29 February 2008

All the sun long

The music we're singing for our next concert is so amazingly wonderful. It's an all-American roundup of composers, lots of favorites from Bernstein, Copland, and Gershwin, plus a piece I hadn't known before this by John Corigliano. It sets the text of Dylan Thomas' poem Fern Hill, and is just so shimmery and crystalline and gorgeous. The melodies are lodged in my head, and it's a good sign that I'm not sick of them yet. I keep singing snatches of them throughout the day, sometimes even on the street, and I probably sound like a crazy person.

The most amusing thing about rehearsals for this repertoire is hearing all of the British and international accents trying to sing the jazzy American lines, like "I got plenty o' nuttin, and nuttin's plenty fo' me." And that's actually an easy one, in the spectrum of tongue twisters and colloquialisms when you're singing like the Jets or down-and-out Southerners or farmers from The Tender Land.

As for the Corigliano, the text is straightforward in some senses (apple, horse, barn, hay, green, moon), but Thomas puts those words together in such fantastic ways that the non-English speakers in the choir have been asking me, the choir's resident poet, what on earth it all means. The other night, one man asked me, "What is an apple town?" I started talking about associative metaphors, and the sonority of bough/town, and then the break was over and we had to sing. So much for my poetry colloquium.

I'm headed off to Barcelona for the weekend, so I'll be disconnected from the web for a couple of days. (That sounds a little too spidery, or like I'm about to revolt from the Borg collective, à la Captain Picard.)

Before I go, I will leave you with the golden sunniness of Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

28 February 2008

Cheese for dinner

Fondue is the ideal winter meal, if you think about it. The bread and vegetables you spear with your slender fork are just excuses to consume as much of the hot gooey cheese as you can wrap around them. Raclette, too, is really a fancy way to eat bubbly cheese straight from the grill. It's grilled cheese without the bread.

So you can imagine that there were no complaints from me when we had melted cheese for dinner three out of four nights this week: Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday. Kind of excessive, I know, but it happened completely by accident.

You see, we have a brand new fondue pot (I bought it to make cheese and chocolate fondue for the Mister on Valentine's day), so when we decided to get together with friends on Saturday and were tossing around ideas, we suggested making fondue. It tasted so good, we almost collectively licked the pot. (And, showing up with two of the darkest of dark chocolate cakes in this country of chocolate, they asked us to help them choose their wedding cake for dessert! It was the showdown of showdowns, Marcolini vs. Wittamer, and we were not unanimous in our preference. At least, however, the bride and groom shared the same opinion.)

Then Monday night, we went over to another couple's place to watch the Zapatero-Rajoy debate, and guess what? They had their raclette machine all fired up and ready to grill us some cheese. (Now that I think about it, politics was another constant across all of these meals. The Spanish elections are coming up soon, and of course everyone has an opinion--and wants to know what I think--about the Clinton-Obama showdown. They also want to know: what the heck is a superdelegate? what is the difference between a caucus and a primary? why are Americans so neurotic? Hmmm, now that I think about it, cheese and politics is probably a perfect pairing.)

Meanwhile, we had long been planning a surprise party for a friend who is leaving the country, and the plan included two raclette machines coming over to our house on Tuesday night. They showed up, right on time, with a dozen people in tow, and our friend was very surprised, and we ate plates and plates of cheese. The gigantic salad I made to accompany the cheese? Still in our fridge.

Which is good, because we will need plenty of green roughage to make up for all that inadvertent consumption of cheese.

25 February 2008

Local explorations

Yesterday's peripatetic combination of activities left my feet aching, but my brain (and tummy!) satisfied. We saw several areas of the city we had never explored, and ate at places that have long been on our to-do list.

In the afternoon we took a visit to Tour et Taxis, a gigantic exhibition space and urban center. (Check out the website, which with its electronica vibe, seems to try to be promoting the thing as some sort of nightclub.) The building itself is breathtaking, although it is located in the midst of a wasteland of derelict structures, seedy warehouses, and piles of trash. It's not exactly a place you'd end up wandering around in, which is why we had never been before.

Two exhibits are going on at the moment, one a Star Wars extravaganza, and the other called C'est notre histoire (This is our history), about the history of Europe over the last 50 years. I suppose you can imagine which one we were there for, but it was a bit depressing to walk past the long lines, teeming with children and adults, to the ticket counter for the Europe exhibit, which had no line whatsoever. "History, schmistory!" they seemed to be saying. "Let's go look at light sabers!"

Still, the European history exhibit was truly impressive. The concept itself is massive in scope, with an astounding array of historical moments, people, countries, and topics to cover, but the gigantic exhibition space and well-thought-out distribution of information were equal to the challenge. I loved that contemporary artworks were interspersed with the historical events they respond to, and that the quotidian (a reproduction of a 1960s home, for example) could dialogue with the monumental (an American and a Soviet warhead, pointed at one another, dwarf you as you walk between them). Of course we ran across the inevitable dull bits, such as a large diagram trying to explain how the various European institutions work, involving a lot of arrows. Even the Mister and our two friends, who also work at the Parliament, just shook their heads at it. But overall, well worth the three-plus hours we spent wandering through the galleries.

Stomachs grumbling, we walked to Ste-Catherine, the area of town known for its seafood, and strolled up to the little outdoor seafood bar called Mer du Nord, eating our fill of fabulous tapas-like dishes, a perfect late lunch/early dinner. We stood there for hours, and ate--quite literally--everything on the chalkboard menu: fish soup, perfectly delicate oysters, grilled scampi, shrimp croquettes, sea snails (whelks), battered cod fillets called Kibbeling (such an odd name!), grilled scallops, and plenty of rounds of white wine. Slightly chilled, but happily stuffed, we walked around the corner to Café Frederic Blondeel, where we sampled some of the fabulous chocolates and little tarts along with our coffees: there's always room for chocolate, right?

Having lingered over our meal and our dessert, it was already nearly 8 pm, and time for a concert at the Botanique, a huge greenhouse-cum-concert space. I had never been inside, so it was fun to see the place, and the concert was pretty great (with the exception of the opening act, an experimental electronica group). Even though my aching feet kept complaining (am I now too old to go to concerts without seats? I found myself incredibly annoyed at the people pressed around us, but it wasn't their fault), Vinicio Capossela's music was just strange and energetic enough to keep me from tumbling over. Ragtime, circus, western ballads, latin rhythm, folks songs: the music was wonderfully weird, the lyrics literary and mythic (Medusa, anyone? Rime of the Ancient Mariner, anyone?) and all of it a spectacle: a different jacket, hat, or mask for every song, wacky instruments (including a toy guitar and a toy piano with real candles), and Monty Pythonesque video projections.

Home again, jiggety jig, to put up our feet and watch Lost before bed. A more satisfying day I couldn't have invented if I had tried.

22 February 2008


OK, I myself was curious about the colon poem I referred to in my last post. So I dug it out of my archives, and thought I'd post a snippet or two. The poem is an abecedarian, which means a poem of 26 lines, every line beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. Here's F through H:

First two dots in a Seurat painting : you’re the poem’s pointillist
gateway to hades or heaven slender as a needle’s eye : : You give us
hidey-holes : crawlspaces in the eaves of words : nooks of meaning : :

And S through W:

Subsequent is to ( : ) previous as ( : : ) overture is to ( : ) melody : :
This is to say : The present is played to the spritely tune of the past on a blue
ukulele : the ultraviolet light of memory : our umbilical cord : our uninvited
VIP a viper whose fang-bites puncture with preferred poison : : Oh, how your dots
waver through stop, go, and slow : little semaphore :

Have a lovely Friday.

In praise of the semicolon

I'm a great fan of this little hybrid punctuation; in fact, I use it whenever possible. I like it almost as much as parentheses and maybe even a little bit more than the colon (about which I once wrote a longish poem, called--no, I'm not making this up--"Ode to the Colon").

The NYT a couple days ago had a fun article about a semicolon in New York City, with, ironically, an appended grammatical correction (of course an article about grammar is going to make a grammatical error in the title of a book on grammar).

Strangely enough, I think the article leaves out one of the crucial aspects of semicolon usage (the thing my students would always forget): the phrases on both sides of the semicolon should be complete sentences (i.e., should have both a subject and a verb). They could exist on their own as individual sentences, but the semicolon brings them together to suggest a closer relation than a period might, a little stitch in the page to sew two sentences together. (Exception to this rule: semicolons are sometimes used organizationally, to clarify complicated commas in a list of items.)

OK, OK, I'll stop with the grammar nerdiness now. But I can't leave without using a semicolon one more time; I've got to give the tiny winking guy his due.

21 February 2008

Page 123

I haven't been tagged for this meme exactly, but I've been seeing it all over the internet (most recently at Maitresse's wonderful blog) and thought I'd get on the bandwagon. (Like she says, it's hard to resist a literary meme for us überdorks.)

The idea is to pick up the nearest book, turn to page 123, count down five sentences, and copy out the following three sentences. I kind of had to cheat, because I was sitting next to a bookcase full of books, all of which were equally near to me and technically closest. But to have chosen one of them would have been to reduce the aleatory nature of this little project.

So I picked up the book that is at the top of the "currently reading" pile next to my bed, The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe.

On page 123, the sixth, and seventh and eighth sentences are:

"Did she understand what my eyes said to her but my lips dared not say, that I was young and she was fair? There were moments when I almost thought she did. I asked her why she had come here to bury her young life in the grave of the Sepolte Vive."

Munthe here is speaking of a cloistered nun he meets during the cholera epidemic in Naples at the turn of the century. This is actually a somewhat representative snippet of the book, in that I find it to be full of contradictions, both philosophical and structural: death and life, fancy and realism, fear and boldness, humility and pride, selflessness and selfishness. I suppose the latter tensions always inform autobiographies, for what is more egocentric than to write about oneself, even if telling of good deeds? These are also the contradictions of early 20th-century Europe, achievements in science and medicine while major epidemics raged, "advanced" views of women that are actually condescending (the man seems to have a higher opinion of animals than of the women around him). I still haven't gotten to the part about San Michele, so I'm looking forward to reading about a place we recently visited.

Just for fun, I continued along down the pile, to see what other page 123s held.

In William Boyd's Any Human Heart (I couldn't resist buying one of those new retro Penguin paperbacks), we read: "Describe your state of mind. Insecure. Uncertain."

In the book Parlano le donne: Poetesse Catalane del XXI secolo (Women Speak: Twenty-First Century Catalan Woman Poets), ed. Donatella Siviero, page 123 is the Italian translation of a poem by Anna Aguilar-Amat called "Volar." The three sentences are translated into Italian by Donatella Siviero, and translated into English by me (from the Catalan; my Italian's not quite that good yet)!

"I figli dei lupi camminano, e quelli delle orche nuotano.
Invece gli animali che hanno ali devono imparare a volare
dal dramma di lanciarsi perdutamente nel vuoto.
Pensa che il riso è sottoterra, caldo e fondibile
come lava."

(The wolf’s children walk, and the whale’s children swim.
But the animals with wings must learn to fly
by the drama of throwing themselves hopelessly into the void.
Remember that laughter is underground, hot and melting
like lava.)

Finally, the last book in the pile is La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma), by Henri Beyle Stendhal. I have never read Stendhal before, and it might be a little ambitious to start doing so in French, but I read the first five pages or so aloud to the Mister this weekend, and I pretty much got everything that was going on, so I'm inspired to soldier on (that's a [bad] pun, because so far it's all about soldiers). Plus, it's an edition in red leather and gold scrolling and a satin bookmark, so just the pleasure of holding the book might induce me to amble through the French. On page 123, we read:

"Deux fois, en traversant la France, il fut arrêté; mais il sut se dégager; il dut ces désagréments à son passeport italien et à cette étrange qualité de marchand de baromètres, qui n’était guère d’accord avec sa figure jeune et son bras en écharpe. Enfin, dans Genève, il trouva un homme, appartenant à la comtesse, qui lui ranconta de sa part, que lui, Fabrice, avait été dénoncé à la police de Milan comme étant allé porter à Napoléon des propositions, arrêtées par une baste conspiration organisée dans le ci-devant royaume d’Italie. Si tel n’eût pas été le but de son voyage, disait la dénonciation, à quoi bon prendre un nom supposé?"

(Twice, in crossing France, he was stopped; but he was able to get away; he owed these troubles to his Italian passport and to that strange barometer-merchant quality which hardly befitted his youthful figure and his arm in a sling. At last, in Geneva, he met a man, sent from the Countess, who told him on her behalf that he, Fabrice, had been denounced to the Milan police as having gone to bring Napoleon some proposals, appointed by a vast conspiracy organized in the former kingdom of Italy. If that had not been the aim of his voyage, the denunciation said, why had he taken an assumed name?)

Pardon any errors in my translation. If you are a French speaker, please let me know if I've made any glaring mistakes! (Or, for that matter, subtle ones, because I'd be just as interested.)

In the book nearest to YOU, what does page 123 say?

20 February 2008

Orange-planets: crimson I

We're still enjoying our sack of magnificent Binche blood oranges. Here are a few just after I opened them up, juicy in the sun. They taste as good as they look.

The poem that follows seemed almost too perfect when I read it. My namesake bird, the winter weather, the gold-red oranges. It sounds about right to combat "wild winter's spite" with "sunlight, song, and the orange-tree." And I love the swinging rhythm of it.

I knew nothing about Sidney Lanier until yesterday, so if you find yourself in the same situation, you can read about him here (I knew there was something Hopkins-esque about this) or, for some more extensive reading, here. (One of Lanier's letters ends with one of the best send-offs I've ever seen: "May God send you a soul full of colossal and simple chords.")

Tampa Robins

The robin laughed in the orange-tree:
"Ho, windy North, a fig for thee:
While breasts are red and wings are bold
And green trees wave us globes of gold,
Time's scythe shall reap but bliss for me
-- Sunlight, song, and the orange-tree.

Burn, golden globes in leafy sky,
My orange-planets: crimson I
Will shine and shoot among the spheres
(Blithe meteor that no mortal fears)
And thrid the heavenly orange-tree
With orbits bright of minstrelsy.

If that I hate wild winter's spite --
The gibbet trees, the world in white,
The sky but gray wind over a grave --
Why should I ache, the season's slave?
I'll sing from the top of the orange-tree
'Gramercy, winter's tyranny.'

I'll south with the sun, and keep my clime;
My wing is king of the summer-time;
My breast to the sun his torch shall hold;
And I'll call down through the green and gold
'Time, take thy scythe, reap bliss for me,
Bestir thee under the orange-tree.'"

Sidney Lanier
Tampa, Florida, 1877

19 February 2008

If they were worth a thousand words...

If it's cold and gray, maybe snowy or rainy, wherever you are, here are a few island photos to cheer your day.

You can read my account of our trip to Capri here.

In this photo we are on the Mediterranean side of the island (as opposed to the side looking towards Vesuvius and the bay of Naples, the windy side). We strolled from about where we are here (just a few steps away from our B&B) along the island lanes to that bright orange hotel you can just see in the top left corner. Then we followed a trail down past the faraglioni, the rocks you see in the distance, and then up about a million stairs past several of the island's other natural wonders.
Peeking across someone's terrace.
Looking out...
....and over the rooftops.
Once we had hiked around the point and up those stairs (first exploring a large natural cave, which had served as an ancient church), we got to the "Arco naturale," an arch naturally formed in the rock, offering precipitous glimpses of blue sea below (and the spit of land from whence we had come).
The next set of photos are from Villa San Michele. The interior was wonderful, but the gardens blew me away. Here, a long loggia of white columns covered with twisting vines leads to...
...amazing views of the port of Capri below, and beyond to the Bay of Naples and the Amalfi coast.
At the very end of the gardens, where the earth practically drops away, perches a tiny chapel. Behind it, a sphynx presides over the island and its waters.
The sunset that accompanied us on our ferry ride home.

18 February 2008


Last night, we called my sister. Our nephew, the two-year-old, didn't really feel like coming to the computer to talk.

"Don't you want to come talk to aunt Robin?" said my sister.

[Off-screen: putter putter, busy busy, toys toys... general lack of enthusiasm.] He was kind of skyped out, evidently, having just been online with our cousin's kids.

Skyped-out, that is, until she asked, "Don't you want to talk to uncle M.?"

"Yeah! Uncle M!" And he ran over to the screen lickety-split.


Tonight, the Mister called his sister from his office in France (where he is working this week, yuck). Our nieces talked to him for a while, with lackluster interest, but kept asking about me.

So they called me on skype, and I just spent an amusing ten minutes with two pajama-clad little girls. They danced, and sang, and showed off their new English words, and showed me pictures.


What I'm saying is: it's funny that the American nephew is more interested in the Catalan uncle, and the Catalan nieces are more interested in the American aunt (at least in the 2-4 year old range; our 10-month-old nephew is just happy to smile at anyone on screen). And I wonder if it's because we're foreigners and have funny accents, or if the same thing would happen if we weren't foreigners, and it's just an effect of little girls looking up to big girls and little boys looking up to big boys?

I kind of suspect the latter, given the adoring way that the little guy speaks of his other uncles (my brothers). And in any case, all of the kids are wonderful and adorable and most of the time like to talk to both of us and make funny faces at us, and they always love to see us when we visit.

Being apart from our growing nieces and nephews is the hardest thing about living away from our families right now, but if there's a silver lining it's that we get to be the fun aunts and uncles who come for a visit swooping in on a plane.

17 February 2008

I am 10:02 am

This is so me, all mid-morning laze and sunshiny optimism (still so much time left in the day!):

"You are breakfasty, like a pile of pancakes on a Sunday morning that have just the right amount of syrup, so every bite is sweet perfection and not a soppy mess. You are a glass of orange juice that's cool, refreshing, and not overly pulpy. You are the time of day that's just right for turning the pages of a newspaper, flipping through channels, or clicking around online to get a sense of how the world changed during the night. You don't want to stumble sleepily through life, so you make a real effort to wake your brain up and get it thinking. You feel inspired to accomplish things (whether it's checking something off your to-do list or changing the world), but there's plenty of time for making things happen later in the day. First, pancakes."

Take the quiz. What time of day are you?

(Full disclosure: the time-stamp on this post has, indeed, been manipulated. At 10:02 AM we were supposed to be on our way to church, but were still doing last-minute coffee gulping and teeth-brushing.)

15 February 2008


Small islands have a magical way of distancing you from your troubles, as if the blue stretch of water you must traverse to arrive there reduces them to blips on the horizon, as insignificant as the twinkling lights on the mainland. After barely twenty-eight hours in Capri last weekend, I felt rejuvenated and calm, like we had been on an entirely new planet.

I remember the first times I experienced this effect, astonished and fascinated by the way everything seemed cleaner and quieter on an island, more straightforward somehow. In consecutive summers, our family traveled to Isle au Haut, off the coast of Maine, and San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington. The two islands are on entirely opposite ends of the country, but they both had that same quality, the quiet of island living. I wouldn't even consider myself a boat/beach/ocean person, but I love the cocoon-like feeling of knowing exactly where you are, always having the sea around the next bend, able to locate yourself precisely on a little patch of rocky earth. Perhaps this is connected to my love of little, miniature things. The world is shrunken, hunkered down. On Capri, every bus is a mini-bus, the roads are lanes, and the shops are tiny arched niches carved into the rocks.

Capri in February feels a bit surreal. Few tourists wander among the closed restaurants and shuttered luxury shops. The breathtakingly perfect little lanes are all but empty. We had the island to ourselves, it seemed. Of course, ferries still disgorged daytrippers, but they were content to remain in the central square, the Piazetta, and environs, long enough to snap a few pictures and get back on another ferry to avoid the bitter wind blowing mercilessly into the island. It was easy to imagine the place in summer, when the Prada and Gucci shops are open for business, when the gift shops aren't empty, when the museums are elbow-to-elbow with flash-happy tourists. Their ghosts are everywhere, the ghosts of the wealthy in leather sandals, tans, and white shorts. The unbelievable blue of ocean and sky and sun helped me imagine them.

But for us Capri's dramatic cliffs and jutting peaks spoke with the roar of a cold wind. When we entered the church of San Michele in Anacapri (the second town on the island), with its magnificent majolica tile floor depicting Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden, we were the only ones there. The small elderly man who ushered us in was happy to see us, happy to point out the details. When we strolled the piazzas in the evenings, we did so among the locals, eating at the same restaurant twice in the same day, the one where all of the Caprians went, half the dining room filled with a family celebration at lunch and a birthday party for an 18-year-old at dinner. We took a trail around one the edge of the island, leading us past the faraglioni ("lighthouse") rocks that rise from the sea, big as skyscrapers. And we were alone, adrift on the outer limits of an island traversed for centuries, as we explored the ruins of an ancient cave-church, the Matermania.

My favorite visit was the Axel Munthe house, Villa San Michele, a breathtaking home constructed by a well-connected Swedish doctor on the site of one of Tiberius' notorious villas. Again, we were alone as we listened to the terraced gardens and Roman marbles sing to one another under the blue sky and craggy cliffs. An Egyptian sphynx sits at the edge of the garden wall, looking out to sea, an enigmatic symbol of the island. Evidently, the book that Munthe wrote about the construction of his home, The Story of San Michele, is an international bestseller, second only to the Bible (or something like that!), although I had never heard of it until last weekend. We bought a copy (yet another of our book souvenirs), and I started reading it as the minibus wound its way impossibly close to the cliff's edge, with views of Capri town and its sheltering mountains.

(These sorts of museums are always my favorites, the kind that retain the personality and particularity of their prior owners. They're small enough to explore in an hour or two, the art collections are eclectic and interesting, and they usually involve fascinating architecture and charming gardens. The Peggy Guggenheim in Venice and the Musée Rodin in Paris are at the top of my list, as is now the Axel Munthe museum. Here in Brussels, we have the Erasmus house and the Van Buren museum, a lovely art deco home where I discovered the artwork of Gustave Van de Woestyne and wandered the exquisite gardens (complete with maze!). In Boston, we have the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, where I fall for that ivied atrium every time. I'm sure I'm forgetting some museums that should be on this list. And if you know about more, let me know! I'll go there.)

All too soon we had to catch the ferry back to Naples, but our stay had seemed so much more than those few short hours. From the ferry we watched the hot-orange sun set over the city, its molten-gold rays casting everyone and everything on the old boat into gilt still-lifes. As soon as the disc touched the horizon, it moved so quickly, sliding down as if swallowed, and reminding us of how quickly we spin around on this earth. It was then that, after a slow, sun-drenched weekend on Capri, time sped up once again.

(Note to readers: apologies if you saw a scrambled, truncated, list-like version of this post from earlier this week. I made some random notes to myself that inadvertently were published as an entry. Note to self: Don't use blog for note-taking.)

14 February 2008

Be mine...

...is a command, a request if said in a rising tone of voice. A selfish demand if said in a forceful tone of voice. The frilly valentine of grade school sent to the secret crush is a hopeful gesture of what might be. But today is also a day to celebrate what is, the ones I love who are mine.

One of the greatest gifts that love brings is a sense of reciprocal belonging: you are mine and I am yours. I am your daughter, you are my mother. I am your sister, you are my brother. I am your wife, you are my husband. I am your friend, and you are mine. This is one of the great gifts of faith, as well, to claim the God who claims us as his. The peace of resting in the possessive, the relationship signified by embracing someone as "mine."

So consider this a valentine to those I cherish, and thank you for being mine.

13 February 2008


Monday we returned from Naples, the city whose favorite sport is crossing the street. Skills required: motorcycle dodging, traffic-light defying, and split-second timing. No scaredy-cat scurrying allowed; you are supposed to move like a stroll in the park, calmly and fluidly. The officially sanctioned unisex costume is a black poofy jacket with a fur-rimmed hood, sunglasses, and a telefonino clamped to your ear. Bonus points if you are a waiter carrying a covered tray of miniscule espressos as you weave in and out of moving vehicles.

The piles of trash that I predicted before leaving, amazingly enough, were nowhere in evidence, apart from the to-be-expected urban dumpsters. Our taxi driver told us they shipped the refuse out to the suburbs. In fact, everything was cleaner and more charming than I had remembered. The impressions I had held of Naples (based on two short visits, once a brief stop in 1998 to meet up with my father and a tour bus full of opera buffs, and another in 2006 which amounted to two taxi rides and a short walk before heading to Procida) were chaos, crazy traffic (that hasn't gone away), dirt, dark alleys, oh, and did I mention the chaos?

But I was pleasantly enchanted by Naples during this visit. I wandered around by myself while the Mister and his boss were in a marathon stretch of philosophical discourses (in Italian) on the topic of socialism. Of course, I stuck to stretches of the map that were well-populated, and only in the daytime. But the buildings, even the crumbling ones, are beautiful, eyefuls of architecture to scoop up and savor. I spent hours in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, the number of visitors practically outnumbered by museum staff (in general over the weekend we saw very very few tourists, which is just how I like it).

Although a portion of rooms were closed for restoration, it was a satisfying visit with discrete sections: the most intricate and astounding of Pompeii's mosaics, an exhibit by a contemporary artist named Luca Pignatelli whose work I just fell in love with, the Gabinetto Secreto (the over-18-only portion of the museum featuring sculptures, paintings, and objects with "adult" themes--by today's standards, all pretty tame and sometimes giggle-worthy), the contents of the Villa Papyri in Pompeii (scrolls and wonderful bronzes), and finally, a temporary exhibit of the 19th-c British painter Alma-Tadema, who recreated scenes from Pompeii and other Roman cities in the lush, romantic, idealized Victorian vein. A nice touch: the artefacts (sculptures, furniture, lampstands, etc.) that show up in the paintings were presented at their side.

Also adding to the "I heart Naples" effect: food, of course! Both Thursday and Friday the folks from the two conferences we were there for took us out for delectable meals. As the Mister points out, these people seem to see conferences as a pretext for the real event: long, delicious hours dedicated to eating and conversation. Our dinner Thursday night was at least six courses, and I was able to converse with the guy who is a French professor sitting next to me. (By the way, I SO want to learn Italian. That will come after French. It's almost there, I can understand it just ...almost, but speaking is a disaster.) Friday, we fully expected to be on our own for lunch, but when M. asked for restaurant recommendations, he got the "are you crazy, of course we're taking you out, I absolutely insist" series of gestures that only an Italian could produce. They didn't even know I'd be there, but it was taken for granted that I would be invited, as well as, it seemed, whoever else happened to hang around after the end of the conference.

That hospitality, by the way, is the other reason I am enamored of Naples. Forget the mafia, forget the chaos: these people are incredibly generous. After the Friday lunch, we all tramped over to a beautiful gilt bar for coffees, and because we had asked about Napolitan desserts, a girl we barely knew bought us three plates of pastries and cakes. Just to try. Because those desserts represent her city. Then on Sunday night, when we came back to the city to catch the plane in the morning, we stayed at the B&B of a Brussels friend's mother. The place was palatial, the views amazing. We expected to get a reasonable rate, but we did not expect this: she insisted that we pay her nothing. And oh, the kisses and smiles and embraces and fond farewells of people you have only known for an hour or two.

But can I go back to the food for a second? SO delicious, and even in "fancy" restaurants, really reasonably priced. We followed some New York Times restaurant recommendations that were spot-on (Amici Miei and Da Ettore), and ate in a restaurant called Brandi, where the pizza is said to have been invented. There, we were regaled with guitar-accompanied Neopolitan songs, and a woman who seemed to be a friend of the restaurant (not connected with the two guitar guys) sang O Sole Mio: she was a trained opera singer, without a doubt, and her voice was AMAZING.

The Centro Storico, the gothic city, was beautiful but a little scary, too. I was always glad to be with the Mister after nightfall. And we stuck to well-lit streets; some of the dark lanes were positively medieval. But I really enjoyed it, because it reminded me of Barcelona's Barri Gotic, without all of the tourists (ps to the one British couple we saw: is it TRULY necessary to wear hiking boots and safari vests? When I'm guessing you didn't set foot outside of the city?). Stepping into what seem like your average neighborhood churches you discover elaborately gorgeous interiors. Every corner seems to have a few Roman marbles stuck into them. Towers and convents appear out of nowhere. And we dawdled endlessly in the warren of bookstalls behind Piazza Dante, purchasing what turned out to be our only souvenirs of the trip (not counting wine and limoncello purchased at the airport): books, of course! (Most of them unrelated to Naples: an English novel, a Catalan-Italian edition of Catalan women poets, and a gorgeous French coffee-table book on Provence for only five euros.)

The one drawback of our trip: we seem to have picked the only winter weekend where Brussels was warmer than Naples; turns out that in our absence, Belgium had experienced record-breaking February warmth and sun. In Italy, the air was downright cold, with a frigid wind. True, the golden sunshine drenching everything did much to warm us, mentally and physically, but we were shocked to experience such a chilly weekend. M's boss didn't bring a coat, and he was freezing the whole time. I wore a scarf and gloves, and wished for a hat, especially at night, and especially on the island of Capri, where the windward side of the island was positively gelid.

Ah yes, Capri. I haven't even gotten to the two days we spent there! But I'll save that for another post (photos, too!). For now, I'll just say that it was actually pretty nice coming back to (a sunny) Brussels. When I stepped onto the streets of this dear Flemish city, in comparison to Naples, it seemed downright tranquil, slow-moving, spacious, and tidy.

06 February 2008


As it happens, we will be vacationing this weekend in a dump.

In a nutshell, Naples trash collectors stopped collecting trash because there was nowhere to put it. All of the dumps are full, and nobody seems to be able to figure out what to do about it. The mob runs waste disposal operations (causing major pollution issues due to lack of oversight), and government proposals to fix the problem have been met with resistance because no one trusts the government to do a better job than organized crime. They've been ordered to clean up but as far as I can tell, the problem (such a paltry word when referring to tons and tons of garbage) still remains.

So this weekend I may be photographing monumental trash piles instead of monuments. I have no idea if the problem extends to Capri or not. Crossing my fingers for "not."

Superfat Tuesday

Yesterday was an adjective-enhanced Tuesday if there ever was one. Because the day fell on Fat Tuesday of carnival fame, and Super Tuesday of political fame, it was bound to be exciting. Super exciting, if you will.

The Mister and I tried to squeeze as much excitement out of it as possible here in Belgium, which is both geographically distant from the Mardi Gras ideal of tropical Brazilian parades, and temporally distant from American political reporting (most results didn't start to come in until 2 am, well after our bedtime).

For the "fat" portion of Superfat Tuesday, we went to Binche (pronounce Baansh, light on the "n"), a small town south of Brussels that is known for its centuries-old carnival celebrations. The Binche carnival itself is, in fact, a UNESCO "masterpiece of the oral and intangible patrimony of humanity." Despite the buffeting winds and rain, the parade we saw was indeed pretty darn cool. It features hundreds of men and boys (no women, harrumph) dressed up in the traditional "Gille" costume, which is... kind of hard to explain. The costume involves wooden shoes and towering feathered headdresses, belts of bells (they all clonk shoes and jingle the bells in a shuffling kind of dance to the drums and horns that follow them), elaborate lacy cuffs and collars, white skullcaps and ear-bandages and a sort of puffed-up back and front panel that makes them all look like their too-small heads are perching on hugely inflated shoulders. Earlier in the day, they wear those scary green-glasses masks, but not for the afternoon parade (trading them for the ostrich-feather headdresses). So I was happy and unfrightened.

Oh, and they all carry narrow straw baskets of blood oranges, which they hurl into the crowd one by one. We lugged home about three kilos of oranges, and fortunately managed to avoid being injured by flying citrus. I wondered aloud as to why the oranges, and the Mister replied: "You know how Belgium is known for its sunshine and its orange trees, right?" The streets after the parade were cobbled with muddy, crushed fruit. I fully expected the oranges to be rather tasteless, but on the contrary, when we finally ate some at around midnight, they were fantastically sweet and tart, and bright red inside. Yum!

How I do go on. Instead of trying to explain the bizarre spectacle, I should show you some pictures.

Before the parade, we caught some of the Gilles leaving their house. Each one has a sort of entourage, people to carry backpacks full of oranges (for refilling the baskets), people to help out with the feather hats (from the looks of it, they were heavy and tough to hang onto in the wind, and were thus only worn for short stretches at a time), and people to ratatat-tat on drums everywhere they went.

This little Gille didn't want to go with his dad and brother. He was crying, and I felt kind of bad for taking his picture, because that's probably why he didn't want to go in the first place: all those scary tourists snapping flashy pictures.

A group of Gilles heading to the parade.

And here's me, with one of the oranges we caught, just before the camera battery died.

After a crowded train ride back to Brussels, we went on to the "super" portion of our superfat Tuesday: a big primaries party thrown at one of the nice hotels in town. There, the signage insisted on calling it a "Mega-Tuesday party" which may be a French way of saying it, who knows? The Mister and I really just wanted to follow the primaries on CNN or something, and since we are TVless, we asked some friends where to go and they recommended this party. We paid five euros to get in, only to discover that: food and drinks were not included (to be paid for apart, at exorbitant rates), all of the rooms were intensely noisy and overcrowded, and there was no TV. Instead, there was an endless (and endlessly boring) parade of pseudo-debates, people trying to get you to sign up for Republicans or Democrats Abroad, and eurocrat "celebrities" talking about how the elections were important (duh), none of which you could hear over the crowds anyway. We just wanted some news!!! And the friends we'd thought we'd see there never showed up, so the whole shebang was one big superbust.

We went home, ate some blood oranges, and scoured the internet for some news. There was precious little, so we went to bed. I do have to say, though, HOW exciting this primaries race is. Regardless of your political affiliation, is it not AMAZINGLY awesome that a woman and a man of color are neck-and-neck as frontrunners? This, my friends, is history in the making. Who would've thunk?

I find myself feeling hopeful about American politics for the first time in a long time, and Obama has a lot to do with those hopes. If he is elected, and can deliver on his messages of hope and change, the nation will be in for a major turnaround, one that is badly needed.

Anyway, I've gone on for superlong, and you're probably supersick of me, and supertuesday is over, so I can stop using superlatives. Hee hee!

04 February 2008

Getting lost

Yes, it's true. We would have to call ourselves Lost fans. We're already on the bandwagon for this season's episodes, short-lived as they may be. Last night we watched the new episode (with Estonian subtitles! ain't the internet grand!), and although it wasn't the best one ever, I was so excited to be watching it again that it didn't matter how good or bad it was. One thing that Lost never fails to do is to raise twice as many questions as it provides answers, and man, I love that. (It's the same detective-y feeling I get when reading Faulkner. Take Absalom! Absalom!, which moves backwards and forwards in time at will, confuses the reader with referents [who is the "he" they are talking about here?], and never lets you be sure whether characters' motivations are good or bad [Is Locke a Sutpen?]) I was glad to see that they're continuing the flash-forward style, which is a nice switch-up and creates oodles more mysteries for our viewing pleasure.

OK, I'm done now. Sorry for the supreme geekery. I'll go back to making phone calls to companies who don't want to give money to our choir, and you go back to...whatever you were doing.

03 February 2008

On a Sunday, does "this week" mean the last six days, or the next six days? Depends if you're asking an American or a Catalan.

In case you weren't aware of the fact, it is February already. I myself am only barely aware of the fact, and this is probably because I am in denial. February means cold weather, and still more to come. It means a little blip of red hearts (the chocolate stores, which in Brussels are as omnipresent as corner groceries, won't let us forget it) and then back to the gray wait for signs of spring.

So, in order to pretend that it is not February and not gray and not cold, we are going to Italy. More specifically, on Thursday we're headed to Naples, where the lemons are the size of your head. The Mister has a conference for two days, and I'm tagging along, and then we're taking two days for ourselves to go whither we wish in the area. Capri? Sorrento? Amalfi? Any recommendations?

Also, on Tuesday we're going to try to make it to Binche for carnival, which is the most famous of the Belgian celebrations on shrove Tuesday. It involves lots and lots of people wearing the costumes pictured here, which I find to be slightly scary. We'll see how I feel about it in person. I may have to keep my distance, especially if any break away from the parade formation and head directly for me with those eerie green eyes and twirly moustaches.

We're thus hoping this coming week will be an improvement over this past week, during which the Mister had surgery on his hand, and I developed even more of a cold than I had before. On Thursday, we spent seven hours in the hospital for the surgery, and in hindsight (and because it went very smoothly, and because it wasn't *me* having the surgery) I can say it was kind of a cool experience. The doctors were able to remove the strange lumpy thing that was in there that has been puzzling them for months (they're still analyzing it, so it will remain a mystery until next week), and the Mister has had hardly any pain in his hand. He was calm and collected when I would have been a nervous pre-op wreck. And in the end, he ended up taking care of me, instead of the other way around, when my cold took a turn for the worse.

The good news from the week was that I passed my French class, at the head of the class! That's not saying a whole lot when you consider that half the class failed and our teacher called the general level of our class très faible (I got the highest grade with a 77, a figure that in any other academic context would definitely make me cry). But it is saying a lot when you consider that I skipped a level, didn't have very much opportunity for conversational practice, and wasn't terribly confident. I'm looking forward to starting the next level (like a video game!), hopefully with a congenial teacher and friendly classmates.

There you have it. The news from this (last) week, and the plans for this (next) week. American calendars place Sunday on the left of the grid, and European calendars place Monday at the left of the grid. The Mister would say "next week" when referring to this coming Thursday, whereas I would say "this week." It's all very confusing.