27 February 2009

Wandering words

I spent some of my morning with the two Paul Celan poems that deal (obliquely, in ciphers) with the Spanish Civil War ("Shibboleth" and "In One"), as well as Jacques Derrida's brilliant essay about them. Even if the poems fall outside of the scope of my thesis, having been written in the 50s and 60s, you better bet that I'll be drawing on both Celan and Derrida in my discussion of the "No pasarĂ¡n" slogan.

I learned a new word, too. It's always fun to learn a new word, and I guess I didn't look it up the first time I read the Derrida essay, a couple of years ago, during a graduate seminar. The word is "gnomon," and as cute and gnome-like as it sounds, it actually refers to the stick part of a sundial, the horizontal blade that casts a shadow to tell the time.

After reading through the essay, I got sucked into Felstiner's translations of the Celan poems, reminding myself of my favorites and falling in love with others. If it wasn't so long and spread out on the page, I would reproduce "Stretto," an incredible poem and one I used for a course I taught on poetry and music. But I'll content myself with "Speak You Too," a haunting meditation on language.

Speak You Too

Speak you too,
speak as the last,
say out your say.

But don't split off No from Yes.
Give your say this meaning too:
give it the shadow.

Give it shadow enough,
give it as much
as you know is spread round you from
midnight to midday and midnight.

Look around:
see how things all come alive--
By death! Alive!
Speaks true who speaks shadow.

But now the place shrinks, where you stand:
Where now, shadow-stripped, where?
Climb. Grope upwards.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer!
Finer: a thread
the star wants to descend on:
so as to swim down below, down here
where it sees itself shimmer: in the swell
of wandering words.

~Paul Celan (tr. John Felstiner)

25 February 2009

Favas and kohlrabi

February hasn't done much for me by way of blog inspiration. I seem to be stuck in a rut. So sorry!

But the weather has been lovely, springy, sunny and good for my all-around energy levels and productivity (um, other than blogging).

As one more sign of spring in these parts, the fava beans have started to appear in the market. They come in long, knobby pods, and they are the fundamental ingredient in the Catalan dish faves a la catalana. I got to talking with the Mister's grandmother, and she promised to show me how to make them, minus the botifarra (blood sausage) that normally is another fundamental ingredient. (So fundamental, in fact, that when the lady at the market stall where she bought the beans smiled and asked if she was making faves a la catalana, iaia said no. I guess without the sausage, it's not really Catalan.)

Anyway, yesterday I accompanied her to the doctor's office, and after our little excursion it was time to make faves. We shelled the fava beans as well as some peas (she says the peas cut the acidity of the favas), then rinsed them and put them in a pot with a couple of roughly chopped tomatoes, quite a few whole garlic shoots (which also show up at this time of year), a few branches of spearmint (or mint, but spearmint is what she had growing on her terrace), plenty of salt, a pinch of sugar, and a bit of moscatel (she says anis--anise-flavored liqueur--is better if you have it). You don't add any water, as the beans and vegetables produce their own cooking liquid; only add a little bit if it gets dry. Covered, over a low burner, let it "xup-xup" (not sure how to translate that charming expression that evokes "soaking up" the juices; Catalan cooks use it to mean a slow simmer) for a good while, twenty to thirty minutes, I'm guessing.

The end result isn't pretty, but boy is it good. The silken beans are sweet and soft, and I pretty much ate until I was stuffed.

At which point iaia brought out the fish. (Despite my protestations, no meal is considered complete at her house unless there is meat or fish involved.) I ate leftovers for lunch today and they were just as good.

Here is a similar recipe, with pictures that are much better than any I would have taken, if I had had my camera, which I didn't, because the Mister has it, because he's in Bulgaria and promised me some photos.

Now the trick will be to see if I can replicate the deliciousness in my own kitchen.

Before that, though, I have another experiment to perform. Every time I go to the market, I've been trying to come home with one unfamiliar item--usually a vegetable I've never cooked before. Saturday, I spotted a lumpy green round thing that looked sort of like celery root or fennel but wasn't. It had shiny green skin like the stalk of a broccoli, and small stalks coming out of the top. I asked the market lady what it was, and she said it was a cross between a cabbage (col) and a radish (rave). Intrigued, I brought it home and consulted my trusty How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (Mark Bittman). Sure enough, his description of kohlrabi fit the bill. I should have figured it out in the first place, from the Catalan, col-rave : kohl-rabi (from the German, for cabbage-turnip).

I found some suggestions here for what to do with kohlrabi, but I'm not sure which direction to go...

18 February 2009


The gargantuan bouquet of flowers the Mister brought home for me on Saturday was almost too big; it was hard to take it all in. So when the flowers started getting a little droopy and the water needed to be changed, I decided to spread them all around the house, a bit of brightness in every room.

There are gerbera daisies on my desk...

Blue irises in the bedroom...

Roses in the living room...

Lilies on the dining room table...

And on the coffee table, a, um... a lily-winged flying cow.

Off key

There was a time in my life when I didn't have any keys. I had sold my car: no car keys. I had moved out of the House of Love: no front door keys. I had left campus: no office keys or mailroom keys. I was living at my parents' house, and they never lock their door (it's Vermont, after all), so I didn't need keys while I was there. In those few months between moving away from Indiana and getting married, I felt a bit unmoored.

Because keys are like little metal dog tags; they tell you who you are and where you belong. I guess they're a sign of possessions, as well, and not having them might be freeing. But they also do what their shape promises. They unlock, they allow access, they permit you to enter the familiar interiors of your life.

I saw keys in a different way, however, when I watched a beautiful documentary about a young Bulgarian woman working as a cleaning lady in Amsterdam. The camera follows her through her lonely days in empty rooms, communicating with upper-class Dutch families mostly through notes, as she straightens and sweeps and vacuums and scrubs. Speaking to the camera, she says she thinks she is losing herself. She feels like a ghost.

But she also takes pictures. Self portraits of herself in the cleaning closet or the bathtub, surrounded by household cleaners. Empty rooms with rumpled sheets. They could be out of an interior design magazine, but because of the point of view threaded through the whole of the collection, they present a diametrically different message.

To the back of the photograph she pastes the words from those notes, repetitive in their obligatory "how are you" and their demands to sweep the back stairs, wipe out the cabinet, change the laundry, a never-ending to-do list. She hangs these photographs and the notes inside a paper cut-out house, and on the floor of the house, she places her large collection of front door keys, all pointing upwards, a menacing carpet of jagged metal.

For her, the keys mean alienation, entrapment; they are a barrier and a burden. She is permitted to enter everywhere but is denied anything that make a home a home. Far from her family, working illegally, she is stalled and alone. Remarkably, though, she seems genuinely optimistic and her smile is always at the ready.

The woman's name is Hristina Tasheva, and the documentary is called The Houses of Hristina (see the trailer here). You can see many of her photographs here (click on the collection "A better life" for the ones shown in the movie).

By following the story of one woman, listening strictly to her voice, the documentary presents a beautiful meditation on domesticity, immigration, interiority, gender, social class, and art.

I'll never think of keys in the same way again.

14 February 2009

Loverly day

I get why some people don't like Valentine's Day, and I agree that it's an over-hyped, commercialized holiday. But it doesn't have to be, and I think it's a great idea to take time to celebrate all of our loved ones, not just our gooshy, swoony, romantic sweethearts, but also our there-for-you friendships, our fierce-hugs and belly-laughs family, the spinning-in-circles nephews and nieces, and our gone-but-deeply-missed grandparents.

If you fall into any of those categories for me: I send my love from Barcelona! I wish I could bake you all a chocolate cake.

As for the gooshy, swoony part, the Mister and I had a fabulous meal last night at this place, and then chocolates and strawberry champagne and candles at home. I woke up this morning to a big bouquet of beautiful flowers.

We decided to celebrate yesterday, since today we'll be at the hospital--actually, the Mister was there (and helping out at his parents' house) all day yesterday, and I was there Thursday--and we were supposed to go hiking with a friend who had an unexpected wisdom tooth removal, so no hiking after all.

But that brings me back to my point, I guess: what better way to spend Valentine's day than being there for family, the ones we love? Actions speak louder than words, but words are pretty darn good, too: Happy Valentine's Day!

10 February 2009

Drive on

I haven't written in a few days because of good things and bad things. There was my mom's visit, which was fun and relaxed. It rained almost the entire time, which was bad timing, because that's not what it usually does around here, but we still had a good time and ate yummy food and had fun shopping and chatting and just hanging out.

Then last weekend my father-in-law fell off the roof while he was doing some spring cleaning, and it was very scary for everyone while we waited to hear what the doctors have to say. He will be in the hospital for a few weeks, totally immobilized, while the cracked bones in his pelvis heal, and then the recovery at home will be another couple of months. It will be hard for him to be still for so long, and hard for my mother-in-law in terms of juggling her work and his care and so forth. We'll of course help as much as we can; while he's recovering at home I may take my laptop and work from their house so I can be available to lend a hand.

This unexpected turn of events prompted the Mister and I to think about certain Big Picture things, which brought us around to the rather mundane topic of driver's licenses and cars and if we should get one and if so when. Right now I'm perfectly happy--more than happy, really--to be living without a car. Not only are we saving money by not having the expense of car payments, insurance, gas, maintenance, and parking, but we are doing the environment a good turn by relying on public transportation (and taxis in a pinch). I love that we CAN get everywhere we need to go with the metro, a train, or a bus. And we can always rent a car if we want to take a short weekend trip.

The reason this came up in relation to M's dad is that we do, however, tend to rely on him and his car every once in a while for, say, transporting big items like furniture, and he also did a lot of ushering of M's grandmother back and forth from her apartment (around the corner from us) to their house outside of the city. And that's something we can't pick up the slack on, although it would make sense because we ARE around the corner, because we don't have a car. And even if we could use M's dad's now-unused car, there's the pesky detail of neither of us having a license. (!)

You see, the Mister, who has lived in public-transport-friendly Europe all his life, has just never gotten his, and when I started investigating how to have my American license converted into a Spanish license I learned some pretty depressing things.

First of all, there's no "conversion" process. I have to get my license again, from scratch, just like when I was seventeen and ran a red light during my driving test. (You might imagine that I have no desire to go through THAT again.)

This would not be a problem if getting a license was like in the States--relatively cheap, easy, and painless--because after thirteen years of driving experience I am now unlikely to run a red light during my exam.

But it is not cheap, easy, and painless. It is expensive, hard, and painful.

Here in Spain, the AVERAGE (and now I'm going to get all-caps squealy because I'm outraged) cost of getting a license is 936 euros. NINE HUNDRED THIRTY SIX. That is ALMOST A THOUSAND EUROS, people. You have to pay ridiculous amounts of money to the "autoescuela" to teach you how to get through the ABSURDLY difficult written exam (which you pay also ridiculous amounts of money to take), which asks HORRIBLE questions DESIGNED to trip you up (I read some samples), and then do practice hours with an instructor in a car with dual gearshifts and brakes and then take the exam in one of those same cars. In other words, your hands are TIED because you have to pay the schools for the use of the stupid double-sided car, but they won't let you use their stupid car for the exam unless you sign up with them for a huge sign-up fee and spend a minimum amount of hours in the classes. Oh, and if you fail either exam within three tries (total, for both exams) you have to pay--surprise!--ridiculous amounts of money to take them again.

It's as if the autoescuelas and the department of motor vehicles are in CAHOOTS because they both earn OODLES of money from the whole setup. Harrumph.

You'd think that at least, with such a rigorous examination system, Spain would have good driving safety record. On the contrary. It is, with Portugal, the EU country with the highest highway mortality rates.

So you can understand why the Mister, with all of his traveling and living abroad, has never gotten his license. And you can understand why I am despairing of getting mine.

After learning all of this depressing information, I looked into getting my license in Belgium, because any EU driver's license is valid in all other EU countries. Belgium has an examination system much more like the US--a provisional driver's permit after the written exam, and then a driving exam in your own car, without requiring classes. They even allow you to "convert" your American license, but only within the first six months of living there. Oops. So I may eventually try to find a way to use someone's car for the test? Or buy a car there, when and if we decide to buy one? But then I may not have a legit Belgian ID anymore? Doing it in French would be extremely daunting, to say the least, but it beats boring hours of classes and the nightmare of getting a Spanish license.

I'm hoping a magic fairy will come and tell me something I failed to discover in my research, such as that there's a Vermont-Spain secret treaty and that Spain will recognize my Vermont license and will just stick a little A-OK stamp on it.

Sigh. At least I had lunch in the sun today, soaking up every little particle of warm oozy light that I could.