An Alsace Day.

Today was a very Alsace day.

Firstly we went to a very small and a very strange museum called the museum of love in the nearby village of Werentzhouse.  In a tiny renovated Alsace house there is an astonishingly rich collection of vintage post cards in albums neatly stacked on wooden shelves. All are connected to love .

There is barely room to open the album, but each one holds a treasure trove of beautiful post cards. I looked at the album of cards made of real human hair, which was slightly creepy, but also very funny and touching.

I also looked at cards sent by French soldiers in the First World War to their sweethearts back home and was amazed by their variety and also the sauciness  of some of them! The ladies explained that they were bought by soldiers in packs of 12 and they built up to tell a story of longing and love, for the shy or the inarticulate. Both world wars are still so close in the Alsace, I couldn’t help wondering how many young men got to send all twelve cards or to experience the effect on the loved one.

Returning home saddle sore from unaccustomed cycling, we decided to try a glass of Auxerrois wine recommended by our next door neighbour. I love all white Alsatian wines, especially the wonderfully perfumed Gewürztraminer  and Pinot Gris, but Auxerrois is a rarity, possibly because it is so hard to say. This wine was a delight. I am going to stop myself burbling wine snob nonsense, but it is light, and full of flavour and perfume. Not much of this variety is grown and often it is blended in to make Pinot Blanc and essential in Crèmant d’Alsace.  I include a photo and a link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI7La0dopZU&feature=sharek

to a you tube clip that gives some sense of the history, complexity and great wines of this little border region, where I have planted my unexpected garden .

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All my Gardens- part 6 : Brazil – humming birds and highrise.

São Paulo Brazil has about 20 million inhabitants and from my first experience, only one tree.

I could see the tree from my apartment on the fifteenth floor. It was in a school yard a long way down and it was completely dwarfed by the high rises that surrounded it. São Paulo was the most relentlessly urban environment in which I have ever tried to grow a garden and yet a city more in need of green it would be hard to imagine.

When we arrived in our first apartment we stepped over the street children huddled together like puppies under blankets. When I looked out onto the balcony I felt I was falling into the most profound pit I had ever seen, as the earth that should have surrounded the building was being excavated to a terrifying depth, to build the sky scraper next door.

We didn’t stay long.

There were a few more trees near the next apartment we lived in, but they too were dwarfed into insignificance by the dimensions of the buildings.

 

From this second balcony I hung ferns in baskets and tried my best to make a wall of green with ficus trees, crotons and butterfly palms.  Bigonias are native to Brazil and an assortment of types gave colour and leaf shapes to my attempt to block out the view of the city.

Wildlife is more tenacious than we think however, and a feeder soon attracted a spectacular swallow tailed blue humming bird that had swapped a life sipping nectar from blossoms in the topical forest for a city life drinking sugar water from a plastic feeder. The blue grey taneger we had first met eating chilies in our Costa Rican garden appeared again in Brazil on this high rise balcony and even built a nest, as delicate as a wren’s, in an old plant pot. She even laid eggs, but three days of colossal thunderstorms sent apocalyptic lightening and biblical rain across the city and somewhere in the storm she was lost and her eggs were never hatched.

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(I found her photo in an old scrap book)

In our local bar, where we sat at pavement tables shouting above the roar of the traffic, fruit bats picked ripe fruits from the few road side trees. They must have been able to smell when the fruit was ripe and the bats appeared in their hundreds for a few day only hanging clustered like ghouls with their large intelligent canine faces, observing us drinking cold beer far below.

On the edge of Sao Paulo is a wonderful place called Pedra Grande. Before the city grew into the chaotic megalopolis that it is today, an enlighten city father decided to protect the city’s watershed. In order to do this a very large chunk of Atlantic forest around a rock outcrop was spared the axe and to this day Paulistas can walk amongst the real tropical sky scrapers of giant trees and delight in three toed sloths, howler monkeys and magnificent toucans only a short drive from down town. This remnant of paradise was our salvation and we spent each weekend there buried in the deep green and the brilliant colours that make up a tropical forest.

To climb to the top of Pedra Grande is to understand the true shape of the world.

The walker emerges from the shade of the thick forest, scrambles onto the smooth granite boulders and the conurbation of 20 million souls erupts into view. The tens of thousands of sky scrapers bristle up into the smog hazed sky and then slope away into infinity, as the curvature of the planet is revealed in this awful, breathtaking monument to the human ability multiply and to build.

No balcony garden anywhere could compensate for that knowledge.

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All my Gardens-Part5 England and almonds.

Some garden are yours for only a brief time .

After Costa Rica there were three short lived gardens.

The first was in Cheltenham, England and was basically a window box overlooking a courtyard. In a small space I kept hebes and cyclamens and tolerant bulbs. In the shelter of a town and the lea of an old building they flowered all year, untroubled by the cold and frosts of the real countryside. For the first time I understood the improbable things that are grown on upmarket London city balconies shielded from the seasons.  The flat was in a Georgian town house with great high ceilings and long shutters and along the front balcony wisteria grew. Most of the year wisteria is an unpreposessing green vine, but for two weeks in the spring it blossomed forth with pendant purple flowers that filled the room with the fabulous, heady smell of honey.

The next garden was in Spain.

A slab of bare dry earth surrounded by a wire fence at the back and a slice of an almond orchard at the front.

It was the end of summer and nothing was growing. To water plants in a town where toilets were flushed with sea water would have been criminal and so I saved every drop of water we washed clothes and dishes in and showered stood in buckets to catch the used water. All of this saved water was thrown on the dry “garden” and soon seeds began to germinate and morning glory started to clothe the ugly fence with green and flowers. We were allowed to harvest the ripe almonds and we managed to crack the hard shells in the jamb of the front door and roast the nuts slowly in the oven after soaking in salted water. As the world is a stranger and more dangerous place than we often think, we did not stay long enough to watch this  garden grow and left with only a couple of bags of salty nuts to remember it by.

Back in Cheltenham again, we took possession of an unassuming flat with a tiny balcony, just big enough for a single chair. I ranged narrow planters on the edge and clipped pots to the rails and in the next summer grew geraniums and nasturtiums and a wonder wall of perfumed sweet peas that leaned gratefully on the rails and provided a little display of flowers for the table for what seemed like months.  From the balcony we watched the fire works that declared the millennium and waited for the world to end when the computers stopped working, but it didn’t.

All my Gardens -Part 4: Costa Rica and the big world.

Some times you do something that changes your life forever.

I took a job in Costa Rica. I packed up the house in Wales, confident I would be home in two years and we left to see the world.

The first thing I recognised in San Jose were bizzie-Lizzies  flowering in cracks of the  city streets and that is where the familiar stopped. I didn’t recognise anything else.

Outside of the city there were active volcanoes belching steam and spewing larva; in the uplands resplendent  quetzals plucked wild avocados from cloud forest trees. On the Caribbean coast there were jaguars on the beach and on the Pacific coast giant turtles hauled themselves out of the surf to lay soft ping pong ball eggs in the moist sand. This was my new found land, my America and the exhuberence of the tropical forests; dry forests; clouds forest and beaches blew my mind.

This wasn’t Wales.

When there was so much to explore and so much pristine wildlife outside of the city to see, the personal domain of a garden seemed of less importance, but as l, like all other real people had a living to make, the jungle was only for the weekend and my garden was for the week.

Our bungalow in San Jose had a small wrap around garden with a car porch and a tall white wall on which sprawled the fastest growing bougainvillea in creation. An explosion of pink flowers cascaded from it all year and the huge spiny branches seemed to grow a metre a day. When we came back from a week away we had to hack our way through the gate.

At the Saturday market you could buy orchid plants hanging from scraps of wood and my car port was soon festooned in them. They went against all instincts, they seemed to have roots that should be covered in earth but were happy to absorb water straight from the rain. With some judicious spraying they periodically produced wonderful flowers, but the nakedness of the roots still disturbed me.

We hung up a sugar water feeder and a humming bird came to feed at the window. It was an utterly improbable jewelled mechanical toy that seemed suspended in the air by an invisible wire and to look into its bright eye was like looking into another geological age.

A tiny garden opened out from the shower with a burglar proof metal lattice above. This was the perfect place from which to suspend pots of more orchids and shade loving ferns and when I washed, I felt I was in my own miniature jungle.

Near the bedroom window a chilie bush grew, that produced very small, very fierce red chilies all year round. We tried  a few in cooking and they were all seed and heat. Lying in bed under the mosquito net we would watch a plump grey taniger pluck them one by one and toss them delicately down without a tear.

After a while we were troubled by an appalling smell from the drain outside and eventually discovered a decomposing cane toad, massive and bloated. The drain man tossed it into the empty lot next door where it continued to fester and stink for weeks, but its removal seemed to encourage another cane toad to take up residence in the garden. It was as big as a kitten and excellent at catching pests. I know that cane toads are considered the pests in Australia where they were introduced, but in Central America, where they originate, they are wonderful.

There were only two seasons: wet and dry and things grew in both. The rains brought the lushest growth, but the windy dry season was still green. There was no respite from the geckos and lizards, from the frogs and the birds and away from the city, the butterflies, the bats, the snakes and the monkeys.

To us the whole country was our garden of Eden.

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All my Gardens – part 3: Wild Wales.

My second rented garden was almost on the banks of the River Wye on the English Welsh border. Sand martins excavated holes in the crumbling overhangs of the banks and swans sometimes misjudged their flight over the bridge and landed inelegant and indignant in the midst of the traffic. Curlews picked over the drift wood of the broad river and king fishers flashed jewel bright over the green water.

I was there only for a winter and a spring. It was just long enough for me to be delighted by the masses of snowdrops that appeared and diligent enough to start waging war on the ground elder that pushed its way up everywhere. Appropriately yellow Welsh poppies flowered between the paving stones and I collected their seeds to take to my own first Welsh garden in the summer.

The first garden and until quite recently the only garden I owned, was oblong and uninspiring apart from one magnificent inhabitant: my oak. The oak was a surprising remnant from the farm land or wood land that had been lost to build our bungalow.  It was entirely out of proportion to the little suburban plot I owned and it was utterly magnificent.

I dug flower beds along the lawn and grew tansy and bear’s britches. Fox gloves loved the red sandstone soil and appeared everywhere and I adored watching fat bumble bees push their ways into the speckle lipped flowers. I grew a buddleia to attract the butterflies and killed it by pruning it too hard. I grew a Russian vine and nearly lost a fence because I couldn’t prune it fast enough.  My roses got blackspot in the wet Welsh weather, my drive grew a forest of moss and my lawn turned easily into a meadow  by planting  wild flowers in amongst the grass and only mowing it once a year, much to the neighbour’s dismay.

The Welsh poppies absolutely refused to germinate and no appeal to their patriotic duty convinced them to grow, but the oak grew slowly, but surely each year.

Grey squirrels loved the acorns and also the peanuts we put out for the birds. One particular squirrel would follow a trail of peanuts cross the lawn and into the sitting room through the French windows. My father was visiting one summer afternoon and was surprised to look up from his newspaper to see Charlene the squirrel, sat comfortably on the carpet watching the television with him in the sitting room.

The oak tree is still there and I have made sure it has preservation order on it to protect it from the tidy minded.  The  garden alas has now reverted to plain lawn and all the flowers I planted are gone. The poppies seeds still refuse to flower, but the warm wet Welsh weather has kept the drive sstill lushly  carpeted in thick green moss.

 

 

All my Gardens: part 2 Garsington Manor and beyond.

My first garden, as a grown up, was the grandest garden I shall ever know.

In response to an advert in the Oxford Times we found ourselves renting the converted top floor of a monastery  bake house in the grounds of Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire.

It was incredibly cold and impossibly right and romantic. The story was that it had been converted for DH Lawerence to live in as an “agricultural labourer” on the land of Lady Otoline Morrell and thus avoid conscription. However, his unflattering description of her in as Hermoine Roddice in “Women in Love”had resulted in a falling out and  he never took possession of flat.  Ottoline Morrell continued as a famous hostess of the  intelligencia during  WW1 and her guests included Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sasson, Virginia Wolfe, Henry James, Bertrand Russel, WB Yeats, TS Elliot and of course the troublesome Lawerence.

The beautiful gardens  she had laid out around the Tudor Cotswold manor house were open for us to enjoy and we timidly explored the lower reaches away from the big house and could hardly believe our luck.

At the furthest end was a lovely natural pool full of fish always ravenous for bread crumbs where I watched an equally hungry cat lean further and further over to catch them, until it fell head first in the water. It’s expression of outraged indignation as it hauled his sodden body out on the other side of the pond, was a delight I have never forgotten.

Beyond the fish pond was the Italian lake, which was large enough to swim in and to boat around a central island.  The water was cold and green, but we braved it sometimes, floating briefly on our backs to admire the statues set into the deep green hedge. I would have looked more closely at the plinths upon which the statues stood if I had known the story that accompanied them. It was apparently common knowledge that Ottoline Morrell had an affair with the stone mason who made them and that their trists in the shed were the inspiration for the gardener and the lady in “Lady Chatterly’s Lover ” by DH Lawerence.

Beyond the lake the gardens sloped up to a formal parterre of 24 squares of geometric control,  punctuated by tall yew trees and above that there were fabulous herbaceous borders of riotous colour and exuberance.

If you are trying to visualise this, it is maybe easier than you think, as some TV programmes and films with shots of perfect English gardens lapping honey coloured manor houses; were actually filmed at  Garsington. So if it sounds oddly familiar, that is because it is. If you are an opera fan you may of course have strolled in the grounds during the interval as the opera festival held in the grounds annually, came to rival Glynbourn.

The opera came after our stay and in fact the monastery bake house flat was later used as offices for its administration (they also complained it was cold!).

During our brief stay  their was a lovely performance of “Twelfth Night” on a perfect summer evening in the garden. We were helping taking tickets and as I stood by the gate, the youngest daughter of the owner came running up in great distress, as she had noticed that the toadlets in the pond had chosen this very evening to emerge from the water and thousands of the tiny creatures were hopping unnoticed between the polished brogues and stiletto heels of the oblivious audience. In my best school teacher voice I ordered the visitors to, “Look down at your feet!  Notice the tiny toadlets and move slowly away from the pond!” Meekly they obeyed and clutching their glasses of wine, they obediently tip toed back to the paths and the great toad massacre was averted.

We were allowed to garden a dark patch of grass behind the bake house, but I didn’t dare actually dig anything up or try to plant anything in this lightless spot.

My only intervention was to ask for the grass not to be cut. This was allowed and as we had guessed a  couple of wild common spotted orchids  that had been waiting for years for the chance, flowered and  then set seed on this bit of old meadow land. Their delicate wildness could be considered my second little contribution to this memorable, magnificent garden!

Photo thanks to      https://mefoley.wordpress.com/tag/bloomsbury/

 

 

In Cold Time (All my gardens :part 1)

Spring seems such a long way off. A huge pall of freezing weather seems to have fallen over everything this week and it is hard to be hopeful, so in the long tradition of human survival in dark times I turn to memory and imagination.

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                                                                       All my Gardens:

Part One

The first garden I remember was around a suburban house in Cheshire. The house was newish and the garden was only a few years old and still raw around the edges. My mother planted roses and scented pinks in a raised bed above the lawn.   My father constructed a swing on the neat lawn and I could swoop high above the fences and look down for an omniscient moment onto the gardens of our neighbours.

To the left was a garden full of red hot pokers. That was the first flower name that I consciously learnt and I was immediately fascinated by violence inherent in it and the obviously alien nature of the column of compacted flowers designed to be pollinated by humming birds that would never find Cheshire.

To the right was a garden with a dense sweep of shrubs around a circular lawn. This was interesting.  Everybody else had square or rectangular lawns; a circular lawn seemed like a clearing in an Arthurian forest and who knew what might happen in this secluded ring.

What actually did happen was marvelous, but did not involve knights in shining amour. My first pet was a small tortoise.  We let it out on the lawn to feed and brought it lettuce. It of course escaped and much wailing followed.  Eventually it was decided it was dead and I forgot about it in the way that children do. One day, when peering over the larch lap fence, I spotted it traversing the secret lawn slowly ,  nonchalantly.  It was resurrection. It was a miracle and a marvelous mystery that it could have been so close for so long, without my knowing.

The tortoise later came to a sad end due to Blue Peter, but that is another story for another cold day.

When the roses flowered I was fascinated by their huge perfumed petals and I greedily collected every one that fell and sometimes before they fell!   My father owned a racey ash tray that had a naked little figure of a woman reclining along the dish. When the roses bloomed I would take her out into the garden and dress her in the petals which would stick to her figure with a little water. A red petal for a skirt, an orange petal for a top and a pink petal for her hat. The variations on contouring her nakedness were  intoxicating .  Surplus petals were collected to make perfume.  Covering them in water produced rose water of which I was inordinately proud and presented to my mother in a bottle with a ribbon round it. Of course the liquid was soon brown and rank, but she told me she would wear it sometimes.

Whenever I smell pinks or carnations their heady spicy perfume transports me back to that first garden. I have tried to grow them in my own gardens, but with little success.

Some things are of their time and place and cannot, it seems, be recreated.

New Year wishes.

This massive gun turret is on the top of a maginot line WW2 bunker in the next village. It is testimony to the wars that have raged over this corner of Europe time and time again.

Now the bunker is lapped by a brown ploughed field and shaded by a few tall trees. The trees are frilled with the white seeds of old man’s beard and mistletoe is yellow and green in the winter sunlight. On the top of the bunker; which is still pock marked by bullets and shells; a rough grass land has formed with ant hills where green woodpeckers hunt.

May all remnants of wars meld back into the countryside like this.

 

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On becoming Irish

My maternal grandparents were Irish. In Liverpool everybody seemed to have Irish grandparents and listening to my grandfather sing and play fiddle with his friends in the kitchen seemed what everybody did.

When my grandparents died and the family moved away, any links with Ireland seemed to losen and I eventually felt myself wholly English. However the idea that you can part of more than one country was there as bedrock and both my grandfathers travelled the world on the ocean going liners out of Liverpool and it seemed as natural as breathing to want to see the world.

I have lived now in nine different countries and on four different continents, having come to rest ( who knows for how long) in a beautiful corner of France on the edge of Switzerland and Germany . I like being foreign because I think anywhere can be my home and I can feel at home everywhere. My British nationality has been a great good fortune, giving me the language that has has made my living and a passport respecteacross the world. As a member of the EU my potential home and work place in any of the member countries offers me a huge range of climates, countries and cultures to choose from.

And then came Brexit.

I was prepared for the result. I had spent months researching my Irish roots and my eligibility for Irish citizenship as a foreign born national , but I hoped I would not have go through with it. This is not because I didn’t want to get dual Irish/British nationality, but because I hoped no one could be misguided enough to turn their backs on all the opportunities that Europe offers.

Unfortunately I was wrong, but unlike all the millions of my fellow Brits with no European ancestors,  my Irish parents have stretched out a hand across the years and allowed me to continue being European, to continue living in France and to have the possibility to work or retire wherever the fancy takes me in the community.

I am very grateful to the Irish embassay in Paris for sorting it all out so quickly and to my Granparents for giving me the freedom to keep my options and my heart open in this amazing, interconnected world!