25 August 2011

My one Trullo love!

One day I am going to travel to Italy.  I am.  I'll see the sights, sample the gelato, and wink shamelessly at the men.  Yet, there is one thing I want to see even more than the linen-clad gentlemen of Rome.  In the scenic region of Apulia (Puglia), if you explore thoroughly enough, you'll spy what look like giant stone candle snuffers sitting squatly in the middle of fields of swaying grass.  However, these structures are not the dousing tool of some fantastical giant, but rather the traditional Apulian home for olden-days agricultural laborers or landowners.  And the bit you might have mistaken for a candle snuffer is in fact the roof of these wonderful buildings.  They are called Trullo, and I do believe I am in love.

The golden age of the Trullo was during the 1800's, but evidence of their existence goes back as far as the 1600's when the need for a quickly-dismantled home was high.  Rumor has it that taxation on homeowners was pretty heavy during this time, so builders had to come up with a masonry-free method of construction so they could literally "bring down the house" when tax inspectors were poking around.  The technique came to be known as dry stone construction and it proved more than effective in helping farmers avoid those pesky payments for almost 200 years.  It also made for one watertight and wind-tight house.  You see, the roof itself is constructed in two layers that are so well placed, that one piece can be removed for replacement without disturbing any of the others.  Incredible right?

Luckily for us, the skill for assembling these babies remained popular enough that even people who weren't avoiding the tax man chose to live in them.  That's why so many of them have stood the test of time, technology, and taxes and still exist for the enjoyment of the historically obsessed.  Like myself.

image property of http://www.trullialfresco.it
image property of http://www.trullialfresco.it
image property of http://www.roccagiulia.com

Aren't they a little pinch of fairy tale mixed with a cup of amazing?  Luckily, the Italian government recognized the historical significance of these buildings early on.  Quite a few have been fully restored for tourists to visit and gawk over.  But, if that's not enough to satisfy the infatuation you will develop, you can buy one.  Yes, I said buy one.  Unfortunately you'll probably have to get one that looks a little more like the one in the top image, but with a little elbow grease and the mile-long list of restrictions for Trullo renovations you'll get from the Italian government, you'll have a home looking like the one in the bottom image in no time!

So, here's another thing I've added to my "In My Wildest Dreams Bucket List": own a Trullo in Apulia, Italy.  Like I said, "in my wildest...", but still worth considering in my impracticable opinion.  After all, I'd get to live in a little piece of history, and who doesn't want a home with stories to tell?


10 May 2011

"She was a Gypsy woman..."

When I was almost three, my family moved into a home my grandfather had built near the Henry Cowell and Wilder Ranch redwood parks in California.  We had few neighbors (mainly the overgrown trees of an abandoned Christmas tree farm and a small, but loud herd of sheep), so I was free to explore and imagine until my mind and heart were full.

Across the road from our house sat a very small, and hardly visible home of a man named Rex.  I say "hardly visible" because the front of his house was being assaulted by a blackberry bush the size of Rhode Island, and a redwood jungle was advancing quickly from the rear.  It was this same redwood forest that I spent many nights imagining Gypsies prowling through.

I first learned of Gypsies (Romani) from my fey-touched Aunt Marilyn.  She told me that the old women of Gypsy families would sneak out of the woods in the night then kidnap ill-behaved children and turn them into slaves...or soup.  Unlike a "normal" child who would be afraid of such an experience, I thought the whole thing would be a rather grand adventure.  Now, I know Gypsies are not cannibalistic, nor would they kidnap a little misbehaving miscreant (because who would subject themselves to that kind of torture?), but the allure of Gypsy culture has never left me.  There is just something so magical and free about they way they live, and nothing is more magical to me than the wagons they called home.

The Vardo, or Romani Wagon, is a horse-drawn caravan that was widely used by the Romani people in Great Britain and Europe until the last 20 years or so.  (Unfortunately most Romani people live in metal caravans now, but there are still some who hold to the old traditions.)  Anyway, the Romani people are nomads who traditionally moved from place to place as circus performers or cheap labor workers or goods traders, and because of this, they needed some sort of compact, efficient form of living that was sturdy enough to resist the elements.  A wagon seemed the logical choice because it can be drawn by a horse and can hold everything necessary for sustaining life.

The well-organized wagon interiors have typically got a bed with drawers underneath, which is positioned against the wall opposite the door (which is at the back), and one or two windows.  Then, near the rear of the wagon is the kitchen, with a chimney pipe exiting through the roof and storage cabinets for food and dinnerware.  Cooking pots and utensils are usually hung along the wall in order to keep as much open floor space as possible and a bench of some kind is nestled across from the stove.  Finally, the whole thing, inside and out, is ornately carved and decorated in an effort to exhibit the woodworking skill of the Romani craftsmen.

The usual patterns used in ornamentation were Romani symbols and images that held significance to the culture.  Horses were a popular motif, due to their importance in pulling the wagons, but gryphons, lions, birds, flowers, and vines were common as well.  Oftentimes these complex designs were gold leafed in order to make them more obvious and beautiful.

image property of www.telegraph.co.uk

image property of www.blog.travellerstimes.org.uk

image property of www.chilechews.blogspot.com

image property of www.frommoontomoon.blogspot.com

image property of www.caryatid-memoir.com

As you probably noticed, there are a few different styles of wagon, but the interiors are similar regardless of the roof design.  They've all got a stove, and bed, and place to sit, but more importantly, they are filled to the brim with all the magic and charm that can be found in the world.

Someday I will own a Romani Wagon, I just know it.  After all, what better place is there to escape the breakneck pace of the world and enjoy a nice bowl of. . . soup?


04 May 2011

No dirt in my Yurt!

I have never been to Mongolia and I would probably never have given the country a second thought, but then I saw the Focus Features film, "Babies".  One of the films four stars is a firecracker of a little boy named Bayar and he lives in Bayanchandmani, Mongolia.  He is absolutely one of the cutest creatures on the planet but unfortunately he's not the reason I've suddenly become enchanted by his homeland.  Rather, I'm fascinated by his house: a Yurt (or "Ger" if you're Mongolian).

Bayar's parents are Mongolian nomads who tend a large goat herd and, out of necessity, they live in a portable home.  If you know anything about herding animals, then you know that they aren't kept in one place for very long.  The herders have got to follow them around, and what better way for them to shelter themselves than with a Yurt?

Yurt's are massively cool, circular buildings that are completely collapsible.  The frame is typically made of latticed wood which is wrapped in waterproof canvas or wool felt.  This construction method makes it easy to disassemble and transport as needed.  Then there are the roof poles, which are usually draped in a waterproof material then attached to the wooden crown at the peak of the roof.  In larger Yurts, the crown is supported from below by a column of some sort.  The whole bundle of wood and fabric is then skillfully (and astonishingly) strung together using only ropes or ribbons.  If that's not a feat of design engineering and talent, then I don't know what is.

Anyway, the use of Yurts started in about the 12th or 13th century in Mongolia and entire villages of people would live in them, much like Native Americans (First Nation) living in Tepees.  The interior of some Yurts may even reflect a more spiritually inspired layout with importance being given to the cardinal directions (the door always facing South and the North-Eastern area of the Yurt being designated for the woman of the house).  However, many modern herders orient the door toward the rising sun so that they might use the Yurt as a sundial.  Ingenious, I know.

image property of http://www.onlydesigned.com

image property of http://www.asianaccess.org

Not surprisingly, Yurts can be found all around the world: Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, (all the other stans), etc.  There are even people in the Americas who recognize the utility and convenience of such a mode of living, though the materials used for construction tend to be more high-tech than those found abroad.  Either way, if fate blesses you with the chance to sleep in one of these bad boys, take it.  I know I hope to someday.

Keep exploring!


08 April 2011

Sweat it out!

I love Native Americans (or First Nations if you hail from the Northern lands of Canada).  I love their culture, their design, their historic clothing, their beautiful men..., their everything!  When I was younger I loved exploring the Native American exhibit at the museum that was blessedly situated near my house, and my love for them has only grown since then.  There has been, however, one facet of their design world that, when I was a child, I never quite understood: the Sweat Lodge.

The Native American Sweat Lodge functions a lot like a really big sauna.  It's typically a hut-like building (or hole in the ground covered in planks) that has a pit in the middle where the really hot rocks are placed.  The Lodges are primarily used for purification ceremonies which differ from tribe to tribe (obviously).  Sometimes the entire event is silent, or a tribal leader tells stories, or the whole group participates in songs and chants.  Whatever it is, consider yourself lucky if you're ever invited to attend.  Should you be asked to go, remember to ask about their expectations for you and whatever etiquette rules they may have.  You don't want to show up in a pretty floral bikini all slathered up in baby oil...especially if you're a guy.

image property of http://www.examiner.com
image property of http://www.yogasanga.net

Oh, and some advice if you do go, don't wear anything metal because it can get super hot and burn you.  Also, you're gonna want to take out your contacts and be really aware of your water intake so you don't become dehydrated.  And, not to cause worry, but if you're feeling lightheaded or dizzy, that's probably a good sign that you'll need fresh air asap.  Regardless, the once-in-a-lifetime visit to a sweat lodge ceremony would be killer experience, I'm sure of it!

Now, although I've never had the privilege to participate in a purification ceremony, I have added a sweat lodge visit to my "Hopefully-in-My-Life" bucket list.  I'm crossing more than just my fingers for this one!

So, now you all have to go out and visit Pow-Wow's and museums and Native American exhibits and visitors centers on reservations!  You'll be surprised what you'll learn about a people who have been around far longer than we have.  After all, they're our nearest neighbors we should get to know them.


16 March 2011

Washiki What?!

Have you ever heard of a squat toilet?  No?  Well, if you've ever traveled around the Middle East, Asia or Japan you may have encountered one of these curious restroom wonders.  Though it can be distressing to suddenly discover a squat toilet to be your only option, there really is nothing to be afraid of.

A squat toilet (alaturka, kakkoos, washiki, etc.) is a toilet used by squatting rather than sitting.  Instead of a raised bowl, the user must carefully squat over what is essentially a porcelain (or concrete or stainless steel or dirt) hole-in-the-ground to do their business.  Scared?  You shouldn't be.  They're surprisingly easy to use and are actually pretty practical.  Without going into too much detail, I will say that to properly use one, you face the wall (or flushing mechanism) and scoot as far forward as you comfortably can.  For first timers and those with slight mobility issues, it is often recommended you grab hold of the plumbing at the front to prevent yourself from "falling in".

Though some would say the initial awkwardness of using a squat toilet well outweighs the practicality, I don't agree.  Not only are they easier to keep clean than a bowl toilet, they are easier to repair and much more sanitary (as you're not sitting on a shared surface).  There are other health benefits to squatting as well, but I'm not about to go there.

Oh, and don't underestimate the water pressure of these babies.  They'll do their job just fine and do it without using as much water as a bowl toilet.  How's that for practicality?

Image property of http://www.mrsranneypoole.com/japan-osaki

Anyway, the idea for the squat toilet is one that most likely evolved from a unique drainage system that was created in Nara, Japan sometime between 710 and 784 A.D.  Essentially, a long 4 to 6 inch wide (10 to 15 cm) drainage ditch was dug through the town which was thin enough for people to squat over with one foot on either side to easily take care of things.  Lucky for you, the technology developed over time into something much more private and sanitary.  So next time you see one of these "urinals-in-the-floor" put on your "I've got this" face and own it!  If nothing else you'll have an interesting conversation starter for the rest of your life.

Remember, just because it's different doesn't mean it's scary.  Breathe, relax and you'll be just fine.


12 March 2011

The Culture Cure

Maybe I'm a little odd (I don't know many who would dispute that statement), but there is one big thing I've often wondered: Why do people experience culture shock?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture shock as "a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation."  It's all too easy to watch TV shows or read magazine articles (with lots and lots of pretty pictures) and say, "Well, that looks like a lovely and inviting place, I'll take my next holiday there!"  But, when you arrive at this exotic destination, you're suddenly feeling very weak-kneed and stomachy; madly clutching at your "hidden" money pouch every few seconds.

I understand these symptoms are probably the most extreme (but you know some of you have done this) yet I wonder if with "adequate preparation" there might be a cure for the madness.

I'm sure lofty philosophers and intrepid world travelers alike could come up with countless reasons for a culture shock experience, but I believe there are only two reasons that have the most influence on causing people to become fearful or hesitant.  First off I need to say that I do not believe a difference in language is a legitimate barrier.  There are not many places in this world where people don't know the implication of the word "No", and I think you'd be very hard-pressed indeed to find a place where the people don't know the meaning behind a smile.  There will always be people to help, especially if you make the tiniest of efforts with their language and remember to be responsible and safe.  Now, what I believe to be the two main causes for a traveler's trepidation are: 1. an almost unrecognizable array of food options and 2. confusion incited by being largely unfamiliar with the traditional, or oftentimes historic or archaic architecture and design.

Unfortunately for you (and my stomach) this blog will not be about different culinary wonders from around the world (since the Cooking Channel and the Travel Channel have pretty much got that covered), but rather about the different and seemingly strange designs that define the cultures so different from our own.  This will be an effort to help you become "adequately prepared" in order to see if the symptoms of culture shock can be eased or possibly eradicated simply by gaining a greater understanding of why the members of these different cultures make the unique design decisions they do.

So welcome to my blog.  I hope that even if you don't feel like what I'm doing serves a greater purpose, you will at least learn something about a people very different from yourself.  After all, the world is not as big as we've been led to believe.