27 December 2007

a nice sort of holiday

Shopping in Nice is an adventure if it's done properly, which has to include the Saleya street market. It's the kind of place where a smile will bring a special discount on your onions, where the barrel-chested North Africans selling celery sing songs as they stack their wares, where the bread ladies kiss half their clients in holiday greeting. It's where going to the furthest end of the market yields the best discounts, a whole aluminum pail of sweet, bright carrots for one euro fifty.

Stacks of radishes fan out like a modern art sculpture, and stalls selling nothing but dried fruits are a bonanza of slicked colors. Pass the spice stall and pause to allow the harissa, the coriander, and the dozens of different pepper varieties soak through your nostrils. It's like all the markets I love so much in Paris, but here the people speak with the similarly squashed a's of French Canadians. They're happy to offer advice on how to cook the locally produced handmade ravioli, which kind of stinky cheese is the best, and pass your bag of baby spinach to you with a flourish.

The wine shop is another adventure altogether, with a whole wall lined in vats. Bring your own bottle and they'll fill it from the spout with local wine for less than three euros. Sounds like a recipe for a headache but it goes down smooth and leaves just enough mellowness to really feel like you're on holiday.

My family's been staying in a flat in an ancient building in the center of the oldest part of town for the past week. It's got massively high ceilings and is in transition out of a series of unfortunate modifications, one of which involved fuzzy hallway wallpaper. Our flat is cozy and loft-y, making it difficult at times to decide whether the delights are greater inside or outside.

Outside the door though, is a whole medieval neighborhood full of wind-y streets, frigid and beautiful churches, and the sweeping Baie Des Anges (bay of angels) a few blocks over, so appropriately named. I climbed to the top of the bluff near the sea yesterday, marveling at how exactly right everything there looked- the scrubby pine trees arcing gracefully towards the water, the hillsides encrusted with sorbet-colored buildings, the impossible blue of the Mediterranean stretching south towards Africa. Even the light here is how it should be, saturated with gold and as warm as a wood stove. It's a pleasant change from the darkness of Iceland.

19 December 2007

in the fifth

writing today from Paris, where I met my younger brother in the airport this morning. This is the city of my first experience abroad, when I called my parents from a phone booth opposite the Eiffel tower, a college girl giddy on her first real "I did it myself" experience.

It's now my fourth visit here, and I'm finding that after a few hours, my ear for Parisian French has returned, and with the help of my faithful map book, my brother and I have been busy exploring the streets now so familiar to me. The map book I still carry, Paris Par Arrondissements, had been my oldest brother's guide when he'd been working here years ago. On the eve of my departure for my second trip to Paris for studying literature, he gave it to me, filled with his maps and notes. I used the book the whole time, and it gave me that special exploratory confidence that there was No Corner of the city that I would not be able to find my way out of with this little red book.

When a friend went for a study abroad session in France, I lent it to her so she could experience the same magical freedom-powers, and she sent the book back months later from Spain, a note slipped inside that described her adventures with the book.

Today when I was flying over from Iceland, I took it out again and went through the pages of stories- the note from her now taped to the inside cover, the RER and métro maps added by my brother, the sticky notes of restaurants I added, the markings of the hotels, the métro stop where my aunt used to live. Walking these streets again and showing everything here to my brother is like going over those last 8 years of my life, from when I first was discovering foreign lands. I remembered the first time I saw the top of the Eiffel Tower, another winter day when I watched the pinkness of sunset fade from the facade of Notre Dame just like we did today, the discovery of the magical croque-sandwich creations in the cafes, the delirium of crooked streets, cobbled corners, the Seine and all the humped bridges, fanciful roof-tops and skaters in front of the Hotel de Ville.

Paris may be over-hyped in some ways but the marvel of it is that beyond those centerpieces featured in every film are so many more cool things- the street full of comic book shops that lured my brother into each and every one, jumbled angles to the buildings all pressed together around a tiny public garden, the hidden restaurant we happened upon that contained all the right elements for the first vacation-day dinner. The décor was all warm honey tones, one corner devoted to a big wine cave, the owner touring the tables and greeting everyone, and the menu laced with warm cheese dollops, rum-soaked cakes, escargot, lapin, and plenty of butter and garlic. Just right for a year's worth of proper catching-up to do with family.

11 December 2007

comfort food

On a blustery, rain-swept Tuesday, nothing's better for lunch than plokkfiskur, the Icelandic twin of my mom's homemade macaroni and cheese. Cubed potatoes mixed with white fish and plenty of sauce are topped with cheese and baked until toasty. It goes down easy with cracked pepper sprinkled on top and dense slices of dark brown bread spread with butter on the side.

I just discovered that the Boston Globe thought it worthy enough to include in an article about Icelandic food last month. Not sure about the clam juice in the recipe but if anyone's wanting to know the feeling of wintertime Iceland, it's a good place to start.

10 December 2007

In a dim light: neither daylight

December darkness is something that I once feared and that may seem like a terrifying thing to people from brighter places. Most Icelanders I've talked with find it to be something that one simply deals with, or in some cases, embraces.

On still days and nights when not a single branch twitches nor dead leaf rustles, it's a time full of witching hours, these hours that stretch from black to sunup- the blueness of the pre-dawn that makes white blankets look aquatic, the white simplicity of light on cloudy winter days, the rich and magical navy of dusk, the purest black of nighttime. Even a clear full-day sky is deep glacial cobalt, and then the snowed mountains across the bay emanate the most perfect kind of frigidity I can imagine. Whenever I want to think of the coldest temperature imaginable, I am sure my mind will go to the black mountains to the north, etched with glowing snow and edged by Arctic sea waters.

Offsetting this chill is the delirium of lights that cover the city- every tree that can hold a bulb is draped, stores staple entire illuminated evergreens over the doors, and windows are festooned with candles. A Saturday stroll becomes a festivity of greetings, street caroling, pepper cookies and cocoa. It's a tiny glowing oasis in the midst of the miles of darkness beyond, where one single car light over on Kjalarnes can be followed on its entire outbound journey around Esja, a dot of bright in deepest black.

05 December 2007

putting it all together

This week's been the last few rehearsals before our Big Concert on Thursday. We're singing "L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato" by Handel, a solid few hours of music with a little bit of everything- grandeur, speed, solemnity, frivolity, every pairing of vocal range, large and small ensembles, and a passel of Baroque instruments. It's so very much like all those times in high school when we finally put everything together- wriggling teenagers, and musicians that the director had somehow managed to pull from the fields and forests of southern Vermont to create a proper orchestra. So thrilling, the chorus risers, the clutter of music stands, the bows of the violins rising and falling together, the un noticed staffs and measures on our music books below the choral lines so very alive and vibrating through the long room. Here in Iceland it's all very much the same- the people may come from the lava rather than the forests, but there seems to be a sort of Universal Baroque Musician look- the hair, the fleece, the sensible shoes, the emphatic eyebrows on the male version. It's a comforting thing to see.

These rehearsals with the instruments are sometimes better than the performance itself- hearing how the phrases are fine-tuned during practice after practice, the rush of that first time when what had been one person playing piano becomes a twenty-piece orchestra, the director's commands shouted over the music to different sections. It'll all be over too quickly but until that time I'm enjoying every minute of it, and I'm so glad to be here this year instead of abroad like I was for last year's concert.

*and if you rvk dwellers have nothing else to do on Thursday, come on over. It'll be swell