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     Volume 4 Issue 58 |August 12 , 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Knights Novices and Nutcases

Farah Ghuznavi

UK television has had a comfortable hit in the form of the programme "Holiday Showdown". The formula is pretty much fool-proof. Two families are offered a free holiday - in fact, two free holidays - provided they agree to go on holiday together. This may not sound like too much of a hardship, but this is where the twist comes in. Each family gets to choose its favourite holiday, and the other family must come along. Unsurprisingly, families which have very different preferences are sometimes placed together, leading to the requisite amount of tears, trauma and action (and very, very occasionally, a family being introduced to a new kind of holiday that they actually ENJOYED).

One memorable episode involved a partying, beach-oriented, couch-potato family who were paired with a naturalist, mountain-hiking, vegetarian family - the results were just the kind of fireworks you would expect, and the stuff of TV producers' dreams!

At any rate, although viewers might sometimes wonder why the families agree to do this, the prospect of two free holidays is probably an attractive inducement for most. Far more puzzling, in my opinion, are those individuals or families that decide to shell out their own money for equally bizarre or traumatic experiences…

There is evidence to indicate that people are getting bored with "ordinary" holidays. Some seek bigger thrills e.g. extreme sports, but there is also an emerging penchant for masochism evident in some of the holiday options being taken up these days.

The Queen's cousin, Patrick Lichfield, has introduced an opportunity for visitors to his stately home near Stafford, to embrace the past in rather basic ways: gutting fish with a kitchen maid, making cheese with the dairymaid, being taught sums in a strict schoolroom, and being chided by the butler for laziness (!). It would seem therefore, that visitors are paying large sums to be bullied, exploited and manhandled by actors dressed up as servants in the period around 1860. Very strange indeed…

At least as peculiar, is the recent nostalgia for communism among the former East Germans. A seemingly unending line of "Ostalgie" products have been marketed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, although its critics argue that the books, music, films, food and drink inspired by the defunct German Democratic Republic encourage a far too sentimental and positive image of the regime.

Ostalgie products include "Trabi Duft", which consists of a tin of exhaust fumes from the ubiquitous East German car, the Trabant. The Trabants were produced by an East German carmaker during the communist era, and became the most popular vehicle in former communist countries, although the cheap, dirty petrol that they ran on produced fairly nasty fumes (a safer and modified version of which is now available in the "Trabi Duft" tin!). The nostalgia for the Trabant is also evident in the fact that it has since become a cult car, and is hired by tourists going on "Trabi safaris".

To provide further succour to those who hanker after the regime that was infamous for shooting escapees who attempted to scale the Berlin Wall, there is also now an "Ostalgie" theme park planned, which is expected to have the regulation border guards and bland food, for those unhinged enough to seek out such delights…

An even weirder and rather more disturbing option is the plan of the Siberian mayor to cash in on his region's dark history by reopening part of the Gulag for fee-paying tourists. To the horror of prison survivors and human rights activists, Igor Shpektor, Mayor of Vorkuta, wants to reopen one of the many Soviet prison camps (established in the 1930s), where tourists would be housed in a re-creation of the camps, complete with watchtower, rolls of barbed wire, guards and fierce dogs, as well as undergoing spartan living conditions and forced labour. If they tried to escape they would be shot, but with paintballs rather than bullets! The Mayor told one American newspaper that the blueprint of the camp had already been drawn up, and an appropriate location identified (the site of an abandoned camp). All he needed, he added, was to raise funds for this master plan! Given that an estimated 200,000 prisoners died in the camps surrounding the area, we can only hope that he is unable to raise the necessary funds to carry out his vision of monumental bad taste…

There appears to be something strange happening in that part of the world vis-a-vis holiday options. Another fairly bizarre "holiday activity" has emerged in Russia, where a group of Chechen war veterans are offering the curious (and of course, the masochistic) an opportunity to experience the "real thing" as tourists. In a provincial Russian town, visitors are given the chance to live in an army barracks, drive armoured personnel carriers used by the Russian army in Chechnya, undergo basic training, learn hand-to-hand combat skills, clean floors, peel potatoes and generally subject themselves to military discipline. They can also ride military helicopters, learn the basics of military cooking and do parachute jumps from small aircraft - though, for safety reasons, real guns are replaced with paintball guns.

Given that military service in Russia is known for its brutality, there is even a special option for those who want a taste of the truly authentic i.e. dedovschina (the Russian form of hazing and bullying which drives many servicemen to suicide every year). The holidays run from one to 10 days and there is a detailed price list of activities, with a basic 10-day "tour of duty" costing around £400. Tourists are not referred to by their own names, but are referred to as cadets. Organisers say that there have been no complaints so far, but had to concede that some of the tourists had balked at the abuse they have been subjected to as part of this model!

Compared to all this, going to the 15th century-style knights training school at Druid's Lodge, near Stonehenge, to receive lessons in foot combat and the Middle Ages art of jousting seems positively normal! The idea is to experience first-hand the sport of the gentry (500 years on), and popular interest is growing - in terms of the crowds at shows as well as the market for the companies, which now offer a day of mediaeval combat for stag and hen parties, office teambuilding exercises or those who simply want to burn off a little excess aggression.

This summer, for the first time there is an organised league, with four teams of knights, squires and valets (consisting in their normal life of IT consultants, artists and forklift suppliers!). They fight each other during six weekends of colourful pageantry at castles and stately homes around the country, in English Heritage's "Knights Tournament". However, as one aspiring contender found out, each suit of armour (which costs up to £12,000 and takes six months to make) weighs around 70 lbs, and does not necessarily protect you from internal bleeding - even if you avoid getting your armour pierced by the lance held by your opponent! Personally, I think it's all just "boroloker ghorarog" (literally, since the knights joust while riding on horses)…

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