A second story of the extraordinary ordinariness of everyday acquaintances.

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Photo by Ruben Rubio on Unsplash

She was remarkable — even more so for a grandmother.

She lived in a house on the edges of a quiet Asturian village, in the rural heart of northern Spain. Fringed by snow-capped hills, the village — scarcely more than a small assembly of houses and shops — flanked two sides of a narrow river. It had a school. It even had a prehistory museum, filled with neanderthal mannequins and iron-age spearheads.

Quite out of place in this modest community, Abuela's house was grand and stately, like the New World merchants’ houses that fill port-towns all along Spain’s northern coast…


A story of the extraordinary ordinariness of everyday acquaintances.

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Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash, cropped by the author.

Introduction

Life is filled with encounters, some meaningful, some less so. But even the most transient shape our experience in some small way, and often linger in our thoughts for a long time to come. This story recounts my meetings with one such person; not family, not a friend, merely an acquaintance — but one that lives on in my mind even years later.

The Porter

He was surprising. Almost every apartment block in the world has a porter, and almost every person in the world has an idea of what that porter might look like, sound like, act like — shaped in…


Languages are surprisingly hard-to-learn and stunningly irrational, so why have we never altered them for the better?

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Pixabay via Pexels.

Simplicity is something of a modern-day zeitgeist.

The need to simplify our daily tasks and processes has absorbed the attentions of inventors over the past few decades. Household appliances have sped-up and simplified daily chores; cars have new features to make traditionally-difficult situations easier; and thousands of apps and software tools claim to simplify how we communicate, take notes, order food, book hotels, and so much more besides.

Language stands out as one of the very few areas to have received little attention in this regard.

Bucking the trend, most modern languages — even those that have spread around the…


You don’t have to travel to Rome or Pompeii to discover the legacy of Europe’s Roman ancestors.

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Photo by Roger Goh on Unsplash

Think of Roman and one — understandably — thinks of Italy.

Rome and Ostia, Pompeii and Herculaneum — Italy’s Roman sites are among the most famous tourist attractions in the world. The capital alone attracts nearly ten million visitors each year.

But that popularity is not always a good thing, leading to crowded tourist sites and gradually eroding the millennia-old architecture and history contained within.

The Romans’ European imprint is by no means limited to Italy. At its height, Roman civilisation stretched the length and breadth of Europe, even encroaching on north Africa, the Near East, and beyond.

And with…


Or, how a skill we now take for granted is more recent and less widespread than we might think

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(Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash)

The story of reading is as fundamental to our history as it is fascinating, surprising, and profoundly human.

The ability to read sets us apart from other animal species and simultaneously connects us to people from almost every generation since the dawn of human civilisation — and perhaps even earlier still.

But, despite the fact is seems natural to many of us today, the art of reading has evolved and adapted over millennia. These are some of the key developments in the history of reading.

What Is Reading?

To understand the history of the skill we call reading, it is first necessary to…


America is a concept as much as a country, and its connotations are changing for the worse.

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(Photo by Eilis Garvey on Unsplash)

We all feel that we know America — even those of us who have never been.

I, like many in Britain, view America as both a country and a concept, a notion that imposes itself on every aspect of daily life, from the brands we buy to the films we enjoy.

American culture is its greatest export, but it is a vision made of broad strokes, of stereotypes without nuance. For the last seventy years, it has also been one of envy for those of us on the outside looking in.

America is the prism through which Britons’ world is…


One of the world’s most tactically-astute generals is far less a household name than Hannibal or Napoleon.

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© https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongol_siege_of_Kaifeng

Subotai was a key figure in the unparalleled imperial expansion of the Mongols under Genghis Khan.

He was no Mongol himself, however, having grown up in a neighbouring tribe and joined the Mongol army at the age of 14, becoming a servant to the Khan, from where he was able to learn the skills of Mongol combat.

Subotai rose through the ranks, eventually becoming one of Genghis’s most trusted generals.

Serving as a commander for over five decades, Subotai oversaw and contributed to the rise of the Mongols from a collection of families on the east Asian plains to the…


Gathering at a leisure centre near Manchester one cold Saturday in January, a group of young men are preparing to play football.

For some of those warming up at Partington Sports Village, it is their first-ever time on a football pitch. Others are lacing up their boots after many years of absence.

The players are part of Cerebral Palsy United’s new adult development team, set up at the beginning of the year to bridge the gap between the club’s junior tiers and its experienced adult side.

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Partington Sports Village, where CP United train regularly

Michelle Wilcock, who championed the new squad, explained: “There was a real need for…


The French certainly think so.

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Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

“There where the State is present, acts, finances, its presence must be clearly identified.”

French Government, April 2020 (transl. author).

At the beginning of April, the French government announced that it was to start using a new font on its website and in its official documents.

The change came at a time when exposure to government information was as high as it had ever been.

The restrictions imposed on the French public because of coronavirus have thrust the new font onto the screens and into the hands of millions of citizens in the form of advice pages and travel…


As the U.S. considers the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated populations, it is worth remembering who will be most affected — and why.

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(Photo by Ye Jinghan on Unsplash)

The spread of coronavirus has been seen by some as a great social leveller. Politicians and celebrities have felt its effects and been bound by restrictions imposed to protect us all.

But it is becoming increasingly clear than any perceived equality is largely false. This is a virus spread by proximity and there are many groups around the world who are unable to adequately distance themselves.

From the inhabitants of migrant camps to groups made vulnerable by illness or disability, to the inmates of cramped prisons — coronavirus will not, and does not, affect everyone equally.

And as the world…

Calum Johnson

A UK-based journalist, translator, and writer with a passion for history, languages, and sport.

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