Saint Denis: the patron saint of headaches feels your pain

saint denis notre dame

Statute of St. Denis, Notre-Dame, Paris.

Being beheaded can really mess up your day. But according to Christian tradition, after Saint Denis was decapitated, he simply picked up his head and kept walking and preaching. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Denis (pronounced “duh-KNEE” in French) is the patron saint of headaches.

St. Gregory of Tours tells us that Denis was born in Italy in the 3d century A.D. In 250, he was sent as a missionary to Gaul (modern-day France), where he became the first Bishop of Paris.

Paris, however, was still largely a pagan city. And the Parisians didn’t take kindly to Denis converting so many to Christianity. They took Denis and two of his companions to the highest hill in Paris — Montmarte — and decapitated them.

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Chocolate – the food of the Gods

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Chocolate comes from the cacao tree or, as it’s botanically known, Theobroma cacao. The word theobroma comes from Greek θεος (theos), “god,” + βρῶμα (broma), “food.” So chocolate is literally the food of the gods.

Theobroma cacao is native to the American tropical rain forest. It is a delicate tree that can survive only in a narrow band extending 20 degrees either side of the Equator.

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Cacao trees are small and delicate, usually no more than 20-40 feet high. They need taller trees (such as hardwoods) to shelter them from the elements. Continue reading

Gertrude Bell: the “Uncrowned Queen of Iraq”

From left to right, beneath the face of the Sphinx: Winston Churchhill, Gertrude Bell, and T.E. Lawrence, Cairo, Egypt, 1921.

T.E. Lawrence — best known as Lawrence of Arabia — gets all the press.  But Gertrude Bell — who worked with Lawrence in Cairo – was, like Lawrence, an archaeologist, intelligence agent and author.  Like Lawrence, her sex life – or lack thereof – has been the subject of much debate.  And like Lawrence, Bell – who has been called the “Uncrowned Queen of Iraq — for better or worse helped define and shape the modern Middle East.

Bell was born in England on July 14, 1868 to a wealthy family.  After earning a degree in history from Oxford University, she began to travel.  She established a reputation as a skilled mountain climber, and is credited with 10 first ascents in the Bernese Alps. These include the Gertrudspitze, which was named for her.

Bell’s greatest fame as a climber, however, came from a failed attempt.  It was to have been a first ascent of the northeast face of 14,000-ft. Finsteraarhorn.  But an unexpected blizzard trapped Bell and two companions on the mountain.  Through freezing temperatures and lightning storms, they survived roped together for 53 hours.

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The mysterious origins of curling

The Norwegian curling team takes the ice at the 2014 Sochi Olympics

The Norwegian curling team takes the ice at the 2014 Sochi Olympics

There’s a reason curling is known as “chess on ice.”

On its surface, the game is simple.  Two teams of four players each take turns sliding eight 44-pound granite stones (“rocks”) across the “sheet” toward the “house”, the circular target at the far end of the ice.  At the conclusion of a round – called an “end” – points are awarded to whichever team has a rock closest to the “button” (the center of the target).  That team gets one point for each rock closer to the button than the competitors’ nearest rock.  Whoever has the most points at the conclusion of 10 ends wins.

However, curling takes not just fitness and teamwork, but a great deal of smarts — hence the “chess on ice” moniker.  Yet while curlers may be the brainiacs of the Olympic world, ask any curler the origins of the game and you might not get an answer.  The origins of the magnificence that is modern curling are sadly obscure.

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