Here is why I came to England at all this year: Christmas with my daughter, Sarah, and her family – Andrew, Olivia, and Katie. I was meeting them in Gillingham, a small city in Kent. Andrew was raised in Kent, so it was “home for Christmas” in a way for him.
The first few days were taken up with family, Christmas, and, for me, being really sick for two of those days, but getting better after that. (I’m all better now.) I was able to meet more of Andrew’s family, who are friendly and enjoyable company. Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to see them again.
The Brits love the holiday season! There were many events, but – except for the churches – they were not religious in tone. All were welcome, and the winter holidays were just an excuse for everyone to get out and have some fun. So, we did!
Andrew was the guide, because he was most familiar with the territory. Our first outing was to a park with light displays along a path through the trees. There were some really lovely effects, and the kids had a great time!
During the days, between store runs, homework, and Sarah’s paper for her law class, we worked on one of my presents!
The girls’ room was right next door to mine, and of course, they decided that they would stay up for midnight! Two of us made it. One was just too tired.
Nearby Chilston Park is Leeds Castle, which was open on New Year’s Day. It has a long and colorful history, beginning in the Domesday Survey of 1086, where it is called “Esledes,” an Old English word meaning slope or hillside. The Manor of Esledes was owned by Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William the Conqueror. Odo was not favored by King William “Rufus” II, and the estate was taken from Odo and given to Hamo de Crevecoeur, whose heirs owned it for 175 years.
The castle – as opposed to the manor house – was first built in 1119 by Hamo’s grandson, Robert, to serve as a Norman stronghold. The main fortification, the Keep, was built on the smaller of two islands in the Lens River, the islands being formed by large outcroppings of solid rock. On the larger island, known as the Bailey, were built the domestic buildings. The islands were linked by a drawbridge. If attacked, refuge would be provided by the Keep, and the drawbridge raised.
Leeds was a royal castle for almost 300 years, beginning with Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I. Ownership was granted by the king to his queen, which became her property until she died. The property would then revert to the then-current king, and while it was a royal castle, tradition dictated that it would be granted to the king’s queen. The castle tour has an entertaining presentation about the six medieval queens who have lived there. But in 1552, Edward VI, who died at 16 and never married a queen to receive a castle-gift, gave it to Anthony St. Leger as reward for service to Henry VIII. It remained in private ownership from 1552 until 1974.
It was Lady Baillie, who bought the estate in 1925, that brought Leeds Castle into its modern heyday. She supervised (and paid for) a major overhaul of the castle. Leeds became one of the great country houses of the 1930s, providing grand hospitality for statesmen, European royalty, and American movie stars.
Lady Baillie established the Leeds Castle Foundation before she died in 1974, so that the castle and its rich history would be preserved. The foundation manages it still.
“When I’m good,
I’m very good,
But when I’m bad,
– From the mirror of Lady Baillie’s vanity, a quote from an early Mae West movie.
Wandering through the castle was a great way to spend the afternoon of New Year’s Day. There was a surprisingly large number of people visiting on the holiday, but it was not at all crowded. We finished our visit with a scrumptious lunch – mine was “shepherd’s pie” – at one of the eateries on the castle grounds, and then set a course for Gillingham.
Andrew’s agenda the next day included a visit to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland in London. I expected displays of light, maybe some ice sculpture, but it was so much more!
For some, life does not stop for the holidays. Sarah had work to do for her law classes, so Andrew, Olivia, Katie, and I went off to see Rochester, an old city nearby. That’s where we’ll go next.
I had a sight-filled first day in Oxford, but there is more Oxford and I had another day, Wednesday. Part of my day was spent in bookstores, looking for Christmas presents. Books are my favorite present to give. I suppose it’s because I love them so much.
Book stores abound in Oxford, but I think only one of them qualifies as a “sight” to see. Blackwell’s originated in Oxford. The first, and for many years the main store, opened January 1, 1879, at 50 Broad Street. Its founder was Benjamin Henry Blackwell, the son of Benjamin Harris Blackwell, the first librarian at the Oxford City Library, which opened in 1854. Customers can still see the first bookcase to be fitted into the 1879 book shop, which was 14 feet square.
By 1938, Blackwell’s had taken over numbers 51, 48, and 49 on Broad Street, and in 1966, they opened the Norrington Room in the basement, which had two and a half miles of book shelves. Two years after the Norrington Room, Blackwell’s opened 53 Broad Street to house the bookshop section that stocked art books, graphic novels, posters, and manga publications.
By 2022, Blackwell’s, by now with stores all over the U.K., was suffering a decline in business, like so many bookstores, independent and chain alike. It had been a family-run business for 143 years, but in that year, Toby Blackwell sold the business to Waterstones. The Waterstones chain was founded in London in 1982, and in 1987, their store on Broad Street in Oxford was opened. Joined in 2022, Blackwell’s and Waterstones, operating their separate stores, dominate three blocks of Broad Street in Oxford.
There was another place I wanted to visit on Broad Street – the History of Science Museum, next to the Sheldonian Theater.
These nameless heads, according to yesterday’s guide, degrade over time due to weather effects – rain, snow, sun, etc. – and so the heads that we are looking at are actually the third set. No one is very sure what happened to the first two sets. In the old days, the old heads were just old. The guide speculated that some of them “might have made their way into a few local gardens,” which strikes an authentic note – I would have put one into my garden, if available. Now there is a move to recover the heads and make some kind of display with them. I’m sure you can thank the local tourism organisation for that idea.
Admission to the museum is free and it’s well worth a visit. Two of the most popular displays are the collection of orreries and Einstein’s Blackboard.
The name of the device, “orrery,” is from the 4th Earl of Orrery, Charles Boyle (1674 – 1731). Boyle attended Christ Church at Oxford, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a supporter of horology. I had to look that up. According to Merriam-Webster, it is the study of clocks and other time-keeping devices. George Graham, is credited with creating the first mechanical solar system, which is, after all, the largest time–keeping device we know. He named the orrery in honor of his patron, Charles Boyle.
Boyle is buried in Westminster Abbey. He left his collection of scientific instruments and his collection of books to the Christ Church Library, who in turn donated them to the museum. These instruments, particularly his collection of orreries, now make up a significant part of the displays at the History of Science Museum.
A side note I discovered while reading about orreries – the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, at the University of Manchester, UK, is home to what is believed to be the largest orrery in the world at 16.4 feet in diameter (5 meters.) That orrery uses a system of 52 brass gears connected to a large crank. The gears keep the planets orbiting in the correct positions and speeds in relationship to each other as the crank is turned. The crank can be operated by visitors, who are thereby orchestrating the movement of the solar system themselves. Needless to say, it has proved enormously popular. I’m sure Charles Boyer would be delighted, and when I get back to the UK, I will be visiting Manchester.
Einstein’s blackboard was the result of three lectures on the Theory of Relativity that Einstein gave in May, 1931. A couple of attendees were instructed to remove – after Einstein finished – the blackboard, intact. They placed a sheet of glass over the blackboard, thereby preserving the formulas written by Einstein himself. Priceless.
After lunch at the Weston Library Cafe and a visit to their book store and gift shop to look for potential Christmas presents, I walked toward Radcliffe Square, past the Bridge of Sighs and the Old Schools quad. The tour had visited those yesterday, but had skirted the Radcliffe Camera on the west side to visit St. Mary’s Passage with the faun doorway, bypassing the All Souls’ College and the University Church of St. Mary. Today I could take the path not traveled yesterday.
I waited until the people left, then stepped forward, trying to find a place where I could position my camera and get a photo of the college without the bars of the gate in the way. A small pickup truck pulled up and a man got out. He was dressed as a groundskeeper or maintenance staff, and put a key in the gate’s lock. I asked if the college was opening. He said no, but seeing my camera, he added that I could come in to take a photo if I would like. People are frequently very nice when they have the chance. I stepped in behind him as he entered. He stood by, clearly waiting for me to be done and he would lock the gate again. I focused, so to speak. The photos are below.
All Souls was endowed by the Archbishop in the 1430s, and the college received its foundation charter from King Henry VI in 1438. All Souls had two purposes. The first was a religious function like the other colleges. The Warden and forty Fellows were supposed to pray in the chapel for the souls of the founders, for those who had fallen in the wars against France, and for “all of the faithful departed.”
The second function was unique among the Oxford colleges. It was a scholarly purpose, but unlike the other colleges, All Souls – as envisioned by the Archbishop – was to be the medieval equivalent of a graduate college, an institution designed for advanced study. From that day to this, with just a few exceptions, the college never has taken in undergraduates.
Fellows were supposed to have studied somewhere else for at least three years, and most of them had a BA when they came to All Souls. At All Souls, they would study for advanced degrees in theology, law (civil or canon, i.e. Church law), and medicine, but the emphasis was on theology and law. The idea was to prepare for service in government or for the Church. Chichele called them “an unarmed militia,” designed to restore national prestige and “good order in the face of heresy at home and stalemate abroad.” In the six centuries’ history, there were lapses, probably meaning the Reformation and the Civil War. Even so, All Souls still awarded degrees to luminaries such as Christopher Wren, William Gladstone, Lord Curzon, and Lawrence of Arabia, among others.
And speaking of Christopher Wren (again,) one of the standout features of All Souls is the sundial that he designed. It sits, facing south, on a building that forms the left side of the quadrangle.
University Church of St. Mary the Virgin – known interchangeably as St. Mary’s or University Church – sits on the south side of Radcliffe Square, a site long occupied by an Anglo-Saxon church. Not much is known about the founding or early history of the church, but by the 1100s, St. Mary’s had become an integral part of Oxford University. Before the Divinity School or the Sheldonian Theatre was built, awarding of degrees was held here, students and academics attended services here, and it was here that the academics would congregate when important business was to be discussed and voted upon.
The oldest part of the church is the tower, which dates from 1270. The spire on top of the tower was added in the early 1300s. A building next to the old church was added in 1320 to provide a meeting room for the congregation of academics on the ground floor, and a library on the upper floor, where it existed until Duke Humfrey’s library was opened in 1488. (Although, it must be said that the Divinity School doesn’t mention it.) The meeting room is now a cafe.
Those are the oldest parts because the old church itself was crumbling by the mid-1400s, worn by much time and much use. The chancel (the forward part with the altar) was rebuilt in the 1460s. The nave (where the worshipers gathered) continued to deteriorate, but was finally rebuilt in the “new Perpendicular style,” completed in 1510. These building projects fully replaced the old church building.
The chancel, according to St. Mary’s pamphlet, is “aligned at a very slight angle from the nave,” symbolizing Christ’s head leaning toward the repentant thief on the cross.” I couldn’t help but wonder if the symbolism was born to cover a design or construction error during building – an early example of reverse-engineering the story to fit the result. But, the pamphlet goes on to say that this is a common feature of many medieval churches, known as a “weeping chancel.” So, there you are.
The years between 1534, when Henry VIII separated the English church from the Roman Catholic church, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the United Kingdom’s last Catholic monarch was deposed, were tense. The religious and political issues surrounding the Reformation, the Church of England, the Civil Wars, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution are deeply intertwined. The conflicts involved the Church of England v. Catholicism v. Protestant Reformation v. the monarchy v. Parliament, and the shift of power among them. Because of these, life in Oxford and all of Great Britain was uneasy for more than a hundred and fifty years.
St. Mary’s bore witness to dangerous times during the reign of Mary Tudor, a devout Catholic. Three men of the Church of England were charged with heresy and tried in St. Mary’s: Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, and Bishops Latimer and Ridley. Latimer and Ridley were condemned and burned at the stake on Broad Street. Cranmer recanted, but several months later, when called upon to submit to the Catholic church, he withdrew his recantation, and was burned at the stake in 1556. There is a marker on Broad Street where the burnings took place, near St. Michael’s at the North Gate.
During the Civil Wars, in 1643, Charles I took refuge in Oxford for a time, making himself comfortable in Christ Church. Oxford supported the monarchy, which turned out to be the losing side – Charles I was later beheaded in London, January 30, 1649.
I left St. Mary’s by their High Street door, which was a source of Protestant ire during Elizabeth I’s reign, due to the statue of the Virgin Mary, and walked a couple of blocks to the Covered Market, still on the lookout for potential Christmas presents, but also a cup of coffee and a soft chair.
I found both in Gulp Fiction, a used book store that serves coffee.
I am a great fan of mysteries. My attraction to these puzzles of human nature began in childhood (literally nine years old, when I borrowed my mother’s book, Grim Grow the Lilacs) right into the present. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories followed, and it spread from there. I am partial to British mysteries – they tend to have more plot and less violence, even though they almost always involve a murder. Murder is the crime that most urgently compels a solution, after all.
It was in 1988 that “Inspector Morse” was first broadcast – a made-for-TV detective show set in Oxford, based on novels by Colin Dexter.“Morse,” as he was called, was an improbable police detective, having attended Oxford University and developed the requisite tastes: his vintage Jaguar, fine wine and good ale, and, most notably and consistently – opera. His sidekick, because fictional detectives inevitably have one (Miss Marple being an exception,) was Detective Sergeant Lewis, a blue-collar sort of guy who drank whatever was on tap. The series ran for several seasons. They used land-line phones, call boxes, and desktop computers. Inspector Morse ended in 2000. In 2006, a new series appeared: “Lewis,” that featured a now-promoted Chief Inspector Lewis and his sidekick, DS Hathaway, a seminary dropout who had attended Oxford University, now a detective. You know it’s a more recent series because they have cellphones, although not yet smartphones.
Both of these series were filmed in Oxford, and added to the already large mystique of Oxford. Oxford University and the City of Oxford were home to many familiar names: Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Stephen Hawking, Dorothy Sayers, Aldous Huxley, Adam Smith, and more – it is a very long list. For a person who enjoys history, literature, and mysteries, Oxford is fertile ground. I decided to include a few extra days to explore Oxford on my way to visit family.
I arrived by train at about 3:00 p.m., Oxford local time, with just enough time, it turned out, to get takeaway from Pret A Manger in the train station and get to Henry’s Bike Shop before dark. Southern England, while mild in climate because of the geography and ocean currents, is still further north than New York City by eleven degrees, resulting in shorter winter days.
The village-scape of Oxford from the train station entry is filled with buildings that have a medieval air about them: grey stone, steep roofs, and a stream wandering through, green grass covering the banks. As I crossed the bridge, the sign told me that it was the Castle Mill Stream, an offshoot of the Thames River.
I pulled my wheeled suitcase from the train station up the hill through the rain toward the central village, to Henry’s Bike Shop on St. Michael’s Street. I had reserved a room at Henry’s Rooms, which are all upstairs (no lift) from Henry’s Bike Shop on the ground floor. I had been emailed a 4-digit code to get into the main door and into my room. After getting my bag upstairs, I used the code on my room door. The door opened to another set of stairs, about half as narrow as the stairs I’d just climbed, but I managed to get my suitcase up it, too.
Once there, the place was very pleasant. I concluded that I had the attic of the old house, but it was now a nicely done modern studio overlooking St. Michael’s Street. Small. Expensive for what it was, but a great location. It was fine for one person or two people, but they had better like each other a lot. There was a tiny galley kitchen area on the stair landing, with a bar sink and a half-sized under-counter fridge. Past the kitchen area was a large-enough wardrobe closet, and a full-sized bathroom with towel warming bars that doubled as a heater, a roomy shower, big mirror, and a spacious shelf for bathroom stuff.
Left turn into the sitting area. It had one comfortable chair, a high table with two bar-height chairs, and a tiny fireplace discovered (per the little green sign) when the owners renovated the building. It had a light in it for “atmosphere,” but it no longer functions as a fireplace. Turn left again, and there was a queen-sized bed with nightstands on either side and a TV hung on the wall. A partial wall on two sides separated the bedroom from the sitting area and stairwell.
I was exhausted and it was dark outside now, so I got myself arranged, turned on the TV and tucked into (I’m in England, after all) my “Protein Box” from Pret. I managed to stay awake until a reasonable time in an effort to adjust my circadian rhythm, but went out with the lights.
I woke up and it was dark. I thought it must be the middle of the night, just an effect of the time change. I tried to sleep some more, but no luck. When I looked at my phone for time, it was 8:12 a.m. Not even eight full hours of daylight.
I was hungry. I dressed, took my camera and umbrella (note the 95% humidity,) descended from my attic to the street, and fell in love with Oxford.
The older parts of villages in the U.K. are utterly charming. Oxford has also restricted motorised vehicles from the central area (except for early morning.) Being in the traffic-free area of central Oxford, St. Michael’s Street was peaceful. Old houses, stores, and cafes lined the short street.
Despite being after nine o’clock now, there weren’t a lot of places open in the area. Henry’s had a small cafe, very small, next to the bike shop, and I saw their three tables were filled as I passed by, so I ventured on. I walked toward the church at the end of the street, and noticed a man sitting on the church steps with a pink blanket over his head and shoulders hunched to keep warm. Even storybook towns have homeless people.
A right turn and a short walk to the next corner brought me to a restaurant that had just opened for the day. It had big windows, lots of large tables, several televisions turned to sports channels, and a bar. I chose a table where I could watch the street life go by. The bartender who took my order guessed I was American (not too hard) and, it turned out, he had spent several years working in Seattle. I didn’t catch what he was working at. But, he seemed to have enjoyed it, and he recognized “Whidbey Island.”
I ordered a full breakfast (hold the black pudding, please) and ate the whole thing: baked beans, two fried eggs over medium, grilled half-tomato, toast, and bacon. Americans would call the “bacon” ham. The English would call our bacon “streaky bacon.” Plus a bowl of porridge (oatmeal) and Earl Grey tea. It would keep me going all day.
While I was eating breakfast, the weather turned from wet to raining, and like other places where it rains a lot, everyone carried an umbrella that they didn’t use unless it was pouring buckets. I poured more hot water in my tea, and sat a few more minutes, hoping the rain would let up.
No such luck. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I opened my umbrella and looked toward the church. The man in the pink blanket had moved up the steps and into the doorway, out of the rain. I turned up George Street (that became Broad Street in the next block) and walked on, dodging pedestrians with unopened umbrellas.
I window-shopped along the way, finding tourist shops filled with woollen stuff – Harris tweed jackets (from Scotland’s Isle of Harris), cashmere and woollen scarves, and jumpers (pullover sweaters) – and Oxford University stuff – coffee mugs, sweatshirts, t-shirts, key chains, beer steins, and pretty much anything they could fit a logo on – mixed in with book stores, a couple of restaurants, and stores with art supplies.
Outside of a corner shop was a sandwich board sign advertising a walking tour of Oxford. It was sponsored by the City of Oxford, and estimated to be about two hours, guided by an Oxford resident. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining now. As Paddington Bear would say, it seemed like good value, so I signed up on line. A wander through Waterstone’s Bookstore would easily fill the twenty minutes until time to meet the tour.
At the appointed hour, a group gathered at the sandwich board sign on the corner and a woman appeared, looking around expectantly. I didn’t catch her name, but she was very nice, and knowledgeable about Oxford. We were a group of nine. Our guide gave us a brief orientation to Oxford and Oxford University.
Oxford has been around since the 800s, and was called “Ox-ford” because that’s what it was – the shallow place in the Thames River where one could safely “ford” the river, with or without one’s oxen, the British term for cattle. The City of Oxford was not established formally until 1542. As a city, it could control the markets and theatrical performances, which would be a source of revenue. Oxford’s oldest building still standing is the Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate, built around 1040, the walls themselves dating from about 100 years earlier.
Oxford University was not “founded” as such. There is no anniversary date, or founder that is honoured anywhere in Oxford that I saw. There is evidence that organized teaching was present by 1096, however. By the mid-1200s, there were enough students whose behaviour was frequently so loud and raucous that the citizens of Oxford complained about them, chased students to their quarters, and sometimes threatened physical violence.
The friction between the town citizens and the student community was what brought about the “colleges,” which began as medieval residence halls that were supervised by a “Master.” What we think of in the U.S. as a “college,” a unit focused on a particular area of study, such as business or law, doesn’t exist at Oxford University.
University, Balliol, and Merton Colleges were the earliest, established between 1249 and 1264. The older colleges are scattered throughout central Oxford, and newer ones a little beyond. They retain their function as housing. An economics student, for example, might be housed in any of the colleges in Oxford based on available space rather than subject of study. The colleges were closed for the holidays, so we were only able to get a walk-through the courtyard and ground floor hallway of Corpus Christi later on. College residence rooms are never on any tour, but sometimes one can see the dining hall or chapel belonging to a college.
One of Balliol’s best-known members was former U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, who was involved in a singular incident, according to our guide. All Oxford colleges participate in an annual tortoise race, usually one tortoise per college. However, one year, which happened to be a year that Johnson was at Balliol, the Balliol tortoise, “Rosa” (after Rosa Parks,) was kidnapped just a couple of days before the race. Balliol’s traditional rival, Trinity College, located right behind Balliol, was deemed responsible for this crime by members of Balliol. Balliol had no evidence to support their accusation. However, Trinity’s claim of innocence was not helped by their presentation of TWO tortoises on race day.
“It all looked very suspicious,” said our guide. Sadly, Rosa was never found, and her fate remains unknown.
Oxford University students were males only, from the 10th century beginnings until the 19th century. In 1878, “academic halls” were established for women, the first two being Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville, but no degrees were conferred on female students (despite passing the same, requisite examinations!) until 1920 when women were admitted as full members. In 1986, the all-male colleges changed their rules to allow admittance of women, but it was not until 2008 that all Oxford colleges actually had admitted both men and women.
Before we walk away from it, the clearly-not-medieval, Gothic, or Renaissance building you see above in the background of the “Wren head,” across Broad Street from the Sheldonian Theater, is quite historical in its own right. Below is a better view of it:
According to our guide, the Normandy Beach invasion of WWII was largely planned – in top secret, of course – on the upper floors of the Weston Library. They were handicapped by having no aerial photographs or maps of the shoreline, so (somehow – she was vague on the details) the British government called for and collected photographs, aerial and land-based, taken by magazines, regular citizens on holiday, and others of the general public, from which they compiled maps suitable for planning the huge invasion. That the public responded and provided so much help strikes me as a very British story. King and country.
The Sheldonian Theatre was the first major work of Sir Christopher Wren, who was also a professor of astronomy at Oxford. It was built to create a ceremonial atmosphere for the awarding of degrees, and it’s still used today for that purpose. It is modelled on a classical Roman theater, rectangular on the front, and semicircular at the back. (Its back is what one sees from Broad Street.)
During the ceremony marking the awarding of degrees, the students who are receiving degrees exit the theater, cross the square to the Divinity School door, and don their new insignia representing their degree, then return to the theater by the same path. Our guide did not specify, but I assumed that the insignia is a “hood” such as American universities use to designate advanced degrees, and worn on ceremonial occasions.
I was almost right. I read later that the academic dress for students means the black robe and a white bow tie, and “colorful hoods” for graduates. Students are required to wear the black robe and white bow tie when they sit for their examinations and when they collect their degrees, but they do not have a hood until awarded. Apparently, some colleges require academic dress when dining in their halls.
The Divinity School was built around 1423, and is an example of English Gothic architecture. I think it is a stunning building with those huge mullioned windows. This was the first building at Oxford that was built for the express purpose of teaching, and it was devoted to “Divinity,” which (I think) means the same subject matter as theology. Divinity was considered the “Queen of the Sciences,” and one earned a degree by passing oral examinations conducted in Latin and Greek.
Duke Humfrey’s Library was not open nor included on the tour when I was there. Duke Humfrey’s Library was the first library of Oxford University, and was the foundation upon which the Bodleian Library was built.
In 1447, Duke Humfrey died, leaving 281 manuscripts to Oxford University, a collection containing translations of classic works that he had commissioned himself, and this prompted the building of a library to house the collection. The library room still exists, where books were chained to the shelves, and the library appears as the Hogwart’s library in the Harry Potter films.
However, the books themselves were not so lucky. During the Reformation (1534 – 1603 in England,) around 1550, the original books that Duke Humfrey had donated were removed from the library by Protestant authorities. All but twenty were destroyed because they were declared tainted by Catholic doctrines.
As a result, Oxford University was without a library until 1598, when Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Merton College, retired from his diplomatic career and came to Oxford. Re-establishing a library became his retirement project, and he contributed money to refurbish and add on to the library, as well as purchasing books. His “modern” ideas included not chaining the books to the shelves, but placing them on shelves that could be monitored. Books were still rare and expensive, but Sir Thomas believed they should be more accessible, as he had seen in the Spanish king’s library. With all of his work and financial support, it is not surprising that it became the “Bodleian Library” in 1602.
Sir Thomas did something else that was of great importance to Oxford’s new library. In 1610, Bodley made an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that would provide a copy of each and every book published in the United Kingdom to Oxford’s library. The Bodleian Library was the first of six “legal deposit” libraries, now housing over 12 million items.
The Bodleian Library is not a lending library. No one, not even King Charles I nor any other royal, was allowed to borrow a book. Users must be physically present, and must swear Bodley’s Oath not to bring fire or flames into the library. No artificial lighting (including candles) was allowed in the library until 1929.
All of the libraries at Oxford University are part of the Bodleian Library system now. Their names distinguish them individually, such as the Weston Library or the Radcliffe Camera, but they are connected by tunnels underground and by administrative authority. Our tour group walked from the Divinity School lobby to the Radcliffe Camera (pictured below,) through the tunnel known as the “Gladstone Link.”
The highest statue on the front of Oriel College is of Cecil John Rhodes, 1853-1902. The former African country of Rhodesia was named for him, as is the well-known Rhodes Scholarship program that brings scholars from all over the world to study at Oxford. Rhodesia became two modern African countries – Zimbabwe and Zambia – which is where I had learned his history. This Oriel College building was constructed 1909-11, and the Rhodes Scholarship Trust established, with money given by Rhodes, who was a student at Oriel College in his youth. The statue, however, has become the focus of public debates because Rhodes got his fortune by exploiting southern Africa’s minerals, land, and people. Rhodes attracted criticism in his day (and ever since,) including currently in Africa. Oriel College formally requested removal of the statue, but it remains by advice of legal representatives. Debate continues.
The “Pelican in Piety” catches the eye when first entering the courtyard. The gilded pelican, perched on top of the stone pillar, is shown plucking at her breast. In medieval times, it was believed that a mother pelican fed her young with her own blood, drawn from her breast by plucking at it. The pelican became a Christian symbol of self-sacrifice and the sacrament of Holy Communion.
The Pelican Sundial was built in 1581, sometimes called the Turnbull Sundial after its builder, Charles Turnbull. It has twenty-four different dials, with signs of the zodiac, phases of the moon, a hollow framework of rings representing the planets orbiting the Earth, and the golden pelican perched at the top of the sphere.
Corpus Christi College was founded in 1517 by the Bishop of Winchester, Richard Fox, who held a number of other church offices as well as being an advisor to kings. Although first conceived as a training college for monks from St. Swithuns Priory at Winchester, it gradually broadened in purpose, evolving into a place of Renaissance learning, a place to educate young men in the humanities and sciences for service to the church and state, according the the college’s historical notes. It was built on the site of several medieval Oxford academic halls, just inside the city walls. These had fallen out of use and into disrepair due to outbreaks of the plague during the 1400s.
Our guide took us through a smaller courtyard of Corpus Christi, past the chapel, through a hallway past the dining hall, and back to the front gate to exit. We walked along King Edward Street to High Street again, and turned toward the Covered Market.
We exited the Covered Market at the intersection of Market Street and Turl Street. Our tour was at its end, and she asked if there were any questions. I felt the tour had been “good value,” indeed. When I asked about tea, she pointed me in the direction of the Grande Cafe on High Street, a good suggestion.
I looked at my map over tea, plotted my route back to Henry’s Bike Shop, and enjoyed the walk in the waning light. Plans for the next day included some shopping and visits to some other spots in Oxford.
My ticket on the overnight train to Lviv was for 2nd Class, which was what the guidebook had recommended, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. The train cars were a faded blue with a gold stripe running horizontally. They apparently ran regular routes because the names of the cities at each end were painted on the side. On this train it said Kiev-Lviv.
My keyboard doesn’t have a Cyrillic option, so I can’t show you exactly what it looked like, but because of the letters used on the train, I know that the city names were written in Russian, not Ukrainian, so I concluded that the cars were pretty old, dating from the Soviet era. “Kiev” is a transliteration from Russian, “Kyiv” is from Ukrainian.
My ticket took me to a compartment with light brown painted walls that had two bunks on each side, one upper, one lower, whose mattresses were covered in a royal blue vinyl and doubled as seats. I was the first passenger to arrive here. There was no indication of assigned bunks, so I chose an upper bunk, put my book bag up there, and climbed up the short ladder to settle in. The bunk had a small light at one end that I could switch on or off. Sheets and a blanket lay folded at one end, no pillow. Making up the bed was a job that belonged to the passenger.
I am compulsively very early for departures, so I settled back to wait an hour (or so) for departure, as usual. At first, there was no one else, then a few people walked by my compartment door, looking for their compartment. As the minutes passed, the number of people increased.
With about a half-hour to go, a woman stopped at my compartment, bringing with her two young girls, maybe five and eight years old, who seemed to be her daughters. They all were wearing cotton dresses printed with small flowers or a plaid in subdued colors, sweaters, white socks and plain leather shoes. The girls were both very clean and their hair was neatly braided. The mother, a nice-looking woman, probably between thirty and thirty-five years old, had a “carry on” sized bag, the kind everyone seemed to use in Ukraine: a dark blue and light purple plaid rectangle made of a woven kind of plastic fiber, about nine inches deep, with two strap-type handles and a zipper to hold it closed. She lifted the bag to the upper bunk.
They smiled at me and I smiled back. We quickly established that I did not speak Ukrainian, for which I tried to indicate an apology, nor did they speak English. The mother seemed sociably apologetic about that, too.
They kept mostly to their side of the language barrier, and I to mine. They played some kind of game and then the mother read to them a while. I read my guidebook. The train struggled into motion. It would be a slow ride – we weren’t scheduled to get to Lviv until morning.
In an hour or two, the daughters changed into pajamas while the mother made their beds. She herself changed into what Americans would recognize as a jogging outfit – loose pants and light jacket or top, both made of velour, a velvet-like fabric. It was an outfit popular in those years before “athleisure” wear. It was looser than casual street wear, but more reserved than a nightgown or pajamas. Then they left the compartment, and I assumed they were making a pre-bedtime restroom visit.
For my part, I made up my bed somewhat awkwardly since my space was a bunk, where I could sit up, but not stand. The train was moving in a rough rhythm and I don’t remember any guard rails. It was an old train. I figured I would sleep in the clothing I had on. Fitting into a book bag for my trip, there was no room for pajamas. I had not thought about these train trips when I packed.
They returned to the compartment, and the girls climbed into their bunks. I climbed down to go to the restroom. I think there were two, one at each end of the car. I had taken off my street shoes and had only socks on my feet. The mother tapped me on the arm. She pointed at my feet. “No,” she said. shaking her head. “No.” She reached down, picked up one of her shoes, and held it up. She said one word, “This.”
I considered a moment, and then climbed up my ladder until I could sit on my bunk and reach my shoes, tucked into the corner. I pushed my feet back into them and tied the laces. The mother was obviously trying to give me advice and the odds were good that I should listen. I hadn’t visited the restroom yet. It turned out that she was absolutely right – water sloshed on the floor, no paper towels, no toilet paper, but at least the toilet flushed and the faucets worked. I held my pants legs up and picked my way across the floor, making mental notes for the next train ride.
I returned to my compartment, smiled and said thank you to the mother. She smiled back, completely understanding my appreciation, and I climbed back into my bunk. I took off my shoes and tucked them back into the corner, being careful to turn the soles against the wall, struggled out of my jeans, then opened my book again as the train continued to rumble slowly through the now-darkness.
In the very early morning sun, we approached Lviv, my second destination in Ukraine. The mother and daughters were up and dressing. I managed getting my pants back on, put on my shoes again, and gathered my things up in order to be ready for departure. Nothing to do but look out of the window to see whatever I could see, and wait. From my upper bunk perch, I could only see the moving pavement of the train station and the occasional person standing on the platform. We finally stopped, there were announcements. I couldn’t understand a word, so I waited for the mother to react. When the mother and daughters left the compartment, I followed, and then I followed the exiting passengers out of the station and onto the station’s sidewalk.
I didn’t have a clue about where to go. I was at the train station in Lviv, and discovery started from there.
According to my guidebook map, the historical center of Lviv was northeast-ish from the train station. I took a guess at where that was based on the sun and my guidebook map. It looked like I should go straight from the station’s main entrance/exit, then head left/north on one of the main avenues. A small victory – I actually ended up where I intended!
It was very early in the morning when we arrived in Lviv. Virtually no businesses were open yet, except a McDonalds near Svobody Avenue. My first task was to find a hotel. I don’t remember making reservations ahead. I was a naive, beginning traveler in so many ways, but I had beginner’s luck during this trip, relied a lot on my guidebook, and most of all, frequently I was helped by Ukrainians.
You don’t see a suitcase in the photo because there wasn’t one. I was often grateful that I had decided to limit my luggage to a rolling book bag from LLBean. It was the smartest decision I had made, pajamas notwithstanding, after I had decided to be part of the OSCE mission. Not having to wrestle with luggage was wonderful.
It has always been hard for me to pass by a book store without stopping in, and Ukraine was no exception. I headed for the bookstore in the photo below, at least, I hoped it was a bookstore because “livres” means “books” in French. It turned out it was. Visiting there was a major turning point in my trip.
When I entered, I was greeted by the store clerk, a woman who looked to be a few years beyond university student. I said I was sorry, I didn’t speak Ukrainian, whereupon she greeted me again in English, and asked what I was looking for. I am looking for a map of Lviv, I said.
She took me over to a table surfaced with shallow bins, where maps were filed, separated by file tabs labeled with region or country, judging by the pictures on the front of the maps. Although by now I recognized the label that said Lviv, Cyrillic was still a mystery to me, so I simply watched as she carefully flipped through the maps in that section. She didn’t speak English easily, so she worked in silence. It was clear that she was looking for something in particular, and when she found it, she pulled it from its bin. “This,” she said. She partially unfolded it, and pointed to the street names.
She was handing me my own personal Rosetta Stone. What she was pointing out on the map, was that the street names were printed in both the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet and the Latin alphabet that we use. For the first time, I had a tool that I could use to reliably sound out words written in Cyrillic. So far, I could do that with the Cyrillic letters in “Kyiv” and “Lviv,” but that was a total of five letters. Now, I could transliterate nearly the entire Cyrillic alphabet. I could match Ukrainian street signs to the street names on the map, which I could match to the guidebook’s maps. The guidebook maps, aside from not being as detailed, used the English transliteration in the Latin alphabet for the street names, so I could never be completely sure I had the same street when reading the signs, which were in Cyrillic. It was an incredible leap forward in being able to navigate my way around Ukraine.
It was so kind of her to take the time to do this for me, and I was so grateful. I hope that she understood my thank-yous.
This called for a k-a-phi-e and a pastry while I examined this map more closely. Truthfully, I had picked up the Ukrainian for cafe, based on the phonetics of the letters that looked like English, and the Greek “phi,” which would be a soft sound like “f,” plus, of course, looking through the windows of the cafes. It was pretty obvious.
Less obvious was P-E-C-T-O-P-A-H. If I relied on the same sounds as in English, it would sound like “pect-o-pah,” and who knew what that was? But, using my new map, I could see that some letters that appeared in the Latin alphabet had different sounds when used in the Cyrillic alphabet. “P” was an “r” sound, “H” was an “n” sound, and “C” was an “s” sound. The E, O, and A were close to English, so “PECTOPAH,” when sounded out, became “rest-o-ran,” or “restaurant” in English. And that’s what those buildings were: restaurants, reliably, everywhere in Ukraine that I visited.
The map never helped me actually speak or read Ukrainian in the true sense, of course, but I could read maps, street signs, building signs and – importantly – transportation schedules well enough. The USSR had dissolved in 1989, and Ukraine gained independence in 1991, which sparked a renaissance for the Ukrainian language. Russian was still hanging on in bits and pieces when it came to things like trains and buildings, but was usually close enough for me to understand with the help of my trusty map.
As time went on, I was surprised at how many words that I sounded out were of English origin. “Basketball,” for instance, appeared on a park sign in Cyrillic. Given the context of a park with a paved area and basketball hoops, I could conclude that my translation was correct, a word that had migrated into Ukrainian from English, and then transliterated into Cyrillic. Still, it was piecemeal for me. Most of the words on the sign were Ukrainian, after all. I couldn’t tell you what the sign was saying about basketball. I could sound it out, but it didn’t make words that I understood.
I received kind and generous treatment from Ukrainians, without exception. I was embraced by a young woman (I didn’t get her photo) in front of the Lviv History Museum, who insisted on paying my admission as a way of “welcoming Americans to my country.” At another time, three Ukrainian women helped me carry things from one subway station to another…solely because I was an American. The Ukrainians have long-standing affection for the U.S.
Below are some scenes from Lviv. I was not able to identify where they all were – it’s been sixteen years, after all. You think you’ll remember forever, but you won’t. Remember to label or caption your photos when you travel. It took me a long while to confirm the identity of my photos by using Google maps and Chrome to search, however, I could have avoided having to do that by some timely notes.
Below is the entrance to the Lychakiv Cemetery, “home” to over 200,000 souls, if I recall my original guidebook correctly. The cemetery was laid out in the 18th century over 104 acres (42 hectares,) and graves are tightly spaced. In the latest edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook, which I consulted while putting this blog post together, they noted that there is now a Memorial of Heroes who died in the Russian-Ukrainian War, 2014 – 2020. Sadly, there will probably be additions to this.
In writing this blog post, I researched places and people in Ukraine to confirm my memory. I found that – not surprisingly – some things have changed since I was there. The old train station from 1904 has been renovated, and there are shiny new train cars, though they are still blue with a gold horizontal stripe. I also noted that there are newly developed museums and sights. Revisiting these memories gave birth to a desire to go back to Ukraine and revisit these places with my more-traveled eyes and better camera!
This was the last part of my visit to Lviv. It was a beautiful city, and more European in character than Kyiv, according to my guidebook. I haven’t traveled in much of Europe, so I can’t speak to that, but it did seem “lighter” in atmosphere than Kyiv. It struck me as more relaxed – there were more people outside, visiting parks and shopping, but that could have been due to the weather, also. Even though I was still wearing my coat and scarf, the weather was warming. My next city to visit was Sevastopol, a seaport in the Crimean Peninsula, further still to the south.
“Mark Twain” was the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, and it was in this house in Hartford that he wrote “Huckleberry Finn,” “Tom Sawyer,” “Innocents Abroad,” and others, including “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” One wonders whether his neighbors appeared in that story.
Clemens incorporated his opinions on a number of topics – race, equality, growing up, gender, religion, and more – into his novels, although he kept his thoughts about religion to himself, mainly. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” he wrote in “Innocents Abroad.” It was what he believed.
Sam Clemens earned his certificate to pilot riverboats on the Mississippi River, between New Orleans and St. Louis, in 1859. It was on the river that he learned the language of measuring the water’s depth – “mark twain” meant two fathoms, i.e. twelve feet. It was enough to float any steamboat on the river and was, therefore, considered safe water. (“Twain” is an old-fashioned English word for “two,” as in “Never the twain shall meet,” hence, “mark twain” was two fathoms.)
Clemens married Olivia Langdon, daughter of Jervis Langdon, a rich coal businessman, from Elmira, New York, in 1870, and moved into a house in Buffalo, New York, that Olivia’s father had bought for them. Later, in 1871, the Clemens moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to be closer to the American Publishing Company that handled Clemens’ works. Sadly, their first-born and only son, Langdon Clemens, died shortly after they moved to Hartford.
At first, the Clemens rented a house, but soon property and plans were developed for a house that would be built for them. This is the house I visited, pictured below, where the family moved in 1874.
The years that the Clemens family spent here were among their happiest. Livy edited Samuel’s writings, and she was an active proponent of women’s suffrage, along with her friend, Julia Beecher. Their three daughters were born here. Twain’s books were successful and the family participated in the social and literary life of Hartford.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Clemens initiated or participated in a number of business ventures, most of which were failures, such as the Paige Compositor, which was expensive to make, required lengthy training, and even then, linotype machines beat it to market. A self-pasting scrapbook/photo album was moderately successful, but the “Memory Builder” game prompted one reviewer to compare it to a “combination of an income tax form and a table of logarithms.” By 1901, Clemens would remark in his lectures: “My axiom is — to succeed in business, avoid my example.”
The only venture which had some success was the Charles L. Webster Publishing Company that had been founded by Clemens and his niece’s husband, Charles L. Webster. The company published Clemens’ writings, as well as Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, with great success. But it was not enough – other writers’ works did poorly. Those losses sank the publishing company, and in 1894, while in Europe, Clemens declared bankruptcy.
Clemens and his family had closed the Hartford house in 1891, permanently as it turned out, and moved to Europe. Ultimately, the house was sold. Clemens spent a couple of years giving lectures filled with his humorous – and often pointed – observations of humans and society, and was in great demand. This helped him pay off his debts, but personal losses – Livy died in 1904, Susy had died in 1896, and Jean died in 1909 – depressed him, despite success with further writings and lectures and an honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Oxford, England, in 1907.
Clemens spent most of his years after Livy’s death in Manhattan, New York. He had been born two weeks after the closest pass of Halley’s comet in 1835. He frequently said that he expected to go out with Halley’s comet, and in 1910, two days after the closest pass of Halley’s comet that year, he had a fatal heart attack. Clemens is buried next to Livy in the Langdon family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, New York. His surviving daughter, Clara, had a two-fathoms-tall monument made to mark the Langdon plot.
Hal Holbrook, born in 1925, performed a one-actor show called “Mark Twain Tonight!,” where he dressed in Clemens’ signature rumpled white linen suit (“my dontcareadamnsuit,” as Clemens called it) and a wig, and spoke as Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens. The show was 90 minutes long and covered a wide range of Clemens’ writings.
Holbrook performed this show from 1954 until 2017, sixty-three years, making time for an active film and TV career, such as portraying Lincoln the president in a mini-series based on Carl Sandberg’s biography of Lincoln, the grandfatherly figure in “Into the Wild,” Republican Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and the character Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men,” among many other roles. Holbrook passed away in Beverly Hills, California, on January 23, 2021.
There is a small, very enjoyable museum in the visitors’ center, and it does a good job of illuminating Clemens’ life beyond the writing of his novels.
Visiting the house is available only to hosted group tours, and photographs are not allowed inside the house. I was one of a dozen people on the noon tour, hosted by an actor playing a character in the Clemens household and costumed accordingly. Our host was “Patrick, the coachman,” who lived with his wife and eight children in the apartment over the stable and coach house. He brought his mandolin and sang “Froggy Went A’Courting.” We joined in on the chorus. It’s an old song, whose composer is long lost in time, but was still a “traditional” song in the mid-1800s.
The Clemens moved into the house in 1874, but the interior was yet to be decorated as would befit a well-off family of the era. The interior was done mainly by the Louis C. Tiffany & Company, Associated Artists – the public rooms on the main floor and other touches throughout the house.
Most impressive is the stenciling that was done in the entry and the drawing room. The entry is finished in dark wood paneling. Because it does not have many windows, the effect is very dark, indeed. But the dark panels have been separately filled with small, stenciled silver triangles, including the ceiling, coordinated with a few other geometric shapes. The effect is like looking at a wall of dark wood inlaid with small triangles of mother-of-pearl, shimmering in the pale light of the entry.
The stenciling continues into the drawing room, but the effect is entirely different because the drawing room has much more light, and the small triangles form different shapes. There are several pineapples, composed of small triangles, and while “Patrick” did not say so, I’m sure the pineapples were symbolic of the welcome a host would extend to their guests. It’s a tradition in America that dates to early colonial days.
The interior could generally be described as Victorian – lots of wood, and textiles, used with some restraint. The house was filled with all of the “modern conveniences,” such as seven bathrooms, with flush toilets and copper-lined bathtubs, hot & cold running water that was connected to the city water system. The large kitchen was on the first floor, and had “modern” equipment such as a large wood range with two roasting ovens, six “burners,” and warming oven, and the ice box on the opposite wall. Throughout the house was a system of “communication tubes” for communicating with servants.
There was also a guest room on the first floor. “The Mahogany Room,” as it was called was a lovely room with, yes, a mahogany bed that looked both beautiful and comfortable. This guest room had a bathroom with two sinks, a tin-lined bathtub, and a flush toilet, and a separate dressing room (on the right.) It also had truly stand-out wallpaper designed by one of the Artistic Associates. It’s a beautiful representation of honey bees at work, done in a gold metallic ink, with a suggestion of the hive’s hexagonal wax cells in the background.
The second floor held Sam and Livy’s bedroom, a guest room used frequently by Livy’s mother, Susy’s bedroom (the eldest daughter,) the nursery for Clara and Jean, and a school room, where the girls were educated.
The third floor had another guest room, the butler’s room, and Sam’s writing studio, where he sometimes entertained male friends. It has a billiard table, a fireplace, his writing desk, chairs, and access to three balconies.
If you want to see more of the interior house, you can go to mark twain house.org and find the “Virtual Tour.” It’s very well done, with notes along the way.
The conservatory that you see from the outside is attached to the library room of the house. It’s a comfortable library with a substantial collection of books, but in the Clemens’ house, the main function was a place for the family to gather in the evenings. Clemens entertained his daughters by making up stories (no repeats!) utilizing the knick-knacks on the shelves and mantel in the room.
On the third floor above the conservatory, the balcony is attached to Clemens’ writing studio. It had his desk, a fireplace, chairs, and a billiard table. To the left side of that balcony is another balcony, and to the right is the hexagonal balcony. All of them can be accessed from the studio. I wondered if there was another servant’s room up there, but that part of the house was not open to the tour, nor is it on the virtual tour.
I had a great day learning more about Samuel Clemens and his family. I’m not usually given to falling in love with dead men, but it’s hard not to fall in love with Mark Twain. What a character! And he loved his family – it’s clear from his writings and from how happy they all were in this house. Reading about them makes me hope that they are now all together again, gathered in the library, watching their husband/father making up stories. I think Twain would find Heaven filled with good material.
Robert Sterling Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine Company, married Francine Clark, former actress at the Comedie-Francaise, and they shared a love of all things “art,” especially paintings and sculptures. Eventually, the question, “What will happen to them?” came up. Maybe they ran out of room in their house, or maybe, my “tax-accountant spidey-sense” says, they realized that their heirs were going to have to sell them, so why not make it a public gift instead of letting these all disappear into other collectors’ homes? Mr. and Mrs. Clark had enjoyed the collecting and the collection for many years already, so why not share?
Having jumped the hurdle of that decision, the next was how to make the donation. Where would it be? Who would manage it? Their desire was to make the collection available for learning about the arts, about composition, color, technique, and history, too. And the public should see it, to encourage appreciation of the arts and the ways that arts enrich our lives, even beyond school.
The Clarks chose Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The building was officially begun in 1953, with a dedication of the cornerstone:
“IN THIS PLACE MEN AND WOMEN WILL BE STRENGTHENED AND ENNOBLED BY THEIR CONTACT WITH THE BEAUTY OF THE AGES.“
Cornerstone dedication, August 26, 1953
The museum opened its doors in 1955. There were only two galleries, displaying a fraction of their collection. More were displayed over time, slowly unveiling the width and depth of the works.
Sterling Clark died in 1956, and four years later, Francine Clark followed him. At that time, 1960, the museum received an additional sizable endowment from the Clarks, which was used to build an art history library so that Williams College could establish and staff a graduate program, a major goal of the endowment. “In 1972, the first graduate class entered the Clark in an innovative program co-sponsored by Williams College and the Clark.” (clarkart.edu)
If you enjoy art and you come near Williamstown, located in western Massachusetts, it’s definitely worth the stop. The collection is wonderful, and there’s a cafe, so you can take an intermission. I recommend the turkey panini. Here are some of the things I saw during my visit.
The version of the Little Dancer that was exhibited in 1881, the original, is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It was sculpted in wax and had a sewn tulle skirt, a human hair wig, and a silk hair ribbon. After Degas died in 1917, the Degas estate chose to preserve the Little Dancer by having it cast in bronze. At least twenty-seven bronze versions were made at the Hebrard Foundry between 1919 and 1930, one of which was purchased by the Clarks. It is pictured above.
Degas’ sculpture began as a series of drawings. He made twenty-six drawings of the model, the fourteen-year-old aspiring ballerina Marie van Goethem, between 1878 and 1881, in detail so well-done that one writer commented that the young girl seemed about to “walk off her pedestal,” and declared Little Dancer “the first truly modern attempt at sculpture.” (Joris-Karl Huysmanns, as quoted by The Clark Museum)
Although the sculpture today is considered a masterpiece, the contemporary world of Degas’ time was not as impressed. Degas had chosen realism over idealism, which went against the artistic conventions of the time. Little Dancer depicted an amateur of modest means rather than a star of the ballet, a more traditional choice.
But it was not only the choice of subject that was unconventional. Previous sculptures relied upon a single material – stone, wood, metal – to create a work. Degas had incorporated human hair and actual textiles into his sculpture.
It was a landmark moment in 19th century art.
I am always tempted to include too many photos from my museum visits. It is a wonderful way to spend a day, enjoying the talents of so many souls, most of them now departed.
The heart was the symbol of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, a political party that had supported Yuliya Tymoshenko for president. What we would call a backwards R is part of Ukraine’s alphabet, and means “I” as far as I could tell. While I was there, I figured out some of the Cyrillic alphabet Ukraine uses, although I never learned how to speak any Ukrainian.
The next morning, we all met our observation team. Martin, an attorney from Germany, would be my fellow observer. Nadia was the translator assigned to us, and Sergei would be our driver. Nadia was a Ukrainian national. I don’t recall if Sergei was also, or if he was a Russian living in Ukraine. He didn’t share a lot about himself, but that may have been a language issue, as it was evident that he didn’t speak much English.
Our initial tasks involved going to the various polling stations and inquiring about the voter registration lists. One of the ways that election results can be manipulated, of course, is by eliminating voters who are likely to vote for your opponent.
This election was the parliamentary election, but it was proceeding under the shadow of the 2004 presidential election. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, the Our Ukraine candidate, ran against Viktor Yanukovich of the Party of the Regions and various other smaller party candidates. Yanukovich was supported by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Neither Yushchenko nor Yanukovich received a majority, so there was a runoff. During the campaign for the runoff, Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin, resulting in facial disfigurement and other health issues, although he did survive. The runoff gave a close victory to Yanukovich, but Ukrainians believed that the election was corrupted. Huge demonstrations in the streets followed, and became known as the “Orange Revolution.”
The case went to the Ukraine Supreme Court, which ruled that there should be a new runoff election. This time Viktor Yushchenko prevailed and became president of Ukraine in 2004.
Two years later, the OSCE was enlisted to observe the parliamentary elections, and this was when I came to Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovich was running for parliament, still a Russian-favored candidate. Yulia Tymoshenko was also running for parliament. Victory in their respective races would position them for becoming prime minister, a position with considerable authority in the Ukrainian government.
Against this background, the OSCE was supervising the various teams of observers. Martin and I were sent to Svitlovods’k, a large town along the Dnieper River. The Dnieper River flows from Belarus, through central Ukraine, and empties into the Black Sea. Along the way, at three or four points, the Dnieper River becomes very wide, resembling a lake more than a river, at least on the map. Kyiv is along the Dnieper River in the north. Svitlovods’k is much smaller than Kyiv, and positioned at the southern end of one of the widest sections of the Dnieper River.
The place we stayed in Svitlovods’k was clean and comfortable, with the plain modern architecture. It was the first time that I ran into a European style bathroom – the shower and sink were in my room, the toilet (WC) was in the hall. It seemed to be a mid-century style. Older hotels and new hotels were arranged more traditionally.
Most of the polling places we visited were in schools or school-associated buildings, or in local government buildings. If you were unsure of who to vote for, there were printed summaries of the candidates’ backgrounds and political agendas posted on the walls.
One of the things that caught me off-guard was how interested the Ukrainians were in me, the American. I’m sure all of the American observers experienced this because there was nothing special about me. The women in the photo below were grumbling in an apologetic way about the problems they had – heat that didn’t work, occasional power outages, things like that. I commiserated, mentioning how occasionally these things would happen in America, too. The woman in the white jacket said, “We hear that everything in America is perfect.” I said that things were very good in America, but not perfect. I was trying to strike a truthful balance. Compared to Ukraine, America is very rich, of course, so I had to acknowledge that, but power outages and heat that doesn’t work are things that happen here, too.
In the photo above, notice that the ballots were different colors. Ukraine had their elections for all jurisdictions, national and local, at the same time. The national ballots were long because there were many parties on the national ballots. The local races were shorter. Thank heaven someone had made the decision to make the ballots different colors for the different jurisdictions!
One color represented the national parliamentary elections. This was the election that Martin and I were responsible for observing the counting of. As I remember, the next level of government was the “oblast,” roughly equivalent to our states. “Rayon” was like a county, and then came the cities or villages. The polls were open until into the evening, I think around nine o’clock, so that the people who worked all day were able to come and vote.
In the slow moments, I had a chance to talk with Andrei, who was a fireman, and Sergei, who was a policeman. They were the security for the polls. Sergei may have carried a weapon, but maybe not. I don’t remember. It was pretty low-key.
What I remember very clearly from our conversation is how they appreciated the equipment they had received from America. Apparently, fire departments in the U.S. that buy new equipment – fire engines, hoses, etc. – and police departments that get new equipment – kevlar vests especially – pass along the equipment that is being replaced to other countries with fewer resources, probably through Homeland Security or the State Department. Until that moment, I had never thought about what happened to used emergency services equipment. But that is what some of the Ukrainian services were using. I suspect it even included uniforms. And they both expressed Ukrainians’ gratitude for their equipment. I was touched, and grateful in turn that we were able to help.
After the polls closed, the workers in this polling place pushed together several desks to make a large work surface, and then emptied the boxes onto the now-large area. The first task was to separate the colors. One person in the group was the gatherer for a particular color – goldenrod, blue, white, and pink. The other workers simply scooped up a few ballots then handed their bunch of one color to the color’s gatherer. Everyone was careful to keep the ballots on top of the table where they were visible to all.
When this was done, the focus was on one color. Goldenrod, for example. One worker had all of the goldenrod ballots. Another worker would position a seat above and behind the first worker, in a place that would allow her to read the ballot while looking over the first worker’s shoulder, i.e. a second reader to help assure accuracy.
The first worker would read the name of the candidate marked on the ballot. One of the workers gathered around the table would raise her hand (they were all women) and the first worker would hand the ballot to her. The recipient was then in charge of collecting all of that candidate’s ballots as the names were read. The next name went to another worker, and so on. The nature of voting with so many candidates meant that there were some who got no votes or very few votes, but of course they were managed and counted, too.
No machinery was involved. It worked well, but it took a long time as they worked through each color of ballot. Luckily for Martin and me, the workers had tackled the parliamentary election ballots first, so we were able to leave around midnight.
The polling place was a mess when Martin and I returned in the morning. The clerical staff and the supervisor who would sign the results had been there all night. The counted ballots had been put in large envelopes and labeled. Martin and I were there to get a signed copy of “the protocol.” That’s what Martin called it. Since he had done this before, I assume that was what the document was called by the OSCE, the final results of the parliamentary election. I always had thought of protocol as describing a process, but apparently it’s also used to describe the result of the process.
I was surprised that Nadia and Sergei both had cellphones. This was 2006, and flip-phones (also called clamshell phones) had become common in the U.S. relatively recently, but they seemed to be everywhere in Ukraine already. There is an economic term, something like “leapfrogging,” that is used to describe this kind of phenomenon. An old technology (in this case telephone poles, wires, switchboards, and dial phones) was too expensive when it was new, and technology moved on to cell phones before Ukrainians could afford to catch up with the now-older technology. But cell phones were smaller and cheaper, cell towers didn’t require all the wires and poles to transmit electronic calls, and so Ukrainians were able to adopt cell phone technology more easily, making it ubiquitous contemporaneously with the United States.
I carried a passport from the U.S., and Martin carried a German passport. Nadia carried what she called her “internal passport.” Her “internal passport” carried demographic details of her birth, her school, her marriage, her divorce, and her place of employment. She was required to carry it with her, and had to produce it for review if a person of authority, like a policeman, requested it. I have to admit, I was a little uncomfortable with the idea that, if I lived in certain countries, I could be required to make such personal information available to any authority that requested it. As Americans, we enjoy an enormous level of personal freedom. We should never take that for granted.
People in Ukraine made a fuss over me wherever I went. It wasn’t personal, it was because I am an American. I think sometimes Martin was annoyed by this. If it was the other way around, I might be annoyed, too. At any rate, I realized that I was an “ambassador” of sorts for the U.S. and I tried to be conscious of this whenever anyone asked me questions or gave me comments about the U.S.
I forgot this lesson on our last night before returning to Kyiv, after we had turned in our election document. Martin and I invited Nadia and Sergei to dinner at a local restaurant. It was a small-scale celebration. As usual, Nadia translated the menu for us. I decided that I wanted a steak, medium rare, as a way of finishing off our time together. To give Nadia proper credit, she tried, as tactfully as she could, to steer me toward other choices on the menu. But, no, I was really in the mood for a steak. In due course, the waiters brought our dinners. I don’t know what exactly was on my plate, but it was most definitely NOT a steak. Not recognizably. The piece seemed to be made entirely of gristle. Martin looked at me, and I glanced at Martin. I knew immediately that I had been thoughtless – Ukrainians did not have beef commonly available, and the restaurant had probably come as close as they could to providing what I had asked for. So, I thanked them. And I tried to eat what I could of it, but that wasn’t much. I ate the vegetables and rice and bread that came with it, so I didn’t go hungry, but it was a lesson to me about being in a country that was not the United States. Listen to the people’s recommendations. They want you to enjoy yourself, so don’t ignore them.
We returned to Kyiv, where Martin and I parted ways from Sergei and Nadia, and rejoined our cohorts from the overall OSCE mission at a general celebration before everyone went home, or to wherever they were going.
I had changed my departure date, and would be on my own for the first time ever in a country I barely knew and a language I didn’t know, written in an alphabet I didn’t recognize. What I did know was that they were friendly!
It was the end of March in Ukraine, very cool and wet, not quite snowing. I was still wearing my coat, scarf, and gloves daily. The clouds were many and hung in the sky, steel gray puffs to flat, whitish-grey floating islands, with occasional bursts of sun.
I had changed the departure date on my airline ticket. I was on my own now – no driver, no translator, no Martin. Holding my Lonely Planet guidebook in my hand, my finger holding the page with the downtown-Kyiv street map, I was making my way to the train station in Kyiv.
The map named the streets in English. One would think that would be helpful, but it wasn’t – I couldn’t match the English street names, written with the English alphabet, to the Ukrainian street signs, written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Sometimes, I could identify a few letters that seemed the same. I identified a sight from the map that let me know what street I was on. I was counting the number of intersections between turns. That was challenging, too, since the smaller streets weren’t necessarily on the guidebook’s map, but by combining all of the “clues,” I was making progress.
I found the train station. There was a McDonalds and a modern church nearby, which I made note of as landmarks on the guidebook map. I spent breakfast reading my guidebook in McDonalds and forming a skeletal itinerary for the ten days that I had available.
I was grateful for the OSCE mission because I was able to get some orientation to Ukraine and to see a side of Ukraine that was unavailable to most visitors, but, there was so much more to see. I had ten days to explore Ukraine with only public transportation and I had to make choices. I decided that, through the mission, I had been able to see some small towns, so now I would visit the larger cities. I would make use of the overnight trains to travel while sleeping, and see three places: Kyiv, Lviv, and the Crimean Peninsula.
I left McDonalds and went to the train station, which was beautiful. I don’t know when it was built, but it reminded me of Grand Central in New York.
There was an electronically operated display that was clearly a train schedule, but there was not an English word in sight – it was displayed entirely in Ukrainian, i.e. Cyrillic alphabet.
I stood, staring at the schedule. My smattering of French and Spanish wasn’t going to help me here. I kept staring, hoping that I could pick up a clue of some kind – a pattern. In English, “e” is the most common letter, but of course, that’s based on the sounds we use to speak English, so I couldn’t count on the most common Ukrainian letter being the equivalent of “e.” Visions of hieroglyphics and Navajo code talkers danced through my head….
“Are you an American?” Someone behind me was asking. I stood out, even from the back, something I was getting used to. Working on the OSCE mission with all the other non-Ukrainians, people still immediately noticed the Americans. We were “a thing.”
I turned around and saw a young man looking at me, smiling. I said yes, I am, and smiled back. He introduced himself, an American Peace Corps worker from Indiana. I can’t remember his name now, but he was the first of several pinch-hitting English-speakers that I met during my travels in Ukraine. It seemed whenever I desperately needed someone to speak English, someone appeared.
After the pleasant exchange of where-are-you-from and what-brings-you-here, we got to the where-are-you-going part, which was my present quandary. The train schedule was almost literally Greek to me – the Ukrainian alphabet incorporates several Greek letters that I recognized from my DePauw days, but also has other kinds of letters about which I had not a clue.
There was not enough time for us to go into linguistic detail, but he helped me find the arrivals and departures columns, pointed out the words for Kyiv (which I recognized) and Lviv (which I had not,) how to read the times, and where to buy my ticket. He was on his way to somewhere else, but I was very grateful to have been found by him.
Buying my ticket was the next challenge. I could use the pronunciation guide in the guidebook glossary, I thought. I was wrong.
It was a simple phrase: “I want to go to ….” Then finish the sentence with my destination. I tried. I did. Three or four times. But I got blank looks from the person on the other side of the glass. She was nice. I tried English. I could see that she wanted to help, but she couldn’t understand what I was trying to say. Neither did she suggest a different agent, which made me think that my luck would not be better in a different line. Other people were waiting, so I stepped out of line to ponder.
I decided the solution was to copy the phrase, in Cyrillic letters, onto my little notebook that I was carrying, including the name of the city, from the guidebook. I got back into line and, when I reached the front of the line again, I pressed my notebook up to the glass. Big smiles from the ticket agent. Success! A big smile from me, too, and a feeling of relief. Another hurdle cleared. I would not end up in Timbuktu, at least, not tonight.
I was taking the train to Lviv, second-class, as recommended by my guidebook. It would leave later that evening, so I still had the entire day in Kyiv. I began walking from the train station toward the older part of Kyiv, generally toward St. Sophia.
St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral was built to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the baptism of the Kyivan Rus’ by Prince Volodymyr I of Kyiv. The Kyivan Rus’ was founded by the Viking Oleg, later called King Oleg, who began to gather East Slavic lands into what would become the Kyivan Rus in the late 800s. Kyiv, already a city located on trading routes, became the capital of an area of northern and eastern Europe. This included what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia.
Christianity was first brought to the territory that would become the Kyivan Rus’ by Saint Andrew, an Apostle of Jesus. Saint Andrew traveled across the Black Sea to the Greek colony of Chersonesus Taurica in Crimea.
However, paganism hung on for the next few centuries, and it was not until the conversion and baptism of Prince Volodymyr in 988, that Christianity gained a permanent foothold. The prince who would become known as Volodymyr the Great, ruler of the Kyivan Rus’ (958 – 1015,) was baptized at Chersonesus, in the Crimean Peninsula. He then baptized his family, followed by a mass baptism of his subjects conducted by priests of the church. Laggards were encouraged to participate so as “not to become enemies of the king.” A persuasive argument.
St. Volodymyr’s was the first Orthodox church I had ever been in, so it was especially interesting to me. The first impression is that the interior is incredibly elaborately decorated. It is cruciform-shaped, meaning it is shaped like a cross: a functionally central portion, intersected by another section that served as side areas. Priests conduct their services in the “top” of the cross, and behind a screen that separates them from the worshipers, who stand in the central section. Women cover their heads. There were no pews.
In the two side areas of the cathedral, there were places to light the long, thin, wax candles that would carry a worshiper’s prayers to the Virgin, a saint, or Jesus. There were icons of religious figures everywhere, and there was a body preserved, elaborately dressed, and encased in glass, situated on the left, in front of one of the pillars holding the cavernous ceiling. That person, I learned, was of importance to the church, something I found frequently in the churches – not necessarily a saint, but an important priest or metropolitan. The interior was rather dark, but I could still see the walls covered with murals that represented stories from the Bible.
The original Zoloti Vorota was built around 1022 – 1037, and is said to be modelled on the Golden Gate in Constantinople. It was begun during the reign of Volodymyr the Great, and completed by his son, Yaroslav the Wise. The original gate was the main entrance to the city of Kyiv in the 11th century, complete with the Church of the Trinity on top of the gate. Most of the gate was destroyed in 1240 by the Mongol invaders, and what was left was seriously eroded over time. In the 1970s, the foundations were measured, and plans made to reconstruct the gate. What you see today was completed in 1982. Today’s gate has added a statue of Yaroslav I, holding a model of the city gate.
In the several hundred years between Yaroslav the Wise and 1793, Ukraine, like much of Europe, underwent changes of rule and changes of boundaries as small ruling families rose and fell and intermarried. Mongols, Turks, Lithuanians, Galicians, Germans, and Poles all played a part. But in 1793, Ukraine was handed to Catherine the Great and the Romanov dynasty in the Second Partition of Poland.
Ukraine language and culture were actively repressed under Romanov rule, and many Ukrainians migrated to the west, which tried to retain the name Ukraine, but there was much competition for the territory. Into this confusion rose Taras Shevchenko.
It is next to impossible to overstate the importance of Taras Shevchenko (1814 – 1861) in Ukraine. Shevchenko was born in Ukraine and became what we would call a “Renaissance man” – poet, writer, artist, folklorist, ethnographer, and political figure – a major influence in the Ukrainian national revival. Shevchenko is credited as the founder of modern written Ukrainian language, building on the beginnings laid down by Ivan Kotlyarevsky in the late 17th century. There are monuments in his honor in Kyiv and Lviv, and numerous place names throughout Ukraine.
Tsarist Russia was not friendly to political activists, and Tsar Nicholas I took special interest in Shevchenko because of his enormous influence. Shevchenko opposed serfdom, and believed in rule by the people and in Ukraine’s sovereignty, so the Tsar imprisoned Shevchenko for about ten years in Russia, specifically forbidding him to write or paint anything. The Tsar kept surveillance on Shevchenko for years, but even so, Shevchenko managed to write. Friends and colleagues of Shevchenko continued to try to intercede on his behalf. After the death of Tsar Nicholas I in 1855, his name was removed from the traditional amnesty list, but Shevchenko’s friends were successful a couple of years later, and he was finally released.
At this time, he was allowed to return to Ukraine, but his political activities once again caused his arrest. He was barred from Ukraine. Shevchenko returned to St. Petersburg, where he fell ill and died in 1861. Shevchenko was initially buried in St. Petersburg, but, in keeping with his wishes, he was moved to Kyiv, Ukraine, where he is buried on Chernecha Hill, near Kaniv, overlooking the Dnipro River.
Ukraine fought the Soviets in the years immediately following the February 1917 revolution in St. Petersburg, but again, there were many competing interests fighting for control, and according to some historians, the years were completely chaotic for Ukraine. Somewhere in the 1920s, Ukraine lands were taken by Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and, of course, the Soviet Union. In the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 – 1991, Ukrainians held a referendum to declare national independence, which was overwhelmingly approved, and became Ukraine again.
I realize this is an enormous simplification, but it would require a full-length book rather than a blog post to properly cover it. And, although Shevchenko did not live to see the resurgence of Ukrainian national feeling in the twentieth century, his writings, poems, and life provided a focus for Ukrainian people to recover the culture which the Romanovs, then the Soviets, and now the Russians, have attempted to take from them.
Saint Sophia’s Cathedral was built in 1017 – 1037 to honor Prince Yaroslav’s victory over the tribal raiders attacking Kyiv. Most of the frescoes and mosaics are original, depicting religious scenes, the traditional decoration of Orthodox churches. The cathedral is named for the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul (Constantinople in pre-Islamic times,) and is built in the Byzantine style, with arches and multiple domes. The golden domes were added in the 18th century. The style symbolized the ascendancy of Kyiv as the center of religious and political power in the Kyivan Rus’.
Along the side walls are portraits of Yaroslav and his family, and Yaroslav himself was entombed in a chamber within the church. This was purportedly confirmed in 1936. His remains were removed during WWII by a priest, and believed to have been smuggled into the U.S., specifically a church in Brooklyn, NY. This is unconfirmed.
Especially notable is the large image of the “Virgin Orans” in the central apse. “Orans” is Greek for “praying.” This depiction of the Virgin Mary is unique to the Orthodox church. It is symbolic of the church interceding on behalf of humankind for salvation. The image in St. Sophia is a six meters (about twenty feet) tall mosaic, picturing Mary praying with her arms outstretched toward heaven.
I stood in the stillness and wondered about the people who worshipped here. Like so many cathedrals in Europe, people had spent years of their lives building these monuments to their religious beliefs, almost a thousand years ago. This building stood, looking as it had for much of those thousand years, in a silence that shouted their faith.
My first ride on the Ukrainian train was to begin in a few hours, so I returned to my hotel to gather my luggage. The train was a question mark. I grew up riding trains in the U.S., but I didn’t know quite what to expect here. I was going to find out.
The town welcomed me into the past as I turned off of SR220. If, somehow, I could have cleared the automobiles from the streets and peeled away the blacktop covering the brick and cobblestones, I could almost have seen ghosts of the people from the 1700s going about their business here in Fincastle.
Fincastle, founded 1772 and named for Lord Fincastle, son of Lord Dunmore, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, was at that time the newly-designated county seat for Botetourt County, which had only been created as of January, 1770. The county had been named for the popular Lord Botetourt, governor of colonial Virginia. Today’s Botetourt County is contained within 546 square miles of present-day Virginia, but when it was created, the “Mother County” stretched from Fincastle to the Mississippi River, and included Kentucky, most of Illinois and Indiana, southern Ohio and some of what would become West Virginia, even a corner of Wisconsin.
Newly-minted Fincastle was forty acres (or forty-five – accounts vary) donated by Israel Christian, a lawyer-farmer and land speculator. Christian was an active land speculator everywhere in Virginia, but his home was in Fincastle. His house is believed to be the oldest house in Fincastle, a one-story log house built in 1772. Christian willed the house to one of his slaves, Becky Holmes. A room in the basement served as the first black church, and an adjacent room may have served as a school for black children.
Fincastle is a quiet town. A good number of the residents commute to the city of Roanoke to work, but there is activity in Fincastle, too. I was waiting for my pie from the Pie Shoppe. I was fortunate to be peering into the window of an old car dealership, now used as an artist’s studio, when the artist came to visit said studio.
I said, “Good morning” to him, and it led to a tour of the studio and chats ranging from Brooklyn’s fire escapes to antique furniture. Ed Bordett was born on Long Island, attended New York’s Academy of Fine Arts, and graduated from Florida’s Ringling School of Art. After that, he moved to southwestern Virginia, and settled in Fincastle.
Ed offers prints of Brooklyn’s fire escapes along with other paintings and prints. I don’t know what his hours are, or even if he has “hours,” but the studio is at 5 W. Main Street, Fincastle, Virginia, one or two doors down from the Pie Shoppe, which is on the corner of Main Street and Roanoke Street. You can also find him on Facebook as Edward Bordett, or by googling “Ed Bordett.”
By the time we had toured the studio, it was time for me to pick up my pie – chicken, vegetable, and asiago cheese – next door, so I took another peruse of the art in the front room on my way out. I plan to return. That may sound like a “road not taken,” but I am pretty sure I’ll be back to Fincastle.
The Pie Shoppe, which sits diagonally from the Botetourt Courthouse, is a very pleasant place to have lunch. Their menu is limited, but the pie is delicious. Their pies come in sweet dessert or savory entree, by the (large) slice or whole pie, to go or to eat in. Their lunch specials don’t all come wrapped in pie crust – there are choices, plus good coffee, served by friendly people. The cafe on the roof, a popular place to have dinner and a glass of wine in the summer, was not, alas, open yet. Maybe next time.
The courthouse in the photo is the fourth building on this site. The first was a log structure, probably built at the founding of Fincastle. It was replaced in 1818, and again in 1845. This third courthouse was partly destroyed by fire in 1970. The present courthouse was built and dedicated in 1975.
It is notable that the county’s records, dating from 1770, survived the 1971 fire because of the county’s vault, and are available for historical and genealogical research. The close call for the records resulted in the Virginia Public Records Act of 1975, which required land records, wills, and other vital public records to be inventoried and microfilmed. The microfilm is stored in the Library of Virginia in Richmond.
There was a brick tavern built around 1809 next to the hotel to provide entertainment for visitors and locals. With no hint of irony in the historical descriptions, the county’s jail was built next door around 1897.
There are so many historical buildings in Fincastle that it’s not possible to show them all. There is an excellent self-guided tour brochure that is easily available, and if you go to Fincastle, I recommend it. Below are some places of particular interest, at least to me….
I found Fincastle, Virginia, to be a charming place, filled with small-town character, friendly people, and a strong sense of history. It’s a worthy stop for art and history, but most of all, the wonderful people who live there.
*As of 2019, sources include the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Where it all began” isn’t exactly accurate. I have always wanted to travel. I used to daydream of wandering through the countryside with my backpack, or sitting by train windows, gazing at a new landscape, visiting romantic inns, and seeing wondrous things. The “no-visible-means-of-support” lifestyle in my daydreams was delayed by, well, no means of support, visible or in. But, this was definitely the trip that created the determination to make overseas travel happen for me.
In 2006, I found an opportunity to be an election observer for the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE conducts election observation missions because the European Union, the EU, has standards required of member governments, and among them are a free press and secure, transparent elections. The U.S. participates in the OSCE through the U.S. State Department.
I had been the Island County Auditor for eight years by 2006, and had learned a lot about election law, process, and management, even though I was not involved in the day-to-day work. Loann (also referred to as “the General,”) was the Elections Supervisor. I applied to participate and accepted. I had no choice of country – I had to go where they sent me – but this was okay by me. I had not been overseas at all, ever, so anyplace would be new to me. It turned out to be Ukraine.
The U.S. taxpayers paid for my round trip airfare and living expenses while I was participating in the OSCE mission (thank you,) as did the other countries who were participating in the mission, such as Germany and the Netherlands. Like the other American observers, I planned to pay the airline’s fee to reschedule my departure date and travel around Ukraine after the mission, seven days long, was complete. (And, of course, my expenses then were paid by me.)
On March 20, 2006, I sat in Sea-Tac, Seattle’s airport, waiting for a flight that would take me to Dulles Airport to meet up with the other American participants. In Sea-Tac, I met a woman from Alaska who was also going to Ukraine. In Dulles, I met another woman going to Ukraine from Nebraska – I remember where she was from because we talked about Nebraska’s unicameral state government. (A bunch of government wonks – what would you expect?)
And then we started the incredibly long flight to Ukraine, with a layover in Munich, Germany. By the time we arrived in Kyiv, we had been traveling over twenty-four hours. I was excited to be there, so I had the benefit of some adrenaline, but as soon as we arrived at our hotel, sleep took over.
The drive to our hotel gave us a view of the city, and it is a mix of styles and history. Apartments were the main kind of housing, ranging from old and run down, to newer, more colorful apartments.
After resting, the daylight was running out. We took a short walk around the downtown area. I didn’t think to take a photo of our hotel, which was very comfortable, older and well-kept. I wasn’t blogging yet, but I guess it was coming, because I took photos, and more frequently as the trip wore on. In 2006, I had a county-owned flip-style cell phone, which wasn’t going to work overseas, so I left it at home. I did bring a tiny Acer notebook and a 7MP Canon Powershot, a “point & shoot” camera with a built-in (and not very powerful) telephoto lens. It ran on four AA batteries, and working that telephoto lens used up a lot of power relative to the resulting magnification. I spent a couple of mornings during the trip looking for new batteries, which was not always easy in Ukraine. But I could upload photos to the Acer, a nice backup, plus stay in touch with my Island County staff and my email.
All of the participants gathered in an orientation meeting in the morning after breakfast. It addressed logistics: a list naming teams of two observers, what places and tasks they were assigned, and where they would be observing. Each team was provided with a translator and a driver, and the driver provided the car, which they assured observers had to meet EU safety standards. No bald tires, seat belts worked, engines were reliable, etc. We would take that for granted in the U.S., but you cannot do that everywhere. We would meet our observation partners, translators, and drivers the next morning and leave for our various destinations.
The observers from the same country sat together during this meeting – all the Germans, Dutch, Americans, Italians, etc. We all sat in the center section of the orchestra floor seating – except for one group, who sat in a side section by themselves. The meeting speakers would give their information, and then one person, standing and facing their group so they could be heard, would repeat, in a different language, what the meeting speaker had said.
Someone in the center section raised their hand. He said his name, and that he was from the Netherlands. “It was our understanding,” he said, “that the official language of the mission is English.” Pointing at the side section, he continued, ”That group has a translator. Why is that?”
The leader of the mission explained that the group he pointed to was from Russia, and their participants didn’t speak fluent English.
“Then why are they allowed to participate?,” asked the Dutch objector, obviously annoyed.
The Americans sat, quietly looking down, studying their lists and assignments, avoiding any eye contact that might lead to having to say something in this discussion. We just did it, no discussion needed, because we all recognized the optics that could result from participating in this particular discussion.
The mission leader replied that it was the steering committee’s decision. They thought it preferable for the Russians to participate and observe a European election. So when the Russians conditioned their participation on having a translator, they agreed.
The man from the Netherlands expressed his disagreement, but, having done so, sat down, and discussion moved on. We had a break during the morning, and then some free time in the afternoon. Karen, the woman from Nebraska, and I used the opportunity to go visit Kyiv’s Maidan.