Why We Exchange Gifts: a peep into the gift-horse’s mouth

By Trish Nicholson
Guest Post

Before being sucked under the spells of retail elves and their Christmassy shelves, let’s take a not-too-serious look at the meaning of gifts over the ages.
The proverb ‘never look a gift-horse in the mouth’ is known across Europe in languages from Icelandic to Russian, but for anyone unfamiliar with this advice, it means we should not judge the intrinsic value of a gift.    Experienced horse-dealers amongst you will know that the age and condition of a horse is gauged from its teeth: when you notice that the lavishly gift-wrapped box of chocolates your cousin sent you is nine months beyond its use-by date, you know you’ve been given a useless old nag.
It may be the thought that counts, but what, exactly, were they thinking?
In its purest form, giving is caring with no expectation of reward. It may demand equal commitment in learning to accept graciously. During a hectic working life I dashed off for fleeting visits to a favourite elderly aunt whenever I could. When the time came for me to leave, my aunt would press into my hand a package of squelchy spam sandwiches made with love to protect me from starvation on my 60-minute rail journey home. I could never stomach the sandwiches though I learnt to appreciate the gift with a full heart.
Like storytelling, gift-exchange emerged during the dawn of human history. The gift of an antelope steak given in good faith, accepted with grace, and later reciprocated with a well-knapped spear-head, created whole networks between families, clans and tribes. In time, the exchange of gifts developed into the first trade deals as the relative value of each item was arduously negotiated, but the significance was always more than economic – it created relationships based on trust. Even stories were bartered. Itinerant storytellers have long earned a night’s lodging with a good story, as Odysseus did in Homer’s Odyssey.
Barter remains important in many parts of the world. While living in Papua New Guinea I acquired my treasured collection of clay pots and shells through barter. And travelling in the Amazon, I exchanged my wellington boots for a two-metre poisoned-dart blow-pipe in a Yaguar village (a keep-sake that caused sensational hassles at every airport security check). Both transactions involved forging relationships – telling stories and learning to understand each other.

But in the same way that stories multiplied and diversified across the world, so did the forms and meanings of gift-giving.
A Viking chief was expected to be generous to his followers in dispensing loot from raiding expeditions. By gifts of gold to award valour and encourage loyalty, great leaders became known as ‘Ring Givers’. However, evidence of buried gold hoards suggests that some chiefs preferred to hide their ill-gotten gains underground – the Norse equivalent of an off-shore account. Gifts in exchange for loyalty are still a widespread practice, from the discount offered on your store loyalty card to the appointment of corporate raiders to plum jobs in government administrations.
Perhaps the most dramatic ritual gift-giving is the potlach ceremony, developed to a fine art by the Native American Kwakiutl peoples of the north-west coast. Any social or personal milestone provided an excuse for a potlach, but the biggest feasts for the greatest number of guests, the longest speeches and the most lavish gifts were preserved for the installation of a new successor to the chieftaincy. And everyone in the tribe was expected to dig deep to contribute.
Potlach was all about status. The volume of goods distributed boosted the social standing of the giver, as the value of each gift reflected the status of the recipient, and the more guests to witness the transaction the more powerful the event. To fall short in any of these calculations courted political suicide. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see all of this in world leaders’ rounds of state visits funded by hapless tax-payers, not to mention presidential inaugurations.
Gifts often involve a catch. Even Saint Nicholas’ legendary generosity to children, celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5, was conditional upon each child’s past behaviour recorded in the Big Book. The medieval tradition, where Saint Nicholas’ helpers included frightening characters representing Satan, may have been the stick accompanying the carrots. But modern Zwarte Piet is a clownish trickster throwing tiny gingerbread biscuits into the crowd like confetti. As commercial interests focus on December 25th in line with most of Europe, the devil is forgotten and smart kids claim two Christmases.
Most religions recognised the importance of gift-giving either in shared celebration, as sweeteners to the gods or as a form of wealth distribution. Christians may follow the example of the Three Kings with their Christmas presents, but festive gift-giving features also in the Jewish Hanukkah and Hindu Divali, while giving alms to the needy is a central tenet of both Islamic and Sikh faiths. Although offering a small gift is a daily occurrence for Buddhists, I had not expected to be given an apple by the abbot while visiting a monastery in Bhutan. Luckily, I always take pens and postcards as little presents when travelling and found a spare pen in my pocket to reciprocate.Exchanging gifts appears to be a universal human practice but cultural awareness is advisable. Social occasions for gift-exchange occur throughout the year in China, but in a culture where maintaining ‘face’ ranks highly, what to give, to whom, when, and exactly how much to put into the ‘little red envelope’ poses an etiquette quagmire to the unwary.
My apologies if these reflections disrupt the Christmas gift-list you had already ticked off during the summer sales.
I may be a little biased, but to be on the safe side, I’m giving everyone books this year.

Author Bio:
Trish Nicholson is a social anthropologist, author of narrative non-fiction and a former columnist. Her latest work, A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity, is the only global social-history of storytelling. Trish’s other books include two travelogues: Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, and Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and read her articles on www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com where there really is a tree house.

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Beautiful Bruges

By Jane Isaac
Crime Fiction Writer

The historic city of Bruges is located on the western side of Belgium in the Flemish Region and, in my mind, can only be described as achingly beautiful. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, ancient buildings are surrounded by cobbled streets, alongside the tall slim houses which line the canals that snake through the city centre.

With a climate very similar to England, we were treated to beautiful sunshine during our stay last weekend which undoubtedly added to our enjoyment, however I think there is little not to enjoy about Bruges. It’s not only pretty, but also one of the friendliest cities I have visited. The small Hotel Alegria where we stayed was perfectly located in the centre and the owner, Veronique, couldn’t do enough to cater for our every need, without being intrusive.

There’s a number of different options to travel to Bruges from the UK; I guess it rather depends on where you are travelling from. This time we opted for the Eurotunnel which we picked up at Folkstone and found to be not only inexpensive, but also enormously efficient. It seems that if you arrive early, you can board an earlier train within a two hour slot of your booking for no extra charge, and the boarding and disembarking are effortless, as are the drive through France and into Belgium. From our home in Northamptonshire, the whole journey took us a little over five hours door to door.

There are a plethora of different trips to take and places to visit when you arrive in the city. Cars are rarer than in other cities, making it softer and more tranquil, as most people appear to travel around by bike. A canal trip is beautiful and relatively inexpensive, especially when it includes an overview of the city’s rich history. Climbing the 366 steps to the top of the medieval Belfry that dominates Bruges skyline can be tough on the knees and a little scary in places (especially if you have a husband with a heart condition!), but the view at the top is breathtaking and well worth the hike. A trip around the back streets by horse and carriage is another wonderful way to move around, and particularly romantic on a balmy evening. There is also the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is worth visiting for the stained glass windows alone, and if you are religious, amongst its relics, it claims to have a phial of the blood of Christ that you can view.

As one would expect, Bruges is packed with restaurants, cafes and outdoor eateries; lovely boutiques, and delicious chocolatiers. Of course we tried the chocolate (I can recommend Julie’s if anyone is looking for somewhere particularly nice), sampled the fresh waffles, and bought frites from the stall in the square. But those of you that know me well, will know that I’m a bit of a foodie (my daughter’s influence) and I really wanted to try some of their high end restaurants too. We enjoyed an amazing meal at Brasserie Raymond where we tried delicacies such as snails, marrowbone and bouillabaisse. We also ate lobster and moules (mussels) at the wonderful Breydel-De Coninc, somewhere I’m told the locals frequent. Main courses at these two restaurants average 20-30 Euros each, but are definitely worth it if you want to try something different, however the choice of eateries, and cheap ones at that, is vast and there is practically something available for every taste and pocket. My only regret was that due to being on medication I wasn’t able to sample the many beers that Belguim has to offer, although my husband made sure he didn’t let the side down on that count!

Surprisingly small (my husband joked that everything was within fifteen minutes walking distance from the city centre), Bruges is easily accessible on foot and a wander up the back streets, passing street markets, soaking up the ambience and sitting outside cafes is what it’s all about. On one particular evening, we sat near a market stall and, after chatting with the stallholder, she asked me to mind her stall while she popped to the ladies. At the same café, a bunch of musicians stopped by for a beer and pulled out their guitars. When they discovered my husband was also a keen guitarist, they leant him an instrument and they all played some tunes together. That evening summed up Bruges for me: good food and good company amongst beautiful surroundings. I should add that many of the locals speak up to five languages fluently, so communication is rarely a problem!

I’ll definitely go back to Bruges. Next time I’d like to take a boat trip to visit the nearby village of Damme and perhaps visit the Flanders Battlefields of Ypres too. There is just so much to do in and around this wonderful city.

*All images courtesy of Jane Isaac

** This article was originally published on Jane Isaac’s Blog

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Amazing and Rare: Festivities in San Miguel de Allende

By Nora Vasconcelos

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Weekends in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, are extraordinary. This colorful city, located in the State of Guanajuato, has achieved international recognition thanks to its beautiful architecture and quiet life that inspires artists from all around the world and gives a peaceful haven to foreign retirees who have made of this place their home away from home.

But when Saturdays and Sundays come, many visitors come along to join the creative and entertaining spirit that floods the city in a way that is not easy to find anywhere else.

This unique place is also a very demanded venue for weddings, so national and international couples who have fallen in love with San Miguel, book months (many months) in advance a place for their ceremony which, unlike any others, some times includes the religious ceremony at the magnificent San Miguel de Allende Parish, as well as a vibrant display of arts, crafts and traditions.

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With not many people expecting it, a local band starts playing music, and two very tall dolls, depicting the bride and the groom, appear in the main plaza, causing the surprise and admiration of everybody around.

Then, the two figures approach the Parish dancing in a way that make easy for the people watching understand the story they want to tell with their dances.

Discretely, they look at each other before entering the atrium of the church, like stealing a mischievous glance that shows the loving complicity of the couple.

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Then, they dance all their way to the main entrance , facing the public that stands at each side of the atrium with amazement and enjoyment.

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Before the enter the parish, the couple give one last glance to their audience, taking care of not facing each other.

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Minutes later, when some more dances have taken place, the happy newly weds finally get together, face to face, to start their new life as husband and wife, with all the cheers of the people who have enjoy a unique event, right before the “big event”, that is the actual wedding.

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The Lost Art of Lending Books and Sending Postcards

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By Nora Vasconcelos

Last weekend I was all happy and excited because I had just bought a new book. Then, just a few seconds later, a somber thought crossed my mind, I wouldn’t be able to lend that book to a friend who, I was sure, would love to read it.

It was then when I thought of how much we’ve lost in terms of human touch due to the our fast paced lives, which have to adjust everyday to a world in constant change, as well as to all these new and admirable technologies such as electronic books and internet.

The advantages of ebooks are usually many, such as ‘packing’ onto your e-reader, tablet or smart phone as many books as you wish to read at any given time. These same gadgets allow us to take almost an innumerable amount of digital photos of our trips and daily adventures and encounters in our hometowns.

However, I get a certain feeling of nostalgia when I remember how much I’ve enjoyed lending a book to a good friend just because I wanted to share with them all the emotions, images, experiences and, many times, relief that a particular work of fiction, memoir or a non-fiction piece brought to me.

With e-books the experience it different. We can talk for hours with our friends about a title or titles we’ve read, but somehow, the sharing experience is different, mainly because there is an essential component missing, the physical book.

The same thing happens with the digital photos. We can share them by email, or upload them on social media. But unless you carry all of them on your phone or tablet and they’re well-organized, showing them to your friend during a gathering or while having a nice cup of coffee, the experience of sharing your travel adventures gets a little (usually, a lot) missed in the whole conversation.

Sometimes we can’t really take the time to look with all the detail those photos, because watching pics on a gadget usually comes with the urgency that we’re use to while dealing with anything that’s on our phone or tablet, our fingers automatically start passing all the images very fast which give us just a hint of what travellers have seen while visiting a place.

On the other hand, taking photos with a film and developing was a bit complicated, and totally limiting to 24, 32 or 48 pics. Many rolls have remained inside a box, but many other have become wonderful photo albums, which are always very nice to see and enjoy while bringing back wonderful memories of past trips.

The same happens with postcards, it used to be such a nice mission finding postcards to email them home, thinking how happy family and friends would be when they received that little piece of paper full of images of faraway lands, making them feel that even in the distance, they were in our minds.

May be more than the physical objects, what we’ve missed is part of the emotions and the feelings that are attached to sharing special intangible mementos which make us linger in time while holding a book or a postcard, and the solution to this particular nostalgia might be easily brought back just by taking the time to really be there when we talk about a particular book or when we see some digital photos, leaving behind the excruciating hurries that come with this contemporary life.

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Food transforms this Mexican town, year after year

By Nora Vasconcelos

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Calpan is a very small town, located in the west part of Puebla, one of the most diverse and industrious states in Mexico. It’s also guarded by two of the main volcanos in the country, the Iztaccihuatl (which residents affectionately called Doña Rosita) and the Popocatepetl (also known there as Don Goyo). So that, life in Calpan goes by in a quiet pace most of the year.

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The oldest buildings have been well preserved, as they were some of the first built in Mexico by the Spaniards, around the 16th century. All around, stone dominates the sights. Churches, houses, streets, all of them witness how people go through their everyday routine with not many disturbances from the urban fast-paced rhythm. Something really amazing, considering that this place is only two hours away from Mexico city, the country’s capital.

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But once a year, everything changes here. Local residents welcome hundreds of tourists from other parts of the country who, year after year, can’t wait to enjoy the most delicious “Chiles en nogada” ever!

This Mexican dish, composed with green peppers stuffed with meat and fruits, and covered with walnut sauce, is not only one of the most typical of the national cuisine, but also one with historical roots, as it has its origins during the aftermath of the war of the independence that Mexico fought with Spain in the 19th century.

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The elaborated recipe for this dish was created in the state of Puebla, and it has been preserved through the years with just a few modifications. Eating “Chiles en Nogada” is a broad tradition that extends around many places in Mexico, and its anxiously awaited every year, as the ingredients for its preparation can be bought only during July and August and, to remain the closest to the original recipe, the ingredients most be from Calpan, Puebla.

It’s so that this charming town changes completely for two weekends, at the beginning of August. Families open their garages and get some tables to served visitors their special recipes; restaurants send their waiters and waitresses -dressed in typical Mexican customs- to greet visitors with plates containing the coveted dish as soon as they arrive to the town, and in the center of Calpan, a big marquee is displayed with tables and chairs, allowing people to taste dozens of different combinations which are prepared at the moment in stands specially designed to allow local restaurants to prepare these chillies while guests observe the preparations.

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Of course, the smell is amazing. And having the opportunity of sitting down at the table with people you’ve just met, is surprising. Life goes easy there. No rush, no worries. It’s simply time to sit back and relax. Calpan residents are there to take good care of you.

When the delicious meal is over, it’s time to go for a nice walk, and the farmers’ market is right there to surprise all people  -particularly those, like me, coming from the big cities- with their incredibly fresh produce, hand-made tortillas and all sort of Mexican snacks.

Then you see smiles all around. People in Calpan feel happy and proud to show visitors their hard work, from a complete year in which they have taken care of their fields.

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And then, when the afternoon turns into sunset, the culinary adventure ends. However, the pleasant experience has come here to stay for a long time!

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Want to read more about culinary trips? Check this post written by Jane Isaac, about The Markets Of The Dordogne, in France. And once you’re there, why not read her other posts about books!

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Seagulls in Italy

By Nora Vasconcelos

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I recently had the opportunity to spend a lovely time in Italy. While walking around the unique streets of this amazing country, I started taking photos of seagulls that had gracefully found a place on some of the most well-known Italian landmarks, and it was so that I thought I’d compose a post letting this adventurous birds take the stage.

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