Tuesday, January 10, 2012





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I don't remember ever dressing up as a princess. Although I do remember princesses...the ones in bright colored dresses in between hard-cover books from a certain “D” company. I do recall my mother sighing deeply after asking her to please read me Cinderella yet again. I didn't really believe that princesses existed outside of my story books. I suppose, though, I wanted to believe in the “happily every after” ending of each story.

But in comparison, my daughters, have gone through an almost clinically-defined princess phase. The period started with the same series of “D” books. They had their favorites depending on the hair color and dress color of a certain character – usually one with somewhat corresponding facial and hair features. In the beginning, they each just held dear to their favorite princess stories.

The phase evolved, however. For my eldest daughter's third birthday a cute blond classmate, whose gorgeous blond mother works in a children's boutique, gave her a calm-pink gown with delicate flowers sewn all over the neckline, sleeves and skirt. It flowed up into the air as soon as she took it from its box. Her sweet, innocent, overwhelmed eyes, saw it as the most fabulous dress ever made. She wore it every chance she could. Over the months and years, fabric flowers have dropped off and the sheerness of the skirt has ripped in places from its silky slip. The dress now looks just like the dresses of a certain "B" doll of which stiff, plastic, protruding thumbs have shredded the sleeves. Not only has my daughter kept this dress for six years, her little sister has also played dress-up in it, albeit with very special permission. I've even had to take it to the seamstress to “touch it up” the best she could for Carnaval – the one day my daughter is allowed to wear it out of the house.

Living in Europe certainly does nothing to discourage the prolongation of said princess phase. As a family, we have done a lot of sight-seeing. And, a good portion of these day-trips have been to castles. The only castle I ever thought of as a child was the one on the covers of those “D” fairy tale books, out in Florida and California. As we live in the officially known Kingdom of Belgium, when I talk about royalty, I am referring to real, live people. And, these real live people consider castles their real homes...not just film sets where stilts are holding up the scenery.

One Saturday, I was driving around with my daughters and had seen a sign indicating a particular castle. I thought that while we were out, we'd go see it. I pulled up the long drive of the high-walled property to an arched brick entrance. There were no other cars so I figured it was closed and reversed to back up to the street again. Unfortunately, I was blocking someone driving up behind me. I got out of the way and went home. Once in the door, I looked up this castle in a guidebook only to read that it is a private residence and is not open to the public. Now, I've always been a little embarrassed if ever caught turning around in somebody's driveway, this however takes the cake. I could just hear the man in his car wondering who the “commoner” was blocking his way.

After a few years here, I have been invited to certain events where some of the Belgian royals happened to have also been. On the first of such occasions, my husband and I attended a mass for the canonization of Father Damien. On our way out of the Basilique nationale du Sacré-Coeur de Koekelberg, HRH Princess Astrid of Belgium was waving to others in attendance while her driver waited. I thought, “I'll get a picture. The girls will be so excited to see a real princess.”

Once home, we told our daughters about the special day. I took my camera and said, “We even saw Princess Astrid. I took a picture of her for you. Wanna see?” They rushed over to see the small image on my digital screen. To which, my youngest daughter of 5 responded very matter-of-factly, “That is not a princess! She does not have long hair. She is not in a princess dress. She isn't even wearing a crown!” and stomped off. My face fell.

It just so happened that the daughter of one of my friends was attending the same Montessori kindergarten class as one Belgian princess. Although all the parents knew who she was and saw her royal parents at drop-off and pick-up times, the children never knew she was anyone any different from them. I almost wonder if it wouldn't be best to tell the class. I could guess their reactions would not have been anything more than, “Oh, ok.” I wonder if girls would be less likely to have a princess phase if they saw princesses just being the girls they are.

When I talk about the princesses of the real world, I want my daughters to hear what they do, not only what they wear to balls or how charming their princes are. I talk about how they work for the greater good, for organizations such as UNICEF or Mèdecins San Frontières, among others. I also let them know that being a princess isn't always fun, especially when you are constantly being watched. As I once asked my littlest, “What would people think if the princess was caught sucking her thumb in public?” (She promptly pulled out her own thumb.)

As a second-grade student, my eldest daughter was just about over the “D” princesses. Her first-grade sister, probably trying to follow along, wasn't talking as much about her favorite princesses. I thought we were finally moving on last year until...Prince William and Kate! Not only was their story in the media, every newspaper and every news program, the English department at their international school put pictures of the royal couple around the English block...we were so close (sigh). Needless to say, and no less because of the similarity of this royal wedding to a fairy tale, the girls jumped right back to the “oohs” and “ahhs” of princess life.

By chance last fall, we were at a nearby annual village festival. When we pulled into the grassy field-turned-parking-lot, I noticed a woman who looked oddly familiar. I remember noticing how well she was dressed in shiny low-heeled shoes, crisp beige slacks and matching Burberry trench coat - despite the very soggy ground and the nature of the event.

Somewhere in between the cotton candy stand and the quiz sign-up table, I walked by the couple again. I realized who they were. I looked over to my children who were in the bouncy castle, of all places. Several children were jumping and laughing...their son and daughter like everyone else. I smiled at my two little princesses … they were having a royal good time.

During the car ride home, I asked my girls if they thought they could tell a princess or a prince from anyone else in a crowd.

Of course,” they replied. 

Right.

Just last week, my daughters and I were cleaning out their bedrooms and came across the above-mentioned pink princess dress. Now that my third-grader talks more about horses and skiing than talking animals and ballroom dancing, I thought she would pass it over to her sister. But from the corner of my eye, I watched her hold it close to her like the first day it came into her life.

Illustrated or real, I suppose the princess dream is here to stay ...happily ever after.
photo La Hulpe Castle Brussels Belgium Princesses Michelle Nott
Our all-time favorite outing is running free at La Hulpe Castle.

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