29 May 2008

The sting

It's a strange, sad day. After French class, I went to the train station to buy my ticket to Paris for tomorrow. As I walked into the station, I remembered that the Mister's train to Paris was leaving just about at that very moment (he has a conference there today and tomorrow and so we're meeting up in the morning), and I ran up to the Thalys platform and walked down the wagons until I found his familiar profile.

There we were, saying a surprise good-bye while the train steamed and beeped. But he broke some news that left me sobbing on the platform as the train pulled away, time only for a brief hug.

A close family friend of ours in Vermont, a young guy only 24 years old, died suddenly last night. He had battled leukemia for seven years, had gotten better, and then now, within days of discovering that the cancer had returned, passed away.

It's an incomprehensible loss; he was an only child and my heart mourns deeply for his parents, dear friends who have been fixtures of my life since before I can remember. My dad wrote, "[our friend] understood that his life was in God's hands. But it's so terribly hard to understand why he was taken from us." It is terribly hard to grasp such a thing, where human understanding and comprehension in the face of death fail us.

So no poem today, rather a passage from the Bible that is a lifeline for the shipwrecked, a promise in the face of human despair of death. In one of its beautiful metaphors, death is simply a change of clothes, something as quotidian and comforting as a new garment.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."

"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"

28 May 2008

Sardinian wedding

I want to write about last weekend's wedding, but it seems so unreal to me already, like I lived for a short time inside a novel--one that takes place seventy years ago, peopled with archetypal characters and elemental landscapes--but then I woke up, or the story ended. In the novel, I was a character myself; I spoke halting but lilted Italian with a tiny wizened woman who wore all black and a silver bun (the bride's mother), and I listened to the goats bleating and ate cheese made from their milk, and watched the moon rise heavy and orange over the fields while a bright-eyed boy in a black cap crooned Neapolitan songs on his guitar. But I was also reading the novel at the same time, I was the outsider who awkwardly observed, the foreigner drinking it all in, in order to remember as much as she could.

And because I want to remember it all, and since my memory is unpleasantly spotty, I need to at least get some of the key things down on paper (as it were).

One of those key things was the serenata. At nearly ten pm on Friday night, we arrived in little Alghero airport without a clue as to who was picking us up, what this person looked like, or how to contact him or her. To our utter surprise, the groom himself pulls up (on the eve of his wedding!!) in a tiny car and hurredly introduces us to the other passengers, and we zoom off into the Sardinian night. It transpires that we are smooshed in the car with the Neapolitan musician who will be helping the groom to serenade the bride and thus woo her to the altar (the wooing had I assume already taken place, but not the serenading). We drive over an hour, picking up other carloads of friends at several strategic points, until we are a caravan of some twenty five people, and after pulling onto roads that are increasingly narrow and tiny, we end up on a dirt road in the middle of the island, stumbling up the bride's driveway in the pitch dark, everyone laughing and shushing each other and hoping that no one heard the cars or seen the headlights. I am stumbling more than I might have because the stars are an inverted bowl of brilliance and all I want to do is look skyward.

There is a balcony, and when the singing starts, everything is just as you might imagine it would be. Lights go on one by one, the dog starts barking, heads poke out of windows and doors. Eventually the bride, laughing and surprised, appears, and descends to embrace her groom. With liberal kisses for everyone else as well. We all sing along with the last song, and I do too, though I don't know the words.

Everyone is invited inside and even though it is midnight, and no one has prepared for our arrival (the groom assured me it was all a surprise, a tradition from his part of Italy imported to her part of Italy), out of nowhere appear piles of paper-thin crispy bread (pane carasau), homemade salumi, cheese made from the bride's sister's goats, and bottles of wine. And huge heaping platters of tender almond cookies. Everyone lingers by the door, and back in the yard in the dark, the guitarist starts playing again. My husband sings along, and we watch the moonrise. I have never seen a moonrise. For the first few minutes as it quickly moved up over the horizon, it seemed as bright as the sun, but without the sun's brightening effects on the sky. He and I fall asleep on the drive to the hotel, forty minutes back over country roads.


The next morning, again to our surprise, the groom appeared at the hotel at the appointed departure hour, this time wearing a blue suit and a shirt with brass bells at the collar. Someone handed him a bouquet of red roses. A long line of cars gathered, and bedecked with ribbons, honking all the way, we drove to the bride's village. This time we rode with professors from Naples, and all of us were puzzled when we passed the town hall, where the wedding was to take place, and continued to the same house we had visited the night before.

It turns out that the groom has to show up to collect the bride Sardinia-style, and receive a blessing from the family--the equivalent, I suppose, of a girl's parents/father walking her down the aisle. The roses were to convince her to be whisked off by the bell-rung boy. While we waited for her to appear, the guests mingled about and enjoyed a lavish spread of more of those delicious cookies and a tableful of others, including cloudy almond meringues, and coffee and moscatel and fizzy Italian aperatifs. When I walked into the house I was surprised to see a row of five elderly figures seated on a couch, every one of them in head-to-toe black clothes: four women with severe buns in their silver hair, and a gentleman with a cane and cap. They reminded me of the pictures I'd seen of the Mister's great-grandmothers (black clothes and black kerchiefs on their heads, every day) or of Italian women in the 1930s. It took me some time to realize that one of these ladies, whom I assumed were grandmothers and great aunts, was in fact the mother of the bride.

When the bride descended the stairs, to thunderous cheering and camera flashes, and accepted the bouquet from her intended, he brought her outside, where her mother waited with a plate of rose petals and rice. As we all watched, she recited a blessing, flinging rice and roses over their heads, and smashed the plate at their feet. (More plate smashing was to occur throughout the day: at the town hall after the wedding, and at the hotel before the reception.)

The wedding itself took place in the town hall, a square unlit box with humidity-warped, faded 1970s travel posters on the walls. But the warmth and joy of all the participants filled the room, and the judge (who wore a red sash) made it clear that this bride was a well-loved daughter of the entire village. She is, in fact, the youngest and prettiest of six children, including five other beautiful sisters and one brother, who has severe mental retardation, but who raced around all weekend embracing everyone and hooting out his excitement. He was a part of the merry hubbub, gently watched over by all.

The main focus of the reception, back at the hotel, was the food: no less than fourteen (fourteen!!) courses, and when we studied the menu on our table, we knew we had to take it easy so that we wouldn't miss out on tasting any one of the regional foods. We ate an abundance of seafood, fried antipasti, two kinds of pasta specialties (one of them was gnocchetti, which despite the name are not like potato gnocchi but are smaller curled shells that look like gnocchi), delectable clams, big plates of raw carrot, celery, and fennel (I was skeptical, but these were surprisingly refreshing in the middle of a long meal)... Now I can barely remember it all (I meant to bring home one of the menus but failed to grab one when we left) but I vividly recall the first of three desserts (not including the piles of cookies everywhere): seadas. These are pastry pockets stuffed with pecorino cheese, fried, and smothered with the local honey. Absolutely amazing.

We ate, and ate, and ate. For over five hours, just eating. And talking, of course. Across the table from us, a woman who works at a national archive seemed nice enough at first, but as the evening wore on, got increasingly too-friendly, woozily telling M. how beautiful I was and liberally dispensing cheek-smoosh kisses to everyone who got near her. While we all crowded around to watched the bride and groom cut the cake, I felt someone grab my tush and thought it was the mister because he was behind me when I turned around. But HE had seen, as he walked towards me, that it was Mrs. Too Friendly. Eeek!

Despite this unfortunate incident, I was charmed to pieces by the other company, especially Stefano the singer who had led the serenata the previous night. He was upset that the DJ wasn't letting him play often enough (although he had already regaled the bride and groom several times), and with his injured air, his guitar and smile, he was the classic picture of the underappreciated artist. He and the Mister got to talking about politics, and it turns out that his views are somewhere in the idealist-Marxist-anarchist range, anti-institutional and pro-equality. Somehow this was entirely of a piece with the music and the self-absorption, and I felt that I had just gotten to know one of the people I read about for my thesis on 1930s Spain: the tragic artist, the anarcho-idealist. Lofty pride and political conviction, softened by the romantic strumming and the twinkle of humor in his eyes.

Hours of eating, one spectacular espresso, and a bit of dancing later, the Mister and I decided to retire to our room, thinking that the party was winding down. After a good two and a half hours, we came down to take a stroll, and the party was still going on, our friend Stefano slumped on a bench and strumming melancholy melodies on his guitar into the night air.


I'm going to stop here, but in the next installment, I describe the events of the day after, which in some ways were even more fable-like than the wedding itself. Oh, and I should mention that the pink dress was perfect! I was perhaps even a bit more gussied up than some guests, but as I said last week, overdressed is better than underdressed.

22 May 2008

I should be packing

In a last-minute attempt to learn something about the Italian island of Sardinia before landing there without a clue about local culture, I did some surfing. A few helpful New York Times articles and a badly translated poem or two later, I discovered this BBC broadcast about the music of Corsica and Sardinia. The music is haunting and the interviews are fascinating. Both halves are worth a listen, but the second half focuses on Sardinia.

I also discovered that D.H. Lawrence wrote several long essays about the island, collected as Sea and Sardinia, which I would love to bring along (one of the best joys of travel is reading literature about/set in a place while you are there), but I have a slim-to-none chance of finding a copy before my flight tomorrow morning.

I'm especially curious about the town of Alghero, which is still Catalan-speaking, even though the Catalans haven't been in charge around there for centuries. I'd love to hear what it sounds like, if the Italian has influenced it enough to make it odd or even unintelligible to my ears. From what I can tell, the ceremony will take place either in Alghero or not far from there, so hopefully we'll have a chance to find some local Catalan speakers.

And I hope to increase my small Italian vocabulary--it's all about gleaning, picking up what I can, at this point, since I've still not properly studied the language. It's high on the list, though.

Thanks to those who responded about the dress: two out of two votes are for the pink one, which is what I also decided yesterday after trying them all on and confirming my suspicions about what doesn't fit and what's too casual. Pink is cheerful and just right for a May wedding, and it looks great with a vintage beaded necklace I bought at a flea market here in Belgium.

So until next week: ciao, arrivederci, ciao ciao!

20 May 2008

Italian wedding

Five days of visitors (who managed to come on the sunniest possible days of the year in Brussels) followed by three days in Barcelona has not done wonders for my productivity. Neither will leaving again on Friday for a wedding in Sardinia.

I am stressing quite a bit about the question of what to wear to said wedding. The last time I went to a wedding in Italy (a very similar circumstance, where I barely know anyone except my date, except that wedding took place in a terrassed villa overlooking the stunning Lago Maggiore) I was distinctly and embarrassingly underdressed.

I had hastily purchased a flowered cotton sundress in Salzburg, where I was living at the time, and stuffed it in my backpack. After an overnight train ride in a hot and crowded cabin, I arrived in Milan on the morning of the wedding and changed into my dress in a filthy restroom at the train station. Upon finding M, who had come by train from Barcelona, we were picked up by some relative of the groom and squeezed in the back of a tiny (also hot) car with several other wedding guests, and driven to the wedding, at least an hour away. I stressed much of the way because we were late (the finding and and squeezing in and leaving had taken some time) and because I hadn't seen M. in ages and he had to make polite conversation with the other folks in the car.

I needn't have worried; evidently weddings, like everything else in Italy, start rather late. When we arrived, almost an hour behind the appointed time, the bride and groom hadn't even shown up yet. However, I was immediately self-conscious because every other guest there was impeccably fabulous in that Italian way of theirs. Not that everyone was dressed formally; I remember seeing women in pants and men without ties. But there was a lot of silk and satin, a host of perfectly draped scarves, exquisite hairdos, fancy heels: everything breathed elegance, expense, and fashion. My cotton sundress suddenly made me feel like I was twelve years old. And it didn't help that I still felt the grime of a long trip and a train station restroom clinging to my skin.

Hence my Italian wedding anxiety syndrome. This time around, I want to feel good about the way I look, even though I really have no idea about fashion and don't own a pair of heels. Just as before, I am completely unsure what the wedding will be like, but I'd rather be overdressed than underdressed. Just as before, we will be picked up by some unknown entity from the Alghero airport, but at least we'll have a night at a hotel before the wedding.

So I need help. What to wear? On Sunday in Barcelona night I was frantically trying to dig out a pair of sandals that would be appropriate for a wedding, quite fruitlessly. (Where, oh where did we put our summer shoes?) I will have to make do with ballet flats, I think.

My options are:
1. A muted hot-pink strapless dress. Simple but fancy because of shape/draping. I could wear with roped pearl necklace and a light blue scarf.
2. A black dress with a white swirly/chain pattern. T-back, fitted waist, draped skirt. Don't know how to accessorize it.
3. Black pants and a pleated green silk top. Shimmery and thin straps. Maybe the most flattering option. Could wear with earrings and necklace given to me by the Mister for my birthday. Too informal?
4. A red matching pants and top outfit with spaghetti straps. Dressier than option 3, but I've worn it to about five weddings already. May not fit me any more.

It's possible that, once again, I will arrive in Italy feeling rather grimy, because our shower has been cold-water only for a week now. Before, at least the bath spigot had hot water, and I could take baths. Yet upon arriving here yesterday, and despite the fact that workmen have been here twice already and have supposedly fixed the problem, things are worse: there is no hot water anywhere in the house. I have to shower at the swimming pool across the street. I'm clinging to the upside though: this weekend, there will be a hotel, where presumably I will be able to shower and dress. An improvement over the train station.

10 May 2008

Chocolate and sun (have become ongoing themes, notably because this country has a lot of one and not a lot of the other)

So I'm sure the world is hanging on a thread to find out whether I found cocoa powder and whether the party was a success. Because, of course, the whole world reads this blog and this is all immensely interesting to everybody. (Dripping. With irony. But seriously: to the people who DO read this blog, especially if you're not related to me? I'm actually very surprised and honored.)

Thus you will be immensely gratified to know that--a million and one thanks to Anne--I was able to find the cocoa powder (with the coffee and tea! on the bottom shelf!) and make two ooey gooey chocolate cakes. Everybody loved them. Who wouldn't?

The party turnout was somewhat mediocre, because Friday and Monday are holidays in many European countries, and so people left for the long weekend. But the crowd was a good one, notably because it was a fun mixture of my friends and my co-birthday-girl's friends and very international.

And we have a ton of leftover chips and pizza and cake, and I always appreciate leftovers.

We have friends coming from Barcelona today to visit us for the long weekend--they and the mister took the same flight this morning and they should be here momentarily. Perhaps even walking up the stairs right now. Because they chose the best possible weekend to visit Brussels, weather wise, I'm sure we will be doing lots of traipsing around town in the sun, interspersed with lots of beer drinking in the sun.

Have a great weekend!

07 May 2008

All this juice and all this joy

It's time for a spring poem. My favorite is Gerard Manley Hopkins' sonnet "Spring and All." Quite a number of his poems are on the springtime theme, which fits with the fecundity of his language, all of the assonance and alliteration and swinging (he called it "sprung") rhythm.

The line, "When weeds in wheels shoot long and lovely and lush" is one that I whisper to myself when everything is green and bursting around me. I'm not a big memorizer, but somehow Hopkins' poems are ones whose words stick with me, and chime out when I least expect them to.


Nothing is so beautiful as Spring--
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. --Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

06 May 2008


Click on this link. Go ahead, it's OK! I'll wait.

Now, what did you see? FIVE suns? Five suns without any clouds or raindrops on top of them? That's what I see! Oh yes I do.

For the first time in my (admittedly porous) memory, the Brussels forecast is a sunshine FLUSH. (Forgive me if my poker metaphor is off, because I don't play poker.) A week of suns. A week of warm.

Earlier this evening, I said to the mister, musingly, "Can you believe we've had four straight days of perfect sunny weather?" And then I clicked over to the forecast, and I saw what you just saw, and rejoiced.

(There's a good reason to have a birthday in May, and this is it. Everyone gets frisky.)

Help! Send cocoa powder!

My plan is to make two decadent chocolate cakes for the joint birthday party on Thursday (one of my good friends here was also born on May 8 so we've joined forces). My mom sent me her famous chocolate cake recipe, and that's what I really want to make; I can already almost taste it and my mouth is watering. Besides, it serves like a million people because it's towering and huge.

BUT, that recipe, as well as all of the chocolate cake recipes in my Gourmet cookbook, as well as most from my go-to food websites, call for cocoa powder.

Which is apparently not to be had, in this, the COUNTRY of CHOCOLATE.

Am I missing something? Is there a secret baker's supply store that I am unaware of that would supply all of my missing ingredients? This is not the first time I've run into difficulty over seemingly normal baking needs.

Alas, I shall just have to find a powder-less recipe. Maybe this one?

05 May 2008

A room for living

The sofa and coffee table came almost a week early, last Thursday. It was perfect timing, too, because the Mister showed up from his long travels just a few hours later, and it was nice to have both of them get here on the same morning. We are tickled pink just to have an actual sofa to sit on; we keep patting its back it like it's a new, albeit unwieldy, household pet, and marveling to one another, "It's so big! We can both sit on it! And it doesn't sag in the middle!"

I'm thrilled to have it in time for the party (over 50 people on the guest list...it's going to be a humdinger!) and for the friends who are coming to stay next weekend.

So, without further ado, here she is, the lovely Chesterfield:

I did a pretty good job of the advance mockup, right? For comparison:

We decided against the bamboo rug--I kind of like the clean look of the wood floors--but everything else is pretty much how I envisioned it. It's much more welcoming to walk into the room and see the sofa in front of you--arms out, like an embrace--than when it was up against the wall. I guess I've learned something, after all, from those interior design magazines!

Here are a couple of closer views:

I'm already loving my little window workspace, especially today with this incredible weather and the windows flung open to the warm breezes. Of course, that clean desk surface has an evil twin; the other desk, which you can't see in the pictures, is covered in a swamp of papers and doodads. That's my next job.

But for now I think I'm going to pack a little picnic and go to the park for lunch. It's too gorgeous to stay inside.

Spring in a bottle

A surprise came in the mail a few minutes ago: a bottle of the perfume that I've been wanting for ages!

I won it in a contest, believe it or not, and I hadn't even known I'd won, but the mailman rang the bell, and there it was, the perfect surprise for a sunny spring day. Especially because the perfume itself is a green, fresh scent, with lily of the valley (for May day!), jasmine, freesia, citrus, and hyacinth.

Although I almost never enter contests, this one caught my eye because of the prize. Also, since it was from a new expat magazine, I figured probably not a ton of people would enter. I had to take a picture of myself reading the magazine in my favorite spot, and send it in with a short explanation. That's it! I had the Mister take a picture of me reading it at the airport, because most of my magazine reading these days takes place at the airport or on the plane.

I've never won a contest like this before; I can't stop grinning. And since it arrived just a couple of days before my birthday, it's like an early present. How lovely!

(Later: pictures of the new couch!)