Year of Grace, Day 77. What does a Passover song have to do with a Christmas carol?

As a child, one of my favourite Christmas carols was the Twelve Days of Christmas; it still is. It was the repetition of the verses and the challenge of getting them right in reverse order that attracted me; and of course singing made learning the lyrics so much fun. When I finally managed to get all the verses right and sing the whole song on my own, I felt so triumphant!

It never occurred to me to make sense of the lyrics until the other day. Yes, hmm…only over half a century after I’d been singing it! The first verses are devoted to birds, whereas the latter are of people. And what in the world are calling birds? Well thanks to Google I’ve found out a few things – all in the spirit of fun. And incurable curiosity.

Of course lots of people more curious and more aware than I have been pondering the lyrics for far longer. The most common interpretation is that the song contains symbols to impart Catholic catechism during the Elizabethan period, according to Canadian hymnologist Hugh D. McKellar. Catholics were then persecuted and forbidden to practise their religion in public until prohibition was officially rescinded in the 1800s. It appears McKellar later confessed to making it all up. Nevertheless, let’s have a look at the symbols.

1st day: my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree. A Christian’s true love is God, who sent a partridge (i.e., Jesus). As a parent partridge sacrifices itself by luring a predator away from the nest, so God sacrificed Jesus. The pear tree, as McKellar interpets it, is the tree of true faith, unlike the similar-looking though guileful apple.

2nd day: two turtle doves = Old and New Testaments.

3rd day: three French hens = the three wise men; also faith, hope, and charity.

4th day: four calling birds = four prophets; four horsemen of the apocalypse.

5th day: five gold rings = the five books of Law.

6th day: six geese a-laying = six days of creation.

7th day: seven swans a-swimming = seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

8th day: eight maids a-milking = eight epistles, eight beatitudes, eight recommended times for Communion.

9th day: nine ladies dancing = nine fruits of the Holy Spirit, nine ranks of angels.

10th day: ten lords a-leaping = the Ten Commandments.

11th day: eleven pipers piping = the eleven remaining disciples.

12th day: twelve drummers drumming = the twelve minor prophets.

Ok, well and good. But I did mention a Passover song. Where does it fit in? The song Echad Mi Yodea (“One, Who Knows One”) is sung after the reading of the Haggadah — the retelling of the Exodus from Egypt. Like the Twelve Days of Christmas and Green Grow the Rushes O (or Ho), Echad Mi Yodea is a cumulative song, that is, the verses build up on the previous ones. However, instead of 12, the Hebrew song counts to 13. And the recurring refrain is the first verse: Echad, Eloheinu, Eloheinu, she ba shamaim u ba aretz. “One, our God, our God, who is in the heavens and on earth.”

The Passover version does have a few parallels with McKellar’s — one God; two tablets of the commandments; three forefathers (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob); four matriarchs (Sarah, Leah, Rebecca, Rachel); five books of the Torah; six orders of the Mishnah; seven days to the Sabbath; eight days from birth to circumcision; nine months to birth; ten commandments; eleven stars in Joseph’s dream; twelve tribes of Israel; thirteen attributes of God.

The Catholic and Jewish symbols are clear, but I’m stubborn. Surely there must be some underlying folk tradition for the choice of birds and cows being milked and so on. This search is looking like a wild goose chase (ha, ha).

So onwards. There is a Catholic saint called St. Lambert, and in the German city of Münster it was the tradition to sing songs to celebrate his feast day, which used to be the 24th of December. For some reason, his feast day was moved to September, but the tradition of singing songs on Christmas Eve has remained to this day. One of those songs, sung in 1858 by a student from Arnsberg, as recorded by Ludwig Erk, was Guter Freund, Ich Frage Dich (“Good Friend, I Ask You”). It goes: Good friend, I ask you. Best friend, what do you ask me? Tell me, what is the number one? One times one is only God, who lives suspended between heaven and earth. This phrasing does recall the Passover version.

It seems variants of this song had been circulating from the 1700s throughout the area of what would later become Germany, including a parody sung by students. An example from 1852 goes: What does an honest girl eat all alone on the sixth morning — “six pairs of oxen and a cow, five rabbits in a pepper, four hens and a rooster, three white pigeons, two hemp birds, and one piece of grain.” Now we’re getting somewhere closer to the birds and the milking!!

Meanwhile, there is a counting song in the Faroe Islands that is sung from Christmas until the Lenten fast. The song accompanies a chain dance and lists gifts for fifteen days. These have been commemorated on postal stamps — one feather, two geese, three sides of meat, four sheep, five cows, six oxen, seven dishes, eight ponies, nine banners, ten barrels, eleven goats, twelve men, thirteen hides, fourteen rounds of cheese or butter, and fifteen deer.

So geese, cows, men. Interesting grouping and I feel we’re getting closer to the folk origins of the lyrics. Most of those who have pondered on these lyrics believe that their most likely origin is France, from a song called La Perdriole, which details gifts over 12 months to a loved one. Translated (by Maud Karpeles, ed., Folk Songs of Europe), they are: “The twelfth month of the year, What shall I give my sweetheart? Twelve young girls in their castèl, ‘Leven very fond young lads, Ten milking cows, Nine hornèd bulls, Eight snow-white sheep, Sev’n greyhound dogs, Six running hares, Five grey rabbits earth a-scratching, Four wild ducks a-flying low, Three wood-pigeons plump, Two turtle-doves/ And a little partridge/ That rises, flies and flutters/ O a little partridge/ A-flying in the woods.”

Not quite there, but getting closer. Where do the dancing ladies and leaping lords, pipers and drummers come in? There is nothing I’ve come across that refers to these. So I’ll have a go at my own interpretation. In ancient times, Christmas carols apparently were not only sung, but danced to as well, and often to musical accompaniment. It is quite likely that the dancing and music inspired these images of dancing ladies and leaping lords and instrumentalists.

And the calling birds? No, they’re not mynahs or parrots, though there is one English folk song that mentions “popinjays” (Sp. papagayos). The verse used to be “colly” birds, from “coal,” thus black or dark birds. And French hens? Anything foreign in England used to be termed “French.” Geese were traditional Christmas fare and perhaps swans too (though most swans belong to the British crown), before the turkey took over. There is an old English feasting dish of stuffing different sized birds into each other’s cavity and roasting the lot. And remember there’s that nursery rhyme of “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.” The copious milk produced by those maids goes into all those custards served together with lashings of cream around the traditional Christmas plum pudding. Custard is properly English as the French call it crème Anglaise. And one needs lots of eggs to set the custard – so hens and geese a-laying. Thus to me is a description of an English (upper class) Christmas feast, with dancing and music galore. I guess my curiosity has been more or less satisfied. What about yours? Though there remain a few niggling things – what about that pear tree, for one? Let’s leave that for another day, shall we?

Meanwhile I leave you with an Ozzie version. On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me: 12 parrots prattling, 11 numbats nagging, 10 lizards leaping, 9 wombats working, 8 dingoes digging, 7 possums playing, 6 brolgas dancing, 5 kangaroos, 4 koalas cuddling, 3 kookaburras laughing, 2 pink galahs, and an emu up a gum tree. How about a Philippine version?

What’s to be thankful for on this 77th day of my grace journal? The fun of chasing up the origin of this Christmas carol and other old folk songs; a light snowfall that fell this morning and delicately dusted the lawn; a female blackbird on a branch, that I mistook for a robin, as its brown feathers were almost russet in the light; the little tits that fly in and out to peck at the bird feeders; and the joyful anticipation of family coming soon. Enjoy the spirit of this Christmas season everyone!


Year of Grace, Day 76. Suns and spirals

Every winter I look forward to the solstice, which usually falls around the 22nd of December. The official date this year was the 21st and it made a palindromic number: that is, it reads the same forwards and backwards — 21.12 or 12.21 — whichever way you write it, day first or month first. The prospect of each day from the solstice onwards bringing increasingly more sunlight is pure delight. Of course the balance will tip in the other direction come June in this inevitable cycle, but right now, I am totally savouring the coming of more sun, more light to banish winter’s darkness! Hoorah!

Stonehenge in the UK is the site most associated with the solstice, but I came upon a prehistoric complex in Ireland dedicated to the winter solstice while googling  Neolithic sites. The complex is called Brú na Boínne (Valley of the Boyne in County Meath) and it features 3 gigantic mounded structures, the largest of which is Newgrange, and many smaller ones. It is the largest collection of Neolithic structures in Europe. The walls and roofs inside the mounds are of enormous stones like those of Stonehenge. Most are carved — the most commonly recurring motifs being concentric circles, spirals, and maze-like loops, combined with lozenges, triangles, and zigzag lines. There is even one with seven suns. The combined recurring circles and angular lines remind me of the artwork of a dear friend, except she paints in magnificent colours.

Carving, Newgrange kerbstone

Carving, Newgrange kerbstone. Photo: World Heritage Ireland.

Newgrange faces southeast, so that at dawn during  the solstice, the sun sends a shaft of light through a small opening called a “roof box,” illuminating the cruciform space inside from 15 to a few more minutes. This spectacular illumination occurs over a period of several days before and after the solstice, not only on the day of the solstice itself. Complementing Newgrange is another mound, Knowth, which catches a shaft of the setting sun through a similar box structure and sends it all the way across a similar cross-shaped interior.

Photo: World Heritage Ireland.

These mysterious structures of gigantic slabs of rock covered by earth mounds have continued to arouse tremendous awe since they were first excavated in the 1960s. Archaeologists portray Neolithic humans as living in small groups of 10 to no more than 100 people. It is  astounding that they were able to achieve the social organization (perhaps among several widespread groups) and technical skills to source such gigantic stones and transport them over huge distances. And, moreover to design and build structures based on their astronomic observations and that these structures have endured (and remained watertight) for thousands of years. Newgrange is estimated to have been built around 3200 BC,  centuries earlier than Stonehenge.

The mounds are called passage tombs, because of cremated remains found in basins inside. But the mounds are also believed to serve as ritual and festival sites —  in particular to celebrate the “rebirth” of the sun as a promise of renewal of life and regrowth. I would imagine that Neolithic humans – who had already begun to grow crops — were most certainly aware of the vital link between the sun’s light and their food plants.

For the wonder of these prehistoric structures and the ingenuity of their creation; for the art on the rock faces and the aesthetic design of these structures; and most of all — for the sun staying longer above the horizon, each day just that tiny bit longer, I am profoundly grateful.


Knowth. Photo: World Heritage Ireland.

From the Neolithic to our times, humans have been appreciating and celebrating the sun and its life-giving light in diverse ways. With the sun’s “rebirth”  and its light banishing darkness, many take hope from this ever-recurring cycle that good will eventually triumph over evil, knowledge over ignorance, tolerance over hatred, and  peace over war. May it be so. May it please be so.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a hopeful New Year!





Year of Grace, Day 75. A rare winter sunrise

There is nothing so rare in winter here in Bonn as the sun. The other day I was gifted with a delicately tinted sky in the West, and to the East a rather fiery one. These are untouched, unenhanced photographs, taken within seconds of each other – just pure nature as she graciously presented herself when she awoke.  Both marvelous and equally precious are the morning sun’s yin-yang selves, though my taste leans more towards the gentle silkiness of the Western sky. Which do you prefer?

Morning sky to the West


Morning sky to the East


Year of Grace, Day 74. Bonn-style Linzer Torte

I should be making all sorts of Christmasy treats now but with tonsillitis and a bad cold, my head is not up to it. As soon as I start moving about in different directions, like you do when you have to take out a pan from a low shelf or stoop to put in something in the oven, I get dizzy and wobbly. So today I shall be a good (read “patient”) patient. I shall have to content myself with keeping my head on one plane and looking through past efforts at creating Christmas goodies.

I tried to recreate a Linzer Torte one Christmas according to the recipe handed down from a dear friend’s southern German grandmother. The recipe was written down in a lovely album by her grandmother herself. I’m afraid I don’t have my friend’s permission to share the recipe with you. But I thought of sharing what distinguishes the family’s Linzer Torte from all others. It is the decorative use of cut-out leaves and balls instead of the usual woven lattice or stars. I had wanted to shape the leaves like holly, but found it too fiddly doing it free-hand without a mould. My friend’s family uses a large round tart tin with a removable bottom. I only have a small round one so used a rectangular one instead.

I couldn’t decide whether to use traditional raspberry or apricot or cherry (not so common) filling –  so I used apricot in the centre and cherry along the sides. I decided not to use raspberry as I don’t fancy the pips in between my teeth. Though I could’ve used a sieve of course to exclude them.

There are two versions of the origin of the name of this tart that is frequently made for Christmas in Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, and Germany. One is that it is named after the city of Linz in Austria. The other is that it is named after a baker surnamed Linzer. It was once considered the oldest recorded confectionery, with a recipe for it dated 1696 in the Austrian National Library, until a researcher found an older similar recipe recorded in Verona, Italy. Whether it is originally Austrian or Italian, the basic ingredients are a rich pastry crust of ground nuts and a filling of good quality preserves. The version that I use includes a bit of cocoa in the crust. The Austrian version is pale and uses flaked almonds to edge the pastry.

Linzer filling - apricot in the middle, raspberry along the sides.

Linzer filling – apricot in the middle, cherry along the sides.

Eggyolk glaze brushed on before baking

Bonn LInzer top view g_4948

Here are two recipes for Linzer Torte: the Austrian one is adapted from the Linz city website; the German one I translated and adapted from the magazine Mein Schönes Land Nov-Dec 2011.

Austrian Linzer Torte

150 g butter

150 g powdered sugar

250 g flour

10 g baking powder

100 g roasted hazelnuts
, finely ground

1 large egg, beaten

1 tsp vanilla essence

Grated rind of 1 lemon

1/2 tsp  – 1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 tsp cloves

300 g red currant jam

1 egg yolk, beaten for glaze

50  – 75 g flaked almond

Optional: icing sugar for serving

Mix butter and sugar until smooth. Mix in the flour sifted together with the baking powder. Mix in powdered hazel nuts, egg, and flavourings.
 Knead briefly and quickly shape dough into a ball, wrap, and chill for 30 – 60 minutes.

Remove from the fridge and divide dough into two portions — a large one about 3/4, and a smaller one. Roll out the larger piece to a thickness of about 1.5 cm (~1/2 inch) and fit on a 22-cm (~10-inch) springform baking pan or tart tin with removable bottom. Spread red currant jam over the dough, leaving the edges uncovered. Shape remaining dough into thin strips, weave into a lattice over the jam, setting aside a strip or two long enough to cover the edge. Brush the lattice with egg yolk and lay the remaining strip/s all around the edge of the crust. Brush the edging strip/s with the rest of the yolk and arrange the flaked almonds on it.
 Bake for about 40-45 minutes or until just golden, at 180º C (350ºF). Allow to cool then remove carefully from pan. Sprinkle with icing sugar to serve in thin wedges.

German Linzer Torte

200 g flour, sifted

200 g sugar

200 g butter, diced

100 g ground walnuts

100 g ground almonds

1 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tsp cinnamon

pinch powdered cloves

1 tsp grated lemon rind

2 large egg yolks

1 tsp cherry brandy (or other fruit liqueur or vanilla essence)

4 Tbsp raspberry preserves

1 Tbsp cranberry preserves

Optional: powdered or icing sugar for serving

In a food processor, pulse the flour, sugar, nuts, cocoa, spices, and lemon rind until well mixed. Add the butter, 1 egg yolk, and cherry brandy; pulse only until the mixture comes together to form a dough. Take the dough out, knead briefly for 2 – 3 minutes, form into a ball, wrap in cling film, and chill for up to 2 hours. Divide dough into two — a large one about 2/3 of the dough and a smaller one. Wrap the smaller piece  and return to the fridge. Roll out the larger piece to 1-cm (~1/4-inch) thickness on a lightly floured surface to cover a 22-cm (10-inch) tart tin with removable bottom or springform pan. Mix the raspberry and cranberry preserves together and spread over the crust, leaving a border along the edges untouched. Take out the rest of the dough and roll out thinly. Cut into thin strips and make a lattice to lay over the preserves, reserving a strip or two large enough for edging the crust. Brush the lattice with egg yolk, lay the remaining strip/s all around the edge to keep the filling in place, and brush with egg yolk. Bake at 175ºC or 325ºF for 30 – 35 minutes, or just until golden. Allow to cool and remove carefully from the pan. Sprinkle with powdered sugar, if desired, before serving.

Notes: You may use all walnut or all almond or any other ground nuts you prefer. For preserves,  any red or other colour preserve is fine, although raspberry, red currant, and apricot are traditional. Instead of lattice strips, use cookie cutters for stars or other forms to lay over the filling.

I am taking being unwell with as much good grace and as little grumbling as I can muster. Like most everyone, I tend to take good health and wellbeing for granted, until illness strikes. So — my deep thanks to good health and its speedy return so that I can turn my heart and the hearth into Christmas mode.

Year of Grace, Day 73. A different way of perceiving

The other day I wrote of appreciating Bento’s Notebook — John Berger’s collection of sketches and stories inspired by Spinoza’s books on ethics and understanding. I’ve now taken up another of Berger’s books, About Looking. I had also found this hard to get into at around the same time as Bento’s Sketchbook. And I am pleased that I have come to appreciate it just as much as the Sketchbook. I am wondering if being unwell has something to do with it. That because I am forced to stay in bed and am not in normal active mode, I can slowly savour each of Berger’s statements. This is precisely what my daughter said years back when I’d mentioned that I couldn’t appreciate Berger. His writing is very deep, were her words. At the time I thought, too deep to the point of being abstruse. It has taken me some time to enjoy his prose and his perspective, and perhaps this was for the best. I am glad to have learned a lesson from this. I am grateful that Berger’s insights on how we look at the world have made me more aware of my own way of looking and perceiving.

I am pleased to see that the lone crow on the fir has now been joined by another. Are they now a couple? Interesting. I also observed a couple of black tits flying playfully in and out of the yew – a behaviour I’d always associated with spring. Perhaps the mild winter we’re having has something to do with this unseasonal amorousness? I could be wrong, but it’s heartwarming nonetheless that among the birds in my garden, romance seems to be blooming.

And speaking of blooms, on the window boxes on the balcony, there are yellow Tagetes and red and pink geraniums still blooming. Outdoors, I can glimpse from the upstairs window the cyclamen’s garish magenta and shocking pink flowers, a delight especially on a gloomy, rainy winter’s day like today. It looks as if it might snow.

The birches with their white trunks are arresting at all times, but especially so in winter. They are stunning in the sun, but they are particularly attractive on dark days. They seem to emit a mysterious glow.

What else am I grateful for on this 6th day that I have been unwell? I am thankful for the opportunity to read and enjoy previously unappreciated books. I am thankful that my GP does house calls — a rarity in this modern age — and that with antibiotics, my tonsillitis is now under control. I believe that illness is often the body’s way of telling us to slow down a little, to give ourselves time to rest and recuperate from whatever it is that is stressing us and making us vulnerable to disease. And so despite the discomfort, I am grateful and I look forward to being up and about soon.

Year of Grace, Day 72. Bento’s Sketchbook: Process, not product

There are books that need to be set aside for some time — to be read when one is of a different disposition and perchance sufficiently open to appreciation. I am thinking in particular of Bento’s Sketchbook, a book by John Berger, highly praised in a review in The Guardian some years ago and which I got for Christmas that year. For some reason, the first time I took it up, it was such a struggle to get through. I could not connect with it and thought the review over the top. So there it sat for quite a long while very high up on my bookshelf. That is, until yesterday when I took it down as I had the flu and bereft of new reading material.

I surprised myself because I thoroughly enjoyed it! As I closed the book contentedly, I mulled over what it was that made me appreciate it so much more this time around. I particularly liked Berger’s sketches because they look unfinished and …well… sketchy. That is precisely what they are, of course, and all the preliminary lines and strokes – unerased — map where the artist’s eyes and hands have been during their creation. Where before I had wished for a finished product devoid of all the underlying drafting lines, this time I appreciated the dynamics inherent in the making of the product — undisguised and plainly revealed. This is particularly striking in his drawing of the Spanish dancer María Muñoz in the position she calls the Bridge. Despite being a drawing, I could sense the duality of her relaxed left foot and the rest of her body poised to spring to action through the questing lines that Berger had made throughout the sketch.

Berger's Dancer

Berger writes: We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.

The Bento of the title refers to Benedicto de Spinoza, better known as Baruch Spinoza (1632 -1677), the Jewish philosopher excommunicated for his unorthodox views. Passages from Spinoza’s two posthumously published books — On the Improvement of the Understanding and the Ethics – link the collection of Berger’s stories and sketches.

Spinoza worked as a lens grinder and apparently enjoyed drawing, carrying a sketchbook everywhere. No trace of the sketchbook has been found. Berger says: I wasn’t expecting great drawings…were it to be found. I simply wanted to reread some of his words, some of his startling propositions as a philosopher, whilst at the same time being able to look at things he had observed with his own eyes.

On receiving a present of a sketchbook, Berger decided it would be Bento’s sketchbook – wherein he would draw whatever he felt was asking to be drawn. Thus this book. Berger’s drawings that reveal the tentative underdrawing taught me that the process can be equally,  if not more, meaningful and enjoyable than the final product. For this insight from Bento’s Sketchbook and for being able to appreciate it this time around, I am thankful.

Year of Grace, Day 71. From toasties to fessendjan

In The Vein of Gold – A Journey to Your Creative Heart, Julia Cameron suggests an Artist Date: a once-weekly date with yourself. This date need not involve “high art,” she says, as long as it involves exploring new places, events, things that you have never encountered before. All this novelty is to feed the creative well, and that is why she suggests going alone.

Yesterday my Artist Date was to the Bonn City Museum (Stadtmuseum). I’ve been meaning to go there so many times – it’s a tiny place – but of course in the usual case of places that are just at one’s doorstep, I’ve put off going again and again. But determined to truly make a balance between life and work — after an intensive effort at a new project, I was definitely more than ready to prime my creative well.

Tucked just behind the admin offices of Bonn University’s main buildings on Franziskaner Strasse, the Stadtmuseum is so easy to overlook. This whole area is truly a Bonn backwater, unless you are a Humanities student or work at the Uni admin. But first I thought I’d have a little snack first. Should I have dim sum at the lovely authentic Chinese resto just across the rococo wedding-cake structure of the Old Town Hall? Hmm…I didn’t want to take too long and what I really wanted was an empanada. Or a small meat pie – something I could hold in my hand. A stroll through the food stalls at the open-air market in Marktplatz of course didn’t turn up any empanada, though there used to be a stall selling paella and other Spanish goodies. Lentil soup? It was quite popular, judging by the number of young ladies enjoying it. Not quite it for me, though a possibility. And just as I turned the corner, not far from the old cinema now converted to a mega bookstore-cum-curio shop by a national chain (you can tell I don’t really enjoy their blatantly commercial thrust), I saw a chalkboard saying “Toasties.” And its high stools were enclosed and thus sheltered from the chilly winds. Perfect. And a cup of cocoa would be nice with it too.

“How is it?” The stall keeper asked in German as I sipped my cocoa.
“A bit too sweet. Perhaps you could add a bit more hot water?”
“Sorry I can’t, it comes ready-mixed in this machine. The chocolate is from Suchard.”
Somehow I detected a familiar lilt in the way he spoke, so I asked, “Sind Sie aus England?”
And he said, “Ja.” It was the first time anyone had guessed right, he said. Most of the time people asked if he was from the Netherlands.
And then of course after he said he was from Liverpool, there was no more need to continue chatting in German.
And while waiting for my toastie of cheese and ham with rucola and tomato and onion and remoulade, we spoke nostalgically of English Christmas fare, such as plum pudding and Stilton cheese. He went on to mention Dundee cake, though that was more a New Year cake. Marmite – he hates it, ditto with the Ozzie version called Vegemite. But it’s a love-or-hate thing, as the Marmite commercial says, and unlike him, M and I do love it. He’s got a friend going to England this weekend, and he gave him a list as long as his arm to bring back. Self-raising flour – you cannot get it in this country, he said.

Can’t you make your own – mix your own baking powder with flour? I said, incredulous.

Cannot get the mix just right, he said. Always manages to taste of baking soda. Did I know of the English shop in Friedensplatz?

Yes, I said I did. I was just about to go and get a box of Christmas crackers. They really need to do some explanation for it, I said, as people might think it is something to eat. After all “crackers” are usually edible. Most non-Brits would not know they are a traditional accessory for the Christmas table – a paper hat, a joke (usually a bad pun), and a little novelty item. And you’re supposed to pull at them to set off the mini fire-cracker inside.

They’re pricey, he said, referring to the English shop on Stern Strasse.

Yes, but at least you can get Marmite and oh, very mature cheddar. And pork pies too. Hmm… that could’ve been a substitute for empanada. Well, good to keep in mind. And they’ve also added a small section with books.

My toastie was really lovely, and I told him so, and so comforting on a chilly day, and good with the cocoa, though a tad too sweet for my taste. I was amply fortified for my Artist Date and I bade him good day, as he did me.

The Stadtmuseum is a tiny treasure house that takes you from Bonn’s early days as a Roman colony up to the end of World War II. There were displays of aristocratic and bourgeois rooms, as well as of traditional shops, hairdressers, and dressmakers. But the best displays, I thought, are of the hand-painted porcelains, once made by three local ceramic firms. Makes sense — as there is no dearth of clay around my neighbourhood. My garden soil – full of huge clumps of fine grayish-beigeish clay — attests to that, and I once thought that pottery would be a much better hobby than gardening. Instead of my bringing in tons of topsoil to garden properly, why not use the underlying and abundant clay to make pots instead? So yes indeed, someone had much the same idea centuries ago, and in Poppelsdorf there used to be a huge ceramic factory manufacturing all sorts of porcelain and stoneware.

The enormous vases, exquisitely painted with orchids and peonies and hydrangeas, were really striking. There was even one with blue Himalayan poppies! Amazing true-to-life botanical art. What a shame the factory shifted to sanitary fixtures – possibly because the skilled botanical painters had all disappeared and I have a conjecture precisely where to in the late 1930s – and the factory eventually closed down in 1956. I asked at the information desk if there were still remnants of the ceramic factory left, and she said there is, not far from the Bonn University student dorm. I shall have to go take a look one of these days.

As I came out of the museum, I walked past two small eateries. One called itself Iss Dich Glücklich (“Eat happily”) and the other was a Korean place called Mandu. The first featured Persian dishes, and me being ever the adventurous diner, I looked forward to discovering what Persian delights — a rarity in Bonn – awaited. We had tried other Korean places in Bonn, and M had tried Mandu before.

M joined me for supper, and we had Fessendjan (chicken stewed in a pomegranate and walnut sauce) and a subtly spiced yellow lentil, aubergine and lamb stew, called Gheimeh Bademdjan, both with Persian saffron rice. I had a wonderful aromatic Persian tea, scented with rosewater and bergamot with a fresh mint leaf. They were all out of dugh – the Persian version of indian lassi or Turkish ayran (yogurt drink), as our waitress said it was made fresh daily and when it was gone, that was it for that day. There was a small blue-and-white dish of home-cured green olives in pomegranate juice with fresh pomegranate kernels and walnuts. Truly an exotic taste sensation and so more-ish. I was happy that the spicing and seasoning were done with a delicate touch. We ended the meal with baked apples stuffed with sweetened ground walnuts and almonds served with warm vanilla custard. This was heaven for M who adores custard and for me too, as I love anything with marzipan and ground nuts. This was called Bratapfel mit Marzipan und Vanillesosse, and it was a new offering not on the printed menu, but on the chalkboard. I would come here just for the baked apples and Persian tea for an afternoon snack. They are only open from just before noon to 8 pm everyday except Sunday.

Home-cured olives with pomegranates and nuts

Home-cured olives with pomegranates and nuts

Baked apples filled with marzipan and walnuts in warm vanilla custard

Baked apples filled with marzipan and walnuts in warm vanilla custard

It turned out, when she asked where I was from, that the waitress is actually the wife of the cook; she’s from Bolivia, and her mother Argentinian. How international and multicultural is that? And a good friend of hers, a Filipina, is married to an Argentinian acupuncture practitioner. Well, well!

This side street has a small but diverse group of exotic food places. A sushi place – Ichiban Sushi – one of the first in Bonn, just across the street, with Chinese owners and non-Japanese chefs (at least the last time I ate there, which was a year ago). It is disconcerting when one eats sushi and the chefs do not speak Japanese. But that’s globalization of Japanese cuisine for you. And not far is the Fried Flamingo, a pastry shop and café, with a small deli section of Mediterranean imports (olive oil, etc.), that also does catering. I was happy and thankful that it is still operating, as when I dropped in on it at the beginning of November, it was closed. The lady who runs it is really nice and the pastries are oh so decadent! A pity it closes at 6 pm.

So that was my lovely Artist Date – the Bonn Stadtmuseum with gorgeous hand-painted porcelain from a now-vanished local craft, conversations with a Liverpudlian about British food, and another with a Bolivian woman in Spanish, and the discovery of exotic Persian cuisine right here in Bonn. M and I plan to go through the interesting menu that features the use of dried limes and barberries and pomegranates and walnuts in their dishes. A lovely, multi-kulti day – one that sparked thoughts about food and places and people and pottery, and other things besides. And about creativity and diversity. So much to be grateful for!

Despite being ill with the flu today, I can still be thankful as it is an opportunity for writing letters, and Christmas cards too. Yes – when was the last time you wrote a letter? Not an electronic one, but an honest-to-goodness handwritten one? My dear friend and neighbour in Leamington does not use the Internet and writes me pages with news of my old neighbourhood. I respond using a fountain pen and handmade Japanese letter paper. I managed to find ink cartridges yesterday at Karstadt Department Store’s ground floor stationery shop. So satisfying to get hand-written letters and so I reciprocate. Pity Waterman cartridges only come in one colour, as the Parker ones also come in green. Perhaps it’s time to experiment with non-cartridges? A goose quill perhaps? I’ve got Newton’s artists’ green ink….

Year of Grace, Day 70. Moonlight and lemon blossom

The other night I awoke to a room awash with light – it was the moon flooding in. What joy! The sky, unobscured by a single cloud, was so clear and the sight so marvellous, I was reluctant to leave it to get back into the warmth of the bed.

Now that the lemon tree and calamansi bush are back inside sheltered from frost and the worst of winter weather, the living room is gloriously scented by their blossom. Even a single flower is enough to scent a room, but the lemon has outdone itself in generosity this year. The fruits on the calamansi are huge – almost as big as small mandarins.

Coffee in bed, lovingly brought up by M, and a small (but naughty) slice of cheesecake to go with it.

And you’re going to laugh, as I did at myself — I finally succeeded in rebuttoning the woollen lining that I’d taken off a coat earlier. It took me some time, but I managed, eventually.

I guess that’s the way it’s going to be: things will take a while longer to do, and the only way to go about it is to be patient and allow more time.

For these little but lovely things and the unexpected lesson in patience (and possibly topology?), I am grateful.




Year of Grace, Day 69. Two magpies

A Haiku —

Two magpies perched on a birch

One winter morn

Bathing in the rare sun!





Lemon blossom scents the sitting room,

In the garden  — orange-throated nasturtiums,


Gaudy cyclamen and spindle berries,

Hydrangea flowerheads in purply-pink and a rare late-blooming blue bellflower,

Sights on a forest walk in the afternoon — orange fungi and enokidake (Flammulina),

Filmy foliage against the white and black trunks of birches.

Dinner of porcini soup, garlicky roasted broccoli with parmesan, turkey saltimbocca, and caramelized apples —

For all these blessing today, I am thankful!

Year of Grace, Day 68. Breakfast guests

The European jay looks nothing at all like its American cousin. It has a tawny beige body that becomes slightly russet, especially around the head, in the colder months – the better to blend in with foliage at this time of year I reckon. But to make up for this somewhat bland outer plumage, it hides such a gorgeous flash of blue under its wings. A dash of black and white shows up the blue to perfection, punctuated by a spot of vivid russet close by. Such a magnificent creature and one of the bigger birds that visit the garden! The biggest is the magpie.

We’ve put up suet balls for the smaller birds – the tits and wrens and robins and blackbirds. But three jays – oh such lovely greedy darlings – came yesterday and feasted on one suet ball. Normally the European jay is an extremely wary bird and rarely to be seen close to the house. But ever since we’ve put out the peanuts and suet balls for the smaller birds, I’ve been seeing it more often.

At first only one used to come – it seems to be the alpha male. Why do I think so? Because when one of the others is eating, it doesn’t wait — it just flies in without a by-your-leave, and the diner meekly surrenders its place at the “table.”

In the beginning, the jay would not immediately swoop onto the suet ball though. It would perch on the yew and patrol the surroundings very thoroughly. Once assured that all was safe or perhaps once it had an imprint of the layout of things in its surroundings, it would land next to the suet ball, take one peck and at once turn its head to all directions, surveying the area thoroughly again before taking another bite. As soon as it detected the slightest change — a flicker in a background shadow or difference in light, it would be aloft.

Amazingly, it seems to have now gotten used to us — that is, as long as we’re inside the house behind the windows and take care not to make sudden conspicuous movements. Yesterday it spent a good half hour at breakfast on the suet ball — giving me sufficient time to take a few photos. I had set up the tripod earlier upstairs and thus had a good vantage point. But even more amazing: it was joined by two other jays, waiting their turn at the suet ball: one pecking at the grass and another patiently strolling close to the alpha male. Perhaps they’re one family. Three jays all at the same time – so rare and what a lovely way to begin the day!

I am thankful for these splendid creatures that come and visit my garden. It is one reason I hesitate to get a cat, even though I do so adore cats. I’m willing to be without one at this point to be able to enjoy these intermittent but oh so delightful visits.

The crow is back on its perch on the fir – earlier it was on the birch, rather unusual. Perhaps it wanted a change. It’s flown away now. The suet ball that the jays liked so much yesterday has all been eaten up and the net hangs limply. Earlier the jays were nowhere to be seen, but as I write this, one has just come to investigate the state of the breakfast “table.” Disappointed, it has just as swiftly flown away again, no doubt to report to its family the rather slackening meal service here. Time to replenish my garden guests’ winter fare.

Other things to be thankful for: a Christmas do, beginning at the Christmas market downtown with mulled wine, then off to a pub for tapas from Der Spanier. Meaningful discussions with a new acquaintance who had read a lot about agricultural and economic development in the Philippines (rather unusual and quite gratifying!); a conversation with another acquaintance on the textile culture of Central Asia and research on wild walnut trees in the Tien Shan mountains — perhaps the original garden of Eden, as it is where wild fruits such as apples and apricots and peaches are known to grow, and one of the places I would dearly love to investigate. Food for thought, as well as the body and soul!  Many thanks, indeed!