Tropical Fruit vs. Deciduous Fruit

Taken by me at the WACA in Perth the day that ...Image via Wikipedia
An Australian cricket team in happier days: Perth 2006.
With the Ashes series all but decided in England’s favour. And deservedly so too, perhaps it’s time us Aussies learnt to lose gracefully (hint, hint, Ricky Ponting!). And who better to learn from than the very English who have bested us?

Last Ashes series in Australia, to distract from their teams miserable performance, I read that the Barmy Army took to chanting the following chant:

We’re fat, we’re round, three dollars to the pound!

What’s that? The exchange rate? English fans are singing about the performance of their currency in relation to Australia’s? Yes, that was the case - you gotta love those barmy poms!


So, as a distraction of my own: “English food vs. Australian food” or more specifically “Tropical Fruit vs. Deciduous Fruit”. I must warn my readers, however, that I’m no botanist and I am going to using the terms “Tropical” and “Deciduous” shall we say “loosely”. And, if I happen to claim some mediterranean fruits as “tropical” forgive me, in penance I shan’t include the really unbeatable foods like coffee and chocolate because they don’t grow in Australia.

The "hedgehog" style is a common way...Image via Fir0002Wikipedia
Australian Mangoes
To begin with: Mangoes. As I was surprised to find earlier this year, you can get mangoes in “Old Blightey”, and I was even more astounded to hear a work colleague confess that she didn’t actually like mangoes! But, the reason is, I suspect, that the mangoes you’ll find in Morrisons or Sainsbury’s aren’t really mangoes. I mean, sure technically they are, but no, not really. A mango isn’t sour. Sure, in the early part of the mango season, you’ll find one with some green sour-ish patches, but the ones one sale in Morrisons could be substituted for lemons! To enjoy the real mango experience, you have to come down under, or better yet, visit India - because in all honesty, the mangoes I tried when I was in India beat anything I have had before or since! When you bite into a ripe red and gold mango you’re biting into a summer’s worth of tropical sunshine, a mango is unbelievably sweet like no other fruit. Sweet but mellow and deliciously juicy, you know it’s ripe and ready to be devoured when you can put it to your nose and literally breath-in the decadent excess of sugar it has stored. Mangoes go straight onto the top of the list.

Next, Strawberries. We get strawberries down here in Australia. Great big juicy Queensland strawberries, some as big as apples, and they taste like... they taste like... well, to be honest, they don’t really taste of anything, I don’t know what the big fuss is with strawberries? Or at least I didn’t until my first ever visit to the Northern Hemisphere, Québec, England, Finland, France, all delivered strawberries that were unbelievably sweet and full of flavour. In Australia, strawberries are generally eaten dipped in sugar and a punnet occasionally rots in the fridge uneaten. In England, a punnet might be finished on the same day it was bought, especially if it was bought from the local farmer’s market.

Strawberries gariguettes DSC03052Image via Wikipedia
French Gariguette strawberries
Blueberries. I could say the same for blueberries as I said for strawberries, and for that matter, blackcurrents, raspberries and cherries. I don’t think blueberries and cherries suffer as much as strawberries from the tendency to tastelessness - they simply don’t grow to enormous, watery proportions like strawberries do - but there’s no doubt they taste better when grown in a cold latitude.

Grapefruit. It’s a bit sour, being a member of the citrus family, but if you follow these directions you can’t go wrong. 1) Cut the grapefruit in half. 2) Cut out the white “pith” from the centre. 3) Cut out the flesh of the fruit into “pizza” segments, but be careful not to cut through the skin. 4) Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar over both halves. 5) Repeat step 4 - it is a member of the citrus family remember. 6) Dump another teaspoon of sugar right in the centre from where you removed the pith. 7) With a teaspoon, eat each of the segments you cut. 8) Now here comes the best part, close your eyes and picture yourself stranded on a tropical island where you haven’t had anything to drink for days, lift the grapefruit half to your lips as if it were a cup, now pour the delicious sugary fruit juice into your mouth, being sure to let some of it miss and run down your cheeks and neck in true Robinson Crusoe style!

Now, you can’t do that in England can you?

Ok ok, next fruit. Deciduous this time. Um, how about apples? Nice, but a bit boring. Then plums? Yeah, they’re delicious, but frankly the more sun the better and Australia has more than England. How about peaches? Ditto what I said about plums. Well, we’ll have to choose a tropical then: chillies! Fiery and exciting, forceful and with a take-no-prisoners attitude, definitely not a fruit for the faint-hearted. Sure you can grown them in England as well as in Australia, but whose temperament do they really suit better?

Well, if you’ve been following the Ashes series this summer, you’d have to say: “England”.
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The Parasites of European Tourism: Awful Restaurants in Top Spots

For any of the cafés at the Piazza della Signoria, Florence,
expect to pay exorbitant prices.

The greatest problem with going on a tour of the main sites of a new and foreign city is lunch. Where do you go, when you’re hungry from exploring a city that you don’t know very well, you’re miles away from your hotel and you haven’t packed anything to take with you? Occasionally, you find yourself going to familiar fast-food chains just because you’ll know what to expect. But when in Paris, or Florence, or somewhere with a good reputation for food, do you really want to be eating at McDonalds? So you try having a look for a nice restaurant, or café to eat and here comes the real problem: those parasitic restaurateurs that live off of the good culinary reputation of a particular country or city or region to serve you rubbish on a plate and charge the world for it.

Such restaurants and cafés are always to be found in tourist hubs, a pub in Covent Garden, the bistro across from Notre Dame, or the Al Fresco café in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. They survive because they get their traffic not from their own good reputation, but from the reputation of whatever tourist attraction that they are close to. As David Whitley of Grumpy Traveller has commented:

They know they won’t get repeat trade, they know people on holiday fritter away money at a rate they’d not dream of at home, and they know that the odd upset customer is worth the gain.


“And they’re always the places where service is worst.

But the corollary that no-one seems to notice about this parasitic practice is that the loser in the end (apart from the unhappy customer) is the reputation of the country or the place that is being so parasitically exploited in this way. So much so that, having visited Tuscany I can honestly tell you that although Florence is such a significant city in European history and although it has such great architecture and the Uffizi and Accademia are unmissable, the entire city is a giant tourist trap, and for the real Tuscan experience I would recommend nearby Lucca, which has its own splendid Piazzas, cathedrals and fountains and a significant and interesting history of its own.

And the real big-time loser in this parasitic practice is France. To the extent that you might find a columnist in Britain’s “The Independent” fatuously claim that British food is better than French. For an Australian who’d never been Paris, such a claim would be dismissed as ridiculous, just on reputation alone, even more so for an Australian whose experience of British cuisine was the pub-grub of north Hertfordshire. But for my part, as I had been to Paris, I could see that there was some credibility in the columnist’s claim. Unfortunately, France which, since at least the 50s has enjoyed a pre-eminent position in the culinary world, nowadays suffers from such a rash of mediocre restaurants that I can well imagine that around the world, everyday there are hordes of holidaymakers returning from France with a massive sense of disappointment at the much-vaunted “French cuisine” that they’d heard so much about.

A view of Paris from the Galerie des Chimères ...Image via Wikipedia
A beautiful view from atop the Cathédrale Notre-Dame 
de Paris, but I'm sure that there aren't any great
restaurants to be seen! Tourist hubs like the Île de la
Cité are no-go zones for good food and good service.
For Paris in particular, the world’s most visited city, with 45 million tourists a year, it is a particular problem, and having visited the city four times, I still can’t recommend a restaurant for my readers for a mind-blowing French-food experience. For that, I would urge readers to visit l’Alchemiste in Saumur in the Loire Valley, a place I never would have found were it not for the recommendation of my hosts when staying at Château de Verrières.
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Autumn in the Loire Valley

Image via Akseli Koskela
The town of Langeais
Image via Akseli Koskela
Leaf-fall outside the Château de Chenonceau
In October, before returning to Australia, Esther and I went on one last continental excursion from the UK. To a part of France we’d never seen before but wanted to visit. The Loire Valley - a region of vineyards, chateaux and an incredible river.

We stayed in a small boutique hotel in the town of Saumur. It’s a fantastic region, quintessentially French, and Autumn was a perfect time to visit as well. Approaching France, as always, from a literary-historic background, what first attracted me to the Anjou region was the knowledge that this was the homeland of the Angevin Kings of England. Henry II, King Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. This period in history was singularly important in English history, coming as it did, so shortly after the Norman Invasion and which saw the signing of the Magna Carta.

Image via Akseli Koskela
The Maze in the grounds of Château de Chenonceau
The first Angevin King, King Henry II of Anjou, who married Eleanor of Aquitaine, presided over a realm that extended from the border with Scotland in the North to the Pyrenees in the South, encompassing much more of France than the King of France, Louis VII actually controlled. The Angevin’s origins amongst the French nobility and historical ties to lands in France were to sow the seeds for the Hundred Years War two centuries later. This was also the period, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, that saw all those fantastic French loan-words enter English, words to do with Gouvernance, Justice and the Court, etc. Not to mention it being the most-romanticised period, a time of troubadours, chivalry, Robin Hood and England’s favourite King: Richard the Lionheart or Richard Coeur de Lion. So I was eager to visit that part of France where the Angevin influence began.

Image via Akseli Koskela
The Mairie of Chenonceau
But, as I found out, if you’d never read a history book before in your life. You’d still love this part of France. Unlike Provence which is also beautiful, the Loire seems quintessentially French in a way that happily reflects all of your preconceptions. That perfect table at a French cafe, sitting in the dappled sun of plane trees, which you’d hunted Paris up and down for, is in fact much more likely to be found in Tours. Travelling the high-speed rail-link that connects Nantes to Paris, you will come across the most delightful kind of towns, so quaint and picturesque, like the town of Chenonceau, with it’s few streets, Mairie, ecole and bistro, and surrounded by vineyards and woods.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Grape vines - laden with ripe fruit
Our hotel was likewise a fantastically clichéd chateau. It’s gothic dimensions actually intimidating at night. And the Saturday farmer’s market was really alive with all varieties of mushrooms, berries, fruits and vegetables. When buying a punnet of strawberries I asked whether they were grown locally:

« Qu’est-ce que le provenance de ceux-ci ? »
« Trente kilomètres. »

Image via Akseli Koskela
The Hôtel de Ville, Tours
Thirty kilometres! That’s local. One day, waiting for the train from Chenonceau, the vines heavy with grapes in the vineyard opposite almost tempted me to jump the ditch surrounding the vineyard and sample some. They did look delicious and fat from a bountiful and verdant land.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Picnic on the banks of the Cher: Château de Chenonceau
is visible in the background, whilst mushrooms arise from
the Autumnal earth in the foreground.
So with the vineyards, the local produce, the cute little towns with their municipal buildings and symbols of the Republic, as well the chateaux and the history, I couldn’t imagine a better place to visit.
Image via Akseli Koskela
The gothic lines of Château de Verrières come alive at night.
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The Battle of the Ashes

England v Australia 5th Day 2nd Ashes Test @ L...Image by 6tee-zeven via Flickr
England's victory in the last Ashes series in 2009
means they are defending the Ashes in Australia
this summer.
I find myself in the rare position of reading Australian newspaper commentators praying for rain ahead of day 5 of the second Ashes Test in Adelaide tomorrow. This has been a tough year for Australian sport.


Notwithstanding Ian Botham’s supreme confidence that this English side will be the first since 1986/87 to retain the Ashes on Australian soil, my own expectations were for another Australian victory. Australia got off to a good start too, with Peter Siddle’s Hat-trick and Brad Haddin and Mike Hussey’s three-ton partnership in Brisbane, I was able to rattle off a gloating email to some colleagues in the UK.

“Doesn’t this seem familiar?”

But I spoke too soon! England fought back with a determination I don’t remember seeing in an England squad in Australia. After England finally managed to dispatch first Haddin and then Hussey they pulled themselves together and dismissed the rest of the team for 481 - this was after having reached 5/450 at the height of the Haddin/Hussey partnership. Even as my emails were traversing cyber-space I was blithely ignoring the ample evidence of English resolve.

The next day proved un-ignorable. England’s opening batsmen Alistair Cook and Andrew Strauss together produced a century each. The day after, another two centuries, and only 1 wicket. Alistair Cook himself proved invincible to all the attacks of Australia’s bowlers. By the final day of the first test, far from thinking that this test was following a rather familiar pattern of the last two decades, I thought that England were being overly cautious in not putting Ponting’s men in to bat earlier and having a crack at winning the test.

Ricky Ponting at a training session at the Ade...Image via Wikipedia
Australian Captain Ricky Ponting has been feeling
the pressure in this Ashes series
So how did we get to this role-reversal? How did we get so far from the familiar the situation that I can recall from childhood, where if I went home to my older brother after losing a game in any sporting competition, my “did my best” defence was only met with jeers and comparisons with Mike Atherton, whereas now it seems like it’s the Australians who are full of excuses for their poor performance (some commentators, oblivious to what blind freddy could see, are claiming that the pitch has been the cause of these indomitable English batsmen).

Now this morning Australia are 4 for 238 and looking to the skies for rain to interrupt the game and save them from a defeat at the hands of the English.
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An Introduction to the Oud

Oud-cordierImage via Wikipedia
An Oud doesn't make use of frets.
The Oud is a stringed instrument similar to a European lute, but without frets. Unlike a guitar, an oud has a curved, bowl-shaped back. Between it’s fretless fingerboard and its resonant curved back, the oud is capable of sounds at once, frenetic, melodious and meditative.

According to Wikipedia the modern oud and the European lute both descend from a common ancestor.

The oud was most likely introduced to Western Europe by the Arabs who established the Umayyad Caliphate of Al-Andalus on the Iberian Peninsula in 711.… [The] royal houses of Al-Andalus … cultivated an environment that raised the level of oud playing to greater heights and boosted the popularity of the instrument. The most famous oud player of Al-Andalus was Ziryab. He established a music school in Córdoba, enhanced playing technique and added a fifth course to the instrument. The European version of this instrument came to be known as the lute – luth in French, Laute in German, liuto in Italian, luit in Dutch, laúd in Spanish, and alaúde in Portuguese. The word "luthier", meaning stringed instrument maker, is in turn derived from the French luth. Unlike the oud, the European lute utilizes frets (usually tied gut).

Wikipedia continues in relation to the the later evolution of the European lute:

“[An] important point of transfer of the lute from Arabian to European culture might have been in Sicily, where it was brought either by Byzantine or later by Saracen musicians. There were singer-lutenists at the court in Palermo following the Norman conquest of the island, and the lute is depicted extensively in the ceiling paintings in the Palermo’s royal Cappella Palatina, dedicated by the Norman King Roger II in 1140.

My first introduction to the oud came from the Egyptian-born Australian Joseph Tawadros, whose love of the oud has popularised the instrument amongst many an Australian who previously might never have heard of the instrument. Joseph Tawadros is a player and composer of the oud who plays with passion and whose music can jump from at once deliriously frenetic thrumming to the sudden sublime contemplative melodies one usually only associates with the violin.

Joseph Tawadros’ has recently collaborated with Jazz musicians Jack DeJohnette, John Abercrombie and John Patitucci as well as his younger brother James Tawadros for his latest album “The Hour of Seperation”. The title comes from a line in a poem from Kahlil Gibran that says “Love knows not it's depth until the hour of separation”.

The Hour of Seperation can be found at Amazon.com and on iTunes.



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MyPetpeeve

Sydney First Fleet Cataraman Ferry - Scarborou...Image via Wikipedia
The "Scarborough" - it's not actually my ferry!
Catching the ferry into the city on Friday I noticed something that’s becoming more and more ubiquitous and really bugs me. The use of the word “my” in advertising speak. As I went to the machine to buy my ferry ticket I was given four options on the touch-screen, I could buy “MyFerry ticket single”, “MyFerry concession single”, or “MyFerry” ticket or concession return. What on earth is the point of throwing the word “my” in front of “ferry ticket”? But this marketing is being used more and more, I checked previous train and bus tickets as well (these can live in my wallet for weeks before they’re all thrown-out in one big purge of accumulated wallet-junk!) and sure enough “MyBus” and “MyTrain”. As an aside, I also dislike the way that a space (“ ”) is omitted when the word “My” is tacked onto the name of a product. Back in my University days, I also remember having “My Student Log-in” and likewise working at the NSW Department of Education and Training I have to access “Our Intranet” through “My Portal” log-in page where I can access “My Applications”, “My Training”, “My Websites” and “My Profile”.

You may note that it seems government bodies are particular culprits in this type of language bastardisation (should that be a surprise?). But I first noticed the trend when working at “My Store Myer” back in my student days. Myer may well have begun the awful fad with their, “My fashion must-haves”, “my store for electrical” and “mystyle”, “mytoys”, “myhome” and “mychristmas” catch-phrases and catalogue titles. I’ve recently changed phone companies for my mobile phone and I’ve noticed that when checking my account balance with Optus my new phone provider a computerised voice will say to me in that stilting stop-start way that computers have when they mix and match different snippets of a prerecorded message:

Your Optus Prepaid balance is one hundred and thirty dollars. Which is made up of twenty-eight dollars worth of MyCredit and one hundred and two dollars worth of MyBonus.”

What do you mean my balance is made-up of twenty eight dollars of your credit? So whose credit is it then? Yours or mine? Surely it would just be simpler to drop the redundant “my” and tell me that I have $28 credit and $102 bonus.

Doesn’t this gratuitous use of the word “my” just grate on everyone’s nerves when they hear it? It’s ugly from a language point of view and I think it’s ugly from a societal point of view too.

Incorporating an unnecessary determiner (in this case “my”) into the proper nouns for different products and services, a determiner which is devoid of all meaning in its new home, is ugly from a language point of view because unlike adjectives, determiners (such as articles, the, a, etc.; demonstratives, these, those etc.) are meant to carry a specific contextual meaning which can differ in different sentences notwithstanding the fact that the determiner might be preceding the exact same object. For example is it you referring to the object or me? Is it one of a kind or one of many? Do you own it, do I own it or does someone else own it?

MX advertisement - Myer Spring Racing EveningImage by avlxyz via Flickr
An advertisement in the
publication mX for the department
store "Myer"
But I also think it is an ugly use of language because it reveals a “me, me, me” society. A society that glorifies in its own self-obsession and encourages a strident careerism and selfishness with no-regard to other people. It’s not “our” ferry, or “our Christmas” and it’s certainly not somebody else’s. With the possible exception of fragrances, which in a concession to the sanctity of marriage, or perhaps the sanctity of the designer couple, are labelled “his” and “hers”. The “his” and “hers” designation isn’t nearly so annoying, because generally, the fragrance labelled “his” will in fact belong to a “him” and the fragrance labelled “hers” will generally belong to a “her” - although it still creates confusion if it happens to be my “his” fragrance, or yours, or if it’s just “some” “his” fragrance, still sitting on the shelf in the department store.


“What cologne is that? I might take it.”
“That’s His?”
“Whose? Oh, sorry, if I knew it belonged to someone else I wouldn’t have taken it?”
“No, it’s His - that’s the name of the fragrance.”
“What?”
“It’s His by Calvin Klein.”
“Now that sentence has only one grammatically sensible meaning and it implies either two men achieving something which I’m certain is biologically impossible or that Calvin Klein is in fact a woman!”

But I’m getting side-tracked. The real point that I want to make is that this horrible trend of tacking a “my” onto the name of all sorts of products and services is ugly and stupid because despite the best efforts of advertising executives we’ll still have to recognise the sad fact that not everything in the world belongs to us. And thus, if we spoke as admen and marketing types would have us speak, then we’d be forced to add another determiner in front of theirs. Just so we know that it’s my MyPetpeeve and not your MyPetpeeve - if you have any MyPetpeeve that is, or if you were going to get some MyPetpeeve for your sister, even if she didn’t want any of the MyPetpeeve because then with our extra determiner we would be sure it was her MyPetpeeve and not think that everyone else was stealing what I thought was my pet peeve!
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Sculpture by the Sea 2010

Image via Akseli Koskela
From the 2008 Sculpture by the Sea :
Kozo Nishino's "Harmony with the Breeze"
Transfield Holdings Kinetic Art Prize winner
This weekend Esther and I finally got around to having a look at the annual “Sculpture by the Sea” sculpture exhibition between Bondi and Tamarama Beaches.

The event, which began in 1996, has been getting and better - with perhaps only 1 or 2 pieces of sculpture that looked like rubbish that hadn’t been cleaned-up. There were at least 3 that I found outstanding. Which for me seems incredible, a contemporary sculpture exhibition where the good pieces of art outnumber the cobbled-together pieces of rubbish. To be sure, there were a few sculptures that couldn’t help but elicit a silent “I could do better than that” in my head, but only 1 real stinker. Unfortunately I didn’t buy the exhibition catalogue so I can’t name and shame the artist for who contributed the plastic cups tied with string and dripping water, but if you went you’d remember who I’m referring to. The other sculpture that I didn’t like, actually looked like it might have taken quite a lot of effort, but unfortunately, the end-result looked like a suburban backyard where the kids hadn’t tidied-away their toys (I think this is a real risk that sculptors are running when they use either bright colours or plastic materials in an outdoor exhibition). Unfortunately I forgot to charge my camera beforehand as well, so no pictures - I'll try to see what I can find on the internet and put some links down the bottom.

My favourite artist, whose work is so distinctive you will immediately know it is his without having to refer to the catalogue, is Kaoru Matsumoto. He generally creates kinetic pieces that move in the wind, this year’s entrance was “Cycle 90º A Premonition of Wind III”. It was a sublime piece of art, which moved slowly yet unpredictably in the wind. I have no idea how Matsumoto must have figured out the centre of gravity of all the different moving parts to make its movements so counter-intuitive, but when you look at it, “gravity-defying” and “weightless” are the first words to enter your head, such is the effortlessness of the sculpture’s lazy movements in the sky. The best thing about Sculpture by the Sea, especially on a sunny day like Saturday was, is to lie on the grass and watch a sculpture like “Cycle 90º” against the slow-moving clouds. A great, shiny construction of polished stainless steel - moving in as if it were a part of nature. The other great thing about this work of art is that although it must be quite heavy and is made of steel, it moves completely silently and its polished surfaces are so seamlessly-perfect that it is very difficult to find where the actual moving parts are joined.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Moseholmian figures: "Project" by Danish
artist Keld Moseholm, on display during the
2008 Sculpture by the Sea
The $60,000 Balnaves Foundation Sculpture Prize however went to another artist whose work is equally distinctive. As I explained to Esther on the way to the exhibition:


“You know the guy who does the little fat men”
“Yeah”
“He won it this year”

Mirroring 1995” by Danish artist Keld Moseholm can be immediately recognised for its distinctively rotund Moseholmian bronze figures. It’s good to see Moseholm winning this year, because his little fat men have always been something to look forward to - especially if some of the other sculptures have been a little less than exciting.

Links:

Gary Hayes' photo of “Cycle 90º A Premonition of Wind III” on Flickr

Gary Hayes' photos of Sculpture by the Sea on Flickr

Designboom - some website that also has some photos of this year's Sculpture by the Sea

French is our heritage too!

Image via Akseli Koskela
Château de Langeais in France, once the home of King
Richard the Lion Heart, destroyed by the English in the
Hundred Years' War and rebuilt by Louis XI in 1465.
Last week I commented on why Australians flock to London in droves and about the cultural heritage that brings so many Australians to the British Isles. But, whilst Australians seem well able to appreciate the cultural significance of Britain, I feel that they don’t share the same enthusiasm for the country on the other side of the channel, which I think is equally as significant. My own contention as an English teacher, is that all speakers of English who actually take an interest in the language or have a love for the language should try to acquaint themselves with French. Because French makes up an important part of our heritage too - I think far more so than Latin or Greek - Samuel Johnson in the preface to his, the original English dictionary, explains that he preferred French spellings to Latin ones where the etymology was uncertain because as he put it “the French generally supplied us.” And when more than half of the words in the English language have either French or Latin origins that makes a big deal.

One thing that I noticed whilst travelling about in Europe is the line that you can draw across the continent dividing the two biggest cultural influences on almost every country, that is, the line between the Latin, and the Teutonic, and there exist a heap of cultural stereotypes and attitudes that seem to accompany the divide. (In terms of language Finland, Greece, Ireland and the Slavic countries all have very different languages, but if only in cultural stereotypes if in nothing else, they still seem to conform to their side of the dividing line). In Switzerland this line actually has a name: the Röstigraben or Rosti ditch after a popular form of mashed potatoes eaten in the German half of Switzerland. Maybe in other parts of Europe the demarcation isn’t so clear as in Switzerland, but you’ll know on which side you’re on when you sample the food in the North (or when you’re in Oslo and you have to barter one of your own limbs just to pay for the meal!). Or, likewise, you’ll know you’re in a Latin country when notwithstanding the tasty food your holiday experience is somewhat lessened when you have to learn to use your elbows to queue-up for a bus in Nîmes after your train has been inexplicably cancelled.

But I can’t help feeling that England and subsequently the United Kingdom occupy a bit of grey area. No-one would ever say that the UK is a Latin country - but at the same time, it’s not quite one-hundred-percent Northern either. The language itself is an odd mix, Germanic origins and an underlying Germanic grammar but with Latin words making-up more than half the vocabulary.

English stereotypes are likewise mixed: the English have somehow managed to acquire the dour puritan work ethic of Northern Europe without the famous German efficiency or Scandinavian inventiveness. Don’t think I’m just knocking the Brits either - Australians have a “she’ll be right” attitude to not doing a job properly without the joie de vivre or work-life balance of the Latin countries.

Hmmm, best of both worlds really.

But, actually these are just facile national stereotypes. The point that I really want to make is that too often the French heritage in English is forgotten. Whilst 20th century English writers like Thomas Hardy and J.R.R. Tolkien rejoiced in digging-up old English and Anglo-Saxon words, with their homely and honest connotations (consider Thomas Hardy’s “Hap”), only advertising executives and the worst types of academia have taken an interest in the French and Latin words in English.

Image via Akseli Koskela
Bordeaux, capital of Aquitaine,  was ruled by the King
of England for 300 years, or was it that for 300 years the
Kings of England were from Anjou or Aquitaine?
But there are fantastic words derived from French too. As well as almost all the words relating gouvernance and justice, also the words that have connotations that are Royal and Grand, there are Anglo-Saxon equivalents for these words but Kingly and Great take-on a whole new level of meaning when said in French. French gives us glorious words - like Glory, as well as the pompous like importune and impostor (and yes - pompous also came to Middle English via the Old French pompeux).

But I might leave you with a favourite for rich connotations and a lovely etymology: consider “journey” from journée as in bonne journée, it originally only meant a day’s travel or a day’s work but in English the word seems to have exemplified Bilbo’s attitude to a going out for the day - which says a lot about the English:

Remember what Bilbo used to say: It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.
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An Australian in England

Australian cricket batsman Bill Woodfull faces...Image via Wikipedia
The Fourth Test match between Australia and England in
Brisbane 1933 during the height of the "Bodyline" scandal.
I returned to Australia on Thursday. Which means I’m gonna have to change the name of my blog. But on the plus-side, I can throw-out my tie and slacks - you don’t need them in Australian schools! I’ll no longer be getting paid in monopoly money either (during the last Ashes series the Barmy Army could chant “we’re fat, we’re round, 3 dollars to the pound!” now the Great British Pound buys a mere $1.60 but English and Australian teachers are still getting paid the same as during the last Ashes series). The real biggie though is that I can finally enjoy the positive energy of that great big fusion-reactor that sits in the middle of our solar system seeing as it’s no longer perpetually covered by clouds.

(Ok maybe that last point was a bit unfair).

But, readers might wonder, if there’s so much going for Australia - then why did I, among so many other Australians - determine to move to live and work in merry ol’ England for 2010? And how do you explain the army of young Aussies that descend upon London, year after year, rain, hail or shine? (It’s mostly rain by the way) Why also, is there a near permanent population of just-off-the-boat Aussies in west London suburbs such as Earl’s Court, Acton Town and Shepherd’s Bush?

Image via Akseli Koskela
Thistles, Poppies and Hedgerows in a Hertfordshire field.
I’m not one hundred percent sure, but I think that most British don’t really get just how attached Aussies feel to the United Kingdom - notwithstanding that it’s quite literally on the other side of the world. I remember being really shocked fielding this question from one of my students during a detention this year:

“Sir? Do you have a King or Queen over in Australia?”

To which my response, “Yes, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the second.” Elicited some surprise.

“You mean, the Queen of England is also the Queen of Australia?”

But other than being mutual subjects of Her Majesty the Queen, which by the way, doesn’t actually get you through passport control faster than a citizen of the Republic of Estonia, a lot of Australian culture comes from the United Kingdom as well. Most Australian celebrities are also British celebrities, and sometimes won’t become famous in Australia until first “making it” in England. Think of the Kylie and Dannii Minogue, Peter André and Rolf Harris for example, who all live in the UK, and watching BBC Morning in London, one wouldn’t be particularly surprised to see actor Ray Meagher chatting on the couch about doing a West-End Show (ok, maybe I was a little surprised trying to picture “strike-me”, “flamin’”, “pack of galas” Alf in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”). But also most Australian intellectuals find themselves housed in London as well, if only to escape Australia’s oppressively ignorant “matey” culture: Germaine Greer for one, but also Barry Humphries and Geoffrey Robertson.

For me, the biggest tie to the British Isles was my upbringing in an essentially British, not just Anglo-Saxon, culture. Which may sound strange coming from a Finnish Australian, with a father born in the Keski-Suomi region of Finland and a Scottish mother who had few nice things to say about those “perfidious Albions”. Maybe it was Jo, Bessie and Fanny from Enid Blyton’s “Magic Faraway Tree”, or those Pevensie kids, or Badger, Rat, Mole and Toad of Toad Hall, but I think I have been imbibing English culture from before I was even old enough to know that I didn’t actually live in England.

Image via Akseli Koskela
A country path in southern England.
You can imagine then, the excitement that I got, notwithstanding that I was 21, when I first got to witness the marks on the window that were evidence of Jack Frost having been during the night - when I was growing-up Jack Frost was as elusive as the Sandman - who I’d try stay-up for but never catch! Or when I went on a tour of the Cotswolds and got to spot Gloucester - a place hitherto only associated with showers of rain and puddles able to swallow-up any passing Doctors. Or seeing, Foxes, or Hedgehogs, or hedgerows between fields, or aerial views of the country that had that “patchwork quilt” division of land. For an Australian, England is almost like Narnia, some fantasy-land that you’ve read and heard so much about but never seen (other than on the television) and for better or for worse THIS has become an integral part of Australia’s heritage, this: “This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle... this happy breed of men... this precious stone set in the silver sea... this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.
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The Fox at Willian

Willian. To the right, The Fox. To the left th...Image via Wikipedia
The Fox at Willian
This is a fantastic place for a Sunday lunch or an afternoon drink. It is in a tiny wee village called Willian in North Hertfordshire. A village according to Wikipedia with a population of 326, but if you look at it on Google Maps, you will notice that it has been so engulfed by the much newer town of Letchworth that it could almost be considered as just another of the estates that make up Letchworth. Except that unlike Letchworth Garden City which was founded in 1903, Willian is a timeless English town, with a mention in the Domesday book, and which still retains the feel of an old medieval village.

A medieval village that fills up with Aston Martins and BMWs on the weekend that is. Willian is on the pretty and scenic edge of Letchworth and not at all far from Letchworth Golf Course and Letchworth Hall Hotel, the Letchworth greenway and Wymondley wood. With gentle cows grazing in the field opposing the main pub “The Fox” it makes an idyllic spot for Sunday drivers and England’s “leisured classes”. Nevertheless, as well as boasting, two pubs, a church and a post office it also has an excellent deli “The Food Barn” which sells produce of a strictly local provenance, including a delicious Bedfordshire strawberry jam.

Image via Akseli Koskela
A Walk through the Garden City Greenway
There is a reason of course for Willian’s popularity with drivers of Aston Martins and that is that it is delightfully scenic. Especially Willian Pond when frozen over during winter time which I was lucky enough to witness when I first arrived in the UK this especially cold January and an image of which is one of the most popular post cards at Letchworth’s tourist information office (yes Letchworth actually has a tourist information office!).
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The Five Greatest Buildings in the World



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The Louvre city-facing side
Begun by French King Francis I, who returned from his campaigns in Italy with countless renaissance treasures which would later become the source of the Louvre’s impressive collection, the Louvre was also the site of one of the pivotal moments of the French revolution when the then adjoining Tuileries Palace was stormed by an angry and increasing confident Parisian working class. The Louvre is not just the greatest building in the world – it’s surely the greatest in the Universe! It’s gothic, it’s renaissance, it’s palatial opulence in the heart of Paris, but most of all it’s beautiful when beams of winter sunlight arc in from the south and animate its carved stone surfaces.

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The Louvre, Pavillion Sully, as seen from the Cour Carrée
I was lucky enough to witness this effect the first time I ever set eyes upon the Louvre on a frosty February day in 2005. And since then I’ve only had glimpses and reminders of that particular magic again. Note well: the effect isn’t the same in summer; the statues of France’s former heroes that sit atop the many pillars of its many arches lie dormant in the oppressive summer sun of August and September. Only under the perfect alignment of a crystal clear atmosphere, cool ambient temperature and a perfect arcing angle-of-incidence of the sun’s rays do the statues come alive and does the stone begin to breath with a life all of its own.


The principal building of the British Houses of Parliament the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Its spiky gothic towers and walls are just fantastic! It is gothic without being medieval and along with Big Ben it seems to somehow symbolise the exciting promise of a cosmopolitan big-city Europe as well as history and culture at the same time.

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The British Houses of Parliament
There was once an English King who had the audacity to march into the House of Commons and try to arrest some of its members by force – the example that was made of him was so resounding that I think it has had a tangible effect on the power of all kings everywhere since. Notwithstanding the fact that the English parliament has since then played a significant role in entrenching monarchical power from the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France, to setting-up the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia to backing the Shah in Iran.


Sydney Opera HouseImage via Wikipedia
The Sydney Opera House - with a surface like
"hammered silver"
Australia’s very own great building. Why do I think it fits amongst the top five? Notwithstanding that it is a modern building and I generally have a predilection for buildings which have withstood the test of time I still find this building remarkably beautiful. Basically it is a beautiful building in all three levels of zoom: proportions, details and textures. That is to say, when looked from afar, looked from a medium distance and looked at up close, it is always beautiful.

As its popularity on postcards and tourist brochures for Australia attests to, it is a building with stunningly beautiful proportions, I think because it perfectly balances symmetry and random variation as if it were a thing of nature. Each building or shell is beautifully symmetrical, yet they all are a little different in terms of size and orientation. The chevron pattern of the tiles on the outside of the building give just the bare minimum amount of detail to stop the enormous white shells that are the walls of each building from seeming bare and unnatural. Finally the walls are made from porcelain and not simply painted or rendered white. In creating the tiles for the walls, architect Jörn Utzon wanted something very specific: a tile that "had gloss but did not have a mirror effect. A tile with a coarse structure that resembled hammered silver." This “hammered silver” look is really what makes the building complete and makes it blend into the harbour which surrounds it as if it were of a piece with the water itself.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India - foto con reflejo en e...Image via Wikipedia
The Taj Mahal
Although you wouldn’t think it, I actually think this building is a winner for many of the same reasons as the Opera House mentioned above. It has extremely elegant proportions with the slender minarets complementing the bulk of the central building and is almost most beautiful when viewed from the other side of the river Yamuna that flows through Agra. In terms of details, the delicate marble lattice windows are beautiful enough to warrant this building’s inclusion in the list even if it was in the shape of a box and made out of concrete. And as for the texture of the materials, I think that not even great European cathedrals like Notre Dame in Paris and the Duomo in Florence with their incredible stone and marble masonry have been as painstakingly worked on as the inlaid marble of the Taj Mahal. In fact, it beats the Opera House on all three scores and I would probably put it second on the list were it not for one small but important facet of the building – it’s function.

Because great buildings are about people as much as anything else and whilst I do believe that there is a place for monuments to great events and even tombs to important people (whether that be important to just you and your family or the whole of humanity) this tomb seemed to me particularly dead. Walking up to the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal herself, I couldn’t help lose all attachment to the significance of the
building, crowded as I was amongst a throng of tourists, listening to them whistle more interested in hearing their own echoes than the memory of the person buried underneath. Because no-one respects or cares about Mumtaz Mahal anymore, the Taj Mahal is now more a tourist attraction than an important monument and I think that it is because of this disconnect between its original purpose and its present function that you can’t help feeling a little dejected upon finally reaching its centre – in fact I would advise you not to, it is better to simply appreciate it from the other side of the river and remember the former glory of the Mughal days. Because at the heart of this great monument lies an unfillable empty space.

5. The Chrysler Building

New Yorker Chrysler Building, oberer Gebäudete...Image via Wikipedia
The Chrysler Building
Burnished steel and elegant proportions – that’s why I nominate this building as the greatest skyscraper. It’s not the tallest and I think that there might exist some skyscrapers with even more elegant proportions (although none that I've ever seen), but the burnished steel cap on the top just makes this one a real gem! Steel is one of those fantastic materials that are just great. Great to look at, great to touch, great to think about because the very word has all sorts of great connotations about strength and solidity. I don’t know why some materials are simply more aesthetically pleasing than others – but it’s a fact, some just are: glass bottles although heavier and more expensive to produce are simply nicer than plastic ones, stone blocks always beat concrete, a beer that you’ve seen poured from a wooden barrel will taste nicer than one from a metal cask and no amount of concrete or render or paint can beat the polished shine of burnished steel.

Does this building deserve to be in the list? I really like skyscrapers and I think this is the best one, but does the number one skyscraper beat the third or fourth best castle or cathedral? Well, that’s the question.

Do you disagree with my definitive list? Please feel free to leave a comment - even if you're reading this blog weeks from when it was published, there's no such thing as necroposting on this blog as far as I'm concerned.

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