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The Jardin des Tuileries in October 2020. Photo by William Sidnam.

This probably wasn’t the best year to go on a working holiday.

Seeing how the last twelve months have unraveled, that really goes without saying. But just like the year itself, hindsight is always twenty-twenty.

When I arrived in Paris at the start of March, no one knew a pandemic was less than six feet away from sweeping the globe. Fast-forward several months, and round-the-clock window gazing is back on the agenda.

We’re now four weeks into the reconfinement. …

A review of Guy Deutscher's 'Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages'

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Photo by YUCAR FotoGrafik on Unsplash

When you study translation theory, you quickly establish a couple of things: 1) Academics can’t agree on anything; and 2) Reading articles about language can be pretty tough-going.

Like many academic articles, pieces on language can often suffer from turgid prose. But thankfully, not all authors possess the gift of the drab. In Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher has written a delightful book about a question bound to arouse anyone’s curiosity: how does the language we speak shape how we perceive life, the universe, and everything else?

At the start of the book, Deutscher talks about Homer, and why in his epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, the first ‘great’ poet of western civilisation described the sea as oînops, or ‘wine-dark’. The strange description has baffled people for centuries, and while some saw ‘wine dark’ as nothing more than poetic licence at play, nineteenth century British prime minister William Gladstone went so far as to suggest that the ancients were partially colour blind. The reason the sea was described as a shade of wine, Gladstone speculated, was because Homer, and all his contemporaries, couldn’t see the colour blue. …

A quick look at Christopher Nolan's time-bending blockbuster

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Photo by Jay Rembert on Unsplash

.reraelc erew yrots eht ylno fi woN .flesti ni tnemeveihca evisserpmi na si ffo meht llup ot deganam yeht tcaf eht os ,ecudorp ot neeb evah dluow yeht eramthgin lacitsigol a fo hcum woh enigami ylno nac enO .emit fo wolf evissergorp eht ni dednuorg sniamer esle enoyreve dna gnihtyreve elihw emit ni sdrawkcab evom sretcarahc emos — DAEHA RELIOPS — hcihw ni senecs eht yllaicepse ,edir elbayojne na s’ti ,dias taht htiW

.ti gniod s’eh yhw ro ,gniod s’eh tahw wonk t’nod uoy nehw tsinogatorp eht htiw gnisihtapmys elbuort evah yam uoY ?tluser ehT .sdrawkcab ro sdrawrof rehtie ,wollof ot drah yllacilobaid s’taht yrots a htiw tfel er’uoy dna ,eugolaid yrotisopxe revo XFS dna cisum gnitsrub-murdrae sesitiroirp taht xim dnuos a ni ddA .doog nwo sti rof revelc oot elttil a si enilyrots eht ,smlif naloN tsom ekil osla ,revewoH .secneuqes …

Why saying '96' requires a little arithmetic

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Photo by Waranont (Joe) on Unsplash

I’ve never been great with numbers.

Seriously, if you asked me to solve a mathematical equation, I would get it wrong nine times out of eight.

But that all pales in comparison to my struggles with French numbers, whose mere existence fill me with an unquantifiable dread.

It’s pretty embarrassing, honestly. After all, numbers are usually one of the first things you encounter when you start learning a language. But for whatever reason, my brain has trouble recognising French numbers the way that it does English ones.

That’s not to say I don’t know French numbers; I do know them, or at least I think I do. But when I think of a number, I can’t help but first think of it in English, and then spend some time trying desperately to remember what the French word for it should be. So, ironically, while I once managed somehow to write philosophy essays while on exchange in France, today I would still have trouble telling you how much a sandwich costs. …

Exploring a popular Paris tourist site during the pandemic

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Photo by Valeria Capettini on Unsplash

Q. What is a Parisian?

A. A person who hates Paris yet couldn’t live elsewhere.

Or so the old joke goes. I heard it eight years ago from a friend who didn’t mind making fun of Parisians, himself included.

Like a lot of jokes, it may contain an element of truth. But whether it does or not, at least one thing is sure: at the height of summer, the butts of the joke were nowhere in sight.

As France began its annual leave, Paris had returned to being lockdown quiet. You could wander down avenues and not cross a stranger’s path for a whole block or five. The streets were so empty, in fact, that even if you dropped a pin, you wouldn’t hear it; before it could hit the ground, it would have packed its bags and joined the exodus out of servitude. …

English is a much stranger language that I had imagined

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Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

One of the stranger things about learning a foreign language is that you often end up learning quite a bit about your native tongue. That has certainly been the case for me, anyway; while learning Italian, I’ve come to learn quite a few things about English that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

Here are some things I’ve learnt about English while studying Italian.

English grammar actually exists

When I attended school, I learnt very little grammar. In fact, aside from being taught a few grammar rules — including the unhelpfully incorrect ‘rule’ that you must never start sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ — students were taught very little about how sentences work. So while we picked up a lot of grammar rules intuitively, we couldn’t explain how they worked. To give one example, we all know that ‘She buys’ is correct but ‘She buy’ isn’t. But if pressed to explain why the first example works and the second one doesn’t, we wouldn’t know what to say. Perhaps we’d say that the first one ‘sounds right’, and leave it at that. …

Enhance your imagination, one exposure at a time

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Photo by William Sidnam

Writing and photography might seem pretty odd bedfellows. While the former traffics in words, the latter is decidedly visual. What’s more, since writers tend to think more in words than in pictures, photography might not seem the most obvious hobby to practice.

But in my experience, photography is the ideal pastime for writers— and no, it’s not just because it’s a great way to put off writing. As a creative who spends his days at a keyboard, I originally picked up a camera as a means to escape the insufferable agony of putting pen to paper. But while taking photos outside, I came to realize that whist it may appear as the polar opposite of writing, photography offers some useful lessons that all writer can employ. …

Some random observations about the French language

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Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

When you learn a new language, you don’t just pick up a bunch of new words and grammar rules. You also learn things that aren’t even directly related to the language in question: things like cultural differences, ancient worldviews, and how comprehension can shape how a language sounds.

Without further ado, here are some random observations I’ve made while learning French.

Learning French words can change how you see the world

Every language offers a unique perspective on the world. So when you begin speaking a new language, you’re forced to grapple with how it makes sense of the world.

You can see a cultural difference between English and French by how they talk about missing someone. While we might say ‘I miss you’ in English, the French say ‘Tu me manques’ (‘You’re missing to me’). So while the English makes ‘miss’ an active action, with the subject ‘doing’ the missing, French puts the focus on the person being missed. It’s more passive, in a sense, and yet the same idea is being expressed. …

The French capital is turning its lights back on

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A man rides past Notre Dame cathedral in the heart of Paris. Photo by William Sidnam.

You can’t spell ‘paradise’ without Paris. Nor ‘virus pandemic’, for that matter.

Though these observations might be trivial, in the wake of a two-month confinement they seemed to convey some grander meaning beyond mere wordplay.

As I walked around Paris one day, I saw a city in a state of transformation. Free of the anxiety still lingering at the start of déconfinement, the city had reverted to its pre-pandemic form.

Or so it seemed.

Though the virus might still be on the loose, people appeared to have forgotten about it. …

Upgrade your language skills without paying a cent

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Photo by Henrique Ferreira on Unsplash

As an unrepentant Francophile, I’ve spent around a decade learning French.

While my French is still far from perfect, it’s decent enough to do things like rent an apartment, open a bank account, and study at a university in France without embarrassing myself too much.

Before I reached a semblance of fluency, however, I really struggled to string sentences together. In fact, during my first three years of high school, I made frustratingly slow progress. …


William Sidnam

New Zealand creative based in Paris. Advertising copywriter, newspaper contributor and teller of tales. Emailable at

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