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Vol. LVIII, No. 10
May 19, 2006
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A Princess Diary:
Memoirs from the Cherry Blossom Festival

 
  The author as royalty
Once upon a time — well, just a few weeks ago — I was a princess. That may sound hard to believe, but I have five tiaras and a pink sash to prove it.

The first week of April, I assumed the throne as a National Cherry Blossom Princess. I shared my title with about 60 others, each representing a different state, U.S. territory or foreign country. At 27, I was the oldest princess; most had yet to graduate from college. Also unlike them, I actually come from royal cherry blossom blood. I'm a distant first cousin of First Lady Helen Herron Taft, who planted the initial cherry trees along the Tidal Basin in 1912 — today, more than 3,600 of these trees line the waterfront.

Before coronation, the princesses needed to meet a few requirements: We each had to buy skirt suits the color of Easter eggs, ball gowns that looked bridal and heels that didn't cripple our feet. With all the jeans and t-shirts in my wardrobe, I felt like Cinderella on a shopping spree. We also attended a princess etiquette class, where we learned the royal way to sit, stand and wave.

Our reign would last just one week, beginning with the lighting of a 300-year-old stone lantern from Japan and ending with the annual parade where we march with cadets carrying flags. Instead of nametags, we wore sashes that displayed the names of the locations we represented. These places became our nicknames — and those of our associates. When Michigan saw an older woman with Guam, she asked, "Are you Mrs. Guam?"

I was Illinois. Although I've never lived in the state, I was more than qualified to wear its sash, according to the Illinois State Society. My parents grew up outside of Chicago, I had passed through O'Hare airport and I knew a popular member of the board. Other princesses shared a similar history, including Sweden, whose last name is Fernandez.

Like most royalty, we traveled in a motorcade escorted by police — the same cops who shield President Bush on his rides through the city. Most drivers didn't realize our royal status and cut us off after the first set of sirens passed by. Others, though, waved or stopped to have their pictures taken in front of our parked bus, which carried a big sign reading "Cherry Blossom Princesses." We regretted the day when we once again would have to sit in traffic.

Our daily schedules were packed, mine often flanked by hour-long rides on the Metro. Around 7:30 each morning, we met at our Georgetown palace (the Fairmont Hotel) for sash pick-up and wardrobe inspection. An hour later, we were on our way to tour national landmarks like the Kennedy Center, Ben's Chili Bowl, the State Department, the FBI and the White House. We didn't spot the President or his wife, but we did have the chance to pet their dog Miss Beazley.

 
Here, Illinois has a photo opportunity with the Ambassador of Japan.  
We also made the rounds at schools, where we donated books and read to children. At the Kendall Demonstration Elementary School, which teaches students who are deaf or hard of hearing, we learned to sign our names and ask "How are you?" To sign "queen," trace the line of a sash across your chest.

Between our history lessons and community service, our carriage took us around the world. We traveled to the embassies of Armenia, Greece, Slovakia, Thailand, Sweden and Japan. Here, we tasted new foods, spoke new languages and discovered new places to visit (Slovakia is next on my list). Often, the international princess sponsored by the embassy offered a rundown on her country.

In Japan, it's customary to give small gifts to new friends and hosts. And because the Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the rich histories shared by the United States and Japan, we were lavished with presents. The first day, we spent an hour opening gifts from all the other princesses. They ranged from seashell necklaces to chocolate-covered pecans.

The crowning event happened the night before the parade, when we donned our white dresses and long satin gloves to attend the grand ball. After enjoying sushi and sake, the princesses lined up on a stage to find out who would be queen — and receive a gold crown, pearls and an all-expense paid trip to Japan. Our chances didn't depend on looks, smarts or attitude. It all came down to the spin of a wheel marked with U.S. states or territories (international princesses were ineligible).

I've never been very lucky.

By noon the next day, my life was back to pumpkins, so to speak. I packed away my sash, took my suits to the cleaners and made the last update on my web log, www.illinoisprincess.blogsource.com. I may no longer be a princess, but I'll always remember my fairy tale week happily ever after.

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