蟒蛇 uwabami——a drunken python

In English, if we want to show off a little while writing, we can mine the thesaurus for obscure words (at risk of obnubilating our message and discombobulating the reader). With tens or hundreds of thousands of words to choose from, the vocabulary of English represents a practically unlimited resource to play with. But what if, rather than words, there were 10s of thousands of letters or characters, the majority of which were unfamiliar to even the best-educated reader? What if I could write something to you in your own language, and you have no idea what it says because you have never seen those particular ᖃᓂᐅᔮᖅᐸᐃᑦ before? In English, the concept seems absurd because we only use 52 characters and a few punctuation marks to write the language. If we come across a new word, we may not understand it, but we can at least read it. But it’s quite different in Japanese.

One morning in the office after a work night out, a colleague got an email from the section manager, describing him as 蟒蛇. Having never come across this word, he had no idea either how it was pronounced or what it meant. Some kind of snake? Why was the buchou calling him a snake? His fellow team members gathered around his desk, but they didn’t know either. Looking it up online, they discovered that it was pronounced uwabami and that it refers to a giant python or a great drinker (a reference to the previous evening’s activities, which had involved rather a lot of beer). It seems that there is an old story about a giant snake that ate and drank a great deal. What was interesting for me is that the first character, 蟒, is used only to write that one obscure word and in no other context in Japanese.

As it happens, the section manager makes a study of obscure kanji and has demonstrated a very high level of knowledge of the Japanese writing system by passing the “pre-1” level of the kanji kentei exam, an exceptionally rare achievement of which he is rightly proud. (Passing Level 2 is considered evidence of a good university education, while level 1, the most difficult level, is only for the most dedicated kanji scholars, with only a few hundred obsessives passing it every year.) Success at pre-1 level means knowing thousands of kanji, both their common and unusual readings as well as unusual uses in compound words and old Japanese proverbs. So it’s not so surprising, having amassed such a wealth of learning, that you might want to share some of it with your hungover colleagues in a light-hearted e-mail on a Friday morning. Even if it means showing off a little!

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Art Déco in Saint-Quentin

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We are in temporary possession (thanks to Airbnb) of a very fine Art Déco house in Saint-Quentin, in the north of France. Saint-Quentin is called the “cradle” of Art Déco. After the city was almost completely destroyed in World War I, many of its buildings were rebuilt in a style that embodied modernity, luminosity, gaiety and optimism in the face of the horrors that had gone before; a style that was launched on the world in 1925 and came to be known as Art Déco.

Art Déco emphasises verticality and light.

Nothing is new under the sun: the Romanesque doorway of the post office echoes the facade of the basilica just across the square.

These two buildings, by the same architect, illustrate the sheer diversity of style that falls within the umbrella of Art Déco. On the right, number 13 draws on regional styles and materials, uniting Picard red brick with cement, stone and wrought iron, with a Flemish-style saw-tooth gable reaching for the sky. On the left, number 9 uses pseudo-African or south American motifs and textures in its pediment and bow windows.

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Originally, this “phare” would have been glazed and illuminated. Sadly, it now presents a blind concrete face to the world.

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“Oasis” motif doorway

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In the Carillon music hall’s frieze, we see two bells ringing against a backdrop of luxuriant vegetation, reminiscent of a jungle.

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Post office wrought-iron window

The architect of the post office included the letters PTT (the old name of La Poste) in the ironwork.

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Roses are a very common decorative theme in Saint-Quentin’s Art Déco buildings. If you look closely you can see that the flowers are all different – it seems they are not merely moulded but were individually carved into the fresh cement.

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The characteristic Art Déco lettering style is used even when an establishment gets a new name.

I can’t help feeling that Saint-Quentin was fortunate (from an architectural point of view) that it was rebuilt after World War I and not after World War II, the bleak and inhuman doctrines of post-war modernism allowing little space for the whimsical detail and variety that bring a smile to your face as you wander through the city.

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Many faces of Macau

 

Pandas, Portuguese colonial heritage, Cantonese opera, super-opulent casinos, the lights and bustle of noisy shopping streets, a bewildering mix of the old and the new. In our brief 2-day stay in Macau we encountered so many different aspects that it’s hard to form any coherent impression of the place.

On our first day in Macau we started by going to the top of Guia Hill, which is the site of an old Portuguese military fortress, a lighthouse and a chapel. We took a #10 bus to the entrance of the botanical garden and then a cable car to the top of the hill. The cable car ride only cost 3 patacas (about 35c) each.

We continued walking all around the old Portuguese town centre, including the famous ruins of St Paul’s cathedral, Mount Fortress and the Senate square.

I thought it was interesting that Portuguese is still in use as an official language, with all signs and public documents displayed in Portuguese, even though hardly anyone in Macau speaks or understands the language.

We discovered some historic links between Macau and Japan. In the 16th century, the Jesuit St Francis Xavier came as a Christian missionary to Japan, and there is a park named after him in Sakai city. The bones of St Francis Xavier, as well as those of Japanese Christian martyrs, are on display in a reliquary in the crypt of the ruined cathedral of St Paul in Macau.

There happened to be a big religious festival on that evening – the birthday of A-ma or Tin Hau, a goddess who looks after sailors (very important in a port city that historically depended on fishing and trade). We took the bus over to the temple at Barra, where we were greeted by great billowing clouds of incense and the strains of Cantonese comic opera.

 

The next morning, we left the Macao peninsula behind and took a bus over the bridge to “the islands” (Taipa and Coloane were formerly separate islands, but have been joined together by land reclamation; the resulting strip of land, called Cotai, now hosts some of the world’s grandest and most elaborate casino resort hotels.) Our destination was a park in Coloane where you can view pandas (both giant and red) and other animals.

The contrast between the jungly hillside of Coloane and the tall buildings of the peninsula was remarkable. I was glad that we had the chance to experience this lesser-seen aspect of Macau.

That afternoon, for yet another startling contrast, we spent a few hours in the resort hotels of Cotai. The Venetian, the Sands, the Parisian, all link up to form a huge shopping mall/hotel/casino complex, with completely over-the-top decor including a replica of the Eiffel Tower and Venice’s Grand Canal. Once inside, you very quickly lose any sense of connection with reality and the outside world. Note that all of the below photos were taken indoors.

While sipping coffee in the Parisian, on the terrace of an ersatz French street, we were serenaded by genuine French opera singers in fancy costumes. IMG_0423

Although 2 days may seem like a very short stay, we made the most of our time and tried to experience different aspects. All in all, I was very impressed by Macau and found it to be a fascinating place, well worth a visit.

Sentier Littoral – coastal pathway

There’s a pedestrian route, designated GR223, running litorally all along the coast of the Cotentin peninsula between Isigny and Mont Saint-Michel (a total of 446 km). It’s called the sentier littoral or the chemin des douaniers.

There are similar coastal routes in other parts of France (over 4,600 km in total), thanks to a law which guarantees public access to a strip 3 metres wide along the entire coastline. It’s enforced pretty seriously – on one occasion the army was called in to blow up a private wall that was blocking access.

The result is some fantastically scenic walking routes, not only here in Normandy but in Brittany, the Basque country, the Mediterranean coast and elsewhere. You can dip in and out or walk all day.

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Rugged coastal landscape at the Nez de Jobourg on the north-west corner of the Cotentin peninsula.

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Slightly tamer scenery on the sheltered east coast of the peninsula.

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The pathway is marked by these yellow bornes or milestones indicating the distance to the next destination.

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Here Shiro is inspecting a German pillbox left over from World War II.

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Car Wash

I’ve long contended that being in a foreign country is equivalent to losing 30 to 50 IQ points. I’m not talking about obvious language or cultural differences, or which side of the road you drive on. No, it’s the subtle differences in ordinary day-to-day tasks that trip you up.

 

Yesterday I tried (and failed) to use an automatic car wash in France, an experience that cost me 8 euros. To make matters worse, that’s the second time I have done that; exactly the same thing happened 2 years ago in a different part of France.

You see, in Ireland, when you want to use an automatic car wash, you first enter a code or a token, then drive into the archway until the sign says STOP, and then the car wash cycle begins. That is not how it works in France.

In France, you drive your car into the archway first, then get out of the car, go to the machine and conclude a complicated transaction involving buying and inserting tokens, and then remain outside the car while the wash cycle takes place.

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So what happens if you are in France and try to do it the Irish way? As it happens, I know the answer to this question. You enter the tokens, get into your car and drive into the archway. Meanwhile the machine has attempted to start the wash cycle but becomes confused when it can’t detect the presence of any car. Then, when you drive in, the movement triggers a safety switch, causing it to shut down completely. In the end you have no choice but to reverse your still-dirty but foam-spattered car out and drive away, 8 euros poorer and feeling utterly incompetent.

For things like this, the way you are used to is so obvious that it would not even occur to you that it might be done differently elsewhere. If I told a French person that I had attempted to drive into the car wash while it was already running, with the intention of sitting in the car while it was being washed, they would probably look at me like I was some kind of maniac. Much like I would look at a French person in Ireland who attempted to open the door and get out of his car while it was in the car wash.

It’s a story with a happy ending: yesterday evening I tried again and finally got it right. Happiness is born of such small victories.IMG_0237

やさしい日本語のニュース—Easy Japanese News

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I often watch the Japanese TV news but I have a lot of difficulty in understanding it. The vocabulary is too advanced and the sentences too complicated and too quick for me to follow.

NHK offers a service for learners like me: it’s called News Web Easy. Every weekday, three or four stories from the day’s news are presented in simplified vocabulary, read slowly and clearly by a woman in an easy-to-understand voice. There’s a good variety of interesting topics. All of the kanji are glossed with furigana, and you can click on underlined words to see a definition.

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After you have listened to and read through the easy version, you may then feel brave enough to click on 普通のニュース futsuu no nyuusu—the “normal” news clip. Of course this is much easier to understand once you know exactly what the story is about.

It’s interesting to compare the two (the easy and the normal versions) and see what changes are made. A big part of it consists of replacing “Chinese” or Sino-Japanese vocabulary with native Japanese vocabulary. For example, instead of 変化 henka, they might use the Japanese verb 変わる kawaru to mean “change”. Similarly, if they want to say that someone has been arrested, instead of using the word 逮捕 taiho, they substitute 捕まる tsukamaru.

This confirms something from my own experience: that native Japanese words are easier to learn, easier to remember and easier to understand than their Sino-Japanese equivalents. But why should this be? After all, the Japanese words are usually longer and more “complicated” looking than the Chinese loan words. Strangely, I think that this is a big part of the reason.

Typical Sino-Japanese vocabulary is bisyllabic, with words consisting of two simple syllables (drawn from a restricted set of possible syllables). This very simplicity has the effect of making the words less distinctive and memorable, and leads to lots of homophones. For example, 成功 seikou means success, but there are numerous other words, such as 製鋼 精工 性交, with the same pronunciation. Was the newsreader referring to success, steelworks, Seiko watches, sexual intercourse or something else? Usually the listener is just expected to figure it out from context.

There is another way, however: Japanese TV routinely captions its programs with Japanese subtitles. Not just news, but all sorts of general entertainment – if someone on screen is saying something, you can read it on screen. So even if you are not very proficient at understanding spoken or written Japanese, the fact that both are available can be a big help.

 

I recommend News Web Easy to learners at about level N4 or N3 who struggle with understanding normal Japanese news broadcasts, and would be interested in following current events while learning lots of good topical vocabulary.