American Tourist Eats Pickled Human Toe



Traveling often involves eating things you’d never imagine ingesting at home. Fried tarantulas, grilled bull testicles, ant eggs, fish eyes… the list of unusual foreign foods goes on and on. But one thing we’ve certainly never imagined would make the list is human toes. However, that’s exactly what an American man ate over the weekend, during a peculiar drinking game in Canada.

According to the tradition, you’re expected to plonk the pickled toe into a beer glass filled with a drink of your choosing and ensure the toe touches your lips as you chug down your booze.

The drinking ritual has been taking place at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon for more than 40 years, but few have dared to swallow the toe. Doing so is frowned upon and will earn you a $500 fine. But that didn’t deter the American tourist who gulped the toe down along with his beer on Saturday. The man made off with the pickled digit lodged firmly in his digestive tract before the bar owner could stop him.The bizarre drinking game apparently started back in the 1970s when a local riverboat captain came across a frostbitten toe while cleaning out a ship cabin. It’s thought the toe was already about 50 years old at the time. In the years since, about 60,000 tourists have taken part in the strange custom, with a few brave souls chowing down on the gnarly body part. The first toe was apparently swallowed in 1980 and altogether about 15 toes have been lost or consumed. Where exactly the other 14 toes came from, however, is anyone’s guess!

Bumping Into Queen Elizabeth II In Oxford

Queen Elizabeth IIIt’s not every day that you bump into Queen Elizabeth II on your way to work.

Walking from my house to the Bodleian Library in Oxford to research my next book, I noticed a large crowd and dozens of cops outside Christ Church College. It turned out the Queen was coming to take part in an old English tradition – giving away Maundy Money.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, and since the Middle Ages, English monarchs have been giving away money on this day. Since the 17th century this has taken the form of a special issue of coins and the tradition developed to give them to old people who have shown good service to the Church and community. The monarchs used to wash people’s feet too, but that ended with James II.

I joined the crowd lining the street and waited for the Queen and Royal Consort, Prince Philip. I hadn’t seen them since taking part in the Field of Remembrance ceremony at Westminster back in 2000 and so I was looking forward to seeing them again. We really haven’t been keeping in touch as much as we should. Perhaps I should friend them on Facebook.

The crowd was a mixture of tourists and locals, some waving flags sold by an old man who hurried from one side of the street to the other, completely ignoring the cops who were trying to clear the way.

The royal motorcade soon appeared with her and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in the back of a beautiful old Rolls Royce. A great cheer rose up from the crowd and everyone waved. The Queen looked her usual regal and relaxed self and gave her trademark wrist-only wave. She didn’t look a day older than when I last saw her. Prince Philip gave a more enthusiastic wave but I couldn’t help noticing he was beginning to show the burden of his 91 years.

The Belfast Telegraph reports that this is the first time in almost 400 years that the ceremony has taken place in Oxford, so I was incredibly lucky to stumble on it. It’s one of those coincidences that always make up the highlights of any trip.

Tradition holds that the monarch rewards a number of people equal to her age, and so the Queen gave coins to 87 worthy people at Christ Church Cathedral in the college. Soon after the ceremony she headed out of town. Sadly, she didn’t have time to stop for a pint with me. Maybe next time. Long Live The Queen!

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. It was one of those “I really should have brought my camera” days]

Exploring A Snowy Traditional Village In Estonia

Estonia
After so many years living in Spain, it was nice to visit Estonia and experience a real winter again. That numbness on the tip of your nose while the rest of your body is bundled up and warm, the way sounds get muffled by the snow, the intricate designs the icy branches etch into the sky – winter is a good season when you don’t have to experience it for too long.

The best way to experience winter is to get out into the countryside. Day trips from the capital Tallinn can be tricky, however, as the bus system isn’t the greatest. One quick way to experience country life and get a bit of history is to spend a few euros on a taxi and go to the Estonian Open Air Museum just outside of town.

This remarkable place is the Colonial Williamsburg of the Baltics. Historic buildings have been collected here from all regions of Estonia to recreate several traditional villages. Costumed employees practice traditional crafts as visitors wander around the forested paths between the villages.

I went on Shrove Tuesday, which is a special event in Estonian culture. The village tavern was serving up pig trotters with the warning not to wipe the grease off your chin if you wanted to ensure a prosperous and lucky new year. After a messy lunch that’s going to make me rich and fortunate in 2013, I headed out into the country lanes. Being the middle of a weekday, it was quiet. Visitors were spread out over the museum’s several acres and for the most part all was silent except for the crunch of my boots in the snow. Every now and then I’d hear the jingle of sleigh bells and see a happy family scoot by, driven by one of the museum employees.

%Gallery-179095%It’s a big day for kids, who go sledding on this date. For some reason sledding ensures that flax will grow tall in the new year. The child who sleds the farthest guarantees that his or her household will have the best flax crop. A gaggle of squealing Estonian kids hurtling down the slope next to one of the windmills were having too much fun to care whether the flax grew tall or not. Nearby was a merry-go-round set atop a frozen pond, spinning extra quickly on the ice.

Estonian kids have turned the making of snowmen into a fine art. Kadriorg Park, back in town, had an entire population of snowmen, snow women, snow dragons, and a snow bear climbing a tree to get a snow squirrel. Scattered around the 18th- and 19th-century buildings of the Open Air Museum I saw snowmen hanging out enjoying the holiday. It made me wonder how old the tradition of making snowmen is and why it started.

The homes, barns and churches collected here are now rarities. During Soviet times the emphasis was on collectivization and most old rural buildings were allowed to decay. So it’s a rare treat to see their distinct, homey style and watch kids play at the same games their ancestors did when these old buildings were new.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: The Secret Tunnels Under Tallinn!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

Estonia

My Own Personal Krampus

I have a photo, printed from film, old school … my husband and I are standing in a snowstorm in the Austrian alps. The flash from the camera reflects off giant fluffy flakes. The sky behind us is black – it’s early evening, but an alpine evening, so it is dark. We are wearing big coats and big hats and big snow boots. We are surrounded by a group of Krampus, the alpine monster of the season, big shaggy horned devils who strike fear into the hearts of small children, who chase taunting teenagers down the streets of snow-globe villages, who torment tourists and locals alike.

Only we don’t look the least bit rattled. We are smiling big holiday smiles. It looks like a family portrait with our pets.

The Krampusspiel – or, as I like to call it, The Running of the Krampus – takes place every year on December 6. It’s part of a series of deep winter alpine traditions around Christmas and the solstice that acknowledge the change of the season. Three Kings come to your house and chalk your doorways, and there are little sprites that rattle around in your fireplace until you give them candy to go away, and there are runners in all white who carry beautiful lanterns and ring bells to scare away the bad spirits of the previous year.

But the Krampus has taken the spotlight. His shaggy coat, his massive size, his devil’s face, and his swinging broomstick, have captured the collective imagination, perhaps targeting the same people that like slasher movies. Krampus parades take over the streets of popular ski villages in Austria (and some parts of Bavaria) in a pageant of Alien meets Satan. Removed from the context of all those winter traditions, the Krampus is now the star in a winter nightmare of swinging chains, of orcs set free from Middle Earth, of underworld creatures released from the pits of hell.Every year we read at least one story of a tourist absolutely terrorized by an out of control Krampus at a Krampusspiel. And every year we have to wade through a swamp of nostalgia and annoyance. These are not our Krampus’, they are not the Krampus my Austrian husband grew up with, they are not the Krampus he dressed up as when he was in his twenties. They are not the Krampus in our family portrait.

I was utterly enchanted with the Krampus the first time I saw him. He was in the hallway of our apartment building. I heard him before I saw him; he wore giant cowbells and rattled through the streets in the dark. I opened the door and he was standing there, filling the stairwell, while the neighbor’s kids stood silent, wide eyed in wonder. They looked tiny, awestruck, but not afraid. I’m quite sure if they’d looked up, past the shaggy monster’s waist, they’d have seen their expressions reflected on my own wondering face.

While locals line the sidewalks and await his (pre-scheduled) arrival at their homes, the Krampus runs through town, shaking his bells, swinging his broomstick, and admonishing the little ones about their behavior throughout the year. He’s got friends with him who carry baskets of treats for kids – peanuts and tangerines and maybe little chocolates. Sometimes, St. Nikolaus is there too, giving stern but affectionate lectures, asking the children to recite rhymes about Christmas.

The story of the Krampus is scary. He will beat you with his broomstick, stuff you in his sack, drag you back to his lair if you’ve been bad. He’s a terror. There’s no denying it. But our Krampus, the one that runs the streets of my husband’s tiny village, he’s more “Where the Wild Things Are” than hatched from James Cameron’s green glowing alien planet. His face is a carved wooden mask, not shiny resin and plastic. He carries a bundle of twigs bound into an old fashioned broom, not a length of chain or a whip. He will raise his hands over head and roar at the cocky teenager who taunts him with the traditional Krampus rhyme, but he will not chase a tourist four blocks in an act of aggression. He is campfire ghost-story scary, not “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” scary.

It is strange that I have affection for this alpine myth, for this black devil from places unknown, but each winter I find myself an unlikely defender of the Krampus. People send me videos of vicious looking beasts running rampant through snow covered hamlets and I think, “No, no, no. You don’t understand, this is not what the Krampus is.” My memory will not be ruined by this. I hold the picture in my hand and think, “Ah, there you are! This is the Krampus I know, the one my husband grew up with!” I stand in the snow surrounded by creatures imagined. There are big snowflakes and the sound of bells and eyes big with wonder and I am not even a little bit afraid.

[Photo credit: Pam Mandel]

Video Of The Day: Woman’s Painful Escape While Running With Bulls

A woman narrowly outruns a trio of bulls stampeding through the streets, only to find herself having a run-in of a different kind. Her painful escape is a reminder that running of the bulls ceremonies often result in serious injuries, most of which aren’t directly caused by bulls. In Pamplona, Spain, the most famous location for this type of event, between 200 and 300 people are injured during the runs each year. Most injuries are minor, but according to Wikipedia, 15 people have been killed in Pamplona since record keeping began in 1924 – most by goring or suffocation. If the idea of being chased by bulls still sounds like a good time, the tradition is running strong in cities and towns throughout Spain, Portugal and Mexico.

[Video: Mortationparkour on YouTube]