There are places which have had certain incarnations of themselves locked into a public memory, a sort of mental museum. For instance, a couple of years ago I had occasion to visit Laramie, in Wyoming, and the first reaction to my mention of the name, from a member of my family from the generation above mine, was, “Ah! The Man from Laramie!” – a Hollywood western made in black and white in the days when James Stewart was a young man wearing a white hat in the Old West. Their expectations of Laramie would have been those Hollywood impressions – a single dusty road flanked with stage-scenery houses bearing signs like “Barber” and “Saloon” and featuring those trademark swinging doors (and to be honest they were not alone – at some time in the past I amused greatly a friend of mine from the American South West when I told her I had a similar clichéd expectations of Santa Fe…)
But all that is in the mental museum. Laramie looks like any other small town. It is conscious of its storied heritage, although it sometimes harks back to its history in somewhat amusing ways. I mean, on a walk through “historical downtown Laramie” one wanders past things such as a corner stone announcing a building date – 1897 or
thereabouts – and the proud boast that this is one of the oldest buildings in Laramie.
And this, of course, immediately brought to mind an occasion when a proud Canadian was showing off a historical hotel building to a Swedish friend of mine.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the creaky cast-iron trappings of the elevator shaft and mechanisms, “it’s got its own original elevator!”
My friend from the land of the Vikings gave him a long and somewhat pitying look. “Nothing with an ‘original’ elevator is old,” he said.
Other places that are buried under a vast heap of history deal with it in their own ways – either there really ARE museums in every other building, or else they find ways of poking gentle fun at themselves:
The truth of it is probably closer to that plaque than to anything else – the people living in those days and those places were simply living their lives, like we do today, every day. They often had no idea that what they were doing was significant, or that they themselves would one day become household names and deserve museums commemorating them.
They were living their lives.
We who live our own lives right now find them unremarkable, boring, annoying, exhausting, frightening, threatening, joyful, full of anticipation, full of dread. It’s LIFE. It happens every day.
Most of us are well fed, safe; living in a house where electricity comes out of a wall, water out of a faucet and the Internet through the wires. If we were stopped in the street and asked how our lives were extraordinary that day, we’d be nonplussed by the question. But if that question were to be asked of a different kind of people – of a different time, a different place, a different class, a different race – ABOUT our own lives, as THEY perceived them, the answers would be very different. And by ‘extraordinary’ I do mean a very broad idea – not necessarily something that one would find immediately admirable or worthy of emulation, but simply something inexplicable, or perceived as weird, or suspicious, or outrageous. A Masai herdsman would be baffled by a New Yorker’s obsessive attachment to a cellphone; a proper Victorian lady in her corsets and stays would have been shocked at a twenty-something in tight jeans and a bare midriff, hair cropped shockingly short, on her way to a voting station to cast a ballot for a president.
When we visit homes and palaces and castles that have become museums, preserving time in a little crystal ball so that us moderns can file through rooms roped off with velvet ropes so that we can catch a furtive glimpse into what their lives must have been like a long time ago – we are equally nonplussed. Or ignorant. Or simply overawed.
I’ve been to my share of these in my life.
I’ve been to Imperial palaces like Schoenbrunn in Vienna, with their immaculate gardens tortured into pretty floral carpets and twisted into topiaries, with the fountains, with the shining parquet floors in the huge high-ceilinged ballrooms, with its gilt and velvet and oil paintings of stern-faced Emperors glowering from the walls.
I’ve been to Blenheim Palace, ancestral home of the Churchills, complete with the (optional) side-tour through the private quarters of the current Ducal family – complete, at the time I was there, with side-tables and mantelpieces loaded with pretty strategically placed picture frames containing photos of smiling British Royalty – “They are personal friends of this family,” the tour guide said pompously, waving a hand over the photographs in question.
I’ve been to Cardiff Castle, one of those polyarchitectural monsters where different eras duke it out in the infastructure and the décor but the families who lived here were so rich and powerful that they made it all work anyway. In fact, one of the phrases which cropped up with a depressing regularity as our tour group entered Every. Single. Room. – “[item] is gold-plated with 14-carat gold”. They might have been talking chandeliers or curtain-holders or candlesticks, it didn’t matter, it was ALL gold-plated with 14-carat gold. The fifth time you heard the phrase you began to grind your teeth. But they had their reasons – at some point in the tour the guide entered into a room and leaned on yet another gilded mantelpiece. “You will be happy to hear,” she said brightly,“that this mantelpiece is NOT in fact gold-plated.” Just as we were all breathing a sigh of relief, the guide added, with an almost malevolent smile, “This is SOLID GOLD.”
I’ve been to the houses that were the equivalent of American “aristos” – places like, for instance, the Stone Mountain Antebellum Plantation. I was taken there by a friend whose everyday normal day-to-day inflection was NOT “Deep South” – but who could drop into it at whim when she wanted to. She walked around the plantation rooms, reading out loud – in FULL Broad Georgian and with the mock seriousness of a Professor – the informative plaques beside the rooms set up to
display the life and times of the period.
Later, in the Plantation restaurant, I asked my Georgian friend what, exactly, a mint julep was – and she immediately decided that it was imperative for me to try a Real Mint Julep ™, and she was going to get me one if it killed her. Our first attempt – right there at the restaurant – was an unmitigated disaster; the waiter was a Bulgarian boy who looked utterly blank as the word “julep” was uttered and said he’d ask in the kitchen. He eventually came back into the room carrying two glasses – but my friend was shaking her head even before he got close enough for her to see. It was the wrong glass. It was the wrong presentation,. It was NOT a Real Mint Julep™. We would have to continue our search elsewhere – and we did, and eventually did end up at a place where my friend pronounced the Julep on offer to be Real and we could call it a day (or perhaps we were just… happy… and any Julep would have seemed Real to us at this point). Mission accomplished – taste of the past learned – museum experience assimilated.
Because that’s what it really is, going into places like these, standing decorously on marble tile and parquetry and gazing at ancestors not our own – it’s the endless human question, “What was it LIKE?”
What was it like to walk these halls in soft-soled dancing slippers beneeath acres of ballgown flounces, or in high hunting boots on the way to the yard where the horses waited? What would it have been like, LIVING in these rooms, being permitted to sit on the brocade chairs, being permitted to play the clavichord, being permitted to light a fire in the massive fireplace, or nod regally as servants scurried in to light the candles or the lamps, or to spend one’s days doing the things that noble-born lords and ladies did – needlework, falconry, passage of arms, consumption of elaborate feasts beneath which the gilded tables groaned – what would it have been like, being “part of the exhibit”, being BEHIND those velvet ropes.
We might have been perfectly civil to one another, had we actually met, that aristocratic family and I, and we would have had a conversation which both of us, on the fundamental level of a shared language, would have understood. But I suspect that I might have found it difficult to make them understand some of the things that govern and deeply matter in my own life, and I also suspect that they would have struggled to share some of what they might have considered their own quotidian details with me.
They were part of the museum world, for me. Part of what I had come there to see. Props for all the gilt and velvet and carved wood and moulded ceilings and ancestral portraits. Without people all of it is just scenery.
But then I stepped out from the palaces to which I had had to buy a ticket to gain admittance, and back into my own world once more. It did occur to me – but not too often, not nearly often enough – to wonder what someone like a rice-paddy peasant from deep-rural China or a caravan-dwelling Gypsy would have thought if they’d had to buy tickets to tour my home, and what would lurk behind the velvet ropes, and how much they would find there to admire, or to resent, or to be puzzled by, or to be bewildered by. Whether things I take for granted – for example, my many books – would be considered treasures. Whether my computer would be considered magic.
The entire world’s a museum if we know where to look, how to look there. We find beauty or an ancient ugliness, we find tiny interesting details, we find hopes and dreams and expectations of people wildly unlike us whose minds and attitudes we can sometimes only guess at. Much of it, in the end, probably turns out to be merely gold-plated.
But in that shining mass of deception… sometimes… somewhere… if we’re lucky… we get to touch a nugget of Real Gold.
THIS IS A TWO-PARTER. Watch out for part 2 tomorrow.