I found myself, at 23, in the land of Chinngis Khan, vodka, and milktea, completely unprepared to teach children. After living in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia for almost a year I concluded that anyone who came to Mongolia was running from something: an eight-year relationship, a gay father, law school, the pressure to get a real job. Why Mongolia? It represents just about the most distance you can put between yourself and anyone in the western hemisphere. It is located smack dab between two superpowers: Russia and China. Plane tickets here are costly: between $1,000 and $2,000 depending on whom you know. Ulaan Baatar is the coldest capital in the world. The country, governed by a disagreeable mix of former Communist leaders and a few who hoped for a smoother transition to democracy, runs on a system of corruption…. More…

Medieval partygoers loved spectacles, and every decent feast would contain pranks such as dwarves leaping out of giant pies, or jesters climbing onto the dinner table and burying their heads into tubs of custard. But one joke performance went tragically awry in 1394 Paris. It was a wedding feast attended by the young French King Charles VI, who was given to fits of madness, and his long-suffering queen, Isabel.

One of the groom’s friends, a known party animal from Normandy named Hugonin de Guisay, decided to entertain the ladies by dressing himself and five accomplices (including the loopy king himself) as “Wildmen,” or savages. In secret, they donned their inventive outfits: Each man wore a linen body-stocking coated in resin and covered with flax to look like… More…

 

 

If you were to go looking for evidence of France’s huge North African population, you’d find it in the grim public housing projects of the suburban cités, in the gritty peripheral neighborhoods of Paris, and near my home in the relatively privileged 5th arrondissement, where the Great Mosque draws enormous crowds on Fridays and during Ramadan. You would be hard pressed, however, to find many North Africans in the corridors of French business or political power, where they are close to invisible.

And yet, for the last year and a half, a woman of Moroccan-Algerian descent has become famous as one of the most influential and glamorous figures in France. Rachida Dati is the minister of justice, and until recently one of President Sarkozy’s closest confidants. She is a self-made success story who radiates chutzpah, for lack… More…

If undergrads seem an irresponsible bunch these days, excelling in the extra-curricular subjects of dorm-hopping, beer-swilling, and the squandering of parental cash, they pale in comparison to their medieval ancestors at Oxford. The accounts from England’s first and most hallowed University read like Animal House in Latin.

The university had sprung up during the medieval intellectual explosion of the early 10th century in the model of Europe’s first great academies, Paris and Bologna. We don’t know exactly when the first classes were given, but by the early 11th century, the university was an indelible feature of Oxford, then a busy riverside market town. It had none of the grand ivy-covered buildings we associated with the university today; the lectures were not held in purpose-built theaters but in… More…

Even prolific Italian geniuses had to unwind, although it should come as no surprise to learn that their revelries were a cut above the average mortal booze-up. Just as modern artists vie for invitations to the hottest receptions or Biennale party, so the hippest insider scene in Florence was La Società del Pauiolo, the Company of the Cauldron. This artists-only club was run by the most eccentric and flamboyant sculptor in the city, Giovanni Francesco Rustici. Its meetings were really the ultimate potluck, a sort of cross between a dinner party and a gallery reception. Every guest had to bring a meal that was also a sculptural creation — a cathedral made of pasta, say, or a scene from mythology crafted from roast poultry. Some of the most inventive minds in art history threw themselves into the challenge, creating edible objets that, had they not been so essentially ephemeral, would… More…

 

Aly Ongoiba tapped a pen on his desk, studying me. I wasn’t too worried, though he’d just accused me of spying in the national archives of Mali — a half desert West African country shaped like an hourglass broken at the ends. I did not fear deportation or worse, not in Mali, one of Africa’s new democracies. But I wasn’t sure if I was free to go or if I’d have to negotiate.

Earlier that afternoon, I walked into the new archives building: a gleaming white three-story monument the size of a city block, finished thanks to the “benevolent generosity” of Moammar Gaddafi, Africa’s self-ordained “Guide.” I carried a government research authorization marked by my photo and signature, a paragraph in French describing my project, and an orange stamp fixed to the top right hand corner to prove… More…

It’s a standard part of the hospitality industry: To make guests feel pampered, cared for, at home on the road, hotel operators grievously overcharge them for hardcore pornography. The hotels make a modest but effortless profit on these transactions. The bored and lonely guests who rent on-demand porn feel even more bored and lonely after watching it — and thus stay in their rooms and out of trouble.

Naturally, because it’s a win-win proposition, someone wants to end it. Recently, representatives from Focus on the Family, Citizens for Community Values, and assorted other professional American finger-waggers met with the top brass at Marriott International in an effort to convince the hotel chain to banish porn from its properties. The decency advocates have been engaged in the campaign for nearly a decade now; this was the first time Marriott agreed to sit down with them.

According to Tom Minnery, senior vice… More…

When I was 14 I wanted to be a private investigator. I had watched television shows about them — Simon & Simon; Rockford Magnum, P.I. — and it was clear from my research that this was an exciting job with shootouts, fistfights, sexy women, and fast cars. The P.I.s on television weren’t like the adults I knew: They were sardonic; they charmed information out of people; they picked locks. P.I.s were on the right side of the law, but just barely.

After graduating high school my P.I. fantasy was replaced with others, and more than 20 years passed before an attorney friend of mine asked me to do some criminal defense investigation work for him. Suddenly I had a new job. One day I was the facilities manager at a small acupuncture college; the next I was a licensed investigator with several incarcerated clients to interview.

My new job quickly… More…