Thursday, 31 May 2012


It's the Diamond Jubilee weekend... Huzzah, or a big pile of crap?  Well, many people in my Twitter timeline (lefty, liberal types) are republicans - either mildly or quite outspokenly so.  Below is the reworking of a blog I did for another site at the time of the Royal Wedding in April, which sets out some of my thoughts.
The Jubilee Weekend

Just as with the Royal Wedding (which I didn't watch), I personally genuinely couldn't care too much about the Jubilee.  I've nothing planned.  I am aware of the historic significance: I still see Diamond Jubilee plaques etc from 1897: this is a big event in terms of our country - I've put bunting up on my cottage more for a more of camp fun than anything else.

£1 from the cheapo store in Diss: bargain!

I am amazed, though, how many people (off Twitter) did love the Royal Wedding and how many people look like they will be celebrating this weekend.  Good for them.  Many irrational things in life give us pleasure: some people enjoy the environmental disaster that is Formula 1: I couldn't think of anything more boring.  If Eurovision is a reason to bring your friends together and have a massive once a year celebration listening to people singing utter trash, enjoy it.  I don't begrudge people having street parties or whatever else they're doing for the Jubilee: have fun.
The Hereditary Principle is Offensive
Argh!’ scream the ranks of republicans, however: the Monarchy isn't harmless.  It's illogical. It's patriarchal. It's about privilege.  It is based on the hereditary principle, and worse still, it derives from the Divine Right. It has no place in a modern democracy.  Yes.  I agree on all of these except the first.  No one would sit down and come up with this system.  There is little to defend it from a modern, rational, purely democratic viewpoint.  It is a product of evolution, accident and history - as are most things in our world. 
In a country that does not have 100% inheritance tax, a far from properly progressive income tax system, and private education, there is no question that people are born into positions of power, opportunity and privilege that will be reinforced during their childhoods.  The Royals are the most obvious high-profile example of this, but they are by no means the only "offenders".   There are plenty of undeserving people who inherit privilege and give an awful lot less back to society than (at least the core of) the Royal family with their public and charitable duties. 
We are all the products, to some extent, of the accident of our births.  This can be very unfair and I believe in society working towards reducing the effects of this.  Do I believe, however, that "getting rid of the Windsors" would in any way make a meaningful, practical difference to social mobility and opportunity in this country?  Absolutely not.  It would be highly symbolic, but I really cannot see how anyone could argue that the population is more socially mobile in two comparable countries such as Finland and Sweden, just because one is a republic and one is a monarchy.  It would not rid us of our class system, and do nothing to improve social opportunity, other than giving one person out of 60 million the opportunity to be voted in as president for one of more terms.
Prince Carl Philip: royally keeping Sweden's gays in eye candy
This is of course brings us to the uncomfortable point, for Republicans, that some of the most successful countries in the world in human development terms are monarchies.  Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are modern social democracies with Kings or Queens (7 of the top 10 "most developed nations" are in fact monarchies).  I would infinitely rather live in them, than countless republics I could name (Russia, Brazil, China, Democratic Republic of Congo etc...).  
Being a republic does not cure all ills, nor of course does being a monarchy solve them (Bahrain is a particularly vile example of a monarchy: there are others).  The reality is that there are numerous other factors: the constitutional arrangements regarding who is head of state frequently has absolutely no bearing on matters whatsoever.

A Dignified Figurehead
There are of course very real practical advantages to a having someone such as our Queen as head of state, over an elected or appointed president.  I believe that the Queen has, in the past 60 years, provided this country with a dignified figurehead, who has shown herself to be completely above party politics.  The monarchy provides stability, continuum, a focus.  The Queen (and indeed the Prince of Wales) are respected around the world and represent our country phenomenally well. Ask people whom they associate with the United Kingdom and the Queen will be pretty high up the list.  
Even when the President of the US greets the Queen, you know he is a passing figure: she will remain. She represents us powerfully and with dignity: no president of a country of 60 million could pack the punch that she does.
The 11th US President during her reign: she has personally met 10
There are few people I would want to see in practical terms as our Head of State.  What are the alternatives: an elected president with political power: a President Sarkozy or President Cameron? An ex-politician such as a President Major or Blair?  Or a grey figurehead president (no matter how worthy) that no one has heard of abroad: a Joachim Gauck or Micheline Calmy-Rey? Who? Exactly.

A Costly Institution

I'm not too sure that people are aware of the fact that George III entered into a rather bad deal (for the monarchy) upon his accession.  He surrendered income from the Crown Estates to parliament in return for a payment known as the "civil list".  This has proven to be a phenomenally good deal for "us" in the 250 years since then.  We, the tax payers, support the monarchy and in return the state controls a property portfolio of over £7 billion, with an annual profit of around £250 million.  
The latest figures I can find suggest the monarchy as a whole cost us £38.2 million in 2009/10 (click for link).  The cost of the UK monarchy was therefore around 63p, per person, per year.  This is a literally a drop in the ocean in terms of state expenditure.  When you consider the deal with the £250 million profit from the Crown Estates, another, even more positive picture emerges.
Don’t of course pretend presidents do not cost money too: perhaps not as much if they are symbolic figureheads with a lesser public profile, but they are still far from free to the taxpayer.  The "costly institution" argument of Republicans seems to hold little water from what I can tell.


The tourism argument goes both ways.  Monarchists claim the Queen brings people to Britain.  Republicans point out that just as many people visit Paris as London.  I don't know if there's proper research on this, but it seems to me quite obvious that people will visit wherever they want, regardless of whether there is a monarch there or not.  I don't avoid Rome because they got rid of the Savoys, and I don't visit Copenhagen expecting to bump into Queen Margrethe. 
The last Emperor and Empress of Austria
What I will say, though, is that when you visit somewhere like the Hofburg in Vienna you visit an empty, soulless, uninhabited place.  On a purely emotional level the whole magic has gone.  This was the home of the most powerful family in Europe for centuries: the seat of the Holy Roman Emperors.  No, of course they shouldn't be exercising political power in 2012, but there is something sad, crushing and depressing about the tacky "Empress Sisi" chocolates and Made in China souvenir watches on sale in the palace and the millions of visitors filing through.  
The grandson of the last Emperor, HIRH Karl, Archduke of Austria, worked as a TV game show host during the 1980s (incidentally at the same time Nazi officer Kurt Waldheim, with his alleged SS connections, was President of the Austrian Republic).  Is this something Austrians as a nation are proud of?  I wouldn't be.
The Harm Test
I've accepted few people would devise a system of monarchy in 2012.  Like many things in life, however, no matter how flawed it might be in theory, it really does work in practice.  
There is an obvious trap in mixing up the personality of any of them with the way the institution functions: you might of course not like any of the Windsors as individuals, but that is not a convincing an argument for making a long-lasting change to the whole 1500 year old institution.  

Given the British Monarchy has been around for so long, I would suggest we really do need to apply a "does it cause actual harm" test in considering removing it, as well as the obvious "how to replace it" question.  I genuinely cannot see the practical argument for instituting massive, fundamental constitutional change and abolishing the Monarchy.  With its almost total absence of practical political power, it harms no one in practice.  Nor can I see a good alternative.  
There really are many, many changes I would like to see take place in our society.  I think they deserve our efforts far more than what I see as a sixth-form style dogmatic position of "attacking" the Monarchy from a purely theoretical stance.  

Magical, beautiful - and completely soulless, empty Schönbrunn
It's Only When It's Gone
I frequently visit the empty palaces of Versailles, Schönbrunn and Potsdam because of my part time job leading educational tours around Europe.  I grew up in the Federal Republic of Germany.  Having grown up with direct experience of both countries, I can really say it's sometimes only when you’ve lost something that you truly appreciate its worth.  
I think I'm what you would term a "Lazy Monarchist" - I'm not all rah, rah, rah about it... but I do support it, and I do wish you a Happy Diamond Jubilee if you are celebrating it.  
If however you're a strident Republican and are going to sit around and be all miserable all weekend, here's a thought to cheer you up >  It's only ten years until the Platinum Jubilee....  Just *think* how big that one is going to be :-)


I'm sure that a lot of you who've been here will get this picture, though maybe you'll find it as surprising as I did to see that it's a big huge Icelandair 757 buzzing the city center and not just a Fokker from Flugfélagið or a private jet that is coming in for a landing at the domestic airport which, of course, we're all used to.

I don't know if there was any specific reason why it landed in town instead of out at Keflavík, but don't be surprised when you visit if you hear the sound of an incoming plane. You might even make it a game to see if you can get an awesome belly shot as it zooms past overhead!*

*The best location for this is out at Hljómskálagarðinn by the town lake (link is to a photo and post by Professor Batty.) Oh, and here you can watch a live cam feed of Tjörnin, the town lake : ) 

Modesto's 50% lunch deal

I recently tried Modestos for the first time, eventhough that restaurant has been around for ages. I always thought it was a overpriced restaurant. I was walking towards KLCC from jalan p. Ramlee when I happened to pass by Modestos. There was a sign saying it was 50% off for lunch on weekdays for pastas and pizzas only. Why not take up the chance to try....

Try I did and with no regrets. I was with my mum. We had smoked salmon pizza and a plate of spaghetti (i forgt the name).

The spaghetti was good. It came with a generous portion of lala. We also had tiramisu for dessert. Mum said it was reallu good,

We were also served a complimentary appetizer. Cheese crisps with a dip. Delicious!

Anyway, the whole point of this post is to rave about the smoked salmon pizza!!!! I have never heard of a salmon pizza before and here they have it. I love salmon. I should have tried to make salmon pizza in Glasgow.

At first I had doubts about ordering the smoked salmon pizza because I was afraid that Modestos would just put a few measly slices of smoked salmon in it. I mean, there are so many restaurants serving seafood that overprice their food but not giving a satisfying amount of the main ingredient.

When the pizza came, I was amazed at all the orange coloured salmon on it... It was also topped with really good cheese. The gooey kind of cheese. The pizza was not that oily too which was an added plus point. I loved it so much. I swear I can finish the entire pizza myself. The size of the pizza was the same as a large order of a pizza from pizza hut. It has a thin crust. It was really good that I crave for it a lot and I will make a second or third visit even without the discount!

Wednesday, 30 May 2012


To stave off any claustrophobia the last few posts might elicit, here's the big blue sea, with the Smoke City skyline in the distance.

I went on my first whale watching excursion last week, just as the weather was finally deciding to favor us with some spring sunshine. It was a group charter affair coordinated by Tækniskólinn as a fine sendoff for employees at the end of the school year. There were at least a hundred of us partaking in the bright sunshine and excellent catered surf and turf dinner on an Elding boat co-skippered by a guy named Vilhjálmur whom I just happen to know.

Oddly, the Elding diary claims that the 17:00 tour on the day we went out "has been cancelled due to strong winds out in the bay." We left at 17:15, and yes it was definitely windy! I wonder, though, if the fact that amongst our group were the very men who run the School of Navigation (located at our sister campus on Háteigsveig just next door to this lovely church many of you will recognize) had anything to do with us setting off onto the High Seas of Faxaflói regardless of any bothersome southerly gusts. These teachers of the oceanic arts most probably taught the captain, and definitely Vilhjálmur, who studied skipstjórn and graduated in 2011.

The tower of the Stýrimannaskólinn building was long used as the main guide for ships coming to port in Reykjavík, but as Haukur Gunnarsson, below, pointed out to me, this still-empty pre-crash  steel and glass wonder now blocks the view (see the skyline photo for proof.)

Some of us, including Haukur who teaches among other things Aviation English, chose to ride the waves adventure-style: standing on a bench on the top deck, holding onto a pole for balance. There's no doubt that we had way more fun up there getting all sea-salty than some of our poor slightly greenish-looking cohorts who chose to suffer it out below deck. And we even spied a few pods of dolphin to boot!

Moral of the story? Take a boat ride when you're here. Pack your foul weather gear and find a bit of railing to lean into. Let the ocean sprays wake you and make you feel like an old-style viking for a little bit. As you sail west, out of the bay, pretend you are on your way to mythical Greenland, just out of sight over the horizon, and possibly lands beyond. And keep your eyes open for creatures of the sea, who may put on a show that you can imagine is only just for you.

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out : )

J. Co's donut

Sinful yet delicious and deeply satisfying due to the oozing chocolate from the inside.

Name of donut: Coco Loco

It was free!!

Mum gave a thumbs up to J. Co's hot cappocino, while I give two thumbs down to their ice chocolate.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Frontera, Jaya One

I have been yearning to try Frontera's super spicy buffalo wings which has managed to make grown men weep with just one bite. Well, at least that was what I read from blogs.

One plate of 5 pieces of super spicy buffalo wings was ordered. I took one bite, two bites, three bites.... NO TEARS! It was not even spicy to begin with.... It just had a bitter tangy flavour. It tasted like fried buffalo wings coated with tobasco sauce....... So dissapointed. Eat sambal from nasi lemak have more spicy kick than this so-called super spicy wings. Maybe it was spicy many many years ago, but they toned it down coz not many men wanna cry while eating right???

Besides buffalo wings, I visited two new malls - SS Two mall and Paradigm Mall in Kelana Jaya. Eventhough SS Two mall opened earlier than Paradigm Mall, but SS Two was soooooooo empty.... Currently there has been residential malls booming in KL, which is good :)

Monday, 28 May 2012


(I'd like to remind readers to use the search box at the top left corner, in the Blogger toolbar. I've covered literally thousands of topics in the past eight years and there's a good chance I've covered the ones you're interested in! If not, drop a comment and let me know ;)

Þjóðleikhúsið, or the National Theater of Iceland, is quite a beautiful building, and it's always a pleasure going to see shows there. My wonderful mother Ásthildur gave Valentína and I tickets to go see Les Misérable there a few weeks ago and yes I cried at the end (and somewhere in the middle too, maybe?) It was an almost full house for a show that's been running since the beginning of March and has dates set at least through June. This shot is of the main stage just before the second act, when patrons were just beginning to meander back in.

It can be a bit weird attempting to suspend disbelief when watching the same people you bump into at Bónus (as well as at your kids' schools, the gas station, the pub, children's birthday parties...basically everywhere) pour their hearts out in character on stage (and there is a lot of dramatic pouring out of hearts in Icelandic theater!) but I guess it is a bit cosy as well.

This is not an easy musical to sing, so I actually found myself feeling proud of our talented and dedicated locals who obviously pushed themselves to new heights to bring this classic to the Icelandic stage. This talent of course includes not only actors, but set, lighting and sound designers as well!

I had no idea that there was a thing called the Theater Museum of Iceland, but maybe it's because they have no permanent exhibition space as is. Their web site, though, is rich in local theater history (that's actually what I wrote my BA in Theater Arts thesis on while at UCSC, where my lovely niece Mekkin Roff is now studying, and actually performing/teching in their annual Chautauqua Festival :)

If you are into the arts and get a chance to see a production, especially one where the language barrier won't affect you so much (a musical, opera or play you've seen/read in English) I recommend going in for an evening's experience - for such a small country, Icelanders almost always succeed in producing theater on an international scale.

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out.

Friday, 25 May 2012


A mother and her daughter exit a gate on a rainy May day at Óðinn's preschool, Grænaborg. He graduated yesterday in an official ceremony, complete with being called up to receive a diploma and rose, and to shake hands with the wonderful people who have been caring for him daytimes for the past four years. They're like family, and the safety and security of such a small school will be much missed.

But we grow and get older and change happens in our lives whether we like it or not. For a kid who just turned six this transition - from a cozy preschool campus to Austurbæjarskóli with its rich 82-year history, hundreds of students (many with families who have recently immigrated here) and geothermally-heated indoor swimming pool - is a huge deal. Never mind that the two schools are less than quarter mile apart, on either side of Hallgrímskirkja. This is as dramatic as an intercontinental relocation!

His father and I considered private schools, but ultimately I'm really glad that our boy will be attending an urban campus only yards away from our home, that encourages multicultural education without that drive to total assimilation into Icelandic society that has been such pressing and often destructive force here. (I often tell people that even though I am a 'pure-bred' I still choose to speak Business American on the phone when dealing with companies or banks or anything money related -- basically when people only hear me with my accent I seem to get much worse service! If I show up in person, though, and speak my Icelandic [which is admittedly a totally unique language ;] all is fine: I look Icelandic [whatever that means these days!] and am forgiven my less-than-perfect conjugations. *Not cool!*)

When Iceland opened itself up in the 80's to becoming an active part of the global capitalist conversation, allowing an influx of foreign goods and services to dilute the cultural 'purity' and isolationism of the previous centuries, it effectively gave up the ability to control the rampant growth and often destructive effects of consumerism. The foreign-born talent and labor that has followed in the wake of globalization, and especially the children of these immigrants, simply cannot be denied the same opportunities and rights as the 'pure-breds' whose ancestors have clung to this lava rock for over a millennia now.  A human is a human is a human, and we're all in this Life on Earth thing together. I'm happy that Óðinn will continue to get the chance to meet kids from all over the world at school, and grow from that experience : )

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

If These Walls Could Talk

A Wonderful Movie

There was a brilliant HBO movie made back in 2000 called "If These Walls Could Talk (2)".  It starred Vanessa Redgrave, Michelle Williams, Chloë Sevigny, Sharon Stone and Ellen DeGeneres (quite the cast for a TV movie).  

The basic idea was there was the story of the same house that had 3 sets of lesbian couples living in it: in 1961, in 1972 and 2000.  The first story is very bitter-sweet: the couple lives in secrecy and when one of them dies, the other has to move out.  By the 70s the story is much more about a "burn your bra" fiery brand of confident feminist lesbian identity.  In 2000 the perfectly "regular" lesbian couple's main concern is having a child together.

It is a beautiful film that I remember watching in Bermuda where I was living at the time.  My parents were visiting, so I went to watch it at a friend's.  I was mildly scandalised when I later found out my (then) 60 year old Mutti had pretended to go to bed, and had got up to watch it herself after I'd left.  I thought a lesbian theme was just a bit too grown-up for her.

ANYWAY the house is a character in the movie.  This is a wonderful thing: the idea that the walls are a silent observer of the lives and changing times of the people who dwell inside.  I have often lain in bed of my home thinking about those who have been here too before.

A Little Bit About My Home

My little thatched cottage dates from before 1450.  I bought it in a terrible state in 2002.  I had to renew essentially everything in it, clear the almost 2m high nettles from the wasteland that was the garden, re-ridge the thatch and gut the interior.  I had a pair of hippy historic builders (who between copious "cigarette" breaks) would tell me about the cottage and what they were finding out as they worked on it.
My Little Home

The first thing was that it was built with no foundations, sitting on the earth, with a dirt floor, and originally it had only one level.  It has a timber frame, and the walls are made of "wattle and daub" (clay and interwoven sticks).  The whole house leans over at the back by a good 20cm after it "settled" once built.

The cottage has a high pitched roof to allow the water to run off the thatch (the pitch is always far steeper than on a tiled roof) - but also to allow smoke to rise from an open fire in the dirt floor.  This fire would have provided heat, light and cooking for the inhabitants.  In the loft space is a triangular structure which would have been covered in an animal skin, and pulled to one side to allow the smoke to escape.  This is what dates the house to pre-1450: after that date it would have had a brick chimney as they "made it" to this area around then apparently.

THINK ABOUT THAT!!!  This is almost like living in a wigwam.  Images of Monty Python come to my mind.  We have no idea exactly how old the place is: it could be 1200, it could be 1300.  The little town itself goes back to Norman times.

Around the mid 16th century a Tudor chimney was added: this is easily identified from the brick used.  An upstairs level was also put in: there are 30cm wide oak timbers upstairs that look like ship's planks.  Because the house was only supposed to be one level, I effectively sleep up in the roof.  You can see from this picture that the bedroom window is at knee height.  The headroom downstairs is only just over 6' (I'm just taller than that), but upstairs it's a bit more.

My bedroom: note how the roof slopes down

It is a one bedroom cottage. It's tiny.  I live here on my own with the mutt, Oscar, and we have just enough space to be comfy.  Downstairs is an entrance hall, a sitting room, and a kitchen.  A door leads to a steep little flight of stairs and the upstairs where there is the bedroom and an en-suite.  I wanted it to feel like a hotel as I like them so much.  It has everything I require for a very comfy existence.

This is the warmest, cosiest home I've ever lived in.  There was some research done on Medieval and Tudor houses, and the fact they have better insulation values than modern houses.  The problem came when the Georgians and Victorians shoved in big windows to let light in and the heat just escaped.  A set of eco-glass secondary double glazing has sorted that problem out for me: my annual energy bills are tiny.

Hunger, Famine and History

This place is big enough for me and my needs: I wouldn't want some huge home that I don't need.  However, when I think about the "walls that talk" I think about the large families that would have lived here.  I have my concerns: we all do.  People would have lived here in this same house with the realities of infant mortality, hunger, plague and famine, however.

This was a poor workers' cottage.  Apparently the town was a centre of the spinning industry in the 19th century: before that it was probably agricultural workers: peasants in effect.  I sit here drinking lovely wine watching a DVD in the same space where babies would have cried, parents would have been unable to feed all their kids properly and life expectancy was brutally short.  This isn't me being poetic: it is the reality for the majority of the cottage's existence.  Someone who lived here previously told me that even up until 1980 there was a shared loo in the shed out the back for the 3 cottages in the row.  Nowadays I have a little "designer" garden there.  I'm quite aware of how good I have it.

Back Garden (hardwood chipping: no mowing!)

Then there are the historic events.  If this place was built in (say) 1420, it would already have been old when Columbus set sail for the New World.  It would have been over 160 when beacons were lit along the coast warning of the arrival of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  At over 200 years old the Cavaliers would have been meeting the Roundheads, tearing the country apart in Civil War.  At 245 years old, the Plague would have hit distant London: now just a 90 minute train ride away.  When Queen Victoria ascended the throne my cottage was almost 420 years old.  When the first car drove past my home, it had probably already had 480 years of people living in it.  The Luftwaffe dropped a solitary bomb on our town in the summer of 1940: my cottage had been standing for 520 years.  Pill boxes were being built all over East Anglia; the bells in the local church were silent, awaiting to ring out that the Germans had landed.  When I moved in this home was 580 years old: if it does date from 1420 it will be coming up to its 600th birthday soon.

Isn't this mind-blowing? I'm in awe of it.  How many souls have lived here?  I can't even imagine what they must have looked like, what their names were, what joy, love, upset and sadness must have been felt here.  "If these walks could talk".

Some Photos

My home isn't some design masterpiece, but it is a cute little place.  I've put some more pictures below showing some of the aspects.  I'm very proud of having "saved" the place and put some love and care back into it. 

Front door with Lion Knocker. RAWR: Come Inside!

Sitting Room with view to Kitchen

Kitchen: scene of many a culinary crime

Sitting Room. Giant Rat on Sofa

A strict "no pets on furniture" policy applies here

Dining Niche (with sleepy Rat)

Me tweeting. Usual position, feet up.

Secret Staircase! Lovely old door

Landing: stunning old timbers. Note floor planks!

View from Bed: fabulous old Tudor chimney

Bathroom Door: Little Boys' Room

Bathroom. Spend way too long in here

Bathroom Window View. Yup, it's Giant Rat again

Election Time Fun! Pissing off the Tories opposite \o/

And that's our little tour done! As ever thank you for reading and allowing me to share with you :-) Bye for now.

How much more?

There is this mentality where if you don't ask for ice for your cold drink, you will get much more of the drink. But then again, there are some places that fill the ice to the brim or just put 1 or 2 cubes.

Here I am at BSC's food court called Burp. I placed an order for soya bean (rm2). When I saw the server putting ice into the cup, I decided not to have ice because I did not want to drink cold soya bean. The cashier then told me it would cost 50 cents more if I opted for an iceless soya bean drink.

I was actually shocked to hear that there will be an extra charge! So, I changed my order back to the iced soya bean. Guess what! Three ice cubes only in my soya bean drink... Having it iceless would not make much of a difference AND definitely not worth 50cents... What a rip off!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

A Bit About Languages

Language fascinates me!  I recently was talking to a friend who studies French (*waves*) and was surprised to find he didn't know some of the boring stuff about the origins of English that I was spouting at him.  So I've decided to put it in a blog so you can ALL be bored.

A Little Acorn

Right.. we probably all have some vague idea about "language families".  I like to think of them literally as a tree.  Imagine an acorn: as it pops up from the ground it is basically a single shoot.  As the oak tree grows up, so it starts branching out and splitting off.  This is exactly what happens to languages.  A good 4000 years ago the languages of around 3 billion people came from the same acorn, a language called "Proto Indo-European" that was spoken on the shores of the Black Sea.  It was a first a single shoot coming out of the earth; then it grew.

This is Indo-European when it was a baby
As time went on and people moved further afield, our parent language started branching off into different related languages.  How and why did this happen?  Well if you think about US and British English, we speak essentially the same thing (Churchill called us "two nations divided by a common language").  300 years ago we spoke *exactly* the same thing however, and over this time we have grown a little apart.  Nowadays we say "dived" and the Americans say "dove".  We refer to a car "bonnet" and they say "hood".  We also spell it "colour" whereas they spell it "color".  When Americans say they "landed flat on their fanny" or talk about putting their passport into their "fanny packs" we explode into uncontrollable laughter because a fanny is a girl's private parts and we have mental ages of 4 year olds.  I could go on and on.  Through time and geographical distance the English language is splitting and gradually growing apart.

Back to the acorn.   We all spoke Proto Indo-European in 2000 BC.  Our language divided up as its speakers moved apart.  Imagine a mighty oak tree with lots of branches, plenty of twigs coming off those branches, and several hundred leaves.  That is our language "family" today.  Proto Indo-European is right at the very base.  There is a branch called the "Germanic branch" and right at the end of it there is a leaf called English.  There are other branches: the Latin branch, the Slavic branch, the Hellenic branch, the Celtic branch etc.  They have all come from the trunk and they all have their own twigs and end up in leaves such as Spanish, Polish, Modern Greek and Welsh.

English is related to every one of these languages I mentioned: just go down from our leaf back along the branch, onto the trunk, and back up another branch and you find the other language.  Ukranian might sound very foreign to us, but it shares our DNA.  Some features of the language, some vocabulary and some structures are the same in both languages.  Okay, Russian is far closer to it, but we are definitely related. We are both part of the same tree and if we go right down to the base, where the acorn came out of the ground, we came from the same place.

Think of our language family exactly like this: a mighty oak

Everyone knows that French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian came from Latin.  The way to think of it, using the tree analogy, is the current day languages are the leaves at the tips.  Latin (now dead) used to be a leaf when the Latin branch was just leaving the trunk.  It grew into a branch of its own and divided up to produce all these leaves we have today.  Other languages used to be on the tree but they either grew into whole branches, or they died.

Even Persian, Hindi, Bengali or Romani ("Gypsy") are on our tree: it is just they branched off early when the tree was first coming out of the ground.  Persian is related to English and we have words in common that go an awful long way back: for example, the Persian word for daughter is "doxtar".

English: on the Germanic Branch

Now let's look at where exactly English is.  We are on the Germanic branch of the oak tree.  The branch has an exact equivalent of Latin called "Proto Germanic" or Old Germanic.  From that now dead language the branch grew out that resulted in all the Germanic languages, including English.

We are a leaf on a twig with 4 other languages or leaves right next to us.  They are:


The closest language on earth to ours is therefore Frisian.  It's almost touching our leaf.  A sentence of Frisian (it is spoken mainly in the north of the Netherlands) is "Brea, bûter en griene tsiis is goed Ingelsk en goed Frysk." This handy holiday phrase means "Bread, butter and green cheese is good English and good Frisian."  I use it all the time.

Frisian Speaking Areas
Dutch is also very close to English.  "Doe de deur open" is "open the door".  "Doe de deur toe" is "close the door".  "De man is in het huis" is "the man is in the house".  "De kat zat op de mat" is "the cat sat on the mat" etc etc.  It can sound incredibly similar indeed.  There is in effect a huge amount of common vocabulary and language structure because we did not split off that long ago.  It's sometimes said that a Dutchman could stand on the stage in Shakespeare's time and be understood as a comedy figure.  I'm not sure that's true, having studied Medieval Dutch, but it's not that far off.

Dutch is literally the language smack bang in the middle between English and German.  Over the centuries, German has been through some "sound shifts", as has English, that have taken it further away from our Latin equivalent, Old Germanic.  For example, the "d" sound in Old Germanic changed into a "th" in many cases in English.  The "t" sound in changed into a "s" sound in German.  Look at these three sentences and compare:

ENGLISH "That is water" << DUTCH "Dat is water" >> GERMAN "Das ist Wasser"

The Dutch is the "purest" form of Germanic.   Dutch "dat" changes to "that" in English.  The same word changes to "das" in German.  Dutch "water" also changes to "Wasser" in German.  It takes a little bit of work to get from English on the far left to German on the far right, but if you look at Dutch in the middle you can see how it works.

If you know the patterns that all of these so-called sound shifts follow, you can instantly work out that the English word "thoroughfare" is in fact, for example, the same word as "Durchfahrt" in German.  The sign below therefore simply says "thoroughfare forbidden" in English.

Let's Blame the French

What happened to our lovely language then to ruin it and take it truly far away from its Old Germanic roots?  Of course we have to blame the French.  They invaded in 1066 and brought with them that thing known as Norman French.  Its parent is Latin, so it's on a branch right next to our Germanic branch and of course we both came from Proto Indo-European.  However, it was sufficiently different to bring a very different influence to our language.  Something extremely odd happened to English: in the hundreds of years after 1066 our leaf touched a leaf on another branch and they fused together.  English is still Germanic in structure and our vocabulary is still more Germanic than Latin based, but French had a huge effect on our language.

They didn't just bring Renaults & Croissants: they RUINED English!

What is fascinating is how the two languages (Old English/Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) merged.  Essentially most "peasant" words in English remain Germanic: we have stuck with the Old English vocabularly.  You'll recognise many basic words in German or Dutch: man, house, live, eat, sit etc.

Any noun that you think of "irregular" in the plural because it changes its vowel is in fact almost certainly a good hearty Germanic peasant word.  Consider, for example, goose (geese), mouse (mice), man (men) etc.  This is what Germanic languages often do to form the plural: they don't just shove an "s" on like French does, but instead change the vowel.  The same goes for verbs that change their vowel in the past tense: I ride (I rode), I sit (I sat), I swim (I swam) etc.  They are basic words of Germanic origin that survived the onslaught of the French invader.

Looked after by Germanic peasants, eaten by French nobles

Think also of a sheep (the word is schaap in Dutch; or Schaf in German).  This is clearly a word that came from Old English, as you can see from its relatives in our Germanic siblings.  The peasants looked after the animal when it was still alive.  When it gets served up on the table it becomes mutton, however.  It is the greedy French nobles gobbling it up ("mouton" is French for sheep).  The same applies to cow (Dutch "koe" and German "Kuh") which becomes "beef" on the table ("boeuf" in French); and to swine (Dutch "zwijn" and German "Schwein") that becomes "pork" (French "porc") when it is eaten.

Other Language Families

Now obviously Indo-European (the Oak Tree) is a big language family.  It has 3 billion speakers around the world.   There are, however, other language families which are not at all related to us.  This comes about because when humans climbed down from the trees and started speaking to one another, they did so in multiple places in the world at the same time.  Linguists used to think there was one parent language: they now believe there is not.  All that stuff about the Tower of Babel in the Bible?  Nope, sorry.

If we are a leaf on the oak tree, take a look at the beautiful olive tree over there.  It is the Semitic family and it includes Hebrew and Arabic.  Oh the irony: these two languages are very closely related.  Imagine a beautiful cherry tree: it is the Japonic family.  The bamboo tree could be said to represent the Sino-Tibetan family, with 21% of the world's speakers.  This is where we find Mandarin, Cantonese, Burmish and Tibetan.  There is the Niger-Congo family from Africa with other 1500 languages; the Eskimo family of languages etc.  In each case think of a tree, but not a tree that is related to our oak tree.

Hebrew and Arabic: right together on the same tree

Within Europe we have a couple of really interesting non-Indo European examples.  Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian are together in one family, not related to us at all.  They have come from somewhere deep inside Asia (the family is called "Ugric".)  The language of the Basques, spoken down in the south of France and north of Spain is also not related to any other language in Europe.  It is all on its own in its own family and is amazingly ancient: it is the only survivor of the pre-Indo European languages that were once spoken across Europe many thousands of years ago.

This brings us to the end of my little explanation of where English comes from and where it belongs.  If you're a language historian and think this was all complete shite, ooops sorry.  I've tried to explain it in a non-technical way with what I can remember from university.  If you're not a language historian and it has explained or taught you anything, huzzah!

Many thanks for reading.

[A far better name for High German is "Standard German" by the way: long story but what even the Germans themselves call Hochdeutsch is actually East Middle German.  High German is in fact a collection of dialects in the high mountain areas of the south, which interestingly include Yiddish, Bavarian, Alsatian and Austrian German.]

Sunday, 13 May 2012


She had just made me an amazing organic-coffee latte, and now my daughter Valentína set herself to the the task (art?) of making a crepe at the ice cream store on Skólavörðurstígur, Eldur og Ís (they don't have a web site/Facebook page yet, but it's the only ice cream store that's actually open in midtown, as is.) This is her first official career move, and so far she's absolutely rockin' it! It helps that she speaks excellent English and has that American ease-of-smile and open demeanor (she was born in San Francisco :) that works so well in this line of business.

The owners have also spent time in California giving this small family-run store a friendliness that is often lacking in Iceland. Let's not sugar things here: Icelanders are not known for being so adept at expressive hospitality

So if you're on your way to our island for the first time, please don't take the cool rudeness personally! (In his amazing 19th century travelogue Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor writes, "The common people - if one has the right to use such a word as "common" to describe such a people - are still something of a puzzle to me. Except among our Indian tribes I never saw such stoical, indifferent faces." pg. 218)  If you are lucky enough to get good, friendly service at a store or restaurant, go ahead and let the person know that you appreciate it. There's no tipping culture here, and Icelanders are horribly negligent about showing appreciation for a job well done. Slowly but surely, with increasing international influence, the service culture here is being massaged into something the average traveler can feel comfortable with. So go ahead and take part in whatever way you can!

And so without further ado, I here present the result of Valentína's artistry, the absolutely delicious Nutella, strawberry and vanilla ice cream crepe:

Have you tried Dynamic Viewing yet? Five new views in all. Use the blue tab at the top of the view page to check them all out : )

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Burger Bakar Abang Burn, Taman Dagang

I was initally looking for Kaw Kaw burger as I heard there was a another stall in Ampang besides the Wangsa Maju one. In the end, I stumbled upon Abang Burn Burger Bakar.

This stall is located in a Malay food court next to the Balai Polis Tmn Dagang and behind Galaxy Ampang. Burger bakar is like barbequed burgers. Hence, wearing your grubbiest clothes when buying the burger would have been best because while lining up to place your order, your clothes will 'absorb' the smell of the barbequeing burgers.

The queue was long, but not as long as the one at Wangsa Maju. Since I was not really hungry, I ordered a triple burger with cheese (rm21.50) to share with TF. Upon placing my order, I paid and was given a number. The person in charge told us to just sit and wait for our number to be called. While waiting, we ordered orange juice from a waiter. The Burger Bakar stall had a bell which rings everytime a burger is ready. I didn't know that till I collected my burger. No, there wasn't anyone calling numbers. I went there personally to ask if my burger was ready after waiting for quite awhile. Unfortunately, the orange juice never came. So, we left with just the burger.

Headed home to enjoy the burger and ayam golek which was sold opposite the burger stall. The food court felt unhygenic that it took away my appetite while I was sitting down there.

The burger was fabulously delicious. It wasnt too dry or too wet. That means its juicy and flavourful enough. One bite was never enough. Its definitely worth a second trip. The ayam golek was good too.

My burger experience rankings. Click on links to read more:
Sixth place: Chilli's Cheeseburger, KLCC/Midvalley