Culture: 361 posts

Art, travel, books, history

Poetry and Enigma of Mike Johansen

Why not start Monday with poetry? I’ve selected my favorite poetry by Mike Johansen (1895-1937), a Ukrainian poet of the 1920s. Johansen described himself as an enigma–half-Ukrainian, half-Latvian German, fluent in dozens of languages and yet making Ukrainian the medium of his prose and poetry. Johansen represents the avant-garde movement of the 1920s and he was one of the brightest stars of the same group that included people like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov and Mykola Khvylovyi. What distinguishes his work for me is his playfulness and humor.

Although he was a gifted translator at ease with Latin, English, German, and a number of Scandinavian and Slavic languages, his poetry is impossible to translate. It relies so much on the sound of Ukrainian that in another language it becomes something else altogether. Yet, even without understanding the language, the poem is hypnotic.

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Learning Languages and Reading Techniques

Reading is one of the biggest pleasures for me, and often when I learn a new language, I relish the chance to read in it. It’s also a great way to expose yourself more to the language and to make it part of your life. People often assume that “studying a language” means sitting down with a grammar book and doing exercises or spending time in the classroom, but that’s not enough. You have to surround yourself with the language by filling every free moment with it. Listen to music, watch YouTube clips about a subject you like, read.

And so today I will focus on reading and share a few tips. These are classical approaches, but they’ve been invaluable to me. In general, I start reading as soon as possible, even when I know that the text is too difficult. The most important part is to want to read the story, not to want to read in Arabic/French/Italian, etc. If you’re learning French and you long to read 19th-century novels, go for it. I don’t like texts especially written for language learners or children’s stories, but I have a soft spot for traditional fairy tales.

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Postcard from Brussels : Flemish Chiaroscuro

Among the things I missed the most during the lockdown was going to a museum. The soft light in the exhibition halls, the scent of wood polish, and the silence add as much to my experience of the museums as the art itself–and the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels has plenty of it to admire. So when the restrictions were lifted, I headed to the museum and stood in front of my favorite paintings, greeting them like old friends. It was reassuring, a reminder that despite it all beauty will claim its own space.

The reason I feel this way rather acutely at museums is because they are testaments to historical events and traumas. Positioned though they are as shrines to art, wars, conquests, and colonialism have had their role to play in the riches that famous museums exhibit. It’s enough to make one ambivalent about the whole enterprise, and yet I still like museums. I still feel comforted by their ambiance. Art still inspires me to think differently, to push my boundaries, and to seek something new. The awakening of our curiosity is one of the greatest values of art, and deriving pleasure from finding things out is part of happiness as I see it.

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Learning Scents (or Words) : A Few Tips

Recently I was making a new series of videos on learning languages, and as I was jotting down notes on learning words, I realized that for my studies I use the same memorizing techniques that I had used to learn ingredients in perfumery school. I wonder if my language learning didn’t accelerate during my training. After all, memorizing something intangible like a scent is even harder than memorizing a new word. Either way, I would like to share my tips on retaining smells in your memory, and you can see how you can apply these techniques to memorizing anything else.

If you wish to have a set of oils or spices ready, I recommend starting with no more 3. It might seem like very little, but if you learn to memorize those three scents and learn to pick them out in a blend, you can expand your exercises to a much greater number. Polish your technique with a few scents at a time.

For instance, my recommended smells for learning would be the following three: lemon (you can use the real fruit by scratching the peel), clove (you can use spices that you have at that time), and vanilla (you can use extract). You’re likely to have them already, and they’re used a lot in perfumery. Just because they’re familiar, however, don’t assume that you know all of their facets.

I emphasize the parallels with language studies to help you find your own connections. I’m sure all of you have pursuits that require memorization, so you can rely on the same techniques for learning aromas. Your techniques might differ from mine, but it doesn’t matter as long as they are effective.

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Dungan Spice Blend and Summer Salad : From Bishkek Via Brussels

Last weekend I had a cooking class with Zulfiya Ma Tian Yu of Dungan Food. Zulfiya lives in Bishkek, Kyrgystan, but we managed to overcome the Bishkek-Brussels distance by a combination of video and WhatsApp. Thanks to  modern technology, I’ve learned the basics of this ancient cuisine. The Dungans are a community of Muslims of Arab-Chinese descent living in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Originating from Western China, where the Dungans are known as Hui, this community has a distinctive identity, amalgamating various cultural influences. Its cuisine is likewise diverse, vibrant–and different from the cuisines of their immediate neighbors.

Imagine the sophisticated seasonings of Persian cuisine, intricate Chinese techniques and the robust Central Asian palette–and you get an idea of what Dungan food is like. There are noodle dishes served with an array of dozens of salads and sauces, dumplings filled with lamb and pumpkin, and paper-thin crepes for wrapping stir-fries of garlic chives and pepper. Each meal is served with plenty of vegetables, and everything is cooked just enough to enhance the natural flavors.

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