Monday, June 18, 2012

Take Us To Your Castles

Something you should know about me: From the age of 3, I was raised around History. I grew up in Europe, so it was pretty much everywhere you looked.

Now, this wasn’t the dry, dusty, boring history that overworked and underpaid High School teachers are forced by State mandates to pour into kids’ brains until those vital organs are reduced to the consistency of oatmeal (and have about the same amount of processing power). No, instead, I was raised around LIVING history. History that you could touch, climb on, hear tales about and viscerally FEEL. I scrambled through castles, walked in awe through soaring cathedrals, wandered battlefields and cemeteries with tears pouring down my face, that matched those on my Mom and Dad’s faces.

I saw up close the brutal effects of war: A sections of trench at Verdun left in place for younger generations to ruminate on, partially caved in by the terrible effect of a nearby shell explosion, with the tips of rusting rifles and bayonets left sticking up out of the dirt as a grave marker for the brave men who were entombed there. It made a hell of an impression on me, as did the rows upon rows of stone crosses near the beaches of Normandy and the forests of the Ardennes.

I marveled at the contents of numerous national museums, spending hours and hours wandering hallways looking at painting, sculptures, and suits of armor. I became so familiar with the Casemates of Luxembourg City (a 17th-century cave system expanded for centuries as a natural fortification) that I gave impromptu - and quite unauthorized - narrated tours to English-speaking visitors. I must have done ok, since they tipped me well…or, come to think about it, maybe they were just trying to get rid of me. I digress.

I wandered the Colosseum, Pompeii, Athens, Cambridge, Berlin (back when there was still a wall dividing it), and Trafalgar Square. I grew up in a city where the “New Church” was four hundred years old, and the “Old Church” – a squat, circular building built during the Norman times – was more than 900.

In short, I was extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to be exposed to the buildings, the artifacts and streets that had a FEEL to them. The feeling that other feet had trod where you stood, that untold numbers of humans had somehow imbued the stone, the glass, and the wood with their presence. The tombstones in the old churchyards seemed to cry out “Remember us” and remind me that I was just a link in a long chain of humanity. It was enough to make even a young man pause and ponder his mortality and place in the world.

I don’t think many American kids get that chance – and it’s a damn shame. Think about it – what’s the oldest thing American kids see on a normal basis? To them, an “Antique” is a record player, or maybe a 1950’s tract home. If you really push it, and you live in Texas, it’s something like the Alamo, which dates all the way back to (gasp) the early 18th century. Not a whole lot, is it?

Which brings us to the subject of Castles. We need them. Scattered all around the U.S. Our youth needs them – hell *I* still need them.

We need castles – or very old buildings …old manors, pubs, forts, or even a thatched cottage will do. Just something we can take kids to during the summer, on school field trips or on weekends. Something to remind them that they are not special (sounds harsh, I know, but I think Americans as a whole take on this “We’re from the New World, we’re automatically superior to you stinkin’ Old World types” attitude). Something to make them think about the folks who have come before them – the things they built and the dreams they dreamed.

It shouldn’t be too hard – I mean, there are falling down castles, keeps, towers, and palaces all over Europe that the folks on the other side of The Pond just can’t afford to keep up. Heck, half of Pompeii is falling down, and the Italian Government (now THERE’s an oxymoron for you) can’t seem to find the money to save these priceless examples of their own heritage

So let’s buy ‘em. Fork over some cash, ship ‘em over here, set up turnstiles and gift shops and make a metric ton of money charging folks entry. Not much, maybe a couple of bucks a head, but I’d visit Vianden castle every week if I could. More often if it was next to a water park.

Yup, it’s cheesy, and yup, I’m wincing even thinking about removing these buildings from their provenance, but it might actually save them in the long run. And the kids would learn what history is all about.

I’ve got 5 bucks. Anyone want to pitch in? I think there’s a small town in Ireland that’s up for sale…


  1. There is an entire town in Italy for sale. Maybe we could just buy it and turn it into an Italian version of a living Scarborough? ;)

  2. So I don't disagree with you, but I ask what about places in the US like Mesa Verde? Yes it's not as grand and well kept as castles, but it's still tangible history a bit closer to home and a bit cheaper to visit. (Did you ever watch the cartoon Gargoyles in the 90's? They moved a castle to the US and put it on top of a skyscraper (it makes sense to the plot, honest))

    1. Perfectly true, Ariana, but stuff like that is few and far between, scattered across a huge continent. We need more, darn it! Not that I'm greedy or anything...

  3. I wish we had more history around here.

    True story: When I was in about...second grade probably, I was banned from school field trips to the Alamo, which since we lived in San Antonio was a yearly thing. It was I am fairly certain the first time we went, or that I really recall, and I had a...well bad reaction is a nice way to put it. More or less I turned into a very loud ranting 9 year old (I know you are shocked).

    You have to understand that the Alamo at present is nothing more than a museum in the shape of the Alamo built over the spot of the Alamo. Some of the surrounding areas are intact, but the actual building has been replaced by a modern air conditioned building with a gift shop.

    I was so enraged at what I considered a travesty, that I began to very loudly berate the employees about how disgusted I was that they had built a tourist trap over what was essentially a graveyard and one of the most important pieces of our states history.

    I was asked to sit on the bus, and on return trips asked to remain on the bus during that portion of the field trip.

    No one has ever convinced me that building a museum instead of leaving the burned and battered hull of the fort smack in the middle of a major metropolitan city just because it was significant history was a good idea.

    1. I love you, Megan. Can I have your baby?