30 January 2009


Last night the Mister flew in from Brussels bearing a big pile of books I had left there, most of them poetry. Isn't it fun to be reunited with books? Like seeing old friends again.

In honor of my mom's visit, I've chosen a Wislawa Szymborska poem about music (mom is a musician) from out of that stack. It's one that has long impressed me as much for the inventiveness of Szymborska's conception as for the virtuosic translation by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak. I wish I could read the original to get more of a sense of the work they've done, but it comes through quite brilliantly anyway.


Poised beneath a twig-wigged tree,
she spills her sparkling vocal powder:
slippery sound slivers, silvery
like spider's spittle, only louder.

Oh yes, she Cares (with a high C)
for Fellow Humans (you and me);
for us she'll twitter nothing bitter;
she'll knit her fitter, sweeter glitter;
her vocal chords mince words for us
and crumble croutons, with crisp crunch
(lunch for her little lambs to munch)
into a cream-filled demitasse.

But hark! It's dark! Oh doom too soon!
She's threatened by the black bassoon!
It's hoarse and coarse, it's grim and gruff,
it calls her dainty voice's bluff -
Basso Profondo, end this terror,
do-re-mi mene tekel et cetera!

You want to silence her, abduct her
to our chilly life behind the scenes?
To our Siberian steppes of stopped-up sinuses,
frogs in all throats, eternal hems and haws,
where we, poor souls, gape soundlessly
like fish? And this is what you wish?

Oh nay! Oh nay! Though doom be nigh,
she'll keep her chin and pitch up high!
Her fate is hanging by a hair
of voice so thin it sounds like air,
but that's enough for her to take
a breath and soar, without a break,

chandelierward; and while she's there,
her vox humana crystal-clears
the whole world up. And we're all ears.


Have a wonderful weekend. I know I will!

27 January 2009


The end of January is a tough part of the year. Christmas is over, the shiny newness of those resolutions has worn off, and it's still winter. I find myself:

Eating a lot of cheese.
Spending too much time asleep.
Battling the dreaded dry skin of winter.
Unmotivated to work.

Fortunately, there are some things that help:

My mom is coming to visit!
The sun is bright and the sky is blue, bearing a hint of promise for an early Spanish spring.
Warm tea and simple soups.
Actually getting the hang of some of those aerobics spins.
Nephews' smiles and laughter.
Good swinging jazz.
Dogged perseverance.

Hah! There are more things on the second list than on the first--take that, winter!

(PS: Happy birthday, sis!)

23 January 2009

I heart google (or, why the internet is awesome)

I was hired to translate some poems recently (hurrah! paid to do something I do for fun!), and as I was working, I noticed that I had the following pages open as tabs in my web browser:

1. Google mail, from which I opened the text of the poem
2. Google docs, where I was translating the poem
3. Google search (actually constituting several of the tabs), where I sought out some obscure vocabulary about rocks (the subject of the poem) and an Auden poem to which this poem makes a reference
4. Google books, where I found a Glossary of Geology that was invaluable for finding synonyms for, say, "pebble"
5. Google reader, where I was NOT at the moment actually reading blogs, many of which are about language and translation
6. Google image search, where I WAS, out of curiosity, trying to get a glimpse of the face of the poet I'm translating

If you had caught me at another time, I may also have been perusing Google analytics to check out my blog's site statistics, or Google maps to quickly find that street where we have to meet for rehearsal.

Thrown into the mix were a couple of Wikipedia pages on marble and other stones, three of my trustiest online Catalan dictionaries, and the online OED, accessed through my university library.

All of which leads me to think: Google is taking over the world! (And I probably couldn't live without it.) Also, in the days before the web, translators must have been surrounded by towering piles of dictionaries and other reference books, and must have spent ages in the library looking through, say, the 779 pages of the Glossary of Geology or whatever other specialized vocabulary the text at hand called for. Now, it's all boiled down to a few virtual tabs on a flat color screen. It's dizzying, isn't it?

21 January 2009

There but not there

I called my husband and dad on skype yesterday, eager to hear how the inauguration had gone... And it turns out, they didn't even make it inside! They stood in line starting at 8 am, and the line simply didn't move. There were no signs, no authorities, a sea of bodies as far as they could see, and the crush of people made it impossible to go anywhere. Other ticket holders started to protest, it was a chaotic scene, evidently, people clambering over walls, even some arrests after a while, and although they did everything as they were supposed to, they, along with hundreds of other people holding tickets, never got through the gates into the Mall. How disappointing! I'm glad I wasn't along, because I would have been just devastated. My husband, much more able to take these things in stride, was laughing about it already. He flew thousands of miles to attend the biggest event in recent history, only to stand in the cold for a few hours, unable to see or hear any of it! He was interviewed by a reporter and is already in the news, if that's perhaps some consolation. Sigh. He'll just have to watch the inauguration on the internet, like the rest of us poor overseas saps.

20 January 2009

O happy day

Last night, well past midnight, saw me swaying onstage with a crowd of all the evening's performers as the credits rolled, singing "O Happy Day."

I thought it was an auspicious beginning to what is surely a great day in history. Today, Barack Obama will become our president.

During Christmas vacation, the Mister was finishing up an article, and our little nephew came up to ask him to play. M. told him that he just had a few more sentences to write, and then he would come down.

The three-year-old stood there for a moment, and then solemnly said, "Barack Obama is our president."

So when I say today that Barack Obama is our president, it is the little guy's innocent voice I hear, and I think this perfectly fitting. His voice is the voice of the country's future.

Another reason today is a happy day is that this is my 300th blog post! I can't think of a better day to write it, a better reason to celebrate.

19 January 2009

Barack's Books

"With the right words everything could change," wrote Barack Obama. An article in today's New York Times describes the books that our new president has read and has loved, and how they influenced him. These include Melville, Marilynne Robinson, Emerson, Shakespeare, the Bible, Reinhold Niebuhr, Toni Morrison, Derek Wolcott, Doris Lessing, Ellison, and of course, Lincoln.

Words do change things. Words have shaped Barack Obama, and in turn, his words have already changed things. I can't wait to see what else will be transformed.

17 January 2009

Parlez-moi d'amour

The Mister kissed me goodbye this morning during the pitch-black of the wee hours. He is flying to Washington to attend the inauguration! My dad managed to get a pair of tickets and so they're off on an adventure, my two main men, of battling crowds and traffic and cold to participate in this historic event. I'm a little bit jealous, but then again if I had really wanted to tag along I could have (I'm also a little bit nervous).

Instead, I get to appear on Catalan television Monday night. Wearing a red clown nose.

Our choir will be singing at the Catalan cinema awards show (like the Oscars but... quick, name any Catalan movie!). The noses are part of an elaborate gag that involves a besotted clown, a French love song, and the presenter. There's choreography involved, so this afternoon you will find me at the TV studios practicing a nonchalant walk in my ill-fitting choir garb (I have to borrow from someone else since mine isn't ready yet) and furiously memorizing the French lyrics.

Aside from that, my weekend sans the Mister will be all about work. Me and my laptop are going to have so much fun!

16 January 2009

to learn, so much

Here's a favorite poem, by a favorite writer, C.D. Wright. The first line sticks with me, and I find myself saying it, and chuckling over it, from time to time and for no apparent reason. Imperfections and messiness are inevitable in relationships, from the fruit with fire blight and socks that get dingy and don't match, but still there is the river, the wind, the thunder...

Everything Good between Men and Women

has been written in mud and butter
and barbecue sauce. The walls and
the floors used to be gorgeous.
The socks off-white and a near match.
The quince with fire blight
but we get two pints of jelly
in the end. Long walks strengthen
the back. You with a fever blister
and myself with a sty. Eyes
have we and we are forever prey
to each other’s teeth. The torrents
go over us. Thunder has not harmed
anyone we know. The river coursing
through us is dirty and deep. The left
hand protects the rhythm. Watch
your head. No fires should be
unattended. Especially when wind. Each
receives a free swiss army knife.
The first few tongues are clearly
preparatory. The impression
made by yours I carry to my grave. It is
just so sad so creepy so beautiful.
Bless it. We have so little time
to learn, so much... The river
courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.
Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.

15 January 2009

A dilemma

So I did this class at the gym today called 30-30-30, which is supposed to be thirty minutes of cardio, thirty minutes of strength, and thirty minutes of abdominals. Except it's an hour-long class. Which, um, yeah. Maybe math isn't their strong suit.

However. This is a good thing for me because I think if I had to do a half hour of stomach crunches I would die. The 40-10-10 formula we ended up doing was just about perfect. Although I got totally lost in the dancing/aerobic portion, especially on the spins, when I kept turning in the opposite direction of everyone else and nearly running into the more coordinated members of the class, I felt proud of myself for really holding my own in the strength portion. Maybe all the swimming has actually done some good. Who knew?

But that's not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about glasses. Since I'm new at this, I'm trying to watch the teacher like a hawk. But I leave my glasses at home, so that's out of the question. I find myself squinting at her, trying to see which leg is going where, and combined with the fact that it's hard to decipher the Spanish over the thumping music, I have several strikes against me. This happens even in a totally silent room, during yoga class, because the lights are dimmed and the instructor is a native Portuguese speaker so his Spanish comes out lovely and soothing but very hard to interpret.

What do other, non-contact wearing people do? I don't see anyone else wearing glasses, nor do I think it would be advisable (they'd either fly off during a spin or get crunched by the floor or my kneecap during a yoga position). And I can see more or less OK. It's not like I'm running into walls.

I should probably put myself in the front of the room. But that would mean I'd be more visible to other people, other people who, take my word for it, actually know what they're doing.

Is there a solution I'm not thinking of?

14 January 2009

Piles of pretty clothes

I went to get my hair cut this morning, and when the stylist offered me a fashion magazine to read, I said, "Nah. It just makes me want to buy stuff." And I realized this statement was true only as it was coming out of my mouth.

Because I have a pile of clothes sitting on my dresser right now that I can't fit into my drawers, and I'm embarrassed to want more, to see pretty, nice, soft things and want to own them. When I already have more than I can even properly put away.

This overflow has a lot to do with Christmas presents, and post-Christmas sales both in Vermont and Barcelona, and also with the facts that winter clothes are bulky and that I don't have an actual closet.

Still. I'm sure it used to be that one had, for example, some winter pajamas and some summer pajamas. They were mended as necessary and replaced only when truly worn out. But now, I have the flannel pajamas that I wear when it's really cold, the new stripey Christmas pajamas, the broken-in pajama pants from college, the sort of sexy pajamas, the lightweight men's style pajamas, not to mention the yoga pants and t-shirts I often sleep in...and so on and so forth. And that's just the winter pjs.

I could make a similar list for sweaters, or pants. When buying, I justify purchases: "But that one's different from that other one! Those black pants are slightly more dressy than these! This gray sweater is much thicker than that gray sweater!"

I have to think: do I really need all of these clothes? No. Do I wear all of these clothes? Mostly. Could I function happily with fewer clothes? Yes. I know I don't own a lot compared to many others in the well-off western world, but I also know that I DO own a lot--embarrassingly too much--compared to many many others.

Anyway, I'm not a compulsive shopper or a fashionista (by any means!), and most of the year goes by without excessive purchases, and I usually wear my clothes until they're practically falling apart. I guess the point is that if I stay out of the stores (especially during the sales! which appeal to my frugal side!), I don't start convincing myself that I really need something. And keeping my nose out of magazines--even on the rare occasion that I might look through them--is one more step towards not longing for things.

13 January 2009

Signed and stamped

I think we can say my appointment today was a success, if it is a success to have received a signed and stamped piece of paper that says to bring another slew of documents (most of them repetitions of the papers I brought today) to another office in an entirely different part of the city some fifteen days hence, at which point they will issue the card, which I will be able to pick up a month from then at yet another office. Mostly, I was impressed that I only had to wait about twenty minutes, which from past experience is a short time indeed.

One step further down the yellow brick road....

Off to see the wizard

Today is a big day. I am going to the estrangeria office to submit my petition for Spanish residency. I first asked for this appointment way back in September, and it has taken me four long months just to get assigned a day and time to hand in my papers.

Nobody can see the Great Oz! Not nobody, not nohow!

So I am obsessively checking over my paperwork, because if I know anything about bureaucracy in Spain, it's that whatever official I confront today will be more than gleeful to send me scuttling out the door because some date stamp is in the wrong spot or too recent or too old or I have two copies instead of three of whatever document they ask me for.

The wizard says "go away."

I'm bringing along about TEN copies of everything, and all the originals, and blank versions of the form in case I made a mistake, and stuff they didn't even ask for, just to be sure.

Bring me the broomstick of the wicked witch of the west.

I'm planning on arriving really ahead of time so I don't miss the appointment because I couldn't find the place. It's at an absurdly specific time, 13.35, and the instructions I was sent clearly state that you can't cancel or reschedule: if you miss it, you miss it, and then you have to start all over again ("SUCKAH!" is written in invisible ink just below those instructions.)

I am the great and powerful Oz.

All the same, I'm trying to prepare myself for the fact that SOMEthing will be wrong with my application, because there's always something. Our libro de familia took TWO years of bringing them different versions of documents. (The classic example: they didn't approve of my birth certificate because, get this, the only date on there was 1978! Why, yes, that's the year I was born! They wanted "a more recent date" on it. So I had to order a new copy of my birth certificate to satisfy a Spanish notion of continuous, needless government stamps of approval.)

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

12 January 2009

On being a better hostess

We have had house guests for a few days, which is always fun. And it has been a bit of a letting-go process for me, because I have lately come to realize something about myself: I have a bit of a problem when it comes to visitors. I want everyone who comes to Barcelona to love it as much as I do, and furthermore, to have a sense of its history and understand something of Catalan culture. (I don't have high expectations or anything.)

This presents a difficulty because I used to experience a vague dissatisfaction when visitors would (most naturally) compare Barcelona to City X, their personal favorite or current residence. Or when I couldn't transmit a whole history lesson in one walking tour of the city. Or when a guest would rather skip something that I considered absolutely essential, or sleep until noon and miss seeing that museum with the amazing paintings/architecture/history/view.

The first step in solving the problem is (as ever) recognizing it, and although that took a while, it finally dawned on me that it's not up to me to control other people's experience of this city. Everyone has different rhythms, different travel styles, and totally different interests when it comes to sightseeing. It's not about me. No one else is going to have the same exact vision and experience of this place. My job is just to provide friends and family with a home away from home, a jumping-off point for city ventures (or not).

(All of this should be obvious, but I'm a little slow when it comes to these things, tending to believe what my control issues/type A proclivities tell me: i.e., that I am right and everyone should see things just as I do.)

So this time around, I've been as laid-back as possible about advice-giving and tourism suggestions, and not stressed about whether our visitors have seen this city in its best light, or discovered the "right" back streets. The Mister and I explained, as we always do, a bit about the Catalan language and culture, but only to the extent that our guests asked about it.

From there, it's up to them to make their own discoveries. And besides, as I tell them (and myself), they'll have to save something for the next visit!

The Sunday paper

On most weekends, I buy the International Herald Tribune from one of the news kiosks. I always look forward to the ritual of a paper newspaper (now there's a retronym to brighten your Monday morning) with coffee. After I've read all the articles, the crossword puzzle awaits.

However, I have a major gripe with the Herald Tribune, weekend edition. Why are there always several pages dedicated to art auctions, luxury watches, or jewelry collecting? A few weeks ago, there was a whole insert all about the world of fancy watches, in which appeared a reference to a "low-end," 850-euro watch. I won't even mention where the numbers went on the high end.

Does the HT media conglomerate assume that its international readers are all ultra-rich types who regularly buy art and fine jewelry? That's the conclusion I must draw. But I wish they would reduce this sort of article to a once-monthly appearance, at the most. These articles eat up a good chunk of my already too-thin newspaper, and the way the world is going these days, there are plenty of other options to replace cashmere-clouds journalism.

That is all. Gripe over.

07 January 2009

At once a voice

Thomas Hardy's New Year's elegy, "The Darkling Thrush" (dated December 31, 1900, the last night of the nineteenth century) can be misread as a "ray of hope" kind of poem, and often is, if I may take my high school experience as representative.

On the contrary, I now (ever since an Oxford trimester during which I read every single one of Hardy's 900-some-odd poems, a depressing undertaking if there ever was one) understand it as a very bleak indictment of the past and a less than hopeful vision of the future. If there is hope, Hardy says, I can't see it. In this view, the trilling of the little bird is naïve, a kind of whistling into the void.

Given my mood right now, I'm not surprised that it's the poem that came to mind. But don't take Hardy's perspective as an accurate indication of what I anticipate for this coming year.

I side with the bird.


The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

This new year

Today is January 7. Tomorrow the children of Spain return to school. The Kings have come and gone, leaving presents in their wake. If the children have been naughty this year (as most have), they also left coal--sometimes made of sugar, but sometimes the real thing. (Our niece, in a fit of contrariness, insisted that she wanted to eat lumps of real charcoal brisket out of the hefty bag that she so eagerly unwrapped.)

But there's no room for more sweets anyway. Everyone's bellies are stuffed with turró (nougat and custard bars eaten throughout the holiday season) and polvoró (soft, crumbly round sweets) and tortell (the marzipan-filled and fruit-topped ring cake hiding a fava bean and a king figure, eaten on Epiphany), not to mention the stews and soups and meat and fish of the traditional neverending meals.

Barcelona has hit a cold spell, and we even saw snowfall last night. We ran out into the street and tried to catch clumps of the big, wet flakes. There was no driving to be attempted, since a little bit of snow snarls everything. So I spent one more night at my in-laws'. The Mister, meanwhile, was already on a plane to Brussels.

Which, I suppose, means that the holidays really are over. We had such a lovely week in Vermont. It was so hard to say goodbye to everyone again, especially the littlest. No sooner had we landed in Barcelona than it was time to ring in the new year, which once again we did at the Mister's grandmother's. This year, though, our nieces spent the night at our house, which was a fun treat for us and them. Then a big all-family meal on New Year's Day. Then a busy couple of days of shopping and wrapping presents and visiting with dear friends, and then Kings', which is like Christmas all over again. But it had to end sometime.

Today I trundled big bags of new goodies up to our cold apartment, and am now trying to warm it via space heaters. I am still wearing my coat, however, and making good use of my new fingerless gloves with clever mitten flaps, a gift from my sister-in-law. They come in handy for typing when one's hands are blocks of ice.

I feel a bit melancholy, as I always do after the bustle and cheer of the holidays. I feel daunted by the weight of what I want to accomplish this year, the changes I hope to see--from the very small to the impossibly huge--and the lurking fear of not being up to the challenge. Last night I had a hard time falling asleep, thinking of all the things that I want to do, all of the ways that I want to be better, all of wishes I have for our future. My project this evening will be to write them all down, little to big, practical to fanciful, and try to express some of the bigger ones in clear goals and prayers that can be my focus during this year, 2009.

Wow. 2009.