24 December 2008

The Magi

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas Eve!

23 December 2008

And... home

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

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

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

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

21 December 2008

Going home

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

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

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

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

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

Musical magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 December 2008

A little list

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

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

18 December 2008

Shop hopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 December 2008


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

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

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

Here it is in Portuguese:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 December 2008

Away and back again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

05 December 2008


I don't have a bike.

I used to wish I had a bike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 December 2008


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

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

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

03 December 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 December 2008

Gondoliers eating breakfast in flooded Venice

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

01 December 2008

Daily in December

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

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

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

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

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