October 2011

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I secretly miss trick-or-treating on Halloween.  When I was a kid in Texas, it was a fun excuse to dress up in a crazy costume and have your parents escort you to the neighbors’ houses to gather a giant pillowcase filled with treats.

My brothers and I had a tradition where, after every trick-or-treat session, we’d convene a “meeting” upstairs in the game room and dump out all of our treasures to do inventory.  There would always be the usual suspects like Snickers, or healthy stuff given out by the “fitness mommies,” like granola bars, or the random toothbrushes given out by our older neighbors (I guess to send a message that candy would give us cavities).  Andrew, Taylor, and I would then operate a free market of sorts, bartering and trading away what candy we didn’t like for the ones we wanted.  We had it down to a science–Andrew didn’t like chocolate very much and I did, I didn’t really care for Starburst and he loved them, and Taylor would pretty much eat everything.  Those were my memories of Halloween.

Now, as other adults can attest, Halloween just isn’t the same.  Let’s face it–grown men or women going trick-or-treating is, well, a sign that you haven’t quite gotten the message that it’s for kids.  There are Halloween parties, of course, where you can still dress up in crazy costumes, but to me it just isn’t the same.

Thinking about Halloweens I spent as a child made me wonder about the actual history and international practice of the day.  So, I did some research.

According to the History Channel’s website, the history of Halloween goes back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).  The Celts lived 2,000 years ago in what is now modern-day Ireland, the UK, and northern France, and they celebrated their new year on November 1 (hence why Halloween takes place on October 31).  November 1 apparently symbolized the end of the summer, a.k.a. harvest time, and the beginning of the dark, cold winter.  The Celts believed that, the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and ghosts returned to cause all sorts of mischief.

To combat this mischief, the Druids (Celtic priests) would build giant bonfires for crop and animal sacrifices to try to deter the crazy ghosts, and the Celts would wear costumes and hang out by the bonfire.  Of course, instead of dressing up like Nicki Minaj or Charlie Sheen (this year’s most popular Halloween costumes), the Celts would throw on some animal skins and call it good.

From the rest of the research I did, it sounds like modern Halloween traditions in Ireland and Canada are similar to the ones in the U.S., namely trick-or-treating for kids and costume parties for adults.  Interestingly, in Ireland they still light bonfires in rural areas, much like their Celtic ancestors.

In Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and Spain, All Souls’ Day is celebrated on November 2 as a religious holiday to honor martyrs and the deceased; it involves a three-day festival that starts on October 31.  Some families in these regions build altars to the dead, namely deceased relatives, and decorate the altars with candy, flowers, photos, food, and drinks.  Candles are also lit “to help the deceased find the way home.”  As well, many relatives visit family graveyards and tidy up the areas to honor their predecessors.

Interesting to note as well:  In England, during the Protestant Reformation, Halloween celebrations pretty much faded out.  I did notice that, when I lived in London, people had costume parties and such, but it wasn’t as big of a deal as it is in the States.  Instead, the Brits tend to focus on Guy Fawkes Day.  On the night of November 5, bonfires are lit up all around England, and you might even see some fireworks shows.  Guy Fawkes Day commemorates the execution of the infamous traitor, Guy Fawkes, who was sentenced to death on November 5, 1606, after trying to blow up England’s parliament building. In some parts of England kids walk around asking for “a penny for the guy,” which is apparently their version of trick-or-treating.

Long gone are my days of trick-or-treating and convening the “Great Candy Barter” with my brothers, but I still look back on those Halloweens with fondness.  Halloween was a time to stay out past your bedtime on a school night, eat too many sweets, and frantically brush your teeth so that the next dentist visit would not be torture.  This year, Halloween falls on a Monday, and my crazy plans will probably involve getting home from work and going to bed early.  I might sneak in a few pieces of candy though.



The inspiration for today’s blog came, randomly, from my medicine cabinet.

To backtrack, last weekend was a busy, fun-filled time in Chicago and South Bend with my friend Esther and at the Notre Dame football game with Leon’s friends.  As I wrote in my last post, taking a trip to both a big city and smaller city can feel like you’re taking two trips in one, and this was no exception.  Leon and I did everything that weekend from chow down on Chicago deep dish pizza to tailgate to enjoy the sight of Indiana’s picturesque farmland.

When we got back to D.C., it was time to jump into another busy week.  Leon had a conference in North Carolina all week, and I had several things going on at work.  Not to mention that it rained all week in D.C. and the Metro was plagued with problems, meaning endless delays and listening to unnerved fellow passengers describe their frustrations in choice words.

Needless to say, Friday morning I was pretty tired.  I stood in front of my bathroom mirror getting ready for work, when I asked myself the question that I ask every morning:  What do I want to smell like today?

Scientists say that scent and memory are connected, and I can say without a doubt that it’s true.  This morning, for instance, I reached for my bottle of Shalimar perfume–sandlewood, vanilla, and musk blended into a warm scent that reminds me of my childhood in Texas.  My mother has worn Shalimar since she was a teenager, and I started wearing it as a child as well.  Whenever I miss my family or my homeland, it brings me comfort to spray on some of that scent I smelled so much growing up.

After I spritzed myself with Shalimar this morning, I thought about other scents that hold special meaning. There’s Love Spell, the body splash from Victoria’s Secret that my friends and I were obsessed with in college and that smells, according to my former coworker Ken, like “a Strawberry Patch doll.”  Whenever I smell smoky incense, I am transported back to Asia or northern Africa–I still have incense sticks that I picked up at markets in Egypt, India, Thailand, and Indonesia, and whenever I need a taste of the exotic I use one of those.  Smelling anything from the store Lush, especially the fantastic pink-hued “Rock Star” soap, makes me reminisce about graduate school days in London.  Lavender takes me back to France, where the purple stalks grow everywhere and perfume the air itself.  Prada’s Amber perfume reminds me of a girls’ trip with my mother and sister-in-law through Italy; its distinct scent reminds me of strolling through the winding cobblestone streets of Europe.

Those are just a few examples, but it underscores the notion that scents appeal to our deepest sensibilities, often comforting us when we need comforting, lifting our spirits, and reminding us of pleasant memories.

It’s always fun to return to a city you enjoyed visiting in the past.  It’s also fun to explore a new place.  When you get to do both in the same weekend, it’s double the excitement.  After all, travelers often operate in a dichotomy–at times craving the familiarity of a place we know well, other times wanting to check out a place completely foreign to us.

This weekend, if all travel plans go accordingly, Leon and I are looking forward to a “double the excitement” kind of trip.  We’re heading out to Chicago and will then drive on to South Bend, Indiana, to visit with some of his buddies from Notre Dame and watch the Fighting Irish play some football on Saturday.

The familiar aspect of this trip, for me, is Chicago.  I first visited Chicago last year to reunite with my good friend Esther, who I met in a Bible study group at our church in London while we were both in graduate school.  She moved back to Chicago shortly after our year in the UK, and I had been hoping to explore her hometown at some point.  When a weekend visit worked out for us, it was fantastic.  Well, minus a couple of bumps in the road upon arrival.

I landed in Chicago with my little backpack as my luggage, and since it was light I carried it around with me that evening so we wouldn’t have to run back to Esther’s apartment before going to an international ice cream festival at a local museum (there was no way I wanted to delay sampling different ice creams from around the world).  We had such a wonderful time and were in such a sugar coma afterwards that, upon arriving to her apartment, I realized that I had left my backpack in the taxi cab.  I sprinted outside and tried in vain to catch up with the cab, but it was too late (and I was a little out of shape).

After an emergency trip to Target for me to get some clothes, we resumed our fun weekend hanging out in Chicago.  Esther and I went up the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower and took pictures of each other on the “invisible” ledge that makes you look like you’re suspended above the city, walked around downtown admiring the interesting architecture, and of course enjoyed true Chicago deep dish pizza and drank loads of good coffee (Chicago was ranked recently as the nation’s most highly caffeinated city, as I wrote about in a previous post).  I really enjoyed soaking up the laid back yet vibrant culture of Chicago, made even more enjoyable by sharing it with a friend.

The “new” aspect of this weekend will involve South Bend, Indiana.  I’ve never been to Indiana, for starters, but I’m looking forward to going–after all, my fiance did spend four years there and loved his time at Notre Dame.  Leon showed me pictures of the campus, and it looks beautiful.  Plus, it will be fun to catch up with his friends and enjoy some fall football.  I’m also curious to see what Indiana looks like; right now I’m picturing cows and cornfields, and that’s about it.  Guess I’ll have to wait and see.

This weekend will involve the dichotomy of new versus familiar, as well as contrast the dynamics of a big city versus a smaller city.  It’s always fun to mix dynamics, in my opinion.  I’m looking forward to enjoying some deep dish pizza at Giordano’s (with Esther, of course–we’re going to meet up with her) amidst the hustle and bustle of the Windy City and then check out the (supposedly) slower pace of South Bend.

Overall, I’m looking forward to experiencing both places this weekend.  It’s something to keep in mind as a traveler–mixing dynamics on a trip can make you feel like you’re getting two for the price of one!