So I did it! I went to Iceland for New Year’s.

Marilena got me into it — back in summer, she went on and got us tickets for Sigur Ros and one of their concerts in Harpa, Reykjavik’s fancy concert hall. How could I (and why would I want to) ever refuse?

Until the last minute, I was subconsciously trying to forget this was happening: part of me feared that thinking too hard about it would jinx the whole thing, as if being excited about something was enough to make the Universe consider whether it had thrown a few easy balls at me and if maybe it was time to throw me a trick one just to mix things up a bit.

The Universe spared me. We spent a couple of days in Stockholm, including Christmas and Christmas Eve,  (not really recommended in the holiday season) and stayed in Iceland for a whole week!

Here are some things that stood out for me from this dream trip.

The Northern Lights

I must have started dreaming of going to Iceland the minute I found out it was possible to see the Northern Lights from there. It’s quite possibly the wish that’s ended up in the most bucket lists in my life.

I knew one day I would take a picture of them.

And I did.

Heh. I wish! This is what I actually took:

I didn’t really see it properly; the terrestrial weather in Reykjavik was a crisp and clear -8 to -3 degress every day, but unfortunately, space weather was not favorable. The above picture was kind of a fluke, but we did catch a good 30-minute spell of auroras on the plane from Stockholm to Reykjavik. Watching it put me in a right trance…

What made the biggest impression on me about the Lights was how dlm they actually were. In photos they appear much brighter and vivid than how they actually manifest up in the sky (or it could be that they were just not very bright that night). This low brightness made them almost invisble through city lights, and much more ethereal and mystical — it was almost as if I was imagining them, at least until the next wave of purple blooming  out of the green bubbled up. Their movement reminded me of steam forming on the surface of black filter coffee, only more “linear” and abrupt.

It’s interesting to note that cameras are better suited to capture the colour spectrum of auroras than the human eye, thus it’s not very difficult to get an impressive picture of them if you’re properly prepared (and lucky enough).

Picture taken in the Aurora Centre at the Aurora Photography Simulation stand. It was a box inside of which there was this picture of the aurora that was lit very dimly and which required the same camera settings as the real aurora to take a good picture of: 20s (I used bulb) // f3.5 (minimum) // ISO 800 (my film was at 400)

I didn’t see them as much as I’d like to (can anyone ever have enough of them, I wonder?) and I’d be delighted if I could ever set my eyes upon them again!

Marilena at the Aurora Centre

Running 10K on New Year’s Eve

Every New Year’s Eve, Icelanders have a nice tradition of running 3 and 10k races where it’s popular to run in fancy dress! Although I didn’t have any especially weird costume to run in apart from my ordinary slightly mismatched winter apparel, that didn’t stop me from joining, no sir!

I did spot a wild Pikachu running (fleeing?), a bunch of Santa Clauses (of course), a guy wearing dwarf-shaped leggings that made him look as if he was being carried around rather than running himself (so clever), vikings, etc. I wonder if we have such a thing here in Greece. Wouldn’t surprise me if we didn’t — we like our sports, like so many things, rather dry and humourless.

My time was decent. I was determined to overtake the “ghost” runner with the blue balloon that marked the constant speed I needed to go at to finish at 55:00. I focused with what fatigue made feel like heroic concentration and, finally catching up the pace at the final 2km, managed to do so.

My official time was 55:15, but my ‘real’ time from start to finish, if you account for the laggy start, was around ~54:27. I got a medal, too: all participants could buy their memento/bragging rights at registration for 600ISK (5 euros) .

The beer cost more than the medal
Complete results

It was one of the hardest runs I’d ever done and/but I really enjoyed it! Sadly, I don’t know where I can go from here, if I’ll ever run a half-marathon or go beyond: unfortunately, my knee cartilages tend to complain a lot after I put them under such an unusually high amount of stress, and I’m wondering whether I might be focusing on something that will come back to bite me in the ass.

Still, looking at all the Icelanders with their costumes, kids and all the commotion and running with them somehow made me really content and was a happy way to close 2017. Not to mention: the pint of Gull after the run was especially tasty.

Tourists, Prices, Low-Budget Tips

 7 things Icelanders hate about tourism in Iceland

Iceland’s population is around 300,000. Last year, they got an estimated 2.3 million arrivals — that’s more than 7 times their population. By comparison, Greece only has an estimated 30 million each year — roughly just 3 times our population.

Reykjavik felt like a bit of an Iceland-themed Disneyland. I’m well-aware that I actually contributed to this by going there and eating some of their cod and lobsters (coughflexitariancough), but at least I feel as if I would never do any of the things pointed out in this list of stupid things tourists do — I want to think that counts for at least something as far respecting my hosts goes.

“So pure, wow”. Soft ‘n smelly Icelandic water is actually free to drink everywhere — unless you get it in an overpriced bottle…

This insane growth has brought prices up to mind-numbing heights. If travelling and spending time in Scandinavia (or Stockholm) was roughly twice as expensive as living in Athens, Reykjavik must have been up to three times as expensive or even more.

Beer roughly cost €9 / 1000kr. per 330ml glass in most places, and it was impossible to get lunch or dinner for less than 8€/900kr. (but that was a tasty vegetarian ramen soup at Noodle Station).

The cheapest, spiciest meal in Reykjavik was not even Icelandic. If you’re looking for something traditional, Sægreifann and its amazing lobster soup would do nicely.

Another example: Blue Lagoon is definitely one of Iceland’s most famous (and overpriced, but that’s a given by now) sights. It was almost dusk when we entered the warm water. The fog was so thick, we could see nothing but light blue everywhere around us. Truly magical. Still, what made the biggest impression on me was the high number of (mostly, though not by any means exclusively, Chinese) fellow tourists bringing their smartphone into the water to take selfies of themselves in the blue expanse to send to their friends back home.

I bet the pictures must have looked cool, but swimming around using just one arm because the other one was too busy filming their ego, was the very opposite, at least if you ask me.

To put it simply: now is not the time to visit Iceland (sorry, Marilena). Wait for the hype to die down a bit. Yes, the bubble will have burst by then and the centre of Reykjavik will be full of high-rise hotels, but at least it hopefully won’t be as ridiculously overpriced and crowded as it was in New Year’s ’18. I would still recommend making some granola bars to take with you like we did — it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find cheap, nutritious, vegan-friendly food in the country in the near future.

Super-easy, cheap, nutritious…. home-made cereal/tahini bars: the perfect travel snack! I apologise for the rather unappealing picture.

At any rate, I’d definitely recommend visiting Bike Cave — probably the only Spotted by Locals-worthy place we visited during the whole trip.

And here are some pictures and a short collection of clips I threw together:

The concert was amazing, by the way.

Giannis and Vanessa were our travel partners for most of the trip


The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What does ‘organic’ really mean?
Is intensive agriculture sustainable in the long run, or will people starve when oil becomes scarce?
How does man’s legacy of hunting and gathering jive with contemporary vegetarian and vegan movements?
How does ‘ethical’ stack against ‘local’ or even ‘cheap’?
How is it that people spend the tiniest percentage of their income on food ever? What went wrong and people started to make cuts on food and health?
If every technological advancement requires a sacrifice in the name of progress and the promise of a better quality of life, what exactly has been sacrificed in the name of the promise of abundant burgers and potato chips, in a world that’s never been as saturated in cheap, empty calories?
Where does food inequality come in, when just the rich can afford quality, organic, local food?
Is expensive, quality food elitist, and if so, does securing cheap food prices produce a net social benefit, if that necessarily means a drop in quality?

I was inspired to give this book a listen after watching this talk by the author Michael Pollan. After having read the book, I think it sums up its main points in an effective and engaging way.

I have to give it to Mr. Pollan. His combined skills in investigative journalism, philosophical musings and story-telling made his style very convincing: he went from the personal to the universal extremely seamlessly and I was there listening as if under a spell — no easy feat in non-fiction. Considering the topic is as important and relevant as food, his ability to make the science approachable and the public aware of these deceivingly complex subjects really counts for a lot. He really drives home that it’s not just about collecting the data, it’s about making sense of it, finding the points of convergence and creating a narrative. It’s perhaps one of the skills data-bloated people in the 21st century will struggle with the most.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma was so well-argued, it even made me question my own vegetarian/vegan diet and its ethical subtexts, forcing me to re-evaluate the reasons I have actually chosen this path, as much as it would challenge any carnivore going in with an open mind (even though I find it hard to believe any carnivore, not just open-minded ones, would be able to rationally argue against Mr. Pollan’s case about factory farming and agriculture). It went down to the very roots of the problem of modern, numbers-first food-growing, touching on anything and everything relevant to what’s going on behind the scenes, ‘what they don’t want you to know’.

I was between giving it four and five stars because the information is rather old by now and it’s quite American-centric, so as a European I was left wondering what the state of affairs in the EU, or even in Greece, is. But then I remembered that, at least until Trump became president of the US, most of the developed world was trying to maximise ‘market freedom’ and loosen regulations, trying to mimic the late-stage capitalist model of the US.

Maybe in the last 10 years since the book was published we’ve all grown a bit more jealous of poor, sick, undernourished Americans, and are more willing to trade in our health for cheaper chicken souvlaki. We might not nearly use as much corn around here, but If I look at it that way, The Omnivore’s Dilemma was predicitive of what was to become the global state of affairs, so how can I give it 4 stars for ‘just’ focusing on America?

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Language and the Pursuit of Happiness

Language and the Pursuit of Happiness by Chalmers Brothers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If we are indeed made in the image and likeness of God (however we understand God to be), and if God’s word creates and generates, brings forth and manifests… why shouldn’t ours?

Let me tell you this first: I’ve read quite a number of self-development/philosophical books, but Langauge and the Pursuit of Happiness went from 0 to 100 and made it to my shortlist of self-development favourites with especially characteristic ease.

This book was first recommended to me and the rest of the participants as further reading after the conclusion of the Advanced Synergy training, or Choice, I had in Bulgaria in Sep. 2016.

Indeed, I recognised much of the ‘special vocabulary’ or ‘mantras’ used in this family of self-development trainings here:

‘You are not the conversations you have become.’
‘If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.’
‘I’d rather be right than be happy.’
‘It’s not have-do-be, it’s actually be-do-have.’
‘We are not human beings, we are human becomings.’

Reading all this felt really comfortable to tell you the truth and took me to a similar space of self-deconstruction that Choice did, a program which I could tell from the very first minute would be life-changing. Going through Choice of course was unexpectedly tough and very much NOT comfortable, but the lasting effects on me have inevitably made me look back to it with tender feelings, and perhaps comparing the pleasant self-deconstruction I could go through on my own pace with this book to the slap in so many of levels of face that Choice was could be being a bit unfair to the latter. Anyway, the trainers at Choice admitted that this book had been very influential for them, and having read the book now, I can completely see why.

First off: “Language and the Pursuit of Happiness”, by Chalmers Brothers. The title of the book is so broad, one could very well think it impossible for the broadness and genericness of the subject matter to be satisfactorily conveyed. And Chalmers Brothers — is that a single person or is it THE Chalmers Brothers? I got some internal giggles from thinking about that, I admit.

Turns out: the subject matter is amazingly portrayed, and no, it’s a single person, actually a man without any background in psychology or anything, though with a lot of experience in leadership development, relationship-building, workplace culture and accountability workshops and such. This book was his first book, and I thought it was so clearly written, jargon-free and easy to read, I was almost shocked. That is to say: I was captivated. Mr. Brothers captured in written form a living example, or as much of a living example as a book can provide, of his own theory.

His theory is that, contrary to popular belief, language doesn’t just describe the world — it’s not just a tool used for communication. Instead, he proposes four more beneficial, certainly more powerful claims about language:

1. Human beings are linguistic beings. We “live in language.” All of us, all the time.

E.g. We make up a story about ourselves and the world, hold our stories to be the truth and forget that we made them up. We confuse the events themselves with our own explanations. “The minute I begin living as if my explanation of an event is the event… I stop listening”).

“Consider if someone walked into a crowded room full of people of many different ages and many different social and cultural backgrounds, and said “Well, I can see how all of you folks are obviously influenced by how you see things by your age, race, gender, life experiences… how your perceptions are necessarily “filtered” by your travel – or lack of travel – and upbringing, educational experiences, and so forth. I’m sorry you have to live with such obvious limitations… I, on the other hand, have been blessed with Cosmic Objectivity! Somehow I was born with the capacity to see things as they truly, really, objectively are… yes, I’ve been blessed with privileged access to the Truth… how excellent it is for me to have such unfettered access to the way things really are!

“How ridiculous. This, of course, is nonsense. Everybody is interpreting. Everybody is creating explanations.”

2. Language is generative and creative (vs. passive and descriptive).

I.e. our conversations with other people is what creates relationships with them. Change the content, change the relationship. Also, through what we say (and by extension, what we do), we create a public profile for ourselves, most of which is impossible to be conscious of — although certain substances can make it slightly less impossible. Or so they say.

And despite how most of us lead most of our lives — that is, not living in honesty — Mr. Brothers asks:

“Do you have anyone in your life who will give you ‘the straight poop?’ That is, someone who will share with you their honest impressions about you and your actions and their impact on others. Is this a valuable person to have in your life? Most of us say, yes indeed…”

3. Language is action. To speak is to act.

“If I make a request, and you say Yes, we’ve got a promise. If I make an offer, and you say Yes, same thing. And with this promise, tomorrow is different. Today is different. We have just put in motion events and actions that would not have been put in place had we not spoken, had we not make that agreement… The key interpretation we offer is that for humans, for us, our language is how we coordinate the coordination of action.”

4. With language, we make visible that which was previously invisible.

Mr. Brothers’ example here is extremely powerful:

“Let’s say last night I walked outside of my home and it was a beautiful, clear night. I looked up and saw “a bunch of stars”. That’s what I saw when I looked into the sky… a bunch of stars. Let’s say that this morning I had a conversation with my good friend Les, who happens to be an amateur astronomer. Les has this book and he says “Chalmers, some of what you’re seeing up there are actually planets… they have a different look and they shine in a pale red or yellow tone… and some of what’s up there are called nebulae, which are the remnants of huge explosions of stars millions of years ago… there’s a cloudy edge of gas formations… also, there are man-made satellites, which have a different look still and actually can be seen to move, slowly, across the sky…

“Now, tonight, when I go out and look up at the night sky, what do you think I might see? Last night I saw “a bunch of stars” and the sky is the same, and tonight, when I look up, what might I see? That’s right… I might see some planets… some nebula… some satellites. Question: Where were the planets, for me, last night? Where were the nebula, for me? Last night, they didn’t exist – for me. They were out of my awareness, and tonight I see them. My world has changed. My possibilities have changed. Planets… nebula… and satellites are linguistic distinctions, in the domain of astronomy, that I acquired in my time with Les. And once I acquired them – once I learned them – I opened my eyes upon the same world, and I saw something new. I became a different observer. I saw what I didn’t see before, and this is a powerful phenomenon to begin to notice!”

I’ll give you a very quick run-down of the chapters so together with all the aforementioned you can more or less get a feel for how the rest of the book goes:

Chapter 1: You Can’t Change What You Don’t See
Chapter 2: Language — The Tool You Cannot Put Down
Chapter 3: What’s Learning Got To Do With Happiness? And What’s Language Got To Do With Learning?
Chapter 4: Listening, Hearing, Beliefs & Results
Chapter 5: My Favorite Model: Observer – Action – Results
Chapter 6: An Artificial Separation: Language / Emotions / Body
Chapter 7: We Speak Ourselves Into the World
Section 7.1: Assertions & Assessments
Section 7.2: Declarations
Section 7.3: Requests & Offers
Section 7.4: Promises, Commitments, Agreements
Chapter 8: Happiness, Language and the Present Moment
Chapter 9: Have-Do-Be or Be-Do-Have
Chapter 10: The Bigger Picture & Looking Ahead

Apart from the crystal clarity of the book, I loved how most of the chapters had a Summary: Main Points and New Interpretations and a How-To: Possibilities for Taking New Action sub-section. It really makes it much easier to skim through the book again and revise everything I learned so that it sticks better. Mindful repetition is an important learning tool (perhaps THE most important), after all.

I’ve written a lot already. I’m just so excited that I discovered this book and would like to share it or even discuss it with other people. I think it has a very powerful and extraordinarily well-articulated message (a combination which is surprisingly hard to find) and I believe that many more people could benefit from discovering it, reading it and making it one of their own new favourite books, too.

And if you prefer videos over lengthy summaries, here’s Mr. Brothers speaking at TEDxBocaRaton in 2014 about “How language generates your world and mine” — a great summary for the book if this review of mine has once again inadvertently slipped into TL;DR territory. In which case, that’d be in my blind spot/public image quadrant, so would you give me the ‘straight poop’ and let me know? Thanks!

Oh, and remember: making the powerful declaration that you don’t know, and that you’re a beginner in something, will get you far.

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Στον αργαλειό του φεγγαριού

Στον αργαλειό του φεγγαριού by Εύα Βλάμη
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Αυτό το βιβλίο μου το πρότειναν και δάνεισαν η Μαριάννα κι ο Μάνος.

Με το πόσο ενθουσιασμό είχαν όταν μου έλεγαν ότι έπρεπε να το διαβάσω οπωσδήποτε, μπήκα μέσα με τα μπούνια και ενθουσιασμό. Γρήγορα όμως κατάλαβα ότι αυτό το βιβλίο δεν ήταν για μένα. Sorry, Μαρίαννα και Μάνο…

Με λίγα λόγια, το βιβλίο διαδραματίζεται σε κάποιο χωριό γύρω στο τέλος του Β’ Παγκοσμίου Πολέμου (ή θα μπορούσε να είναι και ο πρώτος, η ιστορία είναι λίγο άχρονη). Όλοι οι φαντάροι που έχουν επιζήσει έχουν γυρίσει. Της Στράταινας ο γιος δεν ήταν μεταξύ τους, αλλά εκείνη αρνείται να πιστέψει ότι ο γιος της είναι νεκρός. Τόσο πολύ αρνείται να το πιστέψει, που οργανώνει και συνοικέσιο και αρραβώνα με μια μικρούλα από το διπλανό χωριό με τον άφαντο γιο της, επιμένοντας πως «ε, τώρα όπου να ‘ναι πια, θα έρθει και αυτός». Βέβαια, αυτές οι μικρές επαρχιακές κοινωνίες δεν αφήνουν τέτοια ατοπήματα ασχολίαστα –ή και ατιμώρητα– για πολύ…

Το λεξιλόγιο ήταν σε πολλά σημεία πολύ δύσκολο για εμένα, με άφθονο αγροτικό λεξιλόγιο των μέσων του προηγούμενου αιώνα και εκφράσεις που είναι σχεδόν γραφικές στο παλιές ακούγονται. Επίσης δεν μπορούσα συχνά να μπω στα κίνητρα και στα βάσανα των χαρακτηρών. Δηλαδή, είχαν εξήγηση μέσα στο βιβλίο, όμως δεν μπορούσα να «μπω» στο πώς πρέπει να έβλεπαν την κατάσταση, ένιωθα πολύ λίγη ταύτιση με τα συναισθήματα τους, τα οποία βέβαια ήταν αρκετά μελοδραματικά.

Αυτό που μου άρεσε ήταν το τέλος. Το βρήκα λυτρωτικό με έναν απρόσμενο τρόπο, αν και φαινόταν ότι το πράγμα πήγαινε προς τα εκεί από ένα σημείο και μετά. Αν είχε οποιοδήποτε άλλο τελος, θα του έβαζα ένα αστεράκι.

Θα το πρότεινα σε όποιον ενδιαφέρεται για την αγροτική κοινωνία της Ελλάδας του 20ου αιώνα, γραμμένο με τη ματιά της που τόσο μακριά φαίνεται από εμένα τόσο λίγα χρονια μετά…

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This is not necessarily limited to music that came out last year, far from it; it’s some of the songs that stuck with me the most during 2017.

“The best pop song ever written?”
It’s certainly up there.

Specifically, “Limpid” (around 13:20). Chinese shoegaze — its genre and country of origin are far from the only things this one’s got going for it.

“This is the song that played when the Universe began.”

The ‘things are getting seriously clever’ theme.

Hate the lyrics, didn’t like the movie after getting floored by Whiplash, but this song is just so damn catchy!

The song that got me super-excited about To The Bone.

They were better than Royksopp at Release Festival, and this track (and Bad Kingdom) were a big part of it for me.

That’s not to say that the Norwegian duo didn’t make a spectacular appearance.

One of my most persistent earworms ever. Only watch the video before travelling by plane if you’ve got the balls/ovaries for it.

2017: the year I listened to In Rainbows for the first time. Hey, 10 years later is better than never, right?

First thing I heard when I randomly popped the first LP I grabbed from the top of a stack from my mother’s rather vast collection. Probably the only song by ELO I really like.

This cover touches something really tender inside of me. It’s somehow childishly erotic, it brings back to me the kind of feelings I would keep for my kindergarden crushes (yes that’s plural).

I don’t know what this kind of music counts as (new electro dark folk?) but please sir, can I have some more?

Desertfest 2017, man. What a band, what an absolutely jawdroppin’ smooth ‘n crunchy song!

I saw Devin live in 2017, but my top 2017 Devin SOTY wasn’t part of the show at Fuzz…

What, you thought I’d only have a single Steven Wilson song on here? Quaint. An A-side, no less?

Was tied between this and the Stable theme for the most evocative Breath of the Wild musical moment.

Let it grow, let it grow… let it blossom, let it flow… This song is my mental talisman and reminder of everything I learned about myself and others as a co-trainer for Event Wise in Olde Vechte. It goes straight to the heart — or the emotional centre, if you’re one of those types that are being too literal with the concept of the heart (like me sometimes).

Marilena and I were there (not the same concert but the same set of concerts == we were there two days before this one, on the 28th). Around 23:30 is where the tears started free-flowing. There are very few bands, if any, that have such a ready access to my waterworks.


The Essential Psychedelic Guide

The Essential Psychedelic Guide by D.M. Turner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Link to the full book here.

This was a breathtaking sneak-peek into the experiences and philosophy of a dedicated and fascinating psychedelic explorer. The style and presentation reminded me a bit of Shulgin’s PiHKaL, which, coming from me, counts as high praise. Describing the experience entheogens typically produce in words is a bit like describing works by Escher, Van Gogh or Giger to a blind person (with all due respect), and, as far as this kind of experience counts as going on trips, it felt like what reading the original Lonely Planet mush have felt like, but back when Lonely Planet used to be cool.

Turner’s death by drowning while apparently on ketamine after his encounter with the ‘water spirit’ of DMT, and its ‘dissatisfaction’ with his mixing of the natural and ominpresent DMT with the artifical ketamine, was hair-raising to say the least, but I felt it was a fitting, gloriously sad ending to a life as full of curiosity as this one.

I’ve always thought that for every single precious nugget of information we have today like, for example, that the death cap isn’t the ‘yummy cap’, or for every controversial or varyingly successful foray into pineapple-on-pizza territory, there must have been someone out there in spacetime by necessity whose sense of experimentation had to be stronger than their sense of self-preservation. These people inadvertenly took one for the team, the collective team, even if they couldn’t know it at the time. Humanity owes these awesomely curious outliers who were never meant to survive, these unsung heroes, a lot of credit we will never give them.

Here’s to the explorers who died so that today we’re in a position to take informed decisions.

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Understanding the Enneagram: The Practical Guide to Personality Types

Understanding the Enneagram: The Practical Guide to Personality Types by Don Richard Riso
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Found this one last year in this shop when I was in Dublin. Having highlighted about half of it with that light blue colored pencil of mine, it took me about a year to “finish”… Reference book or no, I was really attracted to the way it expanded on some of the concepts first laid out in Personality Types.  I recommend reading that one first (or maybe even The Complete Enneagram: 27 Paths to Greater Self-Knowledge by Beatrice Chestnut for a different school of thought) if you want to get into the Enneagram, and read this one for more models and, uh, experimental ways to use this tool for personal growth and helping others out.

The Enneagram is a valuable piece of social technology — it’s a tool that can help us understand others and ourselves that works. We need to spread the word!

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Learn ANY Language: A Practical Guide to Learn Any Language to Any Level of Fluency

Learn ANY Language: A Practical Guide to Learn Any Language to Any Level of Fluency by Janina Klimas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

25/01/2018 EDIT: I’m adding in the summary of the book’s action steps in the words of the author:

The first step, is to review all of the action steps. They are compiled here for easy reference:

1. Throw away everything you ever thought you knew about learning languages. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to spend half your life trying to study a language. You don’t have to be Doctor/Professor/ Genius insert-your-last-name. You don’t have to have a million dollars, pounds, euros, yuan, yen or whatever, to attain these skills.

2. You don’t have to speak perfectly. You can make lots of mistakes and still be understood. You do have to have a willingness to understand how to learn languages and how to apply it, in order to meet your goals in your language.

3. On the matter of language learning in schools, please contact school districts and write your political leaders. In many school language programs, the traditional paradigm sets up students and teachers for failure. Unless people have the correct knowledge and materials to set up a program that assesses students all the way through, from beginning to advanced, and provides a long enough time sequence to be able to do so, languages in school are going to continue to not be a great experience for most people.

4. Be informed as you approach materials for the independent study of languages. I know I called out a few language programs but the truth is, I think any exposure you get is great. I also think a lot of the programs – particularly audiobook-type programs – are fantastic to learn useful words and phrases. You can listen if you’re going for a walk, cleaning the house or in the car. While they can be a useful way to pick up words and phrases, you need to be realistic. You need to be informed about how much input you will actually get, in order for them to be effective.

5. Decide what your idea of fluency is. What’s going to work for you? What’s going to work in your life? How much time do you have to dedicate to this endeavor? Do you want to go on a trip to Italy? In that case, maybe you can stay toward the upper bubbles. Do you want to move to China and fit in with the locals? Then you need to be way more advanced.

6. You need to decide where you want to be. After you’ve made those decisions, you need to learn about the amount of time it’s going to take to get to your goal, in your specific language. You also need to figure out how you’re going to get there with the time you have.

I was sent this book in digital format in exchange for an honest review. It took me more than a year to actually get down to it and finishing it. Sorry about that, JK.

What I enjoyed about this book was that it got me really motivated to actually communicate in different languages. The criticism on the different kinds of school systems sounded familiar, and the realisation that I’m not even communicating in my supposed mother tongues perfectly, let alone that I wasn’t born a native speaker in them and that I had to go through the long process of becoming one, did strike home. I loved how far she went to get across that no-one expects us to be perfect when we’re learning a foreign language, and that errors should be taken advantage of, not feared. “There is no failure, only feedback” truly is the golden rule here, as with anything.

I don’t believe this book is just for absolute beginners or people who haven’t ever learned foreign languages–I was able to get something out of it even with plenty of experience in languages. I see Learn ANY Language as more of a collection of resources and unique methods that can greatly expand your concept of what learning a language actually has to entail. I’ve been getting creative with learning or improving my working languages (mainly English, Spanish, German and to a lesser extent Bulgarian and Danish) for some time now by using podcasts, conversation exchange/tandem meetings, movies, video games, Memrise, Language Transfer incl. others, but Mrs. Klimas broadened my already airy horizons even more, and I’m thankful for it.

I also enjoyed learning about language skill assessment, the learning process and the practicalities of which parts of the traditional learning systems really work and which don’t, which is always a topic that fascinates me—just imagine how different things could really be…

Admittedly, I didn’t like some of the assumptions she made, e.g. that as a reader of the book I must be an L1 English speaker, for example, or that learners should spend some years working with specific structures before getting into more advanced ones, e.g. spending 1-2 years without being properly taught the past tenses or other ways to formulate the past in the given language. Judging by how much time people tend to devote to talking about the past, that sounds a bit counter-intuitive and an arbitrary limitation.

I also thought there were plenty of grammar errors and repetitions of advice and sentences throughout the book that cheapened the look and feel of the endeavour, especially on a topic such as language. But these are relatively small issues compared to the value that can be got out of this book, if one is only willing and motivated. If you are, this book will give you ideas and specific advice. If you’re not, it might help you get there.

Recommended for anyone interested in being a polyglot.

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Φίλε, ταλαιπωρούμαι από αϋπνία, μη μου λες να ξυπνήσω κι έχουμε άλλα…

Τι κοινό έχει ένας Ιεχωβάς, ένας αναρχικός, ένας φασίστας και ένας υποστηρικτής της «θεωρίας» της επίπεδης Γης;

Και οι τέσσερις καλούν τον κόσμο να ξυπνήσει. «Ξυπνήστε!», φωνάζουν, γράφουν και πληκτρολογούν.

Ποτέ δεν κατάλαβα αυτό το “wake up“. Wake up from what?

Τι κοινό έχει ένας Ιεχωβάς, ένας αναρχικός, ένας φασίστας και ένας υποστηρικτής της «θεωρίας» της επίπεδης Γης; Δεν μπορούν να συνυπάρξουν με έναν κόσμο που διαφωνεί μαζί τους. Καλούν όλους τους άλλους σε αφύπνιση, γιατί κάτι βαθιά μέσα τους τους λέει πως από τη στιγμή που δεν πιστεύουν όλοι το ίδιο, υπάρχει η πιθανότητα η ιδεολογία τους να μην είναι και τόσο αλάνθαστη.

Οι Ιεχωβάδες μας λένε να ξυπνήσουμε και να δούμε τι πραγματικά έχει σημασία στη ζωή – αρκεί κάπου στην πορεία να σταματήσουμε τις μεταγγίσεις αίματος και τις γιορτές γενεθλίων. Οι δισκογήινοι (δικός μου νεολογισμός γιατί πιστεύουν ότι η Γη είναι δίσκος) λένε ότι μας έχουν υπνωτίσει οι τηλεοράσεις και οι κυβερνήσεις και ότι η επιστήμη και όλος ο κόσμος βασικά κρύβει την αλήθεια. Οι φασίστες πιστεύουν κάτι αντίστοιχο, μόνο που αυτή η αλήθεια στη δική τους περίπτωση είναι ότι η δική τους χώρα και τα δικά τους γονίδια είναι τα καλυτερότερα που υπήρξαν ποτέ στην ιστορία του Σύμπαντος.

Οι αναρχικοί κι αυτοί πιστεύουν τα ίδια για κυβερνήσεις και τηλεοράσεις, αλλά μιλάνε και για την εκμετάλλευση του ανθρώπου από τον καπιταλισμό και τα αφεντικά (κάτι που κάνουν και οι πιο «ενημερωμένοι από τους φασίστες, αλλά ας μην περιπλέξουμε τα πράγματα περισσότερο). Σχετικά με τον αναρχισμό συγκεκριμένα: αν και σαν ιδεολογία τη συμπαθώ πολύ περισσότερο γιατί πιστεύω στις ίσες ευκαιρίες, στην αυτοδιαχείριση και στο ότι ένας άλλος κόσμος είναι όντως εφικτός, ξενερώνω όταν οι αναρχικοί καλούν σε επανάσταση. «Ξυπνήστε! Ξεσηκωθείτε!», έχουν φωνάξει πολλοί, αλλά ξεχνάνε κάτι πολύ σημαντικό: δεν θα ξυπνήσεις ποτέ κάποιον που κάνει ότι κοιμάται.

Ο αναρχικός νομίζει ότι ο κόσμος κοιμάται, ότι δεν έχει καταλάβει τι συμβαίνει, και ότι όλοι τον περίμεναν να τους πει να ξεσηκωθούν για να το κάνουν. Ο καπιταλισμός δεν θα υπήρχε χωρίς τους σκλάβους του, σαφώς, αλλά οι άνθρωποι που αυθεντικά ονειρεύονται έναν κόσμο στον οποίο όχι το τι αγοράζουν, αλλά το πώς φέρονται στους γύρω τους, θα καθορίζει την αξία τους στην κοινωνία, είναι στ’ αλήθεια μετρημένοι στα δάχτυλα του ενός… σε μια χούφτα δάχτυλα τέλος πάντων.

Σίγουρα, η πιθανότητα ότι ο κόσμος εκεί έξω που υποτίθεται κοιμάται, στην πραγματικότητα δεν είναι υπνωτισμένος αλλά επιτρέπει στο σύστημα να τον χρησιμοποιεί για να το χρησιμοποιεί κι εκείνος ως αντάλλαγμα και με απόλυτη συνείδηση ψηφίζει Trump ή Νέα Δημοκρατία ή ΣΥΡΙΖΑ ή δεν ψηφίζει ή κάνει οτιδήποτε άλλο κάνουν συνήθως οι άλλοι άνθρωποι, τα πρόβατα, είναι μια σκέψη δύσκολη και σίγουρα λιγότερο ελπιδοφόροα για όσους περιμένουν την επανάσταση… αλλά ίσως είναι και μια πιο ακριβής εικόνα του πώς σκέπτονται και δρουν τα ανθρώπινα όντα: απρόβλεπτα, ακατανόητα και με βάση πολύ, μα πάρα πολύ διαφορετικές έννοιες του κοινού συμφέροντος.

Εν πάσει περιπτώσει. Οι τέσσερεις κατηγορίες ανθρώπων που αναφέρω παραπάνω έχουν ένα κοινό στο πώς βλέπουν τον κόσμο. Τον βλέπουν χωρισμένο στα εξής δύο στρατόπεδα: εμείς οι ξύπνιοι κι εσείς που είστε τα πρόβατα ταγμένα με το σύστημα.

Δεν είναι φοβερό που για σχεδόν όλους εκεί έξω, με τον έναν ή με τον άλλον τρόπο, εμείς — εγώ κι εσύ — είμαστε με το σύστημα, ακόμα κι αν εμείς τοποθετούμαστε, ως είθισται, ενάντια στο σύστημα; Δεν έχει σημασία το τι κάνουμε, σημασία έχει ότι δεν είμαστε εκείνοι. Είναι άραγε τυχαίο μάλιστα ότι όσο πιο κοντά προσπαθούμε να φτάσουμε στην ιδεολογική καθαρότητα, βλέπε κινήματα όπως ο φεμινισμός ή ο βεγκανισμός, τόσο πιο ακραίες θέσεις είμαστε διατεθιμένοι να υποστηρίξουμε, και τόσο πιο εχθρικοί μπορούμε να γίνουμε σε ομόρροες αλλά λιγότερο αφυπνισμένες, κατ’ εμάς,  πεποιθήσεις; Αυτή η αντίσταση στην κοινή πορεία μου δείχνει ότι όσοι ζητούν τον αφυπνισμό των άλλων πολύ συχνά δεν θέλουν όντως παρέα για να αλλάξουν τον κόσμο, αλλά θέλουν να διαχωρίσουν τη θέση τους για να δει ο κόσμος πόσο ξεχωριστοί είναι.

Κάθε φορά που ακούω ή βλέπω κάποιον να μου λέει να ξυπνήσω, το μόνο που βλέπω είναι έναν άνθρωπο που αδυνατεί να χωρέσει στην αντίληψη την ύπαρξη άλλων κοσμοθεωριών. Οποιαδήποτε και να είναι η θέση του, με έχει χάσει με το καλημέρα. Ιδιαίτερα αν, για να δουλέψει η ιδεολογία του, θα πρέπει να ακολουθήσει τις επιταγές του «αν όλοι κάνανε αυτό ή ήταν έτσι, τότε μόνο θα λειτουργούσε ο κόσμος σωστα», αλλιώς: «αν όλοι ήταν σαν εμένα και είχαν τις ίδιες ανάγκες και όνειρα, ο κόσμος θα ήταν τέλειος!». Γιατί για καμιά ιδεολογία δεν ισχύει αυτό, και αν μάθαμε κάτι από τον Δαρβίνο, κι ας μη συμφωνώ με όλα όσα του αποδίδονται, αυτό είναι ότι η ποικιλομορφία είναι η ίδια η ζωή.

Έχω κάτι άλλο να προτείνω, επειδή σε όλους μας αρέσει να λέμε ο ένας στον άλλον να ξυπνήσουμε: όταν ακούμε «ξυπνα!» ή κάτι παρόμοιο, θα παριστάνουμε απλά ότι όλοι προσπαθούν να μας θυμήσουν ότι είμαστε ζωντανοί, είμαστε εδώ σε αυτόν τον μονάκριβο πλανήτη, και ότι δεν έχουμε έρθει να πείσουμε κανέναν ότι εμείς είμαστε γαμάτοι κι ότι εκείνοι κοιμούνται. Ότι σημασία έχει το τώρα, όχι το αύριο και το χτες. Ότι η ζωή είναι μικρή, και όλοι μας θα πεθάνουμε μια μέρα, οπότε το μόνο που έχουμε να κάνουμε είναι να ζήσουμε αυθεντικά και να διακρίνουμε τι θέλουμε από τη ζωή για να ζήσουμε γεμάτα. Αγκαλιάζοντας τους φόβους μας, αποδέχοντας τον αναπόφευκτο πόνο (αλλά την μη-αναπόφευκτη οδύνη), αγκαλιάζοντας το πόσο λίγα ξέρουμε και πόσα λίγα θα έχουμε μάθει μέχρι να μας πάρει ο άνεμος, εκτιμώντας τις σχέσεις μας για αυτό που είναι: πολύτιμες και εύθραυστες.

Αλλά αυτό δεν είναι παρά μια πρόσκληση. Εσείς μόνο ξέρετε ποιο είναι το όνειρο στο οποίο προσπαθείτε να ξαναμπείτε κάνοντας ότι κοιμάστε, και σίγουρα, ο ύπνος είναι υγεία. Η ζωή, πάντως, σας περιμένει–το ίδιο και ο θάνατος.

Καλά ξυπνητούρια!

Πριν λίγες μέρες διάβασα αυτό στο Reddit το οποίο με γέμισε έμπνευση. Είναι κάπως σχετικό και ίσως σας αφήσει με παρόμοιες συνειδητοποιήσεις. Διαβάζοντας το έμεινα με μπόλικα αποθέματα πίστης στο καλό που βρίσκεται μέσα σε όλους μας. Πάντα χρειάζομαι λίγο σπρώξιμο για να φέρομαι στους άλλους σαν αυτά τα αποθέματα να είναι όντως εκεί. To θέμα ήταν What’s the story about the person you once met in a day and you never saw again, but marked you for the rest of your life?

One time I was working at a liquor store in a college town. This middle aged guy comes in, and he’s already in the middle of a soliloquy about how insane and messed up the world is. He seems sober to me, oddly enough, but he’s talking aloud to himself, or kinda to me, it was hard to be sure. I saw a lot of loonies when I worked at that store, and this guy wasn’t like that. Seemed like a totally normal guy to me, not crazy, not on drugs, just going through something, I guess. So he goes and grabs a six pack, brings it up to the register, and he’s still going on this rant about how people are starving in third world countries, and corporations control our lives, and our politicians are corrupt, and we’re all stupid and ignorant, and then he pauses, and just looks at me and says, “And yet, what IS there to do, but become an advocate?”

That was the end of the speech. I’ve never been totally sure what he meant, or how he intended me to take his words, but here’s how I’ve chosen to interpret them: the world is fucked up. Literally every about it is wrong. But what are you gonna do? NOT live in it? There’s no use in complaining about all the shit that goes down. None of it is new. Things have always been this way, and they likely always will be. The specifics will change, but the big picture won’t. And maybe THIS is as good as it gets. So what IS there to do, except endorse the whole rotten mess, and try to do whatever good you can? We’re humans, this is us, and as bad as we are, we’re not so bad after all.

I’m sure most of you won’t agree, but this thought has kept me sane and calm through the last 15 years of history. I used to have more of that activist spirit, but through all my protesting and so-called “direct action” I only made one lasting change: I was angry all the time. Sure, there were little victories along the way: that homeless guy got a good meal, this tree stood for an extra day before they cut it down. But the only big picture change was in me. Eventually, I realized what Edward Norton’s character in American History X realized: nothing I did had made life better for me or anyone I cared about. So I shifted my focus. I try to do good for the people in my life. I try to be the best husband and dad I can be, and live according to my principles. And when the opportunity arises to do more, I do it. But I let the rest of it roll off my back, because even if I spent every minute of every day living for some cause or other, I’d mostly just be missing out on my own life.


A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A review for A Game of Thrones. Boy oh boy.

The world of fantasy feels so different now from what it must have looked like back in 1996, before even Lord of the Rings, the film that launched high fantasy of this variety into the wider public consciousness, had entered pre-production. Compare who gets to read this now with this book’s conceivable target audience back in the day. It’s a completely different world.

20 years later, fantasy of all sorts is mainstream, especially Game of Thrones the series. But has the game-changing success of the HBO blockbuster altered the way we should look at the original book’s standalone value?

I’ve got to be honest with you: I only read the book because of the show. Season 7 got me all hyped again come July, and after I was a couple of episodes in and I’d started itching to learn more about the characters I’ve been following for so many years again, I decided to take the plunge and make the commitment.

For make no mistake, this one’s long. Taking my sweet, sweet time, it took me 3+ months to go through its 780 pages of tinyish print. Assuming that each page took me about 1.5–2 minutes to read (including going through passages more than once to make sure I understood, or to reread for pleasure, which I’m happy to say happened quite a lot), that would make us… 20–25 hours at least? Shit — I just realised that I’m now counting hours with books, too; I thought I reserved this stressful habit for games and series only.

I’ll be honest with you again: I’m glad this book was made into a series and I got to watch it before reading the book. Mr Martin’s style is rich and flowery, but while reading it I sometimes thought, especially with some of his detailed descriptions of places (using obscure medieval masonry lingo) that he could have used a more eager editor. Just like with Lord of the Rings, it seems to me that it takes a certain kind of focused, detail-oriented person, the same kind who reads his/her favourite books again and again instead of looking for new books to discover, to truly enjoy these long-winding epics on the first go.

Thus, it definitely helped that I was already familiar with the characters before jumping in; I enjoyed reading more details about their backstories and fleshing out the space Westeros inhabits in my head, but the stories on their own I don’t think would be sufficiently interesting to capture my imagination had I gone in a complete ASoIaF virgin. I can clearly picture myself picking this book up blind, attempting to penetrate its world, and failing miserably.

That would have been a shame indeed because one of the series strongest points is its characters. They have clear, believable motives which are never easy to pinpoint as ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Reading about them in much greater detail made me feel as if those people and their families had actually existed a long time ago, in a feudal society far far away.

On the other hand, I did find some of the differences between the book and the show jarring, e.g. how much younger everyone was (Ned & Catelyn in their mid-30s, Robb 14, Sansa 11, Arya 9—children really did mature quickly back in the day!), or how different some characters looked compared to their counterparts on the show: e.g. Arya and her “horseface”, the bald, ugly Jorah or the bald, whiskered Tywin.

I also found that some of Martin’s descriptions of clothes, appearance, hairdos etc. were random and a bit all over the place and not as
majestic and authentic-looking as they were in the show (even though Martin says it was a conscious decision and I can see where he’s coming from and now I feel a little bad for badmouthing him for it!)

One thing I liked in the book a lot that would have been pretty difficult to successfully transfer from it to the show (I mean, if they could do it, I’d be totally for it) was the structure. The storytelling went from one character’s perspective to another (e.g. from Arya’s to Jon’s etc), with always some ‘off-screen’ time passing from one chapter to the next. This often allowed for the undisclosed resolution of one chapter’s cliffhanger to be the unspoken backdrop of the next, something which made reading much more engaging and suspenseful.

That said, one of the reasons I’m happy GoT was made into a show and not a movie series is that in the HBO show they managed to follow the original plot and scene progression so well, though I would have still liked to see Tyrion climbing the Eyrie, or Clegane walk Sansa to her chambers after the tournament banquet (this scene was apparently used to cast Rory McCann for his role as Sandor Clegane, pity it didn’t make it into the show’s script intact and Sansa hears about the Hound’s backstory from Littlefinger).

All in all, I quite enjoyed A Game of Thrones. Yet, I can’t give it five stars, and this is the elephant in the room of a question that’s been bothering me: is there a point after which a book of fiction or a fantasy series just ends up being too long? Do we all have some kind of personal threshold? I know A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t even the worst case of an XL series of XXL books (something-something-Wheel of Time—I’m too scared to touch them, honestly), but seriously: the prospect of reading another huge book like that, and then another, and another, and another, and another, and then yet another, especially since I already know what’s going to happen, feels two parts exciting and five parts “hey don’t mind me, I’m just gonna be picking up that Murakami, Bill Bryson and Graham Hancock at some point, k?”

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that with the show and the series and all those infinite other TV and fantasy series out there, in a world that’s so darn interesting by itself and with so many exciting or actionable things happening around us, we just might be spending a bit too much of our life watching, reading, discussing and worrying about imaginary kingdoms, imaginary dragons, fictional incest and fascinating ultraviolence. It all feels like a giant distraction, a never-ending circus.

I’m not saying that you or anyone else shouldn’t be reading fantasy or fiction, not at all—evidently, I’m not impartial to it either. What I’m saying is that I’m not sure I should be spending my limited book-reading time with books like it. I’d compare it with the hip burgers at restaurants like Hot Hot or Μπαρ Μπεε Κιου (Bar Baaah Cue) in Athens and others like them in almost every wealthy city around the world: they are expertly made, hip, trendy, absolutely huge, do well on Instagram and are tasty as hell. But they’re still made of brutally grown meat, and, at the very end of the day, against all appearances… they’re still junk food.

Burgers and Game of Thrones – the 21st-century panem et circenses?

Just for argument’s sake, another comparison: Book 1, 1996 and Season 7, 2017. Taking both of them into account and the apparent incapability of this series’ writer to give it a proper ending (what has led us to where we are now), would you be able to say what this white hot mess is ultimately all about?

I’m fully aware that stories and (adult) fairytales are some of the cornerstones of our humanity. But what about the content of these stories? What role does it play, if any? Are all distractions, entertainment and/or myths created equal?

My reluctant answer would have to be no.

PS: If you’re interested in some worthwhile, engaging, slightly pretentious criticism of A Game of Thrones, check out this top Goodreads review and the related discussion that caught my attention, written before the HBO series was a thing. The reviewer’s list of books that in his opinion ‘are really radical and surprising, unlike aGoT which was entirely predictable despite claims’, might also be worth a couple of looks into.

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