Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The moon outside

Curious George

I took the girls to the cinema after lunch. It was either "The Wild" or "Curious George" and even though the first one - a big Walt Disney production - is playing every hour, we went for the latter, which is small production and only shows every three hours.
No regrets: it is money and time well spent !
"Curious George" is simply (and the keyword here is simply) the best and cutest film for small children that I have ever seen (including the Disney classics we all grew up with). It's extremely basic (no double-meanings for grownups, contrary to the current fashion in small kids' movies) yet extraordinarily expressive and appealing to young minds and hearts. The colours, the music, the streamlined 1950s style drawing are absolutely fantastic. An instant classic.
Ana and Clara adored it and so did I.
Note: To put my appraisal into context, I must say that I don't think I've missed a single movie for kids in the last 11 years and that I don't usually enjoy them.

In the News

So, what's new?: "Gore: Bush is 'renegade rightwing extremist' " -- The Guardian

Why I don't like the tube: "Trapped in a tunnel on night train to nowhere" - The Times

About YouTube, the latest internet phenomenon: "YouTube's remarkable success is part of a wider internet phenomenon [...]: we are moving from an era when we were all consumers of online information into one where most of us produce it too." --The Guardian

and, last but not least: "48 hours in Lisbon" -- The Guardian

Monday, May 29, 2006

City Daily Photo Blogs



Photograph above: the Medicis Fountain, in the Luxembourg gardens, with a new piece of modern art by Lotta Hannerz. This and other daily photos of Paris taken by a friendly Parisian in here (worth a visit).
Some other cities with Daily Photo Blogs are:

Madrid and Vienna are not yet in there.

The Wheel

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Woods with Millstone, 1898-1900

Through winter-time we call on spring,
And through the spring on summer call,
And when abounding hedges ring
Declare that winter's best of all;
And after that there's nothing good
Because the spring-time has not come -
Nor know that what disturbs our blood
Is but its longing for the tomb.


poem by William Butler Yeats

Sunday, May 28, 2006

London on the run

We're back. Didn't have much luck with the weather in London but it was still fun.
We stayed at a hotel in Kings Cross, right above the busy railway line. The view from the window was very similar to the one in the "The Ladykillers" (with Alec Guiness; great film!). The noise was so frequent and so loud that, if it wasn't for the fact that I wasn't being rocked around, it would have felt pretty much the same as when I traveled overnight between Lisbon and Madrid in the sleeper-car of the Lusitania train.
Mary Poppins was a hit with Ana but apparently not so with Clara, who, as soon as she spotted the almost invisible lines that made it possible for the characters to fly, announced that she thought that the whole thing was a sham and that it was boring. As far as I'm concerned, thought, the evening out was well worth the almost £200 we paid for it and I don't think the girls will ever forget it. The sets and the scenography were fantastic, so were the special effects and I must say that I much prefer the script of the theatre play to that of the 1960s movie with Julie Andrews, which I find a lot sillier. The acting, singing and dancing were also excellent, as to be expected from a West End Theatre.
The London Zoo was a bit more successful in raising some all-around enthusiasm, in spite of the persistent rain. We took shelter for some time in those omnipresent pavilions dedicated to bugs, spiders and reptiles which seem to attract kids' interest like an magnet. Why do kids love creepy-crawlies so ????!!! Yew ...
Accident prone as I am, I managed to have a minor incident when we were getting into one of the famous and prohibitively expensive London cabs (in soaking rain, we were fleeing from the Zoo, near which there are no buses or tube stations, and heading towards The British Museum): I banged the top of my head pretty hard against the top of the door frame when I was getting in and somehow this also hurt the back of my neck. The neck pain was awful and I almost passed out. Really. Fortunately I was able to concentrate, move and speak and after a while we decided to go ahead with the plans for the rest of the day. The pain started to subside a little and today all that remains is a sore neck.
No more plans for the rest of the girls' midterm holidays: the weather is really lousy. Can you believe that tomorrow's high is a mere 11 degrees Celsius and the low is 5 degrees ? Meanwhile in Lisbon, they're baking at 33 degrees Celsius! The climate is truly going mad.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

School holidays

All set to go to and have family fun in London. No posting for a couple of days.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Aphonia

I've been aphonic for most of the week. All I can do is whisper and even that triggers the most violent coughing fits, so I just try to keep my mouth shut all day. This is not too bad as I find that my daughters' reaction to my silence and whispers is ... silence and whispers, which means that the noise level has been drastically reduced around the house in the last few days.
I'm trying really hard not to let the virus (or whatever it is) spread and therefore I've stopped kissing my kiddos, which is really hard for me because I usually kiss them profusely. That's the real downer. Other than that, think I could have taken a silence vow and lived comfortably with it.

Lisbon

In this Saturday's Guardian Travel supplement there will be a guide to my beloved city of Lisbon. Readers' tips on how to discover and best enjoy its charms are being compiled and a selection of them will be published. Keep an eye on it here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Tidying up

I'm finally organizing THE MILLSTONE's thematic archives (manually, as Blogger leaves a lot to be desired as far as tagging and indexing is concerned!). The Music Archive is almost sorted out and I've tried to ensure that each music file is accessible. Next will be the Paintings Archive followed by the Poetry Archive. After all, there's always work to do on your blog even if it's not writing ...

Casta Diva

Playing on the iPod is the lovely Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma, superbly performed by Cecilia Bartoli.


Vincenzo Bellini's Norma is the quintessential Bel Canto opera. Few arias compare to "Casta Diva" and its eloquent, meandering melodic line lightly decorated with ornamental fioritura, a simultaneous evocation of the chaste and the erotic.

The opera offers its heroine a role that is both strong and sympathetic with moments of extreme pathos. It demands a capable dramatic soprano with great agility and firm technique who is able to expressively declaim and convey the meaning of Romani's painstakingly selected phrases. Bellini's Norma combines the requirements of both a coloratura and a dramatic soprano, calling for not only perfect vocal agility but intensity, stamina, and a wide range of characterizations as well. Since the opera's premiere in 1831, there have been only a handful of Normas who have truly captured every aspect of this all-encompassing role.

Maria Callas adopted Norma as her
signature role and she sang it over 40 times. Between 1948-1965, she was the reigning interpreter of this taxing part.

You can watch Callas perform this aria in a recording made in Paris in 1958.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Barcarolle

Playing on the iPod is Barcarolle from Offenbach's opera "Tales of Hoffmann", a beautiful gondolier song which I used to play when I was learning to play the piano and which was made even more beautiful by the incredibly romantic part it played in the movie La Vita è Bella.

Buon giorno, Principessa!

I'm longing to meet Venice ... Will I ever go there ?

Google doodles

Google's logo today commemorates the birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to whom we owe the existence of that ever so brilliant Baker Street detective, Sherlock Holmes (and of course that of his most trusted friend and biogropher, Dr. Watson, and his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty).
Previous Google doodles can be found here. Most of them are really nice.

A gold coin

Clara's first milk tooth fell out during the night. At first we though she might have swallowed it but then I found it in her bed. She went to school proudly displaying her beautiful, missing-one-tooth smile.
I'll have to polish a copper coin so that it shines like gold before tonight. Nowadays even tooth fairies have to be subsidized.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sunday bliss

The 2nd movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major will always be sublime.

Produced in less than one month in 1785, Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto was notoriously demanding for other soloists to perform to the composer's own performance standard, but it remains the ne plus ultra of the Mozartian piano repertoire.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

A Walk

painting by Pierre Auguste Renoir 1841-1919, Low Tide at Yport, 1883

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and charges us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.


poem by
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Robert Bly

Food for the soul

I'm listening to this again. This time I'll try to share just a tiny bit of it with you. Unsurpassable.



La Campanella

Playing on the iPod is the 3rd movement of Nicolo Paganini's Violin Concerto no. 2 in B minor, "La Campanella". Beautiful. Click on the iPod icon on the top of the page or on the picture of the CD cover to listen to it. It's worth it.

Nicolò Paganini, (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) was an Italian violinist, violist, guitarist and composer. He is one of the most famous violin virtuosi, and is considered one of the greatest violinists who ever lived, with perfect intonation and innovative techniques. He is also widely regarded as the first ever virtuoso violinist.

A pervading myth about him is that he sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his fearsome technique, a rumor which he delighted in and may have even started himself. During a performance his eyes would roll into the back of his head while playing, revealing the whites. His swaying stance, long unruly hair and thin, gaunt stature would add to this rumor. He played so intensely that women would faint and men would break out weeping.

In 1826, Paganini composed his second violin concerto in Italy. Its third movement, the rondo, owes its nickname "La Campanella" or "La Clochette" to the little bell which Paganini prescribes to presage each recurrence of the rondo theme. The character of the bell is also imitated in the orchestra and in some of the soloist's passages featuring harmonics. The outcome is a very transparent texture, which gains extra charm of gypsy coloration. This movement gives proof of a compositional mastery which Paganini is too often alleged not to possess.

- Taken from the Wikipedia -

Therapeutical list

Things to be excited about:

- Clara's first wobbly tooth: the tooth fairy is going to give her a shinning coin for the first time when it falls out. She's thrilled: up until now the tooth fairy only left presents for her sister.
- Plans for the midterm break next week: trains (Ana and Clara have never been on a train!), the London Zoo and Prince Edward Theatre to see Mary Poppins; perhaps also Legoland in Windsor... don't know yet. Everything is so expensive! I've just remembered that last year I was in Paris with friends during the girls' midterm break.
- Mum and Dad's visit in a few weeks time. It's been our longest separation yet: 6 months since we were last with them, at Christmas!
- Plans for a garden makeover: new lawn and plants in the backgarden, new pavement and fencing in the front. As soon as the house is ours.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Today's highlights

My lovelies had a disco party at school this evening. They both looked gorgeous and had a good time. Earlier on in the day, Clara's class had been out on a walk around a nearby lake to observe local wild life, so it's been a long and exciting day for her.
As for me, I have the most debilitating, nauseous, blinding, head-splitting migraine I've had for a long time . I'm going to bed and leaving hubby in charge.

PS - No other relevant news.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The nerve !!!

The rentals agency says our chinese landlord doesn't want them to send anyone to look at the alarm system. Reportedly he said we can easily solve the problem by switching off the alarm at night ! What nerve !!! If he's thinking that he has nothing to lose by not fullfilling his obligations as landlord just because we are finalizing the legal formalities for buying the house he's very wrong as we're still paying exactly the same rent. Still, it's yet another battle and yet another headache.
PS - Our very nice and helpful next-door neighbour (I'm shattered that they're moving out before Summer, but that's another story) doesn't think that there's anything moving in the kitchen: his dog sleeps in the kitchen and that doesn't trigger their alarm. He thinks it's just the sensor that needs some maintenance.

It's not over yet ...

Yo no creo en las brujas, pero que las hay, las hay.

It wasn't the spider and it wasn't in the dining room (it's starting to sound like Cluedo!). The alarm detects movement in the kitchen (deduction after much empirical testing in the middle of the night). No signs of rodents or other fauna (arghhhhhh!!!!). The curious bit is that it only goes off during the night and not once during the day, when we set the alarm whenever we all leave the house. We'll have to call the alarm company.

Monday, May 15, 2006

In the garden

Lullaby

The adequate soundtrack for last night's predicament: The Cure's Lullaby.

Mad night

Last night I went to bed early, at around 11:30 pm. I was really tired because of all the domestic chores I never manage to avoid on Sundays and also because of all the playing around in the garden before supper (Clara has gone sporty with a vengeance and she gave me quite a workout yesterday !). I wanted to get a good night's sleep to start off the week on the right foot.
However, it was not to be.
A short time after falling asleep, it must have been around midnight, the downstairs security-alarm went off. Hubby and I rushed down the stairs, turned the alarm off and spent nearly an hour trying to figure out what might have triggered it and looking for the user-manual with the correspondence between the alert codes on the control panel and the rooms in the house. Having found this and finally being able to properly interpret the alarm, we deduced that the the system had registered movement in the dining-room, where there's a sliding door to the garden. With this in mind, we ran another inspection but found nothing: the outside door was properly closed and locked and nothing seemed to be out of place. We decided to set the alarm again and go back to bed.
I stayed awake for a while and after about an hour I dozed off ... just in time to be abruptly awaken by the strident shrills of the security-alarm once again. Back we went downstairs and nothing did we find. We reset the alarm. Back we went upstairs and tried to go back to sleep, not really understanding what was going on.
After awhile, half-asleep and half-awake, I noticed that Ana had gotten up and was standing outside my bedroom door. She was having one of her sleepwaking spells and talking something that made no sense whatsoever (fortunately this is happening less and less nowadays and she never, ever, goes downstairs). I managed to talk her into going back to bed, although she was clearly upset with me in her dream.
A short time later, Clara woke up because she was having a nightmare and she was thirsty. She came to sleep in our bed.
It was now past 4 in the morning and I still hadn't slept for more than 10 minutes. After much tossing and turning, I fell asleep. Not for long, though: at 5:30, the security-alarm went off again! It was already day outside and after drawing open all the curtains downstairs and yet again failing to find anything wrong, hubby decided to go back to bed and leave the alarm off, which lead me to chose to start my day a bit earlier than usual and stay downstairs. On my way to the kitchen to make some much needed coffee, I noticed a not-so-small spider speeding on the dining-room ceiling and a big, freshly woven, spider web near the alarm sensor.
STUPID, STUPID SPIDER.
Needless to say it and its house no longer exist.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

To choose or not to choose ...

This very interesting opinion article in today's Observer claims that, from saving to eating, our choices seem to be mainly driven by a desire for immediate satisfaction, disregarding the long-term consequences such as poor-health, unhappiness and depression. It argues that maybe choice should be limited, so as to guard us from our self-destructive instincts ...

From saving to food, we make terrible choices
Smokers know what it is to be regulated. How long before over-eaters suffer similar sanction?
by Will Hutton, Sunday May 14, 2006


Choice is today's big thing, but there is growing uneasiness about where it leads. In two very different ways, our capacity to choose was challenged last week and for very similar reasons. Choice might not always be right.

By voting down a proposal that seemed to have logic, compassion and the cultural consensus in favour of choice on its side, the House of Lords decided that it would not accept the right of the terminally ill to choose to die early. And Mr Blair and Mr Brown sued for peace over the Turner pension plan that will enrol every British worker in a national pensions saving plan. You will have to opt out rather than opt in, which changes the nature of the choice.

Choice is becoming more contested and the ideologists are on the prowl. Economic libertarians, such as the Economist, see this as soft paternalism threatening fundamental liberties. Turner's crime, raged the magazine, is that he is setting up his preferred choice against the choice of individuals.

His proposal, they argued, is a paternalist's sleight of hand and we should be on our guard. As every insurance salesman knows, once sold a saving plan we don't leave. When practised on a national scale by the state, it is a cunning extension of state power, not even justified by a doubling of the numbers who save. The right action is to let people suffer the pain of their choices alongside the rewards of their pleasures.

But, suddenly, the argument has less resonance. Turner is winning in a way impossible even five years ago. There is a growing awareness that we are myopic in the way we make choices and that the abundance of choice that affluence brings is making us unhappy. We seem incapable of making choices in our own best interests and wealth makes the consequences worse.

An intriguing book by Avner Offer, one of Britain's most subtle thinkers about how we live now, champions an alternative to the view of choice, as expressed in the Economist piece. In The Challenge of Affluence, Offer argues that economists (by inference, the magazine) are wrong in the way they think about choice.

The Oxford economic historian marshals an extraordinary array of evidence to demonstrate that the instinct of human beings is to want instant gratification: whether from sex, food, gambling or spending rather than saving, the human animal consistently underestimates the future costs of what he or she is doing in the here and now.

This is hardly news, except to economists who believe human beings rationally calibrate the costs and benefits of any action over time.

The question for all societies, argues Offer, is how to solve this individual tendency to self-destruct, and the answer has generally been to create incentives for self-control. Some are social, such as the stigma that used to be associated with deserting your family; some are regulatory, like controls on gambling. One way or another, society tries to limit bad individual choices.

What makes Offer's thesis original is that he argues that affluence makes self-control even harder and the capacity for individual self-destruction even greater.

Take eating. There is an epidemic of obesity (a fifth of the British are now obese). Waistlines have expanded, airline seats are larger, coffins are too small. More than that, there is unambiguous evidence that obesity diminishes life expectancy and life chances generally.

Yet we are helpless over-eaters. Affluence has brought more to eat that is cheaper, tastier and more readily available. The best way of controlling your food intake is eating in a socially controlled setting, the old system of family meals cooked by women at home. That has been shattered.

Women's entry into the labour market, and men's refusal to take on the cooking role, means that family eating has collapsed as a phenomenon, pushed aside by the supermarket and the microwave. Affluence means that we now spend a quarter of our food budgets on eating out.

The consequence is a profound conflict. Like gamblers, we cannot resist the next tasty snack or extra portion even though we know it will make us fat. We try in vain to slim. We try to exercise, hence the growth in the number of gyms and private trainers. Some binge eat in revolt. Some, mainly women because society values female thinness, become anorexic or suffer from bulimia. Eating disorders are becoming more prevalent. More and more people seeking cosmetic surgery do so for fat reduction.

In vain, economists try to explain this crisis as the result of a collectively rational choice. It is obvious to all but the most obtuse that it is the result of collective myopia; moreover, affluence is making the crisis worse. For Offer, however, there is a ray of hope. Smokers were in the same situation as today's over-eaters but have willingly submitted to greater and greater regulations. Could we go the same way over food?

Last week, Tesco signalled that it had read the runes and offered to label its own products more clearly so that consumers can make better-informed choices over what they buy. But, as Offer argues, even if we know that some item of food is bad for us because we can read its contents in the label, we still go ahead and buy it. To go further, we may need some of what the Economist would disparagingly call 'soft paternalism', and direct supermarkets to locate unhealthy food in the least visited part of the store, thus helping to save us from ourselves.

One of Offer's findings is that women may be better at self-control than men and more aware of the consequences of their actions. Any parent comparing their son's approach to studying for GCSEs against a daughter's will know what Offer means. Many more women than men are now going on to higher education; like obesity, this is threatening to become an epidemic.

Do we stand idly by on all these issues? For the past 20 years, the story has been that nothing must obstruct choice. We still want to choose, but we want safeguards against our own blindness and mistakes, even when the case seems irrefutable. Our culture is now subtly changing.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Change of weather ...

... but no change of mood. Some rain actually feels good after these hot last few days. Click on Gene Kelly to hear him singin' in the rain (isn't it such a great tune ?)

Moral decadence

One of the most popular songs among youngsters in the Western world is currently something called "Beep" by a group called The Pussycat Dolls. Like all her friends, my eleven year old daughter loves this song (even though she claims she can't understand what it's about) and downloaded it from iTunes using her monthly allowance. When I heard the lyrics for the first time, I was appalled: it is basically a song about genitals and masturbation. A couple of months ago, "My Humps", a hit by the Black Eyed Peas, was all about a girl's buttocks and breasts and the presents she received from boyfriends because of them. Both these groups (Pussycat Dolls and Black Eyed Peas) are particularly popular with pre-teens and young teens (older teens "evolve" to more aggressive rap music or other music genres).
Yesterday, all over the newspapers and on the radio, was a story about an 11-year-old girl in Edinburgh who got pregnant by a 15-year-old boy after a drunken night out (!!!). She's now 12 and about to have the baby. Her 34-year-old mother claims she's proud of her daughter's maturity (!!!) and the boy is being charged for statutory rape even though the girl consented to sex (!).
What is this world coming to ? Is this really more "civilized" that the third world cultures we claim to be superior to ?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Outside

Gare d'Austerlitz

Playing on the iPod is a present from my little sister: Gare d'Austerlitz, a music by José Mario Branco. It means a lot to the political exiles who left Portugal and headed for Paris during the sixties and early seventies because of the fascist regime.

Thank you sis. It is lovely.

Le Sud-Express au départ de Paris-Austerlitz

Spring

painting by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Le Printemps, Giverny (1900)

The sunshine seeks my little room
To tell me Paris streets are gay;
That children cry the lily bloom
All up and down the leafy way;
That half the town is mad with May,
With flame of flag and boom of bell:
For Carnival is King to-day;
So pen and page, awhile farewell.

Poem by
Robert William Service

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Early summer

For the most part of the past week, we've been blessed with glorious and very atypical weather for this time of year in this part of the world: temperatures well above 20ºC, sunshine, clear blue skies and no wind. Being out in the garden is a delight once again, the fragrance in the air is floral, fresh and sweet, the warmth of the sun on my bare skin feels exhilarating and sensual, hanging the washing out to dry and doing some gardening is a pleasure and even little things like leaving windows and doors open throughout the day and not having the heating on during the night feel great.
Not a good week to blog, as inspiration evidently lies elsewhere. There would be a lot to blog about, though, starting with some disturbing international news involving the USA, Russia, Iran, Iraq and the EU, going on to having my say - who cares ?? - about the ludicrous pseudo-crisis fueled by the media and the opposition around Tony Blair's stepping down from power to give way to Gordon Brown - or maybe I should just say it outright: to David Cameron - and ending with my impressions of tonight's final episode of The Apprentice (Ruth Badger should have won !). None of that, though. Maybe when it starts raining again ...

PS - Ana's SAT's have been going fine so far. Science and English are over. Maths tomorrow and on Friday. They are having a disco party next week to celebrate the end of it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Blogging

Video - For the birds

This is a family favourite from Pixar.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring

Playing on the iPod is the formidable "Glorification of the chosen victim" from part 2 (The Sacrifice) of Stravinsky's barbarian The Rite of Spring. This particular interpretation is utterly awesome: Valery Gergiev conducts the Kirov Orchestra in a historical 2001 recording. Well worth buying the CD.

Homework

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Whew !

What a delightful (and hectic !) week this has been ! Ana turned 11 on Friday (my goodness! it still feels like it was only yesterday I was bringing her home from the hospital for the first time, just a tiny and very primitive reddish bundle; it's a cliché but it's true), she had a big birthday party, with family and friends (the weather was unusually warm and glorious, which made it possible for the kids to enjoy the garden), my adored sisters came to visit for a couple of days (Ana's most cherished present, without a doubt) and, of course, lots of build-up, expectations, preparations, shopping, gardening, cooking, cleaning (big, BIG spring clean) and so on and so on.

I'm beat but it was worth it: everyone had a good time and happiness really was in the air !

Another big week ahead: SAT's week for Ana.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Happy Birthday Ana