Year of Grace, Day 34. A mobile farm

Most Fridays, my friend and I meet for what we have come to call “setting the world to rights.” We are both women of a certain age — as a matter of fact we were born on the same year. Though not on the same date. Our spouses as well , as you would expect, are also of a certain age.  Coincidentally and amazingly, they were also born on the same year. We have been friends since I came to Bonn six years ago.

Friday is a good time to unwind and laughter is very loud and frequent on these sessions. We start with English and halfway through switch to German. Fueled with good coffee, our minds skip and dance from topic to topic. Cakes — each week one of us is responsible for this “coffee-pusher” — bring our bodies’  and minds’ low energy, only natural at the end of a working week, to an acceptable level. Perhaps sometimes dangerously high, as we come up with the craziest and wildest of ideas.

My friend is partial to the cakes from a French patisserie on Poppelsdorf.  All sorts of interesting tarts and tortes: strawberry, blueberry, or mixed fruit tarts with creamy fillings and crisp buttery crusts are the handiwork of a talented all woman-run confiserie.  My favourite of these is a very tart (pardon the pun) lime-lemon tart, which comes filled with a puckeringly sour-sweet citrus custard, topped with a slice of lime and, for added colour, a slice of strawberry complete with green leaf.  My own preference when it is my turn is however for plain English-type cakes, some of which I may bake myself. I like cakes whose natural goodness is not bolstered with an abundance of whipped cream, but perhaps with a hint of rum or madeira.  An old-fashioned loaf of fruitcake (the dried fruits having guzzled a fair amount of liqueur) or a cake made of ground nuts and afterwards drizzled with a lemon glaze or a traditional German yeast cake with a filling of marzipan or cherries or some other fruit in season. (Btw, these occasions are one of my departures from my gluten-free regime. The other is celebratory cakes. I am all for a temporary liberation from a strict routine. Everything in moderation is a good motto to have.)

Occasionally, my friend brings out a treasure trove of Middle Eastern delights – baklava, ma’amoul, diverse and whimsical confections created around ground pistachios and almonds, accented with the scents of roses and orange blossoms. These heady exotic pastries are regarded as too sweet by others, such as her family, but not by the two of us. These seem straight out of the fabled courts of the Arabian nights, and go exceedingly well — too exceedingly so — with coffee. Or herb tea – in the winter our favourite is a blend called Kaminfeuer (chimney fire) – rosehips and hibiscus with cinnamon. Mercifully these exotica are rare, or we would be sure to take on the generously luscious proportions of sultan’s concubines. (Now there’s a thought!)

As with the diversity of our tasty offerings, our discussions touch upon all manner of topics. They range from global warming to the invasion of alien plant and animal species, the amount of agrochemicals in our food crops, to the aberrant timing of the weather. She regards me as “English,” having lived in England for close to a decade and a half, and since I have taken on some quaint British mannerisms, such as my spelling, for instance. Thus the topic of weather – that classic British standby — is a sure prelude to interesting conversation.

Whatever one of us has been reading about, or has attended a lecture or conference in, feeds these weekly exchanges. Our interests have certain common tangential points: in particular, we are both deeply interested in nature, the earth, and its biodiversity. But whereas I focus on plants and gardening, my friend focuses on wildlife, most particularly on European birds. She always carries mini binoculars with high magnification, and like me, has also taken to carrying her camera everywhere.

With our spouses’ retirement on the horizon, last week’s session centred on what we would do henceforth. The idea of travelling all over without any definite plan came up. How wonderful it would be to have a mobile home and to go anywhere we please at random. We could stop wherever there was an agreeable site with some points of interest, such as a literary or musical tradition or a traditional craft. Perhaps an ongoing fair or festival. If there was an inviting local inn, we could stay there. If not, there was always the mobile home to repair to. If there was some kind of promising local cuisine, then certainly we could try out the local fare. If not (and the possibility of this is quite remote, as we are both rather adventurous in the culinary department), and there was a market of locally grown or caught ingredients, then we could always cook our own. It sounded like an ideal way of life. Perhaps for a year or two, living on the road.

But what will you do about your garden? my friend asked.

Now that was something I hadn’t thought of. A window box of a few herbs and annual flowers? I could place it securely on the roof of the mobile home.

This was the point at which our imaginations began to run wild.

I could perhaps convert the entire roof into a succulent meadow – with sedums and drought-tolerant grasses. That would provide insulation against heat and cold as well. And why not a solar panel or two? And a couple of black-painted water containers linked to the solar panels for hot water?

” There won’t be enough room for your plants,” said my friend. “How about an Anhänger (a trailer)?”

Oh, that sounds fab! One-meter-square gardening!

“You could go vertical – at the very bottom, mushrooms, then at the middle, salads, and at the very top, tomatoes.”

Perfect! The mushrooms need the dark; salads don’t need too much light; and the tomatoes will have all the light they need.

“You will need some chickens,” added my friend. “For sustainability.”

Of course, chicken manure is known to be extremely rich. “Okay then, a wire cage surrounding all, with enough room for the chickens to go all the way around and up and down.

“Just like a hamster run with ramps,” said my friend. “You’ll have to cage them up or they’ll eat all the produce.”

Oh yes, this was beginning to sound really interesting.

“You can also paint the outside, just like a gypsy caravan.”My imagination balked at this. A bit too flower-childrenish, too 70s, I thought.

“And get sponsorship, and write a blog about your journey…” my friend went on. “And tiny sheep….”

And bonsai fruit trees, I thought. A most interesting plan indeed.

Thus did last Friday’s session on setting the world to rights go. We didn’t go too deeply into the world’s affairs, such as how to solve the Palestinian question, for instance. Or into evidences of global warming and why the azaleas in her garden are blooming again now, when they are normally spring bloomers. We just enjoyed having their lovely, unseasonal blooms. Not asking too much about how or why. Just revelling in the azalea’s rose-like form.

I am enormously thankful for these rare blessings. To have such a friend – wise about life and people, witty, fiercely intelligent, funny, widely read and travelled, with such a diverse range of interests. I am also grateful that despite our different backgrounds – she’s German, I’m Filipino – we share similar perspectives on many topics. And at the same time, we can freely shed different or conflicting lights on other topics, without any animosity. Most of all, I am thankful to have these convivial Friday sessions where we put forth our considered solutions, practical or not, to the world’s ills and set them to rights. Just the normal preoccupation of two crazy women of a certain age with wild and crazy ideas.  This past Friday we focused, instead of the greater world out there, on the micro – our own little, private worlds.

I think hers and my idea of a mobile, sustainable, vertical farm sounds perfectly doable. Any suggestions for refinement and technical considerations are most welcome. Do send them in!

I attach a sketch from one of my favourite books — Sara Midda’s South of France. I can definitely see myself travelling along such landscapes. But with tomatoes and herbs in a mobile farm, it may be a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle. But it doesn’t matter, does it? And it could all be tremendously fun!

Sketches from South of France, A Sketchbook, by Sara Midda.

Sketches from South of France, A Sketchbook, by Sara Midda.

 

Year of Grace, Day 33. Autumn’s ephemera

Beauty – nature’s beauty — is truly fleeting. Yesterday’s walk to a friend’s house provided some beauties that won’t be around for long  — the brilliance of an ivy-clad house, baskets of penny bun mushrooms and chanterelles, a single red leaf on a wall, most likely the last one on the vine.

Ivy clad house

This morning I woke to a beautifully flushed sky. There were clouds tinted like the inside of a conch shell.  I was fortunate enough to capture some shots before the camera’s battery needed recharging. Almost immediately the sky turned to lead – the usual colour of an autumn morning — and the pink-orange clouds had vanished. Waking up early on a weekend certainly has its rewards, and this was one of them.  To have seen the ephemeral beauty of this morning’s sky, I am heartily grateful.

Yet one more instance of nature’s beauty, quenched rather tragically, lies outside on the lawn. I haven’t yet gone closer to inspect it, but from the windows of my study I glimpse scattered feathers. It seems as if a poor bird has fallen prey to some predator. The most likely candidate is the neighbour’s fat grey cat that often comes to ingratiate itself by rubbing against M’s leg and trying to charm him into giving it some milk.  I would rather have the engaging visits of the birds than this cat, adorable though he is, and I have not encouraged its attempts to make itself at home. Nevertheless, it persists and comes oftener than I or, more to the point, the birds would like. Doubtless it thinks we will succumb to its charms eventually.  The culprit could also have been one of the foxes often heard calling to each other at night with their curious cough-like barking. I haven’t seen any of them, but M has. And they have left their telltale scent along the hazelnut hedge.

As I write this, a couple of male blackbirds have come to inspect the bird’s remains. I had not thought blackbirds were scavengers. However it turns out they have simply come to have a look — perhaps to check that it is not one of their own, or some bird acquaintance. Perhaps they’ve come to pay their respects, and having done so, they’ve quickly flown off.  Another blackbird, a female this time, came, paused briefly, and off she went. I wonder what could really be going on with these brief visits. Whatever it is, I am thankful to be a privileged witness.  Condensation on the windows of the study shields me from direct view and, thankfully, I can freely watch the birds as they come and go.

Meanwhile the gas fitter, a pleasant young man, has finished his work. I am so grateful to have directly piped gas now.  Cooking with a visible blue flame is such a pleasure for me, and for M as well, as he’s also a cooking enthusiast.  Ahhh… to have properly working kitchen equipment… such a blessing indeed!

For the beauties of nature — fleeting though they are and sometimes tragic — and other, less beautiful though eminently useful, blessings, I am mightily thankful.

Year of Grace, Day 32. Heavenly

All summer long I had waited.  The intensely blue ones were the first, followed by the reddish purple ones.  But the morning glory flowers that I had set my heart on were the heavenly blue ones, aptly named “Heavenly Blue.”  I thought that perhaps the mixed batch of seeds didn’t really have any, or if it did, they did not have enough vigour to sprout or compete with the rest.  I had sown them among pelargoniums, anticipating the sight of a riot of morning glory of all colours – pale and intense blue and reddish purple – among the pink pelargoniums with a blotch of purple in their centres.

This morning, the long- awaited, much anticipated heavenly morning glory has bloomed!  And what a lovely, delicate colour it is.  I woke up to it this morning, and it made this rainy day, continuing on from last night, a most heavenly and glorious one. If you notice, it has a tiny corner of reddish purple. An interesting dash of individuality. I am most curious to see what its sibling flowers will be like.

Miss Heavenly Blue

Miss Heavenly Blue

I am tempted to think Miss Heavenly Blue was biding her time to have the limelight all to herself. During the summer, with the pelargoniums and other intensely coloured morning glories filling the window box where I had sown them, her paler blooms might not have gotten all the attention they deserve. Now that the other flowers have spent all their energy and are getting ready to wind down, Miss Heavenly Blue has finally decided that her time has come to make an entrance. Against the hazy light and watery sky of a rainy autumn day, Miss Heavenly Blue is luminous. She is truly a heavenly, glorious sight on this grey morning, for which I am most thankful.

We are most definitely into autumn, and the leaves on the earliest trees to leaf out – the Amelanchier (also known as Juneberry for its small blue edible berries) and the cherry and the poplar – have all fallen. There are no Japanese maples in this neighbourhood with their spectacular colours, but there are a few shrubs that are making quite a splash.

The forsythia still has a few of its crimson leaves. The steady rain has made them gleam and jewels of raindrops shine among the yellow buds, which are rather unseasonal, as forsythia is more of a spring bloomer.  And next door, an ailanthus is calling attention to itself against the green hazel hedge. The ailanthus must have been dropped there as a seed by birds. Continuing the heavenly theme, it is also known as the Tree of Heaven.

The heavens are certainly opening up – they have been doing so since last night and are expected to do so all day today. I find it comforting to hear the steady sound of rain outside when I am snugly cushioned in a warm bed. On a day like this though, what I would most like to do is sit on an old-fashioned, roomy wingback chair with a blanket next to a log fire and read.  Alas, I don’t have such a chair nor such a fire, and I have planned to make some quince jelly today.

Other than these glories of nature, I am additionally thankful for a gas fitter coming punctually when he said he would. I am also grateful that the batch of quinces that I have simmered in the pressure cooker have turned out all right. Their colour is of a beautiful, deepest garnet – as I had wished them to be. I had meant to cook them under pressure for only half an hour, as I had never used a pressure cooker to soften quinces before.  I got so involved in my attempt to paint in the style of etegami (“picture letter” in Japanese), that I forgot all about them for rather much longer than that.  Thank heaven they turned out perfect!

Year of Grace, Day 31. Everyday beauty

There are times when I am so taken by the colours and forms of fruits – simple fruits, nothing spectacular – that I am moved to photograph them.  I almost added the word “vegetables.”  Vegetables, unless they are leaves, are also fruits, I have to remind myself.  An avocado, a basket of quinces, a squash quaintly named Sweet Dumpling, a couple of plums with their blue blush. I cannot recall what to call this gossamer overcoat that just-picked plums wear.  As soon as they are washed or rubbed or even just touched, this lovely pale blue layer is gone. I only know it is a layer of airborne fungi, the same that is on grapes and that starts the process of natural fermentation. The same layer most likely is also on all other fruits, except we and our eyes are not aware of it. It only shows up strikingly on dark-skinned fruits – purple grapes and plums, blueberries. This morning I photographed the fruits I had in the kitchen in the morning light – faint and watery because it has been raining all night and the sun is rather hesitant to come out on such an unpromising landscape.

 

I am thankful for this everyday beauty, and I understand why still life paintings are so inspired by the ordinary and the commonplace – fruits, vegetables, cups, jugs, whatever we use and have around us all the time. They have such a quiet beauty, these ordinary day-to-day things.

What else am I grateful for on this day, the beginning of the second month of my gratitude journal? The sun has after all decided that it is worth shining upon this newly washed vegetation. In the sun’s gleam, drops of rain sparkle like gems on the yew needles. A European jay – that magnificent creature with its splendid blue underwing that is so startling – has landed on the trellis that supports the blue hydrangea. It flies off and lands on the other blue hydrangea, scanning the garden. We haven’t put out the birdfeeders yet. Perhaps it is trying to remind us that it is time to have those out.

A surprise dinner invitation from a friend who had been ill for quite some time; meeting intelligent and engaging young people; being helped by M to prepare a basketful of quinces for making into jelly; discovering a variety of grapes I’d never eaten before. These grapes smelled of guavas and tasted of guavas. They also tasted and smelled vaguely of kiwis. Absolutely astonishing. They were small, round, and the colour of clear jade. They clustered together on the stalk like the small, purple Japanese grapes that I adored as a student in Tokyo, and that have a slightly foxy flavour. They are most likely a variety of Muscat, but never having tasted Muscat grapes except in wine, I am not certain that this is what they are.  It is wonderful to be able to taste such an extraordinary variety of a common fruit. They had come from a friend’s parents’ garden.

I am thankful to be writing this journal when my memory is still moderately reliable. Just now I recalled the name of the blue powdery coating on grapes and plums. It is not so bad — remembering what it is one has forgotten after a few minutes. I am no longer bothered when some word escapes my recall. After a while, minutes, hours, or even days, it comes to me.

And just now, it has. I am truly thankful.  It is called “bloom.” How could I, a flower lover like me, forget such a word?

 

Year of Grace, Day 30. Grace Notes

Today marks a month of giving thanks, another milestone, rather a significant one for me.  After 30 days of daily thank-you notes, I am  pondering  the origin of a few words I use in everyday life to express my feelings of gratitude. Thank you in English, danke in German, merci in French, Dios ti agngina in Ilocano, arigato in Japanese, salamat in Tagalog, and gracias in Spanish. This post is going to be rather full of words in different languages and their origins or etymology, and I do beg your kind and gracious indulgence for this little lesson in linguistics. Words and how they come about are one of my interests and I hope you will find the following of interest too.

Old English þancian [probably pronounced ‘thankian’], meaning “to give thanks,” shares with German (danke), Dutch, and other Northern European relatives a common theoretical basis. Linguists assume this to be the Proto Indo-European root word *tong-, meaning “to think, to feel.” (Please note I said “theoretical” as there is no solid evidence that there did exist such a language as “Indo-European.”)  By around the year 1000, the Old English word þanc had come to mean “good thoughts, gratitude.”

The Old French mercit or merci comes from the Latin and shares a common origin with the words for “mercy” and, interestingly, “merchandise.” In the 9th century, merci meant “gift, reward, kindness, grace, pity.” And 300 years later, merci had evolved to mean “God’s forgiveness.”

The Japanese arigato has its origin in arigatashi, from the words “difficulty or hardness (katashi)” and “existence, to be” (ari). Thus, something that was difficult to have or to do, a valuable action or rare event. In Nichiren Buddhism, arigatashi is interpreted as a deep feeling for the mercy and generosity of Bodhisattvas.

I find it remarkable that these three languages have certain commonalities in the concepts or feelings within these three expressions. Good thoughts or feelings of gratitude in English are linked with deep feelings for mercy and generosity in Japanese. The French reward or gift is similarly linked to the idea of something valuable, something difficult to come by in Japanese. The Ilocano Dios ti agngina, which literally means God will value also has “recompense, reward” in its meaning, as have the French and Japanese expressions.

I now turn to the word grace, which around the year 1200 meant “to thank,” from the Old French.  (By the way, grace à is still used in modern French to mean “thanks to”).  “Divine grace, favour, mercy, virtue, good will, pleasing quality, elegance, esteem” – all these are expressed in this single word. Its ancient roots are Latin gratia (thus Spanish gracia).  And again according to linguists, its Ur-ancestor is the theoretical Proto-Indo-European root word *gwere- which means “to favour.”

A Sanskrit relative of *gwere- is the word grnati which apparently means “praises, sings.” This brings us to the word we now use in English for the short prayer before meals – “grace.” We understand “grace” to refer to the gratitude we feel for the food we are about to receive. Until the 16th century, the word was used in the plural — “graces. ” The Spanish “thank you,” retains this plural form — gracias.

The Tagalog word for “thank you,” salamat, alone of all these expressions has its origin in Semitic languages. The word for “peace” in Arabic is salaam, and in Hebrew, shalom. However, we now come full circle since we can link the concept of peace to the Latin gratia, one of whose multiple meanings is that ofgood will.”

Speaking of grace, my name, Jeanne, means “God is gracious,” from the Hebrew “Io”(God) and “chen or khen” (grace). Thus, Johanna or Yohanna.  The names Jean, Joan, John, Jane share the same origin.

Today I give my thanks to you for reading and keeping me company through my grace journey.  I wish you all — you and your family and all your loved ones — grace and goodwill.  Above all, I wish you and our one and only world, and thus all the more valuable and irreplaceable  — peace.

I leave you with a peaceful and gracious scene from Crete.

 

Off the coast in Crete

I also thank my etymological sources: http://www.etymonline.com/; http://www.accessj.com/2014/05/etymology-of-arigato.html. Any errors of misinterpretation from these sources are mine.

 

Year of Grace, Day 29. 120 per cent

This morning I had my usual quarterly eye test, and wonder of wonders, my eyesight was given the unbelievable grade of 120%!  The tests included pressure, eye-hand coordination, and reading. All of which means that I don’t have to have my eyeglass prescription renewed – always a good thing. Thank heavens for that!

I walked back from the eye doctor’s as it’s a bright, sunny, and mild autumn day, for which brilliant weather I am extremely grateful. Sunny days are rare at this time of year, and it always makes me happy when the sun is out.

I decided to walk through a different route from what I normally take, and made some interesting discoveries along the way. For all of these delights that gladdened my eyes and my heart as I walked, I am grateful. I hope you like them too.

Year of Grace, Day 28. Kittens, flowers, fruit, and fungi

Did I want kittens, a friend called to ask.

Oh, perhaps one, but not more, I thought to myself.

‘They’re yellow,’ she quickly went on.

This was getting rather interesting. Yellow kittens?

‘And they have this marvelous scent. Just one can perfume a room.’

A yellow kitten. Strongly scented. Curioser and curioser.

‘I don’t know the English word for them. Kinces?’

Oh…OH…!! QUINCES! I heard you say ‘kittens!’

And that is how I now have sitting in my kitchen and perfuming the entire space plus the dining room and beyond — basketfuls of quinces. I could smell them from the stairs as I went down to breakfast this morning. What a delight quinces are!

Quinces

Quinces

I had planted a quince tree in my Leamington garden. It must have been the most northerly garden to have one. Quinces are an ancient fruit and feature prominently in medieval recipes for various confits and preserves, like the French cotignac. But since they have to be cooked to be eaten, quinces have fallen into disfavour. There is a round, apple-shaped variety which my Turkish friend and I love to eat raw, savouring the slightly astringent, sweet-sourness, much as Southeast Asians, including myself, fall greedily upon slightly underripe mangoes.

Every year once the tree started fruiting, M would make membrillo. Long, involved cooking processes like Peking duck and membrillo making, which take over three days, are his specialty. Ours was such a generous tree – and we would give out quite a lot to the neighbours and friends, and there would still be more. Quince jelly with a delicate pink tint or a bright ruby (if the fruits are made to oxidize further), quinces in vodka, stewed quinces — there are endless ways of cooking them. Quinces are also lovely partnered in a savoury main dish, as they do in Morocco or Iran. Cut them in half – just rub off and wash out the fuzz, no need to peel, take out the core — and roast them slowly, nestled among spiced chicken pieces or other meat, and they impart such a divine fragrance.  And of course there’s Aphrodite’s pudding – quinces grated and mixed with croissant crumbs and a rich custard cream and put to bake gently.  Ahhh, so many possibilities for these wonderful autumn fruits. Thank you, my dear friend, for these golden, perfumed quinces.

Another thing for which I am grateful today are flowers that continue to brighten my day. The Gloriosa lilies and the clematis are still looking wonderful. As are the nasturtiums, despite being trampled on by the water pipe construction crew and passers-by, trying to avoid falling into the gaping pit outside.

And I finally found some huge caps of shiitake! They made a splendid dish – slowly cooked in olive oil and then stuffed with the chopped up stems and spring onions. With a tender cob of corn, they made a lovely light supper.

Fruits, flowers, fungi – what wonderful and beautiful bounty! For these gracious blessings and more — for enabling my family and me to be whole and sound, on this the 28th day of my gratitude journal — I am truly grateful.

 

Year of Grace, Day 27. A bit of comforting with apples

It’s the season for apples, and I’m having quite a surfeit – a 2.5-kilo bag of Topaz and the same of Cox Orange. Topaz, a discovery from a farmers’ market in Bavaria years back, is just the way I like my apples to be — tart-sweet and crisp with a lovely perfume. It also has a gorgeous, gleaming crimson coat. We’d gone through half the bag, and then I wanted to try what a friend regarded as a native German apple – Cox Orange. The bag was actually labeled so – a typical apple of the Rhineland. I’d made it a rule to refrain from buying any non-local varieties of apple. Well… English farmers are likely to be more than a little amused to have this typical English apple so suborned. Since coming to live in Bonn six years ago, I’d been partial to Elstar, an apple not then available in England. I used to buy it from Schneiders, an organic farm shop near the house,  rather unusual in that it is open on Sundays.  Thanks to Schneiders, I’ve been rescued more than once from not having fresh fruits and vegs when I’d forgotten about some Saint’s Day. Bonn celebrates more holidays than other German, Protestant cities, because the state of North Rhine Westphalia is staunchly Catholic.

Topaz apples foreground, Cox Orange behind.

Topaz apples foreground; Cox Orange, smaller and paler, behind.

Unlike the US or the UK, Sundays (as are Saints’ Days) are truly days of rest here, and except for bakeries, shops that sell food are all closed. Restaurants and cafes do open, of course. Schneiders closes down on Sundays in autumn and winter however. For the past few years, I’ve noted that the quality of Elstar, not to mention other fruits, at Schneiders has deteriorated. Despite being seemingly hard and crisp, apples – whether Elstar or Rubinette or in my desperation, an all-time favourite in the UK that I have usually avoided buying here in Bonn, Braeburn — all turned out to be mealy inside, a fatal flaw for an apple meant to be eaten out of hand. For me, at any rate. I might possibly change my taste and my mind, say, in twenty years or so. I have since become disenchanted with Schneiders and no longer buy from them. They are no better and in my experience rather worse than regular supermarkets. Pity.

This batch of Topaz from Rewe on Weberstrasse turned out to be rather too intensely tart and sweet. I figured they would make a lovely apple cake, and I chose a recipe I’d not tried before – a Swabian one. This turned out to be one of the most complex cake recipes I’d ever turned my hand to, and next time, I’ll probably do a bit of modification on the sequence of steps. Still, it has turned out to be a superb cake. There is a natural affinity of apples with butter and cream, as well as marzipan and almond flakes and vanilla custard pudding. And this rich concoction has all of the above, in generous proportions!

Swabian apple cake

Swabian apple cake

 

I don’t often make such rich sweets, nor try my hand at overly ambitious recipes. However, this is a special occasion — an occasion for comforting and being comforted. Today is my mother Angela’s birthday. She would’ve been 103 today had she not passed on at age 99, or possibly 100, in 2011. One of her sisters, the youngest one, my Aunt Anita, confided to one of my nieces that Angela was actually born a year earlier than she had claimed. And since the town records in Santiago, Ilocos Sur all disappeared in smoke when the entire town was razed during the Japanese army’s retreat at the end of World War II, there is no one to gainsay the matter.

Angela, or Mamang, as I called her in Ilocano, may have well gone on living till today had she not fallen and broken her right hip. On this day most especially, I remember my mother and thank her for the poems and stories that she told me at bedtime. I learned the Lord’s Prayer by heart very early on, and ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ — the Psalm of David, the 23rd Psalm. Another one that was our favourite was one of Longfellow’s poems, the one that begins ‘I shot an arrow into the air.’ There was a saying she often quoted: “If to do were as easy as to know, what were good to do? Chapels would have been churches, and poor men’s cottages, princes’ palaces.”

Even towards the last years of her life, her memory rarely failed, in particular when it came to the lyrics of songs. One Christmas, her last one as it would turn out, she sang non-stop for hours from her vast repertoire of Ilocano folk songs, and enjoyed the limelight so much, she was a bit put out when well-meaning family members wished her to have a little rest and hand over the microphone. Whenever there was company, she loved to regale everyone with her great fund of stories. I wish now I had written those down, as my own memory just a month away from my 63rd birthday is quite hazy about certain details.

One story she told often was about her first love. She had gone to a Protestant boarding school in the capital, Vigan, for high school. Apparently she had excelled, and was often chosen to lead the girls’ team in debating and other church-related activities. On the boys’ team, there was one called Peregrino who also was frequently chosen to be leader. I gathered there was a bit of friendly rivalry that had gone on between Mamang as a teenager and this Pereg. After graduation, Pereg wrote her a love letter, but Mamang, naïve and innocent, didn’t know what to make of it and delayed her reply. When she eventually did, she didn’t disclose her own feelings, and that was the end of any more correspondence from Pereg.  Mamang learned (and so did I) from this about the value of being honest and forthright about  feelings.

Fresh from high school, she was sent to teach at a school in Bukidnon. I can imagine what a marvelous adventure it must have been – taking the boat to Mindanao, far from any region she had ever known. Even today traveling inter-island by boat in the Philippines is not without its perils with frequent reports of overloaded boats capsizing and unprepared with life vests. There was an American soldier who took a fancy to her during this long trip, named Oliver Reece. He had bought a garland of flowers at one of the many island stops.  As he put the garland over her head, he gave her a kiss. It was her first kiss ever. It had been aimed at her lips, but she, unable to avoid it and not wishing to offend, had the presence of mind to stoop and the kiss landed on her forehead instead.

The best time I spent with Mamang were three months in 2008 when we sang so much every day that I call it our Summer of Song. Mamang loved to sing, and the songs that she loved were old folk songs that poked fun at people’s foibles, in particular old men who fancy young ladies. Today, it is fitting that I have made a celebratory cake with apples. As King Solomon had written in the Song of Songs 2:5: “Comfort me with apples.”

Swabian apple cake

A slice of Swabian apple cake with my cup of Sidamo coffee from Ethiopia this morning.

Today, I am grateful that Mamang nurtured in me a love for the beauty of language – in classical Ilocano and in English – as crafted into poetry and songs. I am thankful that she loved to sing and taught me many old droll songs in Ilocano, songs that are rarely sung these days, even by those of my generation. Most of all, I give thanks and grateful praise that my mother Angela – Mamang — gave me the ultimate gift —  life.

I offer this apple cake to my siblings and the rest of my family and to my friends far away for comfort on this special day.

Whatever it is that you may need comforting from, I comfort you with apples.

Swabian apple cake slice

Year of Grace, Day 26. My friend Ala

If you do crossword puzzles, then you would most likely know that ala is another word for ‘wing.’ The word comes from Latin. Today, I remember my friend Ala, a sculptor, and give deepest thanks to her memory.

At the time that I came to know her, I was a young mother and Ala would have been in her mid- to late 50s. Perhaps a little older; I had no idea how to tell people’s age. She passed by one day and asked if there was anything that I was getting rid of. Bits of wood, metal — anything. Then she made me come with her to show me what she was in the process of building. At the time, the word ‘recycling’ had not even come into everyday usage; let alone the idea of ‘repurposing.’ Using found objects into works of art was such a novelty. It was Ala and her eyes alone that could see the beauty in these discarded objects and her hands that would remake them into sculpture. Some of them were quite tall and stood like totem poles around her garden.

Ala was born in Germany. I understood she was the only one of her family to survive the Holocaust. She did not talk much about that part of her life. It was her father who had chosen her name. She had worked as a geneticist for years, until she decided to study art and sculpture during one sabbatical year. And that decided her path from then on. She showed me her finely crafted works in wood – mostly olive, others of wood with reddish striations — some were under cloth covers in a little gallery, some as part of the décor in the interior of her house. And she also showed me her store of huge blocks, a few whole tree trunks, curing slowly in the dark, cool shade of the garage.

I wondered how she, just my height and slight of build, could manage with those enormous pieces. I was imagining her working with chisels and a hammer. And she uncovered her industrial-grade tools – electric saws, sanders, other equipment that would not look out of place in a carpentry shop.

“Would you like to come and create something?” She asked when she saw how much I was moved. And we started by me making an armature out of wire. My first piece was a self-portrait in clay. I cannot remember how long it took for my first attempt to do something in 3-D. I found it very challenging to work in the round. I had to make sure to keep the clay moist and covered at the end of each session. After working for most of the afternoon, she would call it a day.

“Now we dance,” she said. And that was the most surprising and wondrous thing. She would put some music on, classical always, though I cannot recall any of them now. “This is how I relax at the end of every day. Working with wood or clay is hard physical work. The dancing and the music soothe the muscles. And then I can turn my mind to preparing supper for Simon who will be expecting something nice when he gets home.”

Once Ala came into my kitchen while I was preparing some avocado, dried apricots, sunflower seeds, and sesame paste. I put everything into the blender – the apricots had been soaking beforehand – to mash. To this mixture I added some cottage cheese. She was incredulous, “That’s for a toddler?” “Perfectly fine,” I replied. Avocado for fats and vitamins, the dried apricots and seeds for iron, and additional nutrition from the cottage cheese,” She was not convinced. “I shall have to ask Simon,” she said. Simon was a prominent pediatrician. She came back apologetic. “You’re absolutely correct,” she said. “Simon approved wholeheartedly.” And she invited us to dinner.

When my daughter was born, Ala gave me a beautifully hand-smocked baby dress with a tiny flower pattern — classic English craftsmanship and design and made of the softest and finest cotton. I wish I had kept that as a keepsake to remember Ala by. But in the spirit in which she had passed on a family heirloom to me, I passed it on to a neighbour whose child was born the following year. I hope that she treasured it as much as I did, and perchance passed it on, with Ala’s blessings and mine and hers too.

I am grateful to have known such an artist and admirable person, who befriended me when I was new and friendless. I can hear her voice, with a hint of detectable German in the English. I am sorry to have lost contact with Ala, and never had a chance to see her again before she passed on. I don’t even have a photo of her or her work, and hoped to find something on Google, but no joy there.

In another place and several years later, I was using an electric sander on a long, robust piece of wood I had intended for a bookshelf in my study. It was one that I had bought from the timbre mill in a nearby village. I was trying not to dislodge the bark, as I loved its texture and scent, and wanted it to show on the front part of the shelf. My neighbour across the road came over, hearing the noise and seeing me working.  “I’ve never seen a woman using that kind of machine before,” he said, with great concern for my safety, but also in admiration. Eli was Hungarian and another who had survived the Holocaust by being brought to England in one of the rare child rescue operations.

I smiled at my gallant neighbour, very gentlemanly and polite in the Old World way, then possibly in his late 70s or early 80s. He also couldn’t resist passing his hand over the lovely wood. And I sent a silent message of thanks to Ala, who had showed me that a woman could use such machinery and also love music and enjoy dancing.

My dearest Ala, today I thank you now for the wonderful times in your studio and for being you. To your blessed memory, Lechaiim.  I also offer you these cyclamen, photographed here in the Botanical Garden in Bonn.  They remind me of a forest, not far from Jerusalem, where white and pink wild cyclamen grew in such profusion under the trees and between cleft boulders, that the children called it the Enchanted Forest.

Cyclamen blooming now

Cyclamen blooming now in the Bonn Botanical Garden

Year of Grace, Day 25. A little illustration

Perhaps it is true that I am prone to overrationalizing.  As one of my dear friends described me, I have “a Germanic mind in a Japanese way.”  Or perhaps I just like having some kind of order, within as without. Whatever the case, two days ago I found myself letting the Japanese side have its way — I took up pencil and paper.

I have been admiring the beauty, up close, of the Japanese little cuckoo lily, the hototogisu (Tricyrtis hirta) that is now blooming. I had rescued it as a snail-snacked, yellowing plantling from among the reduced items section in my favourite nursery and all-round craft and DIY shop, Knauber in Endenich.

Cuckoo lily, Tricyrtis hirta

Cuckoo lily, Tricyrtis hirta

If you live in Bonn and haven’t been to Knauber and you like making all sorts of things, from cooking to carpentry, gardening to jewelry making and painting, this is just the right place for you. It doesn’t have the encyclopaedic range of Tokyu Hands in Tokyo as I remember it from the 1980s, but it is satisfying nonetheless. Knauber is regarded as a Bonn institution, and for newcomers to Bonn, it is among the list of recommended places. Thanks to Knauber, Obi, the other DIY mecca in Bonn, and a little shop near the City Hall (Stadthaus), my craft needs are more or less satisfied.

As I was saying before that digression, I nursed the cuckoo lily, together with its companion there, another sickly Japanese plant called Kirengeshoma. Its English name is yellow waxbells. I put them together in Knauber’s potting soil, and they began to perk up. And then came my mistake. Seeing that they had recovered, I tried to give them a bit more nourishment (organic manure), and ended up losing the Kirengeshoma. In desperation, I took out the cuckoo lily from its overfed pot and nursed it and now it has revived somewhat and seems to have forgiven me by blooming. Too much rich food can kill a plant, I have since learned.

The cuckoo lily’s beauty is so astounding that I was inspired, not only to photograph it, but to draw it. I haven’t illustrated anything in over 15 years since my first lesson in botanical illustration. I am thankful to have managed to do a first drawing over two days. In drawing it, I have come to know its unique structure – the way the filaments are fused to the bottom part of the petals – something I would not have seen or been aware of from just photographing it.

I am grateful to have been able to concentrate enough to draw. I am also thankful to have a room of my own in which to do this. I give grateful praise to the beauty of this flower whose colour and form are so arresting and, above all, to its Creator. I hope to be able to do a bit of colouring next.

Hototogisu illust