27 December 2006

Christmas in Leuven

I see it has been quite awhile since my last entry, but I have a perfectly reasonable explanation. My husband Z arrived from Washington on December 15 and, excepting a hastily-thrown-together entry a week ago Sunday I've been too busy falling into my old role of "wife" to sit down and write anything! And while I do not usually think of myself as "wife" in the traditional sense, I admit I have enjoyed cooking, making travel plans, and grocery shopping for two again. After taking the first week or so of Z's visit and dragging him to Christmas markets all over this part of Europe (Antwerp on the 17th, Brussels on the 20th, and Aachen, Germany on the 23rd), we were ready for a break. So, many lazy mornings after our last trip I am ready to blog again.

Our Christmas morning began unlike any in our recent years: we were able to sleep in instead of getting up early and packing into the car for an all-day drive east to see family. We had been up late the night before discussing the merits of Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, after watching Casino Royale with all the other heathens who chose the "movie-over-midnight-Mass" option. So, after dragging ourselves out of bed at 10:something, we had our own Christmas morning. We opened our gifts from our family, took some (predictably-silly) pictures, and gleefully observed the carnage of wrapping paper bits that covered every square inch of the floor. In this way it was as much a traditional Christmas morning as we have had in the states, with the possible exception of cats climbing into empty boxes (my house) or ending the day with a intense game of cards (Z's house).

We had been invited to have Christmas lunch at my Australian friend A's house with her husband G, their young daughter E, and his two teenage children A and N visiting from Canberra (pronounced "CAAHN-bra"). We loaded up with our offerings: a bottle of French bordeaux, a bottle of Chimay (blue reserve, natuurlijk), chocolates, and vegetarian meal options. We saw a few other gift-laden Belgians in the streets of Leuven, many who actually greeted us with slightly-upturned lips and miniscule nods of their heads (Z nearly fell over with shock.) We were greeted by young E at the door who, in the fashion of our own older nephew, was already mid-sentence with a list of favorite presents. We shed our coats and followed her upstairs to greet the family.

I am happy to say that, though the Belgians are gracious enough in their hospitality towards new friends, their general reserve and conservative demeanor make it difficult to feel as if you are truly welcome. The Australians, by contrast, are breathtakingly generous, casual, and whole-heartedly genuine in their acceptance of new friends. We were immediately greeted with offerings of drink and hearty conversation about the merits of falvorful Australian wine (a favorite for everyone at the table.) We lingered over dishes of chocolates, cookies, and olives (my new favorite, believe it or not) while waiting for the feast. Both A and G enjoy working in the kitchen, so there was a constant rotation of conversation at the table. Even the 15-year-old N joined in with his own views on cricket, rugby, and the recent Australian swimming champ Ian Thorpe who, apparently, just retired at the age of 24. After a wonderful dinner of roasted vegetables, pasta, and seafood-stuffed shells, we rolled our way into the living room. Young E had fun showing Z and I how her Lite Brite works, and I in turn taught her and her mom a few steps of the Tush Push. At the end of day G pulled out "Fawlty Towers" and treated us to some fine British humour.

While Z and I waddled home we decided against going out to dinner, as we had planned. We spent a quiet evening digesting and relaxing before turning in early.

18 December 2006

Christmas Markets

'Tis the season for Christmas markets! Every year between late November and early January large towns in Belgium (as well as countries in other parts of Europe) celebrate the season by holding giant markets full of food, crafts, jewelry, and all sorts of holiday goodies. The Kerstmarkt (as it is called in Flemish) in Leuven is in its nineteenth year and takes place on the Ladeuzeplein and the Herbert Hooverplein.

My husband Z flew in on Friday morning (!!!), and on Saturday night I decided a trip to the market would be the best way to subject him to all of Belgium's fine gourmet offerings at once. It was a chilly evening, and the air was just heavy and damp enough to carry the aroma of roasted nuts and spiced wine across the Stadspark to my front door. Our ten-minute walk was one of great restraint and we imagined eating our way from one end of the 140-stall market to the other. Little did we know that just about every living soul in Leuven and the surrounding area had the same idea. Think half-time at a high school football game in a small town in Texas, and you'll get the idea.

Despite the "duh" crowd mentality, even more intense here in Belgium than at, say, Cedar Point(interesting that the residents in such a crowded country wouldn't have yet mastered the simple task of "getting out of people's way"!), we happily set off on a tour of the offerings before settling on the following wholesome, well-rounded meal:
  • two glasses of spiced "gluhwein"
  • two cheese croquettes, flash-fried in a vat of (possibly day-old) oil
  • one huge cone of french fries, complete with a pink-ish dipping sauce simply called "Samurai"
  • one serving of pumpkin soup, served in a bread bowl
  • one syrupy-sweet sugar waffle
  • beer (not at the market but after at a favorite pub, At the Bebop, across the street)

The feast in itself was pleasurable enough. Unfortunately the entire market experience was marred by truly terrible muzak blasted on loud speakers, and the mainstage offerings which were even worse than your average small county fair.

Sunday we breezed through Antwerp's Christmas market, Wednesday is for Brussels, and Saturday we may even try to go to Aachen, Germany, just over the border and supposedly home to one of the best markets in Europe. I will try to post as I go!

11 December 2006

The First Goodbyes

Last night my friend M and I went out with Fulbrighters from Brussels. It has taken me a little while, but after much convincing that Leuven is in fact a COOL town (small though it may be compared to the big, bad city) I was able to get W, M and S out for a visit. This visit was especially nice because all three of them are leaving in the next couple of weeks to move on from their time here in Belgium, and this was the last time I was ever going to see any of them. At least on foreign soil.

I may have mentioned this before, but many Fulbrighters to Belgium are here to study events much more current than mine. In fact those of us studying topics in the humanities are in the minority. And so it often happens that when we get together as a group the conversation usually swings quickly towards politics, international relations, trade policies, and generally why the US could learn a lesson or two from Europe (and, likewise, why Europeans need to get over their "Americans are dumb" attitude when they are more interested in the tabloids than we are!) But M and I decided that, for early musicians like us, this kind of exposure is very good, intellectually and mentally. Sometimes those of us with our nose in the music and the books get a little lost in whichever century we are studying, and when we finally do come up for air we wonder whether or not we should string garlic around our necks to protect us from the plague and, by the way, where is my wig?

Last night was very much like this. Dinner at De Weiring, my latest favorite Brasserie in Leuven followed by drinks at that-little-pub-on-the-Vismarkt whose name I always forget. W, who is a professor of history and has been studying the effects of post-WWII liberation on Europeans, confided in us the dirty little secrets behind those documentaries on the History Channel. ("Don't know anything about World War II? Your specialty is the Great Crusades? Well, you look handsome enough...just cup your chin in your hand, look off into the distance, and say something rhetorical yet riveting.") M and S shared stories of interviews they've conducted with Belgians on a variety of issues from immigration to agriculture, conversations which inevitably always came back to reasons-why-Germany-and-France-stink. And as an added bonus M brought his friend C, a pilot for a major airline company, who shared all sorts of interesting tales about life in the cockpit and how NOT to eject live animals from the back of a 767. And at the end of the night M and C managed to revert to their undergrad days, racing into a Nachtwinkel to buy a six-pack to enjoy on the last train back to Brussels. (I was told not to worry, C would NOT be flying the next day!)

Thanks, guys, for a fun night, and good luck back in the states!

10 December 2006

Cappella Pratensis

This morning I attended a very unusual concert. The group, Cappella Pratensis, is a unique early music vocal group in that they only perform from original music notation in choirbook format. This essentially means that rather than each singer standing with his or her individual copy of music, the singers gather around a large stand that holds one large book containing each voice part, separated from the others, on the same page.

This performance was fascinating to me on several different levels. First of all, it is an entirely authentic method of singing. In the tradition of Renaissance cathedral singing, singers would group around one single copy of music, a choirbook. This choirbook was generally large and oftentimes ornate; many of them were written or, later, printed and given to royalty, wealthy patrons, etc. as gifts. As all surviving choirbooks are preserved in museums and archives the performance today was from large-scale photocopies of choirbook music.

Perhaps the more interesting aspect of the concert today was not the novelty of watching the group but the implications singing in this way has for both the individual and the ensemble. Singers today are trained to read from a full score containing all the voice parts. As a soprano, for instance, I am constantly looking to other voice parts to, initially, help me get my first pitch or, as I learn the music, for indications regarding musical phrasing, texture, and style. The challenge for singers in a group like Cappella Pratensis is that it is impossible to look at the other parts. The whole concept of ensemble changes from a division between visual and aural to a purely aural technique. Tuning, phrasing, balance, nearly everything is transformed for the individual. I found the results in Cappella Pratensis's performance to be extremely vibrant and exciting.

Let me give you a sense of how this kind of performing is technically done. The leader of this particular group, Stratton Bull, stands on the edge of the group, singing and semi-conducting This in itself is rather strange because, unless he knows all the parts by heart, he is essentially only able to keep the pulse, conduct his own line or perhaps the lines of another part when he himself is resting. The singers appear to be grouped by height with the shorter ones in front, looking up towards the music, and the taller ones in back, looking over the heads of those in front. For the most part, everyone looks at the music ALL THE TIME, perhaps never daring to take their eyes off the page and risk losing their spot. Sometimes the singers need to crane their necks, straining to look at the music when the page is turned. While visually the performance is quite unique, I found that what I heard was also very engaging. The ensemble was for the most part very tight, though a bass confessed afterwards that he was ahead by one pulse for a substantial portion of the first piece. There were little tuning adjustments here and there, which is understandable and, I imagine, very authentic.

What I found most illuminating about the experience, though, were the philosophical questions raised by it. The director believes that this is the best way to sing Renaissance polyphony. My friend, M, who came down for the weekend from York to participate in a workshop based on singing in this fashion, is not too convinced. As for me I tend to agree with M: singing from full score has its advantages beyond "getting the right note". Perhaps it is the conductor in me, but there is something thrilling about seeing the entire piece laid out in front of me the way a composer must have conceived it in his mind. For as soon as it was technically and economically feasible composers DID start writing choral music this way.

But I also agree with M on another very important point. It is not always necessary to be historically correct when singing early music. Our performance should evolve the way compositional practice did, and there shouldn't be any hard and fast rules. But this is another soapbox for another time.

(And if I lost you along the way, welcome back, and I'll see you at my next entry!)

03 December 2006

Becoming Flemish

You know you're becoming Flemish when . . .

  • You feel insulted when you're channel surfing and you run across "Walker, Texas Ranger" dubbed in French.
  • You get frustrated with pedestrians when you ride your bike, and you become ticked off at the bikers when you are on foot.
  • You recognize when a Frenchman is announcing the stops on the train and butchering the Flemish language in the process.
  • You crave chocolate every minute of every day.
  • You see Zwarte Piets in the streets and think to yourself, "My, how quaint," rather than "My, what a hideously politically-incorrect statement."
  • You begin to notice with mild disdain whenever anyone is wearing a color of any kind (including yourself!)
  • You never leave home without your umbrella.
  • You can distinguish between dialects from Bruges, Antwerp, and Gent, and you recognize that whatever it is they speak in the Netherlands sounds NOTHING like the Dutch you know and love.

. . . and this is just the beginning . . .