I found these at one of the blogs I enjoy reading on occasion. Thought they were funny, and particularly appreciated the Napoleon Dynamite reference. If you don't know what that is, you have a movie you need to watch.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Monday, February 27, 2006
In celebration of Mardi Gras eve, I thought I would share one of my favorite and most interesting cultural experiences of my time living in Europe.
THE CARNAVAL DE BINCHE
One of the most fascinating European experiences I have had is attending the Carnaval de Binche in February of 2002. Have you ever wondered where Mardi Gras began? Well, though it can't be confirmed, it is very possible that it began (or at least developed into a major celebration) in the small Belgian town of Binche, between Mons and Charleroi. Even if it didn't start there, you won't find many places where the people are prouder of their carnaval traditions. What Binche does is copied by carnavals throughout Europe.
Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday" or "Plentiful Tuesday") is the final day of a 3-day, very structured celebration. Each day from Sunday through Tuesday, the people in Binche follow traditions that have lasted for at least 450 years. I only attended the Tuesday celebration, which is the climax and certainly the most interesting part of the carnaval.
As I arrived in the morning, the town was already filling with people. The Grand Place (town center) would become the terminal point of the great cortege (parade) later in the afternoon. Just beyond the Grand Place is a museum honoring the traditions of the Binche carnaval and a statue of a "gille," the central figure of the day.
Even before the parade got going, people were getting into the spirit of the day. I have never seen so many cans of silly string, spray snow, and confetti in my entire life. Just standing there minding my own business, I was sprayed several times with various party substances. Walking along the parade route, I saw that all the windows of the buildings had barricades in front of them (this to protect them from flying projectiles during the parade - see below).
About 3:30 p.m., the parade began. The basic element of the parade is a special orange that is grown in southern France and in Spain. Literally hundreds of thousands of these oranges were shipped into town a week ahead for this parade. Each parade participant would walk down the parade route with a container full of oranges and throw them to the crowd. According to tradition (as told by the Binchois lady who stood next to me during the parade), the oranges are representative of gold coins that were thrown to onlookers during the original parade in 1549, thrown by Marie of Hungary in order to impress her brother. I guess coins got expensive, so they just throw oranges now.
The key thing to remember while watching the parade is, don't look down. I did once, and was pelted in the head by an orange. By the end of the parade, even though I spent most of my time videotaping and taking pictures, I walked away with a couple dozen oranges. The people next to me walked off with at least a bushel of oranges (no exaggeration!). Multiply that by thousands of people along the parade route, and you get an idea of how many oranges were being thrown. The entire place smelled like citrus by the end of the parade.
The parade begins with groups of children, each group dressed in beautiful matching outfits. I was told that each of the outfits is hand-made by the mothers and wives of the parade participants, so the amount of work that goes into this is amazing.
After the children's section of the parade comes the Gilles. The origin of the gille character goes back to 1549, the first parade, when townsfolk dressed up like the "newly-discovered" South American Incas. Over the years, the outfit of the gille developed into what is now a very-specific and meticulously-followed costume (which often includes beautiful headpieces made of ostrich feathers).
The Gilles come in groups according to their associations. As they march (or dance?) slowly down the parade route, each group is followed by a small band generally consisting of a clarinet, several brass instruments, and a few drums. The bands play fun, lively tunes as the gilles throw oranges to the crowds. To be a gille, one must qualify according to some strict guidelines. First, as per the rules of tradition, no women may be gilles. Second, the gille must be Belgian and must be from Binche (exactly what it means to be "from Binche" is laid out in very specific guidelines). Third, once a person has qualified as a gille, he must not do anything that would be disreputable or dishonoring to his position, nor may he march in any other town's carnaval parade. Finally, he may not wear the gille costume except when functioning in his official role in the carnaval.
The age limit for being a gille is apparently about 3 years old on up. In some groups, you can see a young child, his father, and grandfather all participating as gilles, proudly carrying on the tradition of the town. According to the Binchois people, any other carnaval parade you see is only a cheap imitation of their own. And, having seen a couple others, I would concur that no other town I have seen takes such care and pride in the carnaval tradition. If you ever happen to be in Belgium on Mardi Gras day, you would have an unforgettable experience to visit Binche and watch their parade of gilles!
This is my other big website. What is it? Allow me to explain, lest you think I am seriously twisted. I am fascinated by presidential history. In my travels after college, I began to try to visit the gravesites of each of the deceased presidents. As I did this, I thought it would also be interesting to visit the gravesites of each of the deceased vice-presidents.
Doing the research to find out where these men are buried, I began to notice that many of them were buried in cemeteries where other famous people are also buried. For instance, President Grover Cleveland is buried in Princeton Cemetery in Princeton, New Jersey. Also in that cemetery are Jonathan Edwards (famous theologian and former president of Princeton Seminary), John Witherspoon (signer of the Declaration of Independence), George Gallup (of Gallup poll fame), Charles Hodge (another famous theologian), and Paul Tulane (founder of Tulane University in New Orleans).
Another example, Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler are both buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Also in that cemetery are buried Jefferson Davis (Confederate President), George Pickett (Confederate General), and a number of other notable people.
So, as I have traveled, I have tried to locate the graves of as many famous people as possible. Currently, I have visited approximately 1,223 famous dead people in 386 cemeteries located in 33 U.S. States (plus Washington D.C.) and 11 other countries.
Why such a morbid hobby, you ask? Well, let me tell you several benefits I have seen personally:
(1) It's a very inexpensive hobby. Since I have a digital camera, I can take many pictures of the places I visit, and my only cost is driving to the place and purchasing CDs to store the pictures. With very few exceptions, cemeteries don't charge you an entrance fee (though they may be very unhelpful at times in assisting your attempt to locate a famous person).
(2) It's a fascinating way to learn about history. Some very famous people have very unnoticed grave markers. On the other hand, some people get bigger markers than they deserve, in my ever-so-humble opinion. Really, though, visiting these gravesites has motivated me to learn much about my own country's history, particularly the Civil War and World War II.
(3) Cemeteries (and this is true more in America than in foreign countries) are some of the most beautiful places you can visit. The cemetery staff is trying to make the place a quiet, serene location for people to say goodbye to their loved ones, so the cemetery will often have beautiful landscaping, ponds, and the like. Even in downtown New York City, you can find a quiet place by visiting a cemetery (and you can also visit Walter Hunt's gravesite while you're at it! - he's the guy who invented the safety pin).
In case it slipped by you when reading the title of my blog, I like to think of myself as half-bilingual. I know enough French to sound pretentious to Anglophones, but my accent and gramamar are something akin to sharp nails on a chalkboard to native French speakers. I did, however, spend nearly 2 years in Europe studying French, and on the off chance that my friends who read this blog are not already aware of my fabulous Travel Journal website, I wanted to point it out here. Stay tuned for an excellent related Mardi Gras post coming up shortly!
Saturday, February 25, 2006
Growing up in a rather conservative home, I was never exposed to any of these crazy radical New-Age ideas like veganism until fairly recently. Now, I have some good friends who are rather committed to this lifestyle. So, although the primary purpose of this blog is simply to bring pleasure to me, I wanted to provide a public service [private services available upon request] for them by highlighting a site that shows some of the many appetizing alternatives to carnivorous living. And, looking at this picture, how could you not be appetized? Click the title to go to the Vegan Lunch Box site
In the interest of beginning to post regularly on my soon-to-be-semi-famous blog and yet while having nothing whatsoever to blog about today, I thought I would share a comment about a wonderful coffee shop I was introduced to this afternoon. Metropolis Coffee Company is on Granville Road, between Broadway and Sheridan. It is much more spacious than the ever-cramped Caribou Coffee where I often go, and they have free internet rather than the stupid $3.95 for 2 hours they charge at Caribou. Plus, there's a really cute guy working at the cash register, and my table is strategically positioned so I can watch him without being too obvious. I think we have made a connection in my mind.
Friday, February 24, 2006
On October 13, 2005, my boyfriend Alfred committed suicide in a moment of dark depression and despair. I stood outside his locked bedroom door and heard the crash and sound of his choking, but I could not get inside the room quickly enough to stop the desperate act. Below is my account of that morning. I wrote this several months after Alfred's suicide, but I wrote it as if I were writing on that day.
This morning, I called Alfred at
So, I gave Alfred his morning wake-up call on Thursday morning. However, he did not answer. I assumed he was in the shower, so I decided to wait a few minutes and call back. But then he called me back. His voice was broken, and he said, “Mike, I think it’s time for me to go. I’m sorry. Please take care of my dog.” Then he hung up.
Thinking he meant it was time for him to go to work, I was confused, because I didn’t know why he would be telling me that or why he would apologize. I called him back immediately, but he did not respond. After several calls, I decided to walk over to his house. It took me about 15 minutes to get to his place. I had my own house key, so I let myself in. I found the bedroom door locked from the inside, so I knocked and called out his name. Immediately, I heard a crash and a sound like he was coughing. I immediately became concerned that he was trying to hurt himself, although I thought perhaps he had swallowed some pills, as he had once before attempted to overdose. I knocked and called to him, and although I heard some banging around, he did not answer my calls. I attempted to force the door open, but it was too heavy and the lock too secure.
By this time I was very concerned, so I called 911 and told them my boyfriend had locked himself in his bedroom and I was afraid he was trying to hurt himself. They immediately dispatched emergency vehicles. Meanwhile, Alfred’s landlord lived in the apartment above Alfred’s, so I knocked on his door and asked if he had a key to the bedroom. He told me the previous tenant had put the lock on the door but did not leave the key when they moved out. So, I ran to the outside of the house hoping to climb in through the bedroom window. It was too high, so I ran to get a ladder and was finally able to climb up, push the window A/C unit into the bedroom, and climb in. As I was climbing in, I heard the siren in front of the house, so I ran immediately to the bedroom door and unlocked it. Alfred was not on his bed, so I thought he must be on the floor. So, when I had unlocked and opened the door, I turned to climb over the bed and find him. And it was as I turned that I saw my boyfriend in the corner of the room hanging by his neck from a rope from the ceiling.
In a panic, I screamed (a deep, guttural cry–“NO!!!!!”–that came from someplace very dark and seemed to come from someone other than myself) and cried and ran over to try to get him down. However, the rope was so tight that I could not get it loose, and all I could do was to lift up his body to relieve the pressure until the paramedics could get into the house and cut him down. I was standing there holding him up for what seemed like forever, balanced on the nearby radiator so I was essentially at eye level with him. His eyes were empty and tears streaked down his cheeks. When the paramedics cut the rope, Alfred still had a faint pulse. They worked on him all the way to the hospital, but they were unable to revive him, and he passed away just as they were arriving at the hospital.
Since Alfred left no note, I can only speculate about what happened between our saying goodnight the night before and the 6:30 a.m. phone call. I knew Alfred had been struggling withh depression brought on by a number of circumstances, although I had no idea it was so severe. Numerous times before, when he was feeling low, I would talk to him on the phone or go and stay with him to try to cheer him up. My best guess is that sometimes that night, he hit a very low point of depression. But this time, rather than calling me, he did not have the strength to call and ask for help. The pain must have been overwhelming and suffocating and he could think of nothing other than escaping from it. And thus, I found myself holding my boyfriend's body in my arms and laying him on the bed in vain hope that the paramedics could somehow revive him.
To this day as I write this, months after Alfred's death, I have very patchy memories of the hours and days following the moment the policeman received the call from the paramedics and told me Alfred was dead. I remember, in the moments leading up to that call, I called Alfred's uncle and told him that Alfred was in the hospital and he needed to go there quickly. That is all I could say, and I hung up. Barely able to move, I then fell on my face in Alfred's living room praying and crying out to God to somehow show mercy and allow Alfred to live. When the policeman told me Alfred was gone, I lost all strength, all mental focus, all ability to function. I sat on the couch, barely crying, my mind grappling with this piece of information that it simply did not know how to process. Something instinctive reacted, though, and I became sick to my stomach and threw up.
As I came out of the bathroom, it slowly began to dawn on me that the policemen, though professional and courteous, were not treating me as a grieving boyfriend, but rather as a potential murder suspect. In hindsight, I understand why this is necessary, since they saw me holding Alfred's body as they walked into the house. I can remember being frustrated that the paramedic did not move quickly to cut Alfred down, but I now see that he was hesitant because he didn't know the circumstances and was initially uncertain what my role was in all of the events. For the next 3 or 4 hours, I was questioned by two or three policeman, a detective, medical examiners, and a crime scene photographer. For in any death that is not from natural causes, the police have to treat it as a crime scene until they can establish that it actually was a self-inflicted death. And I was the one who was there when they first saw the body, so I was the prime suspect. Still, this balanced perspective is in hindsight; at the time, the inconceivability of being considered a murder suspect simply boggled my mind that was already wanting to shut down from the pain and shock of losing the guy I loved so dearly. Eventually, though, as it became clear to the authorities that I was indeed innocent of any wrongdoing and in fact devastated by Alfred's death, their professional courtesy changed into kindness and concern for me. One of the policemen even gave me his own phone number and told me to call him anytime if he could help me in any way.
I recall after finding out Alfred was gone that I felt lost, like a small child at the fairgrounds who has been separated from his parents. Nothing seemed familiar, everything seemed bigger and out of proportion. I wanted to run, but I didn't know where to go. Instinctively, I called my parents. They were in Georgia for work, and my dad answered the telephone. As soon as I heard his voice, I began sobbing. I could not speak for several minutes, during which time my father grew greatly concerned. As I slowly was able to tell him what happened and how I had found Alfred, I could hear him begin to cry and he said over and over, "Oh, I am so sorry." Just as I got the basic facts out, the policeman told me he had some questions for me, so I told my dad I would call back in a few minutes. When I called back, my mother answered the phone and once again I began crying. At this point, I seriously reverted to a child-like mentality, calling her "mommy." Here I was, a 30-year-old man, shattered, saying over and over again, "Mommy, I don't know what to do." She offered to call a pastor, and I told her I would call back after the police were done with me. I then called my best friend but he was on the highway and I didn't want to tell him while he was driving, so I asked him to call back, which he did a bit later. By this point, I knew I needed someone to be there with me, so I called a friend who was in college but I knew had the day off. He immediately came over and basically took care of me from that moment (maybe
I don't remember much about the rest of the day, with one exception that I will mention in a moment. I remember my friend went to 7-11 to get me some food and something to drink. I remember the phone ringing constantly, until I got to the point I could not talk to people anymore. I remember having Alfred's cell phone and its ringing constantly throughout the day as people tried to reach him, not believing the horrific news they were being told. I never answered his phone. I remember eventually the policeman telling me I could leave, that the death was ruled a suicide and I was not a suspect any longer. I remember being at my friend's apartment, vague memories of being in a taxi on the way there. I'm not sure what I did while at his apartment nor how long I was there. Eventually I know I was back at my place, though I don't know when that was, either. At some point, my best friend got home from work and stayed for a long time. And he and my other friend took me to a nearby cafe for dinner (I highly doubt I ate anything). For several months, I had no memory of that dinner, until one day early in 2006 I went there and saw a sign that had struck me that day, one of their advertising slogans that read: "Pinch me, I must be dreaming." When I saw that, suddenly I remembered having been there that day. I'm not certain where I stayed the night, whether it was at my place or at my friend's, but I remember the next morning (Friday) waking up and going to Jamba Juice then seeing my mother pull up with some family friends as we came down our street.
On Thursday, though, there is one memory that stands out more vividly in my memory than any other from the point I learned Alfred was unable to be revived. I knew that, before going to bed, I had to go back to Alfred's place because his dog was left there and needed food and to be walked. So, along with my two friends, we returned early that evening to get the dog and its stuff and take it back to my place until arrangements could be made for him. As I returned to his house, I saw the sad scene once again, this time without policemen and paramedics walking about.
But it was at the moment that I walked into the bedroom that I began to hyperventilate and cry until I could not stand. I sunk to the floor next where I found him and sobbed. I saw that Alfred’s final hours were obviously ones of deep sadness. In places around the room there were tear-stained tissues. Next to where he had been hanging, I found the Bible that I had loaned to him and some sort of inspirational book. His bed sheets were mangled and draped along the side of the bed. He was wearing sandals, but they had fallen off in his struggling, and they were lying askew on the floor beneath where I found him. The curtain by the closet had been disturbed by the rope, which was still tied to a pipe at the ceiling. And the air conditioner that I had pushed into the bedroom in order to climb in through the window was still lying on the floor. Also, in the living room, I found some photos that Alfred had torn into small pieces, photos of a circuit party, I believe. They were lying on the floor by the couch, obviously having been thrown in emotion after he tore them up.
Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming urge to “fix” the bedroom. I made the bed, closed the curtain, straightened up the shoes and some nearby clothing, threw away the tissues, took the air conditioner into another room, and just tried to arrange things neatly. I was beside myself with grief, and barely with knowledge of what I was doing, I wanted to make the room look nice for Alfred, so others would not see how it looked in his sadness. My two friends stood outside the bedroom door, probably very concerned as I would not allow them to come into the room….I felt I had to make it all perfect. Alfred couldn’t have left how he did. Surely if I cleaned up the room like I always had in the morning, he would call me after work and everything would be ok again. It was the moment at which I came closest to having a complete breakdown….I have never felt so lost and anguished as on that day.
How did October 13, 2005, change my life? In every conceivable way.I wrote a poem to Alfred after his death, which I placed with him when he was buried. It expresses the joy, pain, sorrow, and hope of this person who changed my life and who had to leave us far too soon.
Friends, nothing more
Several years, casually
Knowing, but not noticing, each other.
Until a warm spring evening
A simple kindness awoke me
And I saw what had always been there but overlooked.
A heart that looked to others
Even those unknown, if you could help
You would take them in your arms.
Lovers, and becoming more
Only months, intensity
Loving, and needing, each other.
A frenzied summer
Your love awoke me
And I saw what happiness you could bring.
Your heart was mine
And mine was yours.
Each night you held me in your arms.
Travelers, stumbling together
The final weeks, crumbling
Hurting but then forgiving each other.
The beginning of Fall
Our love never fell
But we saw the pain that sickness could bring.
Our hearts ached together
I wanted to help
But all I could do was hold you in my arms.
Departed, I wanted more
The time went by too soon.
Yet even at the end we had each other.
A clear October morning
Your call awoke me
But then I learned the sorrow that nothing else could bring.
My heart is broken
I couldn’t help you
I held your body, asleep, in my arms.
Memories, and so much more.
My lifetime I will never forget you.
To cherish that we loved each other.
And each new morning
As day awakes me
I have the hope that one blessed thought can bring:
For just beyond what my heart could see that morning
Angels helped you stand
And joyfully, peacefully placed you in God’s Arms.