25 December 2007

Merry Christmas, Bon Nadal

A very merry Christmas from Barcelona! Here the sun is shining and Papa Noel has already visited, leaving two little delighted girls with fairy princess costumes, a scooter, and a miniature iron/ironing board. They are dancing around and waving their wands, the two-year-old announcing in her best tiny announcer voice, "Senyors i senyores, mireu els pallassos!" (Ladies and gentlemen, look at the clowns!) In turn, we are each dragged to our feet and made to play the clown.

We also found ticket-sized presents in the stocking hung at the mantel, a nod to American tradition, and the Mister and I and our brother-in-sister in law are going to the theater on Friday!

The Mister, sneaky guy that he is, made sure Santa visited my pillow, under which I found a slender volume of Christmas Catalan poetry AND the classic Spanish cookbook, 1080 Recipes, newly translated into English and lavishly illustrated with colorful drawings. Boy Santa sure knew what I wanted, and I didn't even write a letter!

Later in the day, we will have an afternoon meal that will no doubt burst some buttons, and then we will take turns singing songs asking the tió to poop us out some presents. Lifting the blanket that covers his rear end will reveal some brightly wrapped gifts, unless we haven't behaved and we find only onions or salted fish.

We also will connect with our Vermont family in their snowier corner of the world, and watch as they open some presents, perhaps from the box that arrived from Belgium. Last night we also video conferenced the two families, after a tasty Christmas eve meal cooked by our brother-in-law. The little ones looked at each other on the screen, our nephew in his adorable suspenders looking a little scared and wide-eyed as our niece excitedly tapped his image, saying "Hola!!!" I couldn't hear much in either direction, and as I tried to translate for approximately a dozen people at once, I ended up saying things in English to the Catalans and in Catalan to the Americans, but I think everybody was happy just to see each other and wish each other a merry Christmas.

Which is what I wish you, dear reader, wherever you are. I hope your Christmas is full of joy and love, the warmth of family, and the peace of God.

19 December 2007

Too bad about the spangly dresses

I am wondering why my header is all the sudden looking so squishedy. Any web design geniuses (*cough*my brother and brother-in-law the designers?*cough*) have any idea why this is happening?

Again I have totally failed in the blog-as-advent-calendar idea. What with the traveling and the no internet while traveling, and the crazy days and--one must not forget--my laziness, the blog has taken a back seat.

But because Christmas is in only six days, here I am to rectify the situation! And to tell you about various Christmas related activities of the past few days. (The nice thing about blogs is that if you get bored, there is a solution: STOP reading.)

Oh, but the first thing I have to tell you about wasn't really Christmas related at all. I promised I'd explain about the whole band-at-our-house event. You see, my cousin, who rocks (literally and figuratively), knows a guy who is on tour in Europe with his band for a couple of weeks. They arrived for a one-night stay in Brussels, after a gig in Antwerp and before another in Denmark, only to discover that their lodgings have fallen through. They went to a café, and via the magic of the web, in a few short minutes they had talked to Anna, she had written to me, and I had talked to the band, giving them directions to my house.

An hour later four scruffy guys with guitars and a keyboard shuffle through my door. They were super nice, and I took them to the best little beer pub in Brussels (which happens to be around the corner from us) as well as to the frites stand across the street, all of which were met with rave reviews. Back at home, I pulled out all of the sheets and blankets and mattresses we have and they spread out in the living room. It wasn't the Ritz, but I'm sure it beat sleeping on the street.

Anyhoo, that was last Wednesday, and even though none of the Christmas parties that have filled our time since then justified buying one of the 75 million sparkly dresses that fill the stores these days, all of them being more on the slacks-and-a-sweater side of dressy, we've had some nice and Christmasy celebrations.

Last week, the social event ladies in the choir (you can tell which ones they are; they have the perfectly coiffed hair and the perfectly tailored Euro-dame clothes) put on a wonderful party. I thought it would be a slightly upgraded version of our usual beer break in the multi-purpose room of the school where we practice. But they actually transformed the place; you would never have guessed where you were, had you not walked through a hallway lined with absurdly low coathooks and hand-print paintings to get there. There were silver candelabra and candles everywhere, fine linens, lots of greenery and Christmas lights, homemade Christmas treats (rather British in emphasis, with mince pies and Marmite-flavored crackers). There was lots of champagne, and a group of instrumentalists to regale us with Christmas music. And, as we are a choir, and as we had ingested lots of the aforementioned Champagne, there was a lot of loud singing along. And as you might know, Christmas carols always make me happy.



Monday, after our flight back from Barcelona, the Mister and I invited some friends over for Christmas cookie decoration. Several of them had NEVER decorated a Christmas cookie, and had NEVER seen the use of food coloring in a home kitchen, fascinated (and a little wary) of the brightly-colored drops I was mixing into the vats of sugar icing. In Spain, cookies tend to be bought, not made, and the whole idea of Christmas cookies is a rather less colorful and more traditional than that of the Americans, focused on two types of sweet that aren't really cookies, turrons and pulvorons. But they loved it, we had a great time, and I was thrilled to introduce them to this quintessential Christmas experience. I also made a pumpkin cheesecake, because I had a pumpkin (bought for the purpose of seeing if I could make my own puree) and a big vat of mascarpone cheese. It turned out...just OK. I have to admit I missed the Libby's, and the cheesecake turned out to be European-style, which is to say, much less sweet, and missing that delicious cream cheese taste.

Last night, we went to the annual Christmas dinner at the Mister's boss' house. This is always a nice evening, and full of tasty food, during which we also do the "amic invisible" (invisible friend, or in our lingo, secret santa) and the "caga tió" (hitting of the pooping log). I have to complain a little bit regarding this event. Every time we suggest including a price range for the gift, the idea is shot down. The reason we always suggest it is that every year, the boss' wife inevitably overspends, and everyone knows which presents are hers because of how nice they are (a tailored shirt, a brand-name pajama set, a silky set of lingerie, a sweater...). Just as inevitably, someone gets stuck with a lame gift, and this year, it was me.

I opened a crumpled brown bag to find inside one unwrapped, smallish, beeswax candle. I object not as much to the gift itself, but to the way it was presented. A crumpled brown bag? The Mister and I spent a long time deciding on the gifts that we bought with the recipients in mind, and made sure they looked nice in pretty wrapping paper. Initially as I opened the gift I thought it was one of the new guys who had never been to this event before, and was inclined to chalk it up to inexperience. But I found out later who they had, so by deduction know that my gift was from one of the guys who has been coming the longest to the gift exchange. Sigh. What could I do but to smile nicely and proclaim how much I love candles? Which I do. But not so much the brown bags. And in the end, I accidentally left the gift sitting in the foyer of their house, so perhaps there was some subconscious desire to publicly reject the gift, even if consciously (and ironically) I was terribly worried that the gift-giver would think I hadn't liked it.

That brings us to today, and tonight's not-technically Christmas event, a joint birthday party for two friends. I have to go and find some presents, and I want to go swimming because it's been FAR too long since I have done any exercise, especially given the increased calories involved in making cookies and cakes and attending parties. Tomorrow we fly back to Barcelona, this time for all of the holidays! It will be the first time since the summer that we'll have more than just a couple of days there, and I'm looking forward to staying put for a while. In a place where the sun is capable of warming you up. Internet will be spotty, but I'll try to post from time to time.

Cheers to you and yours!

12 December 2007

In which I interrupt myself

The sky right now is a nice icy blue strewn with some slightly pink clouds. I don't know why the clouds are pink, but I like it. I feel like this is a very appropriate holiday season sky, and I would encourage Ms. Brussels to consider exchanging this sky for the grey spitty one, on a permanent basis.

I apologize for four whole days of bloggish silence. This hasn't happened in a while, has it? It used to be my modus operandi. But it has been both busy and boring at chez Birdsong, if that is any excuse. In fact, even as I write now, I am supposed to be coming up with some brilliant song-lyric-style ad copy for a catalogue. I have never really written a song, despite the oodles of poetry under my writer's belt, and am discovering that it requires a bit of a different sensibility. Also, there is no melody, but there should be the suggestion that there could be one...so this is challenging.

***

The above was written (and left unfinished) yesterday; I hereby interrupt the whining to bring us back to today. I just wanted to let you know that I'm alive and haven't forsaken the blog altogether.

And, just to prove that life can really throw you random experiences sometimes, a band slept at our house last night. Like, four guys with guitars. Slept in my living room. I'll tell you about it later.

Right now I'm supposed to get on a tram and go to choir. It's our last of the semester, and I think there will be bubbly.

07 December 2007

I would even settle for fake snow

Today we're going to visit the annual Christmas festival in the center of Brussels: there are oodles of little wooden huts selling all manner of crafty and gifty and yummy foody items, plus lights and ice skating and performers and music and who knows what else. This year I think there's a ferris wheel.

A few minutes ago it was raining pretty hard, and the wind was blowing so much that I could hear people on the street and the children in the schoolyard reacting to it. I suppose we will just have to pretend that this is a winter wonderland. What I wouldn't give for the sight of a little snow.

Tomorrow we head to Tournai for a repeat performance of the Messiah. It'll be fun to get acquainted with a new city, and especially fun to sing once again those spine-tingling choruses. But you probably won't hear from me again until Sunday or Monday. Have a lovely weekend!

06 December 2007

Saint Nicholas and the little pigs

Today is the 6th of December, the day on which children here in Belgium wake up to find that Saint Nicholas has come to their house, bishop's mitre and all squeezed down the chimney, and left them some goodies in their shoes. He comes accompanied by a donkey and a man named Pere Fouettard, which roughly translates to Father Whipper. Fouettard is black, due to sliding down the chimney first, he bears a whip, and he's looking for bad kids. Nothing like a little crack of the whip to warm the Christmas spirit!

One of the day's beloved Christmas songs involves three little children who get killed and chopped up like sausage by a butcher, and all of that within the first two stanzas. Saint Nicholas comes to find them seven years later and wakes them up from their salty nap. They say they feel great, and are then alive to run around the countryside again. In some versions, the butcher becomes Pere Foettard and ends up as Nicholas' sidekick.

Besides the kids being chopped up like little pigs, the stores are full of little marzipan pigs. Turns out it's not because of the song, but because pigs are symbols of prosperity (think piggy banks, and also the days when families fattened their pig all year long and then killed it right around Christmastime).

Much of this I learned from my French professor in today's class, and we listened to the song with the lyrics in front of us, so I am confident this was not a question of misunderstanding. She was very nice and brought us chocolate and a special Belgian Christmas bread vaguely shaped like a baby Jesus, but she also started making crazy claims about the US and Santa Claus, one of which was to state that America is a mostly Catholic country.

This is not the first time professors and others have made wildly incorrect assertions about the US. I think it's normal for people to have stereotypes and preconceptions about other countries that must sometimes be dispelled. But I think in the case of good old America, people believe themselves to be knowledgeable about the place because of cultural exports like movies, products, and so on, even though they have never been there. So a false confidence causes some false assumptions to be believed. Which can be rather annoying to someone who finds herself in the position of trying to explain what the (crazily diverse and geographically huge) country of America is actually like. Anyway, I have now officially gotten off on a tangent! Back to the bishop born in Turkey who became a symbol of goodwill and presents. Mostly presents.

So how did we celebrate Saint Nicholas here in our little household? The Mister came home bearing a huge speculoos cookie (a cinnamon Belgian specialty) in the shape of Saint Nicholas. I had also purchased Nicholas cookies, wrapped them, and placed them in his shoes. Yes, we got each other the same thing! It was kind of like The Gift of the Magi, but without me cutting off my hair or him selling his watch. The poverty is there though, because this month's paycheck has been lost. It never arrived in the bank, and M's employer insist they made the payment. We are in dire straits, so much so that we debated whether or not to buy a two-euro sandwich on our way home last night (from seeing Lorin Maazel conduct Beethoven's 9th! for free!) and had to beg off paying rent for a few days while we wait for people in Spain to finish partying. (M's employer is incommunicado because today is one of its numerous holidays, and since there's only one day between today and the weekend, why, they take that day off too! So no contact until Monday.)

For further amusing tales of wacko Christmas traditions from around the world (why does this holiday seem to inspire such specific and bizarre practices?), I recommend listening to David Sedaris in this episode or this episode of This American Life. Too bad he doesn't get to the Catalans and their pooping log.

05 December 2007

Every word a madeleine*

Learning languages is hard. But one of the things that for me can recompense the stumbles, limited vocabulary, and awkward mistakes is that words are much more than words: they are little storehouses of memory.

When you began to speak English, it was so long ago that you can no longer remember when you learned everyday words. But in new languages, many words retain within themselves the memory of when they were first encountered, first learned, or first spoken.

I still remember some of the mnemonic devices my childhood friend Melanie and I came up with to memorize Spanish vocab lists. The word mural still evokes her face and the grassy hill we sat on when we came up with the oh-so-brilliant way to remember that "mural means wall, and you paint a mural on a wall!"

I enjoy those moments of recognition, when the meaning of a word I've heard or seen before is suddenly clarified. Only recently, I learned that nuit blanche, "white night," means a sleepless or restless night of insomnia, after having long ago attended the Nuit Blanche music festivities here in the city, and rented videos from the nighttime convenience store chain by the same name.

Often, words have buried within them the embarrassment of a major gaffe in using or trying to use it. Gafas recalls the laughter of our high school's Spanish foreign exchange student when he heard my friend and I use the word anteojos for "glasses." This was straight out of our textbook, but in Spain actually means something more like "spectacles." He taught us the correct word, gafas.

I vividly remember some of the Spanish words uttered by my husband on the first nights after I met him, the words we spoke during a breathless, impromptu vocabulary lesson. When I say the word bufanda, I always recall him grabbing his scarf on that frosty March evening. And now countless Catalan words are intimately connected to memories of him, and memories shared with him.

The word for that gruesome fish, rap (anglerfish), brings up images of the first time I saw one in all its toothy-mouthedness at the Boqueria market. The word turró, Spanish Christmas nougat, always places me back at New Year's Eve some five years ago, with friends, and the little plaza where we went to buy my first taste of it. The verb gronxar "to swing" will always be associated with the face of our then two-year-old niece when she taught it to me. (Today is her birthday! Felicitats, Sora!)

Simply hearing the "sit down" command in Spanish, siéntense, always and immediately brings me back to the first day of Spanish class in ninth grade, the excited nervousness of starting a new language. I was thrilled to be there, but scared that I wouldn't understand our teacher. I remember him walking in, and his strawberry-blonde mustache, and the way he began by saying simply siéntense as he sat down, motioning with his arms, then levántense as he stood up again, with a lifting gesture. He motioned for us to do the same, and we felt ridiculous saying the words over and over again as we stood and sat, stood and sat, but look at me: fifteen years later I still will never forget what those words mean (and I think this would be true even if I no longer actively spoke Spanish).

Some six years later, when I went to Mexico for the first time, I remember being bowled over when I heard a woman on the streets of Tijuana say "siéntate!" to her little white dog. It was the moment I realized--experientially, rather than intellectually--that this was a REAL language, and that I could use in the real world the things I had been learning for so many years in a classroom.

That trip changed once again how I used Spanish, and a host of words are linked to memories from it: the laughing face of little Luis, with whom I played "tigre," the way I learned the word for belly button, ombligo (while trying to demonstrate CPR on a plastic dummy at the health clinic)...and many more.

I love this about language. It's true that this doesn't just happen with new languages, that in your native tongue words can have immense associative powers, but I think there is something so wonderful about their specificity and the feeling of discovery word-memories can retain even as you use them a thousand times over.

To bring this back to the advent season, I remember very clearly that when the Mister first told me about this crazy Catalan Christmas tradition called the tió, I thought either he was mistranslating something or I was misunderstanding something. You whack a log? With a stick? And ask it to poop presents? And it does poop presents? I suppose no matter how much this tradition will be incorporated into our family's Christmases, the word tió for me will always contain a bit of that first incredulous shock--and amusement.

Today's advent calendar window contains pretty wrapping paper. I found it yesterday at one of my favorite shops, and although it's not strictly for Christmas, it has gold and green and red and light blue. And birds that might be quetzals. This makes me happy, as does wrapping it around presents to send to Vermont.



*I refer here to Proust's madeleine, and the flood of memories released upon biting into its crumbly sweetness.

04 December 2007

Crafty Christmas

It was one of those "meant to be" coincidences.

My most brilliant and beautiful friend from Bloomington sent me a link to this Christmas craft project. But I had already bookmarked the very same page! So it was without hesitation moved up on my "get around to it" list, and today I got a little crafty.

I've only made three of the ornaments so far, without much difficulty, despite my lack of any fancy materials such as an x-acto knife, cutting mat, or proper ruler. With my Ikea scissors, a measuring tape that kept unhelpfully snapping back into its body, and a mini stapler purchased for the occasion, I managed to make some pretty ornaments. I bought some colorful vellum paper in blues and greens, and I used some Ikea notecards that I had picked up on sale for fifty cents a few months ago, which actually ended up better because the paper is stiffer.

I'm going to try to use the webcam for a quick picture, even though I know this is doomed to yellow blurriness. Here's hoping santa brings us a new camera! If he doesn't, we will take matters into our own hands and go bother some elves.

Here we are. The pictures turned out OK thanks to the Mister's handy camera light setup. But then he sat on one of them, and so it's a little the worse for wear.

Aren't they cute? I'm going to make more and string them up somewhere. It's easy, and you don't even need an x-acto knife, so go ye forth and make ornaments.

03 December 2007

Hitting a high note

I've never ingested drugs in my life, but I can't imagine that the high would be any greater than the high of just having performed one of the most most triumphant works of classical music, seeing the crowd leap to their feet in an instantaneous standing ovation, and hearing shouts of "Bravo!" ring from the balconies of the grand, gilded hall.

By all accounts, the sound in the audience on Saturday night was spectacular: I only wish I could have been both singing with the choir and listening out in the audience. In those moments where the endings of the most powerful choruses hung in the air, we got some of the reverberation back to us and a sense of what it must sound like to someone who doesn't have that booming bass and that fortissimo soprano in her ear, where the voices and orchestra are fully blended and balanced.

I'm often surprised by the musical moments that make every molecule in my body stand up on end: this time around it happened in the alto solo, He Was Despised, in the choral response, Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs, and of course, Hallelujah and the final Amen, where the sopranos hit that high A and everything comes welling up together. Ironically, it's hard to sing when that happens: there's a necessary balance between feeling the music emotionally and being distanced enough from it to remain technically on task. But I selfishly give in to the emotion from time to time, and move through the music from the inside out.

Fortunately, we get to perform again next Saturday, in Tournai. The Mister and I plan to go early, with some friends, and see the city before the evening concert. I'm looking forward to repeating this weekend's experience, although not as much to the exhaustion of a three-hour performance! (Somewhat unusually, they didn't make any cuts at all in the Messiah.)

So what I didn't explain very well on Saturday, when I dashed off my post, is that I'm going to take the month-long thanksgiving theme of November, and make it into a (nearly) month-long advent theme. Every day, I'll try to write about Christmas preparations, in the sense that (I hope) each activity becomes an act of joy and anticipation, instead of a laundry list of ThingsToDo. It'll be a nice way to focus the blog for another thirty days (!) and see if I can keep this up. My sister gave me the idea, and referred me to this list of suggestions (the picture to the left is from the same place). Singing the Messiah was a great way to begin on Saturday.

Today I plan to purchase Bing Crosby's Christmas album, and listen to it until even the poinsettia starts drooping with saccharine overkill. (I'm hoping it'll help cure a mystery ailment that I woke up with today: my jaw won't shut properly and it's very painful to chew. Not good.)

Yesterday our advent activities included delivering a cheerily-wrapped Christmas present for a child in a homeless shelter, participating in the inauguration of our church's gorgeous new stained-glass window, and beginning the season with familiar hymns of anticipation:

O come, O come Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

01 December 2007

The first day of Christmas

I'm off to sing the Messiah. I consider it a perfect way to open, metaphorically speaking, that first little advent calendar door.

O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion....

30 November 2007

Thirty days hath November

Today marks the last day of blog posting month, and I can't believe I actually made it with thirty-plus blog entries over the course of blustery November. Talking to my sister last night, she urged me to continue with the daily posting. I think I will try, but I know that without some external impetus it will be a tough job. To be honest, it will be a relief to be able to skip posting on the days that are busiest or boringest, the days when my brain is either too full or too empty.

Fortunately, the new look of the blog comes just in time to keep me sticking with it. Over the last day or so I've been clicking obsessively back to my web page, just to see how light! how pretty! how refreshing! I'm so excited about the new design, even if it is a bit of a clumsy copy-and-paste effort. It's funny how colors make me feel a little differently about the words I hang into the white space, neatly aligned on their little colored pegs.

On today, the last "official" day of giving thanks, I am thankful for this blog. I am thankful for a little opening through which to release some of the thoughts and words and poems and observations of my life, like dandelion seeds out of a car window, and I'm thankful that a few people out there read it.

29 November 2007

Pretty and new

If this is not your first visit to this site, you have probably noticed by now that I have spiffed up the place. I was getting sick of the dark template that I was using, and the font.

So I did a little tweaking of the simplest template around, and added a snippet of a free desktop design that I found on this lovely blog. (I hope this is OK! It was free, so I hope I'm not doing anything wrong, and I want to give her credit for an amazing design.)

I hope you all approve! I feel like I can breathe a little more easily right now.

Sanks

I realized that over the last few days, I've forgotten the "thankful" part of my blogging. This is probably symptomatic of life: how easy it is, just a few short days after all of the thankfulness, to forget to be out-loud thankful for the things and people we've been given. As the last of the cranberry sauce and turkey leftovers disappear, the thanks fizzle away.

But the holiday season is far from over, and I'm grateful for this month's discipline, which reminds me to be thankful even when I don't particularly feel like it. To look at every day as a little thanksgiving day, lower case t.

Today I'm thankful for a chance to give gifts. Buying Christmas presents is stressful, but it is such a pleasure to spend time thinking of the people who will receive those gifts, to consider their particular likes and dislikes, to imagine their faces lighting up with the joy of a wrapped package.

I think of my nephew opening his stocking full of gifts last Christmas, at the farmhouse in Catalonia where we spent the holiday week. Every item he pulled out was greeted with this two-year-old's heartiest and most genuine "WOW!" He was thrilled each time, even before he saw or understood what the present was. Because half the fun of gifts is giving and getting them, no matter if they aren't quite what we asked for.

Today I'm also thankful for great news my sister and brother-in-law got yesterday, which boils down to: a new house! This has been a much-awaited event for their family.

Also, I have a little story about our orchestral conductor for the Messiah this weekend. He is very French. He can't pronounce "th." So when he tells us to annunciate for the "Thanks be to God" number, he yells,

"Ssssssanks! Sanks be to God!"

28 November 2007

Brussels sparkle


This afternoon M. and I met to run an errand at a store. It seemed a mundane kind of a thing to do, but when we got to the store, the mundane errand was transformed into an amazing sensory experience. The errand was, in a mouthful: to choose a fabric for M. to bring to Barcelona this weekend to give to the restorer who is refurbishing some antique chairs for us. We had already run into difficulties, as other places had limited selection in stock.

So today, on a recommendation, we went to Le Chien Vert, the Green Dog. This place was incredible: a huge warehouse with luxurious, artistic and unexpected details. And the fabric! No little swatch books for them. Everything was in huge rolls, hanging on undulating chains. The texture, the color: I wanted to swim in it all. The metaphor is appropriate because everywhere boats were hanging from the ceilings, and water was flowing. Click here to see more pictures of what I'm talking about. (The picture above is just one of the store's beautiful fabric displays.)

I left the place feeling fed, and so was well-disposed toward Brussels as a whole. From there, I set out to do some Christmas shopping before meeting fellow choir members to do a final publicity push for our concert this weekend.

As it turns out, today was the day of putting up the city's Christmas decorations, and setting up the annual Christmas fair. Everywhere I walked, baubles and sparkles and lights and greens were being strung around the city by men perched precariously on ladders. The lights spanning the streets were partially up and partially turned on, and it was like watching a gray old lady put on her spangled evening gown.

(My favorite non-Christmas Christmas decoration of all was a street strung with rows of black umbrellas beneath cascades of "rain" in light; under just one umbrella could be seen the silver sillhouette of a man clicking his heels. How perfect for this rainy city!)

As night fell, and I walked around to the central hotels with my choir buddy/fellow leafleteer, a lovely Hungarian girl, the bright blue lights climbed further up the tallest spire in the Grand Place, a sparkly spiderweb woven by invisible bugs. The desolate streets of the city were made alive with light, so that even the cold and the drafty spaces usually so unfriendly to pedestrians were somehow welcoming with warmth.

When I finally managed to drag my weary legs home, I had to laugh at the only Christmas decorations visible in our outlying neighborhood. Pitifully small (live) Christmas trees, without lights, were lashed to all of the lightposts and traffic light bars. They looked for all the world like fir-tree imitations of Odysseus' crew, trying to withstand the sirens' lure by being tied to the masts of their ship. The siren tonight was Brussels, singing Christmas carols with light.

27 November 2007

Six truths and a lie

I have been "tagged." Korie sent me a "meme." (This whole blogging thing has certainly come with its own set of vocabulary.) The meme has rules, and it's sort of like those e-mails that you have to answer and send on to six more people OR ELSE ______ (fill in the blank).

I never EVER send those e-mails on to anyone else.

My favorite (in a horrifyingly misogynistic kind of way) was one about chocolate (delivered by a huge powerpoint file, no less) that promised I would gain twenty pounds and break up with my current partner if I did not forward to ten people within twenty days.

I think that was a couple of months ago, and as neither has happened, we can safely say that those e-mail forwarding curses don't work. I KNOW! Now you can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Still, here I am, about to send on a meme. Heaven help us! Hopefully doing so is a little bit more justified in the sphere of blogging. Hopefully.

Anyway, the meme is to write down seven random things about yourself. But I am going to tweak it a little. Remember that ice-breaker game, "two truths and a lie"? Well, today I am going to play "six truths and a lie."

First, I should post the rules, because that's what the rules say I have to do (notice that I still play by the rules even after breaking them? I am such a teacher's pet):

1- Link to the person that tagged you and post the rules on your blog.
2- Share 7 random or weird things about yourself.
3- Tag 7 random people at the end of your post and include links to their blogs.
4- Let each person know that they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

So here are six truths and a lie. Guess which one is a lie, and I'll...say "Congratulations!" Get out your lie detectors (which can be found in the same box as the thinking caps):

1- I have belonged to a herpetology club. (Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians; it has nothing to do with herpes.)

2- I got my belly button pierced when I lived in England.

3- I have never read Ulysses, War and Peace, or Moby Dick all the way through, but I want to read all of them.

4- In Europe, the farthest north I have ever been is Tallinn, Estonia and the farthest south I have ever been is Spanish Morocco, on the northern tip of Africa. (Florida is quite a bit further south than much of North Africa, and we went there when I was in middle school, but it's not quite as cool.)

5- I ate fried frog legs while traveling in France.

6- I appeared in a musical as the belly-dancing Princess of Zanzibar, and another major role of my acting career was as a gun-brandishing Ku Klux Klan member, complete with pointy hood.

7- I have broken only one bone in my body: the collarbone.

Does the fact that the lie was much harder to come up with than the truths say anything about me?

I'm going to put links to seven blogs I've come across because of the blog posting challenge thing (I think that's how I found them anyway; most of them are other expats or "thanksgiving" bloggers). I won't "tag" them per se, because I think the whole seven things meme has done the rounds.

My Life in Spain
Life with a Seaview
Charlotte's Web
Bleeding Espresso
MoF
My Gorgeous Somewhere
eyeheartinternet

26 November 2007

A nitwit liked the loud noise

Shortly after writing yesterday's blog entry, I started feeling a little queasy. This so rarely happens to me, and it was so subtle, that I thought I was imagining things, and continued to work on the Sunday crossword.

Yet, within a half hour, it was bad enough that I thought I might lie down for a moment to see if it would pass. An hour of chills and nausea after that, I was virulently vomiting in the most spectacularly disgusting way. Throwing up has to be the grossest thing ever.

And guess who cleaned it up? Not me. Last night taught me that true love is not about hearts and flowers and chocolate. It's about cleaning up someone else's puke, without complaining. This man is my hero.

I must have reacted to something in our lunch, as I immediately felt better, besides a few hours of lingering shakiness, my body wondering what on earth had just happened to it. The Mister ate the same thing as me, of course, so we can't quite figure what it could have been.

Today I woke up ravenous, due to avoiding any food all of yesterday evening, so I know I am back to my usual state of right as rain. Except for a cough hanging around from the cold I had a few weeks ago. This always happens to me after a cold; the cough just won't go away, even for months.

This worries me because the Messiah concert is coming up this weekend and next, and it's rather difficult to sing when the urge to cough interrupts decent breath support.

Speaking of choir, I've been tapped to head up the fundraising effort for the next concert, in March. In order to break even, we have to get thousands in sponsorship money, even if it is a sold-out concert. Apparently because the concert is all-American composers, and I'm American, it makes sense that I would approach the American businesses and governmental entities in town, and try to get them to throw some money at us.

The problem with all of this is that I am so not a fundraiser/business savvy type person, and I am so lacking in "connections" that I might have been the very worst person to pick for this job. But I guess I can do it, if I can find the guts to make cold calls and ask people for money.

Hey, maybe I can find it in my genes somewhere. My father is a natural fundraiser, as he works for public radio. Asking for money is a big part of what he does, and as he would tell me, people with money are often looking for good ways to give it away. You are providing them with that opportunity.

Well, from puking out my guts to working up some guts, this has been a bit of a ramble. Apologies for Monday-morning randomness.

Today I am thankful for my true love, and for crossword puzzles. What else will cause you to grab your sharpened pencil and write, with a gleam of triumph, "Dip did dig din"?

25 November 2007

Canapé conundrum

As I mentioned in passing, we went shopping for sofas yesterday. The sad, sagging, small, and stained sofa (alliteration unintentional) that we currently use is in bad need of replacement.

We saw some very lovely sofas, but man, were they expensive. The overall impression I got in all of the stores we traipsed around is that this is one pricey piece of furniture. I suppose it's worth it if I consider the hours spent on the miserable sagging one, but "worth it" is still relative. Worth 4,000 euros? Not so much. Worth 500 euros? Totally.

Our dilemma is this (aside from the fact that we don't really have any extra money floating around, and Christmas is coming): After all of the ultra-fancy, ultra-expensive couches, we eventually found a perfectly normal and functional and unobjectionable sofa for around 500 euros. We also saw a very cool and swoon-worthy velvet Chesterfield for 1,200 euros. We had seen the same sofa months ago, on sale for 900 euros, and had not purchased it up then, so we were disappointed at its price yesterday.

But, this afternoon, while browsing magazines at the bookshop where we stopped to buy the Herald Tribune, I saw the same sofa in an editorial, but for less than 1000 euros. We went to the website referred to in the magazine, and it turns out the version we liked is selling for less than 800 if we buy direct. (Has anyone ever bought something as large as a sofa online? It seems rather...bold, and uncertain. It's not exactly like getting a couple of books delivered to your door.)

So, do we buy this sofa for a little bit more than we would like to spend but still not outrageous when it comes to sofa prices...


...or do we buy the normal unobjectionable sofa for a more reasonable price? Something along these lines:



The complication in all of this is whether we would bring said sofa with us to Barcelona eventually, or not, and if so, where it would fit and if the color would look good, blah blah and so on. But I think we should just leave that out of the picture for now.

Oh, and by the way, did you know that the French word for sofa is canapé? Of course in English, canapés are little fancy appetizer toasts, so my brain does funny things when I see the word in stores, imagining cheese and olives perched on top of the sofas, for example.

Today I am thankful for the cheerful red leaves of poinsettias. We bought a couple on our way home from church, including some adorable mini ones. So with the Christmas tree already set up, and the poinsettias on the mantle, we're ready for the Christmas season to begin.

A matter of minutes

I'm an hour past the midnight mark for today's entry, and I don't know if this means I'm kicked out of the blog challenge thingamajiggy or not. I don't have a terribly great excuse; it's just that today was one of those meandering kind of days and when we left the house shortly after noon, we didn't know exactly what we would be doing from there on in. We ended up doing some Christmas/sofa shopping, finding ourselves downtown, and then going to a free archeology cinema festival (did you imagine there was such a thing?) but when we got there they had just started a two-hour break, so we went to dinner (best Waterzooi ever). Then friends called, and we gave up on the cinema festival, met them for a drink and then saw a pretty wacky Taiwanese movie in another part of town. And then we had to walk home because there was no tram or bus, and it rained. That's why it's one a.m. and I haven't posted yet today.

Sorry.

Today I am thankful for: Thanksgiving leftovers. Even our mini-Thanksgiving produced some excellent leftovers, which we made into a delicious brunch. The stuffing was particularly tasty the second time around.

23 November 2007

Darling clementine

I have to admit it was hard to miss out on Thanksgiving yesterday. We called my family on skype just as they sat down at the table, and as we peered out from the computer screen over the edges of serving bowls filled with steaming mashed potatoes, my mother's glorious cranberry sauce (which I will be making tonight), and a freshly sliced turkey, ringed by the faces of loved ones, it was easy to wish we were there. At least we were, virtually speaking, and got to hear them sing the grace, in four-part harmony to boot. 

Tonight M. and I are planning to make a mini-Thanksgiving, minus the turkey, but including potatoes, cranberry, stuffing, and some sort of delectable dessert (maybe this one). I'm sort of befuddled about how much or how little to make for just the two of us, without it being excessive, but still abundantly scrumptious. I didn't want to invite people over for a big production, because only last week we had a big Halloween production, and for last year's Thanksgiving party I cooked for twelve hours straight (and that for people who were very confused about the purpose of cranberry sauce).

We might also try to put up the Christmas tree. Then it will really feel like the holiday season has begun, and I can start listening to Christmas music! 

Today I'm thankful for winter citrus: the gorgeous color of mandarins with their glossy green leaves still attached, and their perfect burst of sweet and tart in the mouth. I have been eating handfuls of these every day this week. 

22 November 2007

To give thanks

I love how the name of this holiday is translated in Spanish, Catalan, French... acció de gràcies, action of thanks. Indeed it is an action, a gift that means nothing until it is given, a verb, present tense.

Today in the Times there was a slightly snarky article about writing down what you are thankful for. Although the author sort of makes fun of the idea that writing down your thanksgivings makes you happier, I think the point is that it makes others happier. That's what gifts are about, and what giving is about. The act of saying or writing it mostly matters because it is something we can give, whether to God or loved ones or strangers or the universe.

Ironically, after days and days of writing about little things I'm thankful for, it's hard to find words to say what I'm most thankful for, because they are big, and big things don't fit into words very well. But I will try, as simply as I can, because the big might fit into the simple. I am thankful for:

• My husband, who is sitting next to me reading a red leather book, and our exciting first year of marriage. For his encouragement and love, his honesty and warm hands and his dimple.

• Our family. For how the distance between here and New England, and here and Catalonia, doesn't seem so big mostly because of how involved they are in our lives and how supportive their love for us is.

• Our friends. Same thing goes for them, and how even after much time and much distance, when we see their faces again it is like no time has passed.

• God. For beauty, truth, and faithfulness.

• For the beautiful things in life, like delicious food, and music that moves me, and writing that makes me see newly, and laughter, for travel to amazing places, the insane wonder of the world's moving pieces, and the fabulous inventiveness of language, for a good night's sleep.

• For this blog, for the people who read it (thank you!).

Have a wonderful, delicious Thanksgiving. Give thanks.

21 November 2007

Not such a clean freak

I just finished sweeping the house and cleaning the bathroom. It feels great to have things spic and span, but boy do I dislike cleaning. In fact, I dislike it enough to usually let things slide way longer than they should, and it's the Mister, not me, who most often suggests that we tackle the dust bunnies in the corner, because they are growing menacing and might take a hostage.

This fact has come as a great shock to me. I always thought that once I was living with my husband in our own house, it would be impeccably clean, and it would be no problem to maintain that cleanliness (and it would always smell like roses and I would be wearing an adorable perky dress...wait, speaking of cleaning, I think my brain has been washed...). This misapprehension stems from the fact that in previous lodgings, I was often one of the cleaner ones, taking the initiative when it came to cleaning duties and picking up scattered items.

But I realize now that although I might have a lower tolerance for dirt and clutter than some, I still have a much higher threshold than I expected of myself, and that this is especially true when it comes to cleaning the bathroom. I notice the grime, but I find that the annoyance (and gross factor) of having to clean it up can outweigh the annoyance of living with it, for quite a longer period of time than expected.

To be honest, I think there is a difference between how I feel about cleanliness in a rental vs. a place that we own. I have less motivation for maintenance here in Brussels. But that theory will still need to be tested, once the newness rubs off of the renovated apartment in Barcelona (right now, I'm a little neurotic about it, as evidenced by a freakout over paint splatters that the painters left in the bathroom tub and toilet. But seriously, they're the professionals: shouldn't they have been able to avoid staining our NEW bathroom furnishings?).

I think another reason for my surprising inability to maintain a squeaky-clean home comes from the fact that I just don't know how. I feel like I don't have a good sense of what kind of products work and what don't, how often things should be cleaned, and with what tools. I stand in front of the bathroom counter in begloved hands, ineffectually scrubbing with a wet sponge doused in some smelly chemical that I am not confident is the right product for the job (I also wonder about those chemicals: isn't there a more environmentally friendly way to clean?). Plus, we have a wicked hard water problem here, leading to impossible encrusted white stuff all over everything. I always have the feeling, when we're at the Mister's grandmother's place, that I'm missing out on some special cleaning gene: her sheets are always brilliantly white and smelll beautifully and are perfectly smooth, and the rest of the house is that way too.

I suppose that, although I can say I'm not good at cleaning, I am relatively good at being neat and tidy. I like things to be in their place, especially if they have a place (I really like putting away clean dishes, for example), and I do have a lower tolerance for piles of clutter. That said, my desk right now is an impressive mess, and although I'm itching to fix it, I don't really know where to put those piles of photocopies and that concert poster and those bills and so on and so forth...

The nice thing about being married is that we get to split up the jobs, and can make it a team effort. I always dust and sweep (because the dust bothers his allergies) and he always mops (because I hate mopping). I usually do laundry, and he always irons. Most of the time, I make dinner, and he washes the dishes. This last one gets a little thorny, though: I feel bad that he always gets the unfun end of the stick, and he often--understandably--doesn't feel like washing dishes right after a nice dinner. So they sit in the sink, but I really dislike a sink full of dishes, because it's visually offensive (see: above comments regarding things in their places), and makes using the sink for its actual function (getting tea water in the morning, for example) difficult.

Sigh. Well, maybe getting the hang of the whole cleaning thing is going to take some time, and by the time I'm as old as the Mister's iaia, I'll have a omniscient knowledge of how to clean, too.

Meanwhile, I'm thankful for a husband who splits the work with me, even steven. I'm thankful, too, for a house to clean in the first place, one that's warm and toasty and provides us with nice spaces to work and love and eat and sleep in.

Speaking of thankful, tomorrow is Thanksgiving! Like last year, it's going to be a little sad to be in Brussels on just a regular old Thursday night, which for me means choir practice. At least this year, the Mister is here, and we're planning to talk to my family when I get home from rehearsal. Also, I'm hoping that on Friday we can whip up some cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes and stuffing and eat a little meal of Thankfulness.

20 November 2007

Picture pages

A friend sent me a couple of pictures from the party, and not a second too late because after quite a few days now of nonstop blogging, I'm ready for a bit of a break. Therefore, for your viewing enjoyment:




Today I am thankful for potatoes. I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But just think about how good they are in just about every form under the sun, and how satisfying. Tonight we had them fried up in perfect rounds, with garlic and basil. And of course Thanksgiving is coming up, and although I don't know how or in what form we are going to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I am planning to make a perfectly fluffy batch of mashed taters.

Oh, and I am also thankful for Belgian holidays, which never fail to surprise me. Today is Saint-Verhaeghen's day, during which the the students of the Free University run around throwing eggs at their high school teachers and then form a parade that winds around the center of town. They also ask everyone for change to pay for the beer they consume throughout the day, and you are at risk of getting egged and floured if you don't pony up.

19 November 2007

In orange and black

I'm still waiting on pictures from our party last night, but until I have them, I will just say that it was an unqualified success, a bona fide Halloween costume party, albeit several weeks after the fact. We actually managed to get almost all of the Catalans to dress up, even an uncle who avowedly has never dressed up as anything in his entire life (he put a kitchen towel on his head with a rope around it, and painted a mole on his face: a Catalan Yasser Arafat?). I practically gave bear hugs to anyone who was game enough to show up at the door looking ridiculous, so relieved and gleeful I was. The apartment was full to bursting.

I was asked by an aunt if I was "una parenta de la Robin?" (Robin's relative) because she didn't recognize me in the Cleopatra wig. Judging by that alone, I would say my costume was also a success, and I enjoyed swanning around in a white sheet, wig, and eye makeup with my Antony, whose brilliant gold laurel leaves were easy to spot across a room.

The food was also a hit, especially my pumpkin apple bread, and although a whole bunch of people asked me for the recipe, I don't know how they're going to find Libby's pureed pumpkin in Barcelona. The adults enjoyed the punch with a hand floating in it and marvelled at the popcorn and my method of preparing it (evidently there it's prepared in a frying pan, with sugar?), while the little kids got appropriately chocolatey and sugar-high. The kids were the best: even though I spent an awful long time scrubbing little chocolate fingerprints off the walls, it was so much fun to see them running around in their little costumes (especially my niece as caputxeta, little red riding hood) and enjoying the holiday sweets.

The menu, reprising my color theme from the actual night of Halloween, was all orange and black:
pumpkin apple bread
chocolate muffin "spiders" (I attempted a crude version of these using muffins for the bodies, pocky for the legs, and icing for the eyes)
toffee candy with orange wrappers and black candies and oreos
an assortment of bright orange chips and cheese puffs
(orange) cheese and (black) olives on toothpicks
carrot sticks with cheddar cheese dip and black olives
salmon-tuna-olive terrines (made by M's mom because it was orange and black)
orange cumin popcorn (plastic gloves stuffed with the popcorn, crawling out of the bowl)
dried apricots and mandarin oranges
orange-mango punch (with a hand ice "cube" floating in it; I froze some of the punch in a glove)

I dare say everyone had fun. I sure did! It was hard to get up this morning and harder still to find myself in gray and cold Brussels. But I'm thankful for a wonderful weekend, the opportunity to catch up with friends, and for the beginning of what we hope will be an annual tradition, the kind of thing our friends and family in Barcelona look forward to every year.

18 November 2007

Queen of Egypt

Forgive me this sorry excuse for a blog post, but I am writing in extremis from my husband's parents house, just before we all leave for an excursion up the valley to a special once-a-year gathering of the whole town at a little hermitage, the one where his parents were married. The Mister has promised me that we will see everyone there, including all the distant family members who live here (which is a whole lot of people, maybe more than we know of, considering that the family has been in this town for centuries).

When we return, we'll have a quick lunch here and then head back into the city to finish setting up the party. We spent yesterday afternoon cutting out jack o'lanterns and ghosts and spiders, making spider cupcakes, spray painting various elements of our Antony & Cleopatra costumes gold, and practicing winding white sheets around ourselves in a way that looks vaguely Egypto-roman.

I promise there will be pictures, although they have to be from someone else's camera, because ours is kapoot.

Tomorrow, I'll be writing once again from Belgium. Until then, sincerely yours,
Cleopatra

17 November 2007

Barcelona, belly laughs

Hello from Barcelona, where it is cold! Looks like we brought the first cold snap of the season with us from Brussels. But it's a rosy, Mediterranean cold and just the look of the air is warmer than in Brussels. I, stupidly, did not pack anything warmer than a light sweater, and all I have in my drawers here are sixty tank tops. And since the heat still isn't installed in this apartment, we've been a tad chilly. Nothing we can't solve with piles of blankets on the bed and a space heater, though.

We just drew up a master plan for the day and for the party tomorrow, thinking of as many things as we can that will fill the need for the Halloween effect. It's a matter of thinking creatively, because it's not as if we're going to find any stores with Halloween-themed food and/or decorations. And we still have to complete our costumes, as well as accomplish various tasks related to finishing the apartment renovations (choosing a bathroom mirror, choosing wood for built-in shelves, etc.).

It feels reeeally good to be here in our little nest, to have escaped from Brussels for a little while, to see the family. I am especially thankful for the beautiful faces of our little nieces, whom we visited just before they went to sleep last night in their bunk beds, and for their adorable belly laughs when the Mister was tickling them under the chin.

16 November 2007

On a jet plane

The sky is a frosty bright blue today, and has been for a couple of days, amazingly enough. It is accompanied by plummeting temperatures, temperatures that, of course, drop below zero on the days I have a nasty stuffy head cold (still, I'll take sun over rain any day). When I say zero, I mean celcius, that being the only temperature I know how to convert from farenheit to celcius. All the rest are vague relative sort of calculations when I see the temperature displayed somewhere. "Oh, it's 6 degrees! That's...warmer than yesterday?" I say to myself.

When I look up into the sky this morning, I imagine myself in it, in a few hours. That is, in it in a plane. (I think I need to say the word "in" a few more times.) In a few hours I will be in the sky in a plane.

I tend to think about people in planes on any given day, though, not just the ones where I am going to be on board myself. Am I the only one? When I see planes slide across my window pane, I imagine those little tiny people who are really as big as me eating their peanuts and looking out their oval windows at the tiny postage stamp rooftops of Brussels. I wonder if they are wondering if anyone is thinking about them, because that's what I wonder when I am on a plane. I wonder if anyone looking from the windows down below are wondering about me, up above.

No matter how often I do it, and despite the obviously negative things about air travel, I always look forward to being on a plane, to being suspended in time and space, somewhere between here and there, between then and now. I've written about this before, so the two of you who are vaguely interested in what I'm saying can click here, a blog post from just over a year ago in which I wax poetic about flying and airports. (Here's the "I'm-thankful-for" part: today, it's for airplanes and airports and the thrill of going somewhere.)

So, we will be winging our way to Barcelona shortly. If any of the security people open our suitcases, they will find some pretty random and maybe vaguely worrisome items. Instead of clothes, I will be bringing a wig, gold chains (explanation here), black spider Halloween decorations, large paper pumpkins, orange candy, two loafs of pumpkin bread, and some little wire bird decorations that I promised to buy for our niece. In his carry-on, the mister is toting a kitchen lighting fixture.

We have a full weekend plan: just for starters, the Mister's father will be bringing us directly from the airport to no less than three different stores so that we can buy a bathroom mirror, bathroom lights and towel holders, and a shelving unit for the office. And then there's the party, and a planned excursion to the annual aplec ("gathering"?) at the tiny church where the Mister's parents were married, Sant Iscle. What I'm saying is that blog posting might be light. But I will be posting, by hook or by crook, because of the November blog posting challenge.

Happy weekend!

15 November 2007

Pet peeve: pet peeves

Bloggers tend to be sticklers about grammar. I should amend that and say, good bloggers tend to be sticklers about grammar, which amounts to saying that good writers tend to be sticklers about grammar. It makes sense, you know? Someone who can write well is usually familiar with the nuts and bolts of language, the little bits of grammar and punctuation that make for a good sentence.

So it makes sense that a lot of people end up writing about grammar, and specifically their grammar pet peeves. One example I read recently is MetroDad's Confessions of a Grammar Nerd. (I dare everybody to read all of the comments...)

I always have a mixed reaction to these kinds of posts. On one hand, the former proofreader in me wants wants to cheer, because I too want to correct every last twist and turn of the language fast lane. But other the other hand... Well, let's just say that the road metaphor is especially apt because language is one. I.e., it is always in motion and changing, and cannot be entirely defined by any ruler-nosed grammar panel or elementary-school textbook. (Despite what the Académie française might like to think.)

I'm especially formed in this line of thinking by a linguistics class I took in college, during which we read Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct. My memories of the book specifically are fuzzy, but I do remember being inspired by it to view language as not something created by a list of external rules, but as an internal wiring of the brain. So, if language changes, it is often because the change fulfills a (social) need. Now, of course I know the difference between a completely laissez-faire attitude and an awareness of varying social language registers, which is why I tell my students that it is not OK to use instant-messagese in an academic paper and why I correct their grammar anyway.

But all of this is a long way of describing why one of my pet peeves is grammar pet peeves. One of the most maddening is the insistence on maintaining the split infinitive rule. The only reason grammarians decided we should not split the infinitive (i.e., it is important to always keep "to" and "keep" together) is because in Latin, these are contained in one word. By that standard, English wouldn't have any moveable parts at all. This is not Latin, it's English, and we should be allowed to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Another example of this is nixing any and all dangling participles. Yes, in some cases they are awkard, unsightly, or unecessary. Sometimes they are jarring rhythmically. But in others, it is more awkward and/or unecessarily formal to rework the sentence so that there is no dangling, resulting in a lot of "to which blahblahblah." I would be perfectly happy to lose this "rule" and just stick with what sounds nicest. What do we have against prepositions?

Of course, there's a difference between disliking the rules and fragrantly disobeying them. I know that these are important to most other people, so I would--especially in any important, work-related document--not split my infinitives or leave participles a-hanging. And if you give me an in-house style book and tell me to hunt out whatever deviates from it, I'm your eagle-eyed woman. (Especially the Genetics house style: that was my baby when I was a proofreader. And yeah, proofreading genetic code will make your head spin in proportion to how important it is that any given C, G, A, or T be correct.)

I do have to admit that there are plenty of niggling (or howling) grammar mistakes that get my goat. Most of them do serve an important function because they distinguish between variants of a word (it's/its, their/there/they're) or change the meaning of a sentence (punctuation is often to blame for this, especially commas and the hilariously improper use of scare quotes--check out this blog, it's fabulous!). I also get a bit annoyed by improper alphabetization (titles beginning with "The" found under T), untidy title capitalization (capitalized prepositions) and incorrect usage of foreign language words or terms (this last can, admittedly, get kind of fuzzy and I've run across some huge challenges in translation over this issue).

Most often, though, I find grammar "mistakes" amusing or revealing because they get me thinking NOT about how they are breaking some invisible rule, but because they make me consider the structures of language and shades of meaning that can arise from word placement, spelling, punctuation, and all that jazz.

Here's an example I saw the other day, in an e-mail from a long-lost family member we met at the family reunion in September. She writes, "I have a whole family I had never met that I now feel so blessed to be apart of..."

First reaction: beep beep! glaring error! Second reaction: language is so cool! Maybe you've noticed this before, or maybe you just think I'm out of my mind. But this only occurred to me for the first time upon seeing the above e-mail: a part and apart are only differentiated by one small space. But they mean the opposite of one another, and the one with a space in it means to belong to something, while the one that is all together means to not be together!

(Yes, I am a language nerd. Forgive me if grammar was the last thing you wanted to read about today. Hopefully you stopped reading long long ago if that's the case.)

Now, a slight tangent. I bought cough drops today that advertised in bold letters on the front that they are sugar free. Yet, the ingredient list contains "sirop de sucre caramelisé" or, as they translated it in English, "burnt sugar syrup." How is this not sugar? Chemistry? Or semantics?

Today I am thankful for: feeling better, or at least that the cough drops/cough syrup combo is working. Also, the smell of pumpkin-apple bread fresh from the oven. I'm baking it for our autumn/Halloween party in Barcelona this weekend. We promised something "American" to our guests, and this is the only thing I could come up with that was plane-portable and contained Halloweeny/American ingredients: i.e., pumpkin. It's the last of the cans that we brought back from the US, so if anyone wants to send me some more, feel free.

14 November 2007

The golden cage

I was forwarded an e-mail from the Mister yesterday, to whom it was forwarded from someone else, and so on and so forth. Imagine what it would be like to piggyback on the shoulders of an average circulating e-mail, not spam, but the kind people send each other because they think it's interesting (this, by the way, is highly subjective and I know I irkedly delete e-mails all the time that others consider "highly interesting").

You'd get to see a whole lot of faces peering at you from around the world, and the expressions on those faces would range from annoyed to fascinated to worried to happy. You'd find a poor girl like me coughing away with runny eyes and nose on the couch in her sweats, a guy like M. in his suit in the office, and all sorts of people in between, faces lit up by their computer screens.

Anyway, the e-mail I received yesterday was an article from the Guardian from last summer, about living in Brussels, which the author, Gareth Harding, describes as "living in a golden cage." You want to escape, but know that you have it good (more in a moment on the "have it good" part). He speaks of the embarrassment of acknowledging that you came to live here for a few months or a year or two, and suddenly discover you've been here 14 years. Oh dearie me, I hope this doesn't happen to us. I know that conversation--we've had it with many people--and I hope it is not me someday doing the apologetic begrudging thing. Yeah, Brussels.

Harding writes: "American travel writer Bill Bryson once described the city as a 'seriously ugly place, full of wet litter, boulevards like freeways and muddy building sites,' and many people still associate the Belgian capital with rain, sprouts, bloated bureaucracy and barmy laws. This is, after all, a city whose two most iconic monuments are of a sackload of suspended balls and a small boy peeing."

Kind of makes you want to move here, right? Along with my eternal griping about the weather, the capital of Belgium just sounds utterly romantic, n'est-ce pas?

The question Harding asks, after going through the myriad reasons of why Brussels stinks, is: "why do over-educated, multilingual high-flyers invariably end up staying longer in Brussels than they planned to?"

This is the crux of the issue, and I keep reading, because I think we would rather avoid staying longer than planned. Even if it ends up being another five years, please let it not be fourteen. So he goes on to list the benefits of Brussels. For one, it's a whole lot cheaper than Paris or London but only a train ride away from either. He cites the hospitals, the schools, the food, and of course, the beer. Ultimately, he concludes, it's a city to live in, not really made for sightseeing:

"The magnificent Grand Place aside, there are few must-see sights. Instead the city’s real charms – surrealist cafes, Moroccan markets, giant beech forests, comic-strip murals, Congolese eateries and cinemas showing only silent films — are either tucked away down side streets or marooned in the sprawling suburbs."

Yes, this is true. The city's charms are much more hidden. But is this really much of a consolation prize? A silent film or two, a couple of colorful murals (of characters beloved by Europeans, evidently, but I don't get much of a kick out of them). Sorry, maybe I'm being cynical. Maybe I need to get out and do more exploring. And I really do enjoy my own "tucked away" Brussels discoveries.

But it's probably time for a break, which is why it is a good thing we're going to Barcelona this weekend (which is today's thankful thing coming after a whole lot of ungrateful). It's been far too long, and it will be good to escape, at least for a few days, this "golden cage."

(The full article can be found here.)

13 November 2007

Not writing about snot

My cold has decided to return with a vengeance. But I will not go into details, because I promised not to, in one of my first entries ever.

Instead I am going to tell a little story about one of the things that happened to me while I was back at school last month, and how I discovered I didn't have a degree that I thought I had.

I had never received my MFA diploma in the mail, but I thought this must have been due to either an address error or a delay on the University's part. Granted, it had been a year and a half, but things sometimes move slowly in University Bureaucracy Land. Thus, while I was in campus, I went to check on the situation. One office sent me to another office, and so on, until I landed in the little cubicle-filled space where all the forms and grades and dissertations go to be stamped and then filed in a bottomless hole.

They were about to send me to yet another office, but I asked the guy in my nicest voice if he could just check to make sure everything was in order on his end. Lo and behold, it was not. I did not have an MFA, I was a Master of no Fine Art. Evidently I had been a fraud on my resume for the last year and a half without knowing it. (At least I didn't send that resume anywhere. I was only a fraud on my hard drive.)

I found why the next day, after the guy had done some digging. Why? Basically, the degree had fallen through the cracks. Lest you think things like degrees don't fall through cracks, let me reassure you, they do. Through the combined clerical error efforts of two distinguished offices, the Department of English and the Graduate Recorder, one of their upstanding students was an unintentional dropout.

The department never changed one of the thesis credits from an "R" placeholder grade to whatever they change it to, and when the graduate recorder wrote to them, they changed it but never got back to him. Then a new graduate recorder came on the job, and there was no follow-up from either end.

Now I was in a pickle. They gave me the option of having an October 2007 graduation date or my original June 2006 date, but the latter would require extra work, including petitioning the dean. I told them to petition the dean, petition George Bush, whatever it takes. I would much rather the record reflect the actual date that I completed the MFA thesis and coursework (while taking my PhD exams, thankyouverymuch).

Fortunately, the dean was magnanimous (I just wrote that word about fourteen times to get it right--gotta be the cold), and I was allowed a retroactively dated degree. Finally, it seems, I can suffix MFA to the alphabet soup after my name.

OK, so that's what I am thankful for today, that the little mishap was discovered and a solution found. Also, I am thankful for some renewed inspiration on a series of poems I haven't looked at since I finished my MFA (that's what got me thinking about all of this in the first place). They are Vermonty poems, wintery poems, and written in a matter-of-fact farmer's voice. I wonder if I'm drawn back to them now that the days are darkening down, the leaves on the tree behind the house are gone, and the air is decidedly chill.

12 November 2007

Say it in words

Although it's Monday (blah) and the Mister is gone again (boo) and my sniffles remain (achoo), I am thankful that the internet is back in working order and that I have some energy. Yesterday was one of those drag-yourself-around days. All along my mind was trying to convince myself that I was fine, I was making it all up, really it doesn't feel like someone punched me all over, but of course the fact that I thought I needed convincing was evidence enough that my body wasn't its usual self.

Now that both my brain and the big brain (hooked up to the web we are) are allowing me to do so, I'd like to write about just that: writing.

I've been thinking recently about my tendency to write my life in my head. You know how sometimes people imagine their lives as movies, with a soundtrack? I imagine my life as a book, written in perfectly descriptive and beautiful phrases. Sometimes they're not even descriptive, sometimes just words that sound nice. But it would be a funny kind of book, not much of a page turner, because those phrases are all snippets of what I see, think, hear, feel, imagine... Readers would get SO bored. They would ask where the story went.

When my little nephew was starting to talk, and would sometimes revert to whines or cries in frustration or need, my sister would say to him: "Say it in words. Tell me in words." And that's the ultimate challenge, isn't it, big and little? To translate the precise look of an object, or the deep whine of a feeling, into words that can capture at least enough of them to communicate to others.

I sometimes wonder if it can be distancing, or a kind of defense mechanism. Am I experiencing this any less, living life less fully, because I'm trying to put it into words? Hard to say. I do know that I can deliberately use it as a distraction, but I also know that I probably couldn't stop if I wanted to. I guess it means I'm a writer. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm a good one, but it means that is who I am, living in words.

Say on the train I'm noticing the people around me. Or I'm walking outside and I try to describe to myself the exact way those leaves are arrayed. In my head I start trying to say with words what they look like, or imagine what they might be feeling (the people! not, generally speaking, the leaves). Sometimes it sounds like a crime scene report or newspaper article, sometimes like a poem, sometimes academic, sometimes like, well, a blog entry.

Here are some of the snippets that I can remember "writing" in my head this weekend. They weren't going to go anywhere, or probably even be written down unless some story happened around one of them to appear as a detail in a larger picture. I make no claims for brilliance. But they are a little portrait of me, this weekend, trying to "say it in words."

evening arrived fast, bringing the cold of winter with it

the spices smelled as bright as the color of the carrots, all simmer and steam in the pot

she thought nobody else on the train could tell she was crying, but the woman reading a magazine across from her was only pretending to read

that girl is a stocky Lindsay Lohan with a British accent

wet fall leaves the size of platters sunk into the mud, like starfish in the sand

they walked silently, and too carefully, as if they might break the air

11 November 2007

A poppy

We continue to be without internet. And I have a cold, a sore throat all-over achiness kind of cold. The blogging is bound to get the brunt end of both sticks.

So in lieu of any acumen from me, I hereby offer you a bit of poetry, excerpted from a war poem, in honor of Remembrance Sunday and courtesy of Miguel Hernández. It’s a Spanish Civil War poem, of course, and here as in most of Hernández’s war poetry, blood is a character in its own right, morphing and coloring everything the poet sees (“My blood is a road” or “a liquid cloak twisted around my bones / like uncommon serpents”).

Consider the poem a poppy buttoned on today’s gray coat, in remembrance of the end of World War I, 89 years ago today, a war that was supposed to have put an end to all wars.

Bloody Fate

I come, blood on blood,
like the sea, wave on wave.
I have a soul the color of poppies.
The luckless poppy is my destiny,
from poppy to poppy I come
to fall on the horns of my fate.

I fight with blood, I argue
with the pounding of bodies, with all those veins,
and each body I bump and contend with
is one more cauldron of blood, one more chain.

Blood has given me birth, and jail.
Blood dissolves me and swells me up.
I am a building constructed of blood and plaster
which demolishes and rebuilds itself on a bone scaffolding.

A bricklayer in blood, dying blood,
washes and hangs out his shirt each day
not far from my eye,
and each night, with my soul,
and even with my eyelids, I gather it all back in…

(tr. Don Share)

10 November 2007

Tenuous

Internet this morning was crashed; we called the company and they said it’s not just us, everyone’s internetless!

Meanwhile, we went to Ghent, to the Fine Arts museum there, and lingered hours over the paintings and lunch at the café to avoid the cold wet day outside.

Now back in Brussels, and the internet is still not working. If I get an itty bitty tenuous wireless signal from one of the neighbors, I’ll post this in a flash.

Thankful today for museums, museum cafés, museum bookstores. And for time to linger.

09 November 2007

Stellar moments

The Mister bought a book last month by Stephan Zweig called, in Catalan, Moments estel.lars de la humanitat (Stellar Moments of Humanity; I'm not sure what the title is in the original German). I also can't figure out when it was first published. The nineteen-thirties? Forties? We've been reading it in pieces, sometimes aloud to one another, and then each on our own.

The chapters detail, as the title suggests, great moments of history. It pretty much fits into the "great men" tradition of history (and it is strictly all about men), except Zweig takes pains to point out that sometimes the turning points of history revolve on the actions of scoundrels, cowards, or unknowns.

I turned first to the race to the South Pole by Captain Scott, because I always love arctic exploration stories. Other chapters I rather enjoyed include the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable by Cyrus Field and the "discovery" of the Pacific by Vasco Núñez de Balboa.

Right now I'm reading the chapter about Handel's composition of the Messiah. I don't know why I ended up saving this one for last, but the timing seems right. I've been engrossed in the story of a man who, just recovered from a paralyzing stroke, besieged by creditors, without any desire to compose, suddenly is sent a libretto (by a librettist he had been known to belittle--hee hee I always wanted to use those two words in one phrase!) and finds himself gripped by a manic episode of composing that lasts, day and night, for twenty-four days.

When he emerges from his almost visionary state and finally sleeps and eats heartily, he insists that the music has come not from him, but from divine inspiration. He donates the concert revenue to hospitals and prisons, stating that the work is for the sick and the imprisoned, because he himself once was sick, and was cured, once was a prisoner and has been freed.

Then, last night, I went to choir. We're performing the Messiah this semester, and as much as I love this music, as much as singing it is always thrilling to the bone, last night the story of its composition, the text, and the music all fell together and just about overwhelmed me. I started to sing with my eyes closed, so familiar it is, and became utterly absorbed in the exquisite sound.

I've sung the Messiah in Oxford's Sheldonian theater, one of the places Handel himself conducted it, with a professional orchestra. I've sung it with feeble high-school strings trying heroically to keep up with the tempo. I've sung it at parties, in church, in countless rehearsals, school gymnasiums. I've sung solos from it for auditions and in performance. I still remember the first time I heard the whole thing live, and listen to it on the radio every Easter and Christmas. But last night it was new to me all over again.

The story of redemption in song, the incredible word-painting, those breathtaking musical surprises. In that moment it was clear how art can be so much greater than itself, that it is much more than the production of a meager human being. I think this is emphasized even more in choral and symphonic works, because their magic is that the music becomes so much more than a sum of the parts, a true synergy of human and divine.

So Zweig didn't have it quite right; the stellar moment isn't so much the composition of the work as the singing of it, time and time again, with thousands and thousands of voices. The newness of a familiar work in every performance, how the inbreathing of notes on the page and plain old air becomes the outbreathing of, well, music.

And that is what I am thankful for today.

Fairy tale spam

I just got a very nice e-mail from a guy in an undisclosed African country. His father was "a licensed solid mineral (gold, diamond ) Cocoa etc exporter." So far, I'm right with him: the raw material for making chocolate absolutely deserves to be classified with gold and diamonds. And if you've got all three in the family, well, you're set for life, right?

Sadly, no. His father passed away, and the story becomes tragic:

"Few years before my father died he apparently married a woman who became my stepmother because my mother died when i was very young. My stepmother already had two daughters of about my age, and they came with her to live in my Father's house. I discovered that there was some ill-feeling from my stepmother towards me, since then i have been badly treated; being forced to undertake work befitting only a servant, in my father's own house."

Wait, a stepmother (whom your father "apparently married") and two evil stepdaughters? You're being made to work like a servant? Do they have you cleaning out the fireplace? Holy mackerel! Despite the alias, I am positive this is Cinderello writing.

Poor guy, the situation becomes worse.

"When my father died instead of being in the state of mourns as custom demand with our tradition, she went as much as desired and claimed my father's property and in future to come she stand as a possible danger to my live with atitude to me."

First of all, outrageous that she didn't travel to the "state of mourns." Secondly, she went elsewhere, "as much as desired." Heartwrenching. And the clincher is, she is dangerous to his "live with attitude to me."

It was just at this point that I started wondering what I could do to help this poor boy. If only there was a way to lift his spirits and get him out of the evil stepmother situation...

But wait! There is a way! I can help him with some money, some 8 million euros, which he has in a bank! But can't withdraw. All I have to do is get in touch with him, send him my contact information, and then withdraw the money. No problem, right? And in thanks for all my help, he'll give me ten percent of the money.

What a saint, that Cinderello. I'm going to write back right away.

08 November 2007

Thirteen roses

Squeaking in under the wire, today. It's nearly midnight! As is usual on Thursdays, I didn't get home from choir until close to 11 and my first priority is to feed my whiny, demanding stomach. Now, filled with a quinoa sweet potato dish that I just made up and turned out to be surprisingly delicious, it has stopped controlling my actions and I am free to blog.

All day I've been thinking about a movie we saw yesterday, Las 13 Rosas. It was the opening film for the Spanish and Latin American film festival this year in Brussels, followed by a reception, and we were invited courtesy of M's boss not having any interest in going to the forty millionth reception this year. I was looking forward to it all week, as I vaguely knew the movie was about the Spanish Civil War, and that the reception was probably bound to have Spanish wines and cheeses.

But when it came time to go to the reception, after the movie, I didn't exactly feel like mingling and being cheery, because this was the saddest movie I've seen all year. My neck was sore from trying to hold in my sobs, my face was a teary mess, and my heart was heavy. Because it is a movie based on true events (and the documents and letters quoted in the movie are the real thing), it was even more powerful. As M pointed out, his grandfather was held in prisons just like those depicted in the movie; in other words, it touches close to (my husband's/my adopted) home.

The movie tells the story of thirteen young women who are picked up by the police just after the end of the civil war, on suspicion of being "Reds." It depicts their experience before this event, the brutal and violent treatment they receive, and the aftermath of their imprisonment and trial (I won't give away more than this). While the film seemed tinged with that miniseries quality at first, the quality of the acting and the manner in which the story is told drew me in.

One of the best things about it was how it focused on the relationships of these women (some who were best of friends, some who hardly knew each other). Instead of trying to present the full back story of all thirteen, the movie moves from connection to connection in vignettes that interlace and give a great sense of relationship. In fact, many of them get brought to prison because the police follow one of the girls as "bait," watching to see who rushes up to her and embraces her as a friend.

This was one of those movies that makes you wonder what you would do in such a situation. How you would react? Would you succomb to the deliberate currying of fear and suspicion among neighbors? Would you avoid sticking your neck out for others? Or would you risk your life in even small acts of defiance?

These were the thoughts running through my head as we headed to the reception afterwards. In the sea of people, I lost the Mister and was buffetted about by all those giant handbags slung over women's shoulders (why is it suddenly the fashion to carry purses the size of suitcases?). Witty conversation, a glass of wine, and a wedge of Manchego didn't seem terribly appealing.

Today, I'm thankful that we don't live under a dictatorship. That we don't have to make tiny decisions that could mean the imprisonment of neighbors and loved ones.

07 November 2007

Computer speaks

Good morning to you, said my computer, as I settled in front of it, having breakfasted well with my marit.

Good morning, I said in return.

May we travel calmly today? it said.

What do you mean by that? said I. I hoped there were no implications about overly strenuous computer usage.

And within a few clicks my eyes were opened. The internet was crawling at a snail's pace. The snail in question is arthritic, has a bum hip, and is battling a smoker's cough.

Mr. Computer, I said, let's try to restart you and the internet box, and see if that clears out your lungs a bit.

You are welcome to try any remedy, it said. I was surprised to discover how eloquently formal my computer is. Under the youthful white exterior hides the soul of a professor.

Restarting activities were futile. I think Mr. Computer knew this all along, but was just being polite.

Do not take it too much to heart, it said. You have done your best, and in life inevitably there come the times of testing.

So I am left with a slow day, despite an early start and good intentions. A crawling day.

I am going to go swimming now. I am going to do the crawl.

(Today, I am thankful for the swimming pool across the street. For the swimming pool, with its 19th century iron spans, warm chlorinated air, and the little cubbies lining the water's edge. And for the fact that it is located across the street.)

06 November 2007

Slightly out of tune, but mellifluous: a piano story

After posting about the final arrival of the piano this weekend, I thought I would gather up the posts about the piano and put them in one place, this post being that place. Why? Because I have a firstborn's listmaker brain and I like to organize things and as a child I always ate M&Ms in a specific order according to color (if you must know, brown, tan, orange, yellow, green, and yes, they threw a wrench into my nine-year-old brain when they added red).

Consider this the piano fascicle, for you Emily Dickinson and/or anatomy buffs.



Part I: the impulse purchase
Part II: reluctant delivery
Part III: we fire the moving company
Part IV: misplaced signage is costly, piano at the doorstep
Part V: signage incompetence continues
Part VI: cancellations and complaints
Part VII: home at last

It took exactly two months from the moment of purchase to the day a concord of celestial harmony caused everything to fall in place and the piano to land in our dining room.

Here is a fuzzy picture of the beautious beast:


I've been playing every day and I'm sure our neighbors are thrilled. I'm sure they would like me to keep playing, all the time.