22 December 2006

Merry Delays

The irony of Christmas travel is this: precisely at the moment it is most important for everyone to arrive on time to their destination, the number of travelers wanting to do so causes them not to arrive on time.

Or chowder-thick fog in London causes it.

I am in Barcelona, and today I have visited the airport twice in hopes of finding my tall blonde family standing out like sore (jet-lagged) thumbs amongst the short chestnut-haired Catalans.

No such luck.

Yes, for some crazy reason they all decided to ship out--brothers, sister, in-laws, nephew, parents--, and instead of spending Christmas in idyllic snowy Vermont (remember Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas? yep, Vermont), they will be in sunny but cold Catalonia, in a big Catalan farmhouse, eating the local Christmas specials like escudella.

The series of e-mail subject headings from my father throughout the day should tell the story (of long delays, no one telling them anything, cancellations, getting a flight to Madrid instead, flight to Madrid delayed, still hoping for a Madrid-Barcelona flight)...

>Flight from London to Barcelona
>Dad and family still at Heathrow 7:00 am
>Re: Dad and family still at Heathrow 7:00 am
>Dad Heathrow 11:25am
>Dad Heathrow again
>Dad--flight to Madrid now, then on to BCN
>Travel on Friday to Madrid

As of 9 this evening we still haven't heard anything from Madrid and we're crossing our fingers that they'll make it to BCN before the rental car place closes. Bah humbug on Iberia.

The good news is, it's not Christmas yet, or even Christmas Eve, so there's a bit of leeway. And once they arrive, we're going to celebrate a Christmas like we've never celebrated before. It's going to involve Catalan Christmas traditions like logs that poop presents (yes, I will elaborate later, and no, I am not making this up), a little clay pooper to be found hiding in nativity scenes, and a man with 364 noses.

19 December 2006

Three things I love about every single day, #3

Ages ago I started this series of posts, and if you are a careful reader and are obsessive enough to worry about lists that announce they are Three and then are only Two, you may be wondering, where did number three go?

Well here, careful reader, is #3:


There are many many reasons why one of my favorite parts of the day is crawling into bed, but here are the top three (more numbered lists! I'm not a list-making, linear thinker, oh no, not me!):

1. I'm good at sleeping. I'm a champion. I fall asleep easily, I sleep deeply, I can wake up and fall back asleep again. I could outsleep you any time, and fall asleep anywhere, promise. I like to sleep.

2. Yet, this ability to fall asleep is combined with a night-time alertness, because I am not what you would call a morning person. So, when I go to bed, I often read for long stretches, and since I'm trying to put a quarantine on non-thesis reading to contain it within before-bed reading, I look forward to it very much. What I am trying to say is that Thing #3, sleep, is related to Thing #2, books. (Dr. Seuss, go away.)

3. Sleep is ever so much nicer once a husband is obtained. Cuddles and warmth and that sort of thing.

15 December 2006

To let go the means, to wake

Happy birthday to Muriel Rukeyser! In her honor, three of her beautiful poems. Not coincidentally, I think, these three happen to be titled as if they are a showcase of the form, the bones exposed, iconic and austere. They employ their own poem-ness in attempting to connect.

The last one, I read at a benefit poetry reading for tsunami victims two Christmases ago. It seems to capture so precisely the distances in our world of wars and machines, and our desire for connection, both affirming the possibility of connection and calling us to "reach beyond ourselves."


My thoughts through yours refracted into speech
transmute this room musically tonight,
the notes of contact flowing, rhythmic, bright
with an informal art beyond my single reach.

Outside, dark birds fly in a greening time :
wings of our sistered wishes beat these walls :
and words afflict our minds in near footfalls
approaching with a latening hour's chime.

And if an essential thing has flown between us,
rare intellectual bird of communication,
let us seize it quickly : let our preference
choose it instead of softer things to screen us
each from the other's self : muteness or hesitation,
nor petrify live miracle by our indifference.


The world if full of loss; bring, wind, my love,
My home is where we make our meeting-place,
And love whatever I shall touch and read
Within that face.

Lift, wind, my exile from my eyes;
Peace to look, life to listen and confess,
Freedom to find to find to find
That nakedness.


I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other.
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

If only I had a cool x-ray visor thing

I just took the "which Star Trek character are you" quiz. (Yes I *AM* working on my dissertation, promise!) I am gratified to know that my high score ranks me as most like Geordi LaForge, because I have a real soft spot for Geordi. However, the description is: "You work well with others and often fix problems quickly. Your romantic relationships are often bungled." Yes, yes, and um, no.

If I had been forced to guess in advance who I would score as, I would have picked Beverly Crusher or Expendable Redshirt. If I choose who I *wish* I was like, it would be Jean-Luc Picard. So much more level-headed and quite a sight more intellectual than Kirk.

Geordi LaForge 65%
Uhura 60%
Beverly Crusher 60%
Deanna Troi 50%
An Expendable Character (Redshirt) 45%
Jean-Luc Picard 45%
Data 42%
Chekov 40%
Will Riker 40%
Mr. Scott 35%
Worf 30%
Spock 22%
Leonard McCoy (Bones) 20%
James T. Kirk (Captain) 20%
Mr. Sulu 15%

Take the quiz here. Which trekker are you?

14 December 2006


A macaron is a French confection, one which has little to do with the coconut macaroons that we Americans associate with the word (although the word derives from the French, and the cookies are related within several generations).

The thing is, for some strange reason, I had never yet tasted one of these delectable creations, but due to their cuteness, gracefulness of form--smooth rounded top! ruffled inner layer! satisfying symmetry!-- and compelling variations in color, I had been longing to try some. I had seen them in Paris and in Brussels, often in chocolate shops or in fancy cake shops, so I was guessing they had to be something special.

But perhaps subconsciously I was putting it off, because in my experience it is often the case that the pastries and cookies that are the best looking end up being the worst tasting, or too bland, or at least not what you expected. (Case in point: In Porto last week I bought a huge pastry dusted with powdered sugar--for only thirty cents!--that looked like it was going to be a fluffy chocolate thing, but instead turned out to be a dense Christmas-style gingerbread. Still tasty, but definitely not what I was expecting.)

So Sunday after church, when we headed to Au Bouquet Romain, a posh coffee/chocolate shop decorated in hot pinks and oranges, and I spied macarons in the window, the moment had come. We ordered four, each about the size of a dollar coin. One was an intense pink color, almost maroon (hah! a maroon macaroon!), another deep chocolate brown so there was no mistaking what its flavor would be, another a light brown, and finally a sorbet orange.

I thought they would be crunchy, like merengues or other cookies, but instead after the delicate crunch of the thin crust, the inside was dense and gooey, and then the filling even denser, giving the whole thing an incredibly satisfying texture. And the flavor! Each one was an intense double-burst of flavorings: rasberry, dark chocolate, mocha, and orange. Like gelatto, the flavor seem to be intensified by the texture, and probably the visuals had something to do with it as well.

I've looked into recipes for making my own macarons, but it appears that I lack the equipment: mixer, food processor, etc. Plus, I encountered warnings of how difficult it is to make them correctly. So I'll just have to be satisfied--oh, so satisfied!--with stopping by Au Bouquet Romain during the day when the store above the coffee shop is open and they give away free samples (and then buying a few to tuck into later).

13 December 2006

A circle of sun

Amid the sadness of the loss of one baby this weekend, we received news of the birth of another; one of my dear college friends gave birth to little Henry this weekend. (And this on the heels of babies born to another friend, a childhood friend and then her sister-in-law, all within this past month.) And, I should add, born to their fathers. I wouldn't want to leave the daddies out of the picture!

There is something so exquisite about the moment of welcoming a new child into the world, something immensely heartening about the promise of what each might bring into the lives of everyone he or she meets, especially, in these cases, knowing the beautiful souls who are parenting them. As a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock says, "Babies are born in a circle of sun, a circle of sun on the birthing day." That circle of sun also extends to those of us who are far away, warming even our little cold corner of Brussels.

So, here is a bit of poetry/song/prayer to say to Henry, Asher, Cai and Joshua, "Welcome to the world!"

Crystallize into your skin,
chrysalis of sun surround you.
Glow your stained glass swaddling,
go into God's world around you.
Absorb the green of love and grow,
dig down in roots, reach up, fly true.
Planted, flown, the salt of earth,
light arrives, the dawn is new.


12 December 2006

Death and beauty

They have something to do with one another; it must be about looking beyond, about being willing to be hurt, to feel fully. God in a firestorm, fear of the God hidden in the burning bush, but despite that fear, uncovering the eyes. Looking through fear, seeing that the bush does not burn up.

I had been thinking about these things already, collecting those quotes below and writing the above, when this morning came the news that the baby of a family I had just met a couple of weeks ago had died suddenly, in his sleep, this weekend. Inexpressably heartwrenching. Poetry is paltry, but better than prose.

Baby, you were born
into your death during the night.
Little pheonix, little phial of flame,
your bundled feathers at once took flight.
You have seen beauty and it burned
our eyes, but it burned yours into sight.
Bathe our eyes, bathe them with tears,
cry to us and sing to us, cradle us
with what you know of light.

I come down to the water to cool my eyes.
But everywhere I look I see fire;
that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.

- Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Who, if I screamed, would hear me among the ranks
of angels? and even supposing one clutched
me suddenly to its heart: I would perish from the
power of its presence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of a terror we can hardly bear,
and it amazes us so, because it nonchalantly declines
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.
Voices, voices. Listen, my heart, as usually only
saints have listened: till the immense call
lifted them off the ground; but they kept on
kneeling, impossibly, and paid no attention:
so rapt were they. Not that you could bear God's
voice, far from it. But listen to the windblown,
the uninterrupted message that forms out of silence.
It rushes now from those who died young to you.

- Rainier Maria Rilke (the First Duino Elegy)

God circled her.
Fire. Time. Fire.
Choose, said God.

- Anne Carson (God's Woman)

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

- George Eliot (Middlemarch)

It’s not how we leave one’s life. How go off
the air. You never know do you. You think you’re ready
for anything; then it happens, and you’re not. You’re really
not. The genesis of an ending, nothing
but a feeling, a slow movement, the dusting
of furniture with a remnant of the revenant’s shirt.
Seeing the candles sink in their sockets; we turn
away, yet the music never quits. The fire kisses our face.

- C.D. Wright (Only the Crossing Counts)

10 December 2006

Reason number 36 not to live in a semi-underground apartment

Something I had suspected is now confirmed as fact; people throw trash into our window well. I had wanted to believe that the wind blew it in, but now I know that is not always the case. As I stood in the kitchen making dinner, a passer-by casually tossed a freshly emptied beer can past the grate and at the window. With a clink a little dribble of beer, we now have a new urban sculpture to contemplate from the kitchen. At least the windows have been recently replaced, and actually open, so we can clean it out. Before, we just had to sit miserably and wash the trash pile up like snowdrifts.

Would you, if you were a passer-by, throw your trash at the window of someone's home? I think not. In fact, if you were a decent person, you wouldn't throw trash anywhere but a trash receptacle, period. Yet people seem to enjoy flinging it about towards cozy windows without a care in the world as long as the window is partially underground. Tsk tsk.

Oh, if you want to know the other 35 reasons not to live underground, just let me know. I won't bore you with the details unless you're actually planning to move into some such place, but let me just say that the list involves rats, insects, humidity, mold, allergies, darkness, and did I say rats? (That problem has been cleared up, mind you, or we really would be out of here by now.)

For, masochists that we are, we've decided to stay in this apartment at least until the renovations are done in Barcelona. Since we've heard nothing regarding the other apartment in Brussels we had pinned our hopes on, we're going to stay put and not try to attempt moving hassles and more expensive rent at the same time as we undergo the whole double-mortgage plus demolition derby thing. Ah, home sweet home.

08 December 2006

Me, Howard Brush Dean III, and a guy with a big beard

[Note of apology: On Friday, when I wrote this blog entry in the first flush of Dean excitement, I thought that I hit "save as draft" instead of "publish." Evidently, I hit the latter. Forgive its unfinished-ness if you read the earlier version, and please re-read, because I have now, I hope, added a certain level of coherence, fleshed out the ellipses, and added the meeting-Dean story. Plus: photographs! Also note that photographs have been added to some of the Porto entries.]

I just met Howard Dean!

Who would have thought, that instead of meeting him in Vermont, where we actually both lived for an extended period of time, I would have had the occasion to introduce myself in Porto, Portugal, of all places.

Dean is one of the special guests of the Congress of the Party of European Socialists, Romano Prodi being another not-technically-socialist who was also invited. I missed Dean's speech this morning, but he was clearly a guest of honor and it's a good sign that the Europeans and the Americans are stepping toward some sort of international alliance. Especially with Bush out of the picture in two years, and hopefully any of his cohorts, I have high hopes about a more useful American-European dialogue instead of the absurd intimidation and posturing that Bush has undertaken.

Indeed, looking at the printed text of his speech, this is what Dean emphasized, now that Democrats have won the mid-term elections. He said, "It is time for the United States to renew our relationships around the world. It is time we treat our allies with respect and honesty. The Democratic Party believes that America should return to consensus-building, multilateral relationships based on mutual respect." Take that, Mr. Unilateral Cowboy President.

I got here in time to catch the vote for President of the PES, and the subsequent acceptance speech. The vote was unanimous, since there was only one candidate, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, former Prime Minister of Denmark. His speech was compelling, contrasting the agenda of the socialists (the slogan plastered everywhere in all of the official European Union languages is: A New Social Europe) with those who have the cheek to call themselves a "people's party," i.e., the Right.

Yet what I always remind myself when listening to political speeches, is that the speeches of the "them" (of the us vs. them equation; in this case, the Right) will often, to a large degree, sound equally progressive, inclusive, and honest. For that is the nature of rhetoric, and the message is often simplified to a degree that it no longer necessarily means anything, especially in an age of media-politics and sound-bytes. For example, Republicans and Democrats alike will trot out examples of racial and gender equality during their convention. Everyone will promise things that sound pretty good to a lot of people.

At the end of the day, the important thing for a given political party is to back up such words with action, and the difficult thing for any constituent is to determine whose actions are in fact just, whose actions are in fact are progressive, inclusive, and honest. Most of the time, I find it difficult to know, because even when something might appear on the surface to be good (say, a law is passed that appears to benefit the average worker), when you look closer it might be rotten (that same law really is profitting big business at the expense of the average worker). It is a rare situation that gives us a clear indication of when actions have supported words. For me, one of those times was Zapatero's decision to pull Spanish soldiers from Iraq.

Of course, I am exaggerating when I saw that political speeches are only empty rhetoric. There is a difference--sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious--between a speech by Bush and a speech by Gore. That's what debates are about. Staking out difference. But it's frustrating that so many political decisions are made because of who looks good on camera, who sounds cleverest, most "American," whatever that means, who can spin things in the most positive light.

Dean knows this more than anyone, what with all the nonsense about his "scream" during the run-up to the elections. It seems to have affected his style of delivery, and I can't blame him for being more circumspect. But it is also interesting that in his speech today, he made mention of the contrast between words and actions that I'm thinking about here: "It is not enough to say that you believe in being inclusive and support policies that say so, if you then ignore people in the political process. To be blunt, that's what happened to Democrats in my country." Here he is faulting his own party for the disjunct between rhetoric (or theory, if you will) and practice. I'm taking that as a sign that things are changing--and by taking those words as a sign of action, I prove the point that it's impossible not to trust rhetoric to some degree.

OK, enough serious talk about politics; let's talk about how I actually met the guy and how I hope I didn't make a fool of myself but am not sure because, as happens when I am nervous, things sort of happened in a blur.

After the Rasmussen speech, it was time for lunch, and he called all the big shots up onto the podium for pictures. I stationed myself off to the side to catch Dean as he came down, amid a scrum of other people, most of them with cameras the size of my torso.

A couple people got to him first, and he had a long conversation with a French politician, and then a Greek parliamentarian, and in the meanwhile the photographers were telling me to get out of their shots and one actually physically pulled my hand back when I reached out. Finally I sort of wedged myself in. My brilliant, ahem, opening line was, "Governor Dean, I just wanted to say hello as a fellow Vermonter."

Nice guy that he is, he immediately took notice, and said "Another Vermonter!" I introduced myself, and shook his hand, and mentioned my father, and Dean not only remembered Dad and complemented him on the great job he's doing in his position at an important non-profit in the state (I suspected as much would ensue, since Dad is famous, on the state-wide level at least), he *also* remembered that my tall little brother is a fabulous basketball player (state championship) *and* that he went on to an evangelical college, and asked if he was still playing!

(This is why I could never be a politician. [In case there was any doubt.] I can't even keep straight the details of my own family members, much less other people's, as is proven by the fact that I responded with an unintentional lie, saying that my brother is still playing at school. He graduated last May. Forgive me, bro. It was the nerves.)

He asked what I was doing in Porto, and I explained that my husband works at the European Parliament, and then once again told me to say hello from him to my father, and tell him that he's doing a great job. And with assurances that I would, and I'm sure much dorkish smiling on my part, that was that!

M, meanwhile, was taking photos, and the photographers with the big cameras even had the nerve to try to shove him aside, and then, when resisted, ridicule his camera. But he stood his ground, and thanks to my heroic hubby, we have several shots of me and Dean. (I forgot to ask for the classic, fake-smile "me and famous person" photo.)

Here's me waiting my turn:

All of the photos from while I'm talking to Dean have funny-looking people in the background, and I'll post this one, because it's the funniest:

Later that night, after being caught in a series of major downpours while trying to do a bit more sightseeing, M and I were relaxing in the hotel and watching the news. And guess what? I saw myself on TV! I was just a little flash of purple in the corner, but they just happened to be filming when I was either waiting to talk to Dean or talking to him, and so the happy ending to this story is that I have now made a once-in-a-lifetime (I am quite certain that it is not likely to happen again) appearance on Portuguese television.

Thank you, PES

Today, having found internet access, I can publish those entries I promised. But I also managed to set it up so they'll actually publish on the day I wrote them, in other words, before yesterday's entry. So you'll have to scroll down to see what I was up to on Tuesday and Wednesday.

07 December 2006

Porto-able blogging

Sorry for the bad pun.

I hope this works; I'm trying to post to my blog from e-mail for the first time ever!

I'm in Porto, and my optimism about having internet at the hotel was dashed to smithereens when we arrived and the rates were 20 euros a day to connect wirelessly. Why, at an otherwise luxurious hotel that offers every amenity, must they charge an arm and a leg for the most important thing? I know, I know. The answer is that precisely *because* it is important, travelers will generally pay an arm and a leg.

But, I'll have you know, I have written at least three full-length entries that are at the moment stored on my computer, and as soon as I have internet again I'll upload them.

At the moment, I'm sitting at a row of computers set up at the congress of the European Socialists, which is taking place at the huge Alfandega building, which used to be the customs house. When I arrived about an hour ago, after an afternoon at the contemporary art museum, I was told that Howard Dean is here! Hopefully I'll get to meet him and bubble incoherently about being a Vermonter, etc. The whole set-up for the congress is immense, and I joined M in watching a series of speeches in the big main hall. Everything is bannered in red, red being the color of the socialists, and there are hundreds of politicians and assistants milling about everywhere you look. Even though M tells me most have left by now.

[Picture added at a later date. Would be too techno-fancy to send photos to my blog.]

In a short while, we're headed to a reception at one of the port wine bodegas, and so we'll get to taste more of the nice port that we've been imbibing over the week. Just now, in the room of booths related to the city, NGOs, and socialism in general, we had a taste of a reserve wine, made here, that gave me that almost meaty warmth in the back of the throat that tells me I have just had a truly good wine.

Well, I'll send this and see if it really appears on my blog. And then, maybe tomorrow if I come back with my computer and we get the password, I can post the other entries that were written on the trip. Sorry that all the chronologies will be messed up. You'll just have to exercise your mental reversal capacity, as if you are watching that movie where everything happens backwards.

O Porto

I am sitting in our hotel suite (they ran out of regular rooms and so had to give us this one…what a pity!) at the Sheraton in Porto, surveying the buffeting winds and pouring rain, wondering if I’ll even venture out today. Perhaps I’ll catch a bus and go to the big contemporary art museum, where at least I’ll be dry.

Besides, yesterday and Tuesday evening I had plenty of time to explore the old city, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I think I walked for something like seven hours yesterday! It’s a gorgeous city, built on steep hills overlooking the Douro river. All of the different areas I poked my nose into had their own charm, and the buildings everywhere you look are covered in the characteristic blue painted tiles, or colored with glowing yellows and ochres.

It is quite clean, and peaceful, and full of churches and palaces that suddenly appear when you top one of those long hills. The metro (really a tram) is fast and modern, and we’ve been able to get from the hotel to downtown pretty easily with it. From any vantage point in the old city, you can look over to the other bank of the river, where all of the port makers have their bodegas, with signs prominently displayed on the hills, lit up at night.

There’s a big, graceful bridge that crosses from one side to the other. I haven’t been over to that side, but I’m sure it’s possible to visit the wine cellars and yesterday I nearly went to the Port Wine Museum, but went to the photography museum instead. We’ve had port in several places, which is such a lovely, sweet and mellow wine. We also are liking the local “green wine,” which is a dry white wine that is perfect with all the seafood.

The photography museum was cool, in part because I was literally the only person in there besides a group of schoolkids. It’s in an immense, mostly empty palace, and on the ground floor was an exhibition of photographs made in the 1880s by expeditioners who traveled the entire coast of South America and even up to California, with their nineteenth-century butterfly nets and penchant for collection. There’s also a large library (also entirely empty), and on the top floor, an exhibit of hundreds and hundreds of cameras, from the earliest to novelty cameras of the 70s and 80s. The best thing was the view from up there; I had a great vantage point from which to see across the city towards the cathedral, and even the bridge.

Another cool place was the Lello bookstore with a beautiful interior and a fabulous staircase right in the middle. The exterior is amazing as well, done in a sort of art-deco white and gray.

It’s been surprisingly difficult to find places to eat, because while there are tons of cafés and bars and pastry shops, it seems that all the restaurants are congregated in one area, lining the river. So for lack of any insider knowledge about other places to go, we’ve ended up there for several of our meals, and they’ve been consistently tasty. Yummy local olives, salt cod, sardines, a sort of musky cheese, and other fish. Tuesday night M had a fish called “robalinho,” which was baked in a coating of salt and was unbelievably tender and delicious. Last night we dined on “seafood rice,” a sort of paella, at the Majestic Café, a nineteenth-century café in the grand style (probably built by the British port investors; many of the port brands have English-sounding names), covered in mirrors and gilt curlicues. The food prices in general have been cheaper than Barcelona and definitely cheaper than Brussels, although they tend to charge you for food that they bring in the beginning that you think is free, like olives, bread, and tuna paté.

Last night there was an Arsenal-Porto soccer match, which explained the presence of tons of burly British people that we had noticed the previous evening at the restaurant. What with the soccer game, and a five-day weekend holiday in Spain, the tourists seem to be predominantly British and Spanish, although I imagine there are consistently a lot of Spanish visitors. Most of the people we’ve talked to, waiters, etc., seem to speak Spanish, although as M pointed out it’s sort of a pity to expect them to be able to speak Spanish, since the reverse would certainly not be true. The doorman at the hotel told me there's also a big horse jumping event, and what with the two socialist congresses, and another conference, the traffic has been snarled like crazy.

That, so far, has been our visit here in Porto! We have the rest of today and then tomorrow, and Saturday we fly out at 6 am. Today M switched from one congress to another (they deliberately put them back-to-back, profiting from the fact that everyone was already here), and it looks like he’ll have less time today to join me for meals and wandering around the city. Tomorrow hopefully he’ll have some free time.

[Note: Instead of M joining me, I got to join him for a trip to one of the port wine bodegas, Taylor's. It was an immense and beautifully appointed place, and they bussed hundreds of socialist politicians there, across the river and through the narrow streets of Vila Nova de Gaia, to enjoy a massive spread of food, wine, and of course, port. Plus several local singing groups, called tunas, made up of either boys or girls with guitars and beautiful harmonies. A very lovely evening, and I guess I owe my thanks to the European taxpayers.]

06 December 2006


M’s friends had been asking for a Thanksgiving dinner for a while, and so after M got back from his trip to South America, we decided we had to do it. The clincher for me was when I found the cranberries: a Thanksgiving meal wouldn’t have seemed very thanksgivingy without it, and even just seeing those cheerful bouncy berries made me want to build a tableful of food around them.

I spent the whole day of the dinner party cooking, and shopping for a few cooking/serving items, as our kitchen at the moment, while supplemented with the wedding gifts I was able to bring over, consists of exactly six each of forks, plates, and glasses, and seven people were going to be eating. So I bought some extra wine glasses and back-up paper plates, plus a pie plate and rolling pin to make the pie, and two serving dishes, which were necessary if I wasn’t going to serve the meal out of pots and plastic bowls.

I had a schedule that planned out every single minute of the day, starting at 8:00 in the morning! Of course, several of the key recipes were coming out of the yellow Gourmet, with the addition of my mom’s cranberry-apple-pear relish, a back-of-the-box cornbread recipe that I had hung onto, and the green beans with almonds that didn’t really need a recipe. The difficult bit was sorting out what I would serve in lieu of turkey; I finally hit upon stuffing the stuffing into eggplants instead of the turkey, which although it involved juggling a couple of different recipes and hoping they would come out all right in different formats, was a smashing success.

Now, keep in mind that the guests were all Spaniards and Catalans, and the American-style Thanksgiving plate disrupts some of their firmly held notions about how a meal should be eaten. Namely, that one should not combine multiple courses onto one plate, and that one should never combine sweet and savory items, especially fruit-based items, which should be reserved for the fruit course after the main course.

Nevertheless, everybody was game and wanted to know about all of the various things they would be eating, until they got tired of explanations and wanted to dig in instead. Cranberries are difficult to explain; as far as I can figure there’s not even a translation for them in Spanish or Catalan. The word that is evidently used in American movies for cranberries actually refers to blueberries, and also a sweet, soft red berry that is picked in the mountains that sounds like it has little to do with cranberries.

Anyway, here is a photo, and a description of the menu:

Hors d’oeuvres (entirely purchased…I couldn’t have been that ambitious): rosemary crackers and mini toasts with an assortment of cheeses, three varieties of hummous, and a quartet of tapenades, as well as olives.

Cornbread with honey butter: Like I said, a back-of-the-box recipe. Buying the cornmeal was a little bit uncertain, because here it’s all labeled for polenta, with various cooking times. I opted for quick-cooking polenta meal, and it seemed to work well. This is not a familiar kind of bread in Spain, which is why I made it, and everyone was so intrigued by it, they ate it all up.

Cranberry-apple-pear sauce: This is the sauce that my family will devour gallons of around Thanksgiving and Christmas time. Just the right balance of sweet and tart. Plus, it’s just so darn pretty! Also very enthusiastic reviews from this group.

Green beans with roasted almonds: The name says it all. This was the least popular of the dishes, judging by what people left on their plates. Probably because the beans were just tender, still crisp, and my experience with vegetables in Spain is generally that they are boiled within an inch of their lives. Also, I added some lemon juice, and I think next time I would go for a different flavor, maybe thyme or rosemary, or just plain garlic.

Buttermilk mashed potatoes with caramelized shallots: What would Thanksgiving be without mashed potatoes? Yum.

Stuffed eggplants: This was the trickiest recipe, especially since I was sort of making it up as I went along. First, I halved and roasted the eggplants until I could gouge out the insides. Then, I made the “Classic herbed stuffing” recipe from the Gourmet, with the addition of sautéeing the cubed eggplant insides along with the onion, celery, herbs and bread (and I added carrot). Then, after the stuffing was done and cooled, I jammed it into the cavities of the eggplants, and roasted them again for about a half hour before dinner time. They were super delicious, very Thanksgiving in flavor, with a nice presentation. The only thing I might change next time is to put a bit of broth in the bottom of the pan, so that the bottoms of the eggplants don’t dry out, which they did a tiny bit.

Apple pie: I used an all-butter pie crust recipe I found online from Bon Apetit magazine, and the apple pie recipe from the Gourmet. Sooooo good! I was nervous about the crust, since I had never made one just with butter, and there are dire warnings about melting the butter with your hands or overworking the dough, so I was constantly shoving the butter and the dough in its various stages back into the fridge (the kitchen was broiling, what with all the cooking). But it turned out beautifully, melt-in-the-mouth and crisp on the outside. I totally botched rolling out the bottom crust, because it stuck everywhere when I tried to transfer it, but I just sort of patted it into the pie plate, and since it was the bottom it didn’t matter. When I did the top crust, I worked faster and it turned out fine. The filling was a combination of granny smith and gala apples, which was a good mix, just the right level of sweet/tart mixed with the lemon juice and zest, sugar, spices and flour. With the guests, a total hit, and when M and I got to share the last slice the next day, I think it tasted even better.

So there you have it, my first solo flight for a Thanksgiving supper.

05 December 2006

En route

I’m on a train somewhere in Belgium or France (in these days of the Schengen agreement it’s hard to tell when you pass from one to the other), and I’m contemplating how pleasant this mode of travel is. Compared to a plane, there is so much leg room, the windows are so big, and there’s a big fold-out table in front of me, on which my computer can comfortably sit. We are on our way to Porto, and our Air France ticket includes a leg on the train from Brussels to Paris. This seems like a good way to do things, and we’ll have to keep it in mind for the future. It was less of a hassle to hop on the metro and then hop on the train bound for Charles de Gaulle (and hour and a half) than to the normal process of getting the bus, then the airport train (a half hour), then stand in line at the airport….

I’m also thinking, as I watch the eternally gray sky, green fields, and tidy villages roll by, with my reflected face superimposed on the scene like a pensive ghost, what a horrible place—or perfect place, depending on how you see it—Belgium was to have a war. The never-ending damp, the depressing gray, the mud up to the waists of the men in the trenches—this is either a sadistically awful or gruesomely appropriate setting for war.

Reading Paul Fussel’s The Great War and Modern Memory last year, I got a chilling sense of the utterly debased way that modern warfare was practiced. After the cheerful flags waved them over the English Channel, the poor boys sat in mud next to the decaying corpses and bits and pieces of flesh of their comrades. Fussel’s whole point, and that of many critics who have followed him, is the impact of such an experience on our general cultural fabric, how much our collective memory is shaped by such horror.

But looking at these serene green fields, I wonder how much we have forgotten, as well. Belgium is no longer the symbolic victim of Teutonic rape; it is Europe’s capital, known for chocolate and beer. It’s hard to imagine the scenes of the Great War happening here. Sadly for us, however, we have new, even more horrific images of war and destruction from around the world to replace the old ones.

It is ironic in some ways that my thesis has a lot to do with how we respond to war and the images we make of it. Ironic, because my own experience of war is limited to the televised and sanitized versions in the media, and perhaps that one day in Washington, September 11, 2001… And also because I hate war, am by nature pacifist, and have more unresolved questions than answers about the interaction of such a technological and brutal exercise with the rarified world of poetry. But my antipathy toward and limited experience of war is also somewhat appropriate, because as my area of study is literature, my concern is precisely with representations of war. How was the Spanish Civil War written about and pictured both by those who were there and those who were not? For many in the late 30s, Spain was something like what Iraq or Darfur is to us now, a distant reality, filtered by representations even if our concern is pressing.

Anyway, this wasn’t really what I meant to write about at all while shuttling across the fields of northern Europe in a high-speed train, but there it is. On this trip, I have brought my computer along in hopes of getting some work done, so that also means I will be able to blog from time to time.

And that means you’ll hear about my impressions of Porto, and Portugal. I’ve never been to Portugal before; although in 1999 I was on my way there with two girlfriends during term break from Oxford, when we aborted that plan and on a whim headed to Algeciras and then Ceuta instead (the only time I’ve set foot on the African continent).

Making up for the missed opportunity, I plan to enjoy lots of seafood and drink port and maybe absorb a little Portuguese. Anyway, I’ll be sure to write again in the near future, and post this entry as soon as I find an internet connection.

Editor’s Note: I was obviously far too hasty in my optimism about internet connection.

04 December 2006

Your invisible friend

No, I didn't get tangled in the fake christmas tree's wiry branches, I just have been going nonstop the last few days. It seems like my life lately is alternating between long, quiet stretches of slothful "getting work done" (aka blogging and/or cooking), and manic periods usually involving travel to other countries in which we cram in as many possible meetings and family activities as possible.

This recent spate of activity involved having a Thanksgiving dinner party for a group of friends from M's work, and then flying to Barcelona to show the apartment to possible renters, sign the rental contract with our new renter (hurray! she wanted to move in right away!), shop for Christmas and birthday presents, have a mini birthday party for our niece who turns four on Tuesday, get a haircut (now have bangs, am still undecided), meet with the contractor, and take an excursion to a 6,000 year-old mine. I'll explain more later; but for now I'll say that the mine thing was cool because I didn't know that our neolithic ancestors even knew how to find minerals underground, much less make jewelry out of them, and here they were hanging out in Catalonia and digging several hundred football-fields' worth of underground tunnels to dig out precious metals with their stone axes.

We flew back this morning, and I went directly to French class to take an exam, and in a bit I'm headed out again for a Christmas party at the home of M's boss. It promises to be a fun evening, and we're doing an exchange of gifts called the "amic invisible": invisible friend, where you get a present but never find out who it's from.

I'll let you know what I get, but I can't let you know what I gave, because you never know who might be reading...

And I promise to tell you about the Thanksgiving that I made, the first that I have ever made on my own and away from home. It got rave critical reviews, albeit from people who had never had a Thanksgiving dinner in their lives.