31 January 2007

Boxes and bags

It is nearly February 1st, and that means that we are about to become two-timers on our rent money. For a half a month, we'll be in apartment limbo, living in this one but starting to pay rent on the new one.

Next week, we'll start the move to the new place, but it doesn't seem real yet because not a single box has been packed. Where do we begin? I have a worried feeling that we will just end up throwing things into boxes and bags and carting it onto public transportation like a bag lady and a bag mister who just happen to have a bunch of extra boxes and bags, but can't bear to part with any of them and so are wandering around on city busses with their beloved boxes and bags. We might start singing "Feed the birds, tuppence a bag," because we like that song and because we're raggedy like the pigeon lady and also because it has the word "bag" in it.

The last time I packed, I sold most of my stuff in a yard sale in the front lawn of the House of Love, and then fit the rest of it into the back of my dad's minivan for the drive to Vermont. The same will not be happening this time around because 1. we have no minivan, and 2. we have more stuff than is going to fit in a minivan. Also, 3. there is no yard in which to sell things. (Is Europe averse to yard sales? The whole idea seems quite alien in the European context, even in places where there are lawns. Spreading your stuff in front of your house? to SELL? to blatantly attempt to make money by the display and sale of your private things? I think not.)

And also, this weekend we'll be in Barcelona, and Brussels will become but a distant memory, as it tends to do when we head for the mediterranean climes.

When we come back we will have a big treat awaiting for us, which is all of the stuff that is not yet packed into move-worthy receptacles.

So, it is February. And there is some packing to do.

30 January 2007

Extra, extra, read all about it

So, this morning the Mr. left for Naples, where he will be speaking for five hours (FIVE hours!!) on the subject of Turkey's accession to the EU. This is one of the reasons HE works at the Parliament and not ME. I don't know if I could talk about anything for five hours straight, even books.

Sans the Mr., I am planning to work much, and perhaps start packing some boxes. First I need to get boxes. Oh, and also I would like to make something to eat that is tasty.

Also, I am going to avoid the internet, because it is currently crawling at a dying-in-the-desert-without-water pace. I can't figure out how it is that we download 1 G of stuff, which is our limit (are there limits in the US? I feel outraged by the whole limits thing), after which we are bumped down to a pitiful crawl. All I do is download a few songs (mostly the free ones from iTunes because I'm cheap like that and also haven't found a place here that sells iTunes cards...any suggestions?) and my e-mails. Is it possible that I reach 1 gigabyte with just that? 1 gigabyte, as I found out through googling because I don't know these things offhand, is over 1,000 megabytes. A thousand! Surely it would take longer than a month to reach that. Someone who is tech savvy, please advise.

Besides these clearly headline-worthy bits of information, I have nothing to report. So I will direct your attention instead, to some actual recent headlines.

*A girl was found in the Cambodian jungle who, sensationalists are claiming, has lived in the wild for eighteen years (her parents claim to recognize the scars of a daughter who disappeared that long ago). She doesn't seem to speak any recognizable language, and refuses to wear clothes. Yet, strangely enough, her hair is short and was when they found her...hmmm.

*Several EU states boycotted the meeting held in Madrid to discuss the EU constitution. Basically, scuppered again.

*In Sunday's New York Times, there is an excellent article by Michael Pollan about food, and what he calls "nutritionism," basically an overly strong faith in scientific findings about our food. One of his most interesting points is that even if they can tell us about one nutrient that is in an avocado, there is still exponentially more that we don't know about how it interacts with other nutrients in that very food, and the nutrients in the foods that we eat it with. Science tends to look at things in isolation. So his advice is simple: "Eat food [as opposed to processed pseudo-foods]. Not too much. Mostly plants." Amen.
Link to the article.

*The Doomsday Clock is now at 11:55 pm.

*Which probably has something to do with the fact that a whole bunch of scientists got together to tell us what we already knew--that global warming exists, and that furthermore, it's going faster than we thought. The ice in the Arctic is likely to melt entirely over the summers of the near future. (Both of these last items are from today's Times.)

Happy Tuesday! Go eat whole food, and don't make any greenhouse gasses if you can help it. For the sake of sea-level citizens everywhere.

29 January 2007

Heh, heh, heh; or, hein, hein, hein*

This is a post about being funny (or not).

I'm not really a funny person, especially when it comes to making jokes on the fly, especially with large groups of people, and especially people I don't know very well. My jokes in any case tend to be of the punny variety, and I am often too slow on the ball to sneak in something when it's the right moment. Much better at written verbal wit: I'm dorky like that. (By the way, this is not the same thing as not having a sense of humor. I love laughing at other people's funniness. Especially of the punny, ironic, slapstick, and deadpan varieties.)

But things get drastically worse when speaking in another language. Even when I find something funny, and try to explain it, the joke falls flat. Flat as Nebraska. Often, the thing that I find funny has to do with a word that in the other language sounds like (or looks like) something in English that is funny. (*Example: the subject line of this post. I think--according to my limited French--that "hein" is the French equivalent of "heh." And that is funny. It just is.) But this sort of thing is often not very funny for other people, evidently.

So I was immensely, inordinately proud of myself the other night when I made a group of Catalan friends laugh. I was emboldened to explain, in Catalan, why the city name "Antwerp" was funny to me. I told them that it sounds like the English word "twerp," which means, roughly, "un petit gilipollas," or to untranslate what I was mentally translating, "a little idiot." Fortunately, everybody found this quite as amusing as I did, but of course what was funny to them was the translation of the word "twerp," not the fact that Antwerp contains that word, which is what I found funny. Still, it was funny. I was funny!

Another interesting aspect of this question is the different sense of what is funny that happens when I am speaking English, but with a group of non-native English speakers. I can use words to comic effect that I anticipate will be funny to them, even though with native English speakers it would not be funny in the slightest. Here's an example. Last week, when we met our new landlord, who is a Belgian/Iranian doctor, we were speaking English with him and the girl who is living there now. I explained the fact that we're keeping her things for a while by saying, "We are babysitting her furniture for a month or so." While this isn't particularly funny, I knew that for a non-native speaker the juxtaposition of "to babysit" and "furniture" might be surprising. And, indeed, it got a laugh, and in response, our new landlord said that he hoped the furniture didn't "cry too much."

As for French, I think it is going to be a long, long time before I can be funny in that trippy tongue. I had my end-of-semester oral exam today, and I was totally unprepared because in the end the prof just asked me to talk about me! Imagine that. I had prepared to talk about Julie, Benoit and Pascal, the lovable characters in our class language video. Yeah, you know the types.

I think I did OK, muddling my way through an explanation of my studies, my thesis, what I'm doing in Brussels and so on. I'll know Wednesday if I passed (I'm certain I did; no matter how bad my passé composé was, I don't think it merits a failure, and I know the written exam was fine), and next week, the new class starts. Fortunately for me, I wasn't required to be funny.

And in retrospect, I apologize for this post, because is there anything less funny than talking about what is funny? And now I've gone and written the word "funny" so many times that it's starting to take on that weird abstractness words get when you say them over and over and over...

Correction: turns out that "hein" means "eh" more than "heh." My bad.

25 January 2007

How quickly time trips by on its velveteen feet

The last time I wrote was, and I think this is the technical term, ages ago.

Since then, we've found a new apartment, and although nothing has been signed yet, it will be tomorrow. The new place is in St. Gilles, a neighborhood rather far from our current area, which means that M will have to take public transport to get to work every day (and won't be able to come home for lunch, as he does now). But the good news is that for a price not exorbitantly more than what we pay now, we will have an apartment of nearly double the size (and all on one level, at last). It's about 100 square meters, which for all you Americans, means, um, pretty big.

Plus, it's got a fully-equipped kitchen that I am looking forward to using, and a washer/dryer. A washer/dryer!! Unheard of!

We're going to be babysitting the furniture of the girl who is moving out, until Easter when she can come back for it. This would normally be annoying, but since she has beautiful furniture (dark wood and intricate carving and painting), I won't mind. It'll just look rather odd next to our cheap semi-temporary plywood/Ikea/dumpster furniture. That said, the very first thing I'm going to do is take down the thick orange curtains that are covering the big bay window. She has a sort of lush moroccan vibe going on, which is great, except for keeping the place all dark and veiled. Let the pitiful amount of sun that exists in this country find its way into the apartment, for pete's sake!

Complications arising from us having found a place we liked were a little troublesome. Our landlord is in Vietnam, completely inaccessible, and so we're forced to operate on the assumption that we can break our contract (three-year, typical for Brussels) by finding new renters, and that he will release our three-month deposit (also unfortunately typical for Brussels). This is slightly scary, because we have to sign on the new one and pay a new three-month deposit before he gets back, but we've given ourselves a cushion by saying Feb. 15 for the new people. That gives us a couple of weeks to move out of this place, as well.

So, that's what we've been up to, by and large. Anyone want to come help us move? Did I mention the new place is on the fourth floor? No elevator?

18 January 2007


Ten things I am doing right now, or "doing" right now:

1. Waiting for M to arrive home from Strasbourg.

2. Listening to the wind blow the contents of the street from one end to the other. Jingling glass bottles, loud unexplained bangs, and the rushing whoosh of Bruxellois wind.

3. Listening to Stéphane Grappelli play "La chanson des rues." On iTunes, obviously. Though I did see him live once, before he died in the late nineties.

4. Planning to make brownies. Yes, from a mix (one that traveled across the Atlantic in my mother's suitcase), but a mix of Ghirardelli brownies.

5. Doing an online search for custom bookplates because for ages I've been wanting an "Ex Libris" that has an engraving of a robin and music on it. Birdsong, get it? But evidently this is easier imagined than done. And expensive.

6. Translating medieval Catalan recipes. The latest, called "Freixures," features lungs, heart and liver of mutton or pork. Yum. And you wonder why I don't attempt to replicate any of these recipes instead of making brownies?

7. Sweeping the house.

8. Researching Ernest Hemingway's appearance on Time magazine's cover in 1937, and its reportage of the Spanish Civil War, and trying to figure out whether he appeared on the cover because of the publication of To Have or Have Not, or because of publicity for the war and his documentary about it. Unfortunately for me and my thesis, I think it's the former. But I did discover that all of Time's archives are available online for free, which is useful and nice of them.

9. Contemplating whether I should write a conference paper about Hemingway's documentary, The Spanish Earth, or if the Hemingway/Spain thing is way overdone and I should stick with the poets. Or somehow combine them. Yes. Perhaps the latter, as I think I could finagle an angle wherein both Hemingway (in the documentary and an accompanying booklet) and the poets have this experience/mediation dichotomy going on. They tell us it's important to have "been there," but also that "beeing there" is just as hard to interpret as any media representation of the "there."

10. Ignoring what I discovered this morning, to my horror, namely, that mold is eating--nay, devouring--several pairs of our shoes stored in a corner under the staircase. And, I suspect, some of the suitcases also stored there. I didn't have the stomach to start digging around. We've got to get out of this house...

17 January 2007

Proust questionnaire

M asked me on the phone this evening (he's in Strasbourg) if I had updated my blog, and since I hadn't, I thought of this questionnaire. (Or, as the new term for these things making the internet rounds has it, meme.)

This is a questionnaire that, despite its name, Proust did not invent. Rather, he himself fell prey to its questions, twice during his life. I've seen it in various places on the internet, and as a feature in Vanity Fair magazine. I think the questions are interesting, and so here is my attempt to answer them, as spontaneously as possible.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Any of the following, even better in combination: sun, my husband nearby, a good book, delicious food, a warm blanket, all of my family together, making music, the Sunday crossword.

What is your greatest fear?

Fire, i.e., a house fire or being trapped somewhere that is on fire.

What historical figure do you most identify with?

Hard to say. If it's someone famous, it's sort of hard to "identify" with him or her, given the "famous" part. And there are tons of writers, musicians, artists or thinkers who I am tempted to think I "identify" with, but that's entirely based on their art. For example, I "identify" with Haydn because he wrote happy music, and Bach, because he wrote geometric and profoundly religious music. But I'll go with Wilson Snowflake Bentley, the man from my home town who discovered that no two snowflakes are alike. I've spent a lot of time with him, writing a series of poems about his life and in his voice. I suppose that's the closest I've gotten to identifying with anyone historical.

Which living person do you most admire?

The people I admire the most I know personally, because I know firsthand what is admirable, but I wouldn't be able to choose just one because I admire different people for different things. Teachers, family members, and friends would be on the list.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

I care too much about what other people think. It sometimes makes me avoid expressing my opinion, makes me more concerned about being "nice" than being true, and makes me not try new things; it limits boldness and honesty.

What trait do you most deplore in others?

Self-pity. My mother used to make us snap out of being whiney by telling us to say, "I am a poor, unfortunate child" with a straight face. We could never do it. There are people I would like to do that to.

What is your greatest extravagance?

I don't have many, I'm actually a bit of a penny-pincher. Travel, I suppose. Planes are expensive money-wise and eco-wise. Oh, and possibly books, although I love libraries and don't like to own a book that I haven't read.

On what occasion do you lie?

When someone asks how I am, and I tell them I'm good, even when I'm not.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

Thick ankles. Pointy nose.

What is your favorite journey?

Driving north up into Vermont, feeling the mountains surround me. Or, any journey bringing me home to M.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Niceness. That said, I'm always being nice.

Which living person do you most despise?

Is it a cliché to say George W. Bush? For helping turn America into the country the rest of the developed and undeveloped world is shaking their heads over, at the very least. But I don't know him personally, so it's hard to judge.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

I'm going to go with punctuation on this one: parenthesis. In Catalan, I'm sure I overuse plenty of phrases, as my vocabulary is smaller.

What is your greatest regret?

I don't have any regrets that merit "greatest regret" status. I regret smaller things, like losing touch with friends, not finishing projects or plans, not writing more.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

My husband.

When and where were you happiest?

My wedding day. Although, it went by so fast that I could barely absorb it all. Maybe the day after, when there was tranquility and time to absorb, and M and I sat in the dusk with a bottle of champagne, overlooking a pebbly mountain brook.

Which talent would you most like to have?

Impromptu eloquent speaking; thinking on the fly, out loud; to be a fascinating conversationalist.

What is your current state of mind?


If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would like to be less lazy. I wish I had unending energy and didn't procrastinate or sleep in late when I shouldn't.

If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?

That it not be so unique; i.e., that more people have the experience we did.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?

So far, I haven't had the desire to make another go; I'm happy living this life, and don't quite believe in reincarnation.

What do your consider your greatest achievement?

Degrees, my poems, translations. Learning Catalan to the point where I sometimes think in it.

What is your most treasured possession?

Practically speaking, the laptop. In aggregate, my books and notebooks. Because they're still new and exciting, some of our wedding gifts, such as an original sculpture by an artist friend, engraved pewter napkin rings, a handcarved Vermont wooden bowl... But any of these are just things, and things are ephemeral.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Philosophically speaking, self-hatred. Practically speaking, poverty, war, oppression.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Height. Walking down the street in Bloomington one sunny Saturday, a strange man broke away from his female companion, strode up to me, and said, "Damn, you IS tall!"

What is the quality you most like in a man?

Curious, lover of beauty, honest, spiritual, articulate, confident, happy. No need for "manliness."

What is the quality you most admire in a woman?

Curious, lover of beauty, honest, spiritual, articulate, confident, happy. No need to be "girly."

What do you most value in your friends?

Joy in life, curiosity about the world, love of words, ideas, beauty. Compassion. Down-to-earth-iness.

Who are your favorite prose writers?

Willa Cather
Annie Dillard
William Faulkner
Ernest Hemingway
Virginia Woolf
Louisa May Alcott
Eudora Welty
Mark Twain
Irene Nemirovsky
Merce Rodoreda
John Steinbeck

Who are your favorite poets?

Muriel Rukeyser
ee cummings
Rainier Maria Rilke
C.D. Wright
Wyslawa Szymborska
Paul Celan
William Blake
Elizabeth Bishop

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?

Antonia, of My Antonia
Robert Jordan, of For Whom the Bell Tolls
Jane Eyre, of Jane Eyre
Jo March, of Little Women

In what country would you like to live?

In many different countries.

What are your favourite names?

The names of people I've loved.

What is your favorite color?

Any shade of blue.

How would you like to die?

I would choose something like my grandfather's death, after a long life: surrounded by family, surrounded by song.

What is your motto?

Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

16 January 2007

Macaron update

On our excursion this Sunday down to the posh Sablon to buy the International Herald Tribune and mingle with crowds of ladies and gents and their little poofy dogs, we wandered by Pierre Marcolini, my favorite chocolateer in Brussels. Of course I insisted that we had to go in, just for a look.

And what did we see that turned looking into buying? Boxes of the Marcolinian macarons. The macarons were subtly shiny, dusted with silvery powders, and oh so tempting. And my sweet husband he didst buy of the macarons, and disdaining the little box he didst buy yea, of the big box.

When it was time for afternoon tea back at home, I unwrapped the box and studied the sheet that decodes the flavors. The flavors included, for example: Plum Kernel ("plum kernel oil and cube of peach"), Coffee-Cardamom ("Cardamom infused cream flavored with Ethiopian coffee and pieces of roasted sesame nougatine"), Chestnut ("Chestnut and a piece of pink grapefruit").

How my mouth did water!

But, upon actually tasting the little sandwiched treats, I am astonished to report that we were rather disappointed.

They lacked the punch of flavor that I have come to expect of macarons, and even the texture didn't quite have enough give. It seems that only the filling came in the delectable flavors, while the cookie was the same for all of them. Which resulted in all of the cookies by and large tasting the same, and the flavor of the merengue cookie overwhelming the filling.

The "piece of pink grapefruit"? Overwhelmed by chestnut, in turn overwhelmed by merengue. The Liquorice one, which of all of them should have had a strong flavor? Barely discernable. The best two were the aforementioned Plum Kernel, probably because its subtle scents were enhanced by the cookie flavor rather than the contrary, and Caramel, which was, as its description promised, "salted butter caramel," a nice contrast of salty and sweet.

The moral of the story is that while Mr. Marcolini has an undeniable way with sweets of the chocolate persuasion, and I will continue to consider his pralinés the créme de la créme; for macarons, look elsewhere, and let ye be not taken in by the glitter powders covering them.

12 January 2007

Found, five minutes ago

inside of a 1937 book of poetry called ...And Spain Sings: 50 Loyalist Ballads, which I bought online for my thesis last spring (and only just now finally read in its entirety):

A calendar page, dated Friday, April 1, 1927, with a manuscript poem, clearly of immense literary value. I shall transcribe.

Be good to
why wish me harm
why not retire to a farm
and be contented to charm
Just disappear
I care for you much too much

And when you are near
close to me dear
we touch too much
the thrill when we meet is
so bittersweet

Day after day
your [sic] the one who is still in my [heart: drawing of heart]
though we drifted apart so
long ago

Day after
I go over the line

Night after night the memories
keep returning

Same old yearning
Love has a way of recalling
Day after day the moments
we knew
Do you think of them too
Day after day

Why are the saccharine ramblings of an anonymous poet more interesting by virtue of them being written in 1927 (or sometime between 1927 and 1937)? The calendar page takes on the sepia tinge of age, and suddenly it's an artefact, instead of embarassing evidence of a bad first draft. (I'm giving the poet the benefit of the doubt. Certainly things would improve upon revision?)

Part II of Catalan Christmas lesson

Another excerpt from my little Christmas book. It's about a beloved figure, called The Pooper, el Caganer. (There's no denying the scatalogical bent of Catalan culture...)

The caganer is the most interesting feature of any Catalan nativity scene, which is called the pessebre, and is often exceedingly elaborate, encompassing not only the stable and its expected denisens, but also the whole of an imagined Bethlehem. Yet, somewhere hidden behind a bush or in a corner, is a little figurine of one of the inhabitants of the town, who is sneaking a moment to take a dump. Caganer means “shitter,” and he is almost always depicted bent over, complete with a little pile of poop and a bare bottom, as well as a traditional Catalan peasant costume.

Catalan children are always eager to be the one to hide the caganer in the nativity scene, and even more eager to hunt him out when visiting someone else’s pessebre. Little baby Jesus, as everywhere, is the star of the show, but behind the scenes, the caganer invites the viewer to keep looking until that little farmer figure is found.

The idea is that, even at the holiest of moments, humans are humans, and go about their business, joining the cycle of fertilization and harvest. Joan Amades, in El Pessebre, says that the inclusion of the caganer in the creche scene was was “believed to bring a rich and successful harvest the following year, and health and happiness to you and your loved ones.”

PS: These days, they make caganers out of every kind of personality you can imagine. Political leaders are a favorite, followed by soccer players. Just do a google image search of "caganer" and you'll se what I mean.

Apartment hunting. Watch out, they bite.

So far this week we've been to see six apartments, as we wanted to dip our toes into the market and get a sense of what's out there. Only one was compelling. They were, in order:

-A duplex with a nice terrace and great windows but skinny tiny stairs to get to the sleeping-under-the-eaves area, and we've had enough of skinny tiny stairs and falling down them to get to the bathroom.

-A peeling-at-the-corners box that was definitely not big enough for two, and anyway was furnished with ugly stuff.

-A large apartment with a decent kitchen and dining room, but with an awkward layout wherein a nice walk-in closet was beside the living room instead of the bedroom. It was also a little bit peely at the corners. And the girl who showed it to us was sort of rude and said it might be too small for two people. Hah! She should see the other places we're looking at!

-The one place that we almost took is actually right around the corner from where we are now. This is both a good and bad thing, as we really like this neighborhood for its liveliness, but the place is a little more smack dab in the center of the liveliness than we are now, if you know what I mean. It was reasonably priced (see: liveliness), but recently renovated and neither too small nor too big. The kitchen, tiny but nice (but lacking an oven), the bathroom large (and next to the bedroom!), including a washing machine. (It is revealing that for me it is a luxury to have a bathroom next to the bedroom.) One large dining/living/office space, one large bedroom, all wood floors, large windows. We both had a positive reaction to it, but it also wasn't an "absolutely." We both had doubts. And it would have meant moving in three weeks. Eek.

-The largest one yet ended up being quite out of our budget once utilities and charges were included, almost double the price of the prior place. And it was very spacious, but not quite to our liking in many ways, especially the kitchen which was shaped like a long skinny triangle. You'd have to wedge yourself in to use the sink. It was immaculately kept, but filled to overflowing with decorative items, such that it was hard to even get a sense of the bones of the place. The couple who showed it to us, about our age, were very sweet, except for an astonishing outburst from the cherub-cheeked wife, who yelled "No, STOP, please!" at a fairly innocuous but erroneous statement from the husband about the landlord. It rather startled us, but we had a good chuckle over it afterwards, while downing our falafel en route to the next place.

-The last apartment we saw yesterday turned out to be a studio, and a whoa nelly ugly one at that. Not ugly in the sense of dirty or unkempt, but ugly in the sense that it looked like someone's eighty-year-old grandmother lived there. Or like it was a hotel room built in the 1970s. Um, no thanks.

If there's anything we've learned, it is that there is no accounting for people's taste. It is an exercise in imagination to subtract the chirping parakeets, the ugly sofas, the pseudo-tribal art, and other tchotchkes in order to repopulate an apartment's space with our own belongings (which, in fairness, would probably be just as ugly to these folks' sensibilities as theirs is to ours). I'm just glad M and I are of one accord so far when it comes to the space itself and in every case came away thinking the same thing. Either nope, blech, or hmmm. We're waiting for the one where we both say, absolutely.

10 January 2007

The piece of firewood that poops

I apologize, first and foremost, for leaving the December 23 entry with such a cliffhanger. For all this blog knows, my poor family might still be stuck in transit on their winding way to Barcelona.

But no, they arrived only one day late, a little the worse for wear (i.e., smellier than they wanted to be), but otherwise fine and everyone separately admitting to me that it had actually been kinda fun, in a comedy of errors and chasing around airports kind of way.

Their luggage, on the other hand, took almost a week to arrive, which meant no presents, and no clothes to change into. The latter might have been even more important than the former, considering that the holidays just aren't the same if you're wearing someone else's underwear, you know? Between my luggage, and a generous pile of loaner clothing from M's family, they managed to make it through without having to buy new wardrobes.

We had a grand time in that big Catalan farmhouse, despite the no presents thing. M's parents and grandmother drove up for the day (sister/brother-in-law and nieces were in Senegal for Christmas), and we ate a huge catered meal of Catalan food American-style, and then? We made the log poop.

Yep, it's what the Catalans do at Christmas, and this log is called the "Tió de Nadal." It's a piece of firewood with a little face painted on it, and a Catalan hat, and you take turns to hit it with a stick while singing a song that asks it to poop presents, and then while you're not looking or going on a little stroll around the house, someone hides a present under the blanket covering the rear end of the log, and when you get back you look to see what it pooped for you.

I am NOT kidding!

On the news, they were even talking about a government-sponsored program by which you can trade in your santa claus for a tió, or get a rebate for buying the tió instead of the santa.

In preparation for my family's arrival, I made a nice little document with articles and pictures explaining all of the various Catalan Christmas traditions, Catalan Christmas vocabulary, and Christmas songs. Here is the article about the tió:

The Christmas “log,” or more accurately “piece of firewood,” is one of the most unique Catalan traditions. Related to the Christmas tree and to other European traditions of the Christmas hearth, the tió is a sturdy piece of wood that is decorated with a face and often a Catalan hat and little stick legs. On Christmas day, children (and not-quite children!) take turns beating the log with a stick and singing songs meant to encourage the log to poop out some presents. Originally, the “present” was the fire, as the rear end of the log itself was actually lit and destined for warming the home on Christmas. Nowadays, the tió is never set on fire, but is instead “fed” with vegetables and other foods (the kinds of food, conveniently, that children don’t like) during the days leading up to Christmas, so that it will have something to digest into gifts!

The colloquial name for this tradition, the “Caga Tió,” which is a command meaning “Poop, log!”, comes from the songs that are sung and which almost always begin with this phrase. Before Christmas dinner, the tió is covered with a blanket so that he won’t be cold, and then, poor thing, he is whacked with a stick while the songs are sung. Then the child or children march around the house while the adults hide sweets and small gifts under the blanket. When the child returns, the tió has delivered his surprise!

The little rhymes are often particular to regions, towns, or even homes, and can be improvised on the spot. An examples of the song is:

Tió de Nadal,
dóna torrons, i raja vi blanc.
No ens dónis arengades que són massa salades.
Caga tió, si no, et donaré un cop de bastó.
(Christmas tió,
give us torrons [Christmas sweets], and pour out wine.
Don’t give us sardines because they’re too salty.
Poop tió, if you don’t, I’ll whack you with my stick.)

It might be one of those things you have to experience before it makes any sense. Early in our relationship, when M explained to me what his family did on Christmas, I just sort of nodded and pretended I understood, assuming SOMEthing had been lost in translation. I didn't want to point out any faults in his English, and surely he was mistranslating "log" for "tree" and, oh I don't know, "poop" for ummm...something else? Polite girlfriend that I was, I just chalked it up to cultural miscommunication. But now I know, and so does my family, that it's all true! They even made an outstanding effort to sing the songs in Catalan. And for their efforts they got candy and little trinkets and in some cases jingle bell raindeer headbands.

My little nephew was most puzzled as to the whole affair, but eventually got used to the stick-whacking part, and after we had put it all away, started wandering around and splaying his hands in the air in the way that he has, saying "ere dit go?"

Apart from the pooped presents, one of my favorite memories of that day was singing carols with all of us around the table. We taught everyone some Catalan carols, including a beautiful lullaby one and "Fum, fum, fum." (Did you know that was Catalan? I bet you didn't!) And by gum, they were singing them in perfect four-part harmony by the second time around.

Oh, I love Christmas traditions. It's so fun to get new ones!

10 days in

Brussels was angry that I cheated with sunny, warm, voluptuous Barcelona for over two weeks, so upon return is greeting me with spitting cold rain, angry wind, and dark frowning skies (at 2 pm it looks like 6). As if I expected anything different. I’m used to such dastardly tricks by now, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I feel like hunkering down in the apartment and never setting foot outside again. Except for those dagnabbit Resolutions, which involve setting foot outside in order to do things like break a sweat and get some exercise, etc.

OK, enough complaint. Now I will write about Christmas. It requires a new entry, because this one is already tainted by my whining, and Christmas and the vacation time surrounding is not something I can whine about, even though it was busy in a vacationy kind of way.