Stroll past the dozens of stalls serving food to the fascinated tourists excitedly pointing at giant, steaming woks of noodles, dried sticks of skewered insects and whirring blenders filled with local fruits, and you’ll find the experience to be an exquisite assault on the senses. Bright lights above each stall harshly illuminate the menus, which are rarely also in English. If the menu can even be seen through the steam and smoke from the never-ending cooking, the blended smells will only confound customers looking for something recognizable for dinner.
Although the intense variety of culinary choices attracts some foreigners to Thailand, many more are drawn by the comparatively low cost of living. Begin always by knowing what the currency conversion rate is so you can have a strong understanding of what prices really are. One Canadian dollar works out to about thirty Thai baht, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on being precise; Thailand ends up being so cheap that it’s not worth counting pennies over it.
Chiang Mai is a city that is always in motion, yet retains the slow, old-world charm that Bangkok seems to have long ago left behind. The centre of Thailand’s second-biggest city is a grouping of several blocks consisting mostly of old temples, schools, and residences, and shaped almost as a perfect square. Protecting the old city is its moat that symbolically keeps modernity from encroaching too far inside. The food, however, hasn’t been able to maintain the same degree of separation from the influences of the new millennium and the globalization that increased tourism brings.
For the traveller looking for something delicious and different from the norm, Chiang Mai not only offers reliable favourites, such as the ubiquitous Pad Thai and green curries, but lesser-known meals such as Khao Soi and Som Tam salad can be sampled for about a dollar. International dishes are very easy to locate, as one can find a bacon burger or cheese pizza being served beside someone else grilling an entire squid over a barrel fire.
The way to really travel and eat cheaply is to seek out the food stalls and put aside any unfounded lingering fears over the possibility of food poisoning. Cooks take great pride in serving tourists something authentic, clean, memorable, and probably a little spicier than expected. It can all be done without making a significant dent in anyone’s wallet.
Typically, a cheap walking-street dinner is done by visiting several carts that sell a few bites of some sort of tasty local dish. A meal might start with a light appetizer, perhaps a fried spring roll, sliced curry sausage, or a piece of grilled chicken on a skewer. Patrons jostle for the vendor’s attention, and those clutching exact change will find their order quickly filled. My large elbows are a blessing in times of hunger, and my stomach thanks them for their unwieldy size as they help keep my position at the front of the queue. I’m not a monster, I’m just hungry.
In Chiang Mai, it’s crucial to try the regional dishes that are nearly impossible to find back home, and that includes Khao Soi. With neither pictures nor translation for one to point to, the cook will only need to shout its name and everyone will know what to expect. Served in a bowl, it is a wonderful lightly spiced chicken curry sauce poured over fried yellow noodles, topped with pickled vegetables, often accompanied by a stewed chicken drumstick. The server directs customers to sit at a nearby folding table and it is lined with locals working their way through their own bowls. One serving could fill the void in most travellers’ stomachs, yet I must remind myself to avoid the compulsion to order a second bowl, for Khao Soi is oily, and there remain far too many other things to try.
A voracious appetite might need a plate of Som Tam to fill the cracks at this point. It’s a papaya-based salad that is tossed with sweet and spicy ingredients, mixed with a clay mortar and pestle only at the moment it is ordered. Although sublimely refreshing, Som Tam can set one’s mouth ablaze if proper care is not taken as to the level of hot pepper added; it has the potential to create a serious need to guzzle a gallon of ice water or beer. Speaking of beer, the cheapest brand of lager is Chang, followed by Leo, Tiger, and Singha. None is particularly remarkable in terms of quality, but I am not one to complain about cold beer after spicy food.
Dessert is acceptable, no matter how full the last three dishes have made anyone feel. On the off-chance that fried dough with sweet milk seems too heavy, there is always the Thai classic: ancient ice cream. Ancient ice cream surprises most with its rectangular shape, and that it is served on a stick. Made with coconut milk and ice, individual portions are cut from large slabs, and can be eaten as is, or inside a piece of bread. With no dearth of flavours from which to choose, the usual suspects such as vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry are common favourites. While coffee, caramel, and coconut are some of the more subtle flavours, the few brave will try durian, matcha, or maybe red bean. The alternative to ice cream is roti, a flattened piece of soft dough, which can then be filled with bananas, chocolate, egg, or any sweet fruits, then fried gently on a large pan. It is wrapped up in itself, chopped into bite-sized morsels, and never runs more than a buck fifty.
The reaction inside my body at this point of dinner is overwhelming. It is not from excessive spice, nor is it something possibly undercooked that my stomach is trying to digest. The feeling is one of incredulity at how much time I’ve wasted in life not eating this amazing cuisine. It is appreciation for the opportunity to travel just to appease the foodie nature of the heart. It is a sense of smug satisfaction at having spent only four dollars on stuffing my belly so completely that I feel like giving away the rest of my budgeted money. It is contentment. Chiang Mai is accessible to the world, and it is a place of deep exploration for the lovers of food. It can be pursued and discovered again and again in every meal eaten.
Tony Hajdu writes more over at Unknown Home. Head over there and bookmark it!
One afternoon late last year, I went out for lunch at a restaurant not far from the south Thailand guesthouse where I’d been staying. My landlady ran the place, and on this day she seemed particularly pleased to see me. “We have new English menu!” she exclaimed, presenting me with a glossy list of entrees.
I took a seat and scanned the menu, which listed the kinds of dishes I’d always eaten there—red curry, paad thai, tom yam. Then, amidst the standard delicacies, I noticed a dish I’d never before sampled in this part of the world: FRIED RICE WITH CRAP.
Concerned, I took the menu over to my landlady. “I think this dish is a mistake,” I told her.
“Oh, no!” she replied brightly. “We make seafood for you! Fresh from water!”
I gave my landlady a skeptical look. “But surely ‘crap’ is not what you meant to write.”
“Yes, crap! Very delicious!”
I considered this. “Do you by chance mean ‘carp’?”
“No!” she laughed. “Crap!” She splayed her hands and mimicked the scuttling movement of a crustacean.
“Oh, you mean crab. C-R-A-B. Not C-R-A-P.”
“Yes!” she said, handing the menu back to me. “Crab. Both sound same to me.” Then, almost as an afterthought, she asked: “What means ‘crap’?”
This was not the first time I’d chanced into such an awkwardly comical situation in Thailand. At the central market in Ranong, one could buy packets of “COCK CONDITIONING PILLS” (which I very much hope are for roosters), and the local supermarket did fast trade in a brand of toilet paper called “Sit and Smile.” Perhaps most notably, however, a toy vendor along the main street sold packs of tiny plastic animals that came with a sober warning for parents: “BE CAREFUL OF BEING EATEN BY SMALL CHILDREN.”
To be sure, Thailand holds no monopoly on poorly translated English. Some years ago, a series of forwarded e-mails made the rounds, describing bizarre signs posted in Kenyan restaurants (“Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager”), Norwegian cocktail lounges (“Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar”), and Russian monasteries (“You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday”). A similar round of emails celebrated the linguistic gaffes that resulted when American corporations introduced new slogans into foreign markets. In Mexico, for example, “Got Milk?” translated into the decidedly un-hip slogan, “Are You Lactating?”
No doubt this tradition of global mistranslation goes back to the days when Greek and Roman tourists frequented the sights of Anatolia and Egypt (one can imagine shaky Latin letters scrawled onto papyrus outside an Alexandria dry-cleaner: “Let us put happiness in your toga!”), but the modern practice of publicly butchering English can be traced back to the American occupation of post-war Japan in the 1940s and ‘50s. There, amidst the sudden rush to emulate all things Western, G.I.‘s were able to buy tubes of “Snot” brand toothpaste, and the Japanese brass band that played at General MacArthur’s election reputedly commissioned a banner that read: “We pray for General MacArthur’s erection.” To this day, Japan still leads the world in mistranslated English (see Engrish.com for a splendid collection).
Other societies are rapidly catching up to the Japanese example, however, mainly in proportion to how fast they modernize. Korea, where I lived for two years as an English teacher in the late ‘90s (“Praise the Load!” read posters for my school’s Bible club), boasts a fine tradition of mangling the English language. Indeed, as both a Koreaphile and a former EFL educator, I didn’t know whether to be inspired or horrified in 2002, when the red-clad South Korean World Cup team stormed into the semifinals, and (according to news reports) 5 million soccer-crazed Koreans went out and bought T-shirts that exulted: “BE THE REDS!”
If there is a growth market in dodgy English, however, look no further than China, where one billion increasingly globalized citizens will soon start translating area signage into English in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics. Brian Baker, a fellow Kansas émigré who spent a year teaching English in China, once found the following tourist information posted in a Wuhan statue park:
1. The tourists must care for the statues, consciously avoid carving, writing, climbing, and damnification. Trying to be a civilized citizen.
2. The tourists climbing the statues must be fined from 5-50 yuan.
3. The tourists carving or scratching the statues must be fined from 50-500 yuan.
4. The tourists making a breakage for the statues’ instruments must be fined 1000-5000 yuan.
5. The tourists making a breakage for the second half of the statue must be fined 2000-8000 yuan.
6. The tourists making a breakage for the first half of the statue (without the face) must be charged 3000-10000 yuan.
One can imagine tourists sizing up such vandalism options with the kind of anticipation usually reserved for fine wine lists (“Ooh look, honey, let’s make a breakage for the statues’ instruments—it’s totally within our price range!”).
Brian’s most vivid experience with Chinese English, however, came in a provincial grocery store. “There,” he reports, “between the Natural Powdered Jellyfish and the Yak Ham, I saw what looked, to my hungry eyes, to be a package of sliced turkey. Imagine my surprise when, upon closer inspection, the label clearly read: ‘CHOICE AROMATIC LION BUTT.’ I still can’t imagine what Chinese-English dictionary yielded that monstrosity of translation.”
The potential flip side to all this, of course, lies in the recent Western vogue for Chinese characters on clothing and skin art. As a case in point, I once bought a T-shirt that, according to the vendor, featured the Chinese symbol for “Lucky.” It wasn’t until months later that a Hong Kong friend informed me that it wasn’t even close to “Lucky”—that it really meant “Super.” Had it read “Dork,” or “Kick Me,” I would have been none the wiser. Similarly, all the hipsters who went out and got Chinese ideogram tattoos over the past decade could be in for a nasty surprise if they ever travel to China. After all, a “Crouching Tiger” buttock tattoo purchased in good faith in Seattle might eventually be revealed as provincial slang for “Impotent,” and a Melbourne tattoo artist who designs stylized “Freedom” ideograms might accidentally miss a stroke and send his clients off with a symbol that means, say, “Adult Diapers.”
Beneath the dangers of dabbling in other languages, of course, lies an optimistic truth: that, regardless of syntactic differences, the basic human meanings behind our languages remain the same. After all, “Sit and Smile” is indeed a desirable activity after having used toilet paper, and even the most diabolical of restauranteurs wouldn’t literally serve you fried rice with crap.
To be on the safe side, however, I think I’ll stick to the red curry and tom yam
Originally published by World Hum, Dec. 3 2004
Eating healthy is important to us.
I’m a relentless “do it myself” sort of girl. I was raised freezing and canning a lot of our own food. I make most things from scratch. It’s really important to me to feed my family healthy things so that the children grow properly and so that healthy eating patterns are established for life.
Lots of people ask us what we do about that while we’re traveling, since traveling is a lifestyle, not a two week event. There’s not one answer to that and there’s no easy answer. We’re in continual renegotiation of nutritional terms in this family. The most basic answer is that we do the best we can with what we have on any given day, on any given continent. The following are five of our strategies:
Most nutritionists will agree that fresh food and raw food are the most healthful choice. We eat as much fresh food as we can. Of course in many of the places we choose to live this also means adhering to the bleach-boil-peel rule. We’ve replaced “bleach” with Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) as a more natural fruit and veggie wash and we carry a knife in our backpack for a quick fruit peel while walking in a market.
With GSE we’re even able to make salads (often cited as a no-no in third world places because of the water used to wash the lettuce) daily.
For us, the best way to stay healthy is to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and enjoy the fabulous diversity of the planet. One of the best parts of travel is the food!
Eating Local means eating things grown or produced within the region we are living in. We don’t often buy pineapple when we’re living in Canada. We don’t often get apples when we’re living near the equator.
Eating local foods means that you’re also getting slow doses of the local bacteria, which will help build immunity as well as tolerance for the differences in diet and “gut bugs” as we travel. Moving slowly helps too, dropping in by plane is always an intestinal shock!
Lots of the guidebooks will tell you not to eat street food. We actually take exactly the opposite position. I would much rather eat a meal that I see cooked right in front of me than one cooked in a kitchen facility that I can’t see from the table where I’m seated. That way we know the food is hot and fresh and reasonable sanitation standards have been adhered to. There is nothing quite so local as food off of a street cart! Yum!
This is where you decide I’m crazy. In my backpack I carry cheese and yogurt cultures as well as water kefir grains. Yep. We make soft cheeses and yogurt out of dried milk and the first thing I do when we set up a new base is get my kefir grains going.
Travel naturally exposes us to a wider range of intestinal risks than living in New Hampshire did, and one of the ways we stack the deck in our favour is by making sure our guts are populated with the right kinds of bacteria!
Believe it or not, it can sometimes be hard to come by fresh vegetables. We hit this wall immediately when we landed in Bangkok. There was a ton of street food available, but most of it was meat, wheat or rice based. We could get fruit, no problem, but we were quickly feeling the lack of veggies.
It sounds completely nuts, but I carry sprouting seeds in my backpack. It only takes a couple of days to get a batch ready and we love them. They can be added to salad, or made into the salad themselves. We love having almost instant access to high quality veggie sprouts and they make a big difference in our diet on the road!
We take vitamins. Not religiously, but when we feel like our diet is not up to par, we add them in. We also carry essential oil and herbal concoctions to combat basic illness (oregano oil & rosemary oil) add vigor (spirulina), and sort out basic gut bugs (GSE).
What are your secrets for staying healthy and improving your nurtrition on the road, or at home?
I’ve spent the past few weeks traveling around, catching up with old friends. I’ve been through Paris, London and am now sitting in the Yotel hotel in New York City. As I was thinking back, deciding what to write about – the moments that burned brightest were the meals that I shared with friends. The exquisite home-cooked meal that David and his wife made in Paris. The Argentinian wine and bar snacks in London. The pizza shared with a friend along the Thames. The gregarious antics with a group of friends, while eating a fine meal in a hidden gem in NYC.
Now, in my day-to-day life, I’m utilitarian in my eating – I eat to have energy to get the things done that I need to do. I watch protein levels, healthy fat content and all that jazz. Sure – I want it to taste good, but a meal is simply a tool – one that allows me to do other, more important things.
When I’m out with friends – though, it’s another thing all together. The meal gets intertwined with the conversation and laughter. It’s as if there’s something primal… instinctual about sitting down with others and breaking bread. That if you’re willing to be at the same table with someone, that you’ve unconsciously decided that they aren’t a threat. That you can let down your guard just a bit and allow a deeper connection.
I don’t think the caliber of the meal is utmost important, at least not for me. Sifting back even further through my memories, I can remember great times at varied diners across the country. Then again, I’m not picky and my palette is unrefined. I’m loud and I laugh a lot. But always in the company of great people — friends who make all those meals memorable.
What are your favorite moments while traveling? What burns brightest in your mind?
P.S.> I wanted to share a few of my favorite photos over the last 3 weeks – a bit eclectic, but fond memories.
What?!? You can’t travel through Paris without taking at least one picture of a tourist landmark! (Well – I guess, you can. This is my 3rd or 4th time through Paris, but the first time I’ve seen these landmarks.)
I’m enthralled with urban art and street art. This was a playful version of that – all done in chalk along the River Seine.
Go to all the museums and art installations you want – to me this is just as beautiful. I love the craftsmanship and details that were put into this bike. It caught me off guard – didn’t expect to see it in Paris.
My last night in London – a friend took me out to the Tall Ships Festival in London. The ships were brilliantly lit up, going down the River Thames. What struck me, though – was the feeling of being transported to another time — or at least two times mixing. Yes, you could see the city in the background, but if you allow yourself to imagine in just the right way, you can feel time slip back just a little bit.
Get out there, travel safe and trust your gut
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.
This month marks the beginning of student-travel season in Europe, which means that — at any given moment — continental McDonald’s restaurants will be filled with scores of American undergraduates. Quiz these young travelers, and they’ll give you a wide range of reasons for seeking out McDonald’s — the clean restrooms, the air conditioning, the fact that it’s the only place open during festivals or siesta. A few oddballs will even claim they are there for the food.
European onlookers will tell you (with a slight sneer) that these itinerant Yanks are simply seeking the dull, familiar comforts American culture. And this explanation might be devastatingly conclusive were it not for the fact that European McDonalds also happen to be crammed this time of year with travelers from Japan, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Argentina, Korea, Canada, India, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and — yes — neighboring European countries.
Indeed, despite its vaunted reputation as a juggernaut of American culture, McDonald’s has come to function as an ecumenical refuge for travelers of all stripes. This is not because McDonalds creates an American sense of place and culture, but because it creates a smoothly standardized absence of place and culture — a neutral environment that allows travelers to take a time-out from the din of their real surroundings. This phenomenon is roundly international: I’ve witnessed Japanese taking this psychic breather in the McDonalds of Santiago de Chile; Chileans seeking refuge in the McDonalds of Venice; and Italians lolling blissfully in the McDonalds of Tokyo.
Before I traveled overseas, I never knew McDonald’s could serve as a postmodern sanctum, and — save the occasional Taco Bell burrito — I rarely ate fast food. This all changed when I moved to Pusan, South Korea ten years ago to teach English. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of new sights, sounds and smells my first week in-country, I retreated to a McDonald’s near my school, where I was able to stretch a Big Mac Meal into three hours of Zen-like oblivion. The appeal of this environment came not from the telltale icons of franchise culture (which I’d always found annoying), but in the simple opportunity to put the over-stimulation of urban Korea on pause. Once I ended my Pusan stint and started traveling across Asia, I retained this habit of occasionally seeking out McDonalds during times of mental exhaustion.
I’ll readily admit here that, within certain hipster circles of indie travel, announcing that you patronize McDonalds is kind of like confessing that you wet your bed or eat your boogers. For many politically minded travelers, McDonald’s is less an eating establishment than it is a broader symbol of cultural degradation and corporate soulnessness. In fact, fast-food franchises have been the target of so much protectionist, environmentalist, and anarchist ire that firebombing a McDonald’s has become a globally standardized symbol of protest — a McDonaldization of dissent, if you will.
(Interestingly, Marlboros are sold worldwide — and American cigarette brands are just as unhealthy and aggressively marketed as American fast food — but for some reason there is not a similar activist reaction. Perhaps this is because there are no Marlboro outlet stores to firebomb — but I suspect it also has to do with subliminal, adolescent-style favoritism. The Marlboro Man is, after all, a handsome tough-guy, whereas Ronald McDonald is a makeup-and-jumpsuit-wearing dork.)
Political gestures aside, I’d wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald’s has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel. To be sure, the aesthetic enjoyment of the Taj Mahal or the Jardin des Tuileries can often feel compromised when the Golden Arches are just a few blocks away.
Look closely, however, and you’ll discover that (despite their placeless ambience) the McDonalds in far-flung places are culturally discernible from the McDonalds you’ll find in Modesto or Milwaukee. In India, for example, a McDonald’s serves chicken “Maharaja Macs” instead of Big Macs (due to Hindu and Muslim taboos against beef and pork), and a door-greeter is often available to assist the middle-class clientele. Moreover, as any Pulp Fiction fan will note, Paris McDonalds offer the option of ordering a frothy beer with le Big Mac.
At times, an international McDonald’s franchise can serve as a kind of measuring stick for cultural nuance. In China, where familial identity is a core virtue (and where a sexually ambiguous bachelor-clown mascot might seem a little weird), Ronald McDonald is known as Uncle McDonald, and he has a wife, Aunt McDonald. In parts of Bangkok, where the laid-back Thai concept of sanuk (lightheartedness) threatens fast-food efficiency, McDonald’s staff members use James Bond-style digital countdown clocks to ensure the food arrives in a timely manner. In Cairo, I witnessed young, middle-class Muslim couples going on chaperoned first-dates in a McDonald’s; in Tel Aviv, the teenage staff got so flustered when I ordered non-kosher cheese on my Big Mac that they forgot to add the beef patties.
Just as fascinating as these local variations of American fast food are the local food chains that copy the McDonald’s model. In Jeddah, for instance, you can join Saudis for a round of halal chicken-burgers at Al Baik; in Tokyo, you can compare the teriyaki burgers at McDonald’s to those served at the Japanese Lotteria chain; at Jollibee in the Philippines (which has exported its franchises to the United States), you can sample chicken, burgers, or a startlingly sweet variation of spaghetti.
Ideally, of course, fast food should play a decidedly minor role in any international sojourn. Still, it can be interesting to learn how the simplest experiences overseas can affect the way you see things when you come home. I recall how, after returning from my first year in Korea, the understated calm of a Great Plains Christmas left me with a severe case of reverse culture shock.
My solution? I headed over to the west 13th Street McDonald’s in Wichita, where my sense of place melted away the moment I walked through the front door. Indeed, as I ate that Kansas Big Mac Meal, I may have as well have been back in Asia.
Remember that fast food didn’t originate with Ray Kroc: Street vendors, who cook local delicacies right in front of you, mastered the art centuries ago. Any city or region you visit will have plenty of street-food specialties: samosas in Mumbai, roasted sweet-potatoes in Quito, crepes in Paris, kosher-dogs in New York, sheep’s-brain-and-falafel sandwiches in Damascus, mandu dumplings in Seoul. And fresh squeezed juice from a guy pushing a cart always trumps a Super-Sized Coke.
2) Save franchise food as a last resort.
Visiting a McDonald’s to temporarily escape the urban hubbub of Kiev or Curitiba or Kuala Lumpur is perfectly normal — but eating there every day is silly and escapist. Granted, travel can be taxing and disorienting, but overcoming these challenges make a journey invigorating. One visit to a Burger King or KFC per week on the road is plenty; any more is a cross-cultural copout.
3) McDonald’s (and other fast food) is easy to avoid.
Irritated by the fact that you can spot the Golden Arches from the Acropolis, Tiananmen Square, or Copacabana Beach? Not to worry: McDonald’s doesn’t make Greece any less Greek, China any less Chinese, or Brazil any less Brazilian. Just hike a block in any direction, and it will be easy to find authentic local food (and the farther you get from the tourist attractions, the cheaper that food will get).
I have a confession to make: I’m falling in love with Anthony Bourdain.
After twelve years without a television to share my life with I discovered his shows when we were wandering in New Zealand. The food. The locations. His sass. I was smitten. Then, I began to read, you know he’s a writer, don’t you? Swoon. He writes about food. He writes about travel. He will awaken your lust for both:
The journey is part of the experience – an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.
— Anthony Bourdain
“I wanted adventures. I wanted to go up the Nung river to the heart of darkness in Cambodia. I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback, sand and dunes in every direction, eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow off my boots in a Mafiya nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy neon-lit pulqueria in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder. I wanted kicks – the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I’d yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I’d found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books. I wanted to see the world – and I wanted the world to be just like the movies”
― Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”
“Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
― Anthony Bourdain
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
― Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after,you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and whats happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there- with your eyes open- and lived to see it.”
― Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
In the final entry in my series of posts on the subtle but interesting variations in how European cultures celebrate Christmas, I take a look at one of the finest places to spend the holiday season, England. It’s not just a beautiful country with a joyous approach to the holiday; it’s also the spot where some of the most cherished Christmas traditions originated.
Throughout Europe, the sound of carols spill out from churches great and small, and the youthful choir’s heavenly harmonies are carried to the rafters on the cold air, just as they’ve been every year for centuries. Families cluster together and listen to the joyous sounds as their ancestors did, often in the same place.
But the singing of carols is especially beloved and ingrained in the Christmastime traditions of England. In fact, they’ve been a staple of the holiday in England since at least the sixteenth century, as many of the country’s Christmas traditions are. The great cathedrals of England—Wells, Canterbury, Durham, Bath and Salisbury to name just a few—hold spellbinding choral events by candlelight. Outside of the massive churches, colorful Christmas markets buzz with activity.
Once a pagan country with a large Druid population, England is also to thank for the tradition of the Christmas tree. The custom originated with the Druids who would decorate their places of worship with evergreen trees in the dead of winter, which to them represented life that could not be extinguished despite the cold and the dark. The later Christians appreciated this symbolism, as it reminded them of Christ’s promise of eternal life, and adopted the custom.
The holiday dishes are of course a pivotal aspect of any celebration, and the diversity in food served on the big day is one of the widely most varying customs of Europe’s Christmas celebration. In England the regulars like turkey and veggies are served, but desert is the real treat: The all-important Christmas pudding, a fruity desert usually made with figs and brandy, and mincemeat pies, both fixtures since the sixteenth century.
As if England didn’t have enough influence on Christmastime rituals, it was also the originator of the “kissing under the mistletoe” tradition. Dating from the medieval period, there was a tradition of hanging a small treetop called a “bough” upside down in one’s home as a blessing upon the occupants. As the years went by this custom lost its popularity, but was resurrected by the Victorians (nineteenth century) as a holiday decoration under which sweethearts would kiss for good luck.
A particularly English tradition also includes the wearing of a colorful paper crown—everyone is a king or queen at Christmas. Needless to say there is tea involved on this wintry day as well, often at 6pm on Christmas to warm the soul, because every proper English event involves tea.
Trees, teas, carols, and mistletoe: England is a fine place to enjoy the warmth, food and music of the season. Attend a carol performance at a magnificent old church, decorate the tree, have some pudding and kiss your honey under the mistletoe. It’s the most joyous time of the year and England is a great place to spend it.
I spent some time talking with local residents of Monteverde, asking about the history and traditions associated with their Christmas holiday celebrations. Everyone got so excited that they started talking over one another, but I had a translator, so I think we captured everything they wanted to share with me. Here is some unique insight on Costa Rican traditions, and more specifically, traditions of Monteverde.
Festival de la Luz is a holiday festival held in San Jose every year. The people of Monteverde view the big city as a bit intimidating, especially with young children, so seven years ago, they adapted their own version of Festival de la Luz, naming it Monteverde Brilla, translated as “Monteverde Shines”. On the first Thursday of December, the community celebrates culture, art, and healthy recreation for the whole family, with a parade made up of bands, floats, and performing groups. They hope every year to teach their children the history of Costa Rica, and form healthy traditions among children, families, and the local community. I heard school bands practicing everywhere I walked last month, as they prepared to play during this festival, and it is something Monte Verde is very proud of.
Costa Ricans have adopted a lot of American traditions, such as giving gifts to children from “Santa Claus,” and singing Christmas carols. But because this area is largely influenced by Quakers, who first settled in Monteverde during the Korean War, there are alternative traditions offered as well. The Monteverde Friends School recently built a new meeting hall where they hosted a beautiful holiday presentation by the children who attend the school. This meeting hall doubles as a place of silent worship. Quakers in the community hold a special yearly service where the whole community gathers, shares food, and trades cookies, after singing traditional carols.
Some Quakers and others in the community keep Jesus’ birth at the forefront of the holiday and teach children that Jesus wasn’t given gifts until days later when the Wise Men brought him Frankincense and myrrh. For this reason, some people do not give gifts to children until a week or two after Christmas.
At the beginning of December, families decorate Christmas trees and put out their nativity scenes. They do not place Jesus in the scene until Christmas Eve at midnight.
Families gather on December 22 and 23 to make tamales, which is a long-lasting tradition for them. During Christmas, they include various types and cuts of meat, rice, and vegetables. Tamales are also popular during Holy Week at the end of April, but meat is traditionally not included. In December, families cook and trade tamales, while drinking Rompope (their version of egg nog WITH alcohol).
At midnight on Christmas Eve, when families introduce baby Jesus into the nativity scene, they each eat a grape (I am told that some families eat a total of only 12 grapes, while others don’t have a particular number), and make a wish for the new year and the new season. They hug, and celebrate good things they are expecting in the coming season.
On Christmas Day, families gather with neighbors and friends, share food, drinks, songs, and gifts. I was told to look forward to eating tamales while drinking fresh coffee with them on Christmas Day. Tamales and coffee? I honestly cannot wait.
One of the great things about Europe is its magnificent Christmases, when the frosty air is infused with a spirit of joy and celebration. From Scotland to Slovakia, a smorgasbord of culture is on display as each country celebrates with its own unique traditions.
This is the second in a series about the Continent’s various subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yuletide differences that make each culture uniquely fun.
Some of France’s yuletide traditions have spilled over to the US, where we associate the word “Noel” with the holiday. In fact Noel is the French word for Christmas, stemming from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news”.
Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a realm of secular Scrooges: its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any scene in New York City. The shoppers bustle under the glow of the light-strewn Eiffel Tower, radiating light like a beacon against the cold night sky.
In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Soaring abbeys host more elaborate performances of ancient music under their arches. The smell of burning wood emanates from the fireplaces and stoves of old farmhouses in the chiller Normandy and Brittany regions, while the southern areas of the country enjoy the more moderate temperatures afforded by their proximity to the Mediterranean. Epic manger scenes crowd around the courtyards in front of the great cathedrals, uncomfortably close to the commerce-heavy outdoor markets where locals score the freshest chestnuts and tastiest red wine while shivering carolers entertain with the old favorites.
In this strongly Catholic country, many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.
And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy).
Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.
After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.
From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than the act of gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.
Growing up in the Midwest, my Thanksgiving was the traditional spread of turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, devoured at a relative’s home in suburban Chicago. But I grew up to be an inveterate traveler and spent the holiday in many places—one of the best was the historic, colorful Belgian city of Bruges.
Several years ago I was serving an internship at the US Embassy in London, and received a four-day weekend as per federal law. I packed a bag, recruited a friend, and took advantage of the holiday to visit one of my favorite Northern European locations.
Once a prosperous medieval port city, Bruges saw its fortunes vanish when its waterway silted up. The Flemish jewel’s centuries of slumber had an unintended boon for twenty-first century travelers: its cobbled alleyways, picture-book canals and magnificent Market Square survive to thrill romantics and history buffs alike.
My friend, a fellow American who was visiting me from back home, had never heard of the place. This presented another great opportunity I relished: playing tour guide in Europe. At first she was skeptical of spending the holiday in an unfamiliar city, but my description of a city that offered authentic Gothic architecture, romantic canals and Crusader-era cathedral housing an ancient relic piqued her interest. She also seemed to warm to the idea when told that Belgium makes the finest chocolate and beer in the world (in fact, Belgium has almost as many beers as there are days in the year).
Having won her interest, we met up in London on a Wednesday, flew to the Brussels and caught a train to Bruges. A steady rain greeted us as we settled into a little bed and breakfast I’d enjoyed on a previous visit. I promised my exhausted buddy that tomorrow would be a lot more fun.
Thanksgiving was spent showing my hometown friend some of Bruges’ charms, like the bell tower that has overlooked the Market Square since 1300 and the historic Basilica of the Holy Blood (home of a priceless relic brought home to Bruges from the Crusades—the reputed blood of Jesus—and the Gothic artistry of the ancient City Hall.
Under a chilly drizzle, we munched on hot, greasy French fries from a stand in the Market Square and admired the pointy gilded architecture. After licking our fingers we checked out the Michelangelo kept in a nearby church and then continued wandering along the canals that lace the city. A major part of the experience was, of course, browsing the numerous chocolate shops lining the alleyways just off the colorful square.
Our thanksgiving feast was in a little Italian café off a cobbled lane, where a pizza was washed down with a delicious locally-crafted strawberry-flavored beer (Frambozen). Dark chocolate, freshly made by a nearby confectioner’s, was the dessert. After introducing my pal to a few more fine Belgian beers (Trappist monk-brewed dark, and a white beer called Dentergems), a post-feast stroll around the backstreets capped off the night.
The following Sunday I returned to London while my friend flew home to Chicago with a bagful of delectably pralines, a well-earned hangover, and a few good stories. I relished playing tour guide in Europe, and I still do.
I’ve had many interesting Thanksgiving experiences before and since, but my holiday spent in the historic, idyllic little Belgian city still brings a smile. Stuffing and family is great, but I really miss that beer.