30 Jun 2011

Lost in Translation.

I recently became aware of how much of my waking time I spend thinking and writing in English, even though my native language is Flemish – the variety of Dutch that is spoken in Flanders, the North of Belgium.

I love languages, foreign ones as well as my own, with English as my absolute favourite. They were my favourite subjects at school, and I went on to study linguistics and literature in college.

EU-BelgiumBelgium is an interesting country to live in for a language enthusiast. It's tiny (about 30,000 square kilometres), has 11 million inhabitants and we have no less than three national languages:
  • Flemish (spoken by 59% of the population)
  • French (40%)
  • German (less than 1%)

On top of that, many people still speak one of the numerous local dialects, which can vary greatly even over a small distance.

Our country is located right in the centre of Western Europe and we're surrounded by countries with a distinct identity, culture, cuisine and language of their own: France, England, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg. Cities such as Paris, London, Amsterdam, Cologne, Bonn and Luxembourg are only a couple of hours away.

This means that, from an early age onwards, most of us come in regular contact with other languages, and – as Dutch isn't spoken widely in the world – we're quickly confronted with the need to learn a language other than our own.

I was raised in Flemish and our local dialect, learnt French and Latin in school, studied English and German at university and took 2 years of Spanish evening classes afterwards.

To me, the biggest benefit of speaking a foreign language is that it gives you access to other cultures in a way you would never get if you have to rely on other people to speak your tongue.

Using the local language – even if you're not fluent – is often perceived as a token of respect for local culture (and its people), and it allows for more personal and often more interesting connections and experiences.

An article I recently read reminded me of another benefit of knowing other languages: it gives access to more shades of meaning, partly through the typical 'untranslatable words' each language has.

Words like the magical Spanish 'duende', the subtle German 'Fingerspitzengefühl', the yearning Russian 'toska', the all-too-human Scottish 'tartle' or the tender Brazilian Portuguese 'cafuné' (see the article) have the power to evoke feelings and memories, to enrich our lives and our way of thinking.

We're diverse and fascinating creatures and our languages reflect that. With each new one we learn, we open up another piece of our universe – and possibly ourselves.

What's your favourite 'untranslatable' word? Which language(s) would you most like to learn?

Image 1: 'EU-Belgium.svg' - Wikimedia commons
Image 2: 'De liefde in het Duits-Nederlands woordenboek' by marie-ll, available under a creative commons license. © 2006, marie-ll.
Image 3: 'graceful intensity' by Kristy, available under a creative commons license. © 2004, Kristy.
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25 Jun 2011

Hedonist Hideouts: Huize Colette, Ghent.

For most of this month, I've been in the middle of exams. On the less stressful side, fortunately, but it's still a lot of work and not the kind that makes one overflow with creativity: grading exams and papers, assessing presentations and then juggling, checking and double-checking hundreds of marks.

On the bright side, this can be a good time to discover new and exciting corners of my home town, when I feel in need of mental as well as physical refuelling.

My most recent discovery is Huize Colette, a chocolate and book house my husband had recommended. He was sure I would love it. He was right.

A few days later, I grabbed my Kindle and took off for a much-needed break in our beautiful medieval city centre, where I found Huize Colette tucked away in the shadow of the town hall.

Huize Colette's ground floor looks like a cosy tea room, which is nice enough, but if you're 'that kind of person', you need to follow the row of books up the stairs and discover the first floor.

Upstairs, the 'chocolate and books' house consists of a landing and what I can only describe as the perfect living room: funky colours, comfy armchairs, lots of bookshelves and friendly people who bring you delicious hot chocolate.

I was so intensely happy when the chocolate turned out to be scrumptious. Underneath the hope, I had braced myself for grave disappointment, but it didn't happen.

When I arrived, I asked the young woman downstairs what she would recommend (always a good way to get a feel for the people behind the place), and after enquiring about my tastes in chocolate, she recommended the 'fondant' hot chocolate, which is the standard name here not just for a dessert but also for the dark, bitter chocolate that is still sufficiently sweet.

She said, if I still fancied a more bitter taste, I could try the 'bitter', which is the darkest hot chocolate drink they're serving.

I installed myself in one of the comfy chairs, took my Kindle, put my feet up and waited for the chocolate to arrive.

The 'fondant' was gorgeous: full of flavour while still creamy, and obviously made fresh. Quite a large mug as well, as you can see.

I also tried the 'bitter' afterwards, which I loved but is not to everyone's taste I'm sure. If you're into dark chocolate, starting off with the 'fondant' is definitely the right choice.

If for whatever reason you don't like chocolate, they also offer a wide range of coffees (including several 'with a kick'), teas, organic fruit juices and a few alcoholic drinks (no beer).

After about an hour and half in hedonist heaven I was more than ready to face the world again and I left Huize Colette in a state of nerve-tingling, chocolate-induced bliss, temporarily in love with the world.

The mood lasted just long enough to get home and grab the next batch of exam papers and my evil red pen, but hey - every minute spent well fuels your inner strength for the times you need it most.

I've already arranged to meet with a friend there next week, and I will drag along several others in the months to come. It's the perfect place for great conversation, as well as for quiet reading or writing.

Too bad it's not open at night, but if this means the ladies behind the business continue to enjoy it for many, many years and keep the place as cosy and authentic as it is now, I am happy they've made this decision.

Contact details:
Huize Colette
Belfortstraat 6
B-9000 GENT

Open Tuesday to Friday 9:00 - 19:00 and Saturday/Sunday 10:00 - 19:00.

What's your favourite hideout?
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21 Jun 2011

Favourite Book Challenge Blogfest and a Game of Tag.

To celebrate hitting 100 followers, fiction writer Teralyn Rose Pilgrim has organised the Favourite Book Challenge Blogfest, in which we were asked to pick our top 5 favourite books and write one line of what it is about and one line of why we liked it.

If you want to take part, you can still join in (until June 22nd).

I knew both parts of the challenge would be equally hard - there are so many books I love and I'm a woman of many words - which is why I simply had to take part. A challenge indeed!

My Favourite Books.

Patrick Süskind, Perfume.

- The story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a boy born with an extraordinary sense of smell and without a scent of his own, who - after being rejected by everyone close to him - starts to learn the art of creating perfumes and the overwhelming effect scents have on people.

- This novel took me to a whole new level of sensory awareness and made me pay much more attention to scents, flavours, colours, beauty and ugliness in the world around me.

A.S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance.

-  In this novel, two academics, each fascinated by a different Victorian poet, meet after one of them has found a mysterious letter that suggests their poets had a secret romance, and when they start investigating the past they get caught up in a complicated relationship of their own.

- I loved Byatt's clever writing, the poetic atmosphere, the depth of emotion and the intricate plot with which she wove together the past and the present.

Jim Butcher, Codex Alera series (beginning with: Furies of Calderon).

- This fantasy series recounts the adventures of Tavi, a young man who is born without magic in a world where citizens control elemental furies to do their bidding, and as a result he has to learn to rely on his intelligence to help save the realm from destruction by powerful enemies.

- I love the complex and consistent world and the unique, highly believable and fascinating characters the author has created. One of my favourite fantasy series so far.

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere.

- When Richard Mayhew finds an injured girl (named 'Door') on the streets in London, he discovers the existence of a dark, magical parallel world called 'London Below', and as he helps the girl, his old life disappears, forcing him to find his way back or lose his old self altogether - which might not be so bad.

- I liked the characters, the atmosphere and the clever way (and wordplay) with which the author entwines real-life London with this underground fantasy world.

Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking.

- Pippi Longstocking (or Pippi Langkous as it's called in Flemish) is a young girl with superhuman strength and a suitcase full of gold, who lives without parents but with a monkey and a horse, when she becomes friends with Tommy and Annika, the neighbour's children, with whom she has many adventures.

- This was my absolute favourite book as a child. I must have read it (and the sequels) at least 20 times and I never got tired of them. I loved Pippi's imagination, her chaotic lifestyle and most of all her attitude, especially towards grown-ups who abused their power by mistreating animals or looking down on defenceless others.

And Now For a Game of Tag!

Yesterday I was tagged by the wonderful Rosalind Adam of Rosalind Adam is writing in the rain.

I've decided to be - mildly - naughty and change the 'tagged' rules & questions, so here are my answers to the new, personalised set:

1. Link, upload, ... a picture that makes you laugh:

2. When was the last time you ate chocolate?

Yesterday. Oh wait, that just changed. I'm having some right now - the dark, Belgian kind. OmNomNom ...

3. If people had a theme song that started playing whenever they entered a room, which one would yours be and why (- if you want to share)?

Ooh, tough one! There are many, depending on the situation and the mood at hand, but if I had to pick one, I'd go for Tori Amos' Welcome to England.

4. Tag 3 blogger friends:

Tag, you're it! :-)
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18 Jun 2011

About Good Girls, Bad Girls and Why We Write.

A few days ago, I read Justine Musk's article '"Well-behaved women seldom make history": redefining what it means to be bad' on her website: Tribal Writer.

It deals with how our culture defines women, how women define themselves, the emphasis on desirability and attractiveness on the one hand, and traditional dictates of quiet, pleasant and unobtrusive behaviour on the other.

I don't agree with everything that is said, and I believe we sometimes confuse personality issues with women's issues, but the article is an interesting piece of writing, with insightful comments by both women and men. If you have some time, I would highly recommend reading it.

These past few days, much of what Justine and her readers wrote has been whirling around in my head. This is a topic close to my heart - and as it happens, to the title of my blog.

Ever since I started writing again, I've been confronted with this good girl / bad girl dichotomy on a daily basis. Writing makes it much harder to ignore or suppress parts of you that 'don't fit in', because it's exactly that wonderful source of 'self' we need to tap into to let our stories take root and to make our characters grow.

I was raised to be a Good Girl, yet trying to be one drained my energy for the bigger part of my life. Along the way I've discovered that I'll never be a Bad Girl either. I might not have many boundaries in my mind, but I keep my behaviour on a short lead, which is probably why I'm still alive and well.

This contrast fuels my writing and much of my life, and I've come to love it. It's hardly ever dull in the borderlands where a wild heart and an exacting mind co-exist.

In her article, Justine writes:
'I once said to someone, “I don’t know if I’m a good girl with a bad streak, or a bad girl with a good streak.” But I was being ironic. My real point was that, like any other woman (or man), I am both and neither.'
I think she hits the nail on the head there: women as well as men are complex and diverse creatures. We live on a planet and in communities that don't necessarily have our individual best interests at heart, and we try to get by and live meaningful lives - whatever that means for us individually.

In living our lives, we need to understand that culture - like statistics - focuses on large numbers and quantifiable majorities. As a result, social norms and widely held views will rarely reflect or respond to minorities' needs.

That does not mean we need to accept this, shrug and keep silent.

To the contrary - we need our role models, our Maya Angelous, our Isabel Allendes and our Margaret Atwoods. We need our Neil Gaimans and Amanda Palmers to fly their freak flags proudly. We need them, not so much to confront majorities with an alternative, but to show those who don't fit in the standard moulds it's okay to be who you are.

I couldn't help wondering if this is partly the reason why so many of us are drawn to being a writer, blogger, photographer, teacher or artist, or why we share our work, our thoughts or emotions on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, ...

I'm sure we first and foremost respond to a need within ourselves to create and to share with others. But could the driving force underneath our work be that we know first-hand what it feels like not to fit in?

Could that be the reason why we want to put our work out there – as beacons that might have given us strength, hope or courage at a given point in our own lives?

If that is the case, it only makes it more important that in our writing or whatever it is we do, we stay true to ourselves, with pride, dignity and confidence - an authentic, living, breathing tribute to our own uniqueness and to human diversity.

We are lucky. We have a voice, energy and an audience, be it big or small. That gives us great opportunities to show how within, underneath and on the side of mainstream culture there are other, valid ways to get by, to do well and to live meaningful, fulfilling and creative lives.

What makes you unique?

Photo 1: '365:299 Choices' by Jehane, available under a creative commons license. © 2008, Jehane.
Photo 2: '365:140 Fairy Liquid' by Jehane, available under a creative commons license. © 2007, Jehane.
(Check out her wonderful - and brave - photography project: 365 days (of me).
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13 Jun 2011

Lucky 13: Women Writers about Truth.

"There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth."
- Maya Angelou

"And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking."
- Audre Lorde

"With a secret like that, at some point the secret itself becomes irrelevant. The fact that you kept it does not."
- Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants)

"You can tell the deepest truths with the lies of fiction"
- Isabel Allende

"Why, if it was an illusion, not praise the catastrophe, whatever it was, that destroyed illusion and put truth in its place?"
- Virginia Woolf (A Room of One's Own)

"You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."
- Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird)

"The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." 
- Flannery O'Connor

"There are very few human beings who receive the truth, complete and staggering, by instant illumination. Most of them acquire it fragment by fragment, on a small scale, by successive developments, cellularly, like a laborious mosaic." 
- Anaïs Nin

"It must have been then that I began to lose faith in reasonable argument as the sole measure of truth." 
- Margaret Atwood (Bluebeard's Egg)

"There is no truth on this island of yours. Rather, there are as many truths as there are stars in the sky; and every one of them different."
- Juliet Marillier

"The truth is not for all men but only for those who seek it."
- Ayn Rand

"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken." 
- Jane Austen (Emma)

"A scientist can pretend that his work isn't himself, it's merely the impersonal truth. An artist can't hide behind the truth. He can't hide anywhere."
- Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia)

Photo 'how sweet it is to be loved by you' by eli santana, available under a creative commons license. © 2009, eli santana.
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12 Jun 2011

Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish.

I first saw the video of Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford University Commencement Address a couple of years ago, and since then I've watched it numerous times, especially when the demands of the more formal and bureaucratic aspects of modern life threaten to take over.

With about a month to go to my summer vacation, I really needed to watch the speech once more and I wanted to share the video with you in the process.

My favourite fragments:

'You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road, will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.'

'No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. [...] Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life.'

'Stay hungry, stay foolish.'
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9 Jun 2011

Favourite Book Challenge - Another Blogfest Coming Up.

The It's All Fun & Games Blogfest is barely over and I have already signed up for another one.

Historical fiction writer Teralyn Rose Pilgrim of A Writer's Journey is organising the Favourite Book Challenge Blogfest.

Between June 20 and 22 2011, participants will each pick their top 5 favourite books, describe in 1 line what each book is about, and in another line why they like it.

With a title and a challenge like that, how could I not take part?

I expect it will be a great opportunity to connect with other book lovers. As a bonus, it will be great practice to try and summarise the essence of a book in just one line.

If you want to join in, you can sign up at Teralyn's blog. I hope to see you there! :-)
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6 Jun 2011

It's All Fun & Games.

Last Friday, L.G. Smith of Bards and Prophets mentioned Alex J. Cavanaugh's 'It's all fun & games' blogfest, which sounded like an opportunity I couldn't pass up.

Alex' idea was to list our 3 favourite games (board games, card games, RPG, video games, physical games, drinking games - even mind games!) and why.

In my day job I teach applied psychology and game design to budding game developers, so you can see why this blogfest caught my eye.

I had expected this post to be easy, but narrowing down my list to only 3 games turned out to be quite a challenge. I have a number of board games I really like - like Samurai - but in the end I narrowed down my selection to just computer games, because overall they've been more important in my life.

1. Planetarion

Planetarion is a browser-based MMOG (massively multiplayer online game), which I started playing shortly after its release, when a couple of my students alerted me to its existence.

The game is set in a Science Fiction world, where each player owns a planet and has to mine nearby asteroids for resources. In between scanning for asteroids, you build a fleet to defend your home base or attack other players and steal their asteroids. In short: it's all about space battles!

Planetarion was the first online game of this type and scale I encountered, and I played it like a maniac. I hardly ever slept more than 4 hours a night, and I worried more about my planet's well-being than my own.

I remember seeing coffee mugs for sale with texts like: 'Not now. My planet is under attack.' or 'I need to cancel this meeting; I've got incoming.' I could relate ...

I was most fascinated by the social and communication side of the game, the alliance politics and the negotiations, but I also loved organising alliance battles and calculating the defences needed to stand up against an attack.

However, after playing Planetarion for about a year, I needed to get my life back, so I quit the game and promised myself never to play anything like it again.

2. Diablo II

Diablo II is - or better, was - a popular computer game, in which you played a character that ventured through a dark fantasy world.

In the original game you could choose to impersonate an Amazon, Barbarian, Necromancer, Paladin or Sorceress; in the expansion, 'Lord of Destruction', an Assassin and Druid were added to your character choices. I preferred both Amazon and Sorceress.

As your hero ventured through the world, he or she had to chop up (or blast away) monsters in order to find armour, weapons and magical items.

What I most liked about Diablo II was its story line, atmosphere and the overall feeling of empowerment while playing. The game presented its players with tough challenges and - especially in the dungeons - we needed to proceed with an interesting mix of caution, courage and stubborn determination, which felt every bit as real as emotions in the outside world.

3. Everquest

Everquest was the game I broke my post-Planetarion promise for. I had managed to stay away from massively multiplayer online games, so when one of my best friends at the time - now my husband - recommended it to me as a 'game I would like', I knew he was right, so I tried to stay away. Tried.

After a few months I gave in when another friend showed me the game's website where I could read up on the different races and classes that populated the world. Once I had discovered 'the Enchanter', I was hooked.

So I made a Dark Elf Enchanter, called her Triksi (after my Diablo II sorceress who'd been called Trixi) and took my first tentative steps into the world of Norrath.

I spent every free moment playing, levelled up in no time, joined a guild and in a matter of months I got to the level I needed to join the higher-end guild my friend was in: Xanadu.

In Everquest I discovered that I am not a casual gamer - and never will be. When I like a game, I need to give it my all. If I can't do that, I'd rather not play at all. Come to think of it, that's true for most aspects of my life.

I played Everquest for about 3 years and my character ended up as one of the top 5 enchanters on the PVP server. (PVP = player-versus-player, i.e. a server where players can attack other players as well, not just computer-generated monsters.)

When I could no longer play the game the way I wanted to, I quit, once more promising myself never to play anything like it again.

So far I have managed to keep that promise. It's been easy, really, because once I had more free time and a more relaxed mind, I realised how much I missed writing, and how it's even more rewarding to create my own worlds and story lines.

Which are your favourite games?

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4 Jun 2011

Stop Motion: Her Morning Elegance.

I have written about stop motion before. It's a video / animation technique I really like, especially when it's applied in new and original ways.

One of the most impressive stop-motion videos I've ever seen is Oren Lavie's music video 'Her Morning Elegance', which has received several awards and has been nominated for a Grammy.

The video consists of 2096 still images, played as a sequence to give the illusion of motion.

It's so well done, and I love the song and its lyrics - but I'll let you judge for yourself:

If you want to know more about how they made this video, have a look at the 'making of' and the photo gallery on the project's website. You can also order photographs from the video.
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2 Jun 2011

Books in the Closet.

© Sarah @ Thrifty Decor Chick

I recently came across a gorgeous decorating project I just had to share.

Last month, Sarah at Thrifty Decor Chick turned a fitted wardrobe into a fabulous book nook.

© Sarah @ Thrifty Decor Chick
I love nooks. As a student, one of the rooms I rented had a large cupboard-under-the-stairs with a sloping ceiling and painted bright red on the inside.

First thing after I moved in, I lugged my bed in there and turned the space into a cosy miniature bedroom.

The bed barely fit and it took great agility to get in and out every day, but that only added to the fun. Really.

Still, charming as it may have been, my improvised bed nook was nowhere near as beautiful as this book nook.

What a clever and creative use of space. I think this will soon be everyone's favourite part of the house, kids and adults alike.

On her website, Sarah tells us all about how she made the nook and she shares plenty of gorgeous photographs. She even posted a detailed how-to of the entire process, in case you feel inspired.

Thanks, Sarah, for sharing this wonderful idea and letting me use your pictures!
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