30 October 2006

Zippadee doo dah (Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder)

This morning I am awake far, far earlier than I ever get up in real life, thanks to jet lag. It's making me feel virtuous for getting a jump on the day, for making the most of the precious few hours we have on this planet, for being an alert and cheerful Morning Person, for being, in sum, the very person I am meant to be. I am even--let the word ring forth!--awake before my one-year-old nephew.

Sadly, I know the effects of jet lag are temporary, and that the return trip will create an extreme inverse of the situation, during which I prolong the post-sunrise sleep to the point of embarrassment. But just for now, let me glory in the early-morning blue sky, solitude, and undeserved sense of virtue.

In other news, Sibling Weekend is drawing to a close, and what a weekend it has been. Saturday it poured rain the whole day, so we stayed in and played a large number of games, between bouts of eating and vying for the laughs of the nephew. His laugh, evidently, will drive any of us to do just about any old absurd thing.

He is talking in the very earnest way that children have whose words still don't quite match up to our preconceived notions of English syntax, but whose cadences, syllables, facial expressions and hand gestures look and sound so legitimate that you are sure you just need to concentrate, or clean the wax out of the ear, in order to catch their drift. He will inform you in detail, with a concerned look on his face, shrugging of shoulders, and spreading of hands, about something that is clearly important and that you should Take Care Of immediately, if only you understood what it was.

He is such a mimic of sounds: my brother-in-law, while driving, muttered a "hmmm" when trying to decide which way to turn. With a comic's sense of rhythm, from the carseat in the back pipes a higher-pitched and heavily nuanced "hmmmm." Cute little smirk on hmmm'ers face.

The sentence we do successfully understand is, "Where'd it go?" Used regarding anything from raisin lost in high chair cushion to ball lost under coffee table. This corresponds with the kind of game where he covers his face (mirthful eyes peeking between the fingers) and we wonder aloud, where did he go? Because clearly, if his face is covered, we cannot see him.

Today I drive with my sister, nephew, and sister-in-law to Vermont, which should bring more opportunities to carry on this backbreaking and highly important work of adoring the adorable.

25 October 2006

Just like parcheesi

Today in French class we had a test. I already know that I messed up some of my answers: For example, I wrote "Je fais de tennis," which is WRONG, instead of "Je fais du tennis" (RIGHT; although strictly speaking, this sentence is not true; I do not play tennis, nor do I plan to in the future). Gee whillikers, there are so many things to remember, all at once: verb conjugation, proper usage of preposition, and proper combination of preposition with definite article (this is where I strayed from the flowered path).

Still--here my nerdiness rears its bespectacled head--I rather enjoyed taking the test. There is always a part of me that loves the moment when an exam is placed in front of me and I get to see whether I know the answers. It's one part drama (will our heroine remember that the second person plural form of "faire" ends in s and not z?), one part suspense (will the exam cover unstudied material?), and one part an elementary school thrill, which continues to persist, derived from filling in the blanks on a clean page.

There is another reason that I tend to do well on tests, a reason that was brought to my attention when a friend of mine came to stay with my family for Thanksgiving last year. My siblings, parents and I were being our usual holiday selves, which means being game-gluttons: Scrabble, cards, Trivial Pursuit, Scattegories, you name it, we play it. This friend, noting our penchant for the friendly games, out of the blue asked (though it was more like a statement), "You do well on tests, don't you?" Pertinent note: she is a teacher, a rocking good one, in New York City. She went on to point out the link between a game (ooh, a challenge!) and a test (ooh, a challenge!).

So there you have it. I'm good at school, in part, because of those winter afternoons spent playing Nertz and Boggle. Thus, in the future, I plan to play lots of games with my children. (Yes, I am aware of the futility of making statements about what I will or will not do with as-yet-unborn children, because according to every parent, everything you ever said you would or wouldn't do is but naught in the face of the realities of child-rearing. Still. Games!)

23 October 2006

More glad than sad

Sad news:
M left for Strasbourg this morning. Husbandless, Robin is. Momentarily (see glad news, below).

Glad news:
He'll be back sooner than usual! Perhaps as early as tomorrow.

AND: This American Life is now available on iTunes podcasts! For free! Now, instead of paying Audible for the privilege of downloading a show onto my iPod, I am subscribed to the show and every week the new episode will quietly download itself onto my computer. Like magic.

AND: I finally sent my family the link to this blog (hello, family!), so I can at last imagine that someone out there is actually reading this little blog o' mine. Polite clapping of hands.

AND: M and I got free tickets to an Ojos de Brujo concert last night. Half an hour before the show, we got a call that we could pick them up at the door (our friend's brother is some sort of roadie for the band, I think, and another guy couldn't use them because he had to watch the Madrid-Barça game), and so our evening very suddenly veered from tranquil Sunday night reading, crossword-puzzling, and Prairie Home Companion-ing to a raucous, energetic mix of flamenco and hip hop. Neither for the better or for the worse.

AND: There are only four days until I fly to Boston! Since all of my (four) siblings (and a brother-in-law, a sister-in-law, and the cutest nephew ever) live in the Boston area, we are going to have a Sibling Weekend. This is going to involve some or all of the following: food, playing games, playing with my cute nephew, movies, museums, playing with my cute nephew (oh, did I say that already?)... Sibling Weekend is going to be so awesome. And after that, things will continue being awesome when we drive to Vermont, where I will see my parents, and be in Vermont!

Three things I love about every single day, #2

2. Books

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I love to read. I am the classic bookworm, the girl who could read through an earthquake. When I leave the house, I always consider whether or not, given the route I am taking and the kind of place I am going, I can construe a possible scenario in which I will have a chance to read. If I can (as you may imagine, often the case), I bring a book. I was always the little girl with her nose buried in a book, no matter where we were (say, at a Phillies game at Vet Stadium).

I'm not terribly picky when it comes to reading material. I love the highbrow, but I'm also content with a newspaper or a magazine, or the back of my box of cereal. I will read mail-order catalogs cover to cover, and have been known to read entire books in a bookstore or library. Give me novels, short stories, travel books, poems, biography, even history (although history books are usually what M goes for and I'm happy to leave him the territory), and I am a happy camper.

As a sample of what I'm reading these days, here's a list of my book purchases over the last few weeks (most of them come from the Brussels Boekenfestijn, where a huge exposition hall is filled with rafts and rafts of books in Flemish and English):

On Beauty, a novel by Zadie Smith: I liked her Autograph Man, and this is even better. Questions of race and authenticity, art and aesthetics, marriage and family, the academic and the non-academic. Based on the structure of Howard's End.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a novel by Susanna Clarke: Fluffy and fun. Theory vs. practice of magic. Harry Potterish.

The Forging of a Rebel, an autobiographical Spanish Civil War trilogy by Arturo Barea: These three books are beautifully written (and translated--by Barea's wife), and give an incredible insider's view of the roots of the war and the experience of living through it. Gave me some invaluable ideas regarding my thesis, especially regarding propaganda and radio (Barea was a news censor and regular voice on the radio), and is a useful corrective to the utopian idea that the arrival of foreigners in Spain was always appreciated.

An Unexpected Light, an Afghanistan travel narrative by Jason Elliot: I was completely absorbed by this book. Elliot has a great sense of the long sweep of history in this crossroads country, and it helped me understand the background to what is happening there today. He makes sensible criticisms regarding Westerners' reporting of events in the region, and is always attentive to the beauty and warmth of the people, their culture(s), and the landscape. However, I think he employs the same tactics that he usefully critiques in Western charicatures of Islam by reducing Christianity to an absurd fundamentalism.

The Rare and the Beautiful, a biography of the Garman sisters, by Cressida Connolly: I'm halfway through this one, and although the writing is less than compelling, I'm hoping to glean a few details regarding Spain in the thirties as seen from the milieu of the Garmans, several of whom lived in Spain. One of the sisters was married to Roy Campbell, a South African poet who proved the exception rather than the rule among thirties intellectuals in his support for Fascism and Franco (his views can be found a tedious long poem that I wouldn't recommend to anyone).

Still in the "to read" pile (cause of much anticipatory glee):
Cloud Atlas, novellas by David Mitchell.
Ravelstein, a novel Saul Bellow.
The Poetess Counts to 100 and Bows Out, poems by Ana Enriqueta Terán.
Spain: The Root and the Flower, a history of Spain by John A. Crow.
Enola Gay, poems by Mark Levine.

Most of these are bring-along or bedtime books (a little bit of reading before falling asleep) as they do not strictly have anything to do with the thesis. But sometimes I get so engrossed that I have to keep reading...

Still, because I love books, I count myself blessed to be doing what I do. I read books, and I teach students about books. What could be better? In order to write this dissertation that is hanging over my head like a cartoon anvil, I have to read many many books, and for that I am thankful. In order to translate books, I (duh) have to read them. See, isn't life good? I have to read. That is why books is #2 of what I love about every single day.

22 October 2006

Reading in tongues

To read a very familiar text in a new language means to make it unfamiliar again, which freshens understanding and provides surprising new perspectives.

For me, this is never more true than when reading the Bible in a different language. Stories that have long since lost the cutting edge of newness suddenly regain the ability to pierce the mind and heart.

However, sometimes the new version leads in rather unexpected directions. Today, seeing the text "Jacques et Jean viennent auprès de Jésus et lui disent..." conjured up a vision of Jesus followed by two guys in berets, scarves and skinny pants, and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Jacques is carrying a baguette under his arm and Jean, a copy of Le Monde.

I'm sure Jesus (or, I should say, Jésus) wouldn't mind, doubtless without prejudice when it comes to middle eastern robes vs. western european hipster outfits.

20 October 2006

Three things I love about every single day, #1

1. Breakfast

I am a big breakfast fan. This was not always true; in college I was known to skip breakfast frequently. But now I can't imagine a day without it. In fact--I am somewhat chagrined to admit this--sometimes I even get up purely because I am looking forward to eating my cereal. (I have a good friend for whom this is true as well, so I know I am not alone.)

I am above all fond of crunchy cereals, of the kind that do not wilt and mush wimpily when introduced to just the right amount of soy milk (no drenching, as this would counteract crunchiness). My choice of crunchy cereals tends to adjust to where I am living. To wit: when I lived in Boston's North Shore region, I bought amaranth flakes. Then I moved to Indiana and alas, in Indiana, amaranth flakes were no more, so I turned to Heritage Flakes, beautifully crunchy and slightly sweet. I also, from time to time, enjoy other more widely available varieties of cereals such as Grape Nuts (oh so crunchy, delicious with craisins) or Cheerios (can't beat that nostalgic taste, great with banana).

Now that I live here, the cereal options are drastically reduced, because I think it is mostly the expat community that eats cereal for breakfast. I keep hopping to and fro, trying to find a type that fits the criteria, among which I tried first fruit-n-fibre style flakes with raisins and other dried fruits and nuts. Sometimes OK, but the flakes often wimp out and there are too many raisins. Then, there are the Special K varieties. Same complaint, minus the raisins. The most satisfying options thus far are the "crunchy meusli," sometimes with the added bonus of chocolate (example: Leader Price Muesli Chocolat)! For which I feel guilty, but not guilty enough to desist from purchasing.

Flying in the face of my love of crunchiness, I am currently also enjoying hot oatmeal in the morning from time to time. And from there (since this is a post about what I love every single day, not only the days that I eat cold cereal), I could wax poetic about American breakfast foods: bagels, eggs in every form, fakin-bakin, pancakes, waffles, breakfast burritos, and the majestic yet humble home fry. And then, a veritable rainbow of pastries, including the genial American muffins and cinnamon buns, and that wonderful French invention, croissant au chocolat (see above re: breakfast foods and chocolate bonus).

Last semester a friend and I met once a week for breakfast to critique poems and for general encouragement on our MFA theses. I suggested that we try a different breakfast place every week, as I was acutely aware that my last months in Bloomington were dwindling down. I highly recommend this practice to anyone, as we became acquainted with many breakfast places and ate some truly delicious food. Plus, breakfast is usually the best way to eat both heartily and cheaply.

Before I go, one more thing. I think the topic of coffee (and the question of national coffee habits, the joys and challenges of adapting to them) should be reserved for another post, but it should be noted that coffee is also one of the reasons that "Breakfast" is #1 on the list of things I love about every single day.


I thought that, if I am going to be a blogger, I should review what other people are doing on their blogs. This was a good idea, because it gives me many ideas for my own. And I learned some things about blogging in general.

First, by randomly looking through Blogger blogs, I found out that a lot of people set up their blog and then abandon it completely. They have zero entries, and their profile is the only thing that makes their blog exist. Or, they have maybe a handful of entries and the last time they wrote was, say, two years ago. I also discovered that there are many blogs written by people who are ages that end in -teen, and that those blogs are often (not always) filled with boring things like "I am going to class now. I just ate a candy bar. I need to lose weight." or excruciating things like "u R 2 cute!!!!" (in general too many exclamation points and too much unfunny self-loathing).

Then, I struck upon a different strategy, and followed links from blogs I already decided I liked, or have been reading on and off for some time now. This worked much better, and although I didn't like all the blogs I was led to, many we were interesting, well-written, or funny. Sometimes all three.

I learned a surprising lesson, however, as much from the boring blogs as from the great ones. Bloggers like to write about being sick, especially of minor illnesses such as colds, and often describe in disturbing detail the coughs, sniffles, achy heads and snot-production resulting from said cold. I have several theories regarding this widespread obsession:

1. Bodily excretions are thought to be funny.
2. In real life, face-to-face conversation, it is not considered polite to detail how many tissues you fill with your schnozz mucus, thus driving people to save it for the blog.
3. As the bloggers are not at work because they are sick, they have more time to blog, and as they are sick, they blog (about being sick) for a greater ratio of time than they blog (about other things) on the non-sick days.

My response to the sick-blogs is this:

I hereby promise to NOT bring undue notice to my personal snot production in future blogs.

Thank you.

18 October 2006

Macedonia and sunshine

This weekend the Sunday icon on my little five-day forecast widget showed a sun without clouds on it!

This is a rare enough occasion in Brussels that we decided to go on a picnic. A group of seven, we divvied up what to bring, via an epic conference on Skype the afternoon before.

I offered to bring a fruit salad ("macedonia," in Catalan...I often wonder about that word. Did fruit salads originate in the Balkans?), thinking, like any American, that fruit salad forms an essential part of a picnic/barbecue/outdoor eating scenario. A side dish.

But I forgot that Catalans (perhaps most Europeans?) find it odd and unsettling to combine something sweet with the other things on your plate. Fruit is reserved strictly for the dessert end of things. So, I had unwittingly volunteered to bring dessert. Since in my book fruit salad doesn't quite cut it as a stand-alone dessert, I brought cookies too.

Anyway, not a problem, that was just a digression on different cultural perceptions of fruit salad.

The important thing is that it was a beautiful day. I wore sunglasses! And, drumroll please, it felt like autumn! The sun was bright, the air was crisp, and I even saw fallen leaves. Everything felt golden.

We took the tram to Tervuren, which as tram-rides go, is one of the more beautiful journeys you could hope for. It shoots out of Brussels, starting at the fountainy roundabout Montgomery, and heads right into the woods. You ride along a park-like stretch of road lined with trees and cute little houses, and then into the thick of things. When we tumbled out, it felt like a different Belgium.

We walked over to the Royal Museum of Central Africa (will have to save a visit for another day) and strolled around its sumptuous grounds. These lead into a huge expanse of well-manicured green spaces surrounding canals and lakes, and these in turn to forests with trails and cleverly striped mushrooms in them. We didn't eat the mushrooms (aren't stripes universal animal-language for "back off?"), just took pictures.

But the first order of business was settling down and digging in. Open-air food is so pleasant! Especially after our normal eating-lair, which is our underground kitchen. One relishes food touched by the wind and sun in a new way.

All of Brussels, it seems, went to Tervuren on Sunday (especially a large number of the Belgian equivalent of boy- and girl-scout troups), but since there is so much space no one was bothered. We watched little kids race their remote-controlled boats around the lake, uniformed scouts playing ball and chase, and the rest of the bikers and strollers and skaters and promenaders. We joined in on the promenading. Nothing too strenuous after eating, you see.

It was the perfect way to celebrate a sunny Sunday, and to have at least a taste of something that felt like autumn.

17 October 2006

A word from the ward

Last Thursday I received an e-mail message from the Warden of Brussels. I didn't know there was a warden of Brussels! If Brussels is a ward, then are we its:
a. inmates,
b. patients,
c. or orphans?
I wonder what kind of uniform this warden wears...

In any case, the e-mail was a message from my government telling me to watch out for terrorism. The subject heading was "Worldwide Caution"--wasn't it nice of the warden to be so specific?

The e-mail does eventually get specific, helpfully reminding me of virtually every terrorist attack over the last few years, from Thailand, Indonesia, Jordan, and Egypt, to New York, Madrid, and London. Future targets might include "high-profile sporting events, residential areas, business offices, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, public areas and locales where Americans gather in large numbers, including during holidays. Financial or economic targets of value may also be considered as possible venues."

Good, narrowed it down. It's nice to know that ANY place we might want to go, including the places we sleep, eat, pray, work, learn, and bank, are considered possible targets. Evidently the best thing to do is to avoid the company of large numbers of Americans. I tend to do this anyway, not out of dislike of Americans, but because the people around me in Brussels are generally some shade of European. I guess if you live in America, where there tend to be large numbers of Americans, you're out of luck.

The ultimate nugget of advice offered by the warden in this message is: "U.S. citizens are strongly encouraged to maintain a high level of vigilance, be aware of local events, and take the appropriate steps to bolster their personal security."

I'm touched that my government troubled to take the time to send me a little reminder about the dangers of being a human in this day and age. Yet, like everyone in the world, I am only too well aware of those dangers already, and I honestly don't know if this e-mail was helpful. Rather, I first opened it with a slight tremor of worry that it could be something serious, and am now left wondering what it is that I should do to "bolster" my "personal security." Something to do with decorative pillows? It's unlikely that we're going to forget about or somehow not notice the way things are going, globally speaking.

This sort of e-mail also makes me worry that perhaps they know something I don't, but for the sake of their investigation have to make the warning a "worldwide caution," instead of telling us what it's really going to be. Or maybe they're just covering their backs, in case something does happen; at that juncture they can then say, "look, we warned you to bolster your personal security!"

An even more skeptical part of me wonders if this is yet another example of the kind of fear-mongering that the Bush administration engages in from time to time. In order to make us feel that he is going to protect us like a cowboy protects his cattle, Bush first has to make us hyper-aware of the dangers from which we need to be protected.

Incredibly, this warning "Expires on April 9, 2007." What's going to happen on April 9? No more worldwide caution. All cautions will mold like overripe fruit. Or maybe, some six months from now, the warden will oblige us with a bit more specificity. In the meanwhile, I will make every effort to bolster my personal security.

16 October 2006

Wheat, wit

This weekend I have been gently contested regarding my assertion that English speakers don't gape stupidly when non-native-speakers mispronounce words.

In conversation about the apartment we hope to move into, M was quoting the Catalan saying, "No diguis blat fins que sigui al sac i ben lligat." (Don't call it wheat until it's in the bag, and tied tight.)

I had momentarily forgotten what "blat" means, and asked. The answer: "wit." My brain did a "try to compute" exercise in which either I had somehow misunderstood the words "sac" and "lligat," or in which being witty had something to do with the rest of the sentence.

During the futile whirring of my brain's gears, he kept repeating "wit," until finally, with unwonted exaggeration, I said, "OHHHH, you mean WHEEEEAT!"

This is when the Catalans present accused me of prejudice when it comes to complaining about French vowels.

I feebly argued back: no, the sounds are quite obviously different! Stretch your mouth out when you say "eee," don't you see? (Accompanied by clownish stretching of my own lips.) Wit, wheat, what, wait...shouldn't it be obvious?

Of course, what is obvious is that a French speaker would be doing the same. "Don't you see? Isn't it obvious? "oeui" is soooo different from "ouae", you just have to make your mouth do this (accompanied by francophone facial expressions)."

I still stand by my earlier comments. I do think there is something rather tricky about French pronunciation.

And in any case, I learned the Catalan equivalent to "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," and taught my companions the English saying. Then, even better, I found out that there's no literal equivalent in Catalan to the word "hatch," and amused the others with this new addition to their English vocabulary. They will now be able to say--wittily, not wheatily--that they have hatched an idea, especially if their brain-gears are working better than mine.

13 October 2006

The couscous was delicious

Last night at a lovely French-Moroccan restaurant called Ca Va Se Savoir, M and I along with a good friend of ours (R), and two Italian women (one is a politician here in Brussels, one is a visiting professor), had a conversation that was definitely skewed in the 4 against 1, "you are so wrong, 1" direction. The latter was the Italian politician in Brussels, and the topic was language.

Let me set the scene a bit. At the table we were speaking various languages. Catalan, between M and I and R (is the initial thing going to get tedious?). French between everyone else, and I could sort of follow especially because there were no native speakers. Italian between M and the Italians, and R and I could sort of follow. English between Italian 1 and M and I and the others could follow. Rapid veering between languages occurred throughout the evening.

This sort of thing, I think, is wonderful. I first remember experiencing it at Taizé, in France, where there were thousands of young people (does it put me in "old person" land to say "young people"?) from America, Canada, eastern and western Europe. Everything was in many many languages, and it intoxicated me. It is delightful to me when no one language dominates in a group of friendly people. Inevitably you learn a lot about the languages you understand less, and have fun in the meantime. It is, I think, a European reality.

Back to yesterday evening. Beginning innocuously, we started asking 1 about her local dialect, and comparing it with Catalan. As always with these sorts of games, surprising similarities come up. But then we got onto the question of defining a dialect vs. a language, and she was insistent: there is only one language in Italy, and that is Italian. Why? Because it is the state's language, everyone learns it in school. Fine, but what if the state decides to say that some languages are not languages (thinking of Catalan here, during Franco)? For her, then they are not languages. She insisted, "that's politics." M responded, "no, it's violence."

And it is, because once a given language is equated with power, there is automatically a dynamic created that leaves its speakers with leverage (perhaps innocent, perhaps "merely" political or class-based, perhaps literally violent) over those who do not speak it, or do not speak it well. Read Rita Dove's poem "Parsley," which is precisely what I'm talking about. (You can read it here: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~hbeavers/281/dove-parsley.html) In this poem the word "parsley" is a shibboleth, a word you can either pronounce or not, a word used to control others and assert dominance. Trujillo killed 20,000 blacks who could not pronounce the letter "r" in the word perejil, parsley. Of course, last night this woman would insist that the practicalities do not lead us this direction, that this is an extreme, but the truth of it is that they could.

Further, her solution to the polylingualism of the new Europe is to set up a standard language that everyone should be able to speak in order to communicate with one another; whether it's English or French, make it the lingua franca. Now, if this happens spontaneously, fine. If it happens as a matter of practicality in the EU institutions, fine. But to insist that superimposing an additional language resolves problems of state and culture ignores the reality of the close link between identity and language. As the professor pointed out, identity is multiple and complex, and always changing.

For me, the table at which we sat itself was a refutation of her position. We communicated in many languages, in many different directions and levels of fluency. It was about multiplicity, and conversation, and the give and take of generous interaction. She would say that she wasn't discussing the personal level, but the meta level inevitably affects the micro, day-to-day level.

But this is why I could never be a politician. I am not good at direct disagreement. I kept saying, "no, but it's interesting," so as to, in my pitiful way, defuse the "situation." When what I really meant was "no, you're wrong." The others, of course, do not back down and are not afraid to show their incredulity by

a. knocking knuckles firmly on the table,
b. shaking head sadly,
c. deep sighs,
d. wagging fingers at each other,
e. saying "wait!" or "attends!" or "aspetta!" when a disagreeing party shows herself eager to disagree,
f. leaning forward intensely in display of body-language intimidation.

The conversation was perfectly civil, but I, being shy, shy away from these things. In this regard, I admire my husband for his debating skills. I'll save my indignation for when I'm alone with him, or when I'm with close friends, or when venting on the comfort of an anonymous online weblog. Anonymous, that is, until I get around to sending the link of this blog to my friends and family...

12 October 2006


Yes, I even admit to enjoying, to a greater degree than was strictly necessary, sentence diagramming homework in seventh grade.

And, although I recited, along with the rest of the class--

Latin is a language,
dead as dead can be.
First it killed the Romans
and now it's killing me.

--in my heart of hearts, I was fascinated by the way Latin words could contain so much information just by changing the endings. Long live conjugation and declension. Not that, if you asked me, I could so much as translate anything beyond a Bach mass...Latin is my archaeologist-turned-political-scientist hubby's arena.

(Isn't the rhetorical turn in that rhyme great? The way Latin goes from being stone-dead to actively killing, first a whole civilization and then a scrawny, tall-for-her-age seventh grader. Inflated sense of self-importance is rampant in middle schools, I hear.)

On French

Now, before I begin, I would just like to say that I love languages. Love. Words, and meanings, and all the other infinite bits and pieces that make up the crazy maze of a living tongue.

Love English, with its tricky spellings, its opposites-attract marriage of Anglo-Saxony and Latiny words, its directness, its distaste for the subjunctive, its ultra-absorbant acceptance of new words, Bounty paper towel-like. (For a paean to the best virtues of the American tongue, see Barbara Hamby's poem, "Ode to American English." You can read it here: http://memphiswordnerd.blogspot.com/2004/11/ode-to-american-english.html). Love Spanish, with its penchant for reflexive verbs, the poetry of its daily rhythms. Love Italian, how everything said in it should either be romantic or accompanied with shrugs and hand gesticulations. Love German, especially Austrian German, a happy hubbub of umlauts. Mostly, love Catalan; you see, I married one. And when I speak it, everyone is pleased as punch because it's not every day that a blonde foreigner is able to weave her sentences out of this descendant of Provençal silk. (Yes, I'm aware of my distinctly EU-15, limited knowledge base here. But I suspect I may even love Japanese, or Arabic, or Wolof.)

Yet, French has me a bit befuddled. Granted, I have only been in French class for a month now, and I'm getting along well enough. On the page, everything's great, and I understand the grammar perhaps more than your average classmate. But when it comes to making the sounds, it seems as though all the vowels are regularly squooshed together to form quite distinct hard and soft palate formations that I find it exceedingly difficult to emulate.

And the consonants: why do we hate the consonants, French-speakers? Poor little things, several of them at a time, dangling out there at the ends of words where they don't even get a hint of vocalization. Verb endings all sound the same, singulars and plurals, past and present, pronounced identically. Why does something as straightforward as "un" need to contain neither a "u" sound nor an "n" sound, but something more like ahng(=untranscribable nasal utterance)?

Furthermore, when a sentence is all put together, it tends to include lots of extra little "ce"s and "que"s that in English are decidedly pointless, and at the same time sounds about two words long because it all flows together like a little babbling brook. A nasally babbling brook with some of that French "r" thing.

Comparing notes with other French-learners, we've also come to the conclusion that small errors in pronunciation evidently render the words absolutely impossible to understand by native speakers. In English, or Spanish, or Catalan, even if a word is butchered accent-wise, you can probably make yourself understood if you put in the proper consonants and approximate the vowels in their place. Here, on the other hand, I have experienced trying to say a word or two in as many possible ways that I can ("dessert du jour," for example), while a waitress stares at me perplexedly and offers guesses that are incredibly off the mark. Somehow she thought I wanted eggs.

I should say to the Belgians' credit that they at least make a concerted effort, doomed to failure though it may be, to understand. And many, many people are willing to switch to English to help you out. (This in part due to the weird Flemish-French political dynamics, which I won't go into here.) In France, on the other hand, tough patooties. You will get no help, nor sympathy, nor dessert du jour.

Sorry for the complaints. I am sure that I will come to love French, in time. In fact, maybe I should decide to love it for the very things listed above that are ostensibly driving me crazy. Yes. J'aime le français.

11 October 2006

Mountain shoulders and fall leaves

One of the things I'm missing here in Brussels is a sense of the fall season. Yes, the stores are carrying little orange pumpkin candles and strange ceramic mushroom creatures, as well as displays prominently featuring brown, orange, yellow and red. Yet there's none of that crunchy-leaf smell, the glow of fiery trees, the crispness of sudden cool. Just a few gray, cold, rainy days here and there, but it's been doing that since August, so doesn't quite qualify in my book.

The sensation is exacerbated by our apartment situation. The large front window faces the street (i.e. anyone passing by could look straight into the living room), so I can never really open the curtains and let in the sun during the day while I'm here working. We've got to find a new window-treatment system. Yet I suspect that even after opening it up a bit the sun doesn't reach here much, as we're on the ground floor and below. Downstairs, where we have humidity problems that bother M's allergies and molest our food, it's always dark. These are all reasons why we're going to move out of this place. We're hoping to get an apartment that we saw a few weeks ago with a lovely little yard in the back and a dining room with huge windows facing the garden that would let in plenty of light without having to worry about passers-by. The only trick is that the current renters don't quite know when they'll be returning to England, so, it's sort of a wait-and-see situation right now.

I'm flying to the US to visit family and friends in a couple of weeks, and aside from seeing them (and especially my 1-year-old nephew!), I'm looking forward to New England fall. Unfortunately, the leaves in Vermont will be past their peak by then, but I hope to at least catch the tail end of something bright. In any case, Vermont is always beautiful. No matter what, even in mud season. Driving up Interstate 89 on my way home from Boston, I always feel welcomed back by the mountains, embraced by their weather-worn shoulders.

Trellis skeleton

The title of this post comes from a Muriel Rukeyser poem called "The Cruise," a wartime allegory (at least I hope it's an allegory; if not, it's a flop). I love how her poems sometimes surprise me with their surrealist and textural juxtaposition of words, and this is an example. I've probably already used up my quota of quoting Rukeyser in my own poems, but I think I may have to use this one for a "Woven Body" poem, which is my series of quirky little pseudo-sonnets that explore different facets of the body: how it works, how we think, how it looks, how it's built.

I stumbled across this poem while perusing the Collected Rukeyser in research for my dissertation proposal. I'm ridiculously happy today because I've hit upon an organizing structure that just might work for the dissertation, after days of spewing squidgy ideas onto a blank computer page. The poems of the Spanish Civil War on and off the Page, or something along those lines. I probably won't go much further in detailing the thesis idea both out of fear of boring my blog-world audience (just play along with the fantasy), and also out of paranoia that someone out there a desperate graduate student who just happens to specialize in the American poetry of the Spanish Civil War is going to steal my ideas. Mostly the former.

Now I just have to structure the whole thing into beautiful and coherent paragraphs. Or sentences. I'll settle for sentences.

10 October 2006

I know it's been a while

It is over a year since I have added anything to this blog! My apologies to my nonexistent readers.

A lot has happened in that year; the most important thing that has happened is that M and I got married! He asked me, with sapphire ring in hand, if I would like to marry him in early November, 2005, and on July 2 of this year we gave birth to a little glowing thing that is our marriage. The wedding was in Vermont, all in my home town, reception at the local park, complete with a red covered bridge and a view of the mountain. I know everyone says this about their own wedding, but it was perfect. The ceremony was full of what was meaningful to us. Our talented friends and family sang in a double quartet. I walked in to the chorus from Saint-Saens' organ symphony. My grandfather, who passed away in February, had recorded a blessing for us when I visited him last fall, and we played it just before processing out at the end. My sister and M's brother-in-law stood up for us, and my mother played the organ and made all of the flowers. Our niece Sora was flower girl. I loved my dress, and M's suit, and the colors of everything: birds'-egg blue, touches of purple, silver, and white. The weeks leading up to the wedding had been torrentially rainy, but we had a perfect blue-sky breezy summer day. At the reception, everyone enjoyed the food and the jazz music, and then relaxed on the extensive lawns, played frisbee, strolled by the lake...

Twenty days later we had a celebration in Barcelona for all of our European friends and family (about twenty people from Europe made it to Vermont for the wedding itself). Again, it was fabulous! Except for the dripping-wet heat... I was sure I'd never be able to peel my dress and sandals off, and that my makeup would drizzle down my face in a sad imitation of melting plastic. There was abundant and amazing Catalan food, and a beautiful outdoor location at the Font del Gat, a restaurant in the gardens of Montjuic. My parents were there, and a few friends from the US, but otherwise it was the European folks. Friends of ours sang American jazz and traditional Catalan songs, another friend and our fathers gave toasts, and another, a poet herself, read a poem that I had written last year for M.

So, now we are married, and living in Brussels. We're moving apartments here (this one being unsatisfactory for multiple reasons), and buying a new place in Barcelona so we can rent the old apartment. I'm writing my doctoral thesis (at least in theory), since last school year I passed my doctoral exams (whew!) and wrote my MFA thesis to get my degree in poetry. See, there are reasons I haven't written since last September!

I'll try to be more interesting/witty/anecdotal/politically incisive in future posts, but at least now you know an abbreviated version of what I've been up to for the last thirteen months.