Having dinner with royalty does not come without its share of insecurities. Will I say the right thing? Do I bow? How do I address royalty? What if I use the wrong fork? Is there something in my teeth?
When I dine with friends, my various faults, indiscretions, and breaches of etiquette are most often forgiven. I mean, sure, my mother raised me with a strict code of polite behavior… no elbows on the table, chew with your mouth closed, eat what you are served… etc… but, does this middle class suburban background hold up in court?
In order to make it in the Royal Court, I have devised three rules for myself:
1. Don’t drink too much;
2. Don’t play with my hair; and,
3. Don’t talk about myself.
My action plan:
1. I must pace myself;
2. Pin my hair back; and,
3. Do some research on some interesting topics to talk about.
I am at the gates of the Palace. Several heavily armed guards stand casually by the entrance smoking. The guard that is in charge calls for a car to take us to the White Palace. The driver, (who looks like a driver from a spy movie) arrives with the Palace historian. We take a short journey by car to the White Palace. Along the way there are deep craters in the ground that were left from bombs that were dropped by the Germans in the days leading up to WWII.
The evening sun hits the White Palace giving it an ethereal glow. His Royal Highness has hired a professional photographer to document the evening. This is a very welcomed gesture as I was embarrassed to ask the driver to snap a shot of me out front with my iPhone.
The White Palace was originally built as a living quarter for King Alexander The First’s three sons. When King Alexander The First was assassinated in Marseilles, in 1934, his oldest son Peter II took the throne as his heir. He was only 11 years old. King Peter II and his mother, Princess Maria of Romania (Queen Victoria’s grand daughter), and his two younger brothers made the White Palace their home. King Peter II continued his studies in England until the beginning of WWII. When he was 17, the world went to war. His government thought it would be better to side with the Axis as Yugoslavia was geographically surrounded by occupied nations. After a short revolution, King Peter II and his nation championed the hope that Yugoslavia would defend itself against Hitler and his aggressors and joined forces with the Allies. A move that protected Greece from northern invasions and gave the Allies a firm footing in Eastern Europe.
Prince Alexander II was born to King Peter II and his wife, Princess Alexandra of Greece. He was born in the midst of the chaos of WWII in a small hospital room in London, England. (King Peter was running his government from England at that time.) The government temporarily granted him the right to to claim Yugoslavian jurisdiction over the delivery room so that the young Prince would have Yugoslavian citizenship.
Shortly after the birth of Prince Alexander II, King Peter II and his family were exiled from Yugoslavia by the government led by the newly appointed, General Tito. Tito took over the Palace and brought to it and to the country many years of suffering and oppression.
And, here I am… sitting in the drawing room where Tito hosted many of the worlds leaders. The mantle where Milosovich gave his last speech serves as the backdrop for our photo shoot. Without crowds it’s easy to step back onto time and really feel the history run throughout each room.
We then get back into the car and drive to the Marble Palace. This is the big show. The red carpet is laid out. We pose for a picture on the stairs. I’m feeling pretty good.
We visit the King’s office. There are two priceless urns on the bookshelf. I recognize them because I saw the matching set at the Getty Museum in LA. (Thanks Nicole!) We then tour through the various rooms looking at the art and sculptures acquired by the family. Prince Paul, King Alexander I’s brother, was largely responsible for the vast collection. Each piece is rare and unique. I wish I had longer than an evening to peruse the collection.
And then, as if timed, we enter the grand hallway and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Alexander II, is standing proudly with a regal air only becoming of a man with his particular history.
Okay, I am a bit startled and star struck by this point. Do I curtsy? I’m only going on Jane Austin at this point…
You must see the chapel. They shot Jesus in the head.
These are among his first words spoken to me.
Well then, it is settled: we are on our way to the chapel.
As we walk around the back of the palace, His Royal Highness points out the bullet holes that pepper the concrete. This is the last bit of evidence of the palace’s sordid history from the last hundred years. This recent damage was from the NATO bombings and attacks in the 90’s.
The small chapel had once been decorated with four priceless alter pieces. Only one remains. The other three have gone missing. The fresco of Jesus on the ceiling has a bullet hole smack in the middle of his forehead. Must have been an incredible marksman. The desecration of this space happened during the fifty year occupation by Tito and Milosevitch’s gangs. The Palace was only given back to the Crown Prince Alexander in 2001. He is not referred to as the “King” because after the separation of Yugoslavia, the Serbian government was no longer a Constitutional Monarchy. Though, in theory, his lineage makes him the King.
Prince Alexander is keen to show us around the Palace offering up great insider tips. He shows us the secret door behind the bookshelf in the office. He also picks up the Ming vase that was shoddily glued back together after it was smashed by Milosevitch’s wife in one of her violent fits. He takes us to the secret rooms where the world leaders played cards, smoked cigars and talked politics. He also points out the little red stars that Tito had painted over his family’s crests. Though the Prince wants to keep the Palace as it is in its current state, I can tell that this is a particular point of contention for him.
We take drinks in the sitting room and make small talk. We keep it light remarking on the exquisite pieces of art that we have just seen and on the position of the palace towards the evening sunset. We then move onto to the dining room for dinner and discuss world politics, the philanthropic initiatives that he and his wife have taken on, education, healthcare, foreign and domestic policies. By this point I am totally relaxed and wondering if I have slipped up yet… the prince is very easy going and a wonderful conversationalist.
He points out various locations where microphones and cameras were hidden. Before Putin arrived at the Palace for dinner he had his team go over the entire Palace de-bugging it. (And, probably outfitting it with his own spying devices.) After Putin’s visit, the Prince got a call from the Commanding General of the Serbian military. He asked the Prince to re-connect the microphones. The Prince asked him to give him a good reason for doing so. The General is yet to get back to him. So, I believe this dinner is in-camera.
We then get into talking about travel over our vegetable soup. He is very interested to hear about travelling around the world. For some reason I can’t stop talking about Iceland. This is where I strike gold. The Prince admits that he is a big fan of Jules Verne. I practically finish his sentence with the quote from Journey to the Center of The Earth, chapter 4. He’s a nerd! We talk about sci-fi over our dinner of poached fish and vegetables. His favorite movie is Avatar. I don’t judge him for it.
For dessert we have cake and ice cream. We are like old buddies at this point. The ice cream is a gift from a famous Austrian dessert chef. You can never go wrong with ice cream!
We then retreat to the “Russian Rooms” for cognacs and chocolates. The Russian rooms are named so because King Alexander the First commissioned Russian designers and craftsmen to recreate the rooms in the Kremlin. The look and feel is so much different than the rest of the palace. The walls are brightly coloured in Russian style and open up to several little rooms with a billiards table, a movie theater and a card table.
So far, the night has been one to remember. As we make our way towards the main entrance of the palace, we say good night and I thank the Prince for a wonderful evening. It feels odd at this point to say, “Thank you, Your Royal Highness”. I practically want to give him a hug or a high five. But, I try to play it cool.
As the driver pulls away from the palace, I’m very pleased with how the evening went. It is interesting to think about his life, his privilege, his loss, his social responsibility, and his family legacy. He was born into a world war and has been entrenched in battles ever since. Yet, his kindness, generosity, and efforts to help rebuild his nation are the undertakings of an honorable man. And then into my head pops a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem If:
If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue
Or talk with kings nor lose thy common touch
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you
If all men count with you but not too much.
Maybe Kings are born Kings, but everyone can choose whether or not they will be great. Tonight I was in the presence of greatness.