Thursday, February 16, 2012

Inspirational events

Stephen and I do not make our living through Living History. We are paid for some of the things we do, and we have tried various schemes throughout our lives, but at this juncture our mortgage etc. is paid for by “normal” jobs. But we spend most moments when we are not working those jobs in pursuit of history and Living History experiences. We work hard to make great clothing, kit and equipment, we do tons of research to make sure we’re as authentic as possible, we network and teach to enrich the entire community.

All that means a lot of effort, less sleep, an investment of money and time. We don’t spend enough time with our families, we miss out on the latest movies, we ignore our other interests to cram in as much history as we can. By November of every year I’m usually more than a little burnt out. I’d rather watch TV than slog through another academic paper, play board games rather than struggle with another clothing pattern. That is why conferences like Military History Fest the first weekend in February and the FPIPN retreat at the end of March are so very important to me. I need inspiration to keep doing what we’re doing and also to get new ideas and try new projects.

The best part of these conferences, for me, is being surrounded by like-minded people. People who love history. Some are even interested in similar historical things: the European Middle ages and Renaissance, lovely hats, women’s history, agriculture and food. I enjoy the dressing up, people watching, shopping, encampments, and the seminars and discussions, but I enjoy all those things because of the conversations and the connections. We all get to tell our crazy moment stories, the ones about the stupid visitors, about the horrible weather we’ve endured, and our newest project.

I get to learn from folks who have spent a lot of time and energy on their areas of expertise, I also get to teach others about the things that I think are important. And for me sometimes that is less about historical facts and more about how those of us who love history and dress up etc. have a lot on common.

I can’t wait to see even more funny dressed people who love history!

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

20 RenDresses

The word is out, I am no longer employed. It is a relief to be able to say it, the last few months have not been good for anyone involved. I am hopeful that whatever comes next will be even better than what has come before, though the economy being what it is, I’ll take what I can get.

This post is slightly related to my employment status. When a friend found out I was looking for work she offered me a great opportunity: help her sew up some dresses for her business that she could not complete, and she would pay me to do it. My friend (I’ll call her “P”) was preparing for a big show and had a ton to do in a limited time. She bought all the fabric, cut out the dresses, all she needed me to do was sew them together. She drove to my house to drop off the first batch, ten dresses, and explain the construction, then a while later we met up again and she gave me ten more.

What I am leaving out here is Christmas and New Year’s, Alysa learning to drive, my work troubles, and an unexpected trip to Israel. I did not give my full attention over to the dresses. Usually I could only squeeze in a few hours a day, and those were on the days when we were not travelling. I am not as fast at sewing as P is, she does this for a living, I do it when I want a new historical outfit. With one thing and another, I did not get done nearly as many as I wanted, nor as many as P had hoped. I know folks say you should not work for your friends since it might ruin the friendship, but we all do each other favors sometimes, and us Medieval and Renaissance enthousiasts exist in such a small community that it is tough not to become friends with the folks doing the same stuff we love to do. All I can hope is that P is not as disappointed in me as I am in myself.

There were some good things I got out of the project, I got to see more of P, I got to help out a friend, even if only a little. I got to learn a great deal more about pleating and about ironing inside corners. And I’ve got this photo to show you of my attempt at 20 Renaissance Dresses.
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Friday, February 10, 2012

Conquered 38 Times

How does one explain the history of a place that goes back 6,000 years?

over the rooftops of Jerusalem's Old City
One of the things I noticed during our day in Jerusalem’s Old City is that there are as many different ways to tell the story, the history of Jerusalem as there are people, or perhaps even more than that. You’ve probably heard the joke about the group of 5 Jews (or scholars, or whatever) where you will find 6 opinions. The same can be said for teaching or storytelling methods, and in one day in Jerusalem’s Old City we experienced quite a variety of ways to tell the story of Jerusalem.

We hired a guide to the Old City and met her early in the morning. She got out some maps and a whiteboard and explained the story of the city in terms of geography. Then several hours later while sipping tea outside a teashop she explained the story with her arm span as a timeline, her elbows and shoulders were the major shifts and the life of Jesus was her left ear. After she left us we toured an old stone fortress and watched the introductory video (which happened to be the story of Jerusalem) then toured the exhibit halls (the story as told by objects.) and later than night came back for a laser and light show (yet another version of the story of Jerusalem.) Before our arrival I had read up on the story in guidebooks and magazines, and when we got home we got to tell our friends and families our own version of the story.

Jerusalem is a complex place, full of diverse people. Maybe more complex than the history of the US or most other places we might visit, but I think the lessons apply. Be on the lookout for other versions of the story, other ways to tell a tale or teach a lesson. Even if you think you know the story, you never know what new details might stick.

Model of Jerusalem during the time of the Second Temple at the Israel Museum

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

I think She's got it

Alysa was in a really susceptible frame of mind. We’d had an adventurous first day in Israel and were on our second day, venturing even further afield. We had an amazing time riding horses on the Mediterranean coast in the morning, then headed further north to find some cool ruins.

On the way we got lost, splashed around in the Mediterranean,  and finally found the place where I wanted to go, a Roman city, built as a port 2,000 years ago, and now well preserved ruins. The entrance to the National Park at Caesarea is through a modern park structure, down a path, and then through the remains of a Crusader (European Middle-ages) structure full of high arches and towering stone. You emerge out of the dark, vaulted stone on to a bright column-lined Roman street, and as we emerged I said something to the effect of:

Two thousand years ago this street was a busy Roman street. Full of folks like Roman bureaucrats, cooks, fancy ladies, slaves, Roman Citizens out for a stroll and servants hurrying to market, messengers, tax collectors, they walked through a bustling city where we are now walking.

For the rest of the afternoon we explored up and down, on top and below all sorts of ruins. We had lunch and made friends with some very nice cats. We complained about the other tourists and at one point had a bit of a race to reach the Roman theater. We marveled at the bath house, and discussed what it would be like to live in a beautiful villa like the one we could see outlined in the ruins.

We also played out a conversation those Roman citizens might have had. We read a plaque explaining that the marble for the columns had been shipped in from all over: Greece and Turkey, even Egypt. So we played it out:
“That is nice marble, where’d you get it?”
“Oh this old stuff? I had it shipped from Greece, what about you?”
“Well my marble came from Egypt.”

I believe that there were jealousies and one-upmanship even in Roman times. I think emotions translate sometimes much better than facts or even objects.

A few days later Alysa was talking to someone else (Stephen probably) and said she had such a good time at Caesarea because that was history about actual people. She could see why history could be interesting if it was about how real people lived and not just about dates, battles, and countries. I have to say that moment totally warmed my heart.

I know that not everyone is going to love the things that I do. Alysa has her own life and one of our many goals when inviting her to live with us was helping her discover her own passions and goals. But since she is stuck with us for at least a while, I am really glad that she has started to understand why Stephen and I are so into history, and maybe is on her way to enjoying it while she is with us, if not beyond.

Alena photographing the ruins at Caesarea
Alysa posing under Crusader srches
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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Horseback riding on the Mediterranean

Sometimes, the (potentially) cheesiest adventures turn out to be the most rewarding.

When Alysa’s grandmother generously paid for Alysa’s plane ticket so she could go to Israel with us I was excited, but also a bit trepidatious. She and I would be spending our days together, just the two of us in a foreign country. We get along just fine, but I’m an anxious individual and Alysa had never been out of the country, I wanted us both to get something out of the trip and our interests do not always overlap. When one of the guidebooks I was reading mentioned a chance to ride horses in the Mediterranean surf, I looked for more information because Alysa loves horse back riding, and I certainly enjoy it on the rare times I get an opportunity. I was worried that it would be totally cheesy because I’ve been on group horseback trail rides that were pretty awful, where there were 20 tired horses all tied in a line and a bunch of awkward tourists who had never been on horses before. I was worried we’d move at a snail’s pace and spend the whole time feeling so sorry for the horses and not enjoying the limited time on the beach. Our experience was the exact opposite of those bad experiences; our ride was wonderful.

Sunday there was a rain storm. Israel does not get many rain storms, so when we asked our hotel staff to call the ranch on Sunday night about getting reservations, the folks on the other end of the phone were very reluctant to guarantee we could go out riding, but Monday dawned clear and sunny, so the hotel desk called up and got us a 9:30 appointment at Cactus Ranch. They also gave us directions. They told us it was not on any maps, did not have an address to type into a GPS and was a ways off the road, but said there were signs and we should call on our way in. Alysa and I hopped in a taxi to a car-rental place, then rented a car and sped out of the city. Okay, we did not actually speed, it took us a while to get a car reservation, a while to pick up the car, and then the GPS got us lost trying to get out of the city, so we were already late when we arrived in the village, saw the little sign for Cactus Ranch, and pulled off the paved road. Many turns and a few miles later Alysa and I were hooting with hysterical laughter as we dodged puddles the size of small ponds and hollered every time we saw a sign with a little horse on it. We were almost an hour late, but when we pulled up everyone was happy to see us, seemed to be expecting us, and spoke enough English that we could all communicate.

The place was pretty muddy, but they told us the rainstorm had been very fierce on the coast, and all the horses were acting happy and well-fed, just, well, muddy. We watched as only three horses were groomed and saddled; apparently the off-season meant that there were no other tourists, and the weather had scared away all the Israelis. It was just the two of us and a guide. Since we both had some riding experience, verified by the fact that we mounted up, sat up strait and held the reigns without being taught, our guide Itsak was willing to give us a lot of leeway.

We trotted through fields of wild flowers, down dirt roads, and up on to the beach, where we splashed in the waves and gazed out over the big swells of a winter-time Mediterranean. I gave Itsak my iPhone and he took photos of Alysa and I smiling and laughing as we tried to urge our horses further into the waves (Alysa’s horse was afraid of the water and mine thought he was king of the herd.) The beach part was a blast, but the rest of the ride was even better.

After the beach our guide led us up the dunes and along the top of a cliff. We had great vistas up and down the coast where industrial smokestacks and glassy high rises were encroaching on the lovely brush and bramble covered seaside, but I was able to ignore the signs of civilization to enjoy the amazing land and sea. The Med was rough, with plenty of big whitecaps, but it was still warm and green. It looked so much more inviting than the North Atlantic has ever looked. Even to a land lubber like me it looked like a body of water on which to have adventures. As we made our way up the coast I could not help but imagine Odysseus, Jason, the Phoenicians, all adventuring on that wild but enticing sea.

Even when the cliffs blocked our view I could not help but feel like an intrepid traveler, like one of my ancestors making her way across the arid, but lovely land. Maybe Sarah or Miriam, or even Mary on the back of a donkey, because surely on the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem she travelled through the same land, gazed at the same plants, and I’m sure some of the days of travel might have been sunny and bright. I know that is totally romantic. We spent a few hours on horseback on a bright clear day in a lovely setting, very far from the experience of those in the past. But surely my ancestors must have had some bright moments when they took some delight in the road, the location, and that circumstances were, for the moment, just about perfect.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Israel: Dichotomy

Experiencing the Mediterranean for the first time.
I am made up of so many contradictions. In fact, I think everyone is made up that way. I returned a week ago from 6 days in Israel. I had a wonderful time, and found it comforting that there are places made up of contradictions too. I wish I could tell you about all of them, but you’re here for history, right? So I’ll tell you about history, because boy does Israel have both a lot of history, and then almost none at all!

Not that long ago, back in early December I think, Stephen got done with a conference call for work and spoke up to say he might have to go to Israel. I think I ran over to the couch where he was sitting and almost tackled him. I surprised myself with my own ferocity in declaring that if he was going to Israel, then I was going to do everything I could in order to accompany him. More than 5 years ago now we went to England, and I was amazed at the amount of history sitting on every street corner, behind every hill. Compared to England, The US has no history. The land that is now the state of Israel can date human settlement back to Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals. They can date their written history back to, you guessed it, biblical times. Compared to Israel, England has no history!

Our niece got to come with us, her first time out of the country, so she was game for whatever sort of sight seeing I had in mind. Since Stephen had to spend most of his time working (poor thing) I got to plan the itinerary. We were staying in a brand new modern city, less than 100 years old, but still I tried to do as many things history related as possible. Alysa and I visited the “old town”, flea markets, produce markets, and museums in town. One day we got really ambitious and rented a car to see some of the sights outside of the city. On the last two days all three of us visited Jerusalem and spent time in that really old city as well as at museums and the Holocaust Memorial. I am still overwhelmed by all that we experienced, and am processing it slowly. I’d like to tell you about a few key experiences, I’ll break them out into individual posts over the next week(ish.)

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