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Editor’s Note: This is a wonderful post by a brand new writer to The Bookshop Blog. Rachel Jagareski owns Old Saratoga Books and has her own blog called Book Trout. It’s a great blog; I highly recommend a visit (and subscribe while you’re there).

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Cabin Fever Cured with Armchair Travel

Our corner of upstate New York has been peppered all winter with the
nuisance of mixed precipitation. The dreaded wintry mix has fueled
school cancellations, traffic accidents, sore backs (all that
shoveling heavy slush), household arguments and a heaping helping of
cabin fever. The cure-all? Armchair travel.

Join me now in stoking up the fire, filling the tea kettle and
hammering back at the foul weather with a blanket, optional lap cat
and one of the following books:

Let’s warm our bones in sunny Spain with writer Tim Moore in “Travels
with my Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago
” (NY:
St. Martin’s Press, 2005). The hapless Tim took on the 500-mile walk
from St. Jean Pied-de-Port just over the border in France to the
Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, as have religious pilgrims since
medieval times. Moore, neither stoic nor ascetic, has the perfect
comedic partner in his ass, Shinto, who daily confounds the author by
refusing to cross any sort of bridge and slows to an inexorable crawl
after his midday meal.

Meeting up with his compadres at the hostels each night is not always
solace for the parched and irritable donkey-master. Moore must often
out-maneuver his fellow pilgrims for the last open bunk and sometimes
this means he must forego his motivational dinner and glass (or
carafe) of red wine and attend to Shinto’s feet and other anatomy.
Even when he does secure a bed, rest is not always easy. There are
the champion snorers, night-mumblers, petty thieves and worse yet, the
“Pilsener-bellied” nudist who bedevils Moore in the communal
lavatory: “A good man, a kind man, but a man whose wrinkled pilgrim
parts rested on the rim of the sink I was waiting to clean my teeth
in.”

Moore is a witty and literate tour guide in his other books; if you
enjoy travel writing in the vein of Bill Bryson or Tim Cahill, you may
enjoy a trip with Moore to Norway and the island of Spitzbergen in
“Frost on My Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer”,
“French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France” or on the European
Grand Tour in “Continental Drifter: Taking the Low Road with the First
Grand Tourist”.

American ex-pat J.R. Daeschner is an equally entertaining tour leader
in his book “True Brits: A Tour of Britain In All Its Bog-Snorkeling, Shin-Kicking and Cheese-Rolling Glory” (Woodstock,
NY: The Overlook Press, 2004). The sheer gooniness of some of these
annual events makes you want to gurn, or pull a funny face, as in the
World Gurning Championships held each September in Egremont.
Daeschner, a strapping 6’4″ young man gamely tries out most of these
oddball events, from shin-kicking (padded shins, but still a painful
remnant from old-time boxing), to bog-snorkeling and dancing with 25
pounds of 1,000-year-old extinct reindeer horns.

Cheese Rolling in Chipping Campden sounds like a tame, bucolic
activity, something that young tots might engage in, but no:
paramedics line the flanks of Cooper’s Hill to attend to the injuries
of athletes and bystanders from 70 mph dairy products in this extreme
sport. Cheese Rollers fling themselves down the steep slope (a 50 to
70-degree angle along its height) in pursuit of the their Double
Gloucester, usually fueled by a snootful of farmhouse scrumpy, the
pre-game alcoholic anaesthetic of choice.

If the truly weird is what you’re after in a folk festival, then
Daeschner offers up a tour of two other bizarre traditions that just
don’t show up in the British Tourism literature. Just outside
Edinburgh, in the Scottish town of South Queensferry, the locals
somehow persuade one of their own to don a head-to-toe outfit of
prickly green burrs. This is done in August, so that the
uncomfortable costume can be made even more so in the heat and with
its bumblebee and other insect companions. The Burry Man then marches
around town, arms held out straight at the sides for extra discomfort,
nipping into pubs and downing many a beverage to bless the
establishment.

The Burry Man spectacle, however, is topped in my mind, by the Padstow
tradition of Darkie Day. A handful of clueless Cornish residents
celebrate Boxing Day and New Year’s Day by blacking up their faces and
having a moving minstrel show up and down the streets. Of course,
multiple booze pit stops are involved, kids included. I know that
minstrel shows were a popular American entertainment in the late 19th
and early 20th century, but I can’t imagine how anyone could be so
socially unaware as to attempt this sort of merriment in a
post-colonial age. Daeschner interviews various Padstowians about the
whole affair, which stirred up some national tabloid outrage a few
years ago. He even tracks down an audience with the lone black
resident, Ziggy, and his reportage is illuminating.

For the final leg of our armchair journey, I recommend “Sound Bites:
Eating on Tour with Franz Ferdinand”, by Alex Kapranos (NY: Penguin,
2006). The lead singer and guitarist of the rock band dishes up
impressionist portraits of his daring dining around the globe. He
previously worked in a restaurant kitchen, so he brings an
appreciation for well-prepared meals, no matter whether he’s shoveling
in kluski pasta in a Polish Minneapolis polka restaurant or smashing
open freshwater mud crabs in Sydney.

Kapranos writes vibrantly, bringing out out sensual descriptions of
the aromas, visuals, music and background noises in each dining arena,
and there are the inevitable weird dainties that he and the rest of
the Franz Ferdinand crew dare each other to eat. Criadilla, or Bull’s
Balls in Buenos Aires apparently taste like a bag of green pennies.
Band mate Andrew Knowles illustrates the book with edgy, humorous
drawings, any one of which would make an interesting T-shirt, and
these all help transport you into each travel vignette.

I hope you have enjoyed our armchair journey. It was so pleasant to
experience northern Spain without being parched and foot sore; to
travel to Great Britain without being pelted by high-speed cheese and
to sample an international smorgasbord without having to chomp on
something that certainly did not taste like chicken. Here’s hoping
your armchair travel brings you to many interesting places over the years.

Rachel Jagareski
Old Saratoga Books, has been around since 1996 at 94 Broad Street,
Schuylerville, NY 12871, store hours: Wednesday through Saturday 10 am
to 5 pm EST and Sundays noon to 5pm, and open all hours online at
www.oldsaratogabooks.com. The Book Trout is at:
http://booktrout.blogspot.com.

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4 Comments

  1. I refer to the comments made about Padstow’s 200 year tradition of Darkie Day, another example of political correctness gone mad, I find the description of Cornish residents as being ‘clueless’ quite offensive when considering that this celebration is actually a tribute to slaves who, seeking shelter from a storm, docked in the harbour of Padstow where the human cargo, delighted at being in a safe harbour, capered and sang on the quayside.
    Local townsfolk were so impressed by the coming together of what was seen as a primitive culture acting and mixing together n a westernised manner with local residents that the occasion has been celebrated ever since, despite investigations by the politically correct brigade.
    It is a charitable event raising funds for local concerns. A harmless event made to look sinister by those who do not understand.

  2. Bruce K. Hollingdrake says:

    Neil,
    Thanks so much for the comment. I must admit when I first heard ‘Darkie Day’ I thought – Oh my…
    I appreciate you taking the time to educate us. Sounds like a wonderful celebration.

  3. Neil and Bruce:

    “Political correctness gone mad”? “A wonderful celebration?”

    I don’t think so, and here’s why:

    First, the story about winsome slaves gamboling on the beaches of Padstow after their slave ship crashed on the beach is apocryphal. It is not documented by historians and seems to be an urban legend. Darkie Day’s roots in Padstow are simply vestiges of the egregious minstrel craze imported to Cornwall and other parts of the globe from my home country (USA). And while charity is a nice thing to cloak one’s bad habits in, that is irrelevant to the issue of whether Darkie Day is an offensive fiesta.

    While the rest of 21st century society has given up on Al Jolson’s songbook, blacking up and singing songs about mammies and niggers, the Padstow brigades soldiers on. Daeschner’s book apparently opened up a nationwide controversy over the appropriateness of Darkie Day in a modern, multi-cultural society (the Wikipedia sources and videos on the subject are worth a look) and so the organizers of this event have made some changes; most notably by eliminating afro wigs, offensive racial songs and epithets, the exaggeration of big lips and eyes in facial makeup and in changing the official name of Darkie Day to Mummer’s Day.

    Why not just scrap this whole antiquated and LAME excuse for a drinking binge and do a charitable event that centers on real Cornish culture? There are so many interesting aspects to Padstow and Cornwall that could be featured: fishing heritage, the language, mining, Celtic songs and poems, archaeology, food.

    I remain unconvinced that this is a quaint or wonderful local celebration. Just looks like making fun of black folks to me.

    -Rachel, Old Saratoga Books/Book Trout

  4. How about the southern hemisphere: Australia. I recommend the Great North Walk and the book about the Companion walking it. Great armchair travel reading.

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