I am writing to you in Munich, or rather from its Airport Terminal, because my connecting flight – scheduled flight – won’t arrive in seven hours. I don’t know anyone in this city, and I am not sufficiently familiar with it to venture out on my own, without a good map and the language.
Yes, I am coming back, after having been away for one whole month. I began to miss Hong Kong and you lot last night when I was packing in a small hotel in Bordeaux, trying to leave behind the promotional material I collected, from Toronto to Prince Edward Island, from Chicago to Tours, and from Cognac to Bordeaux.
While I was away, I received all my emails and was thus up to speed on most but not all things happening at home. I managed to upload two issues of Kingspark News and three letters and I had interesting feedback from some of you during my travels.
I left off some two weeks ago when I began my trip to France. I told you I was in the La Loire area surrounded by countless chateaux, often referred to and quite rightly so as the Valley of the Kings. For this was where generations of kings and queens had lived, wielded or lost power, loved or lost their love, wives, women, chateaux and even their lives, and died. The place is so rich with history, culture and heritage that the French government has seen it fit to declare all the chateaux in the area, except those in private ownership, as national monuments many of which are also under UNESCO jurisdiction.
It would not be practical to list or outline the chateaux I had visited, public or private, for that would turn this into a travelogue, and I am not in this business. Moreover, I would not be doing these castles sufficient justice if I did; and besides, if one is interested just in the facts, one can always turn to books or the internet. Suffice it to say that I visited at least ten chateaux and stayed in two other private chateaux. I have found the experience very much worth my time and effort; I enjoyed what I saw and I took countless pictures. You can ask me leading questions later if you are so inclined.
Europeans and in this case the French have done well in preserving their history and heritage. The French has a Heritage Department within their Ministry for the Arts. The love for things of the past appears to run in their blood. One sees buildings that are a few centuries old everywhere, or statues, paintings, architecture, fallen walls or simply artifacts that are either very old or undated. The empty rooms and hollow reception halls, or in many cases, the flamboyantly decorated rooms for the kings and queens all bear legends, some romantic, others tragic, but mostly authentic and always interesting. A typical chateau would be commissioned by a king to commemorate his conquests or to show off his talents and prowess, but more often than not, the king never lived long enough to see its completion. In other cases, a king would authorize a sidekick or a governor, often rich and corrupt, to build a castle for a purpose, normally for his women. One condition of grant was that the official must provide within the chateau a room fit for the king, even though the king would never use it. Some governors could not complete the work, while others had to flee for their lives when their corrupt practices were exposed. Women, including queens and mistresses also known as the king’s favourites, were invariably involved in the construction, planning and layout of the interior of the chateaux or the gardens around them. Changes in the status or destiny of their principals would always result in revised layouts and new plans. It follows that a chateau normally reflects the personality of a number of prominent kings and queens over a few centuries.
I cannot help thinking that men and women, be they kings and queens, prosperous or powerful, good or bad, were not so different over the ages. They all wanted to be remembered long after they were gone.
Let me now go back to how I had ended up in France after Chicago.
I began to organize my convention trip and its pre and post shortly after my daughter returned to Davis last September. I needed to do something at the time in between bereavement. Then, I used to spend long hours grieving for my irreparable loss. My natural choices for post-convention then were Los Angeles and Davis: LA because my father-in-law was there, but then he died shortly after I booked the trip; and Davis because of my daughter of course, but then her schedules had changed, she having been offered an externship in Hawaii for three weeks from early July. I knew I needed to change the plan, but had not really applied my mind to it. The only thing I knew then was that there was not much point for me to be in those two places post convention.
I stumbled on this France trip rather accidentally, but first, let me go back to the mid-Eighties when Rosita and the children accompanied me to Oxford. Stephanie was not yet six and Lawrence barely two. We took them to Europe during term breaks. We had taken the sea-link from Dover to Calais in an almost vintage Ford Escort, driven to Paris and then because of industrial action by French workers had to return through Oostende. On another occasion, we had hired an almost new BMW in Heidelberg, visited a friend in a small town around the border of Austria and Germany, went to Insbruck because it had hosted a winter Olympics, stopped over Liechtenstein so that we could tell others afterwards that we had been there, and driven to Switzerland to see the Black Forest before going back to Heidelberg through Munich and a few other cities. I was thrilled to see the speedometer registering over 240 km on the German autobahn. Looking back, maybe I was somewhat foolhardy to do that with the whole family in the car.
Europe and in particular France and Germany always bring back memories, memories that Rosita and I had planned to re-live during our retirement. We would recall how the children fooled around in the back seats while we were trying hard to make out street names in Paris during a sudden snow storm, and how we had to split up in Germany when she had to stay with Lawrence in the hotel because he fell sick while Stephanie and I went visiting museums. I have often wondered how I would bear up when I re-visit these places by myself.
Then, in April, I ran into this friend who was planning a holiday for his family in France from the day the Convention would end. He and his wife would meet up their two children in London before joining a friend who resides in France and who was drawing up a visit plan to various chateaux around the Loire Valley. My friend promised me that between him and the friend in France, whom I know as well but whom I had not met for a while, they would do all the leg work and planning, so that my part would entail nothing more than preparing to enjoy myself. I could deal with that, I thought, and so I ended up in France after Chicago.
The plan was to meet in Tours, which was in the middle of La Loire, along which river bank most of the historical chateaux are sited. Getting to Tours proved to be quite a challenge: from Chicago, I flew to Paris, where I took a TGV to St Pierre des Corps before catching a connecting local train to Tours. I met up with the parties eventually and on time, but not entirely in a straightforward manner. First, I found myself sitting through a delay of two and a half hours in Chicago because of water pressure in the first plane before moving onto a second. Then I learnt that Terminals 1 and 2 in Paris CDG Airport were not exactly next door or within walking distance, so that I need to lug my bags between trains and platforms.
Well, all is well that ends well. The family and the friend in France did do most of the work. All I did was taking up some driving and ordering wines for the meals, which I could handle with grace. The trip has given me new ideas on how to plan future travels. More importantly, I find that I can handle those re-visits I mentioned earlier. They were all pleasant memories which no one ought to refuse or avoid.
I had a long chat over the phone with my daughter while I was packing in Bordeaux. She would leave for Hawaii very soon, and the conversation became serious, but rather nice. One of the things we discussed was my letters. Stephanie suggested that what I have been doing was tantamount to telling everybody in the world my private thoughts and daily life, and that could mean literally everybody. She said she could not dream of doing such a thing herself. My response was this: I had started my letters for a purpose, which was to share with the club presidents in my year and the district my Rotary ideals and my ideas on how we could together make a difference. Later on, it became a useful platform to explain to them why Rosita could not attend as many of the district events as she would like to or as she was expected to. I had continued the series after my year as governor so that I could keep friends here and abroad informed of how Rosita had been doing. I had found these letters therapeutic for myself. I sometimes re-read certain issues to remind myself what happened in those weeks or months; and I cannot deny that I derive pleasure from feedback from readers, sometimes from people I don’t know too well or not at all. Such feedback often help me last a long time or an otherwise non-eventful week. Our conclusion was that not everyone needs to do that, and I told her that I had no idea how long I would continue with this.
Until then, I wish you well and I hope to talk to you again from Hong Kong.