My friend Kirsten Xanthippe may be the only Baltimore Orioles fan among the approximately 140,000 residents of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel who still keeps a black baseball cap with that familiar embroidered orange bird hanging on her coat rack. A British citizen who went to St. Mary’s College of Maryland with my twin sister and my late husband, she’s long been my personal explainer for all things British, from Meghan and Harry to Brexit.
When I talked to her today on a brief video call, from about 4,500 miles away, she was trying to explain the most British thing of all — the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the only monarch she — and most of the people of the world, really — have known. And it’s almost too enormous to parse.
“I’m watching them putting the announcement outside Buckingham Palace, like they announce all of the births in the family. And now this death,” explained Kirsten, who like many of her fellow citizens had been watching the news nervously. “We knew it was bad when they said her doctors were ‘concerned.’ They never used the word ‘concern.’ They always talked about how she was robust for her age. It’s like your dearest great-aunt — everyone’s dearest great-aunt — had died. It’s how everyone feels.”
It’s certainly how London native Michelle Adua, who now lives in South Baltimore and runs the Baltimore British Expats and Anglophiles Unite page on Facebook, feels. When we talked about the Queen’s death this afternoon it was like talking to your aunties about someone in the family who’s ill.
“I think I’m still very much lost for words myself. It’s so surreal,” she said. “I was just thinking of my mother, to let her know, and I got a text from a friend this morning. We were all still so hopeful, sure she was going to be OK. Yesterday we all saw her with the new Prime Minister, and they showed a picture of her ... and you think, ‘She does look frail.’ There was a picture of her driving on her estate! But when they said everyone was rushing to be by her side, I [knew] something was happening a bit deeper.”
As an American, it’s hard to really appreciate the impact of the Queen’s death, or of even having a queen. I have only been to England once, on a school trip in 10th grade a week before I turned 16 with other Baltimore City College High School kids. But as an ’80s kid, I felt drawn to the place as a fan of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet and the British shows that played on MTV late at night, like “The Young Ones.”
On my trip to London, I developed a crush on our English tour guide and bought a fedora like the one Duran Duran’s John Taylor had worn. I was smitten. I also had spent a couple years as an expat in Saudi Arabia during middle school, so I’ve long been fascinated with the way a place can affect you and get under your skin.
It’s fair to say that Great Britain is having a complicated time politically, from the aforementioned Brexit to its new Prime Minister Liz Truss, who had been on the job about two days when the Queen died. Then there’s “The Crown” of it all, and the never-ending obsession with the Royal Family, like the brand-new King Charles III, his late wife Princess Diana, and their various kids and in-laws, including the controversial Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. (Personal confession: I’m a Meghan fan.)
Even with anti-monarchy sentiment and a growing acknowledgment of the colonialism that many feel the Queen represented, the people of the Commonwealth over which she reigned for nearly a century were stunned, said Adua, whose parents immigrated to England from Ghana. My friend Kirsten said that the sentiment on her Facebook feed was overwhelmingly sentimental and sad, even from those who weren’t ardent monarchists.
She tried to put the impact of the queen and her legacy into perspective for her former fellow Marylanders.
“In America, you have many Hollywood celebrities who are long-standing, but never anyone who’s been famous their whole lives. She’s reigned 70 years. She’s been famous for that long, as a single person, not as a sports team, or a politician who served for just a part of that,” she said. “Literally for everyone 70 and younger, she’s been the queen during their adult lifetime.”
“Well, she was the queen. It is weird to keep saying ‘was.’”
The Queen’s popularity goes beyond just her longevity, because “she met so many people. She’s not just someone you see on a screen,” Kirsten said. “People feel they have had a personal interaction with her. She’s a person who has always been there. She’s on our money, on every postage stamp. She wasn’t just a figurehead. She really did mix with the people.”
Kirsten herself was one of those people, having been in the front of the crowd the last time the queen visited the Isle of Wight, and described her as “more than affable. She’s funny. She did crack a few jokes.”
Adua never met the Queen, but still feels a strong connection.
“I grew up in England, went to the Jubilees. It was a very patriotic country when it comes to the Queen,” she said. “She lived a fruitful life, most of it spent serving her country. She’s the only queen I’ve known.”