Category Archives: popular culture

The naming powers of housing builders

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I am collecting interesting names of subdivisions, apartment complexes and gated communities in my area of Texas. It seems that land development and construction around here has gotten so busy that builders are running out of names for their creations. After a series of Mira Lagos, Sleepy Hollow and Blueberry Hills, what’s next in terms of names for blueberry-less, lake-less, and hollow-less neighborhoods? Some of them have a hidden meaning that I wonder if it has been really considered by those who picked them or who chose to live there. Here is a shortlist: Continue reading

Ghosts, queens and the flow of everyday life

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Image by construction worker in the renovation of the Cairate monastery

The local Varese edition of Il Giorno, the newspaper of Milan, has reported about a ghost noticed in the old monastery of Cairate, a small town northwest of the City of Fashion. The monastery is currently under reconstruction and slated to open as one of the sites protected by UNESCO in the region, which was a historic Longobard outpost.

The ghost sighting has been captured by the cellphone of a construction worker and was of such importance that it was reported in several local news outlets. It has also merited the official intervention of the mayor of Cairate and several local authorities, who speculate whose ghost it actually is. Most of them conclude it must be the ghost of Queen Manigonda, the Longobard foundress who built the monastery back in 737. There are also different speculations of why she still inhabits the place as a ghost, and most of them have to do with Frederick Barbarossa who spent the night there before his battle of Legnano (also nearby).

This could happen only in Italy. Continue reading

The village culture reports: death

Every year in mid-autumn, local galleries here invite submission of art related to the Day of the Dead. At least in Texas, where Mexican culture has become so mainstream that its symbolism is part of everyday life, this celebration is really ubiquitous.

However, there is something to be noted: said galleries feel the need to warn artists not to submit any Halloweeny content, like zombies and other gore. The Day of the Dead is nothing like Halloween, they insist to explain; it’s not about fear or disguise but about respect and connection with death.

And there is something very telling in our confusion and replacement of a day of commemoration of the dead with an (optionally scary) dress up party that Halloween has become. I agree, dress up is good and it used to have its own time for that (Carnival), but today I’d like to argue that we need more of what the Day of the Dead is: an opportunity to connect with death and our own departed to help us better make sense of their departure and our life. And I believe that village culture does that very well. Continue reading

Codex Calixtinus, or the tourist guide for pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela

Codex Calixtinus, the precious 12th century guide for pilgrims heading towards Santiago de Compostela,  was stolen yesterday from the Cathedral of that Spanish town. Since Santiago (Saint James) had a very influential cult in the Middle Ages, his alleged tomb in Compostela became an extremely popular pilgrimage site for people from all over Europe – in fact, the third most important one after Jerusalem and Rome. Streams of devout people came walking (there were no cars or bikes back then!) the Way of Saint James  all the way from France, Italy, Poland,  Hungary to ask the Saint for a favor or as a penance. Quite a feat. Continue reading

A Museum of Odds and the concept of museums

There is a Ripley’s Believe it or Not odditorium some 20 minutes from where I live – an establishment that displays a collection of bizarre items, ranging from a two-headed calf to real human shrunken heads to the replica of a tree in which a hurricane threw a sleeping baby that remained unharmed and still sleeping, some 50 years ago. Robert Ripley was a cartoonist and an adventurer, as well as self-proclaimed “amateur anthropologist” who presented such items in his radio show and newspaper career and later founded a chain of museums of odds where they were to be displayed.

Surprisingly, this visit gave me an amazing portion of food for thought. To be sure, these are artifacts that you most likely know about – just like in a regular museum. They are not necessarily all authentic items, but isn’t this also valid for usual museums, too? The concept of a museum is a physical space where you go to commune with history, to be intellectually reminded of certain events or phenomena, to be emotionally stimulated by your physical contact with the material expression of a certain idea and understand it at another level.  Continue reading

The importance – and difficulty – of feeling foreign

How many people would say that feeling different from all others, being out of their element is so beneficial that they would actively pursue it?

Many people would say that being foreign, feeling foreign while living in a different culture is a challenge. But actually it’s an advantage; the advantage of being turned upside down. It’s first of all a tool for self-discovery and self-development. No wonder study abroad programs are the most rapidly growing college programs these days. True, the first excuse for those is learning the local language, but more than that, the greatest benefit is learning about, considering the value of and negotiating how to deal with a different way of thinking. And first of all, it’s acquiring the ability to think about yourself from the sidelines. Continue reading

Theory of the T-shirt

Speaking of fashion, I didn’t delve into the question whether style is really a personal expression of self identity or just a convention, a formula offered by society and used by an individual in one combination of elements or another. Is an individual ever free, after all, to use any piece of clothing in her or his own terms to express her or his own identity? If I think that a tea gown expresses my personality best of all, am I free to wear it for an evening out without any repercussions? Continue reading

Vanity License Plates and Identity Issues

drskipceeyaAs I stopped by Leo’s workplace the other day, I noticed that almost 30% of the cars in the parking lot bore vanity license plates. That struck me as unusual – I think that among the general car population, vanity plates don’t exceed 5%. Are those car owners identity-challenged or, on the contrary, have especially loud identities? Who would want their license plate number to be so easy to remember while they are driving around committing traffic violations? And so badly that they would pay an annual fee for that? Fort Worth Renaissance Lady Sonja Cassella made me think about this issue. I started a little qualitative research. Continue reading

Night at the Museum, real-history style

Speaking of museums, here is the new Night at the Museum story. I was curious to see it. First, a movie about history coming alive – or actually being alive – is a great idea. It’s stimulating for the young minds and it deserves support just for that. Second, I was also interested in it as a postmodern application of the concept that the past is constantly rethought and reworked in people’s minds. It’s also a fantastic example of what I said in my previous post: that museum artifacts are important in themselves as symbolic carriers of traditions, but what ultimately counts is what we make out of them and how they play out in our public consciousness.

However, if you want to find some special insight on history, or even something fun about it, this is definitely not the movie to see. Artifacts do come alive in this night at the Smithsonian, but they behave as their most stereotypical and one-dimension selves. Napoleon is only worried that others might think he is short. Tiny mass-produced Einsteins in the museum store are bouncing their heads in relativistic yes-no indecision. Worst of all – and most offensive – Amelia Earhart is a flirty red-head whose fixation is mainly to get the protagonist night guard to pay any sort of romantic attention to her. Continue reading

The Mexican experience, interpreted through food

Gin Fizz

Photo: Gin Fizz

In Mexican culture, you don’t just eat, you experience life through food. So, it is obligatory that you experience it communally, but if you don’t cook Mexican at home and you resort to restaurant ersatz, you need assistance to recreate the communality. Mexican restaurants in the USA are never just places to eat your vegetables and R&B (rice and beans, for those who wonder what role rhythm & blues has to play in a restaurant menu). They are your local Mexican agora where, besides the get-together, debate and exchange, you also get to eat. Quietly, Mexico is colonizing the USA under the guise of providing a safe space to enjoy chicken fajitas and mole, because the space thusly created in those restaurants is simply a recreation of Mexican space, with all the details: the colorful plazas, the sunlit streets, the noises and angles of city life itself. Continue reading

In memory of one of the best animators in the world


Film made in 1972.

Donyo Donev (1929-2007), cartoonist, animator and director, and a wise man.

Monster narratives

Speaking of monsters, as well as Frankenstein, I was thinking about how we define monsters in everyday life and popular narratives and how we give them meaning. I happened upon this story about a man with a peculiar deformity that makes his skin turn into tree bark and roots. The question is, is he perceived as monstrous? And what makes him appear monstrous?  There were some comments that make him out to be horrible, repulsive, there were even people who decided not to read the article out of disgust. I didn’t think he was monstrous, though. I think his deformity has an interesting symbolism. Continue reading

Necrologues in Bulgaria

Necrologues posted on a church fence

The word “necrologue” is not part of the official English vocabulary today, but it used to be a couple a centuries ago, with the meaning of “obituary” or “necrology.” Still, I prefer to use “necrologue” instead of “necrology” in this case because this is how it is used in Bulgaria.

Necrologues in Bulgarian culture have always been a personal statement in an independent voice. Even in times when public speech and writing had to be officially sanctioned and was often censored, necrologues were not published in newspapers but posted in public spaces (outside walls, front doors, bulletin boards, bus stops, lamp posts). So they were an unofficial personal statement on someone’s life and the public announcement of grief of his/her relatives. Continue reading

Dolls, uninterrupted

In July, I had the chance to visit an interesting store in New Orleans, Oh Susannah Doll Shop – all things doll, but, alas, with little time to peruse thoroughly and decide which of the precious items I was most in love with so that I would purchase it. The collection was outrageously varied, ranging from tiny plastic babies in a carriage to large, upsettingly realistic representations of girls as dolls in poses totally incompatible with what normally is perceived as “dollness”: dolls that express emotions (of fear or boredom), in awkward positions, in highly personalized clothing. These dolls can’t be really dolls in the traditional sense, because they are not blank, they are not the tabula rasa a girl wants to project onto it her own self-representation. They are an individual artist’s rendition of a girl idea, a sculpture to be admired rather than a toy to be handled and integrated into someone’s life. And that brings the question of what a doll really is and what dolls do. Are they age-limited, in terms of representation and user? Are Grandma Claus real dolls, if they do not reflect any girl’s identity, the way a Barbie may do? What about a boy-doll? Dolls are also a fertile terrain for feminist inquiry. What do men mean when they call a woman “doll”? Continue reading

Monsters in stone

Besides gargoyles, the most famous of which are of course the Notre Dame gargoyles, there are chimeras (equally grotesque but not architecturally useful as spouts for rain water). But I love mascarons, especially this one above a door in Thonon-les-Bains, France, photographed by a friend:

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Continue reading