27 April 2008


This weekend has been the first this year during which it is possible to leave the house without a coat, scarf, and umbrella. Yes, the first days that really and truly feel like spring, a spring of sandals and sunshine. Today I spent the afternoon at a park, just soaking in the warm sun and marveling at the fact of my green surroundings.

The one drawback? The one really big and yucky drawback?

The mister isn't here. (He's somewhere over the Atlantic right now, on his way to a conference in the states.)

I remember this, from the long years of our relationship's long distance, but recognizing it doesn't make it any more fun. It was always a kind of catch-22: when things were gray and sad and not going very well, I longed for the mister (well, back then he wasn't the mister, but you know...) because everything would be better with him there; I'd be less lonely. But when things were bright and beautiful, or when I was having a great time, I also longed for him; I wished he were with me to experience that particular great time, to make it a memory that we would share.

And that's what this weekend has been like. It's spring and gorgeous and everyone in sight seems lovestruck, lolling about on blankets in the park, holding hands in Brussels' suddenly less-gray streets. I myself have unusual amounts of energy, I've cooked and cleaned and worked and also strolled about happily outside. But about every five seconds I wish that the Mister were here, too.

I guess it's just hitting me kind of hard, this really long trip. We're quite used to being apart for three or four or even five days at a stretch. But this time it'll be ten days (and it was supposed to be even longer than that!), which is seeming rather...excessive. Especially when it's spring and that special springtime elixir is in the air.

25 April 2008

Interior design

So I had a little fun playing around with a website called polyvore, which lets you snatch images from the web and edit them into collages and layouts. It seems to focus mostly on fashion--putting outfits together and that sort of thing--but I thought it might be a good way to help me envision a new layout for our living room once the new sofa and coffee table arrive, using photographs of these items snipped from the web.

(Yes, I finally got around to ordering them! It's embarrassing how long we put off getting these rather essential items of furniture, instead living with the truly crappy little white futon. But we have guests coming soon, and I'm planning a big bash for my 30th birthday, and there's actually a bit of money in the bank at the moment, so now was the time.)

Anyway, in order to picture this, you have to take this photo of the apartment, subtract all the really lovely furniture that got taken away from us after we babysat it for a while, and then overlay the following collage into the room. The only things carrying over are the plant and the cheap Ikea bookcase, which I've moved to the right. I want to change the orientation of things, too: the sofa will be perpendicular to the fireplace instead of against the wall, and I'm thinking that I'll tuck my desk right behind the sofa, hidden, to create a study area (i.e., boundaried by the bay window and the sofa back) that I'm more likely to spend time at than my current undefined space.

The lamp somewhat resembles the new one we got over a month ago, and the chair is actually green velvet, a curbside find. The bamboo rug is a darker color than represented here (by a tatami mat, the only thing I could find that would work in the picture). There are of course a few other things in the room, but this would be the basic view looking straight in from the dining room, which is how the earlier picture is oriented, too.

I'm excited about the prospects of moving everything around, and looking forward to having an actual sofa instead of this thing that has probably done unrepairable damage to my posture.

What do you think? Is it missing something? Too bland?

24 April 2008

Grocery schizophrenia

Nearly every day I end up carting a bag or a half a bag of groceries up to our apartment. This in itself is not a problem at all, and I rather like making the ongoing small food purchases characteristic of city living.

The problem is, however, that I can never find everything on my list in one grocery store, and this always makes me feel absolutely scattered. Certain staples of my diet--hummus, black beans, cheddar cheese, quinoa, garlic-stuffed olives (yes, don't laugh), for example--can be found in one place only, and never all of them in the same place. The only store with good hummus is a 25-minute walk away. I stop there on my way back from French class, and pick up some nice vegetables, too. No problem.

But then I decide that I want to make Mexican food for dinner, and to get refried beans I have to walk down the hill to the only store that has them, which is NOT the store that has tortillas. The OTHER store, the one that has tortillas and the salsa, does not carry the breakfast cereal that I like. But that's the one that does have the beans. This one has the rosemary crackers, that one has the pretzels. Neither of them have both. This is an endless process, and one that is hard to keep track of. I often enter a store sure that I'll find a certain item and then only remember that it doesn't after walking fruitlessly through the aisles for a while. "Which was the place that carries real vanilla extract?" I will mutter to myself. "Was it X or Y with the cereal?"

The same thing happens with the markets. Only the market in Chatelain has those amazing olives. Only the market at the St. Gilles town hall has those Italian guys with the great pasta. Only the organic market sells quinoa in bulk. As a result, I end up shopping regularly at no less than SIX grocery stores and THREE markets, can you believe it?

It's not that I want everything to be found in one American-style behemoth of a grocery. It's just that it would be nice if I could have reasonable expectations of finding my top frequent purchases mostly in one place. Maybe I just have a really weird diet, by Belgian standards. That's probably it. At any of those places I am guaranteed to find goopy pastel salads, stacks and stacks of cookies that all look like waffles and all have different names, and--the beauty of this one cannot be denied--a truly impressive selection of Belgian beer.

Speaking of markets, I am going nuts--in a good way--over the flowers currently available at the markets. They are so beautiful! And springlike! And reasonably priced! Seriously, twenty gorgeous longstem roses for 7 euros? I even saw one sign offering 80 roses for 15 euros. Last week I saw the most exquisite roses in an antiquey faded pink beige color that I was itching to buy, but didn't since we were going to be gone over the weekend. So this week I made up for it (although, disappointingly, I couldn't find the same ones) and have, over the course of the week, purchased a bouquet of bright yellow tulips, another of white roses, and a bunch of peonies, which didn't come as cheaply but I was so excited to see them. I can't wait to watch their tight round knobs burst into hot pink ruffles. I have a house full of flowers and this makes me inordinately happy.

Oh, and an update on the coffee travel mug. Today I again brought it to French class, and my neighbor, whispering, asked me if that was coffee, and then gave me the strangest look, the kind of skeptical eyebrow uptilted half-smile that you give to someone whose behavior you find odd but whom you don't want to offend. She then whispered something I didn't catch, and when I asked her what she had said, I'm pretty sure when she told me "C'est une bonne idée," it wasn't what she had said the first time around.

23 April 2008

A rose and a book

Today is the worldwide Day of the Book, but more specifically in Catalonia, April 23 is the day of Sant Jordi. On this day, lovers present each other with a rose and a book.

Why the rose? Legend has it that Saint George (Sant Jordi), Christian martyr who died on this day, killed a dragon who had menaced the realm for years and who had a princess in his claws. From the dragon's spilled blood grew a perfect red rose, which he, gallant knight that he was, presented to the princess.

Why the book? In Catalonia the book tradition developed in the 1920s to celebrate this day, on which falls the births of Shakespeare and Nabakov, and the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes (same day, same year!), as well as Josep Pla and William Wordsworth.

Every year the Generalitat de Catalunya creates a nice Sant Jordi web animation. I recommend checking it out here. There are three different animations, one each for the rose, the book, and Sant Jordi. Click at the top of the page for the English version.

Although I've never been in Barcelona on April 23, I know that the streets fill with book and flower sellers. I'd love to see it, and to rummage around the bookstalls. This year, the Mister and I have to make do with a virtual rose and we'll postpone the books a bit until he returns from his trip.

I bought myself a few books yesterday, though, in honor of the event (well, not that I really ever need an excuse, but still...): a couple of Margaret Atwood novels, a Haruki Murakami novel, and a volume of Auden poems. Rather unusually for me (because I usually read faster than I buy), at the moment I've actually accumulated quite a pile of "for fun" reading, so they'll just have to go on the stack.

In honor of the day of books and roses, I have for you a rose poem. It was hard to choose just one, but ultimately I had to choose Rilke, because the rose was a kind of totem for him throughout his life: his epitaph is two lines composed on the rose, "no one's sleep beneath so many lids," and the leukemia that killed him purportedly first showed its symptoms after he was pricked by a rose.

This poem, in a translation by William Gass, so closely observes the world of roses that you are drawn in on a minute, tender level. It's worth reading slowly, and savoring all of its turns and swirls of imagery. Plus, it was composed on the island of Capri (!), in a little cottage called "The Rose House." I especially love that last stanza before the final line, its whirlwind of world focused down into a handful of rose.

The Bowl of Roses
by Ranier Maria Rilke

You've seen their anger flare, seen two boys
bunch themselves into a ball of animosity
and roll across the ground
like some dumb animal set upon by bees;
you've seen those carny barkers, mile-high liars,
the careening tangle of bolting horses,
their upturned eyes and flashing teeth,
as if the skull were peeled back from the mouth.

But now you know how to forget such things,
for now before you stands the bowl of roses,
unforgettable and wholly filled
with unattainable being and promise,
a gift beyond anyone's giving, a presence
that might be ours and our perfection.

Living in silence, endlessly unfolding,
using space without space being taken
from a space even trinkets diminish;
scarcely the hint there of outline or ground
they are so utterly in, so strangely delicate
and self-lit—to the very edge:
it possible we know anything like this?

And then like this: that a feeling arises
because now and then the petals kiss?
And this: that one should open like an eye,
to show more lids beneath, each closed
in a sleep as deep as ten, to quench
an inner fire of visionary power.
And this above all: that through these petals
light must make its way. Out of one thousand skies
they slowly drain each drop of darkness
so that this concentrated glow
will bestir the stamens till they stand.

And the movement in the roses, look:
gestures which make such minute vibrations
they'd remain invisible if their rays
did not resolutely ripple out into the wide world.

Look at that white one which has blissfully unfolded
to stand amidst its splay of petals
like Venus boldly balanced on her shell;
look too at the bloom that blushes, bends
toward the one with more composure,
and see how the pale one aloofly withdraws;
and how the cold one stands, closed upon itself,
among those open roses, shedding all.
And what they shed: how it can be light or heavy,
a cloak, a burden, a wing, a mask — it just depends —
and how they let it fall: as if disrobing for a lover.

What can't they be? Was that yellow one,
lying there hollow and open, not the rind
of a fruit in which the very same yellow
was its more intense and darkening juice?
And was this other undone by its opening,
since, so exposed, its ineffable pink
has picked up lilac's bitter aftertaste?
And the cambric, is it not a dress
to which a chemise, light and warm as breath,
still clings, though both were abandoned
amid morning shadows near the old woodland pool?
And this of opalescent porcelain
is a shallow fragile china cup
full of tiny shining butterflies —
and there — that one's holding nothing but itself.

And aren't they all that way? just self-containing,
if self-containing means: to transform the world
with its wind and rain and springtime's patience
and guilt and restlessness and obscure fate
and the darkness of evening earth and even
the changing clouds, coming and going,
even the vague intercession of distant stars,
into a handful of inner life.

It now lies free of care in these open roses.

18 April 2008


This morning, for the first time since I've lived in Europe, I carried a travel mug of coffee with my during my morning commute. It was one of the items that claimed a little corner of my suitcase after my visit home; when I saw it nestled in its newspaper packing in a cardboard box in the musty basement, I remembered all the walks to class, especially that horrible semester of teaching at 8 am, when the perfectly shaped, brushed-aluminum travel mug made my mornings a little brighter, and I just couldn't leave it behind.

However, I shouldn't have been surprised that my mug drew outright stares on the metro platform. Stares that clearly said, "Who is this crazy girl and what is in that metal thing?" "Is she drinking out of it?" "Where does she think she is, a giant coffee shop?"

It just hadn't quite dawned on me that NO ONE carries a travel mug. Once in a blue moon I see someone clutching a coffee-to-go paper cup, but they have a furtive look, as if a little guilty for resorting to drinking coffee on the move.

So I can't say that I'll make a habit of carrying the thing around (it's already taken me weeks to use it in the first place), but it sure comes in handy for days, like today, when I just don't have enough time for coffee before leaving the house.

Unrelated to coffee: I'll be internetless again for the weekend, in Barcelona. We're going to have to get plugged in there pretty soon, especially if we spend so much more time there! Anyway, that's where I'll be, and I'll be back here on Monday.

14 April 2008

Spa, part deux

(Part one, here.)

This repeat visit to Spa was a different as could be from the first time around: it's one thing to walk around in slippers all day with your husband, another to do so with a gaggle of girls. Both have their charms.

In fact, the weekend was particularly great because I got to know some fantastic and beautiful women, including several who work for the US government here in Brussels, a barrister from London (she has to wear a curly gray wig to work!), and a woman who works for the Japanese embassy here. It was especially nice to be speaking native-tongue English when making friends--almost everybody else I've met while living here is European and either the language is Spanish/Catalan/French, or the English we speak is not the other person's first language, which does hinder the kind of "click" that feels so great when you meet a potential friend (at least for me; I tend to be a slow friend-maker). Oh, plus two of the ladies brought along their oh-so adorable baby girls (the husbands came along too, and kept mostly out of sight, except to make breast-feeding deliveries)!

We started the day with champagne in the hotel room, and rode up the funicular to the spa in our bathrobes and slippers. From there, we enjoyed a day of massages, swimming, and lounging, plus plenty of chit-chat. The highlight for me was swimming in the warm outdoor pool while grey skies plopped fat, cold raindrops onto my face. I did have to hurry inside when it started hailing, though!

Then we got gussied up, had a fun Italian dinner, then headed over to the Casino of Spa, which claims to be the world's oldest casino. I was so relieved that pretty much everyone else was as green as I when it came to casinos. We felt distinctly out of place, and dramatically overdressed, in the small (albeit baroque) salons, compared to the wizened, chain-smoking figures hunched over the machines or the tables.

We each got ten euros worth of tokens, our limit for the evening. Big spenders, right? A bunch of us immediately lost about half of our tokens in the slot machines, although a couple girls made some money. As in, four or five euros, whoo hoo! We then decided to pool all the leftover tokens and play roulette. We started out with 29 euros and ended up with 49, after one of us with the knack won us back a bunch of money. All the winnings went to the bride-to-be!

The next morning, after a late buffet breakfast at the hotel, we all wandered off either up to the spa, into the town, or back to Brussels. The bride and I decided to go fleamarketing in Spa's Sunday market, and it was the best flea market trip I've ever made! She and I snatched up some amazing finds amidst the cast-off electronics, dingy appliances, and piles of moldering books, including gorgeous antique jewelry, an old manual coffee grinder, which I bought for the Mister (he has admired his grandmother's), fun books, and mod vases. She found a solid silver 1970s watch and some fabulous rhinestone jewelry, and I bought an art-deco ring and a lovely pale blue milk-glass bead necklace. We were also endlessly amused by the characters selling the wares, all of whom had an eagerness to talk. One woman, once she found out we were American, had us trapped for a good quarter of an hour, and was most enthused about pictures she had seen of a friend's son's house in--"that country, what's it called?"--New England, where they have "little wild animals who live in the trees and eat hard fruit, what are they called?"--squirrels!

Flush with our purchases, we drove back to Brussels in the rain. The Mister was already back from Barcelona when I arrived, and as always, it was especially nice to see his face again after traveling in opposite directions. Actually, when we sat down to go over the April and May calendar, it was sobering to realize that he'll be away from Brussels for 30 days out of 47. So a lazy Sunday afternoon side-by-side was a storing up of together time, embraces that will have to last us twice as long.

11 April 2008


I have to write about Madrid last weekend, and let me warn you, it's going to sound like bragging. Because it involves fantastic weather and amazing food and the Mister solemnly promising--under flashing lights and video--to do his new, prestigious job to the best of his ability. His mother got teary-eyed, I fumbled the voice recorder, but kept snapping pictures (it went so fast!), and my dad got lots of good shots of Spanish men in suits doing a lot of shaking of hands until they were all whisked away to sign papers. Oh, and to cap it all off, that evening we toasted champagne glasses in the breathtaking rotunda bar of the Palace Hotel with a well-known NPR correspondent.

In less than three days we managed to visit the Prado, the Reina Sofia (I was happy to have the chance to revisit Picasso's Guernica), and the new Caixa Forum, which features a garden wall--no, I mean a wall of garden, as in, the garden is integrated into a three-story building's facade. Let's see, there were lots of tapas, especially Galician pulpo and empanadas, an attempt to learn a bit of the local lingo both on advanced levels and beginner (um, my dad), and the consensus among our little group that while Barcelona is the superior city, you can't beat Madrileños for friendliness.

Once back in Brussels, our life is already changing. We'll (he'll) be traveling even more than we were, which I imagine could get tiresome but for the moment seems great. We'll have to see how things go between here and Barcelona and whether we'll tend to favor one over the other as "home base."

Another bit of exciting news came in the form of a package that held the page proofs for my book translation. I was most tickled when I saw my translator's introduction all book-like there in the front, being the only thing that I actually wrote, instead of translated, besides a few scattered notes. Still, it's quite something to feel the project coming together so tangibly, a stack of paper that is starting to look like a book!

Tomorrow I am going to revisit the town of Spa, Belgium, with a gaggle of other girls for a bachelorette weekend. (Yes, the same place the Mister and I visited with a wedding gift voucher.) I have never been to a bachelorette party (that I can remember...), much less a whole weekend, so I'm both ridiculously excited about it and a little nervous. My wedding-party attendance has pretty much been limited to prim wedding showers that usually involve tea and lots of pastel. Events this weekend will range from pampering (afternoon at the spa and spending the night at a nice hotel) to gambling (at the town's Casino). The fact that I've never gambled at a casino in my life and I wouldn't know the first thing about how to play the games--not to mention my risk-adverse and penny-pinching nature--will probably limit any craziness that might occur.

Now that I think about it, it works out nicely that the first of many weekends the Mister has to be away for work, I'll be off with the girls for some Spa fun.

03 April 2008

New job

So, the exciting news of this week is that the Mister will be inducted into his new position on Monday! We just found out yesterday when it would be, and since it's taking place in Madrid, this entailed a last-minute scramble for tickets. Even more surprising is that my dad is flying to Madrid as well--he couldn't resist seeing his son-in-law's formal installation in his new position. Or rather, couldn't resist being there to take pictures! M's parents will arrive by train, so I'm really looking forward to all of us getting together.