High School English with a Twist

The musings of Susan E dot Cohen

Category: History

Her Majesty The Queen

I have written extensively on Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge. After all, she was my introduction into the world of royal watching. As I have previously discussed, prior to her engagement to William I was not a royal watcher. I did not take up this position until reading a Newsweek article on the eve of their wedding, and then my interest progressively picked up pace after Catherine walked down the aisle at Westminster Abbey.

Over the last few years, I have engaged with the monarchy on a regular basis. If it is Christmas Day and the royals are at Sandringham, I am tuned in. I know all about the horse racing at Ascot, and how the monarchy uses its position to support charities and conservation work around the globe. In spite of my keen interest in the royals, I have yet to write about The Queen. This royal watcher cannot truly call herself a royal watcher until she does so.

In honor of Queen Elizabeth II surpassing her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria as the longest reigning British monarch, the time has come to write about Her Majesty. Perhaps the timing could not be better. My understanding of the monarchy and its relationship to the world throughout her reign has grown. I possess a greater appreciation for her now than ever before, and if I had written anything sooner I would not have been ready to discuss the Queen with enough depth.

The Queen is a woman to admire. She is intelligent, well read, composed, and from what they say has quite a sense of humor. She has both watched and participated in world history, and has a unique understanding of society. The Queen is driven by service, and has been truly committed to her people and their needs. Regardless of what is happening the world, Her Majesty maintains her sense of duty, which is testament to her character and the tone she has set for the monarchy. Even for those outside of the UK and the Commonwealth, she has been a constant and influential presence.

The Queen is also human. Perfection cannot be expected of anyone, even with the title of Her Majesty. She has made mistakes and learned from these instances, evolving as a person and a monarch. Her evolution has been one where consistency has played a major factor, but novelty has found its way in as well. The future is bright because of the choices she has made during her reign.

While she is not my Queen, I appreciate her service to the world. I wish her a hip hip hooray on this  milestone.

From Broadway to Mount Vernon: The Founders in Their Element

George Washington's home Mount Vernon

George Washington’s home Mount Vernon

Last month, I had the distinct pleasure of spending a bit of time with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. I must say, it had been quite some time since I last engaged with them. I was glad that July provided the opportunity to be reintroduced to these intelligent, talented, courageous Founding Fathers.

The reintroduction began on Broadway at “Hamilton” and continued the next week at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home and farm in Virginia. Although different, these two experiences complemented each other perfectly. “Hamilton” is simultaneously a chance to step back in time and yet experience something from our time, of the moment so to speak. Mount Vernon offers an immersion experience. The home and property were restored and reflect how they looked at the end of Washington’s life. Together, the show and home allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation of who these men are and how they lived their lives.

While I certainly knew a great deal about Hamilton from my days as a History major, the show provided a whole new means to understand him. It allowed me to see Hamilton’s humanity coupled with his drive for making his mark and leaving a legacy. There was no way Hamilton was ever going to be ordinary. He was aware the destiny of this nation was mixed in with his personal goals. Hamilton was a man who struggled like the rest of us do with questions of honor, morality, and ego. He was brilliant and complex, and the same can be said of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s show.

Mount Vernon was my first visit to a president’s home. It offered the chance to see Washington as a homeowner, farmer, and slave owner.  I must mention that I traveled there Founding Father style (aka by boat). Taking a boat from D.C. down the Potomac really added an extra layer to my trip. As the boat approached the property, I caught site of the mansion. Like its owner, the home has a very commanding presence.

The highlight of the day was the tour of the mansion. It was very powerful to walk through the rooms he once lived in. I truly enjoyed seeing how meticulously Washington planned and designed his home. How he used the artwork in his home to reinforce his “brand.” Nothing was on the wall by chance, it was part of a larger statement about Washington. He had amazing taste, and I can understand why his guests stayed as long as they did. They also stayed that long because in the 18th century, it was rude to ask guests to leave. The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center truly rounded out the visit. One highlight was Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Washington, which is renowned for its accuracy. It is considered to be the closest portrayal of what Washington actually looked like.

On Broadway and in Virginia, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington were humanized. They were people with problems and living rooms. I believe interacting with History in this manner changes you. I definitely left both of these experiences not only thinking differently about Hamilton and Washington, but about American History as a whole. For that, I am deeply appreciative to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for preserving and maintaining Washington’s home, and to those who believed in Miranda’s vision of telling American History through rap and hip hop.

Susan Leaves America

Susan Cohen, World Traveler

Susan Cohen, World Traveler

As the title suggests, this piece is about my first trip abroad. It’s a companion piece to my personal essay, ‘Passport in a Drawer.’ The goal is to share my experience in a light, fun manner. As detailed as it may be, it still lacks detail. When traveling, a great deal of the experience is sensory. Some of that cannot adequately be described. At the same time, some of it should not be described. It’s for me. 

I created a name for my trip, “Susan leaves America.” After all, my name is Susan and I was leaving America. Although humorous, there was a serious undertone in this title. After 27 years in America, I was leaving my nation for the very first time by crossing the Atlantic and traveling to London and Paris. In a way, I was a 21st century explorer just going in the opposite direction of all the European explorers.

A trip like this required a title. It marked a change in me and my understanding of the world. For a very long time, I was missing the understanding that travel requires. I did not understand why people traveled. As naive as it sounds, it was true. This trip signified finally understanding and wanting in on the experience.

My feelings about travel began to change around the Royal wedding of William and Catherine. Watching the anticipation leading up to that big day back in 2011, I was introduced to England. This formal introduction awakened a desire to see it. I was fascinated by the country’s pomp and circumstance, its history, and of course, Catherine Middleton. I must thank the Duchess of Cambridge for my newly developed interest in England.

Her story, which I first read about in Newsweek, drew me in. It was a catalyst so to speak. By the time she walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey, I knew I needed to see London. It would just take almost three more years, but everyone has to have a waity period. This was mine.

London led me to Paris. How could I travel across the Atlantic and only see one country. I wanted Paris for its light. I had long imagined what it might be like. I figured it was something (emphasis on something as I knew it would be 100x that) like the delicate sunlight that hits the Beresford on 81st and Central Park West. Something about that corner reminded me of images and pictures I had seen of Paris.

When I would tell people I had never left the country they were always surprised. “Really?” was a common response. It was usually given with an appropriate accompanying facial expression. I think I baffled a few people with my domesticity (emphasis on domestic and not its usual meaning).

Everyone assumed I had left, which was flattering. It was certainly a testament to how I was raised and the manner I live in New York. I offer an example of how cultured one can be if they have not left the United States, primarily New York, for 27 years.

However, it certainly demonstrated how important those around me view international travel. A few of my acquaintances in New York assume everyone travels or has traveled, and if you have not, some even question whether you are cultured. I could write a dissertation on what makes one cultured, but I will just say there are different kinds of culture. There is the culture I achieved in New York and then there is the culture one can only acquire through travel. I knew I was missing the latter.

The day before my trip, I looked outside from my apartment and thought tomorrow the view will be different. I possessed an idea of what I would see, but I had no idea what the other side of the pond would be like. The one thing I knew was that this was one an important moment for me.

The truth is this trip changed my life. I can pinpoint hundreds of tiny moments of change throughout my week in London and Paris. Two people have inklings on the experience. The first is my travel companion who literally gave me the world by taking me to London and Paris. He watched me experience it, but also participated in the experience. A great deal of it will remain between us. The second person is one of my closest friends, Meghan, who lives in London and spent two evenings with us. She helped make our trip special.

When the Virgin flight attendant said, “darling,” in a British accent as I boarded the plane, I was thrilled. I was one step closer. When the pilot said, “returning” in reference to our destination, Heathrow, while still in the US, I was delighted. If that was how I felt boarding the plane, you have an idea of customs in Heathrow. I was probably the most excited person – on the inside – to ever go through customs.

Traveling from Heathrow, simply sitting in a car that was driving on the other side of the road was a first. As much as this trip was about seeing the sights, I also wanted to experience the culture. Being in a car on the other side of the road definitely met that criteria. It’s comparatively different than in the United States.

Cruise on the Thames with Big Ben and Parliament

London is history mixed with modernity. That’s why I fell in love with the city. Big Ben and Parliament came to life. In Westminster, everywhere I turned was someone who had impacted the world. I stood in a building where coronations take place and the wedding that inspired this trip. A short trip down the Thames, a river with so much history. Tower of London and oh those jewels.  St. Paul’s, honoring all who had fought, and climbing those hundreds of steps for that view. Walking amongst kings and queens and across a bridge that had stood in various manifestations across a river for hundreds of years. Signs all over London for establishments from the 18th century. Visiting a recreation of the Globe and imaging the theatre in its prime.


I had seen Buckingham on television, but standing outside it is different. There is a mundane quality to the palace as cars travel in and out of it. Work must be done and this is a working palace. At the same time, I could see how easily it transformed into the ultimate symbol with balcony at the epicenter of the roaring crowds. The famed National Gallery held Impressionist paintings I had yet to view. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York certainly has a few of my favorites, but it cannot possess them all.  Even the tube was exciting with that tap in/tap out system. In New York, you swipe. Tapping was just so British.

On our second night, Meghan took us to see St. Paul’s at night and across Millenium Bridge. As she said on the bridge facing the church, “this is the money shot.” It certainly was. This was London at night in all its glory.

After those first few days, we were off to Paris for the weekend. The Eurostar was the most exciting train ride I have ever taken. I was traveling within Europe as the Europeans do. Not to sound colloquial, but it was awesome. Arriving at the Paris Nord, was my first introduction to a non-English speaking country. With Paris, it was love at first sight.

Soon we were popping into Hermes, Gucci, Dior, which I certainly have done before in New York, but this was different. This was experiencing these brands in a whole new context, Paris. Everything is different in Paris. Never had I seen a Hermes bag be matched with a scarf. The intricacy and attention to detail as they tried one scarf then the next. Sure, I could have seen this in New York, but in Paris, this just made sense. (Side note: I have no interest in owning one.)

As art appreciators, we lacked the appropriate amount of time to give to the Louvre. Instead, we opted for lots of walking and Notre Dame on Sunday, a day when many establishments are closed in the city.

Notre Dame

I remember viewing slides of 19th century paintings of the boulevards in Art History courses in college and  on walls of museums. I imagined what the light might be like and there it was; shinning brightly with a hint of spring in the air as we strolled along the Seine on a Sunday. The light in Paris was everything I expected and more.

The Light!

The dining was life changing. It’s certainly an experience. Potato and leak soup garnished with chives that I wished was endless followed by lamb that melted in my mouth and a moist, delicate lemon tart for dessert at Noglu, an 100% gluten-free restaurant. Perfectly cut non-greasy fries with an appropriately seasoned jar of ketchup to accompany at my hotel. Ladurée macarons that were delicate and delicious. I feasted on exquisite eclairs, chocolate tarts, and other pastries from Helmut Newcake, an 100% gluten-free café and patisserie.

Lamb at Noglu

 

 

 

 

Lemon Tart at Noglu (Maybe It’s a Cake?)

 

Gluten-Free Pastries at Helmut Newcake

 

 

Happy Customer 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
London felt different after Paris. I now understood how the two cities existed in relation to each other. This is a very important perspective to possess. Our last two days included stops on Piccadilly Road including to Fortnum & Mason. I had heard about this famous department store, but here it was in its glory. Floors of delicacies, sweets, and teas. I wanted to buy every tea cup and saucer.

On our final full day, we headed to the famed British Museum. We started off with the Rosetta Stone and then, at last, we saw the Elgin Marbles. In a freshman art history course, I first learned about them. Finally, I had a visual to see what Lord Elgin brought back. Fulfilling that freshman Art History student’s education at last.

Controversial as they may be, his decision allowed us to see history that might not exist without him and this museum. We viewed other rooms and then scanned the centuries with an afternoon at the Tate Modern moving from Picasso’s to Dali’s to Miro’s and a Turner. What a Turner it is.

On that last night, dining overlooking the Thames with St. Paul’s in front of us with Meghan, I did not want to leave. Soon there was one last tube ride, a walk along Oxford Street, all the while letting London know I would be back. London, I say it again, I will be back.

I was meant to take this trip at this exact moment. Everything up until this point had been preparation. I just had no idea that I was preparing. Now, this 21st century explorer wants to keep exploring.

As Meghan texted when I arrived in London, “Welcome World Traveler.” I certainly earned that title.

 

 

 

 

When The Crown Still Ruled

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The Crown still rules daily in Colonial Williamsburg. The King is still King. Even on days when the city is set during the latter half of the Revolutionary War, post-Declaration of Independence, Colonial Williamsburg is not yet American.

I had the privilege of visiting this colonial city and experiencing a modern-day version of the 18th century. The heat and humidity alone gave me an idea of life in the colony of Virginia. In spite of the heat, I explored the city and reconnected with my nation’s history. Maybe reconnected is not the right word. It was an immersion. A chance to experience and learn about a life so different from my own.

For those who have not visited Colonial Williamsburg, the city is a combination of restored structures and recreations of establishments that once stood on Duke of Gloucester Street, Nicholson Street, and Palace Green Street. Everyone who works in the city is dressed in colonial garb regardless of the temperature. Some of these individuals even have colonial inspired accents to accompany their 18th century fashions. The horses are not cleaned up after to further the experience. No one confirmed this assessment, but cleaning up after horses, in the middle of the day, would likely take away from the authenticity of the experience. At least in my opinion. While visiting, I had the opportunity to spend time in almost every establishment in the city. For length purposes, I will highlight just a few.

I had the chance to tour a recreation of the Capitol where the House of Burgesses met and crimes were tried in the General Court. They still try cases in that Court and I spent an evening as a juror in a Witch Trial. I thought the “Witch” was innocent, but then again I was relying on 21st century knowledge in an 18th century case. That seems to be a bit unfair. Regardless of my opinion, she was found guilty and a good time was had by all.

Like the Capitol, the Palace was also a recreation of a building that played a prominent role in daily colonial life. The Governors of the colony of Virginia lived in this enormous home. Although, according to my tour guide, for Lady Dunmore, wife of Governor Dunmore, the home was a bit too small. I guess perspective is everything. The Palace provides visitors with a sense of what it was like to be the Governor or even his daughter, and what it was like to attend a ball. However, all the fun that was had in the Palace came to an end and by the battle of Yorktown, the Palace was turned into a hospital.

In addition to the Capitol and the Palace, I spent time at Richard Charlton’s Coffeehouse where I had the chance to meet the Editor of the newspaper and try some colonial inspired coffee. I do not like coffee, but this coffee was quite good. I also paid a visit to the wigmaker, the shoemaker, the silversmith, the milliner, and many other tradesmen and women who served the city of Williamsburg. If you are wondering, I did not visit the candlestick maker.

The best part of visiting these shops was the chance to learn about the crafts housed within the walls of these colonial shops. I leaned where the materials were obtained from, how the tradesmen and women performed their crafts, and who visited the shops during the 18th century. Of note is that each shop seems to compare the price of a good to the price of shoes. I did not have a chance to ask why everything is compared to shoes, but perhaps I will send 21st century Colonial Williamsburg an email and find out.

I also had the chance to dine colonial style at two Taverns. The food was authentic, but the entertainment was even more so. The desserts (well I should preface this by saying that I love dessert) were fantastic. At King Arm’s Tavern, my colonial dessert was meringue with vanilla ice cream and a hefty topping of strawberries. I am not sure how authentic this dessert was, but it was good.

On each of the evenings during my stay, I attended an evening activity. I felt like I was back at camp. As I mentioned, the Witch Trial was one such activity. I also took part in a Tavern Ghost Walk where I was told about the ghosts that inhabit the city at night. The leader stated that all of the stories were true and I believe her. Another evening was spent listening to stories told by ghosts during Ghosts Among Us. Some of the ghosts should really be acting on Broadway. Finally, with lightning and thunder in the background, I spent my last evening in Colonial Williamsburg learning all about Blackbeard through Pirates Among Us. The lightning really added to the authenticity of the activity.

There may no longer be a Crown that rules over us, but each day in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Crown still rules. Each day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the 21st century becomes the 18th century. Yes, the city uses 21st century work hours with the exception of Tavern dining, evening activities, and one store that monopolizes on the fact that the others are already closed. With that said, below please enjoy some photos taken on my iPhone, a gadget that would likely have me accused of witchcraft in the 18th century.

Image The Capitol

Duke of Gloucester Street

Just a typical day on Duke of Gloucester with Fifes and Drums

King Arm’s Tavern

Dining 18th Century Style

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Evening Approaches Colonial Williamsburg

1776 – The Movie

In fifth grade, Mr. Rilander showed the class the film 1776. The film was part of our Revolutionary curriculum. I say Revolutionary curriculum as my class spent the entire year learning about the war. In fact, even before we started learning about it, the Revolution was introduced to us through student-made posters that adorned the classroom’s walls.

Throughout that year, Mr. Rilander lectured the class regularly about the events leading up to and during the war. I use the word lecture as these were not typical elementary school history lessons. This was the real deal. He sat in front of the class and brought the war to life. The lectures were so vivid that the class was momentarily transported to the Boston Tea Party or the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

I distinctly remember watching 1776 at some point during that school year. I sat in the middle of the room, in the second row, at a desk that I considered to be the coolest in all of the school. It was not cool because I sat at it (although I like to think that) but instead, it was cool because our class had unusual desks in comparison to the rest of the school. If I remember correctly, the desks were like a mini table and then underneath, on the right, there was a shelf for my books.

The desks were one of the reasons I hoped to be placed in Mr. Rilander’s class. I should also say that each year his class had a Thanksgiving meal together, played touch football after that meal, and also had an end of the year barbecue. For elementary school standards, his class was as good as it gets.

Returning to the film, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of John and Abigail Adams as they read their letters to each other. I connected to Thomas Jefferson’s struggles to write the Declaration of Independence. I even remember the moment when John Hancock signs the Declaration and says something witty about the size of his signature and King George. I also remember thinking that Mr. Feeny is John Adams. This connection makes sense given that it was circa 1996-1997 and Boy Meets World held a prominent spot in the TGIF lineup.

I have not watched the film since, but I owe it a view. I also owe Mr. Rilander another thank you. I say another thank you as I have thanked him before. A few years ago I proudly told him that I was majoring in History with a concentration in American History, and it was in part, because of his class. I owe him another thank you because you can never thank a teacher enough.

I feel so fortunate to have been placed in Mr. Rilander’s class. Yes, I had originally wanted to be in that class for cool desks and touch-football, but I left that classroom with so much more.

Thank You Mr. Rilander for the best introduction to American History a fifth grader can ever ask for.