30 October 2008

All Hallow's Eve

Happy Halloween!

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

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

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

Back to BCN

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

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

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

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

22 October 2008


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

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

14 October 2008

Battle hymns

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

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

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

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

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

10 October 2008

This falling

Autumn in Barcelona was bound to be different than in Burlington, or Bloomington, or Brussels. In fact, it is a combination of them all, with the addition of the saturated sun that drenches seaside towns. Although I dearly miss the vivid colors of Vermont and southern Indiana, there are still crunchy leaves and cool nights, that smell in the air of changing weather. We went up into the hills a couple of weekends ago for a friend's wedding, and we shivered in our party dresses (I secretly enjoyed it). And since September and October have been quite rainy, there are hints of the cool gray skies of Brussels.

During the day I can still wear sandals, although in looking around I've noticed that pretty much no one else wears them any more (except for the tourists): it seems that a change of seasons requires a change in wardrobe and footwear, whether or not the temperature is balmy. I always take my jacket with me now, the bright green one that makes me happy. I hope that one of these weekends we'll be able to get out of the city and wade through some fallen leaves.

My favorite autumn poem is Rilke's "Herbst." I may have posted it before, but it is worth savoring again. The "And yet" of the last stanza takes my breath every time.

This poem today is in honor of my grandfather, who is very ill. I pray that he is held "with infinite softness" in God's hands this fall.

by Rainer Maria Rilke (tr. Edward Snow)

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far off,
as if in the heavens distant gardens had withered:
they fall with gestures that say “no.”

And in the night the heavy earth falls
from all the stars into loneliness.
We are falling. This hand is falling.
And look at the others: it is in them all.

And yet there is One who holds this falling
with infinite softness in his hands.

07 October 2008

15 and 68

We now have internet! It is fast! And it follows me wherever I go in the house!

To mark the occasion, I have yet another summer story, written while internetless and waiting be wired so I could upload.


We spent a week in Amsterdam at the tail end of summer holidays so that the Mister could improve his Dutch. His workplace pays for a certain number of days of language instruction, anywhere in Europe, and besides paying for the class itself they provide a small stipend, which covered lodging (since we looked for the most reasonable B&B we could find) and a portion of our food costs each day. So basically, we figured, we had a subsidized vacation! Of course, he had four hours of intensive classes every day, which left him pretty brain-numb by the time we met up again in the afternoon. But I got to spend my mornings in museums, strolling through canal-lined streets, dodging bicycles, and sipping coffees.

For me, many of the highlights of the trip centered around the redeveloped area of the oosterdok, the thin spit of land off the edge of the city, out by the train station. The new city library there is wonderful, rivaling the great modern libraries of American cities like Seattle and San Francisco.

(Portions of the Oosterdok visible in the background.)

We also spent our last night in town in and around the oosterdok, with a meal at Jamie Oliver's restaurant,15, and a concert at the brand-new Musikgebow.

Slightly wary of the celebrity-chef-restaurant phenomenon, and having read some negative reviews of the 15 in London, I wasn't sure the dining experience would be a home run. But I think the principal idea is a great one, teaching disadvantaged kids (15 each year, thus the name) how to cook, serve, and run a top-notch restaurant. Plus, I like Jamie Oliver's style of cooking, at least as it comes through in the books: sturdy, unfussy, fresh flavors.

We had to eat early, because of the concert, so the vast industrial-style restaurant was nearly empty when we came in. The kids who greeted us and explained the menu seemed totally enthusiastic about both their jobs and the food they were serving, even if they tripped over some of the English terms. There is only one option on the menu, the fixed-price four-course meal (although we could choose from two options for two of the courses), and it was entirely Italian, at least on the night we were there.

The verdict? Home run. Nothing overly complicated or hard to figure out--I imagined I could even make some of the dishes myself, if I had time and the right ingredients, and the menu even printed the recipe of one of the simple sauces. But that didn't diminish just how delicious everything was. I was especially enamoured of my silver mullet with braised greens and oyster mushrooms. Silky and hearty at the same time, the dish was so satisfying that I was disappointed to have tucked it away so quickly. The young sommelier paired our courses with some slam-dunks as well. (Sorry about the overuse of sports metaphors. Don't know where that came from.) Altogether a perfect way to end our week in Amsterdam.

Yet, we still had a concert to attend! We licked up the last spoonfuls of white chocolate ice cream and plum tart, then rushed over to the concert hall and scooted into our seats just as the lights fell.

The musikgebow is a sight to behold, with its huge cantilevered overhang, vast glass walls with views of the sea, and several beautiful performance spaces. Earlier in the week, when we had gone to buy our tickets, we happened to catch the tail end of a free afternoon concert in one of the foyer areas. Everyone looked like they had enjoyed it, especially those who snagged the big turquoise pillows out front. A friendly white-haired lady gave us a free CD of the highlights of the last ten years of the summer music festival, of which both the afternoon and evening concerts formed part.

We hadn't understood much about the concert we chose to attend, except that it involved solo arias and names of composers who caught our eyes: Salieri, Czerny, Mozart. Sounded good, right?

The first singer, the mezzo, came out on stage with a big number 11 pinned to her dress. A voice from the darkness starts to ask her questions (in Dutch). Some sort of faux-audition? The audience chuckles. She introduces her song, In questa tomba oscura.

By the time the tenor, the soprano, the bass, and the alto again have come out with different numbers on their chests and sung different versions of the same text, after a short interview, we are able to piece together what's going on: the singers are answering as if they are the composers. There are 68 known settings of this Italian poem, and the concert's sctick is that each composer is "competing" for "best musical setting of In questa tomba oscura," or something like that. (Everything is in Dutch, so it's not that easy to follow.) We have a list in front of us of 68 composers' names, which correspond to the numbers pinned on the singers.

At the first intermission, we were happy to see that there were free drinks for the public. We strolled out to the deck with our wine and watched the light dwindle. But by the second intermission, we were wondering if they were really planning to perform ALL 68 songs? To squeeze them in, they even performed in the lobby during intermissions. Now matter how clever and funny the dialogues (to Dutch speakers, that is), no matter how lovely some of the arias, weren't they nuts to do them all? Seems that they were nuts. And I'm pretty sure the interview gimmick stopped being funny after thirty songs or so, judging by the much-dimished laughter. Three and a half hours in, half the audience had snuck out of the hall. We finally succumbed as well, although as a matter of pride we would normally never ditch a concert. I suppose the thing went on for four hours, but I was glad we didn't stick it out.

68 renditions of In questa tomba oscura is just a few too many for one night. Although in retrospect, the Italian food and the Italian arias made for a harmonious pairing.

(Unrelated shot of a rainbowy Schiphol airport.)