22 June 2008


Somehow I managed to wake up an hour early, without realizing it. So at eight o'clock on a Sunday morning, I am already dressed, my suitcase is packed, and I'm ready to leave for Barcelona. It's like someone just handed me an hourglass and all of those grains of sand are available for me to do with as I will.

I'm glad I have the chance to do a quick update here, because once I'm in Barcelona I won't have internet. We will alert Telefonica that we would like their services as soon as humanly possible, but we are resigned to the fact that Telefonica will not in turn provide us with their services as soon as humanly possible. In fact, they will probably wait as long as humanly possible to give our home an on-ramp to the information highway.

It has been quite stressful to contemplate leaving Brussels. Even though I know I'll be back here often, and I can use my husband to ferry any object I wish from one city to the other, I feel like I'm abandoning this little home I have created here, and all of my favorite things that make it feel like home. It's not so much a question of the stuff as it is a way to ground myself. I worry that I'll feel divided; I'm such a homebody that I need that extra reassurance of place, like a dog circling round and round before being able to settle down with a snuffly sigh.

Oh, one detail that I should not forget to mention is that the princess of Belgium came to our concert at the Cathedral on Friday! Even if I do say so myself, the concert was quite beautiful, fit for a princess, though during the event itself I hadn't figured out who in the crowd was Her (maybe my angle wasn't good). But we happened to be standing by the front entrance when she was escorted out, and the funny thing about the princess is that she totally looked like a princess. She wore a bright yellow dress of some stiff, tapestry-like material with a matching coat that flared at the knees. Her hair, in a shoulder-length bob, flipped out on the bottom. She carried a little matching bouquet of yellow flowers. As we stood there gaping, she was walked to the car, someone holding a huge umbrella over her head. Then, as her car pulled away from the curb, our friend decided to wave to her, and she waved back! We decided that's what she does for a living, so she should wave, shouldn't she?

A few more grains of sand...

18 June 2008

Too sweet times two

It occurred to me after this weekend that I made the same mistake twice, once in Paris and once in Florence: I wasn't choosy enough about my street food.

The day we arrived in Paris, I was jonesing for a good crêpe. Dinner had been eaten, and I still hadn't had one; the situation was getting desperate. We were strolling the Champs-Elysées in the evening, and I decided to go for one of the little stands to the side of the avenue, even though I had my doubts when I saw that the crêpes were pre-made. Overcoming my doubts, I thought: it's Paris--all the crêpes are good, right? But sure enough, my lemon-sugar version was so terrible that I had to throw it away without finishing (which, if you know me, means that it had to have been really really bad): gummy re-heated pancake, too much sugar, not enough lemon to cut the sweetness. It was like eating pure, chewy, sugar.

By the time we had to leave, the next evening, I realized I still hadn't had a good crêpe. So as we headed back to the hotel to pick up our luggage and get a taxi to the airport, I stopped at a place near Saint-Michel, dangerously at the heart of the touristy area near Notre-Dame. But there was a line (not always a good indicator, especially if they're tourists, but still a positive sign) and the guy was making crêpes to order. Plus, the chocolate was pure dark chocolate, a bar broken up and melted onto the pancake, so I knew my favorite, the banana-chocolate version, would likely be good. It was better than good, it was delicious, a perfect harmony of fruit, bitter dark chocolate, and warm crêpe.

But I did not learn from my mistake. In Florence, after having dropped my luggage at the hotel, I was supposed to go find the Mister, mid-presentation, at the Palazzio Vecchio. But first I had to eat lunch. I ordered a slice of pizza just so I wouldn't feel guilty about eating only ice cream for my meal, because what I really wanted was a good gelato. I again made the mistake of choosing the first place that I saw, on the corner of the piazza in front of the palace, despite my misgivings about the gelato's rather insipid look. It's Italy, right? All the gelato should be good.

The coconut and melon flavors that I chose weren't horrible enough to throw away, but they weren't that great either. My idea of a good gelato is pure, intense, condensed flavor. It should bowl you over. But these were just overly sweet ice creams with a hint of coconut, a hint of melon. The coconut too pillowy, the melon too grainy, neither the texture nor the flavor made it special.

Fast-forward a day and a half. I still hadn't eaten a good gelato (although, thanks to the generosity of the conference organizers, I had eaten a delectable meal at Rossini). We were heading home from dinner, and in the morning we would be catching the bus to the airport, and I didn't think 8 o'clock in the morning would be a socially acceptable time to eat ice cream. So it was then or never, but my hopes were dim, since it was nearly midnight. Yet, we saw a glimmer in the dark, the warm colors of an ice cream parlour across the street from the Ponte Santa Trinita, and a line of Italians waiting to order their cones. A good sign indeed.

I ordered a small dish of the pear gelato, and it was heaven. Like eating a perfectly ripe pear, an explosion of fruit in the mouth, the cool, dense texture of ice cream. I could leave the city a satisfied gelato-eater.

So I hope my lesson is learned, next time I want to eat a city's signature sweet without trusting my better judgment. Go where there's a line of locals, where it's made to order, where the flavors are home-made.

17 June 2008

Your brain to bubble cool

For my birthday last month my parents sent me a lovely package, including a book of Emily Dickinson's poems and letters written to her friend, sister-in-law and next-door neighbor, Susan Huntington Dickinson. I've loved reading through it, not only because it offers a perspective of Dickinson that quite shatters the fragile, secluded spinster myth, but also because of the tenderness and spontaneity of their correspondence.

Here's a poem I especially enjoyed, one that expands on the idea, contained in a (later I think?) Dickinson line, "slipping is crash's law."


He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full
Music on --
He stuns you by degrees --
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Etherial Blow
By fainter Hammers --
further heard --
Then nearer -- Then so slow
Your Breath has time to
straighten --
Your Brain -- to bubble Cool --
Deals -- One -- imperial --
Thunder bolt --
That scalps your
naked Soul --

When Winds take Forests
in their Paws --
The Universe -- is still --

Interlinking links

It turns out that the internet was neither invented by Al Gore, nor first developed in the 90s by a crack international team of programmers, but was dreamed up in 1934, right here in Belgium.

Today's New York Times contains a fascinating account of Paul Otlet, a Belgian librarian who conceived of a vast interlinked network of information, which one could access through a screen. From one's desk, one would summon text, images, audio, and film, and the screen could be divided into multiple "pages" to view documents simultaneously. This "bibliothèque irradiée" (radiated library) would serve to make humanity's thoughts available to all. He called his central storehouse of knowledge the Mundaneum, and today one can visit the Mundaneum in its incarnation as a museum in Mons, Belgium. Which I will have to do one of these days.

As I read the article, from my screen with its multiple pages, which came from a link in my electronic mailbox, and watched video within the newspaper article, and then googled a snippet of French from a visual of one of Otlet's manuscripts that I had glimpsed at the end of the video, and then read more articles about the same subject, I was floored all over again by the mere existence of the web, and its vast complexity. (And was all the more impressed by Otlet's prescience.) Even in the misery of an information crisis, the breakdown of my hard drive, the interconnectedness of digital knowledge is pretty mind-blowing.

Then again, there's of course something to be said for the tactile, the hands-on, the ink-and-paper world of knowledge. As a book lover, both of the world of language they contain and of the bound pages that form a beautiful object, I can't forget the generous sense of discovery afforded by the physical archive. There's a lot out there that's not online. In that spirit, a short editorial laments the disappearance of the copy editor's position in journalism.

Also, speaking of text and tactile, here's a charming story about an architect who designed an apartment as a chamber of secrets. The owners, after a year of living in the house, were sent a clue that sent them on a treasure hunt in their own home, in part directed by a book of stories that they soon found behind a false wall. Hidden panels, complex word games, cranks, keys, puzzles...I love how the physical space and the materials of the home's construction were fitted together in new ways to send them on a journey. Even better: the final "reveal" of the whole elaborate game is a poem written by the father and hidden in the walls of the family room, right under their noses the whole time.

And speaking of homes: this weekend we're making the "move" to Barcelona. As of Friday, I'll be done with French (oral exam was today), and will have sung in my final choir concert (we're premiering a new work, at the Cathedral). So off to Barcelona we go, in a summer experiment to transition our lives from based-in-Brussels to based-in-Barcelona. The Mister will still be in Brussels Monday pm-Thursday am, and I might come along from time to time. Hard to tell how it will all pan out. Of course I have not done any "packing" whatsoever, and have barely had time to contemplate what I should do to prepare for such a (semi-)move. I have no doubt that the transition will be slow and that bits and pieces of my life will remain in between the two places for quite a long time. I know it's the right decision, though, because the thought of leaving Belgium isn't at all making me mournful (yet?). I will miss choir, and the few good friends we've made here, and the swimming pool across the street. And I'll definitely miss my spacious kitchen and the living room that we've only just managed to furnish how we wanted it.

But in Barcelona there's an empty bookshelf, waiting for us to fill it with our beloved books. I know that then we'll feel like we're really settling in, building our own secrets into the walls.

16 June 2008


I return to my little home on the internet after what seems to me like aeons, but what in reality was only a few days.

My computer (the professor) died, you see. The hard drive just gave up and petered out. According to Philippe, the dude at the place where I brought it for a second opinion, it was broken in several places. I now have a new hard drive, but it is of course entirely devoid of everything that makes my computer my computer.

And of course, I hadn't backed up in a looong time. I lost all of my pictures, all of my music (although I'm going to try to reinstate what was on my ipod), archived emails, translation work, poetry, and my thesis. Yes, my thesis. I have some piecemeal versions of things stored on a little flash drive, and everything dating before last summer is on the external hard drive. But, but, but... I'm mourning even the loss of my web browser bookmarks, because I had a lot of research discoveries stored in that list.

Last Wednesday and Thursday were spent in horror and denial. I felt very very alone, not only because I was without my computer (my source of pretty much all connection with the outside world, plus all entertainment--movies and music), but also because in this country of PC's, I didn't know where to turn, and my husband was out of town. I called my brother, international cell charges notwithstanding, ostensibly to get his advice on some attempts at resuscitation (I initially thought it was just a question of a too-full hard drive) but really just to hear his voice.

Friday I flew to Italy to meet up with the Mister for a quick visit to Florence, where he had presented at a conference. It was my only chance to see him during a long stretch of his travels, so at the last minute I had purchased tickets. Although when Friday rolled around I wasn't very much in the mood to leave town, it was a good thing I did because I could somewhat escape my computer woes (and, not incidentally, escape the frigid air and incessant rain that this country seems to think is acceptable weather for June).

Philippe called when we were standing in front of the beautiful Santa Maria Novella, only to inform me that it was impossible to rescue the hard drive. If sackcloth and ashes had been available, I would have been wearing them, accompanied by garment-rending and gnashing of teeth.

Dragging my feet, because I knew it would be depressing, I went to pick up the computer today. And indeed, it is depressing. I don't know where to start to make the machine feel like mine again.

07 June 2008

More Sardinia

It's been a rainy, cold, rainy, gray, rainy week in Brussels. The kind of week that makes me want to hibernate. My mind protests--it's June!--but my body shrinks in on itself, my eyelids droop, and I am uncapable of tackling that sinkful of dirty dishes.

As an avoidance measure and a dose of escapism, I'll allow myself to revisit Sardinia for a while, to travel back to its stark landscape and think of the sun... (For part I, go here. For musical accompaniment, go here.)


The morning after the wedding we managed to tag along with our friends from Naples for a bit of sightseeing in Alghero. She: a petite but formidable Italian political science professor. He: a French professor originally from the Congo, who always wears fabulous powder-blue suits. They've been married for thirty-eight years--yet another example of the many multicultural couples we meet in Europe. For me, the best part was that we could speak in French; thus, at least while we were with them, I didn't have the frustration of understanding much of what was going on while not being able to muster complete sentences in response (as with Italian).

En route, we found out that it was his birthday that day, and that the main goal would be to find a great place to eat seafood for lunch. Besides a momentary pang of worry that we were intruding on their celebration, I was delighted with the plan. And the pang quickly disappeared as they insisted that the celebration would be even better with us along.

Alghero is a beautiful seaside fortress town (most of the fortresses having been built by the Catalans) and that day it its sandy stone walls were sun-drenched, the water glittering. After a brief stroll at the port, our friend spotted a restaurant terrace with perfect balcony views of the sea. We were shown to a table perched on a little bridge crowning an arch of the city wall, and thus we had views in two directions: the boats and water portside, and the stone alleyways leading into the town. We committed ourselves into the restaurant's care, telling them to bring an assortment of antipasti and the freshest fish of the day. What issued forth: a huge array of delectable plates of seafood. I especially remember a fish that was paired with fresh peaches, and another version of the octopus and potato salad we had eaten the day before. And the main dish, a magnificent spigola (sea bass) was just what we had been looking for: delicious, fresh, simply prepared.

We asked our waitress about Catalan speakers in Alghero, curious to see if we would find any. She herself didn't speak Catalan, and told us we would have a hard time finding someone. Nevertheless, as we strolled the city after our long lunch (a stroll that was enhanced by refreshing homemade gelato), we saw signs everywhere that Catalan was actively spoken and promoted: all street names and tourist information signs were in both Catalan and Italian, and many shops sported stickers indicating that "Aqui es parla Català" (Catalan spoken here).

Soon it was time to re-traverse the island to somewhere in the vicinity of Tula, a tiny town smack in the middle of Sardinia, for a party at the bride's sister's farmhouse. Earlier that morning, I had mused aloud as to whether we would see any of the nuraghi, prehistoric conical towers whose ruins dot the landscape. These towers are over three milennia old, and still are among the most prominent man-made constructions to be seen outside of Sardinia's cities. Despite a lot of driving, we hadn't glimpsed any, but as we followed the ribbons tied on the corner of country roads leading us to the party, suddenly looming up out of the hill was an impressive nuraghe, which the bride's nephew later told us was one of the most well-preserved examples.

Thus cheered and awed by the sight of such a formidable piece of history (mysterious, too; they don't know for sure what they were for), we drove into the farmyard. Inside a walled courtyard the family was busy setting up snacks, including homemade wine (in big soda bottles, labeled either AM--which somehow meant fruity/sweet--or secco), cheese made from the family's goats, and fresh olives, plus leftovers from the reception the day before. We admired the sweeping views, watched as the sheep were herded out to a far pasture, the shepherd accompanied by four dogs of amusingly different shapes. One of the little nephews found a scorpion somewhere, put it in a jam jar, and delighted in waving it under the nose of all the women. We went to see the goats and pigs, and visited the milking room and watched the sister (they couldn't stop work even when the party was at their house!) and brother-in-law wrangle 150 goats into the milking machines.

Sometime before the steaming plates of pasta were brought out of the cavernous barn of a kitchen, Stefano the guitarist showed up and someone got out an accordion, a harmonica, and a tambourine. As dusk fell, they traded Sardinian songs and Neopolitan songs, and little kids danced around them. At about this time, I found myself sitting next to the bride's mother, and even though my Italian was rather more like pidgin Spanish with an Italian accent, we had a long conversation about the house that she and her husband had built, what it was like to have six children, to give birth in a house with no running water...

Here are a couple of videos of the music, including glimpses of the matriarchs of the clan:

Sardinia accordion from Robin from Cant d'ocell on Vimeo.

Sardinia harmonica from Robin from Cant d'ocell on Vimeo.

When finally it was time to drive to Olbia, where we were staying before flying out the next morning, we made the rounds to say goodbye and give our thanks to our hosts. That's the thing about Italians: by then we were sent on our way as warmly as family, even though we had known most of them just for a short weekend. When I told the bride how beautiful her family was (that was a sentence I could muster in Italian), she impulsively squeezed me tight in her joy that I had seen it too.

04 June 2008


Where to start? My head is whirling a bit. Maybe the varnish has gone to my head. I just spent the last two days staining and varnishing our wall-to-wall bookshelves in Barcelona (we wanted a grayish color and I think it came out sort of blue and I'm not super happy with it, but since I was never really happy with most of the colors in the house [we chose them over the internet {in case it's not obvious, choosing paint colors over the internet is not a good idea}] the bookshelves can just be part and parcel of the strange pastel palette we had already established).

And that was after a quick overnight stay in Paris that felt so much more than quick. It felt ample and romantic, as trips to Paris should.

I was sad to miss the funeral of our friend in Vermont over the weekend, but I am even more grateful than ever for the contact afforded by modern communication: this blog, photos, e-mails, cell phones. Though it can't be denied that a wired world has sometimes changed our lives for the worse, in this respect it is reassuringly good. Living so far away from family and friends in the states would be so so much harder if letters or even just phone calls were all I had.

Also I want to write more about Sardinia, as promised, and that already seems like so long ago. I will need to write about it soon lest it all dissolve into hazy memory. Soon!