26 March 2007

Saving daylight

We might not have even noticed that yesterday had an extra hour of light, if Brussels hadn't smiled and let the sun shine. We spent all afternoon at the park, strolling around in the fields and the woods, and enjoying that grassy, earthy smell of spring. In the open areas, we had to dodge about fifty games of soccer and their impromptu goal posts made out of sticks, or discarded coats, and hats. That's the thing about Brussels sun: when it comes, you can't ignore its call.

We went to the evening service at church, and for the first time, I saw the stained glass windows the way they are meant to be, every patch of glass a live coal of light.

21 March 2007

Probably the best meal in the world

My disappearance over the last week is best explained by the fact that we had visitors, and while they where here I got to be a bona fide tourist. But to be honest, our tacit definition of "tourism" in Belgium was: waffles, beer, fries, chocolate, and other culinary delights. Granted, we had those things in various picturesque locations, including at the canal in Gent, or in a wood-paneled bar in Bruges, so we saw our share of sights, as proper tourists should.

Three meals in particular stand out:

Lunch in Gent actually caused us to miss out on the museums, so focused were we on finding the right food. (In our defense, the museums all closed ridiculously early, earlier than stated by the guidebook.) But it wasn't too great of a sacrifice, because in one little plaza we found all of the makings of a sunny outdoor lunch: in the cheese shop, we ordered substantial slices of extra-special Belgian cheese; in the bread shop, a spectacularly crusty baguette; and in the waffle shop, well, waffles. The sign proclaimed that they were "Probably the best in the world." Bravo for Belgian modesty; the slogan avoids false advertising (who has tried every waffle in the world?), and still lets you know that you're in for a good waffle.

Dinner in Bruges was a spectacular failure. I only mention it because it seems to be an inevitable experience, sooner or later, when traveling. You are hungry and in a touristy town. You don't want to spend loads of money. You ask a local, and the place he suggests is, upon finding the place and an inspection of the menu, too expensive. You wander around some more, and read menu after menu, of which the good ones all seem expensive. You finally find a place that perhaps might work, and tired of wandering around and making decisions, enter. The menu you receive after being seated doesn't have as many options as you remember seeing posted outside, and you order a pasta dish of some sort. The pasta takes nearly an hour to arrive. How difficult can pasta be? You convince yourself it will be worth the wait. When, at long last, the dishes arrive, it takes only one bite to realize that: 1. the vegetarian pasta you have ordered is made with a can of diced tomatoes and a barely discernible melange of sauteed veggies, 2. it is tasteless, and 3. you personally could have made something twice as good in half the time. You devour it anyway because you are starving after walking around all day. I don't mind publicizing the name of the place in case another traveler, unlike us, checks online for restaurant reviews. DON'T go to Simon Stevin/Poules Moules (the restaurant has two facades and two names but one interior; we should have realized that was a bad sign).

To banish bad memories, we had many other fantastic meals, including a couple that we made ourselves. But the showstopper was a farewell dinner on their last night here, all-you-can-eat tapas at Leonor.

I have been to Leonor some three or four times now, so I feel justified in making claims about their incredible food. Doesn't any proper restaurant critic visit several times and sample lots of the offerings? The tapas menu has been varied all of the times I've been there, but every time, EVERY dish is exquisite. Which is why we didn't tell them to stop bringing food until long after we were already stuffed and nearly unable to eat another bite. Each dish made us want to soldier on.

These tapas are not just dainty little finger foods or even small bite-sized portions; many of them could stand on their own and still be worth the 22 euros the whole thing costs. This is what we ate:

Manchego cheese and Spanish ham (the latter was up to M., since the rest of us are non-meat eaters)
Galician octopus and potato (deliciously doused in oil, sea salt and paprika)
Gambas in their shell
Clams in parsley butter sauce
Battered squid rings (chocos) (perfectly cooked; so often these are chewy and bland)
Calamari in a rich, dark sauce
Bacalao (cod) with squid ink and pesto (all the fish came in dinner-sized portions and was amazingly tender)
An egg, shrimp, mushroom and pepper scramble
Piquillo peppers (stuffed with cod) (one of my favorites)
Boquerones (a kind of anchovy)
A salad of baby greens with tuna empanaditas (filled with a tender, peppery sauce)
Spanish tortilla (potato and egg)
Lubina (sea bass) with apples and manzanilla sherry
Spicy potatoes in a chunky tomato sauce
Tuna steaks with tomato, rosemary, and passion fruit

Every time a new dish comes out, it seems unbelievable that it will be as good or better than the last, but it is. And notice how they hadn't even arrived at the meat courses yet? We did ask them to hold off on the meat as long as possible, since only one of us eats it, and there was more than enough to feed us abundantly.

So, if you are ever in Brussels, go to Leonor (at Porte de Halle). It doesn't look like much from outside, but I promise that you will eat well.

12 March 2007

A happy Sunday, and haggling

The first best thing about yesterday was that it was actually sunny. As in warm sun and blue sky that lasts for more than five seconds. In fact, it lasted all day, and today promises to be more of the same. At last!

At church, the minister who gave the sermon had a very interesting accent, a quirky combination of French (with all the acCENTS on the wrong sylLAbles) and British. The thing that got me giggling was that every time he wanted to say the word "sinfulness," he tried to say what I think was "sinnerness," but it came out "silliness." So quite accidentally, the sermon's emphasis was on how we humans are just a big bunch of silly goofs, which is probably not far from the truth, come to think of it.

After church, we hit the Sunday markets at Jeu de Balle and Midi. The first is one big flea market, where you can find everything under the sun, from broken toys and random electronics components to antique furniture, vintage clothing and jewelry, ugly landscape paintings, old dishware, and all sorts of collectables. Everything is spread out on the cobblestones on top of blankets or furniture, and it is perfectly acceptable to haggle over prices. (What a great word, eh? Haggle!)

We saw some neat items that we were tempted to buy, such as a woodblock-engraved copy of Machiavelli's The Prince, a pile of opera scores, a package of matches from the 1930s, tiny colored cordial glasses, a collection of beautiful keys, and piles of old telegrams in Flemish with illustrated borders.

What we did buy: two earthenware pitchers in the Belgian style (blue swirls on a gray, glazed background), an antique glass cocktail shaker that I'll use to store cotton balls in the bathroom, and an adorable little brass bird. I'm most happy about the bird, because although it was an impulsive buy, it's already looking chirpy and making me happy.

After that, we headed over to the Midi market, where fruit and vegetables are sold at incredible prices if you get there as the market is closing. I got a big bag of clementines for a euro; half an hour later we passed the same stall and the guy was selling them for two bags a euro. The sellers stand up on top of the tables and hawk whole crates of vegetables for ridiculous prices. If we thought we could have used them before they go bad (and they usually are somewhat on the verge of spoiling), we could have gotten a crate of swiss chard or a crate of tomatoes for a euro. Everybody is offering pieces of their fruit for passers-by to try, and trying to get your attention in Arabic, French, Flemish, English, Spanish, Portuguese...

We went home and made a huge lunch with some of our purchases, and then spent the rest of the afternoon quiety reading. I got enthralled all over again about the idea of Dark Matter and Dark Energy (there was an article in the Sunday Times), and we listened to public radio as the late evening light streamed in through the bay windows.

It was a great start to the week, which promises to get even better. Although M. is in Strasbourg, two good friends are coming from Indiana and we'll be seeing the sights and cooking a lot. Saturday, we are having a housewarming party. Both of these things are putting me into a little bit of a tizzy, though, seeing as actual GUESTS are coming over! I had better tidy up.

09 March 2007

Arms or legs?

Are octopus appendages more often called arms or legs?

In researching this question online, I found out that octopi have brains in their arms. They have a central brain system, but also mini brains in each arm that govern the action of that arm. The central brain sends a message, and then the little brain takes over to grab or feed or whatever. Cool, huh?

And, why, you might ask, am I researching octopus anatomy? Well, I am translating a medieval recipe for stuffed octopus, and the instructions include cutting off the "legs," chopping them up with herbs, spices and raisins, and stuffing them back into the cavity of the octopus body. Sounds delicious, right?

If you're in New York

Today's New York Times has an article about an exhibition at the Met of Catalan art from about 1888 to 1939, called "Barcelona and Modernity." I wish I could see the exhibition, but the article by itself is enjoyable and has a slideshow of some of the artworks on display.

In the article, Michael Kimmelman makes several nice points about Catalans and Barcelona: one is that there are many great Catalan artists that no one has ever heard of outside of Catalonia, and they deserve to be heard of. It reminds me of a talk here in Brussels that we heard a couple of summers ago, on the topic of international Catalan superstars like Gaudí, Picasso, and Carreras. Do they make people more aware of who Catalans are, or not? Does it promote Catalan culture if no one is even aware that they are Catalans?

I also enjoyed the description of Barcelona as a city where the great modernist trends were refracted and made into something unique. The sense of turmoil, both in the positive sense of artistic innovation, and in the negative sense of political unrest, is forefronted by Kimmelman. He opens with this quote, from the mayor of Barcelona in 1909:

“In Barcelona there is no need to prepare the revolution, simply because it is always ready. It leans out of the window on the street every day.”

One detail that I would like to adjust is about the famous café, Els Quatre Gats. Kimmelman says that "the 'four cats' in Catalan slang meant 'just a few guys.'" I object to the past tense there, because this is definitely still in use, as in: Was anyone at the show? Quatre gats--barely anyone.

Exegesis in blue and green

Do you ever find yourself wishing you were an artist? And by artist, I mean visual artist. I often wish I could pick up a pen, or a paintbrush, or a printer's block, and create beautiful, colorful images. I am so inspired by the webpage Etsy, which is an incredible marketplace for people to sell unique, handmade goods and artworks. I especially love some of the rustic woodblock prints and collages that I see there. I know I could just dive in and start making art, but I need to accumulate supplies, and besides, most of the time words suffice as my paintbrush. At least, they are more portable.

This also makes me think about the interaction of the visual arts and poetry. Last year, I taught a community center class on Poetry and Music, which was really fruitful for all of us, and personally productive. I found such a wealth of poetry on the subject of music, not to mention poetry that is itself inherently musical or written in musical forms (this last idea, in particular, is something I would like to pursue in my poems).

Poetry and the visual arts also has a long tradition. The technical term for a written description of a visual image is ekphrasis, from the Greek, meaning "speaking out" (ek=out, phrasis=speak); it's as if by re-drawing the image in words you are sending forth its inner essence. Or perhaps the other way around. In the best poetic examples of ekphrasis, I think, the poem is not a mere "description" of the poem, but considers it, reworks it, adds to it, is inspired by it.**

An example of ekphrasis that I love is Auden's poem on Breughel's painting of Icarus falling from the sky, called "Musée des Beaux Arts." The title alone makes it about more than just the one painting; and indeed, Auden begins with an invocation of all the "Old Masters" and their view of suffering as a small corner of life's dailiness. He only turns toward the Breughel painting at the end:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I'm undecided as to whether it is important to include the painting alongside the poem. Shouldn't the poem do the work of invoking the image? But at the same time, they interact in a nice counterpoint. I remember so clearly where I encountered them first, in a lovely poetry textbook called Western Wind. Would my view of the poem be different if I had never seen the painting? The original is, by the way, here in Brussels! The Beaux-Arts museum referred to in the title is right around the corner. I will have to go see it.

By the way, there is a William Carlos Williams poem on the same painting, and although in tone and form it is quite different from the Auden, the point is much the same. It would make a nice classroom exercise to consider the two poems together and identify what makes them different, naming the techniques.

Someday, I would love to write a book of poems and include my own artwork, or someone else's, and see how the visual and the verbal interact. This is, of course, not a new idea, but one I would like to try for myself. I would like to see that interaction go beyond "mere" description, into the non-representative territory—a territory already inhabited by music.

**Note to students googling the web for some paper ideas—or worse, some quotes to copy and paste and then pass off as your own—regarding the Auden poem or ekphrasis in general: forget about it. Your teacher will be able to tell that this was written by someone who is Not You, I promise. If you must copy and paste, do so honestly, and quote me following correct MLA style. Here, I’ll even give you an example. It's a little tricky since I never publish my last name on the site; normally, you would include the author's lastname/firstname, as the generic formula below indicates. Also, normally the URL would be between angle brackets, but it disappears if I do that...:

"Exegesis in blue and green." [Weblog entry.] Cant d'Ocell. 9 March 2007. (http://cantdocell.blogspot.com/2007/03/exegesis-in-blue-and-green.html). 1 January 2009.

Lastname, Firstname. "Title of individual blog entry." [Weblog entry.] Name of Weblog. Sponsoring organization (if any; such as a university, a publication, or a company). Date posted. (URL to permalink). Date accessed.

07 March 2007

Public transportation planners, pay attention

Here are my gripes about the public transport system in Brussels. Apologies in advance for complaining.

•The city is humongous, but there are only two metro lines. For the center. One of them is a circle and one splits into A and B, just to make things more confusing. The bus lines often do not go where you need to go. (Barcelona: anywhere you need to go, the metro goes. There are seven or eight lines, plus three or four new tram lines. We never have to take the bus.)

•These metro lines are decorated in hideous seventies colors, the lines are marked in oranges and reds that are hard to tell apart, and all the trains are dirty. (Barcelona: trains are clean and often new, with bright rainbow colors designating each line so you are never in doubt which line you are on.)

•Metro, bus, and tram drivers seem trained to barrel as fast as they can and then brake like demons every five seconds so that their passengers get sloshed around and break a few bones. (Barcelona: trains and trams come gently to a stop and even elderly people can safely ride.)

•It's expensive. The ten-trip cards are only available at metro stations (which, as I've said, are only in the center), and if you run out and have to buy a ticket on the bus, it's two euros. (Barcelona: only 69 cents, and tickets available throughout the city.)

•All the lines close at midnight on weekends (even earlier on weekdays), and from 9 to 12 only a few busses/trams come by, so you have to wait up to thirty minutes in the cold and probably the rain since it's usually raining. (Barcelona: on weekends, open until 2 am, midnight on weekdays. The longest wait is 5 or 7 minutes.)

•The entrances and exits in every metro station are much more confusing than necessary, and signage is lacking in key points. (Barcelona: everything is clearly marked, with usually just two or three directions to choose from once you step off the train, and clear maps of the whole system and of the immediate area right in front of you.)

Thank you. In lieu of any real public transportation planner-type person who would pay attention, you, reader of this blog, have helped me let it all out.

I have a new name and it is bibi

Barcelona two weekends in a row is about as much as my travel-weary knees can take (my kneecaps fear and loathe the airplane seat crunch). Especially until our apartment there is renovated, because until then it means staying with the in-laws or the grandmother, and while I love them very much and am so grateful that they put us up and we enjoy our time with them, it means living out of our suitcases, and a certain lack of privacy. And being fed overmuch.

That said, the weather in Barcelona was absolutely gloooorious both weekends. Perfection, even. Neither hot nor cold. We got a little sunburned. As I write, it is pouring here in Brussels and has been raining on and off for the past two days. Ah, how the memory of Barcelona sustains me.

As usual, our time there was brimful with activities, because we're always trying to squeeze in visits with friends and time with our nieces, often scheduling lunch in one place then coffee in another then dinner in another. We got to eat tapas with my brother's great girlfriend, who is studying in Barcelona for a semester. We gathered a group of alumni from M's year in Bologne, and caught up on everyone's jobs in politics. We watched the Barça-Seville game with friends and their babies, and went to a fantastic concert by tenor Jaume Aragall with M's grandmother at the incredible modernist Palau de la Musica (Josep Carreras was in the audience; in Catalonia, Aragall is as important as Carreras, but is a lot more shy). We saw The Lives of Others (go see it! it's great!).

Our nieces dressed up in their cute ladybug carnival costumes, although the four-year-old insisted on being "Princesa Marieta, Reina del Bosc" (Princess Ladybug, Queen of the Forest), because all of her friends were dressed up as princesses this year. The costume was a conglomeration of ladybug wings, tulle skirt, antennae and crown, and heaven forbid if we messed up the name and called her "Marieta Princesa" or something. Also, the little one started saying my name, although it came out "Bibi," which is also what she calls her grandpa (from "avi"). As in, "Bibi, vina!" holding my hand and tugging me towards what she wants. Robin, come!

But besides all the "fun" stuff, two weekends ago, I also had the chance to attend a conference on translation that was held by the Institut d'Estudis Catalans, which was thought-provoking in regards to my own translations from Catalan. I heard about the first translations of Catalan to Hindi, and about the challenges of Hungarian, German, Slovenian, and Chinese translations. I talked to the woman who does the Slovenian translations, and am hoping that I'll be able to do some work for the website of the Catalan PEN club.

And then, that Saturday, we went to Sitges for a presentation by Paul Preston on international journalists and the Spanish Civil War. Several things you should understand: Sitges is a beeee-autiful seaside town about an hour from Barcelona, so it was a treat just to go there. Also, Paul Preston is one of the Top Dog Historians when it comes to the Spanish Civil War (he is British, from the London School of Economics, and he even gave the talk in Catalan!). Also, my thesis involves both literature and its interaction with journalism in various forms. So, all told, this was nerdily exciting for me. And, encouraged by my husband and father-in-law, I worked up the nerves to introduce myself afterwards during the champagne/mingling and asked a technical question about a somewhat obscure thirties writer he had referenced. This produced the desired effect, i.e., him taking an actual interest in my work instead of polite nodding, and we had a nice conversation in which he gave me some tips on archives to look into, asserted that most of the literary criticism on the topic is crap because it doesn't take the history into account, and that there is a lot of material out there to work with (I happen to agree on both accounts), and thus encouraged me to rigorously read the history. And he said I could e-mail him!

Actually, we were near to Sitges, in a town called Villafranca, because a close friend of M's parents had died, and we went to the viewing at the funeral home. The following (this past) weekend, we went to an informal ceremony for the scattering of his ashes at the top of the national park/mountain, Montseny. Both were sad, and moving, as funerals are. But because I had never met this man, in an odd way it was an experience of abstract emotions about loss and death, and was able to experience the moment more fully instead of being sideswiped by pain. Isn't that strange? It was the first time I had ever attended anything like it, in an outdoor setting, and it truly was beautiful. Sunshine, and long views of the Catalan landscape, and music: they played "Red River Valley" and "Gracias a la vida." I hesitate to write more, simply because he was a stranger to me, but in an odd way, hearing his friends and family speak of him made him known, a friend.