24 December 2008

The Magi

Rooting around in my parents' basement, I came across my collection of beloved childhood picture books. I've kept these books with me for many years, usually displayed on the top of a bookcase on their own--necessitated by their size, but also because they are lovely to look at. But when I moved to Europe they stayed, with most of my books, in their boxes in the Vermont basement. It makes me sad to see them languishing here.

One of my favorites is a 1982 edition of O. Henri's The Gift of the Magi, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. It's an odd, long size, all the better to fit Zwerger's swooping portraits of Della's hair and Jim's lanky slouch. My parents gave it to me when I was four years old.

Rereading it today, on Christmas Eve--the day the story takes place and thus, the perfect day to read it--I was struck by a few things. Of course I loved the story as a romantic little girl, but now I notice just how this tidily symmetric story is full of the symbolic accoutrements of gender (her glorious hair, his imposing watch), and language like this: "a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat."

But the nugget of the story is a sweet and simple Christmas message: the joy of gift-giving and the beauty of sacrifice for love. Both Jim and Della sell their most beloved possession in order to buy a luxurious gift for the other, gifts that were to have accentuated those now-gone treasures. In the end it is the giving that is important, for their real treasures are one another.

The story ends, "But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."

Merry Christmas Eve!

23 December 2008

And... home

The first--more lengthy--portion of our journey yesterday was a dream. Somehow there were no lines in Barcelona, and we were upgraded to Business class for the long-haul flight. An early Christmas present!

In New York, we got through customs and security with only a minor snafu--the confiscation of our Spanish sausages (as a vegetarian, I never realized that no one would let me take cured meats through US borders...), and with plenty of time to spare until our connection.

That connection, however, was delayed for two hours, and those two hours of waiting took place in an exasperating scrum of travelers whose flights were also delayed, with announcements barely audible and patience wearing thin. All told, however, a smooth flight, no lost bags, and the result at the end was a perfectly snow-covered Vermont, a roaring fire under a long string of stockings, homemade cookies, a tree overflowing with familiar ornaments and shiny gifts, and warm family embraces. What could be better?

Perhaps... the arrival, this morning, of heart-burstingly adorable nephews. To whom I am now going to go devote all of my auntly attentions.

21 December 2008

Going home

Here in Barcelona, it's a sunny almost-60 degrees, while in snowy Vermont, thick flurries are blanketing the hills and it's a whopping 5 degrees (granted, it's still early morning there, so the day hasn't had time to, ahem, "warm" up to 18).

Normally, I'd take Barcelona, thank you very much, but four days before Christmas? Give me SNOW, baby! I'm relishing the thought of a snowy New England Christmas...

As long as it doesn't affect our travel! The storm should be mostly over by tomorrow, but I'm still worried that the cancellations and delays will overflow into tomorrow's traffic. At least we have a significant layover margin at JFK, and I'm mentally preparing myself for lines and crabby people and crowds.

In the meantime, we're packing bags and wrapping presents, and planning to carry on as much as they'll allow, to minimize the trauma of lost baggage (i.e., lost presents, like my family's epic experience with Iberia two Christmases ago, which resulted in the loss of all their luggage and all their presents until several days after Christmas and the day before their departure).

Here's to safe and smooth travel for everyone on the road and in the air heading home to be with their families!

Musical magic

We had our first Christmas concert yesterday, up in the hills of the Garrotxa, in a town perched on the edge of a magnificent volcanic basalt cliff. Today we have our second one, this time here in Barcelona, and it will include all the groups of children's choirs associated with our "parent" choir. It will be the kind of thing where little girls tug at their tights and little boys pick their noses while they sing angelic Christmas carols, all the proud parents snap pictures, and everyone oohs and ahs and feels lots of Christmas spirit.

The rehearsal yesterday morning, kids piled everywhere and spilling onto the floor, reminded me intensely of the annual all-school Christmas chapel at the private school I attended from kindergarten through ninth grade. It was the only chapel of the year where all age groups were gathered in the big high school gym, all the choirs sang, and each class recited a portion of the Luke chapter 2 Christmas story, everyone dressed up in their holiday best.

I vividly remember a musical epiphany I experienced at one of these Christmas chapels. As a wee girl, cross-legged on the gymnasium floor (the bigger kids got to sit on the bleachers), I puzzled over what made the high school concert choir sound so beautiful, that thing in all the music they sang making me ache somewhere inside. I wanted to be one of those big kids someday, and I wanted to be able to create those sounds. I knew there was something different in their music, something more then the simple melodies that we sang. And suddenly (in the same way that "suddenly a great company of the heavenly host" appear in the shepherds' sky), I "saw" how two lines of melody were happening at the same time, or three, or four. Even though they were all singing the same words, they were singing different sounds.

I heard harmony, and understood it, and was thunderstruck.

That awe hasn't ever quite left me. Every time I sing in a choir, I still feel wrapped up in the magic of voices in harmony. It's why I like to sit next to the tenors or the sopranos, why I get a kind of concert high, why music moves me. Because so much more than those two or four or eight lines is created when they are brought together.

I hope some little girl who sings melodies today will have the same sudden understanding, will unravel the the sonorous threads that create harmony, as if opening a beribboned box on Christmas day.

19 December 2008

A little list

Things making me happy today (placed in alphabetical order after I wrote them down and noticed irresistible alliteration):

Bircher muesli, prepared last night and delicious for breakfast
Christmas lights glowing in our windows
Clementines, the sweet-tart ones
Lunch with the Mister, because when he's in town, the office is so close he can come home for lunch
My new desk chair, 100% more comfortable, and spinny
Packing for the holidays!
Poinsettias and our advent candle
Winter sunshine tinged with pink
Werther's originals, smooth toffee yum
Work accomplished, words written
Wool socks, keeping my feet toasty
Wrapping paper to wrap things in

18 December 2008

Shop hopping

It's a pity that Christmas "spirit" is largely accumulated through the ritual of shopping, crazed buying, urgent purchasing. But there are some elements of Christmas shopping that I really enjoy: the lights, the window displays, the decorations, the wrapping paper and ribbons.

So far this year most of my shopping has been stress-free and online (thanks to timely Christmas lists from my family), but yesterday I ventured downtown to see if I could finish off my USA purchases--but not without deciding, first, that I would try to concentrate solely on independent shops and boutiques instead of the big department stores (even if I did stop to admire the huge lighting display on the facade of El Corte Inglés!), and second, that I would try not to feel any pressure to buy gifts. If I don't find something I like, no biggy. We'll figure it out.

The first goal was more easily accomplished. In the end, I did feel urgency, an urgency tinged by a desire to buy something in one of these local stores instead of, say, at the airport or on Christmas Eve. And it is a more time-consuming and frustrating way to shop: you're never sure what you'll find or where.

But I had a fantastic time wandering around the little shops of the Barri Gótic, especially Carrer Avinyó and the back streets of the Born. I saw a ton of bright, fun, Barcelona-style handmade or locally made clothes, lots of great little crafts and designy items, and a good selection of books, second-hand/vintage jewelry, and funky art. I ate my favorite falafel, bought coffee beans and spices at Casa Gispert, tucked away on the stone flank of Santa Maria del Mar (while drooling over their foodie gift baskets), considered some great vintage furniture at Gotham (we still need a coffee table!), found some bird ornaments too adorable to pass by at the gift shop of the Textile Museum, and at last, bought my Christmas gifts, nicely wrapped up by two French girls.

All the stores here do gift-wrapping as a matter of course, which I find very charming, but it always presents me with a dilemma. I love wrapping gifts myself--in fact I carried wrapping paper from Brussels to Barcelona for that purpose--but variety is nice too, and some of the stores do a lovely job. To find out, though, if the job will be lovely or crummy, they need to wrap it first... and then I feel bad undoing an already-wrapped gift! Plus, it's hard to show the Mister what the gifts we're giving look like ahead of time.

Anyway, now that these Christmas gifts are (almost) done--still a few details to be gathered once in the US--there remains another round of presents, for the Mister's family for Kings on January 6! The fun never ends...

16 December 2008


Less than ten days to Christmas. I wish I were in Vermont already! I have to make it to Monday before that happens, and a slew of rehearsals and Christmas concerts, which at least will make the time fly and sound like Christmas along the way (albeit a Catalan one; think lots of "fum, fum, fum").

In the meantime, I have been newly amused by the fantastic multiple poetic personalities of the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. He created no less than four fully-fledged authors of varying ages and backgrounds, with distinct literary styles and obsessions, each with his own history, publishing under their names as well as his own. It's so deliciously postmodern, but all of it was written in the early twentieth century (he died in 1935). I bought my copy of the selected poems at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco this summer, which was thrilling enough in itself.

Anyway, I came across this little poem, one of his most famous, called "Autopsychography." It's a nice little set of three quatrains about the relationship between artifice and artistry, fiction and feeling, logic and emotion.

Here it is in Portuguese:

O poeta é um fingidor.
Finge tão completamente
Que chega a fingir que é dor
A dor que deveras sente.

E os que lêem o que escreve
Na dor lida sentem bem,
Não as duas que ele teve,
Mas só a que els eles não têm.

E assim nas calhas de roda
Gira, a entreter a razão
Esse comboio de corda
Que se chama o coração.

Here it is in the Honig-Brown translation. I like the use of the word "faker" to translate "fingidor," but I'm missing the tight abab rhyme of the original, which I think heightens the sense of "craft" in this poem that is all about "craftiness." It also contains one of my poetic pet peeves, which is overuse of the -ing verb/gerund ending.

The poet is a faker. He
Fakes it so completely,
He even fakes he's suffering
The pain he's really feeling.

And they who read his writing
Fully feel while reading
Not that pain of his that's double,
But theirs, completely fictional.

So on its tracks goes round and round,
To entertain the reason,
That wound-up little train
We call the heart of man.

Since the translators, in their footnotes, invite the reader to try her hand at translating this poem, I took them up on the offer. Now, obviously I don't speak Portuguese, but armed with the translation above, a Portuguese dictionary, and my familiarity with Catalan, Spanish, Italian and French, I decided to give it a go. It amused me for a while, anyway! I'm still not completely satisfied, especially with the second stanza--what translation is ever finished?--but here it goes:

The poet is a con man,
His make-believe so real
That even pain becomes a sham
When it's what he really feels.

Those who read the words he feigns
will feel truly as they read
not the poet's two-faced pain
but their own, though it mislead.

Thus on wheels, around and around
--all to amuse the reason--darts
that tiny train so tightly wound,
a toy they call the human heart.

14 December 2008

Away and back again

So, remember that idea of mine where I was going to continue to write every day for the month of December, just like I (almost) did for the month of November?

Ha! So do I. Unfortunately, it remains in the realm of idea rather than fact, because I have rather spectacularly--although not on purpose--abandoned that plan.

First there was last weekend, which as weekends will, ended up being rather stuffed full of going-out-and-about activities. Then we spent the week in Brussels, and I discovered that four days (more like two and a half, once travel on Monday evening and Thursday morning is factored in) was way too little time to have lunch OR dinner OR coffee OR a beer with every person I haven't seen in three months, AND buy secret santa presents for the Mister's work Christmas party, AND clean the neglected apartment (the Mister is hardly ever there any more, and it shows...) AND pack my bags full of the winter clothes and books I would need in Brussels.

The advantage of having to buy the secret santa presents was that I got to roam the city and peruse most of my favorite shops, but the disadvantage was actually having to buy them. Every year they refuse to set a price guideline, and every year that leaves us in a pickle. Everything seems either too inexpensive or too expensive for the gift exchange.

In addition to the above, I did see a bit of snow, which was cheery and Christmasy, and I did enjoy the brisk temperatures and the Christmas festival and the Grand Place full of a beautiful light-and-sound display.

Things I neglected: the blog, and remembering to bring any Christmas decorations back down South. So when this afternoon the Mister and I finally were able to "put up the Christmas decorations," I found myself peering into an empty box much more quickly than I would have wished. We have two lovely wool stockings from the Mister's mother store, now hung by the [dining room buffet] with care, a few ornaments hanging off of doorknobs and houseplants, an advent candle, a little creche scene, and a poinsettia, but that's about it. We searched high and low for the lights we thought we had somewhere, but no luck.

Ah well. Listen to enough Messiah and Bing Crosby, and Christmas is conjured out of thin air.

05 December 2008


I don't have a bike.

I used to wish I had a bike.

But now I don't need a bike! Because I have Bicing.

Bicing is--well, might as well get this out of the way first--stupidly named in a wrongheaded attempt to Anglicize a word by adding an -ing ending. See: Vueling (low cost airline) and "footing" for jogging. The French love to do this as well.

But aside from the name, it's really darn cool. You sign up for an account for just 24 euros for a year, and then you get a card which allows you to take a bike from any of the many stands around the city. You hold the card up to the little screen, it tells you to take bike no. X, and you go take the newly unlocked bike. You can ride around for a half hour for free (in which time you can get almost anywhere), and then it's a WHOPPING 30 cents per half hour after that, up to two hours. To return the bike, you just drop it into any slot. If there aren't any bikes to pick up or the stand is full when you want to return the bike, the screen tells you where to go (I've never had to walk more than five minutes to find another bike; and you can also locate the available bikes before leaving the house). Granted, I'm not a heavy user, and don't frequent what I imagine are the most in-demand bike stands, but I've never had a problem.

The downside is that some of Barcelona's streets are spectacularly bad for bike riding. Yesterday I got stuck going the wrong way on a long stretch of one-way road with a skinny little sidewalk, and got yelled at by a pedestrian.

Another downside is that everybody rides without helmets, and I'm kind of a scaredy cat when it comes to bikes, so I don't like the idea of riding on the busy streets.

But when you know where to go--the wide boulevards that have special bike paths right in the middle of them--the going is good. Today I took a bike from the stand around the corner from our apartment, and whizzed down the whole length of the Diagonal until I got to Passeig de Gràcia to meet the Mister. On days like this (don't hate me, but it was a sunny 65 today, and I didn't wear a coat) it's so much preferable to move through the city above ground instead of below ground (and I was sick of the metro, having forgotten the keys that I needed to get into the downtown apartment, which required an additional two rides).

Lately I've been using the metro to arrive at my destination, especially one in an unfamiliar part of the city, and then taking a bike back. I just start walking towards home, and at the first bike station I see, I grab a bike and continue on. I might get a little lost (like yesterday's misadventure), but I also get to know the city and its streets (which might come in handy someday if I actually have to drive around here).

I like Bicing for so many reasons, and have been really impressed with the city for this transportation initiative, because they've really done it right. The bikes are really sturdy and ride well, with easily adjustable seats and space for cargo in the front, and fitted with bells and lights. If there's any problem with the bike--the brakes aren't great, the seat won't adjust--it's super easy to swap it for another one. Almost every week I see a Bicing van towing a trailer full of new bikes, so I know they do a good job of replacing and refurbishing them.

It's also perfect for getting from a metro stop to a place further afield--somewhere not quite far enough to make switching metro lines several times worth it, but far enough to make walking a pain.

And everybody's into it! You can't walk five paces in this city without a red-and-white bike whizzing by. I might be riding one of them...

04 December 2008


I have always loved the idea of eggplants--the glossy, deep purple skin, the pleasing shape, the heft of one in your hand. But I wasn't so much of a fan of them in practice, especially when they remain somewhat uncooked and you get that styrofoamy texture that I find so unpleasant. I had never been really successful in cooking them myself, not for lack of trying.

But caponata has changed my mind. I tried making it the other day, because I bought an eggplant (see above re: seduction of eggplant in the marketplace) and had all the other ingredients on hand (except vinegar, and the result when I substituted the brine from some good olives was so delicious that I will always make it that way). The Mister and I swooned over it. And I made it again today, even with a slightly unripe eggplant, and it still cooked down into this delicious soft yet sturdy concoction that I could eat it every day for a week. Now I am emboldened to learn how to make samfaina, which is a Catalan dish of eggplant and peppers that is very similar, also something between a sauce and a side dish.

It also made me think about the word eggplant, which is somewhat inelegant and prosaic, and how I prefer the British term aubergine, so rounded and soft sounding, like the vegetable itself. In fact, the word comes from the Catalan albergínia, via French, and the Catalans got the word from Arabic (go here to learn more about the word). It's a very mediterranean word for a very mediterranean vegetable.

03 December 2008


While living in Belgium, I enjoyed exploring the endless varieties of its greatest cultural exports, including chocolate, beer, frites, and gaufres--oh, and believe you me, I have the extra curvy hips to prove my anthropological thoroughness--but I had until not long ago been largely ignorant of another great Belgian phenomenon: the bande-dessinée. (Also known as BD, or, for those anglophones among us, the comic book.)

The crown jewels of Belgian BD are the beloved characters Tintin, the intrepid boy reporter, and Milou, his fluffy white sidekick. I was vaguely aware of these personages--living there it's not easy to remain completely in the dark--but had never read a Tintin comic, nor ever had much desire to do so. Having lived in Europe for some time and in various countries, I was also aware that Tintin was a pan-European figure, universally adored, and whose books are more or less required reading for all European children. Created by Georges Remi, aka Hergé, Tintin might be compared most closely to a comic-book version of Hardy Boys, especially because of his retro knickerbockers and crime-solving skills, but he and his clever dog sidekick invite comparisons to Timmy and Lassie, or Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, or Dorothy and Toto.

So for my birthday last May, when I was given a charming small-format version of episode number 7 in Tintin's adventures, "Le sceptre d'Ottokar," or Ottokar's scepter, I decided to take the plunge into the world of Belgian comic books. Tintin travels to Moldavia, an invented Eastern European country, where he of course saves the day from an attempted coup. I have since purchased "Tintin in America" as I was curious to see what happens to the poor guy when he gets mixed up with gangsters, and also to see exactly what myths of Americana would be pulled out of Hergé's hat.

It's a great way to practice my French (yes, back to picture-book stage, especially useful for learning action verbs!) and get on the cultural bandwagon so I'm not in the dark when it comes to European conversations. I will probably have to read and/or watch some Asterix and Obelix, as well.

During the summer I visited the Comic Book Museum, of which a portion is dedicated to the mythology and creation of Tintin, and the comic books are a fascinating look into the sociology and geopolitics of Europe (sort of in the same way that the bad guys in James Bond movies changed before and after the Cold War, Tintin's adventures around the world always have an implied political slant). Indeed, comic books are taken rather seriously by French scholars and are considered "le neuvième art," the ninth art. As wikipedia points out, "It is not insignificant that the French term contains no indication of subject matter, unlike the American terms "comics" and "funnies", which imply an art form not to be taken seriously."

Although there's a comic-book store every five paces in Brussels, I've never been attracted visually to the more dense and quite "adult" series that are most prevalent. Tintin suits me just fine; I like the bright colors and sturdy forms, the linear adventures that pause with a cliffhanger every couple of pages.

All of this is to say: on my (long) list of things to bring back with me from Brussels when I visit next week, another installment (or two) of those cute small-format Tintin books is at the top.

02 December 2008

Gondoliers eating breakfast in flooded Venice

(I'm taking a break from words today.)

01 December 2008

Daily in December

December 1. I can't believe it's already here. Christmas around the corner, all the great stuff about the season and all the stressful stuff too. I have a love-hate relationship with gift buying and gift wrapping, because the harried last-minute realities of it often don't mesh with my ideal of perfectly chosen, beautifully wrapped presents. Nothing beats, however, the fact that we'll be in Vermont for Christmas, for the first time in three years.

In preparation, I am looking forward to doing a little decorating. The Mister thought it was a bit early, but the street and department store decorations are glowing nightly and our neighbors across the way already have lights up, so I think we're justified in going for it. One slight hitch: our tree is in Brussels, and it's not like we can pack a person-sized fake fir in our suitcases, so I might just have to settle for enjoying it only during the three days I will be in Brussels next week. Half the fun is setting it up and decorating, anyway.

But there is no restraint on Christmas carols, now that Thanksgiving is over. I'll be learning a whole slew of Catalan and Spanish Christmas carols for our Christmas concert, and I will immediately start playing through my iTunes library of Christmas music. First in the lineup: Empire Brass playing Angels We Have Heard on High, then Bing Crosby singing Silent Night.

After the almost-achieved thirty-day blog posting challenge, I thought I'd try to keep up the blogging momentum and post every day that I can in December. Looking for ways to get myself going, I hit upon the idea of answering the daily questions up at Carrie and Danielle. Today's question asks what gifts I am looking forward to giving this year.

Like every year, I look forward to giving stocking stuffers. It might seem silly, but it's a fun tradition that we started when I was in high school, I think: each of us buys one stocking stuffer for everybody else. That way we have stockings full of fun little gifts, without our parents being responsible for finding and buying all the tchotchkes for what has expanded from seven to fourteen people! I also like it because I am generally fond of pint-sized objects, so whether it's the small-format books I gave last year or tiny kitchen implements or ornaments or what-have-you, stocking stuffers are a joy both to give and to receive.

30 November 2008

Thirty days

Twenty-nine days of faithful daily posting, and I blew it at the last minute! This has been a busy weekend, busy in the good sense. Still, I feel kind of bummed that I missed posting yesterday (and right under the wire today).

Friday night the Thanksgiving dinner was fantastic, even if I do say so myself. The turkey was SO scrumptious, and cooked in an hour flat (!) due to this ridiculous convection oven, and everybody loved the meal. (And yes, I ate the turkey. Am eating the turkey, present tense, since leftovers have featured heavily in this weekend's diet.) My only complaint was that some items made it to the table a little lukewarm rather than piping hot. For cooks with much more experience than me, how on earth do you keep everything hot?

Saturday I woke up very late for a choir recording session--my alarm hadn't gone off--and hopped into my clothes and then into a taxi. I spent the morning in recording sessions (which is kind of fun and kind of exhausting), joined the Mister at our friends' house for lunch (which, being where we are, lasted until 7 pm) and then we went home and bought plane tickets for Christmas--a stressful but ultimately successful endeavor. And then we watched a movie. So I don't have much of a good excuse for not posting.

Except---I think thanksgiving leftovers, cuddling with the Mister, and watching a movie is good enough excuse. I'm thankful for that.

28 November 2008

Day after

It's funny to do Thanksgiving the day after Thanksgiving. I woke up with mixed emotions, related to a dream of a vacation gone awry--fun time, missed plane--that I'm sure in turn is related to the holiday that is not a holiday. Yesterday is was Thanksgiving over there, but not here, and today it is Thanksgiving because I'm making Thanksgiving dinner but otherwise isn't. Does this make any sense at all?

Anyway, dinner is in T-minus-three-hours, and while I'm loving the wafts of stuffing and I think my squash turned out great and the rolls are delicious (we had some for lunch), I still have yet to face The Turkey. I'm a bit nervous about that whole process--the trussing, the basting, the gravy-making. The Mister is out buying wine, so hopefully when he gets back he'll help me wrestle the butterball and get it into the oven.

I made some pretty leaf-wrapped candle holders, and the table looks nice and festive, so I'm hoping this will overall serve as an especially nice First Thanksgiving for all of my in-laws.

27 November 2008

A recipe for Ashley

Cran-Apple-Pear Relish

3 cups unsweetened cranberries (1 bag)
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
2 pears, peeled, cored, and diced
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tsp freshly grated orange peel
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Then lower the heat, and simmer, uncovered, stirring often, until the relish has thickened and the fruit is soft (about 30 minutes). Remove from the heat and cool. Cover and chill completely in the refrigerator. Serve cold or at room temperature.

(Hope it's not too late, and Happy Thanksgiving!)

Happy Thanksgiving!

There is so much to be thankful for. But I will keep the list relatively short, since I have fennel roasting in the oven and pies that need to be made.

I'm thankful... for my husband, who is cleaning the house from top to bottom and running supermarket errands like a champ, even though this holiday is not one written into his cultural DNA.

For my family, who are all gathered together and boisterous and smiling and take turns talking to us on skype, and my nephews who are too scrumptious for us to be this far away from them.

For my husband's family, who are willing to try new traditions, and who always try to make me feel home in this strange city.

For this strange city, the streets and corners and places I've come to know and the ones I've yet to discover.

For this house full of warm smells and music and tasty food. For God's goodness. For love.

26 November 2008

To market

Not to buy a fat pig, although tomorrow I will go to pick up my turkey, marking the first time ever that I will purchase a whole bird. Even before I started eating vegetarian, I never really bought much meat or poultry. And that period of my life lasted for just a few months, so even though I feel like a pretty experienced cook in some respects, I'm floundering when it comes to the Bird. I can't find a roasting rack in the stores, and I don't have the right pan. Internet consensus seems to indicate that I can place the turkey on top of root vegetables in lieu of the rack, but the dilemma of the pan remains. I'm not sure if I can just place it on the slightly-deeper-than-baking-sheet-depth pan that comes with the oven. Or will the juices overflow it?

Anyway, today is market day for all the fruits and vegetables. The Mister returned from Brussels yesterday, his coat pockets stuffed with bags of cranberries (can't find them here), which he bought for me at the last minute before dashing towards the airport. (His suitcase was also stuffed with many of my baking implements that were still in Brussels, including a rolling pin, potato masher, spices, and immersion blender. The security guys probably did a double-take on that screen shot!) So I can make my mom's cran-apple-pear relish today. Last night I made pie crusts, dough for the rolls, and spiced mixed nuts for pre-dinner nibbles. (It's internet recipes all the way this year, since most of my cookbooks are still in Brussels.) I also want to bake the squash, and roll and par-bake the pie crusts. I'm still up in the air about which green side dish to prepare. Beans? Brussels sprouts? Broccoli? Salad? It might come down to what looks the best today at market.

So I better get going. The excursion always takes a little while, especially because the ladies love to chat, and I spend ages wandering around the stalls and staring at all the fish and produce and olives and nuts and other goodies before I make up my mind where to make my purchases.

Although I might just wait a few minutes: Copland is on the radio right now, Appalachian Spring, and I want to hear it through to the end. Simple Gifts is such a perfect melody. Somehow just right for this American girl on this pre-Thanksgiving day.

Today I'm thankful for simple gifts: the colors and smells and shapes of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the colors and sounds and shapes of great music.

25 November 2008

Street magic

I walked out the door last night on my way to choir, and suddenly Barcelona was glittered up for Christmas. Bones festes in swoopy white lights hangs over our street, and trees are lined with soft blue.

And as I headed down into the metro, a square piece of paper on the sidewalk at my feet caught my eye. It caught my eye...because it looked familiar. The handwriting looked familiar: it was mine.

I know there is a logical explanation here--I threw that little scrap away last week after jotting down some translation notes, and it must have fluttered out of the bag when we brought down the recycling, then fluttered along the sidewalk towards the metro.

But discovering my own words on the ground, muddied and splotched and stepped on, but still mine... seemed kind of magical, fitting with the sudden transformation of the street into one lit by Christmas glow.

I'm thankful for Christmas lights and the feeling of magic.

24 November 2008


So, we have our phone back. They sent us a replacement power cord for the router, which I was highly skeptical about. It was identical to the old (new) power cord, and anyway, lack of power was never the problem (flashing lights were on, and internet worked, just not the phone). Yet, after plugging the power cord in and while waiting for the router to initialize, the Mister picked up the phone and wiggled the phone cord.

And the phone turned on. Now, it seems that the wiggling is what did the trick, but I wiggled it and uplugged it and plugged it in again a million times when the problem first occurred, with no result. So, did the (seemingly pointless) new router power cord have an effect? Or am I a doofus and the phone cord just needed a better wiggle than I ever gave it?

As the Mister said, somewhat solemnly and dramatically: We'll never know.

Anyway, today I am thankful for renewed contact with the outside world... via old-fashioned phone lines, that is.

Catalan word of the day: blocaire

I have been puzzled for some time over the correct way to write "blog" in Catalan. I have seen it with equal frequency as "blog" and as "bloc." At first I thought the latter was just a misspelling of blog, the -c and -g ending sounding similar in Catalan, and because the word "bloc" can mean notepad, which makes sense in the context of a journal-like web page. But it seems the Gran diccionari de la llengua catalana gives preference to the latter, because under the entry for "bloc" the webpage definition appears, while "blog" isn't listed at all. I haven't been able to find either of them in any other dictionary.

So "bloc" it is, although the word might always look funny to my eyes. I was even more surprised to find that a derivative appears as well: "blocaire," which is a blogger. Upon further investigation, I see that the Catalan wikipedia page also mentions bloguistes, blogaires and bloguers as possible translations of "bloggers."

But I'll stick with blocaire. I like it because I have a soft spot for the catalan -aire ending, which tacked on to a noun, is likely to refer to a person who engages in an activity related to that thing, but somehow less...highbrow and more old-fashioned sounding (the more standard -er, -or, and -ant endings work like the English -er: baker (forner), banker (banquer), etc.). Street or outdoor jobs are often given -aire ending. Some examples:

cant, song > cantaire, singer (vs. cantant, a professional singer; in choir they refer to us as cantaires, but our voice teachers are cantants)
drap, rag > drapaire, rag-and-bone man, junk dealer (vs. draper, which means dry goods seller)
escombra, broom > escombraire, street sweeper (vs. escombrador, sweeper)
fira, fair > firataire, someone who keeps a stall at a fair
cigró, chickpea > cigronaire, chickpea seller
cinta, ribbon > cintaire, ribbon maker or seller
bolet, mushroom > boletaire, mushroom hunter (there is a popular program on Catalan TV called "Boletaires," which is a reality show about mushroom hunters [yes, television is pretty exciting stuff 'round here])
ou, egg > ouataire, egg dealer (I buy my eggs at the market from an ouataire)

I like how the -aire ending sounds, sort of an ah-ee-r-uh sound (like an English speaker might pronounce Aïda, the opera). It makes the word quite airy, if you will. And I like being in the company of people whose tasks are so clearly defined and hands-on. Sell chickpeas. Make ribbon. Hunt mushrooms. Write blog.

23 November 2008

Vacation days

As one of America's major holidays draws near, I thought I'd post this little graphic I saw the other day. I'll let you come to your own conclusions.

What else? We went to see Burn After Reading. The Coen brothers are pretty genius, and Brad Pitt's character had me in fits of giggling even when no one else in the theater was laughing. I found all of acting in the movie quite stellar.

And I made this for dessert. I bought persimmons on impulse, so am cooking them for the first time in my life. My first attempt was a persimmon tabouleh salad, which I didn't care for too much. But persimmons soaked in rum and topped with coconut cream? Yes.

Sorry for the slacker post. 23 days in, I'm finding it hard to maintain the ganas for daily writing... and thought I'd take a semi-break before this week, which will be food-focused I'm sure, as I prepare for turkey day!

22 November 2008

Floor to ceiling

We spent the day cleaning out the rental apartment, post-obras, which was more of a task than I thought it was going to be. The walls are freshly painted and the lovely wooden beams and new electric installation shine above, but below, months of dust and paint splatters and plaster and sticky stuff are congealed onto every surface. The refrigerator was a smelly mess (the workers left it unplugged and closed). We carted out bags and bags of trash, cleaned all the dishes and all the furniture, bemoaning the horrible treatment it received at the hands of the workers (for starters, they left all our chairs and pieces from our antique bedroom set, the one with gorgeous inlaid wood and marble tops, sitting outside over a very rainy weekend) and brought more antiques back to this apartment (which is, believe me, the last thing we need). We installed new kitchen drawers, rearranged furniture, and made many trips up and down the six flights of stairs. Ugh.

I never will understand the system of numbering floors here. That apartment is technically a fourth-floor apartment, but since there is an "entresol" and "principal" before even getting to the first floor, the flights of stairs really add up. Same thing goes for our apartment here; second floor by name, it's really four floors' worth of stairs. In both apartments, all the building's neighbors have agreed to pay for and put in elevators (a verrry expensive proposition, especially when it's times two), but given the pace things move around here, we won't be riding our elevator until we've already schlepped years' worth of groceries and possibly infants and strollers and whatnot up and down these dadgum stairs.

Now we are dusty and sore in the lower back. The Mister's allergies have kicked into high gear in from all that dust. The rest of our Saturday night is, I have a feeling, going to be spent sprawled out on the sofa with a newspaper and possibly a movie. We like to live large.

Today I am thankful about the apartments. As much of a headache as owning is, we were very lucky to have stumbled into two amazing fixer-uppers, giving us a lovely place to live as well as a welcome stream of rental income.

21 November 2008

Odds and ends

Today November sun slants through the window onto the bookshelf. It's a little chilly in the house.


I am researching how to roast a turkey in a convection oven. It's confusing. I don't have a roasting pan and am wondering if I need to buy one. I probably need to buy a thermometer so I don't get everyone sick with an undercooked bird.


My voice teacher told me my voice is "too angelic." She says I'm hiding my real sound behind a church choir warble. She made me sound like a lady with blue hair. So my task this week in practicing is to let out a deep, belly-mellifluous "hey!", like someone I don't know just patted my rear end, before every warm-up scale. I wonder what the neighbors think.


The Mister's saint day present was: framing. We've had some things sitting around for a long time now that we wanted to get framed. One is a big 1950s Spanish poster of the United States, published by the State Department, and found in a chest of drawers made by the Mister's great-grandfather. Serendipitous. We love it. Each state has little pictures of its major exports or vacation spots, so it's full of great tiny details, like the kneesocks-clad Vermont hiker, or the one carrying sap buckets right next to the words "arabe de arce" (maple syrup), or the Iowa guy hoeing a cornfield over the words "maiz gigante" (giant corn). I'll take a picture as soon as we take the final step and get it actually hung on the walls.


The other poster was purchased from Tiny Showcase (you can see it here). I am so ridiculously tickled by this print: it's a "guide to fifty nine fields." It's a field guide! Get it?! Plus, I love the colors and the shapes, how it looks like an alphabet or something from a distance, and the captions for each field, like "beside the ghost houses," "eight makes the chorus," "forgotten things," "summer swallows learning," "wherewithal"... I could go on; they're all awesome. It makes me look at fields differently when I fly, studying their odd shapes and sizes from above.


We are not having many bites for the ad we put up to rent the other apartment, now that it's fixed up again. This is worrisome, because it's been empty for two months now. Subtract rental income and add expensive renovation fees--not ideal. It's always gone like hotcakes before, and now it should be even better, due to brand-new wiring, newly exposed beams, and a complete paint job. Maybe it's the wrong season; I guess not many people are looking for an apartment in Barcelona in December. Anyway, if you have found your way here and are in need of an apartment in Barcelona (2 br, long-term, i.e., not vacation rental), leave a comment.


I have just three words for you: Pumpkin. Bread. Pudding. Go make this. I made it because I needed to use up some leftover pumpkin I was afraid would go bad, thinking I would freeze the dessert for a later date. Um, nope. I singlehandedly ate a good third of it yesterday, it was that delicious. And quite ridiculously easy. I left out the Bourbon, but it would probably be an awesome addition.


That is all.


Except for this: I am thankful for pumpkin bread pudding, and November sun, and books and breath.

20 November 2008

Saint Robin

Everyone here in Spain gets to have a dia del sant, or Saint Day, the day on which their namesake saint is celebrated. By extension, somehow, the person bearing that name is also celebrated, complete with presents from the family, so that you have sort of a second birthday. It's really amazing how everyone walks around with a holy days calendar in their head. People who know your name--neighbors, shopkeepers, relatives--will call you on the phone or call out their felicitats! as you pass, because while they might not know your birthday, your name corresponds to the saint, so it's a built in reminder. Anyone who regularly attends mass is given, on the full parroquial (parochial newsletter), a list of that week's saint days. Even those who don't go to church know the saint days of most common names, since they probably have a Josep/Josefina, Pau/Paula, a Maria or Pere or Anna or Marc in their family.

We celebrated the Mister's saint day this month with his family, complete with presents. In fact, I'm curled up in one of them now, a cozy fleece blanket. One of my failings as a partner is that thus far I have never remembered his saint day until it is nearly upon us, and even then the importance of it somehow escapes me, so that I fail to get a gift. Not this year, though! I knew just what to get him--because he, um, told me what he wanted--but... it's not ready yet. Still at the shop. Hey, at least I got him a gift!

Then there's me. As far as I knew, there was no Saint Robin. But the Mister and I were talking about names, and we did a little digging on the internet, and found a bizarrely-named page in French ("Call Back Me It" for a birthday and saint day reminder service? sounds like some Babelfish translation at work), which says that Saint Robin's day is April 30! I have a day! Too bad it's only 9 days before my birthday. Would have been nice to spread it out a bit. But wait! Another page, this one in Spanish, says that it's September 17! Much better. I can't for the life of me find any info on who "Saint Robin" was, or if they're just making this up, but I'll take it. Presents? Sign me up!

One tidbit I did manage to find is a poem by Sir Edmund William Gosse about "Saint Robin." Even if this is just poetic fancy, I'll be happy to think of the "saint of flowers" who has birds for a choir and a nimbus of daffodils on his head. (Which would, come to think of it, put the logical date for celebration closer to April 30 than September 17...)

With a Copy of Herrick

Fresh with all airs of woodland brooks
And scents of showers,
Take to your haunt of holy books
This saint of flowers.

When meadows burn with budding May,
And heaven is blue,
Before his shrine our prayers we say,--
Saint Robin true.

Love crowned with thorns is on his staff,--
Thorns of sweet briar;
His benediction is a laugh,
Birds are his choir.

His sacred robe of white and red
Unction distils;
He hath a nimbus round his head
Of daffodils.

19 November 2008

Around the bend

Being in England got me in the Christmas spirit already--the brisk cold, and so many cozy shops smelling of cinnamon and selling rustic wooden ornaments and berry wreaths--but we haven't even had Thanksgiving yet!

I'm sad to be missing my family's celebrations this year. My sister is hosting for the first time and oh how I wish I could be there to hang with everyone, especially the adorable nephews, who are all three at various stages that make you want to monch on them. The oldest showed me a paper plate turkey that he made yesterday, complete with feathers. Which he then proceeded to pull off and pile on top of his head, with the most winningly sweet smile you ever did see.

But I too will be making a Thanksgiving dinner (a day later), to introduce the Mister's family to this concept. I already know they will find certain things strange: mixing all of the dishes on the same plate! sweet foods next to savory foods! sweet-sour cranberries! pumpkin pie! But I'm hoping they'll like it nonetheless. We don't have enough chairs for everybody, and we'll have to use those antique plates that came with the house and that are kind of small, but we'll make it work. By the way, I love how Thanksgiving is translated here: acció de gràcies, or "action of thanks," which is so lovably literal.

I have an appointment with the Mister's grandmother to go down to the Boqueria and order a gall d'indi ("Indian rooster," i.e, turkey), which I plan to make even if I don't eat it myself. Maybe I will. We'll see. The last time I was involved in preparing a turkey without my mother around was with my housemates in Oxford. The seven of us put on a Thanksgiving meal for some British friends, and I only vaguely remember how it all came together, although I do remember the good feeling after everybody ate and we were all splayed out on the couches.

And I'm still mulling over the menu, unsure of how much I can prepare ahead of time and how it will all come together logistically in my wee kitchen, and how much to make (it'll be in the evening, so I don't want to overdo it), but in any case I know it will be strictly traditional. For one's first Thanksgiving, one should eat: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry, squash or sweet potatoes, green beans, rolls, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Right? It's just a question of which recipes to use, where to get the ingredients (the Mister may have to bring me cranberries from Brussels), and how to bring it all together. I'm smacking my lips already.

Today I'm thankful for the coming holidays, for food and family on two sides of the ocean.

18 November 2008

Same story, but in pictures

view from hotel

across the street


the fells

the village

muddy sleeves



17 November 2008


It was a day that might be best called blustery. Every few steps along the lane, the wind picked me up and set me back down again. A shepherd in wellies who met us in the path gestured to the sky and said, "A bit wild." I agreed.

But this was a glorious, beautiful blustery, the kind that wakes you up and makes you look around. A misty rain blew at us sideways as we walked down the road, which we chose over the muddy fields--they call them fells--that would have required serious boots. The sheep, with skinny spotted legs and heavy wool coats, chewed grass and watched us go by. We in turn watched the bright green hills roll into the fog, or the fog roll into the hills.

The air felt good after a big breakfast that had followed a cozy sleep after a big dinner, the kind of dinner that starts with glasses of wine by the fire and ends with a selection of amazing local cheeses that we can barely eat because we are so full after our delicious desserts, and then tea again by the fire.

So we were happy to ramble along. We got to the village at last, and learned about ropes and stone wall building and cheese making--at the rope museum, the dales museum, and the cheese factory, respectively. I learned new vocabulary, like "sally," which is the fuzzy part where you grasp the rope that rings the church bell, and "cope stone," which is a thin stone that sits vertically on top of a hand-built wall.

At one point, as we walked through a hilly cemetery, I slipped on the wet grass and landed--ufff!--in a big smear of wet mud. I was very out of sorts for a while, because my hands, sleeves, and bottom were covered with the black stuff. But moments later we watched a rainbow arch over the roofs of the village and the fog cleared for a minute so we could see the top of the dales, and I was happy again. And dorkily amused by my tumble, because I suddenly realized: I fell on the fells!

(Picture downloading has been hampered by my inability to locate the little thingamajiggy that puts European prongs onto my American camera charger. Will look again and hopefully will have pictures soon.)

16 November 2008


One of the best things about travel days is the strange sensation of having been in a place so drastically different just hours ago. This morning I was climbing medieval walls and enjoying an Anglican church service and driving a car on the opposite side of the road (not all at once, obvs.), and now? Well, now I'm sitting on the couch in the living room.

I'm very proud of myself for successfully maneuvering through the little skinny byways of the Yorkshire Dales without any major mishaps. The internal chant of "stay on the left" helped quite a bit, as did avoidance of driving after dark, because once dusk fell (at about 4 o' "it's further north than you think" clock) I lost all confidence as to whether I hadn't missed some crucial sign and was driving the wrong way down a one-way road. I did once turn into oncoming traffic, but that was quickly remedied, and everyone was moving so slowly that no damage was done.

There was a lot more to the trip than conquering the reverse driving experience, but I'm sleepy and I want to download the camera files and see if any of our pictures captured just how green the rainy fields were, just how lovely the mossy stone walls, just how inviting each dale. I promise that tomorrow I'll write about those things.

15 November 2008

What's home?

(Am still in England. This post was written ahead of time. Look at me, all prepared and whatnot.)

After the election, I was so proud that all of my "home" states pulled for Obama (not all of them givens, either):

Iowa, where I was born.
Pennsylvania, where I spent my childhood.
Vermont, where I spent my high school years and where my parents live.
Massachusetts, where I went to college and where my siblings live.
Indiana, where I studied for grad school.

Just as I was thinking about that, Astrid wrote a great post about what it takes to feel "at home" in a place, especially for expats. How the feeling of belongingness can come and go so easily.

And I wondered, where's home for me?

As the above list should indicate, when people ask me "where I'm from," it's not so simple to answer. The first answer is "the US," but after that it gets more complicated. I usually say Vermont, which is, of all those states, where I identify most as "home," both because it's the place I go back to for holidays, and because I'm proud of it and fiercely attached to it as a (beautiful) place.

Although those who ask that question clearly identify me as a foreigner, another answer is that I'm also "from" here. This is where I live. This is what I have chosen. Through my husband and our house and his family and the Catalan language, I am making a thousand new little rootlets to create "home" every day.

But feeling at home is another story. One minute everything makes sense, I'm grooving with the language, I feel like an adopted Catalan, I get cultural references, jokes, and place names, I belong in my neighborhood, I know what's what and can steer my way around the city like a local. The next minute--boom!--I'm so darn foreign, all gangly and blond and my words get tangled up and I don't have my ID yet and I don't get the joke and the explanation doesn't make sense and this is so not home. Sigh.

Ultimately, I would define home as the place where my loved ones are. Thus I can simultaneously talk about "going home" for Christmas, and "coming back home" when Christmas is over.

Mostly, home is where the Mister is. It's in his arms.

14 November 2008

2468 Memory Lane, Childhood, the Eighties

(Still in England; wrote this post the other day. Am clever like that.)

My dad scanned some great images for me, pictures I maybe hadn't ever seen, or not for a long time.

The first one is of me with two beloved items that are, I believe, still in a box somewhere in my parents' basement. When I was very small, my mom made that activity book I am carefully "reading" for the millionth time. As a matter of fact, most of my childhood pictures consist of me curled up in some chair or another, engrossed in some book or another. Next to me is perched the Christmas present that made my little head nearly explode with joy, a real Cabbage Patch Doll named Christy Nicolina. My great-grandma told me it was an ugly doll (it was, of course, not that I could conceive of such sacrilege at the time), which made me cry. Sadly, it's one of the few memories I have of my grandfather's mother.

The second photo shows the "stacked like a cord of wood" configuration I mentioned the other day. How we drove to Iowa, all laid out in the back. Nowadays, of course, totally illegal, but I have good memories of falling asleep, curled among my siblings, listening to the steady thrum of the highway.

13 November 2008

I want to neglect the remainder of my life with you

While I'm away...

The other day I watched a little video that so thoroughly tickled my funny bone I sat there chuckling long after it ended. Not surprisingly, it's all about wordplay, and the comical results of automatic internet translations. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to embed it here, so go to YouTube and watch it there.

12 November 2008

Hills and Dales

Today I'm flying to Manchester to meet the Mister (he's there for some meetings). From there, we're going north to explore the Yorkshire Dales and some lovely B&Bs, then down to York for a day. I'm looking forward to misty fields, crackling fires, hearty English breakfasts, tea, and cheese! (Wensleydale, home to Wallace and Gromit, is famous for its cheese.)

We've rented a car, and I'm a bit nervous about driving on the other side of the road. But everyone assures me that it'll be fine if I just take it slow and think carefully at the roundabouts.

Anyway, although I've committed to writing every day for national blog posting month, I don't know if I'll be able to post. I'm not bringing my computer, just my little iPod touch--so if I'm lucky and can capture a wireless signal, I'll be able to write briefly, but if not, I'm out of luck.

I'm also trying to figure out what book to bring. Something nice and Englishy, something good for fireside reading. Maybe Jane Austen. The area where we're headed is also famous for being home to James Herriot, country veterinarian and author of a series of autobiographical books. I devoured and loved them when I was about twelve, so maybe I will be able to dip back into them if there are copies strewn about the inn's bookshelves.

Today I'm thankful for lovely feeling that accompanies the anticipation of travel.

11 November 2008

Happiness doubled by wonder

I'm not necessarily forgetting to be thankful, I just keep forgetting that I was going to write about it...

The other day I came across this lovely sentence by G.K. Chesterton:
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

Therefore, to be included in today's post and past posts:

-winter's sweet and spicy smells and tastes, the warmth of baking with cinnamon

-Barcelona's November sunshine

-the pure silliness of dressing up for Halloween

-nephews and nieces in adorable costumes

-Skyping with family

-the baked apples my mother-in-law snuck into the bag we carried home on Sunday

-revisiting wedding albums

-sore muscles and the satisfaction of having exercised

-Sunday crosswords

-Bach's Magnificat

Lavender and cinnamon

In September we attended a wedding up in the hills of the collserola. The wedding favors, sitting on our napkins when we arrived at dinner, were fat bundles of lavender and cinnamon. I ended up with a few extras, those of our out-of-town guests, and stuck them all in a pretty glass vase and put it in the entryway.

Now, every time I walk by, I catch a whiff of the bright note of lavender and the lower, spicy undertone of cinnamon. Who needs air freshener when natural aromatics like these can fill the air?

I've long been a lover of cinnamon. I still remember how disappointed I was when, as a little girl, I ate a big spoonful of the raw spice, thinking that it would be as delicious as the cinnamon candies I loved or the baked goods flecked with brown spicy sweetness. I think the Cinnamon Roll is one of humankind's better inventions. (My in-laws, when they came to the US for the first time, for our wedding, asked me about "those little spiral breads" at breakfast, in an awed sort of voice.)

As a child I also had a series of imaginary pets, ranging from horses to raccoons. They were all named Cinnamon. And I still hoard cinnamon gum from trips to the US, because I can't find it here. Most of my Catalan friends (the cuisine here is decidedly un-spicy) wrinkle up their noses when they try it because they find it too spicy. Not a problem, just means more for me!

Thus, it was with great excitement this morning that I woke up to discover I had won some Vietnamese cinnamon, whose superlative sweetness and fieriness Todd and Diane at White on Rice Couple had me drooling over. They say it tastes just like cinnamon candy, and has such a high concentration of essential oils, it'll spark when ignited! I've never tried this kind of cinnamon, and now I will have the opportunity to do so. Thanks, Todd and Diane!

10 November 2008

In costume

On Friday afternoon there was a late-in-the-game change of plans, and we decided to go with political attire. My wig was all wrong, and most people had to read the "Miss Alaska" sash to figure out the costume, especially if my McCain wasn't around. But it was fun to pull together, kind of silly, and relatively easy.

Little red riding hood snagging candy...

And some very adorable clowns.

09 November 2008

Estiuet de Sant Martí

In early November, the Catalans predict warm weather: the "little summer" of Sant Martí, which falls on November 11. Sure enough, today was a winner, crisp air and warm sun. We ate lunch outside for the "festa major" of my in-laws' town (every town and neighborhood has its own week of celebrations, based on the day of the patron saint). After some days of decidedly cooling weather, we are enjoying this estiuet.

I couldn't help thinking about what it'd be like in Brussels right now: ten degrees cooler, and gray. Maybe raining.

So I did a little poking around on the web, if only to confirm my suspicions. Brussels has, on average, 208 "wet days" per year, or 17.33 days per month. And this statistic does not include not-wet but still gray days, which I would unscientifically estimate to be another 10 days or so. 27 days of gray per month.

Barcelona has, on average, 79 "wet days" per year, or 6.5 days per month. Maybe a couple more are gray without rain. 9 days of gray per month.

If you could choose between the two, where would you want to live?

It's funny that I care so much about this, because I'm not a sun-worshipper, not a beach bunny. I burn and don't tan, I stay in the shade. Really, it's all about the effect of so much gray on my spirits. It's SAD all year long in Brussels.

And Barcelona? Happy.


Party cleanup

Nearing midnight. Must post, but am in the midst of saying goodbye to guests (who've been here since 7). Some fabulous costumes. Ours were slapdash, but got the most laughs: McCain and Palin. Am on sugar overload, as were all the children literally running back and forth through the apartment screaming at the top of their lungs. In a cute way, wearing little red riding hood and clown and doctor costumes. Somersault contests for the kids, a Barça soccer game for the boys, and lots of yummy food. Happy Halloween, redux!

07 November 2008

Pet peeve rant ahead

A couple of weeks ago, at long last, we got a washer and dryer. On the first day, I washed every scrap of fabric in this house that needed to be washed or could be construed as needing a wash. I've never been so excited to do laundry.

The Mister's grandmother had told us in all seriousness that we didn't need to buy the washer and dryer, that we could just keep bringing her our clothes. I thought she was just being nice. But when we bought the machines and she still insisted that we bring her some things, or better yet, bring her all of the Mister's shirts to iron, I realized she truly does take great satisfaction in her impeccable presentation of perfectly ironed clothing (she even ironed our sheets and socks, and she has some mad stain-removal skilz). Plus, given the time and care she takes with it, doing laundry and ironing is a way to fill her day with activity.

Since I simply don't iron--the Mister irons his own shirts, but lately barely has time to stop off at home and re-pack his bag--I actually might take her up on the offer, if I can get over my own sense of the impropriety of bringing our ironing to a 93-year-old woman!

The arrival of the washer and dryer also reminded me of two major PET PEEVES: Stickers on New Things, and, even worse, Stickers on New Things that are Impossible to Get Off. The shiny New Thing is offensively marred by some loud sale sticker or ugly price sticker or, in this case, a muffin-sized sticker announcing in big red letters the number I should call to register the warranty. I know people who don't mind leaving the stickers on, but I really really can't stand to leave them there, marring the way the New Thing is supposed to look and feel. (In grad school classes, I sometimes had the urge to reach over the table to take the big yellow USED BOOK stickers off the spines of my classmates' books, and they always did easily pull off, so why leave them?)

But when it's the second degree of peevedness--not just Stickers, but Stickers that are Impossible to Get Off--you peel, or sometimes, in tiny little fingernail-gunking strips, rip off the sticker, but are left with a gummy residue that Will Not Come Off. I spent a good hour the other day trying various (probably toxic) substances on that darn sticker, including a de-greaser and turpentine, but nothing worked. Meanwhile, I was worried that I was damaging the nice shiny white surface of my New Thing. Finally I was able to get rid of the stuff, mostly by fingernail scraping and persistent wiping with dish soap. Ugh.

Someone should fire the people in charge of Stickers on New Things.

Today I am thankful to be doing laundry in my own home. Yay!

06 November 2008


Our home phone hasn't been working for a few days.

I can't make calls or receive them.

With my cell phone, I call the number on the contract.

They only deal with contracts at that number.

I go to the store and talk to a real person.

He can only sign people up and doesn't help with technical difficulties.

I call the number he told me to call.

An automated voice tells me to call another number if I am already a client.

I run out of credit on my cell phone.

The website to re-charge the cell phone won't load.

I come back an hour later, and it is working again.

The website to re-charge the cell phone doesn't accept my credit card.

I try it again.

I put twenty euros on my cell phone.

I call the technical service number.

I am on the phone for about twenty minutes with a guy who tells me which buttons to press and what to unplug when and what to look for on my computer.

He concludes there's something wrong with the cable. They will send a cable.

I hang up and call the Mister.

While I dial, a voice tells me I am running out of credit.

I wonder if there is some mistake.

I ask the Mister if it is possible for the technical support number to cost almost a euro a MINUTE?

If it might not be toll-free to call a company to fix something that is THEIR FAULT?

He tells me since this is Spain, it is possible.

The line goes dead.

I bang my head on the desk.


Last night was my first "real" concert with the new choir. We sang "Cançó d'amor i de guerra" (Song of Love and War), a rollicking zarzuela, full of triumphalist full-throated choruses that end with happy emphatic crashes of cymbals. Which fit my mood rather well after the election.

In fact, the best part of arriving at the auditorium dressing room last night was that one by one, many of my fellow singers (many of whom I still don't know) came up to me and solemnly, admiringly, shook my hand or kissed me on the cheek. There was a deep contentedness in those sturdy handshakes. It caught me by surprise at first, but of course: I was likely the only American they had seen that day. I felt like a celebrity, just by virtue of being l'americana, and believe me, this is the first time while in Europe I have ever felt so... admired for being American. I told them all I was so proud of my country.

Take a look at these reactions from around the world. It captures a bit of that good feeling.

And now for a couple of tangents, one a gush and one a dash of realism:

Isn't Michelle Obama just fabulous? I have a feeling that she is going to rock as first lady.

Also, Obama's election is a huge huge huge step for a country whose legacy is one of systemic racial hatred, violence, and discrimination. It really is an American dream come true. But some commentators are acting as though all of the sudden racism has been defeated for good. Sadly, that's not the case. I'm worried that having a black president could serve as an excuse for the more naive segments of society to say, "See? No racism here. Obama's in the White House. Case closed." And then shut their eyes to their own behavior or injustices around them. Obama might be kind of like the Cliff Huxtable of today, the friendly black guy who makes white people think they're "totally fine" with black people and that his success story is proof that racism doesn't exist.

(Yet: I am thankful things are changing.)

05 November 2008


I tried to stay awake long enough to see some conclusive election results. I baked and did laundry until 2 am to keep myself occupied while the Catalan television speculated and the CNN election map slowly filled in with bright red and blue. I made it until 4 am, but although things were looking good, nothing was really certain. I fell asleep curled around my laptop.

So when I woke up all I had to do was hit refresh, and I saw the news. And then watched Obama's acceptance speech, and was moved to tears. The man is a brilliant orator, and I hope that the feeling I get when I listen to him, the feeling that here is a leader who I can trust and is telling the truth, will be borne out by his actions in office. I know that no one is perfect, and that an Obama presidency in and of itself does not solve the nation's--much less the world's--problems, but I hope that he will follow through on the good words of his speech.

Because what I heard is this:

I will always be honest with you

I will listen to you

it cannot happen without you

a new spirit

of service and responsibility

looking after not only ourselves, but each other

a measure of humility

to promote the cause of peace

America can change

while we breathe, we hope

yes we can

(today I am thankful for the promise of America)

04 November 2008


Every election is an "historic election," in the sense that history is made whenever a new president moves into the White House. However, this time around the outcome will be especially noteworthy, and the issues at stake seem especially crucial, what with the ugly economic panorama, interminable war-waging, the dire state of the world's ecosystems, good health care out of reach for millions, and a lingering legacy of racism, poverty, and social injustice. I turned to the Mister the other day, when news of the financial crisis was starting to hit, and wondered aloud if we would look back on the whole of our pre-2008 lives as a kind of golden age.

And yet: whatever happens, I feel energized and excited just by the fact of being alive on this memorable day, and proud of the changes that already seem to be taking place.

Some reasons the election is especially historic:

* Barack Obama would be the nation's first African American president.

* John McCain would be the oldest person to be sworn in as a new president.

* Sarah Palin would be the nation's first female vice president.

* This is the first time in history that the two main candidates for president are both sitting senators.

* This is the first time in more than 50 years that neither the sitting president nor the sitting vice president is a candidate on his party's ticket in the new presidential election.

* This has been the most expensive election campaign in history.

* This has been the longest election campaign in history.

* This is the largest-ever age gap between the two presidential candidates.

* Obama's campaign has raised a record-setting amount of money from small contributions.

* New voter registration and early voting have broken records, and voter turnout may do the same.

* For the first time in history, both candidates were born outside of the continental US.

* The two candidates are the first from their home states, Arizona and Hawaii.

* The candidates have made unprecedented use of new technology like Facebook, text messaging, YouTube, and online advertising.

(Most of this I pulled from my buzzing head after nonstop election reading, but this article covers all of these assertions, I think.)


03 November 2008

On the eve of...

Unless you are living under a rock, you know that tomorrow is the Big Day. The rest of the globe is voting for Obama. What will America vote? Everyone here is holding their breath, and there is extensive US election coverage in the news. Every day I have conversations with people who are puzzled as to why McCain even has a fighting chance, and I find myself (inadequately) trying to explain the whole American political panorama. It ends up being about the ideals of individualism and freedom, and competing definitions of those ideals when applied to various social needs. Isn't every political system (with further shadings among parties) just a different balance of what and how an individual gets to decide vs. what and how the government gets to decide? Meanwhile, I am getting nibble-on-fingers nervous.

As Obama's half-sister, who lives in Kenya, said of him, "He can be trusted to be in dialogue with the world." Boy, do we need a president who will rely on dialogue. And a president who is trustworthy.

The quote comes from an editorial I enjoyed because it suggests that literature and politics have a whole lot in common: they're both all about narrative. Stories matter, because stories are how we understand ourselves and where we come from, and how we understand our leaders and where they come from.

Anyway, the important thing is: vote!

(Scroll down a bit to see my election-themed Etsy sidebar...)

02 November 2008

Me Mosaic

The Rules: you answer the following 12 questions about yourself (my answers are in parentheses after each question):

01. What is your first name? (Robin)
02. What is your favorite food? (tomato)
03. What high school did you attend? (Mount Mansfield)
04. What is your favorite color? (blue)
05. Who is your celebrity crush? (Obama)
06. Favorite drink? (coffee)
07. Dream vacation? (Argentina)
08. Favorite dessert? (chocolate)
09. What do you want to be when you grow up? (writer)
10. What do you love most in life? (beauty)
11. One word to describe you? (quiet)
12. Your Flickr name? (Cant d'Ocell)

Want to play?: Type your answer to each of the above questions into Flickr's search. Using only the images that appear on the first page, choose your favorite and copy and paste each of the URL’s into the Mosaic Maker (3 columns, 4 rows)... Enjoy!

01 November 2008

Trick or treat

No trick-or-treaters rang my doorbell yesterday, but the doorbell did ring, and I did get a treat:

A big box full of books, all of them MY book! My translation, that is. It's a deeply satisfying feeling to see a row of them all ranged on the shelf, knowing that my name is on the cover, in letters just as big as the editor's.

It's not the first time I've seen it; I have had one copy since late July, I think. And I've been simultaneously excited and embarrassed about it all ever since I first held it in my hands and flipped through the pages.

Excited, because the book is beautiful, with a lovely painting of food on the cover, and a tasteful jacket design. I love the deep red endpapers, the font, and the layout. I was thrilled that it is a bilingual edition, Catalan and English on facing pages, so readers can themselves go to the original for the thornier aspects of the medieval language.

But also embarrassed, because some funky editing went on after I sent my round of proofs to the publisher. [Redacted: some guesses as to who is at fault, because on second thought, this is a job here, and blog lesson #1 is probably about not discussing work-related issues online.] The first problem is with inconsistencies (changed some but not all occurrences of a word). I wouldn't mind if they had changed them all but it makes me itch and practically break out in hives to see contradictory usage. Similarly, some but not all words were changed to British spelling. Finally, there are some errors that are probably typesetting issues, including many incorrect word breaks (as a former proofreader, this gets under my skin).

Yet all of this I could easily forgive if there did not exist, right in the middle of page 19, glaring at me reproachfully (there might as well be a blinking red light for all I can ignore it), this clunker: "When the recipes was copied, they was extensively reworked..."

The first time I thumbed through the book, I saw it, and it still makes me cringe every time I think about it (the "trick" in yesterday's "treat," if you will). I suppose the error resulted from the back-and-forth between the British and Catalan editors. Somebody changed something, somebody changed it back, but without correcting the verb. I don't know.

I have to reassure myself with the following line of reasoning: a) not a whole lot of people are going to buy this book, anyway--it's a niche audience--and b) of those who buy it, not many are going to share my obsession with grammar, and c) the clunker on page 19 does not go on my CV, so sheesh, just calm down already.

Anyway, today I am thankful for my very first, very own, shiny pretty book translation.

30 October 2008

All Hallow's Eve

Happy Halloween!

I hope everybody has a fun, sweet-filled evening. It's not terribly Halloweeny here, but in honor of the holiday I roasted a little pumpkin (I was overjoyed to see a few pie pumpkins here!), then mixed the pumpkin purée with cream cheese, brown sugar, and spices, and dipped apple slices into it (and, to be honest, ate it by the spoonful). Like pumpkin pie in a bowl.

Our Halloween party isn't for another week, and I'm trying to think of a costume for the Mister and I. In past years, we have dressed up as Vermeer and the Girl with the Pearl Earring, Bonnie and Clyde, and Anthony and Cleopatra. I have two ideas so far, but I can't figure out if they're dumb or not: American tourists (fanny packs, flip-flops, floral shirts, sun hats), or Quasimodo and Esmeralda (a pillow for a hunchback, gypsy-esque dress, the same black wig I wore for Cleopatra). However we end up costumed, I have big plans for pumpkin-based food as well as lots of candy and chocolate and yumminess!

I also want to announce (to make sure I go through with it) that I am going to try to blog every day during the month of November, just like last year, and that also like last year, I'll be remembering the many things for which I am thankful.

Back to BCN

Thanks to everyone who commented or emailed about my grandfather. The trip went remarkably well (despite having to turn around mid-ocean and go back to Amsterdam and switch planes because there was something wrong with the controls) and the whole 7-adults-in-a-minivan-for-9-hours thing was actually kind of fun. Like when we were little and we all piled in the back of the station wagon to sleep through the night in our jammies with our blankies ("stacked like a cord of wood," my uncle said as we looked through some photos from the 1980s). Now, though, we took turns driving and everyone challenged each other to best their high scores on one of the several ipods and iphones and laptops floating around the car.

The funeral was sad, but simple and lovely. Grandpa would have liked it. It was great to see my cousins--all the grandkids made it--and aunts and uncles so soon again after this summer, and to be there for Grandma, because this is a very tough time for her, facing loss and a new kind of life after more than 50 years of marriage. Step by step. She told me she is going to learn how to find my blog online so she can keep up with our goings-on. Hi Grandma!

We played cards and watched faded slides of my mom and aunts when they were kids and ate lots of food and then so soon we had to turn around and head back to Chicago, where we had to buy the Mister some sweaters and a scarf and gloves because he was going to the Yukon for a work trip afterwards (because of the funeral he hadn't been able to re-pack his bag between Strasbourg and the Canada trip). For my part, I stuffed my suitcase with canned pumpkin and chocolate chips and almond extract and cranberries.

I came back to a rainy and cool, November-y Barcelona, and discovered that I would need to break out the space heater. And maybe buy a couple more. (We never had the radiators installed in the apartment...this winter will be an experiment to see if we really need to do so.) Today the sun is out again, though. It doesn't stay away for long 'round these parts.

22 October 2008


My grandfather was very sick, but it didn't seem possible that he would leave us so quickly. I was able to talk to him on Sunday just before they gave him morphine for the pain, before he entered a cloud of sleep and medicine, a conversation for which I am so profoundly grateful. He was tired and hurting, but still his matter-of-fact self, his laconic midwestern voice the same as ever. I told him we would talk again in a couple of days, but by Monday evening he was gone. I told him that I love him.

Tomorrow I fly to Chicago, where I'll meet my dad and brother, spend the night at my uncle's, and then drive to Iowa together for the funeral. I still can't believe that the last-minute ticket was so reasonably priced, and I'm astonished that I am even able to go to the funeral. It's a strange thing to be so happy about that even in the midst of sadness, looking forward to seeing family and being with them to celebrate grandpa's life.

14 October 2008

Battle hymns

A couple of weeks ago, I auditioned for an excellent choral ensemble here in Barcelona. I always get shaky and nervous during auditions, but fortunately they accepted me, and I am thrilled to be singing once again! I'm looking forward to getting to know a repertoire of Catalan music--my first full concert will be a Catalan sarsuela (zarzuela, in Spanish). One of the conditions of membership is that every singer take voice lessons biweekly, so I will also be returning to individual vocal study for the first time since college.

Last night we had the privilege of singing at the breathtaking Palau de la Música Catalana (click on "Guided Tours" and then "Virtual Tour" for a series of nice videos of the interior and exterior, or "Palau" for its history).

We were squished up in those red velvet seats flanking the organ in order to sing the Catalan national anthem, Els Segadors, at the end of an evening of musical and verbal tributes to Lluís Xirinacs. A long stream of public figures paid honor to Xirinacs' dedication to nonviolence and Catalan independence. Maria del Mar Bonet, a well-loved folk singer whose 1970s Catalan protest songs galvanized a generation, performed, along with many other Catalan musicians. The tenor of the evening, although filled with chants of "A Free Catalonia" and fists pumping in the air, was largely peaceful, given the example of Xirinacs himself.

However. When at last it came time to sing the Catalan anthem (which I had been frantically memorizing over the weekend), it struck me again how violent it is, and how ironic this violence given last night's context. The music itself sounds even more "militant" than the meaning of the words might indicate. People these days don't (usually) sing it in a spirit of violence, but the overall message is violent, and the lyrics were written about the Reapers' War of the 17th century. Like the American national anthem, which also commemorates a battle (from the War of 1812), this anthem links nationhood to a celebration of violent defiance. They are battle hymns.

I won't say much more about this except to lament it. I've long wished the American national anthem were something easier to sing and something a shade less bellicose. National identity, as represented by a song, should ideally be peaceful and pluralist. The Spanish national anthem is wordless, and perhaps this is the best way to go. However, recently a contest was held to add words to the anthem, resulting in some major controversy. For starters, the lyrics begin with "Viva España," inevitably reminding Spaniards (and Catalans, and Basques) of the dictatorship, when those very words represented the often violent oppression of "unacceptable" identities.