On language

I’m travelling, one of my favourite things to do in this life. One of the best aspects of travelling, for me because I mostly travel solo, is it opens my mind to contemplate the world, life and my place in it. On this trip, a reoccurring theme that I’ve returned to a number of times is the curious nature of language.

Those who know me will know I am in love with words and language in all its forms. Whether it’s one of the great works of literature, a cheap trashy paperback, a song, poetry or just conversation with a friend- new or old, the use of words and language fills my soul. This is one of the reasons I dabble in my small way with trying to write.

But on this trip, it has been brought home to me that a large part of the allure of words- is being understood and feeling like one belongs. A few times this trip I have got to experience something that rarely happens in my anglophone world… that is not speaking the local language.

First in Hong Kong, where English was available, but not dominant. I speak NO Chinese. A fact that I am a little ashamed of given I live on the edge of Asia. I fancy myself enlightened and evolved, but here was proof that I’m just another white, westerner expecting the world to bend to my will. Sitting on the train, surrounded by people all happily chatting amongst themselves, and I couldn’t join in, or even eavesdrop- it was an odd experience.

Then I arrived in Canada, the wonderful and famously bilingual nation in the north. Here I was a little better equipped. My high school French meant that I wouldn’t starve, and would be able to ask where the station was with confidence. But, it was in conversation that again the arrogance of my anglophone upbringing reared it’s ugly head. Sitting in bars and cafes in Québec to be included in conversation, they needed to change to English (which they did happily), but I was the visitor. I thought about what would happen if one of these people came to Melbourne, would my friends and I change to their language to make them feel welcome? Of course the answer is “No”.

Even amongst fellow anglophones, there are gaps in communication. This was brought home to me when I got chatting with a woman also from Melbourne. I’ve been back in predominantly English speaking Ontario for a while now, so no more guilt about my appalling French. But in talking to this woman who was a stranger, was the most relaxed and restful conversation I’ve had in weeks. The familiar accent, that I didn’t know I missed; the ability to just talk without having to explain slight variations in meaning of words and phrases, and knowing that I was unlikely to inadvertently offend her was wonderful.

So what does this all mean? Or are these the ramblings of a crazy woman that mean nothing? I think what it means is that language and words are great but more important is communication. It’s how we as people connect with each other. It also means I need to stop being lazy and maybe expand my knowledge of other languages, even a little.

“Bah Humbug” to all and to all a good night.

I call to thee all Scrooges, all Grinches and misanthropes.  All cranks, all hermits, and cynics. Come hither and rest your weary souls and enjoy some peace and refuge from the hell they call… Christmas.

In all honesty though, I don’t actually HATE Christmas.It’s a good excuse to see friends and family that you simply can’t get to during the year. I like mince pies, Christmas Cake and Plum pudding and all the other delicious goodies that are around during this time. Even the whole gift giving thing doesn’t phase me. In fact it’s my favourite part. Making my friends and family smile is one of my greatest pleasures, throughout the year, not just at Christmas. If it were allowed to remain as just this I would have no problem with the whole institution of it. Indeed I would embrace it. But it doesn’t, and so I can’t.

How many, like me have felt trapped in Holiday Hell? There is little escape from the frivolity that surrounds us. We are obliged to socialise and engage in small talk with people we would normally avoid. We are forced to endure listening to some of the most annoying songs ever recorded on a constant loop from about October. If we raise any objection to any of it, we are condemned as a spoil sport, a ‘Scrooge’, a ‘Grinch’ and generally made to feel like there’s something wrong with us if the mere thought of a twinkle light doesn’t send us into a semi-orgasmic stupor.  

This time of year gets hijacked by the “Christmas zealots”. We all know these people. Extroverts for the most part, they are the ones for whom the phrase “too much Christmas” simply doesn’t exist. They decorate, and bake and generally do Christmas with the fervor of one of Santa’s elves who has had one too many candy canes. Don’t get me wrong a little bit of tinsel around the place never hurt anyone, and I won’t turn down a bit of the old Lions Christmas Cake, but it rarely ends there. For the rest of us, especially those of us of a more introverted bent the constant stream of social obligations, and the need to be ‘up’ and ‘jolly’ is frankly exhausting.

Many people have got through the year by the skin of their teeth, having got through the various trials and crises that life throws at people, or just coping with the business of living day to day, the last thing they need is some well meaning dolt grinning at them, shoving a Santa hat on their head and insisting that they join in on a round of “Jingle Bells”. “No,” is rarely taken as an acceptable answer at Christmas time. So, if you want any friends left after New Years (don’t get me started on THAT little scam),you suck it up, paste on a fake smile and plough through, as a little bit of you dies inside.

If you are reading this, and don’t understand, because for you Christmas is special and magical and quite simply the best time you ever had; let me say I’m thrilled for you. Enjoy yourself! Just don’t make it compulsory for me to join in.


Broadening the mind…one step at a time

“Travel broadens the mind.” A well worn idiom that is so over used as to be meaningless. That said nothing could be more true, that is of course if you do it right. Maybe I’m a bit of a snob, but to me going from airport to hotel to tour bus on repeat, with a few photos in front of some famous landmarks is NOT travel. Travel is about immersing in a place and experiencing something new and different from your everyday life. With the right attitude, a trip to the supermarket can qualify if you take the time to slow down, open your eyes and ears, and take notice of what’s going on around you.

But, of course, for most of us, our day-to-day lives are too busy to have time for that kind of indulgence. We need to remove our selves from our lives, even if only temporarily. When we travel, we use all of our senses to the full, it’s tiring but also exhilarating. This is why we are alive.

Followers of my Instagram account (@bookblog76) will have seen pictures taken on my most recent overseas adventure. My intention was to try and convey, through a visual medium, a feel for what I was experiencing. For me, while the usual sights in those places were wonderful, it was more the small details that I loved the most.

The fact is every time I travel all it does is remind me how great the world really is, and how much there is to experience. I’ve been home a couple of weeks now, and already the cogs have started turning planning the next great leap into the unknown. At the same time though, it’s important focus on the here and now. With my senses still open and engaged it is a chance to notice the small, but wonderful things that I take for granted.

I know from experience that this feeling won’t last long. All too soon, the real world will take over and I will be back to being fully immersed in the mundane and the underwhelming. So if you don’t mind, I’m just going to got out into the world for a bit longer, while I can still see it.

Blind Spots

When it comes to reading, I’ve always considered myself to be broadminded when  deciding what to read next. Take a collection of words, stick them on a pile of paper and bind the whole, and I will happily give it a go. I might not necessarily like everything, but I don’t have any preconceived ideas about a book until I’ve at least read SOME of it’s contents.

At least that’s what I thought. It turns out I have one blind spot. A slab of the world’s collective library that I ignore. I’m talking about books that fall under the admittedly broad umbrella of romance.

Just this morning, I was trawling through my emails;I get a lot from various publishers and bookish sites.Today I had one spruiking for some kind of romance novel. It had all the usual hallmarks of this kind of thing. The elegant cursive writing for the title. The picture of a good looking couple, gazing longingly at each other. I think you know what I mean. The book was pitched to me as a great story, by an accomplished author. Apparently this woman is not a novice, and her previous works have been well received.

If this had been anything else, I would have been tracking down a copy to check it out for myself. After all, if you were to ask me what I look for in a book, it’s a good story that is well written.

But, not this time. I looked at it, laughed at the silly cover art and dismissed it as trash. As trash! Not as something that I simply didn’t feel like reading right now, but as something that was rubbish and beneath me to even look at at.

It got me thinking. Why is that? Could it be that the few that I HAVE read in the past tend to be a little formulaic and predictable? If that were the case I would never read another ‘Whodunit’ ever again. No that wasn’t it. Maybe it’s because I have been burned by previous attempts? Again, I’ve never let one poor quality work, or author, influence my opinion of an entire genre. It’s not even that I’m not a romantic, I am. It’s just that I tend to focus more on ‘romantic’ fiction that also lays claim to being ‘classic’ fiction.

I’ve been pondering the matter all day. I can’t come up with any answers except that I have this huge, unjustified prejudice against a whole lot of books. Maybe I’m missing out? The only way I can really find out is to give them a go. So, I’ve decided that the next one that lands in may lap, I’m not going to dismiss as trash. I’m going to read it and give the genre the chance to change my mind. After all, isn’t that what reading is for?

Masterpiece or Eyesore? Street Art and the Battle for Public Spaces

Spend any time in a city of even modest size and chances are you will have been confronted by the abundance of visual stimulation that surrounds. It seems that everywhere we look we are bombarded with images screaming for our attention. It can be incredibly noisy.  In amongst the din, some real gems come to light. I am talking about street art.

Professor Alison Young is an expert on the subject of street art, and has made it the focus of her academic career. She has written three books on the subject. Her most recent Street Art World delves into this fascinating subject and tries to answer a number of questions. Questions like what is street art? Is it the same as graffiti? Does it have to be in a gallery, or at the very least officially sanctioned to be regarded as art at all? These questions are not new, and while this book doesn’t definitively close the debate once and for all, it provides an interesting and compelling salvo on the side of urban artists.

Often derided as vandalism and banished, street art brings a vibrancy and an energy to a city. It provides tangible proof that living, breathing, and feeling human beings occupy the space; and not just soulless corporate automatons. Without street art our public spaces would be completely monopolised by the McDonald’s and Nikes of this world. Our world would be sterilised and airbrushed beyond all recognition from reality.

Aside from the aesthetic, street art, as with any art, challenges us to think. Whether it’s a commissioned mural, a cheeky stencil or a statement scrawled across a wall street art provides an insight into the collective psyche of a populace. It is a snap shot of the prevailing feelings and controversies of the day. Take for instance the current wave of so called ‘bollard art’ popping up across Melbourne. In response to a number of incidents both locally and abroad, it was deemed necessary by the powers that be to erect concrete blocks in places where people gather in large numbers. Within a day, local artists began anonymously turning the grey concrete from depressing eyesores into interesting pieces of art. In addition to making the blocks more attractive, the beautification project raises the question about what citizens will tolerate in the name of their ‘safety’.

For your ‘To Read’ List:

Alison Young- Street Art World (2016) (Aus)