Monthly Archives: December 2012

Winter Trees of Toledo

Wintertime vegetation, with its bare branches and drab brown shades, is not really my favourite. I’m more of a spring blossoms and autumn leaves kind of girl. But when you make an effort to stop and look, nature rewards you with unexpected splashes of colour and intriguing textures, even at this sombre time of year.

A denuded pomegranate tree with fruit

A denuded pomegranate tree with some remaining fruit

The pomegranates, split open, provide ready sustenance for Toledo's birds

The pomegranates, split open, provide ready sustenance for Toledo’s birds

I have no idea what kind of tree this is, but its thousands of cascading seedpods give it a compelling texture

Again, I'm clueless as to its botanical classification, but the clusters of yellow berries are very attractive

Again, I’m clueless as to this tree’s botanical classification, but the clusters of yellow berries are very attractive, especially against the blue, blue sky

A close-up of the glistening bunches of berries

A close-up of the glistening bunches of berries

And another one :-)

And another one ūüôā

If any of you happen to know the names of the last two trees, please drop me a line.

Chocolate (advertising) Makes You (think you are) Thin

I can’t say that my heart skips a beat for sheer excitement excitement when, on my weekly trawl through the food industry news, I spot yet another headline about women’s mysterious relationship with chocolate. I guess it has the same effect on me as a reported Elvis sighting does on someone who was young in the early 60s – I just can’t stop myself from clicking on it.

So, this latest of chocolate studies was jointly spawned by the Universities of Strathclyde and Western Australia, and published in the journal Appetite. In a nutshell, the researchers showed different types of chocolate advertising to a group of women – some of whom were on a diet and some weren’t – and then shoved boxes of chocs under their drooling chins to see what would happen.

And guess what! When the women were made to watch chocolate advertising featuring skinny models, the dieters among them lost their abstemious cool, diving – at least that’s how I picture it – head first into the delectable assortment laid out in front of them. Who’d have thought…?!

The researchers interpreted this behaviour as “consumers, who were generally more restrained, perceiving themselves as being comparable to the ‘thin ideal models’, and therefore allowing themselves a temporary relaxation of eating restrictions”.

I must admit, I found it rather confusing that the researchers labelled the dieting women as “consumers who were generally more restrained”. Surely, the reason people go on a weight-loss diet in the first place is precisely because they exercise little restraint in their normal, day-to-day life. I guess the boffins used “restrained” as a shorthand for “temporarily restrained”, in as much as one might label a muzzled dog “harmless”, even if it’s rabid and frothing at the mouth.

I don’t know about you, but I’m crazy about chocolate and I can eat an entire 400g bar of Toblerone in one sitting without feeling queasy. And whenever I went on a diet (I haven’t been on one for years, but I remember those days very well), I would fantasise about chocolate, cake, cookies etc. not only from dawn to dusk, but I used to dream about the stuff, in vivid technicolour, every single night for as long as the self-imposed regime would last. I’m convinced that, had I been given the choice between saving my firstborn (if I had one) from a burning building and rescuing a box of Belgian chocolate seashells, the latter would have won out. By a wide margin.

Anyway, our researchers duly concluded that chocolate advertising employing thin models (is there any other kind used in advertising?!) was probably effective. Oh my oh my oh my!  Finally Hershey, Cadbury, Kraft, Nestle, Godiva et al. have cast-iron PROOF that the millions they pour every year into promoting the devilish stuff is not just money down the drain.

Maybe it'll work with carrots???

Maybe it’ll work with carrots…?

Language Woes: The Fear Of Losing It

We all have our existential worries. Some worry about being inadequate parents. Some live in fear of ending up as bag ladies under a bridge. I fret over losing command of my native language.

I’ve been an expat longer than an inpat. I spent 19 years living in my birth country, Germany, followed by two decades in the UK, and since September 2011, I’ve been in Spain.

Unlike many other expats, I’ve never surrounded myself with German people while away from Germany. It’s not that I’m consciously avoiding my fellow countrymen, but I just tend to make friends with people I connect with, regardless of their extraction. I don’t seek out places where Germans might purposely meet and congregate. Incidentally, Germans are not a very congregatory people, nor am I particularly gregarious by nature.

The upshot of it is that I’ve used very little German in my daily life over the past two decades. I speak to my family only when forced at guiltpoint, and I’ve but two close friends left from my school days, plus a couple of German friends I’ve picked up in recent years, and that’s pretty much it. The rest of the time my life happens in English, and, since moving to Spain, in Spanish.

During my absence, Germany has been through a spelling reform, and even though I’ve looked at the new rules, I can’t seem to retain them. German now is littered with¬† peculiar-looking words like “Essst√∂rungen” and “Schifffahrt”. I find it disturbing. Besides, I used to understand the old rules, e.g. when to use ‘ss’ and when an ‘√ü’ was needed, but the entire batch of newfangled edicts elude me. Sigh.

Also, I lived in Germany before the arrival of the internet, email, mobile phones, lady shavers and other assorted gadgetry. I lack a whole host of tech vocabulary. Most of the time, German has just adopted the English term, which is handy for me, but what gender has been assigned to it? German nouns have one of three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Is ‘blog’ masculine or neuter? Is ’email’ feminine or neuter? I haven’t a clue.

Being the nerdy bookish type, I used to have excellent spelling and vocabulary in my native language, but my former competence is eroding, syllable by syllable. Although there’s no imminent danger of me ‘forgetting’ my native language, i.e. I’d never not understand what I was reading or what somebody was saying to me, but much of my vocab has moved from the active part of my brain to the passive side, resulting in a pronounced loss of verbal eloquence.

I realise that I’ve got no one to blame but myself for this sad state of affairs.

Sure, not having lived in a German-speaking country for most of my life seems like a vaguely passable excuse, but I’ve let things slide really badly. I’ve been taking my native language for granted, doing next to nothing to keep it brushed up and sparkling. I’ve locked it up like some captive creature in a dungeon. Every now and again I go down there, shine a torch at it, and note to my horror that it has atrophied a bit more.

So, am I doing anything to stop the rot?

Well, over the past year, I’ve been making a more conscious effort. I dip into German newspapers over breakfast every day. I’ve also bought myself an e-reader, which allows me to download books in various languages, and so I’ve started reading German books again – something I should have done a long time ago! (Incidentally, if any of you can recommend some good German reading, I’d be very interested to hear. But please, I don’t want anything that’s been translated into German, and no Schwedenkrimis, I beg of you!)

I’m thinking that maybe starting a blog in German would be great way of resuscitating my writing skills, but somehow, I can’t see that happening any time soon… not even as a New Year’s resolution. I’ve totally lost my confidence ūüė¶

Doing It For The First Time… In Another Language

You may be of the persuasion that you can lose your virginity only once, but this isn’t so. Don’t flinch – there’s no need to submit yourself to any surgical tissue reconstruction. All you have to do to re-live the awkward experience of your fist time is get down to it in another language.

Now, unless you’ve been watching porn in your target language, you probably won’t be au fait with the colloquial terminology referring to the fun parts of human anatomy, never mind being capable of engaging in saucy repartee.

On the upside, your first carnal encounter with a native speaker of the language you’re currently struggling to get to grips with is a golden opportunity for acquiring vocab that you won’t find in any textbook. And seeing that language learning (besides eating cake) is my all-time favourite hobby, that’s more than enough to motivate me.

Right then… let’s scroll back about nine months, when my Spanish was still abysmal.

So, here we are, in my living room, him gagging for it, me gagged by lack of vocab. I do take comfort in the knowledge that men all over the world function pretty much the same on a basic level. And that there is no higher level.

The session kicks off well. Of course, proceedings are punctuated by me asking for the name of various bodily protuberances, as we happen across them, but this doesn’t seem to be disturbing the flow too much. He’s one of my intercambios, you see, and used to enduring my constant questioning without complaint. I refrain from jotting things down in my notebook. A man’s patience can only be pushed so far.

Curiously enough, he doesn’t seem at all interested in the corresponding terms in English. That’s probably because there’s no longer enough blood circulating above his neckline to power the memory banks. Fine by me, as long as I’m getting what I want. I can tell that his residual thinking runs along the same lines.

So, the clothes are off, we’ve made it onto the bed somehow. Things are in full swing, when he says something to me. I gather that it’s a request for me to change position, but I haven’t got a clue which way he wants me. I’m capable of understanding ’69’ in all Latin and Germanic-based languages, and I’m 99% sure that’s not what he’s after. Just as well he’s the burly sort who can shuffle me around and re-arrange my limbs in the desired order. Ouch. My poor back.

Now he’s asking for something else. I don’t quite catch it, not helped by the fact that we’re not exactly face-to-face right now, so I just say yes. Next thing I know, there’s a finger up my butt. Or possibly two. Aha. That’ll teach me.

About twenty minutes in, he shouts something. Although I haven’t come across that particular expression before, I have no trouble deducing its meaning. “Ah,” I say, “you use the verb ‘correr’ in the reflexive for that?”

Hmmm…. this doesn’t appear to be a good time to be discussing grammar. Fine, I’ve worked it out: In Spanish you’re running instead of coming. Shame that I’m not quite there yet myself… But from a language learner’s point of view, the whole undertaking was highly satisfactory.

Christmas in Toledo

Let’s make one thing quite clear: I’m NOT a Christmas person. Bah humbug, I say! There’s not a scrap of tinsel to be detected in my barracks, nor any loose baubles rolling around under the sofa. No Sir! This is a 100% Christmas-free zone.

However, I do like the pretty lights outside. And to make up for the disturbing shopping centre art post from a few days ago, I thought I’d treat you all to something a bit easier on the eye: a few pics of Toledo decked out in seasonal splendour.

It’s worth mentioning that the issue of municipal Christmas decorations is highly contentious in Spain right now. Public spending on virtually everything has been severely curtailed, including on essential healthcare services and education. People are demonstrating furiously against these brutal cut backs every day.

But because Toledo is very popular with tourists, and a significant part of the town’s revenues depend on visitors, being dolled up in festive glitz is an absolute must, at least for the historic centre. However, to compensate for the expense, the authorities have cut down on street lighting in other areas of town. On many streets, only every second street lamp is in operation (not a bad idea!), and in some, the lighting has been turned off altogether. A friend of mine lives in these “blackout” streets, and every time I go to and from her house in the evenings (which is at least once every week), I end up stumbling over a pavement slab or treading into a pile of cat pooh.

[The pictures look a lot better when they are bigger – you can click on them, and that will take you to a screen with a larger version]

Christmas on Zocodover

The start of Toledo’s main shopping street – Calle Comercio, locally also referred to as La Calle Ancha (the wide street)

More Calle Comercio

More Calle Comercio

Christmas in Toledo

The street leading up to Toledo Cathedral

Christmas in Toledo

I just caught these on the off-chance, indulging in a bit of illegal grazing outside of official feeding hours. The blurriness is intentional, so they can’t be identified by any overzealous elves.

Hideous Toledo: Shopping Centre Art

Public art is a contentious topic. Take the recent example of Damian Hirst’s “Verity”, a 20-metre-tall bronze sculpture of a flayed pregnant woman, erected in the fishing village of Ilfracombe, North Devon (UK). I can see why this brazen lady would divide opinion, and that she might not be to everyone’s taste. But I don’t think that anyone would seriously argue that she is not a work of art – evidently, a lot of effort and thought have gone into creating her.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, there’s the kind of ‘art’work, that’s not just heinously ugly, but which seems (in my admittedly unschooled opinion) to lack any artistic merit whatsoever.

Toledo is, as I never tire to point out, a very beautiful city, brimming with fantastic architecture and artefacts that bear witness to its millennia-spanning history. So, I thought it might be quite interesting to present a counter-point to all this splendour by featuring a selection of rather unfortunate choices of public art.

As my first example, I’ve chosen a grotesque group of entities on view in the car park of the city’s Luz Del Tajo shopping centre. I have no idea what this abomination is called or who spawned it, and neither do I want to know. I might have to spit at them in the street. Although, I have the quiet suspicion that this was, in fact, not produced by a human being, but by a Godzilla-sized bear, caught just short of the woods.

This is only the first part of the monstrosity… brace yourselves…

…and the middle bit, spaced about 10m from the first installment

....and the final piece. Well, actually, there's some kind of bird between the second and the third piece, as you can see

….and the final piece. Well, actually, as you can see, there’s some kind of bird between the second and the third piece

I mean, what does this look like to you? Any suggestions? A turd in three parts? If¬† I were forced to take a serious guess, I’d assume that it’s meant to represent driftwood…

And if that wasn’t enough to send your optic nerve into emergency shut down, on the side wall of the shopping centre, there’s yet another choice piece of repellent decoration:

At first glance from afar, I thought this was safety netting that had been put there because of building repairs, but these half-rotten wooden panels are clearly a permanent fixture

Phew! You’ve made it to the end. Now go and wash your retinas with soap and lie down in a darkened room for as long as you need to.

The Messy Morass of the Intermediate Language Learner

In the beginning, it’s so easy. You don’t understand much. You can say “thank you”, “I like the food” and ask where the toilet is. You’ll even stand a good chance of¬† finding it, as long as the answer is accompanied by an index finger pointing you in the right direction.

Every new word you learn, every new phrase – it’s just so exciting! Only yesterday, you didn’t know the words for “sun”, “wait” and “wardrobe” in X language, and now you do. Learning is positively blissful.

These are the joys of the beginner. Make the most of it while it lasts, I say. Most people never get beyond that threshold, and there’s a reason: It’s called the ‘intermediate’ stage. You know it is upon you the instant you’re hit by the crushing realisation that you know, in fact, next to nothing.

This most vexatious of all learning stages is marked by an inordinate amount of drudgery: sweating over grammar drills that slide right through the Teflon-coated folds of your brain without leaving even the slightest imprint, your eyes turning bloodshot from staring at vocabulary lists for hours on end, and your throat muscles have gone into spasms over trying to roll Rs, practicing your tones, or whatever. Your short-term reward for all this toil is nothing but frustration and embarrassment over every incompetent utterance.

Language acquisition works a bit like an inverted pyramid: You progress from the bottom up, and even though the levels all cover the same vertical distance, the amount of knowledge, expressed in terms of the area of a pyramid slice you need to cover to get the the next level, gets bigger every time

Language acquisition works on an ‘inverted pyramid principle’: You progress from the bottom up, and even though the levels all cover the same vertical distance, the amount of knowledge, expressed in terms of the area of a pyramid segment you need to assimilate to get the the next level, gets bigger every time

In an effort to improve and test yourself, you watch  films, you listen to native speaker conversations, and you do catch some words, but in truth, you struggle to even get the gist most of the time. They speak way too fast for you to even identify any of the vocabulary you know, never mind comprehending the bewildering garnish of idiomatic expressions interspersed with slang, which neither your textbooks nor your well-intentioned teachers prepared you for.

The intermediate phase is immensely risky. On those rare occasions when you’re feeling buoyant about your verbal skills, you just won’t be able to stop yourself from coming out with a couple of not-too-shoddy sentences veering dangerously towards the colloquial. This can easily fool a native speaker into believing that you are, in fact, capable of engaging in a normal conversation. Before you have a chance to take flight, they start talking to you. And there you are, frozen on the spot, nodding at them with a rictus grin on your face, without the faintest clue of where this is going.

Not only do you not want to abort the mission and make yourself look like a fool, but you’re clinging to the vain hope that the very next sentence is going to bring a lighting flash insight, which will reveal all that they’ve been rabbiting on about for the last fifteen minutes. Deep down, you already know that this is futile, because you’ve been in this very situation a zillion times before. The best you can hope for is that they won’t suddenly stop and look at you expectantly, waiting for you to divulge detailed opinions on the topic.

Luckily, in about 80% of these instances, you’ll come away relatively unscathed, because people generally just want somebody with a friendly face to listen to them attentively, not interrupt, and agree with them. Intermediate language learners are perfectly equipped for this purpose. I don’t know why we’re not making shedloads money out of this…!

So, how do you know when you’ve finally made it out of the intermediate morass? Well, in my experience, what happens is that, all of a sudden, you’re able to pick out the words and expressions you don’t understand, and you can ask for clarification.

Welcome to the immensely rewarding phase of the advanced learner. Let the warm wave of recognition that all the blood sweat and tears were well worth it wash over you.

I only just got there with my Spanish. I’ve still got a long way to go until I reach near-native speaker level, which is my goal, but it’s important to celebrate the milestones as I stumble along the path.


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: