Calidris Reads: England, 1665

Reading and traveling are two of my favourite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Year of Wonders:
A novel of the plague

Geraldine Brooks

Read for: Imaginary journey to England & pandemic pastime

Opening: “I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light.”

Although it is set in England, 1665-1666, Year of Wonders is a story for here and now. I first read it a number of years ago and liked it enough to stash it on my “might be read again” shelf. The characters are interesting and drawn well, the writing is just my style, with spare but evocative descriptions, and the premise, intriguing.

The plot is a fictionalized retelling of the true story of Eyam, a small countryside village like many others in the seventeenth century. The people live simple, sometimes harsh lives, but thrive through faith and community. When the Black Death arrives via a delivery of cloth from plague-stricken London, village life is shattered as every home is visited by horrific illness and agonizing death. The town’s religious leader urges the villagers to take the burden of the plague upon themselves and voluntarily quarantine so that the disease should not be carried beyond Eyam’s borders.

How the various characters respond to this challenge creates the drama and poses questions for the reader: What would you do if faced by this situation? Do people act better or worse when lives are at stake? Do you have a higher duty to your family or to society? Should one sacrifice personal freedom for the good of others?

One reviewer of the book wrote: “[Year of Wonders]…leaves us with the memory of vivid characters struggling in timeless human ways with the hardships confronting them….”

Does this strike any familiar chords? Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, deniers, exploiters, haters, haranguers, heroes, and helpers. The great of heart and the small of brain.

Welcome to 2020.

While culling my library in October, I came across Year of Wonders and realized immediately that if there was a time to reread the book, it had to be now.

In an 2001 article published after the September 11 attacks, author Geraldine Brooks wrote: “Whether we also shall one day look back upon this year of flames, germs, and war as a ‘year of wonders’ will depend, perhaps, on how many are able…to match the courageous self-sacrifice of the people of Eyam.” She could have just as well have written that today.

Speaking in a subsequent interview, she said: “Eyam is a story of ordinary people willing to make an extraordinary sacrifice on behalf of others. Love, hate, fear. The desire to live and to see your children live. Are these things different on a beautiful autumn morning in a twenty-first-century city than they were in an isolated seventeenth-century village? I don’t think so. One thing I believe completely is that the human heart remains the human heart, no matter how our material circumstances change as we move together through time.”

People magazine’s review of the book included this comment: “[Year of Wonders]…subtly reveals how ignorance, hatred, and mistrust can be as deadly as any virus.”

Wow. The wilful stupidity and bigotry of some segments of the population during the current pandemic plus the deliberate deception practiced by some of our leaders certainly proves that point.

Published almost two decades ago, Year of Wonders is still worth seeking out. O, The Oprah Magazine called it “a vividly imagined and strangely consoling tale of hope in a time of despair.”

Isn’t that what we all could use right now—a tale of hope in a time of despair?

Five knots: A must-read

Calidris Reads: Denmark

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books about other writers’ travels. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

The Year of Living Danishly:
Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country

Helen Russell

First sentence: “It all started simply enough.”

Indeed, it all starts simply, when Russell’s husband, fondly dubbed “Lego Man” in the book, receives a job offer to work for the toy company at their home base in Denmark. Despite a successful if exhausting career in London publishing, Russell decides to take the plunge and move with him to the tiny country (pop. 5.7 million; smaller than Toronto).

Living Danishly, she soon learns, can be challenging, baffling, frustrating, and rewarding. Danes are both freethinkers and rulemakers and are not shy about letting you know when you’ve stepped out of line. Each month of the year leads to new discoveries about the Danish way of life and questions about how aspects of it contribute to Danes’ high level of happiness. From traditional food to modern furniture, raising children to celebrating Christmas, Russell shares info and anecdotes that are always illuminating and often funny.  As when the two Brits visit their first Danish bakery and are confronted by an unhelpful clerk:

“The place is empty, so we stand expectantly, waiting to be served. But the woman behind the counter remains expressionless. ‘Hi!’ I try, but she averts her eyes and busies herself rearranging a crate of buns….We smile. She does not. Instead, she points to an LED display above her head that shows the number 137. Then she points at a deli-counter-style ticket dispenser behind us….Is she seriously telling me that I have to get a ticket?…Bakery woman has now folded her arms resolutely, as if to say, ‘Play by the rules or no buttery pastry goodness for you.’ Knowing when I’m beaten, I turn around, take three paces to my right, extract a small, white ticket with the number ‘137’ on it from the machine, then walk back. The woman nods, takes my ticket, and uncrosses her arms to indicate that normal service can commence.”

Or when they naively hoist the revered Danish flag up a pole without consulting the flag laws and a disapproving neighbour presents them with a comprehensive list of rules that he has helpfully printed off his computer and laminated for them.

I must confess, I shared Russell’s curiousity about why Danes consistently rank themselves so high in happiness, so I found all the factoids fascinating and I thought she threw in enough humour to help the medicine go down in a most delightful way. Even if you have no intention of visiting Denmark, The Year of Living Danishly will have you wondering whether the Danes are really onto something and you’ll be asking yourself: Would I be happier living Danishly?

5 knots Must-read

Travel in the time of contagion*

Last week, I finally ventured out into the big, scary world for my first bit of travel since February and the beginning of the lockdown. It wasn’t far, just a short camping trip out to Pacific Rim National Park with a close friend in her lovely new camperized van, but it was interesting to see how things are working in our BC tourist industry.

I crossed The Big Water as a foot passenger on BC Ferries, choosing an evening sailing on a Tuesday night with the idea that the ship would be fairly empty. I also assumed most people who boarded with cars would choose to stay in their cars. Wrong on both accounts. There were few walk-ons, but many car passengers did come upstairs to wander around, use bathrooms, and buy food. According to current BC Ferries policy, everyone is required to wear masks at all times and most people did, but there are always those who don’t and I didn’t see any ferry staff enforcing the rule. On the positive side, every second row of seating on board was roped off to create safe distancing.

At Green Point Campground in the national park, check-in was accomplished with distancing and safety barriers. Individual sites are far enough apart that you don’t have to worry about being near other groups. I wasn’t sure if the park was limiting occupancy, since many sites were marked Occupied or Reserved, yet seemed to have no one in residence. Because of this, the campground was extremely quiet (lovely) and felt empty (a bit spooky). The bathrooms were open except for the inside showers and provided warm water and soap for hand washing. All good, but I noted that they had blow dryers for hand drying rather than paper towels; I’m sure I remember reading that one shouldn’t use blow dryers as they scatter the virus around, whereas paper towels act as a final scrub to remove germs.

When we headed to Long Beach (this was a Thursday), we found it very busy, with parking spots near-impossible to find and hundreds of people both in the water and on the sand. It is a big beach, however, and sunseekers naturally space themselves out anyway, so distancing wasn’t a problem.

Dropping in at Tofino, 21 k up the coast, I saw few masks in evidence but since the town is a magnet for freewheeling younger folks, that wasn’t surprising. The only store we entered, Chocolate Tofino (excellent, BTW!) did have safety measures in place, including a tight limit on the number of shoppers inside, barriers between staff and customers, and a mandatory hand sanitizer station at the door.

Overall, I revelled in my chance for a getaway, short as it was, and I never felt the risks were unreasonable, probably no worse than going into a grocery store back home.

*You’ll note that I have not used the name of the-virus-that-must-not-be-named. That’s because the last time I did name it, that posting drew over 8,000 spam comments—ranging from offerings of pyramid schemes to ads for male enhancement products—which were impossible to remove, and I ended up deleting that posting to get rid of them.

Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

Willkommen/Bienvenu/Welcome

The next time you travel to an international destination, wouldn’t it be fun to meet a local who could speak your language and would take you on a themed walking tour, telling you all about their beloved home town?

When I stumbled upon the International Greeters Association website during our recent trip to France, I immediately loved the idea. When I found out the service is free, I loved it even more.

The first chapter of what would become IGA was founded in New York in 1992 by Lynn Brook. According to Big Apple Greeter: “On her extensive travels around the world, Lynn realized that almost everyone she met wanted to visit New York City, but some were a little intimidated. She wanted the world to know New York City as she did: a great big small town with diverse neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who go out of their way to help a visitor feel welcome.”

The concept was a resounding success and the organization now covers 123 destinations, with over 3500 greeters.

The IGA has the following core values:

1) Greeters are volunteers.

2) Greeters welcome individuals and may serve small groups of up to six people.

3) Meeting a Greeter is free of charge.*

4) All visitors and volunteers are welcomed without discrimination.

5) Greeter organizations support sustainable tourism. Programs respect natural and man-made environments, bringing both cultural and economic enrichment to local communities. Programs aim for a lasting positive image of each destination.

6) Greeter organizations create a mutually enriching opportunity for cultural exchange; create links between people in creating a better world.

I connected through the Loire Valley Greeters site, where they feature hosts from six Loire cities, including Amboise, where we were staying. I was also able to specify my language of choice (English, because I’m an ignorant North American monolinguist) and a theme (history). Other themes included literature, architecture, local products, nature, and shopping. Once all those filters were applied, the site offered me several greeter options. I picked a friendly face and sent through my request for a date/time.

I quickly received a confirmation and a contact for our greeter, Charles.

Charles was a delight, full of enthusiasm and knowledge about the history of Amboise. He was well prepared for our visit and even carried a binder with visual materials to illustrate some of his stories. Together, we wandered through the old streets, with Charles chatting about specific houses or the general history of the area. We peered into courtyards and poked around in one of the lovely old churches, Église Saint-Denis. We had the opportunity to ask about things that had puzzled us. It was really like a stroll with your favourite teacher.

We were thrilled to discover this organization and to visit with Charles. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it earlier in our trip so that we could have met greeters in some of the other towns we visited.

*I was contacted later by the Amboise group to solicit feedback and to request a donation. I was happy to provide both, but it’s your option whether to donate.

Calidris Reads: Less

Reading and traveling are two of my favourite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Less

Andrew Sean Greer

Read for: A quick and pleasant break from a round of historic novels I’d been ploughing through.

First sentence: “From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

A while back, I wrote about books that found me on my travels. As a perfect example of this, picture me and my stalwart companion noshing down at a trendy café during a recent trip to Lynnwood, Washington. One wall of the restaurant was covered with shelves and a couple of those shelves housed books, the kind of random mix of used volumes that usually signals a take one/leave one collection. I wasn’t really looking for anything, but as I gazed idly from my table, one book caught my eye.

Only the spine was visible, but it called to me from across the room, seducing me with its soft, retro-turquoise colour and enormous letters L-E-S-S.

Look at me, it whispered. I am beautiful. I am mysterious. I am intriguing. You will love me.

Resistance is futile. Drawn to the shelf like a puppet on a string, I pull down the book. Am I influenced by cover, celebrity endorsements, awards won? Yes (a clearly comical drawing of a man falling through the air while scribbling on paper), yes (Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant, whose work I admire, says she recommends it), and yes (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Wow.).

Good comic novels are hard to find and this one is about a writer who goes travelling. Too perfect, eh? Picaresque is the word that springs to mind (defined by Wikipedia as “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road.”) There are brief but evocative descriptions of the places Arthur Less visits, including Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, Italy, Morocco, India, and Japan, as well as accompanying transport: airports, airplanes, buses, and camels.

It struck me mid-way through the book that this might be the first book I’ve read about a gay main character where that is not the central feature of the book. Certainly, Less is gay and has homosexual romantic/sexual adventures throughout, but that’s just one facet of his character among many. In other words, he is a character who is a writer and a traveller and a person turning 50 and a man who believes himself fluent in German when he is not, who also happens to be gay. At least that’s the way I see him. I’d be curious to know what a gay reader would say.

There wasn’t anything about this book I didn’t like. Less the character grows on you: the more you get to know him, the more you like him. His foibles become endearing rather than pompous. I enjoyed the travel tales and I found the writing both clever and engaging.

A good read, whether you’re on a journey or in your own comfy chair at home.

5 knots: Highly recommended (I’m sure the Pulitzer Committee is relieved to know that I agree with their decision.)

In Search of Folk Music: Port Gamble WA

Spanaway Bay performs at the 2019 Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival

Are you familiar with the famous “blanket run” that opens the Vancouver Folk Music Festival each year? When the official gate barriers come down, thousands of crazed music fans race to the main stage area to lay down blankets and claim a prime spot for the evening concert. Within minutes, every patch of grass within a hundred metres of the stage is guarded by tarps, towels, hampers, coolers, sleeping bags, beach chairs. I haven’t yet seen razor wire go up or chained hounds employed, but the possibility exists.

The Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival in Washington State does not have a blanket run. To be honest, it does not have a gate or barriers, because it is free. The festival music starts at noon and when we arrived at 11:55, there were two people in camp chairs lording it over the entire site, a small, grassy hillside tucked between two historic buildings.

We considered our options. The Camp Chair People were clearly canny veterans, having chosen the best spot on a tiny level area halfway up the hill. We had to settle for second-best, about ten metres directly in front of the stage and higher up the hill.

By showtime, another dozen people had added themselves to the throng. At mid-afternoon, I counted about 40 audience members. Passersby, hearing the music, wandered in and stayed. It was, shall we say, an intimate festival.

I loved it.

Historic building beside festival site.

We did not need binoculars to see the performers. We did not need to stand in a half-hour line to use a smelly port-a-potty. When nature called, we ambled across the street (which was inevitably free of traffic) to the post office to use the restroom. If we wanted a hot or cold drink or ice cream, one of the buildings flanking the site sold those things. If further nourishment was required, a few steps down was the town’s restaurant. Apparently, organizers had a contingency plan to move indoors to the local theatre (also across the street) in case of inclement weather. Fortunately, despite continuous rain throughout the morning, promptly at 11:00, the showers ceased, the clouds began to dissipate, and blue skies prevailed.

It was a bit of a festival miracle and just one more thing that made the day a delight.

Admittedly, getting to Port Gamble is a challenge. Unless you live on the Kitsap Peninsula, you will likely have to take a ferry. Coming down from British Columbia, we stayed overnight in Lynnwood to facilitate an early start on festival Saturday. Next morning, we lined up for the Edmonds-Kingston ferry just as the 7:55 am sailing chugged off. By the next sailing at 8:50, the line-up behind us was impressive.

The Northshore Ramblers.

Once you make it to Kingston, however, it’s only a 12-minute drive to Port Gamble, and—Be still, my beating heart!—there’s lots of free parking in town.

Wiki tells us that: “The Port Gamble Historic District, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, covers one of the nation’s best-preserved western lumber towns.”  As we sauntered around that morning, we noted the many historic plaques on buildings dating from the mid- to late nineteenth century. We dropped in on the friendly quilting shop, where I managed to resist the urge to buy a quilt pattern simply to maintain the pleasant fiction that I might actually sew one someday. We ate a late breakfast at the Scratch Kitchen, by a window overlooking the bay, then walked the few metres back to the festival site.

The music runs from noon until 5 pm, with four feature acts plus presentation of the songwriting contest winners and a grand finale that brings all the performers back on stage leading singalong sea shanties. Oh, the harmonies! It appeared that all the performers were more or less local and most seemed to know each other, judging by the joking and camaraderie during the finale. I was impressed that all the performers stayed 99% on the maritime theme, albeit with occasional dashes of Bluegrass and pop styles to keep things lively.

From our perch on the hillside, we looked down past the stage to the sparkling water of the ocean and the serene forests of the opposite shore. A variety of birds put on an aerial show: gulls soaring, kingfishers diving, eagles hunting, Canada geese arriving en flock to rest on the beach below.

As the final strains of the last shanty—“It’s time for us to leave her”—were carried away by a fresh breeze, we headed for the ferry. Luck stayed with us and we were one of the last cars to make that sailing, arriving back at our snug anchorage in Lynnwood in time for a tasty Japanese dinner at Wild Wasabi.

Verdict: Live, local, accessible folk music FOUND in Port Gamble. Thanks, folks!

The Port Gamble Maritime Music Festival takes place in August. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. This year’s performers included Spanaway Bay, the Northshore Ramblers, the Whateverly Brothers, and Curlew’s Call.

Ruby chocolate revisited

Brief follow-up to my post on the new ruby chocolate….

I finally laid my greedy hands on some ruby chocolate. At $9 for a large bar, it’s about twice the price of decent Belgian chocolate. I imagine that’s the novelty factor and the price will come down over time.

It was a beautiful, deep pink colour, pretty close to the photo (that’s my own photo). Light fruity fragrance, nice snap and bite to the bar. Mouth feel was similar to good quality white chocolate.

The taste was very distinctive: not at all “chocolaty,” but, rather, like tangy berries or perhaps a bit of citrus. As such, to me, it was more like candy than my beloved chocolate. I could only take a small amount at a time. Maybe that’s a good thing!

In any case, well worth trying out. It’s not my new favourite, but it might be yours.

Ghirar-disappointment

Mine was not as nice as this.

I don’t generally use this blog to slag products or businesses. My mother’s angelic form tends to be perched on my shoulder, reminding me “If you can’t say something nice….” And I know a bad review can hurt a small business, so I try to be kind—or, at least, silent.

But when it comes to a giant like famous chocolate maker Ghirardelli, the gloves come off.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I visited Ghirardelli­­ Square, the 1893 headquarters of the chocolate company. It’s a pleasant place that is, according their website, “considered the first successful adaptive reuse project in the country.” It’s on the National Historic Register. There are pricey shops and places to sit and play. All good.

It’s also home to the original Ghirardelli ice cream and chocolate shop, where they scoop notoriously decadent hot fudge sundaes. Yum. For a chocolate worshipper such as myself, a pilgrimage was definitely called for.

Sadly, the experience was a disappointment from beginning to end. You start by standing in line to order and pay at a busy and indifferent cashier. No smile or greeting sets the tone for your visit. State your choice, hand over the cash (ka-ching: Cdn$18!) and move on through, clutching a number.

Now you must find a place to sit. Although it is a weekday afternoon, the cafe is jammed with people. All tables in sight are claimed and there is no one to help you locate a seat. Hmm…perhaps if one knew that before ordering, one would demur. But, of course, now you’ve paid, you’re on the hook.

My companion and I wander through into what appears to be the party room, as it’s a screaming, chaotic space of bouncing children at a ratio of ten to each harassed adult guardian. Ah, but there’s a table! Grab it with relief.

As we wait for our order, I am reminded of the stanza in Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

All the Who girls and boys
Would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys!
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!

The sound level is deafening. I watch the servers moving between the tables, searching for those identifying numbers, carrying ice cream creations that are supposed to be finely balanced combinations of hot and cold ingredients. But the longer it takes for them to find you, the slushier your sundae will be. I knew America prides itself on being a melting pot, but this is ridiculous.

I observe that about 95% of the diners are white, while 95% of the servers are not. I wonder if the white kids will grow up thinking brown people serve.

At last! My sundae has arrived, somewhat liquidy. Another literary tidbit leaps to mind, referring to Boxer the horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm: “His answer to every problem, every setback, was ‘I will work harder!’”

Or, as in the current crisis: “I will eat faster!”

Within a few bites, the hot fudge is exhausted, leaving a naked mound of plain vanilla ice cream to finish. After all that I’ve gone through—not to mention the $18 price tag—I expected a superlative treat. This was a true letdown.

I know, I know: first-world problems, right?

My excuse for whining is that I want to save others from what I see as a ripoff. Personally, I won’t be buying another Ghirardelli sundae. And I don’t think their chocolate is so special, either.

So there.

PS If you want a better hot fudge sundae, try this time-tested recipe from our kitchen:

250 ml half-and-half (about 10% milk fat) cream
300 g semi-sweet pure chocolate chips (we use Chipits)
1 tbsp corn syrup (optional; we use white corn syrup)

Place all ingredients in the top part of a double boiler with an inch of lightly simmering water in the bottom. Slowly melt and stir until sauce is smooth and thick. Do not overheat or the sauce will seize.

Pour over good-quality vanilla ice cream; add peanuts, bananas, whipped cream, and a cherry, if desired.

Tired of blogs about chocolate? I’ll try to find another topic. Meanwhile, let me know what you think about Ghirardelli’s products. Do you stand with me or agin me?

Joust for Fun

Arizona Renaissance Festival 2019 Photo by Marian Buechert.

Years ago, I stumbled across something online called the Renaissance Festival Podcast. This was in the very early days of podcasts and I had never heard of them. How cool to have a whole bunch of music in a genre you liked instantly accessible! While I was already very keen on folk music of all types, the podcasts were my introduction to “Ren Faire” music, which is a mix of serious, beautifully performed ballads and tunes along with a lot of rollicking, frequently bawdy, sometimes downright dirty songs.

The podcasts were also my first window into the quirky world of Renaissance festivals. I was astonished to discover that there are over fifty regular Ren events across North America and more in Europe and Australia. Ye innocents, take heed: this is happening all around you—your neighbours and co-workers are dressing up in corsets and codpieces and congregating in places where they can kowtow to a monarch, drink mead, and shout “huzzah!” for knights and clowns alike. My kind of people.

Hence, I was excited when I found that the Arizona Renaissance Festival would be happening while we were down south, and not too far from Phoenix, one of our stopovers.

The Arizona festival has 32 years under its belt and it shows: this is no fly-by-night, two-days-per-year event. They run every weekend in February and March and they have a permanent site, complete with buildings, streets, 14 stages, and, most impressively, a jousting stadium. It’s extremely well organized, from food to entertainment, and things seem to run like clockwork. If you bring even a modicum of willingness, you will be jollied, cajoled, and nudged into having a good time, as the cast rouses up the audience at every performance to “ooooo!” when something dangerous is attempted, “ahhhhhhh!” when it succeeds, and applaud at every possible opportunity. Spectators at the jousts are expected to take sides and cheer “their” knights while booing the opposing team.

You may see a gaggle of Harry Potter characters sporting robes and wands and Star Wars stormtroopers in white armour, all rubbing shoulders with the Queen of England in full Elizabethan glory. Historically accurate, it ain’t, but the time-tested joy of “dressing up” carries the day. One could even argue that, when you get right down to it, what we’re really doing is finding different ways of portraying archetypes. Fantasy people get that Darth Vader is just a tech-savvy Black Knight, and that the Wise Mentor can choose to put on his Merlin, Gandalf, or Dumbledore robes at will.

The rides at the faire are simple, old-fashioned, and entirely human-powered, usually some variation on being swung, twirled, rocked, or bounced. I don’t know how genuinely medieval these are, but I certainly enjoyed the sight of small children perched in wooden dragons, screaming in excitement while a couple of burly guys in peasant shirts worked the cranks to make them “fly.”

There are streets full of stores that sell costume clothing, armour, drinking vessels, metalwork, leatherwork, woodwork, blown glass, dragon masks, fairy wings, and anything else your historical/fantastical heart might desire. You can hire the village insulter to recite your own personal insult, written on the spot, or buy a blossom for your lady love from a flowerseller.

The jousting is impressive, featuring knights in shiny metal armour tilting at each other on horseback with ridiculously long wooden lances. Between rounds, the knights parade before their fans (preassigned by seating section) to preen and boast. Colourful pennants stream in the wind, a member of the royal family presides from a high box, and you find yourself wedged between a steampunk pirate on one side and a Dr Who (4th incarnation, of course) on the other. You can even get married at the faire, afterward feasting in medieval style and viewing the joust from a seat of honour.

Onstage, the comedy is broad and often raunchy and the songs are full of double-entendres. Acrobats, fire jugglers, and storytellers pull patrons from the audience to add spontaneity and entertaining awkwardness to their shows, then pass the hat. There is falconry and “live mermaids,” roasted turkey legs for lunch and a bullwhip-cracking adept to watch while eating them.

An excursion into the Renaissance festival world is a day of delight where, with a bit of imagination and a willingness to play, all ages can enjoy themselves—without clicking buttons or staring into a screen.