""[I]t takes so much courage to stand up for one's principles, one's ideas."
"But why do it? Why not accept what everybody says is so, and go along comfortably?"
"Why not? I often ask myself. But — well, I can't."" — Graham Phillips David. A Woman Ventures. 1902, pp. 216-217.
Gabriel works more than eight hours a day, five days a week at a bike shop, Thursday through Monday. His commute to work is so far that at least once every week he spends the night at his mom's house (she lives closer to the bike shop where he works) instead of coming home, just so he can get a little more sleep once a week. I really miss him on those nights. Tuesday-Wednesday is our usual "weekend" since those are Gabriel's days off from the bike shop. Our anniversary fell on a Thursday this year, and Gabriel worked to arrange for one day off of his usual week. Taking Thursday off gave us a three day "weekend", which is an incredibly rare thing for us. We'd been looking forward to it with immensely eager anticipation.
We have very little money for vacations these days, but we scrimped and saved for a trip to Victoria. We've long been very fond of the city and have visited many times, but there was one landmark which Gabriel had never seen before because it is so very expensive we never felt able to justify the cost: the Butchart Gardens, a large flower garden 20 km outside of town. I'd been there back in high school, when the admissions fees weren't quite so exorbitant. Despite the rise in costs I really wanted Gabriel to see it.
We bought our admission tickets to the garden over a month in advance, and likewise paid in advance for a meal at the tea-house there —the only option for lunch, since the garden is so far out of town. We wouldn't be bringing our bicycles this trip, specifically because we'd done our research and knew that there are no bikes allowed on the grounds and nowhere outside to secure a high wheel. This meant that our only option for getting out to the garden was the large tour bus which shuttles visitors from Butchart to downtown Victoria several times a day. The bus company operates in partnership with the gardens, and since they have a monopoly on transportation, the fee to ride this bus is accordingly expensive. Between the high cost of admission, lunch, and the bus, all the fees we paid in advance for just the two of us came to more than the cost of an entire week's worth of groceries. When we planned and saved for our trip we knew our budget was tight, but I told Gabriel (and I worked hard to convince myself) that the sacrifice would be worth it to spend a day together in a flower garden. It was for our anniversary, after all. It was really the only big expense we planned for the whole trip. The rest of the time we would just wander the city, get our meals from the grocery store, and enjoy each others' company.
The night before our departure I was so excited I could barely sleep. I woke up at 2 a.m. and, giddy with anticipation, I stayed awake.
We took the first ferry of the day from Port Angeles to Victoria. The ferries between the Olympic Peninsula and southwest Canada (especially Vancouver Island, where Victoria is located) have a long and fascinating history; Gabriel and I chatted brightly about it as we traveled, discussing the long tradition of sea travel in this region. About halfway through the voyage the ship encountered what mariners call a swell and I was feeling slightly seasick, but I found I could keep my nausea under control as long as I kept my eyes shut and pretended I was being rocked in a cradle. Gabriel was worried about me but I assured him I was alright; that we were on a wonderful trip, and that the very minor discomfort I was feeling from the waves would simply be good material for a future story, when the cycling club in my fictional series charters a small steamer for a visit to Victoria. While my eyes were closed, I relaxed and plotted out that story and others in the series. And too, I looked forward to spending time in the garden with my dear husband.
We docked in Victoria too early to check in to our hotel, and besides, the bus to Butchart leaves directly from the ferry dock and their schedules are coordinated. We'd researched details of the garden in advance and learned that they had a baggage check area, so we planned that the minimal luggage we had with us could be left at the desk while we explored the garden together all day. Accordingly, we got on the bus with our little bags in hand. We ignored the inevitable snide comments we always get when we're out in public, and just focused on the good in the day, and how excited we were.
When we arrived at the garden, we saw a small bed of red begonias between the turnstiles at the entrance and the visitor's center. It was a square bed of red begonias with nothing terribly exceptional about it. Neither of us realized at the time that those red begonias were destined to be the one and only element of the famous Butchart Gardens which we were destined to see —despite all our planning and all our excitement.
As soon as we entered the grounds of the garden, we walked past the red begonias and into the visitor's center, intending to check our bags. We weren't allowed to get any farther.
In the visitor's center we smiled politely at the young man behind the counter and told him "Good morning!"
When I smile at someone in a friendly way and wish them good morning I appreciate a return of the greeting; at the bare minimum a smile is nice. Considering how much we were paying to be at Butchart, I don't consider myself unreasonable to have expected this simple level of human courtesy when we entered the visitor's center. We didn't get it. Instead, the young man behind the desk (Bryan, by his name tag) scowled at us and barked, "You need to change your clothes!"
Anyone who knows the slightest thing about Gabriel and me should have some idea of the typical clothes we wear every single day. I was wearing my blue striped print dress, covered decently from my ankles to the top of my neck. Gabriel was wearing a suit. Naturally, we were both also wearing hats. (I honestly can't even remember the last time I went outside and off the tiny property attached to my own home without a hat. Hats are just part of being dressed to go outdoors in Victorian culture.)
"I'm sorry?" "What was that?" Gabriel and I asked together, sure we couldn't have heard Bryan correctly.
He looked down his nose at us. "We don't allow costumes here," he sneered.
"These aren't costumes!" We both responded in chorus, already feeling insulted. (For more on the subject of costume vs. clothing and how important the distinction is to us, please read this excerpt from my book Victorian Secrets: http://www.thisvictorianlife.com/costume-vs-clothing.html)
"This is what we wear every day," Gabriel went on.
Bryan cut him off: "You can't wear them here! Whatever you want to call them. You have to take them off."
"Excuse me?" I felt my blood pressure rising.
"We don't have any other clothes," Gabriel told him, calmer than I was. "All our clothes are like this. Like we just told you, we dress this way all the time."
"Well, you can't dress up that way here!"
We stared at him. What does he want us to do, walk around naked? Honestly, most of the other visitors weren't far from that.
Already, after less than one minute since we'd entered the visitor's center and less than three minutes since we'd walked through the gate of the Butchart Gardens, I didn't want to be there. Despite all our anticipation, despite all our excitement. After this reception, I knew already: This was not what we had dreamed of; this was not what we had come for; and this certainly was not what I had been willing to spend the equivalent of a week's worth of grocery money on.
"Then you have to give us our money back," I told Bryan logically.
Bryan scowled. "I can see if there are some old staff uniforms you could put on."
"No!" Gabriel and I both instantly responded, affronted.
Our clothes are wrapped up in the most intimate way possible with our own identities. (I've written an entire book on the subject, for goodness' sakes.) This man was telling us that to enter this place we had paid an inordinate amount of money to visit, we would first have to strip off our very identities. No.
"If you won't let us be here in our own clothes, then give us our money back," I repeated.
Bryan scowled again. "I don't want to talk to you about this. I'll get my boss to talk to you about it." He then got on a telephone and started yelling into the receiver very loudly that he had people who were wearing COSTUMES and REFUSED to change them.
When Bryan's boss arrived, unlike Bryan he had both his first and last names on his name tag: Jake Tomlinson. He introduced himself as John.
"We don't allow costumes here," Jake/John Tomlinson barked immediately. "You're going to have to change."
"These aren't costumes," Gabriel and I told him. "These are the clothes we wear every day."
John Tomlinson made a face. "Well, historical dress if that's what you want to call it. Whatever you call it, we don't allow people to dress the way you are here. And take off your hats when you talk to me!"
Take off our hats? He is commanding a lady to take off her hat? I wondered if he even realized the profound level of insult in that command. To remove one's hat in the presence of superiors has been a social gesture of inferiority since the days of medieval feudalism. He was demanding that we recognize his superiority to us.
"No, we will not take off our hats," I told him, incensed by the demand of physical submission. "That is an insulting request."
"You can't wear costumes here!" He repeated.
"This is the way we dress every day," we repeated yet again.
For the sake of my readers' patience and sanity, I will omit the repetition of this exchange which went on for the next ten minutes while we tried to explain to John Tomlinson that we really do dress this way every day and that there are firmly held convictions behind why we do so. He refused to believe us, and kept sneering that we were wearing ridiculous costumes that wouldn't be allowed in Butchart.
"Then give us our money back," I told him.
He didn't like that idea at all. "If you would just put on some of our old staff uniforms you could stay, but if you look like that—" He sneeringly gestured at us. "If you wear those costumes, then people will assume you work here."
The staff had repeatedly denied our own identities, denied that our clothes were real clothes and kept insisting they were costumes; now John Tomlinson was demanding that we play-act being a staff menial all day? And his reason for demanding that we play-act being one of their staff was so that people wouldn't think we were on the staff? Seriously? There were so many different levels of irony and hypocrisy to this I didn't even know where to start.
We shook our heads. "We're not changing our clothes," we insisted. "Just give us our money back."
"I suppose we can refund your admissions fee," John Tomlinson said grudgingly.
"And the cost of the high tea!" I insisted.
"We paid in advance to have lunch here at your tea room."
"If you're kicking us out, you have to refund it!"
"No one's kicking you out, if you would just put on some of our old staff uniforms—"
The thought occurred to me that after this sort of treatment, a truly petty and spiteful person would dress in the staff uniform they kept pressuring us to wear, then in that assumed role as one of their representatives, spend the rest of the day being as vile and disgusting as possible to every other guest on the grounds of the garden. But we are not the sort of people to do that.
"We're not changing our clothes for you!" We repeated yet again.
I raised my voice so the other visitors in the center could hear the situation. "If you're kicking us out, you have to refund all our money," I insisted, and proceeded to list the various fees, touching one of my fingers after another as I did so:. First, I held out my thumb: "Our admissions fees—" I added my forefinger. "The cost of the tea which we paid for in advance and now aren't going to get to eat—" Finally, I was holding up three fingers. "And the cost of the bus we took out here." I let my hand drop, then another thought occurred to me. I added, "—And I think you should pay for a cab ride back to Victoria for us, too!" I seriously didn't want to lose another hour of our precious, short vacation waiting for the next bus to depart, and I especially didn't want to spend that time standing outside the gate like sadly excluded urchins.
As John Tomlinson disappeared and we followed Bryan to the cash register I repeated yet again, "And the cost of the tea, and the cost of the bus!"
We gave Bryan the tickets we had bought in advance. He slowly, grudgingly counted out the cost of admission from the cash register.
"And the cost of the tea, and the cost of the bus!" I reminded him. I reflected that Butchart could really have a racket going, if they made a habit of refusing people entrance and then also refusing to refund large portions of the money those people had paid in advance in good faith.
Bryan just glared at me.
"If you're kicking us out, you have to refund all our money," I insisted yet again.
John Tomlinson came back. "Do you want me to get someone higher up to talk to you and see if we can arrange a very special, one time exception so you can stay?"
I shook my head. "I don't want to be here, after all this! Just give us our money back!"
"Fine, give them all of it," John Tomlinson spat at Bryan.
Bryan counted out the rest as slowly and grudgingly as if it had been his own cash he were giving us, glaring the whole time.
"I'll escort you out!" John Tomlinson barked.
As John was escorting us out I couldn't help noticing that the vast majority of visitors freely wandering the grounds without molestation were wearing tank tops, flip-flops, and spaghetti-strap dresses. Meanwhile, Gabriel in his suit and I in my ankle-length dress with high collar were being ejected —effectively for dressing too decently. It seemed so ironic I asked John Tomlinson if it was Butchart policy to make Muslim women remove their hijabs.
I don't think John Tomlinson even grasped the point I was trying to make. He just flatly said, "No."
Gabriel asked, "So, where do you draw the line? These honestly are the clothes we wear every day, and there really are firm principles and good reasons—"
John Tomlinson cut him off. "Well, I'll give you an example. Just last week we had a couple in and he was dressed as a bumblebee and she was dressed as a ladybug and we told them they couldn't come in that way —but they were more reasonable about it that you're being and they were willing to change clothes!"
He's comparing our lifestyle to people dressed as insects?
The continued level of insult in this whole situation was astonishing.
John Tomlinson dumped us outside the gate to wait for the cab. After he'd gone, Gabriel shook his head. "You know, the level of Old Testament symbolism here in being expelled from the garden is just too deep for words." He shook his head again, then forced a wry grin. "I have to say though, John would look ridiculous with a flaming sword!"
I had to laugh, and the laughter opened the flood gates on the tears I'd been holding in check. Tears of disappointment at the upsetting of all our lovely plans, tears of anger at how we had been treated and tears of frustration at how ridiculous it all was.
"Come here," Gabriel put his arms around me and guided me to a bench. "It's all right."
"You know what the worst part is?" I asked, leaning against his support. "The absolute worst part is that every time something like this happens, I hear the voices —a whole chorus of voices— of every single person who's told me they wish they could do something outside the mainstream, but they feel like they can't. This sort of thing is exactly why they feel that they can't. I hate it." My tears started flowing more heavily.
"I know —I understand," Gabriel told me. "But listen: we are the way we are because it's who we want to be, but we do it for those people, too. Not for that sort—" He pointed back towards the gate. "We do it to show people who want to be themselves that it is possible to be an individual, and that people don't just have to conform and squish themselves into the mold of what society dictates that they should be. That's exactly the sort of firm principle we were trying to explain we represent." He squeezed my shoulder. "And we don't back down."
There is a pride in that.
On the ride back to town, I quietly recited Rudyard Kipling's poem, "If":
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
It was still before check-in time at our hotel when we got there, but asked if we could leave our bags with them. When they heard our story about being turned away from Butchart Gardens, the desk staff expressed righteous indignation on our behalf and said we were more than welcome to check in early. They also made a point of telling us they thought we looked lovely, and they were happy to have us there.
After we put away our bags, we left the hotel to walk around the city. Almost as soon as we got outside, we were approached by a large Muslim family —father, mother, grandmother, and lots of adorable children, all the women in hijabs. They stopped us and told us how nice we looked, and the father (whose English was the best) asked if they could take our picture. Of course we told them they could, and they were incredibly sweet and kind to us.
The difference between the way we had just been rejected by Butchart versus the way we were being welcomed by this random family was almost overwhelming —so much so that I had a hard time not crying again.
The grandmother spoke to me a little in French and reiterated how lovely it was to meet us. She had a beautiful accent that was unfamiliar to me, and after we parted ways I asked Gabriel if he had recognized the language they'd been speaking to each other.
"I was trying to," he mused, puzzling. "I don't know that it's one I've heard before..."
I tried to think of Islamic regions where French would be a likely second language for the older generation. "Do you think it might have been Persian?"
Gabriel looked surprised. "Maybe! Very cool."
"They were so sweet..." I teared up again.
"Definitely." Gabriel squeezed my hand reassuringly.
We walked up to Beacon Hill and wandered the extensive grounds of the beautiful gardens there which are part of the city's park system, freely accessible to all the public, without cost. We saw the world's tallest totem pole, and wandered near the petting zoo to see the animals. We marveled at the beautiful colors of the peacocks' plumage and laughed when we watched them fly up onto the roof of a small shelter to escape the crowds of children.
The little zoo had a flock of chickens exhibiting a dramatic variety of breeds. The largest was a rooster with huge spurs and golden plumage; one of the smallest was a tiny little bantam rooster with plumage of many colors. The little bantam was only about one-third the size of the big golden rooster, but every time the big golden rooster let out a self-aggrandizing crow the little rooster just stood up straight and proudly responded in kind, crowing for all he was worth. I liked that little bantam, and we stayed watching him for a while. The big golden rooster would tower over him, crowing, and I kept expecting him to peck the little guy in the vicious way that chickens do. But the little bantam just stood his ground, kept crowing with his own tiny voice, and at last the golden rooster left him alone. As soon as the big rooster backed down from the little bantam, that same big golden rooster found himself chased and pecked by a hen significantly smaller than himself. The bantam who had stood his ground stayed proud and tall, and went unpecked by anyone.
So, we did. We did all these things.
She gave us a map and pointed out the donation box, but told us shyly that the suggested donation on the side was just an idea and that we could pay less if we wanted to.
The suggested price of admission to Abkhazi was less than the cost of the bus (just the bus) to Butchart. We paid Abkhazi Garden their full donation, with glad hearts and thanks.
The Abkhazi Garden was planted by a real life prince and princess: deposed Georgian prince Prince Nicholas Abkhazi and his wife Peggy.
The following description of Prince Nicholas and Princess Peggy's story appeared in The Globe and Mail in 2000:
"Prince Abkhazi, who was born to the Georgian monarchy in 1899, was exiled to France in the early 1920s after Russia's invasion and the Bolshevik Revolution.
He first met then Peggy Pemberton-Carter in Paris while she was travelling with her adoptive mother. Together, the two visited art galleries, museums and explored the streets of Paris.
Peggy was born in 1902 to British expatriates living in Shanghai. Both died of illnesses before she was 5, prompting her adoption by a wealthy, childless couple, the Pembertons, friends of her parents.
She returned to China after meeting the prince in Paris and it was years before their paths crossed again. During the Second World War, she was interned in a Japanese war camp in Shanghai while he was a French soldier and prisoner of war in Hanover. The princess turned to gardening in the intern camp as her choice of manual labour.
They tracked each other down after the war through letters. She had no surviving family and decided to move to Victoria in 1945 to join friends. He soon followed her to Canada and the two were married. She was 43. He was 47. They never had children and there are no known surviving relatives.
The newlyweds bought the Fairfield estate, transforming the rocky, weedy lot through a labour of love into their own special sanctuary.
The princess often referred to the garden, which has been profiled in books and magazines, as their child. She called it "the garden that love built."
Read the whole article to find out how shockingly close this amazing garden came to being razed for townhouses at the beginning of the 21st-century: www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/fairy-tale-garden-in-victoria-may-be-saved-builder-holds-off-plans-as-funds-are-raised/article4159362/
Thankfully, it survived the threat. We were blessed to be able to visit it.
Having told the history of Abkhazi Garden, it seems worth mentioning that Butchart started its existence as a stone quarry. Thus, in this trip we were barred from entering an old stone quarry, and then warmly welcomed into the garden of a princess. Life is really interesting sometimes in this funny old world we live in.
Whilst wandering through the grounds, we came across a delightful surprise:
One of our favorite places in Victoria, and another which we would likewise glowingly recommend to anyone and everyone, is Craigdarroch Castle. Built for the Dunsmuir family in the late 1880s, Craigdarroch is an architectural masterpiece which houses a wonderful collection of Victorian artifacts.
The Royal B.C. Museum is currently showcasing a special exhibit on woolly mammoths. We went there on the last day of our trip —our fourteenth anniversary. The 14th anniversary is traditionally the ivory anniversary, so it seemed incredibly apt to be learning about tusked behemoths. They had a baby mammoth on display which is currently on loan from her home museum. Lyuba (named for the wife of the man who found her) is 40,000 years old, and the only completely intact mammoth ever discovered. More information about her is available here: http://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/from-russia-with-love-rare-glimpse-of-tiny-mammoth-1.2265348
As for food on the trip, several times we went to Murchie's, a tea shop started in 1894 by a young Scotsman who had delivered tea to Queen Victoria herself. We also made sure to procure Victoria creams from Rogers', a chocolate shop established in 1885.
We had an excellent lunch at a restaurant in Chinatown, and an equally good dinner at an Indian restaurant where we were practically the only caucasians —and where the waiter was particularly welcoming to us.
On our last day in Victoria we had breakfast in the dining room of the B.C. Parliament building. The waiter not only recognized us from previous visits to Victoria, but also remembered the exact table where we had sat on previous trips! I was charmed beyond words when he apologized for not remembering whether we preferred tea or coffee. It had been over a year since our last visit, and this level of consideration and respect from someone accustomed to serving high government officials was absolutely heartwarming.
We really appreciate all the good and decent people (plus one cat!) we encountered who made a difficult trip so much better!
Addendum: After reading the above account of our trip, one of our supporters sent us the following link. Apparently we aren't alone in being turned away from Butchart for dressing too decently: https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g184850-d155441-r222511723-Butchart_Gardens-Central_Saanich_Victoria_Capital_Regional_District_Vancouver_Isl.html Clearly, a policy change is in order.
8/17/16: Sadly, they did change their policy —to be more restrictive. Here is a screen capture of the garden's webpage at the time of our visit: https:web.archive.org/web/20160412172142/http://www.butchartgardens.com/visit/services-accessibility/ (This archived version of the site was accessed via an internet archival service called The Way Back machine, which archives screen captures of many, many websites over time.) And here is the current version of the same page, changed after people started defending us: http:www.butchartgardens.com/visit/services-accessibility As you can see, they added the part banning "costumes, period style, or historical dress" after the media took up the story. As can be seen on the archived screen shot, the policy wasn't in place at the time of our visit, despite claims on their official response to what happened. (They never did try to contact us personally about it, or apologize in any way.)
All this makes us very sad, but we're working hard to move past this hurtful incident and remember the good parts of our trip.
8/18/16: Our heartfelt thanks go out to everyone who has expressed such wonderful encouragement and support! You are all marvelous!
Also, we'd like to express our appreciation once again to all the lovely people we met in Victoria, and to the Victoria residents who've written in telling us they consider us welcome. Canada truly is a wonderful country. (Incidentally, my grandmother was Canadian —there are pictures of her here: http://www.thisvictorianlife.com/family-photos-mdashsarah.html )
We really want to concentrate now on the good parts of our trip, and all you good people who've offered your support. Let's all focus on the sunshine in the world! :)
Special thanks to the folks who wished us a happy anniversary! You are all marvelous! :)