Enska á íslensku (English in Icelandic)

If you’re looking for Icelandic slang, look no further than English. Whenever I ask an Icelander for slang words, Icelanders invariably tell me about the words Icelandic has taken from English. Here are some I’ve collected:

– From the English hi and pronounced similarly (æ in Icelandic is pronounced like the i in hi). It’s an informal greeting in Icelandic.
– You can probably guess what this one is – it’s from the English bye. Similar to , it’s an informal way of saying goodbye.
Næs – From the English nice.
Tjilla – This one is probably not so easy to decipher – it’s from the English word chill and is used and conjugated like a normal Icelandic verb: “Ég tjillaði í gær. (I chilled yesterday.)”
Lots of English curse words – This is rather surprising to hear as an English speaker, but in Icelandic English curse words are not considered nearly as rude as they are in English – they are just like any other English loanword. It is considered rude to curse in Icelandic, but English words are fine.

Some Icelanders prefer Icelandic alternatives to English words, which is why new inventions such as electronics get purely Icelandic names rather than retaining the foreign names. For example, radio in Icelandic is útvarp and computer is tölva. This linguistic purity is an effort to avoid the loss of the Icelandic language; Icelandic has few speakers compared to other languages, but Icelanders are very proud of their language and don’t want it to be lost under the deluge of English like so many other languages. Fortunately, with so many Icelanders (and so many foreigners) interested in this beautiful language, it seems like the language will persist!

Gaelscoileanna: A Meeting of Politics and Irish language

Well, we’re half a week past Glenn Cholm Cille, and even though I miss it, Glenn Fhinne has turned out to be just as lovely (Don’t believe me? See picture below!). Because Glenn Fhinne is more remote than Glenn Cholm Cille, the family that I’m staying with gives me every meal. As a result, I’ve gotten to know them pretty well these past few days, and they are wonderful. Our new teachers are also great, and my Irish classes have gotten more intense as I moved up a level to challenge myself this last week.


One thing that makes Irish different from the languages I’ve learned before is that because Irish is a minority language, it’s impossible to study it without also learning about the politics that influence it. I came across an example of a sociopolitical issue surrounding the Irish language this week on an Irish language news website (Tuairisc.ie) in the form of an article on the increase in the number of students in Ireland being educated through the Irish language.


According to the article, as many as 55,000 students in primary and secondary schools are now receiving an immersive Irish language education. What may surprise you, though, is that many of the Irish language schools these students are attending are not national schools (what we would call public schools) in Irish speaking areas, but Gaelscoileanna, Irish language immersion schools, in English-speaking regions.


Although Gaelscoileanna undoubtedly help increase the influence of the Irish language, many people in Ireland see them as negative, because Gaelscoileanna tend to be built in wealthier areas. In addition, admission to Gaelscoileanna is competitive, and some people believe that children with wealthier, better educated parents have a better chance of admission. In short, while those who support Gaelscoileanna say that they are a great help in preserving the Irish language, many people see them as furthering a class divide in Irish society. After reading the Tuairisc article, I wanted to hear firsthand what someone from this Gaeltacht might think about the Gaelscoileanna. Luckily, it turned out that one of the Oideas Gael teachers who grew up in an Irish speaking part of Donegal had actually attended a Gaelscoil in Letterkenny as a teenager. To protect his privacy, I’ll call him Aodhán for the remainder of this post.


Aodhán was familiar with the controversy surrounding Gaelscoilenna, but he said that when he began attending secondary school ten years ago, there was no such concern. Aodhán attended a Gaelscoil in an English-speaking area for secondary school because there was no Irish language secondary school in his town. According to Aodhán, Irish language secondary schools in Gaeltacht areas are relatively rare. This is because many Gaeltacht areas don’t have the population to sustain a high school. For example, there are currently 72 students enrolled in the primary school in Glenn Fhinne. There isn’t enough money to fund a secondary national school for 72 students, because the government would need to pay salaries for around fifteen teachers in order to teach all of the subjects required in the Irish education system.


Aodhán was able to get to Letterkenny because his mother was working there. Most of the students from his primary national school went to one of the two English language secondary schools nearer to his home. As a result, Aodhán said, many of them didn’t have a chance to develop their Irish as they got older. When Aodhán went to the Gaelscoil, it had nothing to do with class divide. It was simply the only place where he could learn his own language.


Nevertheless, Aodhán acknowledged that there are issues with the Gaelscoileanna. The mix of native Irish and native English speakers in them sometimes results in what can be jokingly called “Gaelscoil dialect,” a way of speaking Irish that doesn’t reflect the way native speakers actually use the language. He thought that his use of his native dialect might be weaker because of his education there. In addition, he agreed that Gaelscoileanna are generally built in more affluent areas. He suggests that this might be because new schools in general tend to be built in wealthier areas, a problem we also have in the United States.


I am not from Ireland, and I don’t think that I have a right to an opinion or a conclusion on this issue. Still, I think that it’s worth learning about the political issues surrounding the Irish language, because ultimately politics have a lot to do with whether or not it can survive.


A beautiful afternoon in Glenn Fhinne: Who says it always rains in Ireland?


A poster of Irish phrases in the primary school classroom we’re using for our Oideas Gael course.





Newcomers to Iceland – Conversations with Jashi and Momo

Recently, Icelanders have been discussing immigration quite often. The amount of people of non-Icelandic heritage living in Iceland has increased rapidly in recent years, and now almost 10% of the population comprises immigrants. I asked two non-Icelanders, Jashi and Momo, what it was like to live in Iceland.

The first, Jashi, is originally from the Philippines and moved to Iceland with her husband, who is Icelandic, three years ago. She currently works at the student cafeteria at the University of Iceland. I asked her what she thinks of Icelanders and Iceland. She said that she finds Icelanders to be friendly and hospitable. She said that the country is “cold” – which she prefers to the heat of the Philippines. She is also learning Icelandic, and although she thinks the language is difficult, she likes to use it because Icelanders make you feel welcome when you do – “you don’t feel like a foreigner”.

Me (left) and Jashi (right) in the student cafeteria at the University of Iceland.

Me (left) and Jashi (right) in the student cafeteria at the University of Iceland.

After talking to Jashi, I went with my friend in the program, Courtney Cook, to Ramen Momo to talk to another non-Icelander. Momo is a Japanese student at the University of Iceland and works part time at Ramen Momo. She came to Iceland to study the language and history, and she quite enjoys living in Iceland. Like Jashi, she too finds that Icelanders are very friendly.

Left to right: Momo, me, and Courtney Cook (another student learning Icelandic) in Momo Ramen.

Left to right: Momo, me, and Courtney Cook (another student learning Icelandic) at Ramen Momo.

Momo also mentioned that Iceland’s gorgeous nature is a definite plus to living in this country – and I have to agree!

Near the Barnafoss waterfall.

Near the Barnafoss waterfall.

A Weekend with Tolstoy

Purely by chance, I ended up having three Tolstoy related excursions in a single weekend.
On Thursday, my group went to go see a ‘drama-lecture’ of Anna Karenina with Nabokov’s commentary. We first had a back stage tour at the theater “U Nikitskih Vorot” (transliteration is hard), which was this small, very avant-garde theater. Our tour guide, the son of one of the set creators, told us the theater was only non-professionals. We asked him how long the show was (we had a very early morning the next day), and he told us it was about 3 hours long. I had very low expectations for how much I would like the show, but it turned out to be much better than I had anticipated. It was essentially the entire story of Anna Karenina but with Nabokov acting as narrator, commenter, and occasionally comedian. He really helped move the plot along; for example, I only started getting sleepy when he stopped commenting as much early on in the second half. Although I could only follow the dialogue half of the time, the actions of the actors helped me fully understand the storyline. True to the avant-garde nature of the theater, the music included everything from African tribal music to Tchaikovsky, and some of the scenes were rather abstract.
The following morning, we all met at a Metro station in one of the most southern districts of Moscow at 7:30. From there, we took a two hour, non air conditioned bus drive to Tyla, the town closest to Tolstoy’s estate, where he spent his final days and where he wrote Anna Karenina. Tolstoy’s estate is officially called Yasnaya Polyana, and the rooms are much like how they were when Tolstoy lived there. It’s a beautiful estate, with sprawling gardens, orchards, and buildings for the serfs who lived there. There’s even a school that Tolstoy opened, now a literary museum. It was wonderful to breathe the fresh air after so much time of breathing Moscow’s city air and walk without hearing the sounds of passing cars. While there, I had to be careful to not accidentally become part of a wedding party’s photos. Even so, I think American students showed up in the background of several photos. If one walks down a long path, deep into the forest, one can come across Tolstoy’s grave. It’s a simple grass covered mound, with no headstone or fanfare. On our return, we stopped at Тульский пряник, Tyla’s famous gingerbread store and factory. I bought some for my family back in the States because according to my one of my Russian professors, they keep for a year.



The following Saturday evening, I traveled to the first professional ballet I would ever see. In Moscow, of all places. It was Anna Karenina, at the Moscow Academic Musical Theater. According to my resident director, it has an even better troupe in the summertime than the one that takes over the Bolshoi theater’s stage in the summer. I had a great seat, second balcony, first row, from where I had a commanding view of the stage and also of the pit, where I could observe the musicians. The ballet itself was everything I had hoped for and more. The dancers didn’t miss a beat, I couldn’t find a flaw with the orchestra’s playing, and the ballet included sets with lots of dancers and overwhelming color but also simple duets. At one point in the second half, the orchestra started playing a piece I was shocked to recognize from my study play list. While I grappled with organic chemistry, I never imagined myself hearing the same piece at a ballet in Moscow.

Московский Академический Музыкальный Театр Им. К.С. Станиславского и Вл. И. Немировича-Данченко

Московский Академический Музыкальный Театр Им. К.С. Станиславского и Вл. И. Немировича-Данченко

Food, food, food! – 5

Because Russia is such a vast country, the cuisine is influenced by a wide range of cultures. There are delicious, authentic Asian restaurants. Chinese and Japanese restaurants are numerous, and we even ventured to a North Korean restaurant to try traditional foods from that country. Being Europe’s largest city, Moscow has also taken on western culinary influences. American chains can be spotted throughout the city, especially in areas more often frequented by tourists. McDonalds, Sbarro, KFC, Starbucks, and Krispy Kreme are among the familiar logos transliterated into Cyrillic that I have noticed on my walks through the city. European and international cuisine is very popular, with many restaurants catering to specific styles of cooking (more or less accurately).

Food from Russia’s Caucus region neighbors has also crept into everyday cuisine. Shawarma is particularly popular among young Russians and there are 24 hour Shawarma kiosks all across the city. Shawarma is a middle-eastern burrito-like food. It consists of spit-grilled meat and pickled vegetables served in a pita wrap and is delicious. One notable point of cultural distinction between Moscow and St. Petersburg is their spelling of “shawarma”. In Moscow, it is spelled thus. St. Petersburg, however, has adopted a different spelling, “Shwurma”, and this has become a point of pride for residents of both cities.

Another culturally significant food in Russia is cake. Beautifully decorated cakes can be found in the refrigerator section of even the smallest grocery store. The obsession with cakes stems from the shortage of such foods during the Soviet era. In those times, it was difficult to find a cake in the store, especially the most popular varieties so people baked at home. Older Russians still have multitudes of cake recipes, but this is becoming less popular as cakes have become more and more accessible. Left over from those times is the tradition of inviting guests over and serving cake after dinner. With such a high demand for sweets, the selection is excellent. Pictured, is a typical honey cake at a Russian café.


There are traditional Slavic-influenced dishes that one typically considers “Russian”. Among these are bliny, pirogi, and vareniki. This style of cuisine involves a lot of starches and can be prepared as savory or sweet dishes. Grocery stores typically stock a wide selection of these in the frozen food section, so even the busiest Russians can have a taste of comfort food. We have relied on these frozen dinners in the past when preparing group dinners on our floor, as they require no more culinary prowess than the ability to boil a pot of water. There is no major taste difference between these frozen dinners and those served in restaurants, simply because the recipe is so simple. Bliny, and pirogi are necessarily better fresh because they are prepared by pan frying and baking, respectively. Vareniki, however, taste the same whether they were hand rolled by a chef or boiled at home. Quality of ingredients in integral to a successful dish, and there is a notable difference in flavor of these traditional foods in Russia and elsewhere.

Several members of our program have noted to me how delicious the food is. There is a small grocery store across the street from our campus where most students get their groceries. The selection is significantly smaller than in an American grocery store, but the quality of ingredients is significantly higher. The produce is more flavorful and the milk tastes more like milk from a cow than like water. I know that I will miss the “Green Store” (as we affectionately call our local grocery) when I return to America.

The Forbidden City

Class is going well, it is definitely still busy but also manageable.  Time is passing very quickly I can hardly believe that we already almost at the halfway point.  I also am noticing a significant improvement in my speaking ability.  For the most part I am able to get by pretty well with everyday interactions whether it be buying food, talking to a taxi driver or meeting a new person.  By far the hardest thing that I find is understanding what some native speakers are saying, it sounds so different from the clear pronunciation we hear in the classroom.  Our teachers say not to worry though, people’s accents from different areas can be so strong that even native speakers can have trouble understanding sometimes.


This week we went as a class to the Forbidden City.  Originally a high security area for emperor and elite of China, it is now a major tourist destination, adjacent to Tiananmen Square.  The Forbidden City itself was pretty magnificent, but after honestly the buildings all looked very similar.  After a couple hours we hiked to the top of hill which had a amazing view of the whole City. Next week we will be going to Xi’An which should be exciting, as fun as Beijing is it will be nice to see another part of China.

故宫,天安门广场,和后海 China Week 2 Part 2

Our cultural excursion for week 2 was to visit the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. As we entered the square, we saw hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese people lined up to see Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. Something that’s really interesting about China that’s different than most of the other countries I’ve visited is that at every tourist destination, mostly Chinese people are found being tourists in their own homeland. It seems to me that it’s almost as though because Beijing is the cultural hub of China, many Chinese people visit Beijing as almost a pilgrimage of some sort, whether they’re touring beautifully ornate Buddhist temples or climbing the Great Wall.

Tiananmen Square, famous for having a huge picture of Mao on the outside as well as being the site of the famous picture of Tank Man, leads into the Forbidden City, essentially a small village composed of 9,999 traditional architectural buildings for the leader of China and his 3,000 concubines. After wandering through the maze of buildings that all seemed to blend into each other, we stumbled upon this huge manmade structure of a rock that had every Chinese zodiac animal carved into it as statues. In my opinion, this was the coolest part of the Forbidden City, as it was interesting how the artist chose to depict each zodiac symbol. As we left the Forbidden City, we hiked up a small mountain that provided us with a spectacular view of the entire city as well as a huge gold Buddhist shrine.

Although I enjoyed learning about the history of China throughout the day, my favorite part of the day was exploring Houhai, a small neighborhood of traditional hutongs, bars, and shops organized around a calm lake filled with paddle boats. The scenery was breathtaking, and I ate the most elaborately constructed and most delicious flower-shaped cotton candy I’ve ever eaten. I plan to return to Houhai and experience the magic of the neighborhood at night, as one of my Chinese teachers recommended experiencing Houhai’s vibrant nightlife.

Learning Chinese is ridiculously difficult, and every day I’m reminded of how rare and hard it is to achieve near-native proficiency in the language. However, with the help of my very patient teachers and eager classmates, I’m able to quickly learn new vocabulary and grammar structures, which I’m later able to test out in real situations like in restaurants or shops. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to study in China, and I think it has helped my Chinese proficiency grow in such an enriched environment.

P.S. Good luck to my fellow ND classmate, Dino Swan, as he embarks on learning Spanish!! 加油!

民以食为天!China Week 2 Part 1

…Resources and energy are depleting, send help…

My stash of American granola bars I brought may have slowly disappeared, but I’m mostly kidding.

Week two was definitely a lot harder than week one, as I struggled to come to terms with just how different the food is in China from America (the Chinese version of an American breakfast sandwich is a fried egg inside of a Taiwan pancake). However, I was able to find some foods I enjoy, such as authentic Kung Pao chicken, 煎饺子 (fried eggs with meat and vegetable filled dumplings), and 香辣鸡汉堡 (the Chinese version of a spicy chicken sandwich). Living in the suburbs of Chicago my whole life, I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of authentic Chinese food, so fully immersing myself in the Chinese culture and eating traditional Chinese food took some getting used to. Every Friday afternoon, our Chinese teachers take us out to a traditional Chinese restaurant, which really helps to understand the Chinese culture’s approach to food as well as try more different types of Chinese dishes, the names of which are all conveniently composed with the ingredient used in the dish as well as the way the dish is prepared.

The Chinese culture places a large emphasis on sharing food when actually sharing a meal. In most Chinese restaurants, a Lazy Susan sits in the middle of the table, allowing for easy access to every food and drink that is brought out in staggered time intervals. Unlike in America, you’re able to try a wide variety of foods in one meal, broadening your tastes with each unique bite. Because you try so many different foods, it’s easy to become full quickly without realizing it, but your Chinese teacher will still urge you to take that last piece of eggplant. Chinese people are very selfless when it comes to sharing food, always offering others the first and last bite of every dish and encouraging you to eat as much as your heart desires and your stomach can hold. In China, one of the absolute worst things is to be wasteful, so it’s important to try to finish every plate that you’ve ordered.

As far as drinks go, it is very rare that a restaurant will have cold or even room temperature water. The water quality in China very easily causes foreigners to get sick, so many of the restaurants only serve hot tea and soda. The two most common sodas to drink are Sprite and Coke, and a liter bottle of each is typically placed on the Lazy Susan at the beginning of the meal, only to quickly disappear as eleven thirsty Notre Dame students each guzzle down a glass. In some restaurants, a small glass with the cup not more than the size of a thimble, which is meant to hold 白酒, essentially the equivalent of a really strong vodka, is placed next to each guest’s plate, soup bowl, spoon, chopsticks, and tea cup. Of course, because we’re part of a school program, we don’t partake in the tradition of drinking with any meals, but it’s interesting to see the Chinese culture’s approach to alcohol with meals.

My ordering in Chinese has slowly but surely developed from pointing at menu items and asking what meat is the main component of the dish (side note: for some reason, the workers at the dining hall enjoy telling us that the dish is composed of chicken or beef when really it’s made of fish L) to being able to pronounce full names of food and successfully order for myself. I still have a long ways to go when it comes to getting used to eating and ordering Chinese food, but I’m so lucky and fortunate to get the opportunity to practice every day.

Beijing – The Halfway Point

Marking our halfway point for our summer session abroad in China, the Notre Dame summer language program took a trip down to Xi’an, China.  It was roughly an 11 hour trip by train from the Beijing station.  It was a very interesting experience to say the least, for not only is it not common to travel by train in the States, but it is a foreign concept to travel by train in a sleeping car with strangers.  While I will admit I was originally put off by the tight quarters of the “soft-sleeper” car, I ended up enjoying the new experience, and the chance to practice speaking with native speakers.

Arriving in Xi’an, the immediate distinguishing characteristic from Beijing was the air quality.  While China as a whole has problems with pollution, it is more serious in Beijing, and it is often days at a time between sunny days with blue skies.  Getting off the train in Xi’an, there was not a cloud in the sky, and there was a comfortable breeze.  Absolutely beautiful weather.

Xi’an is an ancient city, and we were able to see the famous city wall, a stunning play detailing the exploits of a famous Tang dynasty emperor, and of course the army of Terra-cotta Warriors.  The Terra-cotta warriors were breathtaking, and the history was practically tangible walking through the massive excavation.  It was incredible to think they had not even found all of them yet.  However, the Xi’an wall was my favorite stop.  A wall that runs a roughly 14 KM rectangle around the city, it is ancient, and traverses past many famous Xi’an sites.  Riding a rented bike around the wall twice, I was able to take in the scenery and have a little fun racing my classmates. 

It is remarkable to me that I have already surpassed the halfway point of my experience here.  The weeks have flown by, yet somehow I feel I have been here for years.  Interactions that were once challenging are now routine and second-hand.  I am proud of the progress I have made, and excited that I am fortunate enough to have some weeks left in this country to continue to learn and grow as a student. 

L’Entrée : A Short “Flee” to Provence

As I typed down these words, my train left Avignon TGV Station in tender twilight. The broadcast repeated that this would be a direct journey to Paris, “sans cesse.” I have always known that two days would fly by, but not until I finally parted did I realize how I would miss this trip. Yes, I “fled” to Provence for a weekend from the grand city of Paris and from the slightly routine everyday life. Though not at all am I bored about Paris, a wholly different scenery in Southern France would naturally be refreshing.

Before all, it is purely the regret that I had once missed the blossom period of lavender that brought me to Provence. When I arrived in Avignon four years ago, a strong fragrance of lavender still lingered on in the air despite the complete absence of its purple flowers. Exactly as Tagore has written in a poem:”I leave no trace of wings in the air, but I am glad I have had my flight.” On the other hand, however, I also planned this solo trip to test if I could live up to one of my pre-departure objectives: to navigate without difficulties around the country. Someone must have heard my second wish, for the trip started out with a little mess that forced me to truly communicate with others – rather than finish an absolutely smooth trip without talking much.

As I reached Gare de Lyon in Paris approximately half an hour in advance, my “worst” trouble began. Since the rest of my trip could hardly have been better, this tiny issue stood out. I had to pick up my train tickets at the station, and the automatic machine could not read my card. When I turned to the service center for help, more than a dozen of people were queuing ahead of me. In her sweet voice a lady explained to me that it was a Friday and the entire world would leave for vacation. Minute by minute, I finally missed my original train and had to make a change in booking. I hope I did not sound like complaining, for looking back I did not feel bothered at all. Quite the contrary, I found this experience truly encouraging as I managed to sort everything out in French when I could easily slip back into English at such a large train station. Furthermore, I sensed a strange confidence knowing that I could rely on my language ability – though nothing near full proficiency.

The City Walls of Avignon at Night

The City Walls of Avignon at Night

Provence was, then, a perfect dream. I luckily arrived in Avignon during its annual Festival d’Avignon that consists of countless theatrical performances. Warm, fresh evening breeze embraced me with mixed scents of lavender, honey and lemon verbena. The ancient city wall showed beautiful contrast with the sky, perfect in blue and gold. Strolling through the cobblestone alleys, the medieval town of Avignon was indeed so different from Paris that one could easily have a sense of vacation. The next day I departed for lavender with slight worries, for the weather report predicted rain and overcast in the region. For one of the few times, it was right. I did not see the typical postcard scene that consists of brilliant sunshine and endless violet field in extremely high saturation. What I encountered was instead a grey sky and dark purple field. Though beautiful all the same, I would admit that I was a bit disappointed mainly because of the break of my fixed stereotypes.

Lavender Field in front of Sénanque Abbey

A second highlight of my trip was a visit to Arles the next day, where Van Gogh has stayed once and painted his famous The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum. Sadly I did not visit the town at night, but another great wonder awaited in the bright sunshine. At the hospital where Van Gogh stayed after cutting his ear, a court filled with radiant flowers stood. I was so amazed that I could barely find words to describe its visual power. Then reflecting back on the intense, colorful paintings of Van Gogh, I came to feel a bittersweet sentiment. So many have called his life a shooting star. So I would also quote Tagore again, “LET life be beautiful like the summer flowers…” Not at all an art expert, the beauty of merely one place where Van Gogh has stayed struck me all the same.

Blossoming Garden at Espace Van Gogh in Arles

Blossoming Garden at Espace Van Gogh in Arles

Southern France was indeed a treasure with strong artistic atmosphere. I have one final thing to share with you – the quaint town of Roussillon built out of red clay. The entire town was really vibrant with its unique color of the architecture and its numerous artworks. Traveling solo finally showed its drawback when I could hardly take a full-length photo. Thus again an opportunity to practice my French as well as my “courage” arose. I started to ask locals to help take photos of me. It was a process full of surprises in which I could never have pictured myself even a year ago. I have always been a typical introvert and tend to avoid much contact with strangers. Yet here I submitted to my earnest desire of capturing every beautiful image I came across.

Me with An Artistic Gate at Roussillon, the City of Red Clay

Me with An Artistic Gate at Roussillon, the City of Red Clay

Leaving in the gradually darkening sunshine made this departure a hard one. As rosy clouds sank into the thick blue sky, I cannot help but have my eyes lingering on the hasty lavender or sunflower fields passing by. In just two days, Provence showed me a picture of all the best of summer. Coming back from this trip, I became more confident in my ability to use French in various occasions. Even if there may not be much substantial progress yet, I feel more at ease speaking French no longer as if in a conversation practice, but truly as a communication medium not much different from English.