair, watered it, and left it in the sun to grow.

My next question was simple, “Whose hair is it?” One of the boys said, “We got it from Spiro’s Barber Shop. And, you know what, Mrs. Ardillo, he didn’t even ask why we wanted a bag full of hair. He just reached down onto the floor, picked up a handful of hair, and dropped it into the bag we had brought with us. HE WASN’T EVEN WEARING GLOVES!” (Emphasis added to indicate the increased volume level of said 7th grade boy when shouting this last sentence to me.)

Naturally, I was ready with another question. “Why would you think he should be wearing gloves?”

“Because he picked up the hair off the floor!” one of them excitedly replied.

“Boys, does the barber wear gloves when he cuts your hair?”

“Uh, no, that would be silly.”

“Well, didn’t he just cut tha t hair off of someone’s head, without wearing gloves?”

“Uh, yeah, but it wasn’t on the floor!”

This is classic middle school logic. They will focus on something that a grown-up would never ever think of, and trying to move them off of it is like trying to take a bone away from a hungry dog.

We then discussed how much larger the bean plant growing on the hair was than the ones in the other cups. They surmised it was because the cup of hair, with all of its cracks and crevices, allowed for sunlight and water to more efficiently make its way to the bean plant and its root system.

One question kept bubbling around in my mind, so I asked it. “So, if the hair came from a person who was very sick with a very contagious disease, and you grew a bean plant on that hair until you could harvest beans to eat, would the beans make you sick?”

One boy immediately said, “Probably.” Another boy nodded in affirmation. But boy #3, the most gregarious of the group, shook his head and said, “Probably not, but it would be conditioner-flavored!”

And there, my friends, in a nutshell, is the working mind of a 7th grade boy!

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Dates or a “Date”?

My daughter once told me about a friend of hers, “He’s not a very adventurous eater like we are, Mom.” To say I am an adventurous eater is an understatement. I will taste just about anything. I only have a few things on my “don’t eat” list: eggs (unless they are well-incorporated into a recipe, like, shall we say, a cake) and lychees. I’m not a big fan of Earl Grey tea because it tastes like perfume to me (I can smell lavender from a mile away). I don’t like raw oysters but I will eat them any other way you can dream up. I have a few other food quirks, like the fact that I love cherries but I hate anything that is cherry-flavored (think cough syrup here). Lemon grass and cilantro are things I’m not really fond of but I do enjoy dishes that contain a modest amount of those herbs.

In an never-ending quest to expand my food knowledge, I have been to many ethnic restaurants. I love Indian food, Thai food, Japanese food, Greek food, Italian food, Chinese food, and Mexican food and its cousin Tex-Mex food. Living in the DC metropolitan area, I am fortunate to have many choices of ethnic cuisine. For example, not only can I find several excellent Spanish food restaurants, but I can also find one that only serves tapas, as well as one that specializes in Andalusian cuisine. Cuban food? Why, yes, not even five miles from my house. Salvadoran food? Again, many choices within a short drive.

When my husband and I were first married, he was not a very adventurous eater. For starters, he didn’t eat anything white. Cauliflower, no way. Cream sauce or cream of anything soup, yuck. In fact, soup in general was restricted to Campbell’s. Vegetables were also a challenge. He ate lettuce (well, iceberg at least), corn (well, it is technically a vegetable, right?) and canned green beans. Being from the south, he ate red beans and rice, as well as black-eyed peas. But that was really the end of the list. Today, 25 years later, his “don’t eat” list is much smaller. He eats broccoli, asparagus, zucchini, butternut squash, fresh green beans, petit pois peas, and, for the big win, cauliflower! He’s still not a big fan of beets and eggplant, but considering the progress we’ve made, I’m okay with that. As for soups, it was slow and steady but we’ve made great headway there as well: homemade chicken noodle soup is his favorite, closely followed by turkey and sausage gumbo, beef vegetable, white chicken chili, and homemade French onion soup. Are you noticing the “white” elements here? Yes, big progress.

When we moved to Belgium in 2002, we immediately started trying out the local restaurants in our small town of Waterloo. Naturally, we started with the Belgian cuisine and French restaurants. He wasn’t really into mussels but once he tried mine several times, he started to enjoy them and the customary accoutrements, frites (French fries) and thin slices of baguette toasted and buttered. Eventually we branched out and tried the Japanese restaurant (which had a great bento box), the take-out Chinese place (famous for giving out a can of lychees in syrup after they recognized you as a “regular”), and what I think was called “Melissa’s snak pita”, which was sort of like a gyro but with French fries inside the pita along with the meat and dressings.

Our favorite of the ethnic choices quickly became La Baraka, a Moroccan restaurant. I had only had Moroccan food once before and it was not nearly as good as La Baraka. I loved the chicken tagine, served in its traditional clay pot, accompanied by stewed onions and raisins. After our second or third time of eating there, one of the waitresses, in traditional Moroccan garb, came to our table with a wooden crate. She lifted the top and there, on a bed of straw, were dates. We weren’t quite sure what to do because we had not ordered dates or at least we didn’t think we had. She spoke softly to us in French and gestured for us to select one so we did. It was plump and juicy and sweet, unlike any date I had tasted before. We didn’t see her offering the dates to anyone else that night. The next time we ate there, along with the proffering of the special dates nestled in their straw bed, we were served hot mint tea in exquisite glasses encased in what appeared to be pierced sterling silver cups. We searched the check each time but none of this was ever listed on our bill.

Over the course of the two years we lived in Waterloo we ate at La Baraka many times, sometimes alone on “date night” and other times with our two teen-aged daughters. If it was crowded and the foyer filled with people waiting for a table, we were whisked away and shown to a prominent table in the front window. Once, on Valentine’s Day, without a reservation and in the middle of the prime evening hours, we arrived and put our name in with the maître d’. In a short period of time, we were taken upstairs by the owner himself, in his traditional Moroccan costume and velvet “slippers”, to an unfurnished room with only one table, elaborately set with a crimson tablecloth. We began to joke about why we were such special customers, along with feeling uneasy about being moved to the front of the line on numerous occasions.

Moroccan necklaceEventually, towards the end of our stay in Waterloo, we had an experience that shed a bit of light on the situation. The four of us were dining at La Baraka, seated at the big round table in the front window as usual. I had my back to the window facing the hallway leading to the bar and the doors to the kitchen. I saw the owner come out and speak to the woman behind the bar, and then he disappeared back into the kitchen. She caught my eye and gestured for me to come to her. I pointed to myself and mouthed to her, “me?”, and she nodded yes. So, I walked over and she reached under the bar and took out a small tray. She placed it on the bar in front of me. On the tray were two necklaces, which appeared to be hand-beaded with assorted wood and glass beads and silver pieces. She gestured for me to select one. I laughed nervously and said no thank you, as I wasn’t sure if I was being offered to purchase one or what. She then said to me in part-English and part-French that the owner wished me to have one. So, after looking back at our table where my husband and two daughters were watching me, I pointed to the one with the large turquoise bead in the center. She then came around the bar with it in her hands and put it around my neck. She bowed and returned to the bar. I returned to our table.

My daughters were very excited by this, hoping they would be called up to receive a necklace as well. My husband remarked that perhaps it was some sort of marriage ceremony. Whatever it was, I finished my delicious meal wearing my new Moroccan necklace and very pink cheeks.

Ten Close Encounters of the Famous Kind – Part Two

My husband says I have a special talent for “running into” famous people. Last week I shared with you some stories of how I met five famous people. As promised, this week I bring to you Part Two, five additional famous people I’ve encountered in my past.

In 1983 I visited New York City for the first time. Traveling with a close friend, we stayed in the apartment of a childhood friend of hers, Nancy Purser, who had moved from Hammond, Louisiana, to NYC with her sister, Dorothy Ann, in the 1950s. Dorothy Ann, who lived in the apartment next door, was a bit of a recluse, and we did not see her during our week-long stay in her sister’s apartment. Whenever we knocked on her door to see if she wanted to visit or join us for dinner, she would shout through the door, “I’m writing.” After working as ticket agents for the airlines, both sisters had pursued more creative careers, Nancy as a photographer, and Dorothy as a writer for daytime soap operas. She wrote for all the great ones at one time or another, Days of Our Lives, Another World, Guiding Light, Ryan’s Hope, The Doctors, As the World Turns, and One Life to Live. Dorothy Ann was not my brush with celebrity on this trip, however. There would be three others.

6. Karl Lagerfeld. While on this trip to NYC in 1983, we tried to see all the major landmarks like the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Museum of Modern Art, etc. Being a lifelong avid reader, on my “to see” list was the world-famous Rizzoli Bookstore. Needless to say I was overwhelmed by the experience. It was packed with both books and people. We browsed for a while; I made a few selections and started toward the checkout counter. I got into the long line and inched my way to the front. At one point, while alternating between looking at my books and people-watching, I accidentally bumped the man in front of me, whom I had noticed only because of his silver white ponytail and black cape-like coat. He stumbled forward and as I was trying to say “excuse me”, out of nowhere appeared two very large men in black leather jackets and jeans. They firmly placed themselves in between me and the man in front of me. One of them said in a foreign accent, “Back up, you are too close.” I said, “I’m so sorry” and backed up. The man with the white ponytail approached the counter and the sales clerk said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Lagerfeld, can I have these sent to your home?” No money exchanged hands, no credit card, no writing of an address or phone number. And with that, Mr. White Ponytail and his two bodyguards sauntered out of Rizzoli Bookstore leaving me aghast at having “run into” the legendary fashion designer, Karl Lagerfeld.

7. Maria Shriver. This story has already been documented in my previous essay, “The Eyes Have It” posted on January 18, 2015. I will recount it here for you:

While on my very first visit to New York City, I had an interesting encounter with the steel tip of an umbrella. Not just any umbrella, mind you, but the umbrella of Maria Shriver. My friend, Ann, and I were walking down the streets of New York in the rain after a full day of sightseeing, heading back to the apartment we were staying at to change for dinner. It was rush hour and the sidewalks were jammed with people bustling about. Visibility was poor due to the rain and dark skies. The clump of people in front of me stopped short and I didn’t. And, that’s when Maria Shriver’s umbrella poked me in the eye. I screamed and she turned around and when I saw it was her, I screamed again. I had my hand over my eye and she grabbed at it to see if I was bleeding or if maybe my eyeball was missing or something. I assured her I was fine and we parted ways. It was a bit “bloodshot” the next morning but otherwise okay. Later the next day Ann and I were walking up the steps of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to take a look at the lobby and down the steps came Maria Shriver. She actually recognized me and stopped to ask how my eye was.

8. Pelé. I’m not much of an athlete; in fact, I’m not even much of a sports fan.  It goes without saying that there are very few professional athletes that I could actually name, let alone associate them with a certain sport. On this now infamous trip to NYC, my friend Ann and I were on our way to Zabar’s, the legendary deli and specialty food store. While crossing the street in the throngs of people, the strap on my shoulder bag broke and my purse fell to the street. Because it was unzipped (I know, I know), all of the contents flew out and began rolling in different directions in the middle of this intersection. I bent down to start recovering my things and the light changed. Immediately horns began to honk and drivers began shouting from the windows of their cars, “Get out of the street!” Cars were inching toward me as I scrambled to grab at my personal effects. A man crouched down next to me and began helping me, holding out the items he was picking up for me to take and put into my purse. Suddenly, the horns stopped and the shouting now became a chant of sorts, “Pelé, Pelé, Pelé”. Oblivious as to his identity, I thanked him profusely as he helped me up and escorted me across the street with people obviously gawking at this world-renown Brazilian soccer player.

9. Gerald Ford. Before I became a teacher, I was a real estate paralegal. My work mostly involved drafting and negotiating legal documents between the landlord of shopping centers and malls (my employer) and future tenants of those retail environments. Once a year, all of the people in the industry who did this sort of legal work gathered together for a national conference to discuss the issues, network, and finalize deals. The ICSC Law Conference was one of the few perks of my job, and I loved attending it. It alternated each year between the west coast and the east coast. On the west coast one year the conference was being held in Palm Desert, California, at an unbelievable resort complete with several swimming pools, fine dining restaurants, and a man-made lake smack dab in the middle of the desert. The networking and wheeling and dealing included dinner parties hosted by law firms who were courting the future business of the real estate developers and shopping center owners. One night my firm was invited to a dinner at a restaurant in nearby Rancho Mirage. We arrived and waited in the lobby to be seated. The restaurant was packed with people and there were several dining rooms, all heavily trafficked by waiters, busboys, and patrons.  As we were being escorted to our table, a very tall man stopped short in front of me. He was not only tall but solid. It was like running into a wall. Again, two men appeared out of nowhere, but this time, he said, “It’s okay, it was my fault.” They backed away and he turned around and said to me, “Are you okay?” Flabbergasted, I responded, “Yes, I’m fine.” Considering how it felt to “run into” the 38th President of the United States, I can see why he was the star of his football team at the University of Michigan in the early 1930’s.

10. As promised, I have saved the best for last. In 1984, single and trying to get by on a legal assistant’s salary in small town Hammond, Louisiana, I could not afford to live alone. Rather than take in a roommate, I agreed to become the manager of an apartment complex in exchange for reduced rent. On paper it seemed like a good deal. In reality, it was a royal pain. Something was always broken in some apartment. My phone rang off the hook with complaints. Each day when I returned home from my day job as a paralegal, tenants would actually be watching for me and come running out to tell me about some issue they were having in their apartment. People moved out and left their apartments a complete wreck. They would leave behind all sorts of personal items but take one of the appliances owned by the landlord instead. And, this was a really nice apartment complex. I can’t imagine that job in a run-down, low-rent, high-rise building.

Obviously a high priority was finding a tenant for vacant apartments as soon as possible. So, no matter what time of day or night that a prospective tenant wanted to see an apartment, I was to be there, with a smile on my face while I told them the many wonderful things about the apartment. One Saturday, I was asked to meet a prospective tenant at 7:00 AM. On a Saturday! So I rolled out of bed at 6:30, threw on some clothes, and stumbled out to the vacant apartment just as a car was driving up. Out came two of the largest men I have ever seen in my life. The driver stepped forward and introduced himself as the prospective tenant and advised me that he had brought along his brother to take a look. I introduced myself, unlocked the apartment, and gave them a tour of the two-story townhouse. After we returned to the first floor, the prospective tenant asked if he could run back upstairs and take another look. And, so, I stood there in the vacant apartment’s foyer, all five feet one inch of me, standing next to this enormous man with shoulders so wide I could not imagine how he found clothes to fit him. He was at least a foot taller than me. Being a talker, I said to him, “So, what do you do?” He replied, “I’m kind of between jobs right now.” I answered, “Well, I’m sure something will come up soon. Don’t give up hope!” He smiled sweetly at me and was about to say something when his brother came bounding down the stairs, thanking me and saying he would be in touch with a decision in the next few days.

Later that day, I drove to my parents’ house for a visit. My dad asked how the apartment complex was doing and I told him I only had one vacancy but I thought I might have found a tenant that morning. He asked me about it so I proceeded to tell him the story of the two brothers and how enormous they were. He asked me their names and I told him. I then told him that the brother of the prospective tenant was unemployed and wouldn’t be living there, in my high-rent townhouses. My dad’s face froze as I was telling him the story. When I finished he said, “Michelle, that man was not unemployed. That man just retired from professional football. He was the star quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He helped them win the Super Bowl four times. He was born and raised in Louisiana! Don’t you know who Terry Bradshaw is?”

Embarrassing as it is looking back on it now, I will never forget how sweetly Terry Bradshaw smiled at me when I told him to not give up hope while looking for another job. He could have informed me that he was famous and acted offended that I didn’t recognize him, but he chose not to, and just smiled at me. In fact, all of my close encounters with celebrities have been positive, even when I “ran into” them and caused bodyguards to appear out of thin air. I wonder, who will I “run into” next?

Ten Close Encounters of the Famous Kind – Part One

When you are not famous, a chance encounter with a famous person is exciting. I’m not famous and this has happened to me quite a few times. Some have entailed casual conversation, while others have been mere “run-ins”. Most of these encounters have occurred in Louisiana, where I was born and raised. Some have occurred on airplanes and others in New York City, because, you know, that’s where all the famous people eventually end up. One of my very best stories of an encounter with a famous person I will save for last, however, since it is the best one. For that one, you will have to check back next Sunday to read Part Two. Let’s begin with the first half of the list of “close encounters of the famous kind”.

  1. Judge Leander Perez. Growing up in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, we had our own brand of celebrity in our parish leader (Louisiana being the only state without counties), Judge Leander Perez. Judge Perez served as district judge of Plaquemines Parish, then district attorney, and finally President of the Plaquemines Parish Commission Council until his death in 1969. He ruled my hometown with an iron fist, keeping control of the area by limiting economic development, controlling the oil and gas leases of the parish properties, and maintaining segregated schools until 1966 when a federal court issued a decree to integrate the schools and placed Perez under injunction not to interfere. My Girl Scout troop went on a field trip to the parish courthouse, while working on our leadership badges, and we were granted an audience with the powerful Judge Perez in his private chambers. He called us up one by one to his desk to have a short conversation and give us a small trinket commemorating the occasion. One could say I had a very interesting childhood.
  2. Governor Edwin Edwards. Between 1983 and 1987 I was involved in a community theatre group, serving as actor, director, board member, and president. We did great work with very high production values. I was lucky to learn all sides of performing arts through some very talented people. At times our group teamed up with the music department of the local university, my alma mater Southeastern Louisiana University. One such joint production was a performance at a political fundraiser. Now, if you are from Louisiana you will recognize this name immediately, the famous and infamous Edwin Edwards. At the time, he was serving as governor of Louisiana for the second time. He was the honored guest at this event, and as such, there was a photo-op at the end of the event. Our group was called over to the side of the banquet hall to have our photo taken with him. The photographer placed us according to height, shortest on the front row, tallest in the back, and then inserted Governor Edwards smack dab in the middle of the front row, immediately to my left. He put his right arm around me and his left arm around one of the singers, and just as the photographer said, “One, Two, Three, Say Cheese,” I felt a very firm grasp of my rear end. Yes, the governor of Louisiana had just grabbed my butt. I nearly jumped out of line, and just as quickly as it had happened, he moved on, smiling and shaking hands with his adoring fans.
  3. Chef Justin Wilson. As a native Louisianan, I was privileged to grow up with very good seafood right in my backyard so to speak, good family recipes, and great cooks all around me. Outside of the family, however, we all knew one famous name: Cajun chef Justin Wilson (1914-2001). And, by the way, that first name is pronounced as the French would say it, ZHuwSTEHN, although he himself said he pronounced it as the Cajuns would say it, JOOS-tain. The interesting thing is that he wasn’t Cajun at all, having been born in Roseland, Louisiana, near the Mississippi border. His mother was of Cajun heritage, however, and it is from her where he learned to cook and tell stories. I was on a flight once and got up to go the bathroom and on the way back I noticed someone who looked a lot like him sitting in first class. He was in a business suit, not his trademark flannel shirt and blue jeans so I wasn’t sure it was really him. He looked like any other well-to-do business man in first class. I went back to my seat, thought about it for a few minutes, and got back up with the only paper I had, my airline ticket stub. I went back to first class and asked politely if he was Justin Wilson, the Cajun chef. He nodded so I asked him for his autograph. He smiled, and without a trace of his famous Cajun accent, asked me my name. I told him “Michelle Blanchard” in my best Cajun accent. He signed my ticket stub and handed it back. I returned to my seat, feeling a bit like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
  4. Sister Helen Prejean. For a period of time during the early 1990’s I traveled back and forth from Maryland to Louisiana to be with my mother when she was either having surgery or recovering, equating to lots of times alone on an airplane, feeling low, never quite feeling like I was in the right place at the right time. If I was in Louisiana with my mother, I was not in Maryland with my two young children, who were home with their very supportive dad. If I was in Maryland with my children, then I was not in Louisiana with my mother. There was a great deal of pain either way. On one such return flight to Maryland, I was feeling particularly low. My mom was not doing well and I was very worried. Each time I boarded a plane to fly home, I always thought it might be the last time I would see her. On this particular flight, the plane was packed. Crying babies, loud storytellers, business men working on laptops, hipsters with their headphones, you name it, we were all on there. I had a middle seat (naturally, where else would you be if you were already feeling low) and the man on the aisle was asleep. The woman in the window seat was sitting quietly for most of the flight, looking out the window. At one point, she reached into her tote bag and pulled out a large stack of letters bound with a rubber band. She started going through them, opening one, reading it, putting the letter back into its envelope, and moving on to the next one. She saw me watching her and smiled modestly at me. I said, “Fan mail?” Really I was just joking. I could not imagine it really being fan mail; she was just a normal looking woman in a plain top and a plain, dark skirt. No jewelry, no make-up. She smiled back, and said, “Well, yes, it is. I get lots of letters about a book I wrote about the death penalty. It’s called Dead Man Walking.” And, so began my conversation with Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun who is one of the nation’s most outspoken opponents of the death penalty. Her first book was later made into the feature film of the same name. Susan Sarandon won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Prejean in the film. I had not read the book at the time of our meeting, and because she was more interested in why I seemed so sad, we spent the flight talking about my mom and her health. I got off that plane with a sense of peace that I had not felt for a long time.
  5. Chef Jacques Pépin. The fifth person on my list is another chef, but this one is really French. For many years before there was a Food Network or a Cooking Channel, there was PBS and its round-up of cooking shows: Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Jeff Smith (until his legal troubles began), Pierre Franey, and my favorite of all, Jacques Pépin. I love everything about that man. I still watch him every weekend. I love all of his shows, those with Julia and those without, those with Claudine, his daughter, and those with his granddaughter, Shorey. I have all of his cookbooks and use them regularly. One week I read in the Washington Post newspaper that he was doing a book signing at La Madeleine’s in Rockville, not far from where I lived. It was a school night, so after work, mad dash to after care to pick up my daughters, rush home to meet my husband, load back up in the car and head to La Madeleine’s. We were early and first in line to Jacques Pepin with M&M Girls (2)see him. Because there weren’t many people there yet, he spent some time with us, talking to my daughters, posing for a photo with us, and signing my copy of his cookbook, Cooking with Claudine, which I had already purchased. As he was signing it, it fell open to a well-used page that was already stained with splatters of grease and what-not. He said to me, “The sign of a well-loved cookbook, one with grease stains on it!” He was utterly charming, and still is at age 79. My husband frequently jokes that I would leave him for a night on the town with that Frenchman! What can I say, he reminds me dearly of my late godfather, my dear Uncle Guy, an utterly charming Frenchman himself who was also a great cook.

And so ends the first half of my list of “Ten Close Encounters of the Famous Kind”. In Part Two of the list, I will share with you my first ever trip to New York City, where I had three of these encounters, all in the same week, and a business trip to Palm Desert, California, where a very presidential one happened. Oh, and for #10, the best one, we will return to good ole Louisiana. Stay tuned!

How “WE” Changed the World

queen tote bagIn a few weeks I will be passing out copies of our next book to read and study in 8th grade literature, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is one of my favorite books and I love teaching it. Along with teaching this great mystery and covering literary elements like foreshadowing and flashbacks, it also gives me an opportunity to teach the 8th grade a bit about one of my favorite periods in history, the Victorian Era.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1859-1930, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the country of birth of my maternal grandparents, so I feel a certain kinship with him. At his birth, the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom was Queen Victoria, having ascended to the throne at the death of her uncle, William IV, in 1837. She ruled over her great and ever-expanding empire until her death in 1901, conquering and colonizing many distant lands far beyond the shores of the British Isles. Conan Doyle was very much a product of the Victorian Era.

Victoria, on the throne for 63 years 216 days, stands today as the longest reigning monarch of Great Britain, however, Elizabeth II, her great-great granddaughter, is nipping at her heels. If Elizabeth II is still on the throne on September 10, 2015, she will officially surpass her great-great grandmother as the longest reigning monarch of Great Britain. As I do every year, I will tell my 8th graders, who will soon sprout their wings and fly off to the wild, unconquered world of high school,  to think of me on September 10, 2015, when Elizabeth II passes her by.

There is every reason to believe this will happen, as Elizabeth II, at the age of 88 still carries out her duties with a sturdy step and regal bearing. In 2012, during her Diamond Jubilee year (60th anniversary on the throne), she carried out 425 official engagements. While at Balmoral, her family estate in Scotland, she still goes for long walks with her battalion of corgis, drives herself around in a Range Rover, and goes horseback riding. Not bad for 88 years old.

Some European monarchs abdicate after a lifetime of service and pass the reins on to the next generation, while the retired monarch is still around for counsel and advice. In a short span of eighteen months, multiple examples occurred: Spain’s King Juan Carlos, citing poor health, stepped down in favor of his son; Belgium’s Albert II abdicated to make way for his son albeit in the midst of some degree of scandal and controversy; and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands followed her mother and grandmother’s footsteps to allow her son to ascend to the throne while he was at the prime of his life. Even the Catholic Church has been affected by this phenomenon, with the resignation of His Holiness Benedict XVI in February of 2013.

Meanwhile in London, it would appear that 66-year old Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the throne of Great Britain, will have to wait. Abdication for Queen Elizabeth II is simply not a possibility. Her ascent to the throne was one of great sadness, following the premature death at the age of 56 of her father, George VI. The story behind George VI’s unexpected ascent to the British throne is the basis for the 2010 Best Picture winning movie, The King’s Speech.

For an American, I know an inordinate amount about that time period. I have always been fascinated with royalty. I spent my childhood reading the Compton’s Encyclopedia, from A-Z, devouring anything in the alphabet about royalty anywhere in the world. As I grew older, I began reading biographies of the various monarchies, tomes such as Robert Lacey’s 1977 Majesty as well as his 1981 The Kingdom about Saudi Arabia, still one of my favorite books of all times. I enjoyed Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots and Jerrold Packard’s Victoria’s Daughters. And then, in the early 90s I stumbled upon the British made for TV mini-series Edward & Mrs. Simpson. Based on Frances Donaldson’s biography of Edward VIII, who ruled a land steeped in history and duty but gave up the British throne to marry an American divorcée. This story so captivated me that I read everything I could get my hands on about the battle royal of 1936-1937. This turbulent time in British history began with a young man disenchanted by the routine and rigors of reigning, who refused to settle down, marry, and produce the requisite heir to the throne. It culminated with the titular head of the Church of England announcing his plans to marry a married woman who was seeking her second divorce. The British government informed the then King Edward VIII that his subjects would not tolerate his marriage to “the American”, Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson. And with the stroke of a pen, on December 10, 1936, at his beloved Fort Belvedere, Edward VIII, known throughout his childhood and life before ascension as either David or Prince of Wales, was reduced to the ranks of Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, a title created solely for the situation. On June 3, 1937, in a rented château near Tours, France, the Duke married the woman for whom he had given up everything, with not one member of his family in attendance.

The shy and stuttering younger brother Prince Albert, Duke of York, ascended to the throne, unprepared for the strain and stress of the monarchy. His pretty yet stalwart wife, who would later become Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, never forgave the Duke and Duchess of Windsor for their actions in the constitutional crisis that held Britain in suspense for nearly a year or for the premature death of her husband the king. As dramatized in the movie The King’s Speech, George VI, who died at the age of 56 of lung cancer, was urged to by the royal doctors to smoke more as the tobacco and inhaling/exhaling of cigarettes was believed to be a remedy for his ongoing battles with stuttering and stammering.

It is hard to imagine that this did not influence the young Princess Elizabeth, who, like her great-great grandmother Victoria, was born to royalty, but not born to be heir to the throne. The abdication changed Elizabeth’s life forever, and many a British are thankful for that. Had Edward VIII remained on the throne, what would have become of England during WWII? Edward had visited Germany and met with Hitler. There were those of the opinion at the time that Hitler’s plans were to conquer Great Britain and reinstate Edward to the throne with Wallis at his side. The Allies and Churchill prevented this from becoming a reality, having successfully taken back France and ending the war, but also because Churchill put Edward and Wallis on a British warship and dispatched them to the Bahamas, then a British colony, where Edward served as Governor, a menial post meant to keep him (and Wallis) out of trouble and as far away from England as possible.

In their personal life, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, she forbidden the style of “Her Royal Highness” by George VI, with the support of his wife and his mother, called each other “WE”, representing the melding of the initials of their names along with a slightly sarcastic nod to the royal “we”. Historians have reflected hypothetically on the possibilities of “WE” ruling Great Britain, side by side, during WWII, and whether the outcome of the war would have been any different. It is not disputed, however, that George VI matured and grew into the role of a respected monarch, admirably leading Britain during that tumultuous time, with his beloved wife and daughters at his side. When asked if Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret would be sent out of Britain during the war, the queen replied that the children would not go without her, and she would not go without the king, and the king would never go. After Buckingham Palace was hit by German bombs she famously stated that she was glad her home had been struck, so that she could look those of the East End, an area of London heavily hit in the air raids, in the face.

Not a single scandal tarnished the house of Windsor during the reign of George VI. And during Elizabeth II’s long and ongoing reign, the scandals have been those of her children, not hers. Her reign has been and continues to be one of grace, dignity, and duty. Edward and Wallis set out to change the world by challenging the British with their love affair, but the biggest change “WE” effected was that of bringing George VI and his heir to the throne of England, his heir who should, God willing, in a little over six months out-reign Queen Victoria. Long live the Queen.