Year of Grace, Day 112. Feasting on the sea

My love for seafood is being reinforced daily, as I sample the freshest of the sea’s delights (or umi no sachi, as the Japanese call it, literally, ‘joys of the sea’) with M. Here are some razor clams, navajas, a la plancha — so sweet. They needed no other  condiment than their absolute freshness!

These went beautifully with the first of the season’s artichokes, roasted in olive oil. We had not tried this way of cooking artichokes before, which made the heart of course, but the choke, which we normally remove, likewise tender and edible. We shall be trying this way of slow-roasting artichokes.

For the barman at the Platjador who had recommended the Pescadito restaurant (‘muy bueno y economica,’ were his words), our charming waitress, and the welcoming atmosphere at the Pescadito, I am truly and deeply grateful. Oh, and the sopa de pescado was also splendidly divine; I love the Catalan way of making fish soups with ground up almonds.

Year of Grace, Day 111. Bonn’s best attraction

Yesterday at Bonn’s Botanical Garden, the crocuses were at centre stage. Glorious! Spring has indeed sprung. Under a brilliant sun, the crocuses shared the limelight with snowdrops and other spring flowers. What a lovely setting for an al fresco lunch, and there were a few who were enjoying sandwiches and pizza. The Botanical Garden never fails to lift my spirits, and it is, for me, Bonn’s most attractive feature. And what’s more,  it’s free!  On Sundays there’s a minuscule charge and Saturdays it’s closed.

If you haven’t had lunch on a lovely sunny day at Bonn’s Botanical Garden surrounded by spring (or other seasonal) flowers, you’re missing one of the best bits about studying at Bonn Uni and living in Bonn. Go now and enjoy these spring ephemerals at their peak.

Crocuses zoom vg_0797

Year of Grace, Day 110. A twilight walk in Kreuzberg

Kreuzberg, just uphill from the house, has a lovely chapel with rococo décor and frescos, and stairs that penitents use to climb up (on hands and knees ?) to get to the altar. But my friend and I didn’t look in on the chapel this time. Instead we took a short walk around the chapel grounds. Short, because night was fast approaching.

We went counterclockwise, going first to take in the view of Bonn spread out below. To the far horizon, on such a clear day, we were able to glimpse the spires of the Cologne Cathedral or Kölner Dom, as it is called locally. Apparently it is a favourite place to watch the setting sun. But the sun had already set. There was a couple sitting there on a bench strategically positioned to take in the marvelous view. I was glad to see there was no litter around: the previous time I was there with family was the day after New Year two years ago, and spent firecrackers and all sorts of trash had ruined the pleasure of the view.

The walking path winds around behind the chapel and is just wide enough for two or three abreast, beyond which the land slopes rather steeply downwards. The downhill slopes are forested with conifers. Further along on the upslope where more sun filters through and the canopy is more open, there were colonies of snowdrops, biding their time to full bloom, just as in my garden.

And on the way back, my camera, my faithful companion wherever I go, recovered. Earlier it could only open its lens midway, perhaps warning me more seriously that it’s time for a replacement. I was truly grateful to manage a few photographs of the gorgeous crocuses that lined the path up to the chapel. The crocuses were breathtaking in the fading light – white and blue chalices rising out of the ground – pristine and unsullied by rain-splashed mud.

Other things to be grateful for this early spring morning: the sun making a brief appearance – it’s gone now. But for the short while that it shone, it highlighted two magpies who made a lovely study of black and white against the white trunk and branches and black twigs of the birch trees, with a backdrop of a clear azure sky.  At first they were on separate branches, then one hopped over to join the other further up on the birch. And there the two birds sat side by side companionably and cozily, gazing out over the treetops in the same direction. They didn’t wait for me to grab my camera however. But that scene, brief though it was, was more than sufficient to brighten up my day.

A red squirrel glided along its accustomed path down from the poplar and across a branch of the cherry tree and downwards to the garden. Perhaps it’s come to steal a bit of the birds’ breakfast of peanuts. And just as I am writing this,  it has bounded right back up. It is a blessing to witness these lovely scenes from my window as I write.

The one constant in life, as is always said, is change. And yesterday, which began with snow flurries, changed into a brilliant sunny day after all. And so, the sun’s disappearance might just be temporary. It could still decide to come out again later. And indeed it has! Praise, praise!

Year of Grace, Day 109. Dancing with elves

Snow flurries – big and fat — again this morning, belying the past few days’ almost-spring. Ignoring the dreary grey outdoors, I take out photos taken just the other day of a magical spot where elves and fairies might fancy dancing. A shaft of sun had lit up this enchanted spot and I could not resist sharing it with you. Please click on the photos to enlarge.

This enchanting, elfin dance floor is just atop a wall of granite slabs that was bare when we moved in over two years ago. Watered whenever I remembered with yogurt or buttermilk – even the merest dregs eked out with water will do — the stones have taken on a coat of gossamer green. Occasionally I’ve brushed the yogurt in to further encourage mosses to settle in. And the yogurt and buttermilk baths seem to have created the perfect conditions for this type of moss.

As you can see, there are spores developing, which can take from 3 months to half a year to mature. Apparently the spore-bearing part —  called the sporophyte —  is a distinct plant from the “leaves” (the gametophyte) at the bottom. What a fascinating structure and life cycle mosses, also known as bryophytes, have — these first plants to brave their way out of the water onto dry land! And amazingly and perhaps fortuitously, mosses possess no roots to enable them to access water from within and anchor them to the soil, yet conversely they do not die when dried out. When moisture is restored, their life is resuscitated – everlasting life indeed!

Year of Grace, Day 108. Nature’s freshest greens – rose leaves

I’ve been tidying up the garden little by little. It’s also an excuse to soak up sunshine outdoors and it’s lovely pruning roses in the sun, meagre though its light still is. The new leaves on some of the rose twigs have already unfurled, and their perfection in colour and form is a delight, as are the pinky-red tips on lengthening leaf buds. The leaves start out red and pink and yellow, before turning the palest of greens, as they begin to generate chlorophyll. In their delicate coloration, these baby leaves are as gorgeous as the blooms that will come later. And perhaps even more, to my eyes, as I had never before appreciated how truly exquisite baby rose leaves can be. Nature’s freshest greens are not just green — they reflect the rainbow!

Nevertheless it’s still several months before the last frost date, which is mid-May for Bonn, and so I hesitate to cut the withered ends, which offer some shield from the cold, but I waiver only briefly. I feel a sense of accomplishment pruning off the crisped, frostbitten tips. As well the bushes seem glad to be relieved of the extra weight, much as one appreciates the lightness that results from a much-deferred hair trimming. (I know how that feels – I’ve recently had about 5 cm (2 in.) trimmed off my hair and it’s still waist length, but the difference is quite palpable.)

Every day encourages more and more leaf buds out. Here is a sampling of the roses’ delights this early spring. Please click on each one to enlarge.



Year of Grace, Day 107. A contrary gardener

When I look back on the gardens I have created, one thing stands out that unites them all. I have, for some unfathomable reason, been rather contrary and grown plants that are not natives nor known to thrive there. Take for instance the Mediterranean garden I created in my front garden in Leamington Spa. Now Warwickshire – smack in the middle of England and prides itself on this by calling itself the heart of England – is as far from the Mediterranean as any place in England can be. For one, it rains all year round and the sun is rare as hen’s teeth.

But when one looks at closer range and observes the micro climate, then one begins to see possibilities where none seemed to exist at first. What did my front garden have? A southern exposure, and thus sun – when there was sun – all day. And a lack of moisture. But how could this be, with all that rain? Well, there was a huge Kanzan cherry tree there – such a beauty with its blossoms in spring and its brilliant leaves in fall – but such a thirsty tree whose questing roots hogged all the moisture there was, and only those plants that didn’t mind drought thrived there. Rosemary and Russian sage, a black bamboo, phormium, mahonia, nandina, and Sedum spectabile — the kind with huge bunches of flowers that go lusciously from white to pale green and to shades of rose and purple in the autumn. There was an existing box hedge no more than 30 cm tall at first; I let it sprawl and grow wide and tall. Over the years I had trained it into cloud-like billows that kept chilly winter winds at bay, and the Mediterranean plants loved the seclusion and protection. Alas when I moved to Germany, it was torn out and with it, some of my heart went as well. And in the back garden, despite cold North winds, a bay tree and a kiwi vine have flourished, planted against a brick wall that keeps them warm in winter. Another subtropical — a feijoa or pineapple guava — is there as well.

Bonn has the same rainy and sunless climate as Leamington Spa. And my front garden again faces south. But recent construction has left the ground full of pebbles and stones on top of the original heavy clay. And it is on a slope – thus promising good drainage. And in the summer, the clay bakes into a hard, crackly, uninviting surface. So I have planted a Mediterranean garden all over again. Artichokes, rosemary, lavender, a bay tree, just fronting the house wall that also absorbs the heat and protects the plants when temperatures drop at night. I’ve also put in a coca-cola herb with its grey-green filigree leaves. Coca-cola gewurz is how Artemisia abrotanum is known locally, and it does give off a weird cola-like scent when I brush against it. I rather like its English name, Lad’s Love, as it’s rumoured to be an aphrodisiac. More Mediterranean companions are acanthus with its spikes of purple flowers, sage, and clumps of medium-tall blue-green Festuca glauca grass.

These Mediterranean plants possess the colours that I adore — soft grey-greens and blue-greens and silvery greens, purple and mauve and claret — with varied leaf textures, some soft and wooly and others rather spikey. And the scents they release are so soothingly therapeutic. Could it be that my dream garden is actually a Mediterranean one – and I will always try to create this wherever I am?

Here is another of my dream gardens – the Priory of Notre Dame d’Orsan in Berry, Picardie, in the heart of France. It is a monastery garden, much like Brother Cadfael might have planted, had he also gone into fruits and not just herbs and vegetables. I love the structures used for trellises and seating, and have in mind copying some of them. When the trees were pruned in the back garden last autumn, I had the prunings piled up, ready for fashioning into seats and all sorts of plant supports in the spirit of this dreamy French garden.

A heart chair -- from Prieure d'Orsan. Photo from the book Zaubere Alter Gaerten.

A heart chair — from Prieure d’Orsan. Photo from the book Zauber Alter Garten.

Click here for Monty Don’s account of his visit to the Priory Garden. And here’s another one of the hotel and restaurant for which the garden was created.


Year of Grace, Day 106. At closer range

The other day while I was showing a friend the drops caused by guttation on the amaryllis, she noticed something I had not – the shimmer on the surface of the petals. In full sun, the shimmer twinkled like the finest of crystallized gold. The vermillion of the petals was amplified by the shimmer, especially at the turned up edges, which glistened like highly polished lacquer. It was indeed an awe-inspiring sight! What marvels wait to be revealed when we look at closer range at things we assumed we had thoroughly observed? The photo below gives but a poor reflection of this astonishing wonder.

Shimmer on amaryllis

Shimmer on amaryllis

A woodpecker visited the cherry tree while I was writing this, and permitted me to take a few photos while he or she had breakfast.

Woodpecker on cherry tree

Woodpecker on cherry tree

Woodpecker almost invisible against cherry trunk

Woodpecker almost invisible against cherry trunk

Yesterday I spied a few female flowers buds on the twisty hazel. I might be able to find some that have opened today. Here are the male catkins – they are a soft yellowy-beige and make a lovely sight against the white trunks of the birches, especially when a passing breeze shakes them gently and sets them shimmying.

Hazel catkins against birch trunks

Hazel catkins against birch trunks

Year of Grace, Day 105. In praise of faded leaves

I came upon this painting of fading leaves by Takeuchi Seihõ while searching for something else entirely. I love that it shows a natural state of leaves – one that is uncommonly depicted. Usually in classic flower or plant paintings with birds (kachõga), the subjects are in a peerless state of being – at the height of their bloom and beauty. This one depicts leaves whose peak of perfection has lapsed and they are withered and collapsed – a common enough phenomenon in autumn or early winter. To me, they are not any less beautiful.

For more of Takeuchi Seiho’s work, click here and here.

In the same way, I am not in too great a hurry to tidy up dried seed heads or vines from the plants in the garden. They have their own quiet, intrinsic beauty, despite their loss of vigour.  Often the colours of flowers deepen as they dry, and when dying leaves curl, I am charmed by the whimsical and contorted shapes they assume. And in the snow, these dried stems and vines, bereft of their leaves, take on an understated elegance, a spare and noble sculpture of their own.








Year of Grace, Day 104. Nocturnal snacking and graphing the pleasures of reading

Have your eyes ever shockingly deceived you? I mean, literally — that is, by a word that you perceived and comprehended in a certain way? Well, this is just what happened to me a few hours ago.

I woke at just past 3 a.m. This early-morning waking happened the other day as well. This time I prepared myself a sleep-inducing tisane: a tea of passionfruit leaves and since they taste rather meh, I tossed in a teabag of lavender flowers as well for their comforting scent. And because I passed by the beckoning chocolate-caramel tart, I cut myself a merest slice of that too. Hmmm… yes. A thin wedge of dark chocolate comfort to lull me to beddy-byes.

And I took up my bedside reading – which over the past few days has been a reading list on Specifically this one, and by some mysterious path I was led to this graphic representation of a literary orgasm, apparently motivated by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (which I have yet to read, btw)Fascinating, I thought — an orgasm brought on by words. And yet, not inconceivable, if you remember the comedic eroticism of John Cleese’s Russian monologue sending Jamie Lee Curtis (aka Lady Haden-Guest) into paroxysms of arousal in A Fish Called Wanda. Yes, I am able to perceive those floral fireworks as someone else’s orgasm.  Why not? And the way that Stefanie Posavec obsessively took each element of the text for graphic representation had me breathless in admiration.

I once took a stimulating course in semiotics given by Yishai Tobin, one of the most intellectually inspiring lecturers I’ve ever known, and I had conceived the idea for a paper on how different artists communicated through their craft – poetry, sculpture, painting, music, etc. After pondering at length on how best to tackle it, I came off only with the vaguest notion of how to weave into unity these discrete aesthetic endeavours — all based on the external expression of internal sensory and emotional and intellectual stimuli. I gave it up as an unsolvable academic exercise, at least by me. And along comes this brilliant artist, several decades on, giving a tangible resolution to what I had been incapable of conceiving. I had not thought it was feasible to express the pleasure and joy of reading a text (other than in similar textual form), and here it is in the graphic form of an orgasm. Clever! Splendidly and outstandingly clever indeed.

Graphic by Stefanie Posavec

Graphic by Stefanie Posavec

Next I read Marilynne Robinson on beauty. I adored her lyrical prose in Gideon – one of the most musically moving books I have ever experienced, and that I often turn to — to read time and time again — as one does to re-encounter the sensual and emotional pleasures of listening to a well-loved piece of music or song. Reading Gideon is like having gentle waves of  music lapping inside my head.

The next link led me to Ursula LeGuin and her enchanting take on cats. I had only ever read her science fiction – The Left Hand of Darkness and The Wizard of Earthsea – and this divergent style, this playful exposé on cats, captivated me, a confirmed cat observer and lover.

I went back to trying to decipher the legends on Stefanie Posavec’s poster. They were still illegible despite zooming in. This must have been a good hour after I’d first looked at it. And that’s when it hit me. It wasn’t literary orgasm – it was literary organism! How had my eyes tricked me? As literary orgasm, the graphics had made absolute and credible sense. Artistic license and all that. Perhaps there might have been a subliminal intent to it, after all? Just perhaps…?

And so bemused, I was overtaken by the soporific power of the passionfruit leaves coupled with the calming lavender scent, and I bid my laptop and my snacking — gustatory and literary and sensory — a deeply pleasurable good night.

Year of Grace, Day 103. Okuyama-san and clothing

Thoreau’s thoughts on clothing expressed in Walden Pond took me on a trip back in time and place to 1980 Yuzawa, in Japan’s Snow Country. Every morning at 5 a.m., my friend Okuyama-san, then perhaps in his mid- to late 50s, rose and walked to tend his vegetable patch at the edge of the town, a good 20 or so minutes away. On his back he customarily carried a backpack weighing around 20 kilos of rocks (the weight was important for maintaining bone health, he said) and by his side would walk Pochi, his dog, at his advanced age gone blind in one eye.

Throughout the seasons, except for snow-bound winter, this was Okuyama-san’s daily routine. Two hours of caring for his assorted plants – he had chrysanthemums and many other flowers too, not just asparagus and diverse vegetables – digging and watering and weeding, and then he would shoulder his pack and whatever he had gleaned for the morning and head back into town with Pochi, just in time for breakfast with wife Miyako. He wore the same outfit each time – a long-sleeved shirt with big, generous pockets made of khaki and matching trousers. Here and there the shirt and trousers had been neatly patched. On his head he wore a knitted beret that Miyako had made – to hide his uncombed hair, he said. Usually black, but at times it was burgundy. To my eyes this outfit made him look rather dashing and stylish – not so much Japanese, as European. Rather like an eccentric English country gentleman farmer.

The shirt and trousers, he said, were from his trove of army uniforms left behind by the American troops stationed in Akita just after World War II. Then in his teens, he was fascinated by the strange language the soldiers spoke and their easy-going ways. But what struck him most at the time was the quality of the cloth that the uniforms were made of. And it would be a pity, he said, to throw away such hard-wearing, good quality clothing, just because they had a slight tear here or there. And so Miyako repeatedly and meticulously stitched and patched the working uniform that saw action not just in his vegetable garden but whenever and wherever there were heavy tasks to be undertaken.

I was struck at how refreshing Okuyama-san’s perspective on this American military-issue clothing was. To many another townmate, anything to do with the American Occupation and any vestige of their presence — especially their uniforms — were best obliterated. In any case, as Okuyama-san himself said, immediately after the war any kind of good, serviceable clothing had been hard to come by. And they have stood the test of time so well, he said. Look how well they have lasted, several decades on.

However, that was not how some town mates regarded Okuyama-san’s cherished uniform. A group of women had been asked to help prepare refreshments for the children’s Sports Day, and I was one of them. There I was, splitting the ends of tiny sausages to fashion them into octopus legs and other such cute tidbits meant to entice picky young appetites. And as is the norm in such small town gatherings, gossip flew thick and fast. I didn’t know many of the personages mentioned, but my ears perked up at a familiar name. One of the women, among the youngest, derided my friend’s choice of work clothes. How could he, she said, in his position and obviously quite well-to-do, go about town wearing such patched clothes?

And it occurred to me then, as it does even now decades later, that indeed it does take an unusual mind, like my friend Okuyama-san’s, to see beauty — for quality is beauty – where the average person sees only patches.

And as you can see from the photos below, Okuyama-san dressed immaculately and always with impeccable taste.

Apologies for the fuzziness of this photo.


Okuyama-san and his signature beret