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....