LEFT CHECK

Vivien planned Friday 4 hours early.  “We leave at ten.”  So, naturally, we left at noon.  Finally on the road again, we had to stop for gas.  At a small gas station in a little town, I think we may have experienced our first real dose of xenophobia.  The gentleman running the shop was very unhappy with our speaking English.

“This is a small shop!  This is not an English speaking country,” he semi-shouted at us.  I didn’t order anything, but those who did tried to just get in and out to avoid making him any angrier.

I’ve heard people in America echo a similar sentiment about people.  “You’re in America, speak English.”  Is it those same people who then have the audacity to assume they can travel around the world without speaking the language of where they’re going?  Or are these the people who stay in the country, avoiding anything different from them?  I couldn’t help but wonder if this man has travelled.

“If we were back home, that guy would totally be a Trump supporter,” Gaby said as we got into the van.

It was a 3 hour drive to the Ferry.  We mostly napped. Vivien made his first English pun!  I can’t recall the context 100%, and with the language barrier it would probably be hard to explain.  But the pun itself revolved around the word “Trumpoline.”  We immediately commenced in a celebratory golf clap, something which has been happening when the occasion calls for it.

Over the next few hours I learned a few new things.  One, it takes a really long time to get through customs onto the Ferry.  They kept asking us if we were a band.  It seemed that had we been, we may have had a harder time getting through the border.  We assured them we had no instruments, they are a sports team, I am a writer, and that seemed to be acceptable.

Two, you need to get your ticket for the ferry before you go through customs or you have to go through the whole thing again.  The second time is moderately faster, but the customs agents who just saw you forty minutes ago laugh at you.  Third, I likely would not survive a cruise.  The ferry is huge, and the motion of the ocean is not my friend.  I had taken the motion sickness medication I typically take before a flight and I still could have vomited were it more convenient to have done so.

Driving off the ferry was tricky.  Have you ever tried to drive on the left side of the road?  It basically goes against every instinct in your body. The first time a car drove by us I thought we were for sure about to be killed.  But Justin made it happen. We survived the drive to Birmingham, periodically yelling “left check” in unison to make sure we were turning correctly and golf clapping when appropriate.


Three hours later, we arrived* at The Garrison.

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We were all pretty exhausted, I passed out not long after we settled in.

On Christmas Eve morning, it was time to exchange currency and finally do some laundry.  The currency rate here is rough, this is absolutely the most expensive area of the tour.  So we took the blow and exchanged some cash so we could have some clean clothes. We all absolutely had more dirty laundry than clean so the endeavor took basically all day…

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Our hosts in Birmingham, Kyle and Sean, have birthdays on Christmas Eve and Christmas, respectively.  So the night before Christmas, all through the Garrison, the trickers were celebrating, as G-Space DJed.

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Made by my British counterpart, Abbi.

Somehow they even got me to sort of seated miniature half backflip sitting crosslegged on the trampoline.  It’s hard to explain the energy that permeates the group.  There are two trampolines in the backyard, and some practiced their tricks on them, the rest of the group cheering them on.

I got the opportunity to talk to a few people about their experiences, how they got into the sport.  They echoed the sentiment that it is hard to capture their passion for what they do in words.  What they don’t realize is they don’t need to because it radiates out of them as they speak.  Even that is difficult to properly represent in words.  The night continued this way for a while, as people slowly began to disperse.  After we felt we had appropriately revered in the evening, it was time to sleep.

There are 17 of us traveling together at this point;  8 from OH, 4 from CT, 2 from D.C, 1 from NY, 1 from MD, 1 from MA and Vivian.  When we stay with someone, it’s more of an invasion.  So far, we are always welcomed with open arms.

Our stuff is piled everywhere. We ourselves are strewn across the flat.  Most people talk tricking, a language I still haven’t quite mastered.  But, as they keep saying, it’s a feel good vibe in here.  The amount of talent casually distributed throughout the house is mind blowing.  They take turns doing flips on the trampoline in the yard while some are discussing their techniques and favorite tricks.

Dallas Noonan (first) and Tommy Case (second)

Currently, Vivian is making us dinner.  He’s stuffed five chickens with ground pork, ground beef, bacon, freshly squeezed chestnuts, mustard, white wine and spices.  As many people as there are knives are peeling potatoes to be mashed.  We are napping, creating music, writing, cooking, cleaning, talking, tricking, talking tricking, exchanging gifts, snacking and generally chilling as a newly blended family for our Christmas celebration.


*Kyle made the video through his brand Plan Zero.  The first half is Kyle tricking the day we traveled to Birmingham, we arrive at 5:28 in it.

The language barrier

Making new friends is essentially my favorite thing to do.  Back home, one might find it difficult to get me to stop socializing with strangers (but, they’re not strangers once you meet them, so…). If you think being half way across the world has made me any more introverted, you are incorrect.

So far, the language barrier hasn’t been all that much of a problem.  At least, for us.  Luckily for Americans, most people speak English here.  While it is almost everyone’s second (or third, fourth, fifth…) language, they can get by and I can meet them in the middle somewhere on the comprehension level.

It just gets tough when you find yourself in the basement of a Hookah bar in Amsterdam with 14 men from Spain trying to get you to play their version of Cheers Governor after you’ve already had a couple drinks.  Drinking games like this seem to be pretty international.  In the American version, the group sits in a circle and each person counts off.  However, the numbers 7 and 14 are switched.  So, the person who would typically say 7 says 14 and whoever is supposed to say 14 says 7.  Easy enough.  The group counts to 21 and cheers’, and everybody drinks.  Then, the person who 21 landed on makes a rule to replace another number with a different word, phrase, or action.  The Spanish version was similar but they only counted to 10 (thankfully for me, since that’s as high as I can count in Spanish).  Also, instead of simply starting over when a person messes up, in their version, that person is “out”.

Yesterday in Bruxelles, I had a similar experience playing Uno with some locals who only spoke French.  The rules are the same, all I needed to know was the colors (which I do).  But what you really get lost in is the conversation.  It’s so easy to take for granted coming from a country which half supports the sentiment “If you don’t speak our language then get out.”  (If you feel that way, you are disgusting, by the way.)  Luckily, my new friends did not feel that way at all.  I could pick up on bits and pieces of their chatter, occasionally someone would clue me in as to what they were laughing about.  It didn’t really bother me.  I’m learning that you don’t have to understand every word said in a conversation to be able to bask in the beauty of the moment and the experience of new friendship.

While the language itself hasn’t been a major issue, cultural differences can play a major role in what people think of you.  For instance, while it isn’t people’s favorite thing that I spit when I smoke cigarettes back home, here it’s rather uncouth.  Sitting outside an “American style” bar in Amsterdam (they had American football on TV inside, the Patriots were playing.) I spit on the ground.  Immediately, a very tall, very angry man came up to me.

“If you’re going to do that then you can leave,” he said.
“Oh, shit, sorry, I’ll stop, my bad…” I stuttered back.

I should have learned my lesson when I did the same thing in Egypt, I suppose, and known better.

Things like keeping total eye contact when you cheers become very important when you’re making a first impression on some one who doesn’t always fully understand what you’re saying.  Somehow, though, I seem to have managed to get by without offending anyone irreparably.  (Never did see that bouncer again, though, so who knows.)

Most of the time I’m just with these clowns, anyway.  While I might not speak tricking lingo fully, yet, we seem to get along just fine.

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That’s most of our crew, Justin and Tricia not pictured.  There’s nothing quite like trying to mobilize and keep track of 18 or so humans constantly.  It takes us just about forever to get anywhere or do anything.

In Bruxelles, we have been sleeping on the floor of the rather large flat our new friend Adele has so graciously allowed us to crash in.  Some on mattresses, some air mattresses, I have opted to sleep directly on the floor.  I would not trade this corner of floor space in Europe for any king size bed in the US.

Tonight is our last night in Bruxelles, we leave for London first thing tomorrow.  The language barrier will no longer be an issue…for a few days, anyway.

Alright, alright, alright!

That’s the mantra, Vivian’s catchphrase which he seems to say every time we’re all currently doing or about to do something sweet.  We’re not even sure if he knows the reference he’s making.  However, everything about Saturday fits in the category of “super freakin’ sweet”.  If you taped this event nonstop from 7 to 11 this evening, you would have enough content to make an entire season of a television show.

I don’t watch sports.  I don’t even watch the Olympics; I’ve never cared to.  But the athleticism shown in this gym this evening was absolutely captivating.

Two world records were set; one planned, one surprise.  The first was the world record for number of backflips done at one time.  The last time I looked at the list over 200 people had signed up.  However, they invited people to join whether they had signed up or not as long as they did so afterwards.  Neil, who co-MCed the event Saturday night, asked everyone to spread out across the room.  Everyone had to land the backflip for it to count.  They are still waiting on the official word from Guinness World Records to see if they made it or not.

He counted down “3…2…1..GO,” and, essentially effortlessly, 200+ people back flipped.

Then, the battle began.  There are 16 competitors in the main battle.  It’s done elimination style.  One on one battles, three rounds, five judges.


The competitors come from across the globe.  Names are put in a box, a crowd member pulls a name, and the competitors for that match are chosen.  There are also team battles.  Five competitors to a team, some teams are organized by country while some are mixed.  Each team takes a side of the floor and (ideally) one tricker from each team performs at a time.


This is Ilya Vtorin, 18, from Russia.  In quite the upset, he was knocked out of the battle in the first round of the night by twelve-year-old Aiden Kennedy.  Ilya is one of the only 100 or so humans on the planet who can triple cork (the last of the flips in the video above, see how he did 3 full rotations in the air?).  Only one can quadruple cork, Mike Guthrie, who was not at Hooked this year.  Ilya set his own world record tonight.  He did 26 gainer switches in a row during the team battles.  A large portion of the crowd rushed the mat, cheering, dripping with excitement, they crowded around Ilya in one massive celebratory group hug.

The one-on-one battles came down to two Americans; Sam Caspio, who is on the x-swipe tour with us, and Aiden.  The tension in the crowd was incredible.


And, with that, a twelve year-old American won the largest tricking event in the world.  After the event, I heard similar sentiments about this from so many of the competitors and spectators.  No one saw him coming or Tonight, I saw the future of tricking.  Everyone I spoke to was happy for him, happy for the sport.  Many of the people attending the event have been tricking for ten or more years.  They are the roots and foundation of tricking, they’ve watched it grow.  As these athletes continue to push their own personal limits, they expand the sport as a whole.  Considering what Aiden can do at twelve, many look forward to seeing him progress.

After the final one-on-one battles, the team battles picked up again.  At one point, two trickers, Silvan Vasilda & Jeffrey Soeropaiman, collided.  Neither was injured all that bad, but the event had to be paused.

There was a proposal.

And, later, after most people had gone to sleep…

I even did a cartwheel.

******

If you’d like to see more of Saturday night’s event, the entirety of it can be found here.

Hooked

When someone hands you a fire extinguisher as an accessory for the van you just rented, you can only assume the adventure to follow is about to be lit.  Let’s just hope not quite literally…

Vivien always seems to start his announcements to the group with “There is good news and there is bad news.  But the bad news, I think, is not that bad.”  He’s usually right.  Except, maybe, for the people it’s actually happening to.  A few of our travel companions missed their flights for various reasons, mostly revolving around the weather in Canada.  Two are currently stuck in Iceland.  We drove around in circles for a while at Orly airport, but finally found who we were searching for.  As I type this entry, we are attempting to get all 15 of us together to leave CDG.  It’s 4:30 PM here in Paris…and in seconds we will be on our way to Amsterdam…

*****

The drive to Amsterdam was not particularly eventful.  Other than having to stop once to refill the oil (something it appears we will be having to do ever 600 km or so), it was 5 hours of assorted music and napping.

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Grady holding our fire extinguisher while Jessie and Vivien prepare to fill the oil.

We did make one stop, where I discovered the existence of both room temperature meatballs and corndogs.

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why?

I assume they were somehow cured but I did not purchase them to find out.  The market (I wouldn’t even call it a truck stop or gas station the way we have in the US.  It had food much closer to being fresh or healthy or…not US gas station fare.)  also sold BBQ ham, bologna, and burger flavored chips.  Again, I did not sample them.

I feel myself start to become nervous as soon as we get off the highway.  I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect entering Hooked. As we pull up to the building, my team brimming with excitement, I try to mentally prepare.  I temporarily abandon my typical outgoing  self and begin to take it all in.  As promised, there was no need to be worried.  Upon entering, we are greeted by Laurent, one of the main organizers of the event, and his girlfriend, Charlotte.

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Laurent and Charlotte

Down the hallway, I meet at least 10 new friends, and I see a couple faces I have seen before.  Everyone is pleasant and welcoming.  Past the entrance, through a set of double doors, is the first gym.  Step inside, inhale the fresh sweat of 1000 new friends, a hint of excitement, combined with an ambience of the comfort of home.  There’s a thick aura of passion and motivation in the air.  People stand around a large spring mat surrounded by stage lights.  It’s bright, open, and warm.

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A certain feeling is shared in the tone of every voice in each of the many languages spoken at the event; a communal camaraderie over an appreciation for the sport and each other.  Even as a “muggle” (a term borrowed from Harry Potter, reallocated to mean “a person who does not trick”) I feel the welcoming nature of the group as a whole.  Each time I tell someone “I don’t trick…” they answer with “…yet.”  The very idea makes my stomach flip.  I’m not sure if I’m ready to attempt my first cartwheel in a gym full of people from all over the world, some of whom can quadruple backflip.  But this is exactly the mentality they encourage you to shed.

“It seems impossible at first, but once you become aware of what your body is capable of, it get’s so much easier,” one of my new friends tells me.  This statement seems ridiculous to me, but you can sense the sincerity in their voices.  Maybe my inability to accomplish anything athletic is entirely in my head?  I’m still doubtful.  I suppose we’ll see.

We arrive late, missing the preliminary battles.  But the open gym itself is incredible to watch.  The second room, the main gym, has multiple open floor spaces as well as trampolines, balance beams, a foam pit, and basically any other kind of gymnastics equipment you can imagine.

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People stand in circles, shouting words of encouragement at whomever is performing a trick in the center of their group at that moment.  Others practice individually throughout the gym, seemingly oblivious to the world around them.  Everyone has a deep sense of concentration for their own personal growth as an athlete, as well as an enthusiasm for supporting their peers.

Across the hall, there’s a large room full of bunkbeds for people to sleep on.  Down the corridor, there’s a cafeteria, typically pumping assorted rap or electronic music, with a full bar.  People stand in circles in the front of the building smoking (this is Amsterdam, after all).  Back in the first room, the TrickDynamix, Euphoria, and Trickstrong team (the lovely humans I’m traveling with) set up their merchandise.

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From left to right: Scarlet, Gaby, Tricia, Basch, Justin, and Neil

The rest of the evening is comprised of meeting new friends.  Tired from travel, I went to sleep before some of my companions.  Curled up on a beanbag in the gym, I fell asleep easier than I would have expected.  Not exactly four star accommodations, but sometimes you just have to be thankful for the roof over your head.  Especially when that roof is half a world away from home and your adventure has only started.

*****

It’s not always easy to find reliable wifi when we don’t exactly have a home base.  I’ll be writing consistently, but posting when I can.

toutes mes putes

I’m not sure if it was the jet lag or blogging till 3 AM, but we slept ’til 1PM no problem.  Vivien and Jessie woke us with a 20 egg omelette, pain au chocolat, and tea.

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This is what a 20 egg omlette looks like, incase you were wondering.

Then we were off again.  Paris has this strange way of sneaking up on you.  You step out of the metro, turn a couple corners, and BAM…you’re right beside a massive 853 year old cathedral.

All I could think of was Quasimodo hanging out in the bell tower with his gargoyle friends

The Eiffel Tower was beautiful and all, but something about Notre Dame really struck us.  Afterwords, we all admitted to being on the verge of tears (besides Justin, of course *hard eye roll*).  The architecture is incredible, but the building itself leaves you awestruck in some other, abstract way that is difficult to put into words.

We did a little more strolling and took an obscene amount of pictures.  Scarlet and I tried to sing “God Help the Outcasts” but I kept messing up the lyrics.  To be fair, I haven’t sung that song in at least ten years.  But I mess up the lyrics of every song ever, so it probably doesn’t matter.  Continuing on, Vivien brought us to Pont des Arts and…
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and then we were off to my first tricking session ever.  Yeah, no, I didn’t trick.  My level of athleticism is still basically 0, though the group has made me promise to try to learn to cartwheel by the end of this adventure.  (I’ve literally never done a cartwheel in my life.)  Vivien taught a class while Melissa (who will from here on out be referred to as “Basch” because I am the only person who doesn’t call her that in this group), Scarlet, Gaby, Tricia, and Justin trained.

As they discussed Hooked, (the largest gathering in the world, which we will be attending this weekend) I heard in their voices the same excitement I feel the day before a festival. Watching them stretching out and practicing their tricks, laughing and tumbling, I began to think about the subculture of it all.  It’s really a crazy thing, the little cliques we find ourselves in through the paths we take in life.  Comparing this world to that of Dead heads and hippies, whom I have found myself a part of, seems a stretch, but really isn’t at all.  We go to festivals and shows, they go to gatherings and sessions.  We dance and sing, they flip and tumble.  We sleep in tents in fields across the country, they sleep on the floors of gyms across the world.

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I was going to put this side by side with a picture of my friends and I at a festival but somehow their demeanor and attire makes us look like utter savages. Which probably isn’t inaccurate but also not what I was going for.

One major difference being that our subculture was started long ago.  Somehow we still bask in the glow of a fire lit long before our time.  Tricking, however, is a relatively new sport.  While it started in the 90’s from sport karate, the first gathering was a mere 13 years ago.  New tricks are still being invented and there are trickers who are the only human on the planet that can do a specific trick.  Gatherings have spread across the world to almost every continent (well, except for Antartica, probably, Gaby and Scarlet estimate). The American tricking tour this summer included events in Connecticut, Ohio, Colorado, California, and New York.  Trickers came from across the world to attend these events, just as the group I am currently traveling with is doing now.

The point being, I am grateful and excited to unlock the intricacies of this subculture that my new friends have so graciously allowed me to experience.  I’ve traded my tapestries in for tricking mats, for now, anyway.  I am entering as a cautious observer, but have already been encouraged to participate.  We’ll see.  Balance and strength are not my strong suit.

We left the gym, each of them giddy from the high of their session, me riding their wave.  As we walked down the metro, Gaby calling out “venez toutes mes poutes!” (come all my bitches!) and motioning toward us, I couldn’t hold back my smile or my gratitude for the adventure which lays before me.

Just then, some upstanding young gentleman leaned forward…and vomited all over the metro floor.

C’est une belle vie.

One last comment: I think true friendship in any culture begins when someone asks you if you can smell the armpits of their shirt to see if they can wear it again.  So, I think I’m officially in.

Stay fit, Stay lit

The key to packing for a long journey is making a huge long list, packing, unpacking, packing again, and then taking a deep breath and accepting you will never be ready.  You will forget something.  You cannot fit enough socks in your backpack and there is no way to estimate exactly what you are going to want to wear Tuesday evening in two weeks.  I refused to concede to this law and relax until we finally stepped into our limo.

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Justin tricking on our tricked out ride

But…it’s pretty easy to let go a little with a glass of champagne in your hand.  Much easier with two or three.  Obi, our driver, used the force to mostly avoid rush hour traffic on the way to JFK, while we danced (as much as you can seated in a moving vehicle) and sang to an array of 90’s songs and Disney tunes.  The realization that we were actually on our way to Paris set in somewhere between “A Whole New World” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time“.  Or maybe it never set in at all…where are we?

Oh, shit, yeah…we’re in m-fing Paris.  We woke up here after discontinuously napping through the screams of a thousand infants.

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Blurriness accurately depicts our experience in CDG as a whole

After a brush with potential terrorism (aka sitting in line at customs for an extra who knows how long because some idiot left their bag in a hallway) we made it to the train.  Between our broken French and the kindness of a few strangers, we found we could navigate the Paris metro just fine.

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Sunset in France from the train

Unbeknownst to me, we are being hosted in this country by local national celebrities.  Vivien and Jessie recently won 5th place in France’s Got Talent for a truly incredible performance that I cannot currently find a link for.  I’ll ask them tomorrow and update.  Despite our fatigue, no one could wait to start seeing the city, and Vivien was more than happy to lead us on an adventure.  Did I mention we’re in M-FING PARIS!?

We took a whirlwind tour starting at the Arc de triomphe

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and continuing down la Champs-Elysées.  The middle of December may not seem like an ideal time to be strolling around a city, but if you’re into Christmas lights (which everyone should be since they are the single good thing about Christmas) then Christmas in Paris is for you.  The phrase “the pictures don’t do it justice” does not do it justice, so I’m just not even going to bother to try.  Imagine trees that sparkle like freshly poured champagne, shops twinkling as if they were covered in illuminated gemstones.  Past the shimmering shops and cafes there is a “Christmas Market”.  Take The Big “E”, remove the farm animals, put it on one beautiful avenue and, Voilà!, you have the Paris Christmas Markets.  Well, almost.  New England isn’t hip to hot wine or fancy cured meats (that one weird beef jerky stand does not count).  And, while we think we are up on our potato game, we are wrong.  So very wrong.

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I would take tartiflette over a “Maine baked potato” literally any day.

The real highlight of l’avenue?  Obviously,

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Why, yes, that is a zombie thriller ride.  And, yes, those zombies in santa suits dance to Michael Jackson.

I really wasn’t sure we could top dancing christmas zombies.  Actually, I’m not sure we truly did.  But, I guess the Eiffel Tower was pretty cool.

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Oh, except for that we came on one of the only nights ever when it wasn’t lit up.  Turns out the workers are on strike due to a botched painting operation.**  I’m a pretty huge fan of protests, though, so I can’t say I was that upset.  In a time when it can sometimes seem like good is losing, it’s encouraging to see that people still stand for something, for each other.

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This human, for example.

There has been quite the pollution problem in Paris this winter.  It hasn’t been uncommon at all to see people walking around in masks like the SARS virus is back.  I can’t be sure if their message was received by the various teenagers stepping on the pump as they walked past, or the tourists (like myself) taking photographs.  But, I’d imagine they were seen by thousands of people.  Each of whom will go home and show their families the photos or put them on their social media, and I’m hoping that is the kind of awareness the artist was seeking.

It’s 2:30 AM in Paris. I am warm and comfortable in a one room apartment.  I am surrounded by six obscenely talented humans from various parts of the US.  I have somehow found myself engulfed in the pulsating beauty that is Paris, France.  I’m not sure what I’ve ever done to deserve this life, but this long strange trip is more than I could ever hope for.

**UPDATE

The lights of the Eiffel Tower were actually shut off Wednesday to mourn lives lost in Aleppo and to stand in solidarity with them.  The strike was the day before.

As promised…Jessie and Vivien’s final performance on France’s Got Talent:

 

Melissa got some pictures of the lights that infinitely surpass mine but still don’t quite do it justice: