Antwerp – The Cult of the Phallus…

Hidden behind its Catholic exterior, each medieval city hides another face. The face of its pagan origins. Before the Gothic Cathedrals, the religious paintings and the traditionally approved cobbled towns we see today, there existed other beliefs, other modes of life, other realities.

This was most apparent when, after visiting the current historic center of Antwerp, with its magnificently decorated Town Hall and its awe-inspiring Cathedral of Our Lady (described in my previous blog post), we made our way to the Het Steen, or Steen Castle, which is the oldest building in Antwerp, and which used to be the previous center of the city.

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The Het Steen, also known as the Fortress of Antwerp, was built in the Early Middle Ages, after the Viking incursions. It stands on the banks of the river, and serves as the current Museum of Archaeology. 

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As one walks towards this Medieval Castle, with its witch-hat capped towers and rounded windows, the first thing one is faced with is, funnily enough, an enormous statue of a man with a GIANT phallus. Other, smaller people gasping and pointing at the phallus are also part of the statue’s tableau. Honestly, when I saw it first I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It really jarred with the rest of the medieval atmosphere. It had nothing to do with the Catholic medieval town.

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Later, I was told that the statue represented the Scandinavian god Semini. He was a god of fertility and youth, to whom women traditionally appealed if they wanted children. To be honest, I found this quite strange as usually fertility deities tend to be female (for obvious reasons). However I was so speechless while being confronted with that statue with its… er… protruding parts, that I couldn’t really do anything except laugh. Anyways; it seems that Semini was the original god of the town of Antwerp, whose inhabitants were referred to as ‘the Children of Semini’. When the Catholic church established its hold on the town, they reviled Semini, and his cult. Of course, I imagine that the people continued to pray to their god in secret, and later on, when society permitted it, erected this statue in his ‘honor’.

After visiting the Het Steen, we spied the beautiful Standspark, a serene green park with a celestial lake and a number of tame waterfowl, and decided to take a walk and relax while surrounded by nature.

It was quite romantic and a much needed break our sightseeing.

 

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Outsider

I don’t know how old I was, when I first became  aware of the bubble.

Crouched in a hollow darkness, I always felt as if I was enclosed in a sphere of shadows. A liquid-like transparent force creating a barrier between me and the rest of the world. In slow motion, I moved within it, out of sync with every one else. Almost matching… almost, but not quite.

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Maybe it was the terror, that harsh violent presence which made me stutter and hesitate, which first created the circular protective barrier. Or maybe it was the cruel indifferent light reflecting off everyone else which first brought it into being. For sure, my awareness of it only strengthened it. My shield. My cage.

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For a time, I believed it had gone. Disappeared with a pop. Finished. For a time, I thought I was here, un-veiled, un-masked, just like everybody else.

Of course, I was wrong.

My bubble is still here. It is dark, dank, comforting. Like an old musty blanket I can clutch around me and slap over my eyes whenever I see something which should not be. I am still here, in a way. But really, I am not. Because I do not want to be. I am not with you. I am not with anyone. And no one is with me. No one looks at me. No one wants to.

In the end, the bubble does not make that much of a difference after all.

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Visiting Blair Castle in Scotland

Blair Castle, found near the village of Blair Atholl in Scotland, is located between Perth and Inverness in Highland Pertshire. Being the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, and strategically located in the Strath of Garry, it holds an important place in Scottish history, both strategically and culturally. Whoever held the Castle was gatekeeper to the Grampian Mountains, and the most direct route to Inverness, which is also the reason why Blair Atholl itself possesses such a colorful history. It is situated at the entrance of Cairgorms National Park and surrounded by a magnificent backdrop of hills and forests. The village of Blair Atholl itself in fact grew up as a means of supplying the Castle, and lies at the confluence of the Rivers Garry and Tilt, 10 miles north-east of Pitlochry. Blair Castle is the focal point of the Atholl Estates, which once covered 350,000 acres, that is, 141,640 hectares of the Scottish Highlands. Currently, the estate lies on 145,000 acres, that is, 58,680 hectares, making it one of the largest in Scotland.

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Blair Castle stands on the ancestral home of Clan Murray, as it was historically the seat of their Chief. The first known structure to be built on the site dates at least to the mid-13th century, and the oldest part of the present Castle is known as Comyn’s Tower, which was built in 1269. This was commissioned by John I Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who wasn’t even the legal owner of the estate at the time. Comyn was in fact a neighbor of the rightful owner, David I Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, who started building on the Earl’s land while this was away on crusade. When the Earl came back home, he found the interloper building on his land and complained about it to King Alexander III. The Atholls won back their land, evicted the Comyns, and incorporated the tower into their own castle.

In 1322, David II Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl lost his titles and estates after his rebellion against Robert the Bruce. The title was granted to a number of individuals until, in 1457, it was given to Sir John Stewart of Belvenie, King James II’s half-brother, as a reward for fighting against the Douglasses and Macdonalds. 

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The castle was engulfed in warfare once more in the 17th century during to so-called Wars of the Three Kingdom. At the time, the Murrays supported the Royalists, and this led to the castle being captured by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1652. These held possession of it until the monarchy was restored in 1660. In 1676, the restored King Charles II granted the title of Marquess of Atholl to John Murray, 2nd Earl of Atholl as a reward, and the 2nd Marquess was given the title of Duke in 1703 by Queen Anne.

During the subsequent Jacobite uprisings, the Murray family was divided as to its loyalties. In 1746, Lord George Murray, together with a force of Jacobites besieged his ancestral home in an attempt to regain possession of it, however before he could succeed he was ordered to retreat in order to fight elsewhere, at the Battle of Culloden. This was the last siege to take place on British soil. Afterwards, Lord George Murray went into exile and later died in Holland, George Murray, his oldest brother, died as a prisoner in the Tower of London, and James Murray, the 2nd Duke of Atholl, resumed residence of Blair Castle.

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James Murray in fact later inherited the title of King of the Isle of Man via his maternal grandmother. The title came with a huge income and properties, which helped fund his project of transforming the medieval castle of Blair into a grand Georgian mansion, tearing down turrets and castellations, in order to create a more fashionable residence. The 3rd and 4th Dukes also prospered, and the grounds around the Castle too were transformed and improved.

In 1844, Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, visited Blair Castle and stayed there for three weeks, during which the Queen granted the Duke of Atholl permission for the founding of the Atholl Highlanders as a private army. This is today the only private Army in Europe. During the First World War, Blair Castle was used as a Red Cross hospital. During the Second World War, the Castle was used to house a displaced private school and a number of evacuees from Glasgow. Blair Castle was one of the first private houses in Britain to open its doors to the general public, which it did in 1932. The 11th and current Duke of Atholl visits each year, while the Blair Charitable Trust runs the day to day management of the estate.

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Blair Castle is the focal point of a breathtaking historical landscape. Its extensive parklands in the impressive magnificent Highlands are set in a number of walks and trails, and the grounds themselves form part of superb woodlands. There is a deer park and pony trekking center close by, as well as a woodland adventure playground for young children. One can most easily arrive at the Castle through Blair Atholl village. Once one passes the handsome gates, one can use the visitor’s car park to the east of the Castle, from which one can choose to explore either the gardens first, or the visit the castle itself. If one chooses the castle, this is reached by crossing a small pleasant footbridge over the Banvie Burn and walking across a large open area.

The first room one sees as one enters the castle is the 19th century entrance hall. Two storeys high, with wood panelled walls covered by muskets, swords and shields, the Great Hall is truly a picturesque experience. Crossing the main hall, across the vaulted ground floor, the Castle tour continues with a grand total of 30 other rooms. These give a rich and varied impression of Scottish life over seven centuries, and give visitors of the castle the opportunity of understanding not only the way the Dukes and Earls of Atholl lived, but also historic customs and traditions.

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One of the most spectacular of the Castle rooms is surely the Tapestry Room, which is hung with Mortlake tapestries, once owned by King Charles I. The Victorian ballroom is also impressive, with its display of 175 pairs of antlers. All the rooms are filled with iconic period furniture and fine art, including a number of Jacobite relics, Masonic items, fine porcelain, and collections of weapon and lace. The present dining room was built during the 18th century. 

The six-storey Comyn’s Tower is the oldest known part of the Castle, dating back to 1269, although it was later re-modelled in the 5th century. In 1740, the 2nd Duke transformed the medieval structure into a stylish Georgian home, removing the turrets and applying fashionable Georgian finishings. 

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Some of the rooms at Blair Castle are in use today for a number of ceremonies and events. They can be used as conference venues, for private dinners, business functions, corporate meetings, special receptions, and even weddings.

Beyond the Castle itself are its grounds and gardens, which flourish over 145,000 acres, and most of which were laid out in the 18th century. To the north of the castle is Diana’s Grove, home to some of Britain’s oldest and tallest trees, while to the east one can find the famous nine-acre Hercules Garden.

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My article on Blair Castle was published on the Polish website castles.today. If you wish to read it in its entirety, please click here.

Maltese Traditions – Il-Quccija

Malta is a small island, and yet its multi-cultural history cannot be denied, since throughout the years it was conquered and influenced by so many civilizations. The Normans, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Turks, the Aragonese (Spanish), the French, and the English, all left their footprints in Maltese culture and traditions, and this mix makes up the unique Maltese habits and customs we know at present.

Il-Quċċija, which could be roughly translated as ‘the choosing’ or ‘the choice’ is one of the ancient old traditions dating back to the 18th century, which is still predominantly popular today. A year after a baby is born, its parents organize a party and invite all the family members and close friends for the gathering. After having eaten traditional Maltese party food, drunk a drink or two and chatted to their heart’s content, the parents prepare a table, basket, or section of the room for the Quċċija. The aim of the Quċċija is to determine or try to prophesy which profession or career the child would have later on in life, depending on which object he or she would pick up from all those offered in the pile.

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This entails collecting and setting out many different items, all reflecting or relating to a particular profession, career or aspect of life. For example, a calculator denotes that the child will become a mathematician, a rosary that he would become a priest, a pen that he would be a writer and a book that he would be learned and wise.

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In the past, different items would be set forth for the child to pick up, depending on his or her gender. If the child was a girl, most often the parents prepared a dish or table containing a pair of scissors, meaning that the girl would become a seamstress, cooking items, a ribbon, which if picked, would mean that the girl would be a beauty, corn which denoted fertility, or an egg which used to signify that the girl would have a big and prosperous home. If the child was a boy, the items would reflect totally different professions. A stethoscope would definitely be one of the items, in the hope that the boy would grow up to be a doctor, if he grabbed an inkstand it would mean that he was going to sit for the bar and become either a lawyer or a magistrate, while if he touched a geometry instrument it would mean that he would become an architect or engineer.

Today, the tradition has changed to reflect the society we are currently living in. Careers and professions are no longer subject to one’s gender, therefore usually the same items are offered to the child at the ceremony, be they male or female. The items themselves too have evolved, in reflection of today’s technological aspect. A baby might therefore grab a computer mouse, pointing at a career in I.T, or a credit card, pointing either towards a banking career or at the promise of future wealth.

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In the end, there is really no strict list of items which must be presented, and parents tend to let the baby crawl around everyday things which are to be normally found around the household. The object the child touches first, tradition holds, will be a dominant aspect in his or her life.

This small ceremony, apart from being held in the Maltese islands, is also believed to be something of a custom in some remote parts of Sicily, Italy, and Greece.

This article was published on LivingInMalta.com – to read the whole article please go here

Living in Fear – Terrorism and Death

Political and economic turmoil have led to a number of issues with possible reverberations throughout the globe. Apart from this, during the past few years, the percentage of terrorist attacks and unrest in the streets all over Europe has also increased dramatically. Some people have elected to chuck their passport at the bottom of a drawer and resign themselves to never travel outside of their own country again. Others read the news assiduously in order to try and find some pattern or conspiracy theory whereby certain countries are deemed 100% safe from such attacks, during certain months or periods of the year.

I personally refuse to be intimidated.

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Yes, one must obviously take precautions, both in the streets and abroad. In fact, one must be careful not to squander away one’s life, or the life belonging to others, no matter what the context. Every child knows that, and it’s plain survival instinct. That doesn’t mean that we have to stop living. It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to construct a self-imposed cage for us to cower in, beset with fears of all types, instead of being free to live our lives as we choose.

Accidents can take place anywhere and at any time – in the home, while at school, at work, or on a bus. So can episodes of violence we have no control over, or even natural disasters. We could get sick, fall down the stairs, be the victim of an earthquake. Such is the frailty of human life, which, as we all know, is finite. Our days, in a word, are numbered, which is why it’s so important to enjoy and make the most of each and every one of them.

We could, keep ourselves hostage.

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Would it really be worth it? It’s one thing to be cautious, and quite another to let the fear of the unknown transform us into shivering pieces of fluff.

Of course there are bad people in this world, just as there is violence, and you can come across these issues everywhere. The point is not to transform terror into the focal point of your life. Don’t let anyone dictate how you should live, think or feel. Be independent, be self-assured, be happy and friendly with those you meet, travel the globe and enjoy yourself.

This is an abridged version of an article I wrote, which was published on the magazine EVE.COM.MT. For the full article, please go to http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/12/31/why-we-shouldnt-live-in-fear/ 

PERSONAL – December Ups and Downs

This has been one roller-coaster of a month. Plenty of highs and lows. So, in a nutshell:

During the first week of December, me and my boyfriend went to Sicily for a short 4-day break. You can read the first part of how that went here, but I’ve still got to continue writing about the rest of the trip. You might ask yourself – why is she taking this long to write about a mere 4-day long trip? The point is, I love travelling – I am simply enchanted by the plethora of emotions, new thoughts and ways of perceiving the world which open up whenever I set foot in a country different from my own, with ‘exotic’ mentalities, colors, history and trends, SO I actually don’t find it that easy to describe it all when I come back, because there is just SO MUCH TO SAY! In fact, if you look through my past posts, you’ll realize that I’ve never actually sat down and documented each and every one of the places I’ve traveled to – simply because there are so many of them. However I told myself I’d make an attempt with this 4-day Sicily trip just to see how it would go. Anyhow, there you have it, still to be continued. And don’t worry, it WILL be, all in its own good time.

Got sidetracked there. Sorry.

On our last day in Sicily, I woke up suffering from some serious back-pain. Sciatica to be precise. The pain extended down to my left leg and I could hardly walk. Needless to be said, the last day was the climax of our trip, as we had planned on going for a jeep-trip up Mount Etna… you think I flunked that? AS IF! I still went. Hopping and wincing and dragging my sorry carcass up the whole mountain. And boy, was I glad I did!

More of that in future posts relating to the actual holiday.

We came back on the 12th. Tuesday 13th was a local Public Holiday so I didn’t have to go to work, and spent the whole day in bed resting and hoping my back would get better. It didn’t. On Wednesday, I went to the doctors’ who gave me pills, painkillers, and the advice to get MORE rest. So, that was the second week of December – which I spent in bed sleeping off my pills.

Luckily for me, the pain retreated, and I was okeyish for the weekend. This was important since my birthday was on Saturday 17th, and I knew that my boyfriend had planned the whole weekend with events for me. That is what we do – I plan stuff for his birthday and he plans stuff for mine. We spent some days meeting friends and family, and I really enjoyed that. Kudos luv! Not to mention that one of the pressies I received is a nice voucher from Ryanair to be redeemed by November 2017! Yay!

On Monday I felt a bit better and so went back to work, taking a large cake with me for my colleagues in celebration of my birthday. The cake was in fact so large, that we are still eating from it (we are a small department). And today is the 27th! During the third week of December we also had our ‘official’ Xmas party at work. The food, I admit, wasn’t anything spectacular, HOWEVER I did make up for it with alcohol consumption… enough said. Unfortunately this also meant that I was too tipsy and suffering from a hangover to actually do my Yule ritual. Ah well, I’m sure the Gods didn’t mind all that much since I celebrated with libation anyways.

On the 24th I cooked and slaved the whole day to prepare an enormous family dinner. Family members came late, and I was quite angry about that, but it was ok in the end and the food was a huge success. We still have our fridge packed with delicious left-overs. On the 25th we ate an enormous Indian buffet, after which Aunt Flo came to visit, and actually floored me. I had to stay home and rest to cope with that, so I missed another family gathering in the evening.

I’m so so tired of eating… AND YES my weight has gone up again! Frankly after noticing the first 3 kilos, I stayed away altogether from the bathroom scales… they scare me.

January will come soon enough, and then it will be time to face the music all right!

 

After Alice by Gregory Maguire – Review

We all know The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. Penned by Oxford Professor Lewis Carroll (whose real name was actually Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) in 1865, this quirky children’s fantasy has inspired multitudes of adaptations, movies, artworks, music and even fashion styles.

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Having been an avid fan and reader of Gregory Maguire ever since I read his novel Wicked, which had inspired the popular musical, and his Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, which is an adaptation of Cinderella, I immediately jumped at the chance to read his latest work, After Alice. As is apparent from the title itself, the story is inspired in part by Carroll’s Adventures in Wonderland, and yet, Alice is NOT in fact the narrator or the main character.

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We meet Ada, Alice’s neighbor, who was in fact very briefly mentioned by Alice herself in the eponymous tale. Ada is a troubled child, constrained by Victorian precepts and tenets and by her unconventional household. In hushed whispers, we hear that her mother is a drunk and possibly suffering from postnatal depression. Her father, the Vicar, scarcely takes any notice of her, her baby brother is a squalling brat, and her governess is a simpering fool. In short, Ada has to fend for herself. Her only friend is Alice, whom, Ada discovers, has disappeared.

Maguire paints a very vivid picture of Victorian England. On the one hand, we travel with a surprised Ada to Wonderland, trying to catch up with Alice whilst encountering the consequences of her passage. On the other hand, we also meet Lydia, Alice’s older sister, throughout whose eyes we face such issues as the slave trade, women’s rights, and the British Victorian mentality. Fantasy is interposed with reality in a very interesting narrative. Picturesque and informative, Maguire’s style is nostalgic to Carroll’s, and yet totally his own.

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Now for the negative part – I must be honest, I have mixed feelings regarding this novel. I started reading it with very high expectations, having previously already been wowed by Maguire’s fairytale adaptations, his ingenuity, creativity and whimsical perspective. Also, being an avid Alice in Wonderland aficionado, I generally try to read, watch, or purchase anything related to my favorite fairytale. While Maguire’s story was marvellously written and illuminating with regards to Victorian society and beliefs, I found it sadly lacking with regards to the Wonderland part of the narrative.

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Carroll’s iconic Wonderland is spectacularly special because it simply makes no sense. As the Cheshire Cat once maintains in Alice in Wonderland, “We are all mad here.” And that is the beauty of Wonderland and the point of fantasy and fairytales – they’re not realistic, because they don’t have to be. Maguire on the other hand, tries to make sense of Wonderland, introducing puns and explanations where none are needed. Wherever he cannot find an explanation, he merely copies characters, situations and almost entire dialogues from Carroll’s original novel.

This article has been published on EVE.COM.MT – If you want to read the complete review, please goto – http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/12/18/after-alice-a-book-review/

A Writer’s Satisfaction

I must admit, researching and writing interviews is not my favorite form of writing. Of course, I do love the opportunity to meet new people and discover different modes of expression, not to mention taking part in the artistic local scene, since most of the interviews I conduct usually center around either artists or cultural events. However, some part of me still feels that this is not the sort of writing I’m meant to focus on.

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Still, it brings me great pleasure to see how my interviews are so very well-received.

My two latest interviews were totally different in nature. Both resulted in quite different, yet very pleasant results. The first such article, published on The Sunday Times of Malta, which is a leading weekly local newspaper, centered around a Japanese Cultural event in Malta and included an interview with the Secretary General of the Japanese Association. As a result of it being published, the Ambassador of Japan to Malta contacted me personally, asking for a soft copy of the article, in order for it to be shared and distributed among various Japanese cultural associations, as its fervor would further promote the communication between our two countries. I was really flattered about this! Imagine Japanese organisations, Ministries, and many other people in Japan will be reading my article! 

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The other interview which was published a couple of days ago concerns a local painter and was published on EVE magazine. The artist in question is not very well known, yet he was so pleased with the interview that he left the following comment on EVE’s website, which I really appreciate:

‘I’d like to thank Melisande Aquilina, for this fantastic article about my love towards art. She has done a really excellent job. I feel tremendously grateful towards her talent as a writer. Melisande is giving a great contribution towards persons like me, whose work is hardly known. This is a great day for me, thanks to you Melisande.’

Thank YOU!

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The article in question can be found here – http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/12/04/benny-brimmer-painting-in-light-and-shadow/

The interview which was published on The Sunday Times is unfortunately not available online as a whole.

Things like these are what really make my day!

 

Travelling Bucket List – Natural Wonders around the World!

Being both a list-maniac and a globe-trotter means that I have a never-ending bucket list of places I want to visit and countries I want to travel to.

Technically it’s not a list, because it’s on an Excel sheet, so I guess you’d call it a spreadsheet. Anyways, this plethora of monuments, ruins, heritage sites, palaces and religious places has one particular special section entitled Natural Wonders. And as the name itself specifies, it concerns those spectacular vistas, amongst which are forests, waterfalls, mountains, caves, and deserts which were created solely by Mother Nature, and which, for the most part, remain untouched by man.

This part of the list is extensive, and I’m sure many more target locations will be added to it in future. Dreams, like stars, are infinite. Here are some of the places I wish to visit, and journeys I hope to make someday. Of course, dreams never take practical issues, like money or time, into account, so I don’t actually know when, or if ever, it’ll be possible for me to go there. Still, one can always hope!

The Aurora Borealis – This is not, strictly speaking, a place, and yet there are many places where one can admire it. The Northern Lights have been something I’ve wanted to experience ever since I was a little girl. My mind knows that, scientifically, it’s a phenomenon which takes place when there are “collisions between electrically charged particles released from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen.” And yet, the thought of a naturally-produced light show sounds truly magical. Sometimes referred to as Polar Light, this sky display can be admired in different places such as Alaska, USA,  Northern Canada, Northern Russia, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

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The rest of this article was published on EVE.COM.MT and can be read here – http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/11/17/natural-wonders-around-the-world/ 

Feeling Intellectually Snobbish

I guess one should be grateful about Plebs trying to write in English. People say it’s the effort or the thought that counts, and not the result – they say it when someone loses a competition or gives a lousy present, so I guess, seeing people whose written English is just so terrible, trying to make an effort, should give one a bit of hope right? At least they are TRYING to write.

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And yet, the conjugation of the verbs, not to mention the turn of sentences, or lack thereof really, are so bad – that I end up wondering. Wouldn’t it be better to just resign yourself to the fact that your English is terrible and that you are just not capable of writing, in English at least, instead of pushing yourself, and others, to suffer through that horrifying syntax? It’s torture really, especially when you’re a voracious reader tenderly minding your own business, and suddenly there it is. Like a freezing squall surprising you out of nowhere. Like a sudden punch in the face. Those bloody sentences which go nowhere, the lack of auxiliary verbs, the mixing of the past and present tense. And don’t let me start about the vocabulary. Ugh.

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Yes, I’m kind of a language Puritan. What can I say? Would the term ‘Grammar Nazi’ fit? Perfectly I’d imagine. Oh yes, I make mistakes, especially when I’m typing using some itty-bitty mobile keypad, or when I’m distracted. But making a typing error in a status or a hurried comment is one thing, while actually publishing a whole article without even bothering to edit the bloody thing, is something totally different

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For Pete’s sake, one can even do that with the auto-correct function these days!

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Ugh, yes rant over.

And THIS is why I hardly ever read local amateurish stuff.

PLEBS

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