Cultural Contrast: castles and childhood
On Sunday David and I had a companion during our car ride into the countryside – the five-year old daughter of one of our French friends. Lacking the language skills to tell stories or jokes or be of much interest to her verbally, we resorted to dancing, singing, and making general fools of ourselves to keep her entertained. Not that we particularly minded.
Whenever I saw something cool or exciting out the window, I’d point, bounce up and down and excitedly exclaim “Oooooh LOOK a (blank).”
The exchange went something like this:
Me: “Ooooh LOOK – Beautiful Flowers!!”
Her: Appreciative grin.
Me: “Oooh LOOK a TRACTOR!!!”
Her: Broad smile and giggles.
Me: “Ooooh LOOK a little cat!!”
Her: Sweet smile, and concerned eyes that widen as they follow the cat into the bushes.
Me: “OOOOOH!!! LOOOK!! A CASTLE!!!”
Her: Blank, uninterested glance to the side. No further response.
I would have FREAKED out driving by a castle as a five-year old. I still kind of freak out. I grew up obsessed with King Arthur, Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and with basically every other story that takes place within castles or within the general vicinity of castles.
Castles and palaces for me meant romance and fantasy and fairy tales, magic and make-believe. They were evocative of dragons and knights and princesses, or princesses who become knights, or knights who become dragons, or princesses who have dragons, or whatever.
In France there seems to be a castle around every corner and for me this is a great selling point. While I may no longer expect to see a moat full of fantastical creatures from the deep, or a pet dragon with a chain around its neck guarding the drawbridge, or a wizard casually practicing spells in the North Tower, I still find castles to be incredibly stimulating – no, not full of magic but certainly redolent with history. I feel a different sort of allure now imagining the brutal reality of these places and trying to absorb the hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of strife that took place within them and around them. I can gracefully layer my historical fascination in castles over the nostalgia that they also inspire in me for a magical setting that doesn’t really exist, and let the adult curiosity and the childish wonder mingle.
While I lamented the lack of castles and palaces in the US as a child (Hearst castle did NOT count), my exchange with my new little friend made me rather appreciative that I did not grow up somewhere with a plethora of them. Perhaps to a child growing up in Pau, the castle of Pau looks as mundane as the parliament building or City Hall. There’s obviously no MAGIC happening inside – I mean it’s just a museum full of old documents and paintings, stuff people owned, and information about who they fought and why.
The Princess of Sweden came to Pau on Thursday. It was on the cover of all the local papers. She was a very pretty, but very normal looking young woman. She wore a pink dress suit. She looked like she easily could have worked in a bank. If I had grown up knowing that that’s what princesses really look like, I wouldn’t have been very excited about where they lived either.