the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: February, 2013

TOMATO

28 February 2013

Chinese food is great. No doubt about it. But tomatoes don’t figure very highly in Chinese cooking. In all those banquets I’ve been invited to, I’ve seen a few tomato slices swimming in soups and sauces, I’ve been offered a dish which seems to consist of scrambled eggs drowned in weak tomato sauce, and that’s it. Except for one more thing. Almost uniformly, at the end of the banquets, they insist on serving cherry tomatoes with the fruit! Of course, from a biological point of view they are correct, but everyone KNOWS that tomatoes are a vegetable! I mean, the US Supreme Court decided so, in 1893, in the case Nix v. Hedden. And if the US Supreme Court has decided so, who are we to disagree?

Yet here I am again, faced with a plate of fruit on which sit a number of cherry tomatoes. As I moodily spear at the damned things, my thoughts float off to another place, to another country, where the tomato reigns supreme, cooking-wise.

I dream of pizza, the simplest kind, pizza margherita. Just tomato sauce and mozzarella, with a basil leaf or two, no more.

pizza-margherita

I will accept a few more toppings, in a pizza quattro stagioni for instance. But I quite disapprove of a certain tendency to pour on the toppings. Keep it simple! Because the beauty of pizza is the marriage of the tomato sauce

passata di pomodoro-1

with the mozzarella

And not just any mozzarella. Mozzarella di bufala, mozzarella from the Italian buffalo, found only in the south of Italy

mozzarella-di-bufala-1

I keep on spearing my cherry tomatoes …

I dream of spaghetti al pomodoro

spaghetti al pomodoro-1

Or of penne al ragù

penne al ragu-1

Or cavatappi

cavatappi

Or farfalle, or maccheroni, or tortiglioni, or conchiglie, or orecchiette

I begin to sweat.

I dream of meats and fish in tomato-based sauces. Ossobuco

ossobuco-1

Pollo alla cacciatora

pollo alla cacciatora-1

Brodetto

brodetto-1

I viciously stab the last cherry tomato on my plate.

It’s time for the final toast. We shake hands all around, we offer each other our gifts, and I head for the car.

Maybe I can persuade my wife to make me a small plate of spaghetti al pomodoro when I get home …

pomodori-1

_________________________

Pizza Margherita: http://www.epocaedesign.it/filealbum/349_1.jpg

Passata di pomodoro: http://static.multipino.pl/photoOffer/p/438910_p.jpg

Mozzarella di bufala: http://www.lucianopignataro.it/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/mozzarella-di-buafala.jpg

Spaghetti al pomodoro: http://www.pearlcafe.com.vn/menupic/SpaghettI%20chay.jpg

Penne al ragù: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2765/4032992954_fd9232b230.jpg

Cavatappi: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Fbwd__6dPZA/TsKuYMX5skI/AAAAAAAAAJM/rxVZS1br_XU/s1600/capatevvi1.jpg

Ossobucco: http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/photohomepage/photohomepage1201/photohomepage120100141/12533926-ossobuco-in-umido-con-pomodoro-e-rosmarino-e-pure-di-patate-e-salsa-di-pomodoro.jpg

Pollo alla cacciatora: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-p_oIFRg7524/TkJE2h9eAjI/AAAAAAAAHPQ/ZdU5k1OMVl0/s1600/DSCN6153-.jpg

Brodetto: http://img1.2spaghi.it/ristoranti/img/big/al-metro-20091123-235147.jpg

Pomodori: http://www.assesempione.info/images/stories/gennaio2012/pomodori.jpg

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FULL MOON

25 February 2013

Yesterday started with my wife finally remembering a song that had been chasing around in her head all night: “September”, by Earth, Wind and Fire, whom we see here in concert:

earth wind and fire concert-1

This is a song from “our” generation; it came out in 1978. My wife tracked down a version of it on the web and promptly played it for the rest of the day. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song – a feel-good song, my wife calls it – but after you’ve sung along with the refrain

Ba de ya – say do you remember
Ba de ya – dancing in September
Ba de ya – never was a cloudy day

for the fifth time, it begins to pall – at least for me. But not my wife. Mercifully, she had to turn it off when we went to bed, but then the fireworks, which had been grumbling along all day,

fireworks-5

began to build up to their final roar for midnight.

fireworks-6

Because, for those of you who do not closely follow matters Chinese, yesterday was the Lantern Festival, the last day of the Chinese new year celebrations, whose end is traditionally celebrated with an orgy of fireworks.

At one moment during the evening I slipped out to the local 7-11 to buy a bottle of our favourite wine (a Spanish tempranillo – but I digress). Coming back, I looked up and glimpsed through the clouds what all this sound and fury was all about: the full moon.

full moon-1

Because the Chinese new year is really a lunar festival. It starts on the second new moon after the winter solstice and ends 15 days later at the full moon. I had picked up the new moon – or newish moon; it had already waxed a few days – in Luang Prabang.

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And now I was seeing the full moon, shining serenely down on all this silliness.

A full moon is a beautiful thing. It certainly has caught the attention of many poets. A short search on the web brought to light at least 100 poems about the moon by well-known poets; Lord knows how many have been written by bad poets. But the poem which always comes to my mind when I see a full moon is not actually about the moon. I need to explain. One night in Vienna, I woke up and was enchanted by the brilliant nearly full moon pouring its white light into the bedroom. Two nights later, I was in Cambodia on the shore of the Mekong River. Looking up, I saw the full moon and thought to myself “This same moon will be shining down on my wife and children in a few hours” and found that thought immensely comforting. Now for the poem, which is by the Welsh poet Alun Lewis. He wrote it during the Second World War, when he was far away in India, in the city of Poona.

Last night I did not fight for sleep
But lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,

Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.
And sixty degrees of longitude beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had spanned the distance from your sleeping side.

And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care:
I saw the green tide leap on Cardigan,
Your red yacht riding like a legend there.

And the great mountains Dafydd and Llewelyn,
Plynlimmon, Cader Idris and Eryri
Threshing the darkness back from head and fin,
And also the small nameless mining valley

Whose slopes are scratched with streets and sprawling graves
Dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders
Where you lay waiting, listening to the waves
My hot hands touched your white despondent shoulders

And then ten thousand miles of daylight grew
Between us, and I heard the wild daws crake
In India’s starving throat; whereat I knew
That Time upon the heart can break
But love survives the venom of the snake.

When I read the poem for the first time, I was reminded of that night in Vienna with its full moon. And now, when I’m far away from home and see the moon, I think of this poem and of my wife.

_____________________

Earth Wind and Fire concert: http://sharelike.me/image/pics/EarthWindandFireconcertPics1ApCC7Md5iwM.jpg

Fireworks-1: http://cdn.ph.upi.com/sv/em/upi/UPI-16811361735171/2013/1/9eb14390c758aeb27fd87349de4d55bc/China-celebrate-Lunar-New-Year.jpg

Fireworks-2: http://findlaydonnan.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/fireworks-to-celebrate-the-chinese-new-year-light-up-the-sky-above-beijing-china-on-january-26-2009-chinese-welcomed-the-arrival-of-the-year-of-the-ox-with-raucous-celebrations-on-sun.jpg?w=497&h=283

Full moon: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-gY39tpbGmzg/TnLTHVEnSyI/AAAAAAAABaM/R2kBI2LddYg/s1600/Moon_Lantern_Festival.jpg

New moon Luang Prabang: my photo

COAL

23 February 2013

Whenever I visited my French grandmother at Easter, we used to stay in her house in the countryside. It was still cold enough for us to need heating, which meant that we spent much of our time in the living room, huddled around a venerable stove. It looked like this:

coal stove

although it had a chimney that came out of the back, which after a metre or so took a right-angle turn and exited through the living room wall.

During the day, my grandmother burned wood scrap – fallen branches, pinecones, bark, whatever lay around the garden after the winter storms – which she sent me out to collect on a regular basis. At night, though, she would load the stove up with coal, and it was my job to fill the coal scuttle. This meant taking the scuttle down to the cellar, where the coal was stored, to fill it up. This is what the scuttle looked like:

coal scuttle-3

I loved that cellar. It was really the ground floor of the house – there was a door at the back which gave onto the road outside. From the garden side, though, you had to open a door with a large key, of the kind gaolers had in medieval times, go down a few stairs past dark corners where all the garden utensils were stored, and through a second door into the cellar proper. And there, stretched out in the semi-darkness, was a world of enchantment. For starters, the cellar had a dirt floor, which gave it a very particular smell. Then all around, strange and wonderful things loomed out of the dark. The coal was stored in an untidy pile to the left of the door, and beyond it was an old wooden table on which were stored my grandmother’s cache of goat cheeses bought from a nearby farm, the bottled fruit which she prepared during the summer, and a small wooden barrel in which she made her vinegar. Wonderful, wonderful, that vinegar was! It seemed to me total magic that my grandmother would pour the local red wine in, let it stand for a while, and hey-presto! out came delicious vinegar. I tried making vinegar of my own decades later in Vienna. The results were … mixed, let us say. Next to the vinegar barrel was the wine rack, good rough Beaujolais wines from the local vineyards. Over on the cellar’s right were piles of wood, various pieces of old furniture, ancient utensils whose use I could not figure out, an old bike or two, some hay, and I don’t know what else.

I always spent a few moments poking around in the corners seeing what new things I might stumble across, before filling up the scuttle and hauling it back up to the living room. The coal was, of course, dusty and left all your fingers black, but it came in nice, neat egg-shaped pieces. I never thought about it at the time, but I suppose this was pulverized coal pressed and molded; I remember the mold lines running around the pieces. Here’s what it looked like, in a coal scuttle; really heavy to carry! (appropriately enough, this is a photo from a museum; we are talking history here):

As for my English grandmother’s house, it had no coal. The use of coal had been banned in London after the last big smog of 1952. I remember my mother telling us about that smog when we were children, how she had had to walk down the road and almost panicked at not being able to see a thing. Soon thereafter, my parents escaped to the sunnier climes of Africa where I was born.

london smog 1952

The house had no coal but still had a coal cellar, which was located under the pavement. A manhole in its ceiling had once allowed the coal-man to handily pour in the coal without coming into the house. My grandmother didn’t really use the coal cellar for much. The only thing I ever saw her put in there were the French cheeses which my father bought when we visited. He had a fondness for the smellier French cheeses like Roquefort:

roquefort

My grandmother, in true English style, detested smells, so she banished his cheeses to the coal cellar between meals. Lucky for her that my father didn’t eat the aptly-named Crotte du diable, or devil’s droppings!

crotte du diable

Truly, evilly smelly – in fact, it seems not to exist anymore, which is a tragedy because it tasted absolutely wonderful (you had to wash your hands very well after eating it, though …).

In any event, things changed and moved on. My French grandmother had a heart attack while picking strawberries in her vegetable garden and was eventually moved into a home, and the stove stopped being used. I came across coal one more time, at school, where we had an open fire in the school monitors’ room and a ration of coal to feed it with. The coal looked more like the stuff that’s dug out of the ground, rough chunks:

coal at school

I liked to pick up a chunk and turn it in the light. Coal can be very beautiful, with black, glistening surfaces, reminiscent of obsidian:

bituminous coal

I also liked to sit next to the fire and gaze deep into the glowing coals rather than study for my A-levels:

glowing coal-2

which may partially explain why I didn’t do too well in my A-levels.

After that, coal disappeared from my life, as it did from the lives of all us in Europe.

Then we came to China.

Some statistics, courtesy of Wikipedia [1]: China is third in the world in terms of total coal reserves. It is the largest coal producer in the world, with the world’s largest (and deadliest) coal mining industry. It is also the largest consumer of coal in the world. Over half of the coal is used to make electricity, another third is used by industry, some is used in district heating plants, leaving a mere 3% to be used in residences. But you sure see that 3%.

You see them shoveling up huge chunks of coal – I was astonished at how big the chunks are; they have come straight from the coal face – you see them trucking it around, and piled up in street corners.

china-shoveling coal

And more than anything you see China’s version of molded coal, which looks like this:

molded coal china-1

You see them transporting it around on the tricycles which I wrote about in an earlier post:

tricycle with coal

You see it piled up outside houses:

molded coal china-3

Then it’s burned in these special stoves:

stoves china-1

which leaves behind the consumed molds which you see in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture. Cities’ rubbish is littered with these discards.

molded coal china-consumed

All this coal burning leaves a taste in the air, a taste which instantly takes me back to my early years in the UK, when you would walk through a town or village and smell the sharp, acidic taste of coal being burned.

And it gives rise to smog:

beijing smog-2

Not much different from London’s smogs.

I’m optimistic. Like the UK did, China will eventually get rid of the smogs – probably by stopping to burn coal.

______________________

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_in_China

coal stove: http://img.fr.clasf.com/2012/11/22/poele-a-charbon-ancien-maill-20121122191235.jpg

coal scuttle: http://gillesrenaud9.free.fr/Seau%20%C3%A0%20charbon/P1050541.jpg

coal scuttle-fullhttp://a406.idata.over-blog.com/600×879/1/05/04/45/photos-blog-N-21/le-seau-a-charbon-boulets-musee-de-la-mine.jpg

London smog 1952: http://www.thefloridastandard.com/files/2013/02/smogdm1403_468x673.jpg

Roquefort: http://img.dooyoo.co.uk/GB_EN/orig/0/1/0/2/8/102828.jpg

Crotte due diable: http://i.ebayimg.com/00/s/MTYwMFgxMTgy/$%28KGrHqF,!iUE8cj4nvorBPVlcwEB,!~~60_35.JPG

Coal at school: http://i01.i.aliimg.com/photo/v0/112891981/Tissue_Paper_Coal_Palm_oils_Pail.jpg

Bituminous coal: http://www.ua.all.biz/img/ua/catalog/1865574.jpeg

Glowing coal: http://bargainsbegin.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Heater-3-edit.jpg

Chinese shoveling coal: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/12/21/business/coal/coal-blog480.jpg

Molded coal China: http://lexpansion.lexpress.fr/pictures/1455/745377_des-briques-de-charbon-dans-un-commerce-de-huaibei-en-chine.jpg

Tricycle with molded coal: http://www.travel-pictures-gallery.com/images/china/beijing/beijing-0042.jpg

Molded coal China against the wall: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-ASl1mhpkw5k/TkRxVCEtoII/AAAAAAAAA14/pgggOooaKE0/s400/Hutong%2Bcoal.jpg

Stove for burning molded coal: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5164/5261127408_36ccd1d718_z.jpg

Molded in coal China-consumed: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/68/424608074_e7f49e2f9a_z.jpg?zz=1

Beijing smog-2: http://feww.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/china-smog-17feb2013.jpg

TEMPLES IN LAOS

20 February 2013

I must confess to a certain weakness for the Buddhist temples in this part of the world. I first came across them nearly thirty years ago (Good Lord, is it really that long ago?) when my wife and I visited Japan. My photos of that trip are packed away with all the rest of our stuff in Vienna, so I’ve borrowed a few pictures from the web to refresh my memory, all from Kyoto, a wonderful place. This is Kiyomizu-ji.

kyoto-temple-1

But probably the most iconic temple of them all in Kyoto is Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

kyoto-temple-2

Look at that delicate architectural tracery embedded so naturally, so lightly, in the surrounding greenery.

Many years later, my wife and I saw another style of Buddhist temple in Bangkok during a brief stay there on our way to Angkor Wat. This is Wat Benchamabophit:

bangkok-temple-1

And this Wat Ratchanatdaram:

bangkok-temple-2

And then, once here in China, we saw yet another style, a heavier, more “imperial” style. The Temple of Heaven in Beijing is one of the nicer examples.

Temple-of-heaven-3

All quite different. But I think you will agree that there is a common thread: the raking of the roofs. I don’t know what it is, but this lift of a roof at its tip really gives a wonderful grace to a building, even a rather heavy, stodgy building like the Temple of Heaven.

So it was with pleasure that we saw this again in Laos, first in Vientiane:

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Then in Luang Prabang:

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I saw other things that warmed the cockles of my heart, like this for instance:

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This is where I can refer the reader back to my previous post. What we’re seeing is the similar use of paintings to educate the faithful in two places that are nearly 9,000 kilometres apart. The Italians have an expression for this, tutto il mondo è paese, the whole world is but a village; in the end, we’re all the same wherever we live. In the previous post, it was my young daughter who was illiterate. In this case, it was me – and alas, I had no-one who could explain the story which the paintings were telling.

We also liked the way that the temples had different roofs piled one on the other.

laos 365

It quite reminded us of the stave churches in Norway, several of which we had visited some five years ago:

norwegian-stave-church

Tutto il mondo è paese.

We also liked a certain set of Buddha statues that we came across. These are in the “praying for rain” position:

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And these are in the “no war” position:

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Well, I suppose that’s what we all want, isn’t it? We want to eat our fill and live in peace.

Tutto il mondo è paese.

_______________________________

Kyoto-temple-1: http://anime.aplus.by/uploads/posts/2011-01/1293979203_xigasiyama.jpg

Kyoto-temple-2: http://www.gadventures.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Kyoto_GoldenTemple.jpg

Bangkok-temple-1: http://misto-market.com.ua/turizm/images/interestplace/98/1.jpg

Bangkok-temple-2: http://travel-tips.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/holidays-Bangkok-Thailand-hotel-package-deal-travel-tips-guide-Wat-Ratchanatdaram-Temple.jpg

Temple of heaven: http://templeofheavenbeijing.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Temple-of-Heaven.jpg

Norwegian stave church: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_llqkm5GrsA1qzxqgco1_1280.jpg

PIZZA IN SAN GIMIGNANO

18 February 2013

Some fifteen years ago, my wife and I decided to spend our summer holidays in Tuscany. We rented a house in a small village near Radicondoli (or “Radihondoli” as the locals pronounce it). The marvel of this village, which caps a hill, is that there is no through road so that there are few if any cars in the village’s streets. For the first – and last – time in their lives, the children could play outside in the road without constant anxious parental supervision.

The other wonder of this village is that it is situated in some of the loveliest countryside, and is close to some of the loveliest urban landscapes, that Tuscany has to offer. One of the latter, world-renowned and justly so, is San Gimignano.

San Gimignano-2

One day, we decided that it was time to visit San Gimignano. We thought we could leave our son, the older of our two children, alone in the village in the company of his summer friends, but we felt it would be prudent to take our daughter, who must have been seven at the time, along with us. To keep her company, we offered to take one of her friends along, an offer gratefully accepted by her parents. So off we went, swooping and looping over Tuscan hill and dale, seeing the towers of San Gimignano appear, disappear and reappear around every corner, slowly growing ever taller.

San Gimignano in distance-1

San Gimignano in distance-2

San Gimignano in distance-3

We finally arrived, found a parking not too far away – a minor miracle – and walked up the main street

via san giovanni-1

to the piazza where San Gimignano’s main church, the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, is located. That was where we were starting our visit.

collegiata-san-gimignano-external-1

When you go into the church, you are immediately struck by the wonderful frescoes on either wall.

collegiata-san-gimignano-3

collegiata-san-gimignano-2

For anyone like me who has been brought up a Christian it is easy to understand the layout: one wall – the left wall, of course – has a series of scenes from the Old Testament, while the right wall has a series of scenes from the New Testament.  You can walk down one side, following the stories as you go along, appreciating the artist’s take on each story. Here, for instance, is the story of Moses crossing the Red Sea, frozen at the moment where the Pharaoh’s troops are drowned

old testament scene-1

Whereas here, on the right-hand wall, is the story of the dead Lazarus coming back to life

new testament scene-2

And the whole is teaching us the grand story of the Fall of Man and his redemption through the risen Christ.

As I walked along the frescoes, with my daughter and her friend tagging along, I realized that these pictures meant nothing to the two girls, neither of whom had been brought up a Christian. So I began to tell them the stories, using the painted scenes as the backdrop and giving the tales as dramatic a twist as possible. The other tourists must have thought I was a little nutty but the two girls seemed quite taken. I realized for the first time what these frescoes were really for: to tell the Bible’s story to a largely illiterate population. In effect, because they had never read the bible, my daughter and her friend were illiterate. I’ve since learned that there is a term for a cycle of frescoes like this: the Poor Man’s Bible. A well-chosen phrase.

When we left, I was highly pleased with myself and the somewhat theatrical show I had put on for the girls. I will skip the rest of the visit, although I will note that we had a rest at lunch where the two girls ate a Pizza Margherita and drank a coke. That evening, when we got home and we were gathered around the table for dinner, I prompted my daughter to tell her brother about the scene in the church. “Tell your brother the big thing about today,” I suggested. She looked at me a minute and then said, very carefully,“At lunch, we had a pizza and a coke.”

Which goes to show … what? That food for the stomach is more important than food for the mind? No, probably the lesson is, don’t think you’re such a smarty-pants.

By the way, the reason why I’m telling this story will become apparent in my next posting.

_____________________

San Gimignano from above: http://www.hotelilponte.com/writable/public/tbl_galleria/grande/v961b38120234375.jpg

San Gimignano in distance-1: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2097/5796974869_0245323ed1_z.jpg

San Gimignano in distance-2: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/109/270633269_1e347d3ea5_z.jpg?zz=1

San Gimignano in distance-3: http://www.ideaweekend.it/imgs/weekend/sangimignano.jpg

Via San Giovanni-1: http://imgc.allpostersimages.com/images/P-473-488-90/24/2425/C8JXD00Z/posters/fraser-hall-via-san-giovanni-san-gimignano-tuscany-italy.jpg

Collegiata San Gimignano external-1: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_may8bh9sVs1qcwmkyo1_1280.jpg

Collegiata San Gimigano-interior-1: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-ySDga5CAd1Y/UBFg45AiSmI/AAAAAAAAEcg/vAGNRhz14zw/s1600/IMG_7815.JPG

Collegiata San Gimigano-interior-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2148/2241957275_58d27be89f_z.jpg?zz=1

Old testament scene-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2b/SG_OT_304_Crossing_the_Red_Sea.JPG/800px-SG_OT_304_Crossing_the_Red_Sea.JPG

New testament scene-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9c/SG_NT_Raising_of_Lazarus_Lippi_Memmo.JPG/744px-SG_NT_Raising_of_Lazarus_Lippi_Memmo.JPG

SUNSET OVER THE MEKONG

16 February 2013

I first came into contact with the Mekong some ten years ago, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I remember looking in awe at this hugely wide river and planning some day to take a boat down it to Vietnam; a plan still waiting to be executed. In the meantime, our lives have crossed the Mekong many times. Several years ago, my wife and I had a close brush with it when we cruised on Tonle Sap Lake while we were visiting Angkor Wat. This lake has a strange relationship with the Mekong: during the dry season it drains into the Mekong, but during the rainy season the Mekong’s current is so strong that the flow reverses and it is the river that runs into the lake.  Two years ago, in September, we came across the Mekong again, red-brown and very silty, at Xishuangbanna in the far south of Yunnan province, down by the border with Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. While we were there, a story broke of the captain and crew of a Chinese ship plying the Mekong being executed by shooting one night under mysterious circumstances; a story of drug running, it turned out, in that wild part of the world. And now we were in Laos, a country traversed by the Mekong and much of whose borders are defined by the river. While we were in Vientiane a few days ago, we walked along its bank and looked over to Thailand on the other shore.  And we have spent the last two days in Luang Prabang, the country’s ancient royal capital, which lies at the confluence of the Nam Khan River and the Mekong. As we have criss-crossed the narrow tongue of land between the two rivers on which the old town was founded, we have found ourselves gazing down on the Mekong many times.  We have watched the ferry crossing it:

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We have watched ships taking tourists up and down the river:

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We have crossed a spindly bamboo bridge spanning the Nam Khan:

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to gaze down on the confluence of the two rivers:

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And now, on our last evening, we have been sitting on steps leading down to the river and have been watching the sun set behind the hills on the far shore.

laos 480

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laos 491

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And with that last flash of light there has floated into my mind some lines from a hymn we used to sing at school when I was young, sung to a serenely tranquil tune:

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.

FLOWERS IN LAOS

12 February 2013

If there is one thing that my wife and I really regretted leaving in Vienna, that was our little garden. With our last apartment we had been really lucky in getting a small roof garden. We loved that garden. My wife tended it with tender care and the summer evenings spent enveloped in flowers were magical. Of course, winters were dreary but there was always the next summer to look forward to with its new crop of flowers.

When we moved to Beijing, we guessed we would never find an apartment with even a small balcony on which to put some flower pots, at least not at prices we could afford. And so it was. We couldn’t be completely plantless so my wife bought some house plants. They give a tinge of green to the apartment, but they are meagre consolation for our roof garden in Vienna.

Imagine, then, our delight when after a seven-hour journey from cold and snowy Beijing we opened the window of our hotel in Vientiane, Laos, and we found this before us.

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It was a flowering vine, thrown carelessly, or so it seemed, over the mango tree at our window. Five steps down, peering down from our common balcony we saw this, the flower of a banana tree.

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I have to say that this burst of botanical colour made me feel rather light-headed, and I started rushing about the hotel’s garden snapping pictures with my phone. I show you here just a few of the photos I took:

flowers and trees 007

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I’ve always been fond of the colour of light through banana tree leaves …

The loveliness didn’t stop at the gates of the hotel. Walking through the streets of Vientiane was like walking though a garden, as flowering plants and trees popped up everywhere.

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Even the non-flowering trees were magnificent, especially along the road skirting the Mekong River where there were huge banyan and eucalyptus trees. But the tree that took my heart is a tree called the Deer’s Ear (wonderful name …), whose leaves are going red and shedding at this time of year.

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This tree is all over town, and each one has reached a different level of redness, so you go from bright green all the way to a deep vermilion. It’s rather like being in Vermont in the Fall.

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As I recall, many learned men in the Middle Ages spent much time trying to pinpoint where exactly the Garden of Eden had been. For me, it’s obvious; it must have been somewhere in a tropical or subtropical country like Laos.

I suppose the damned mosquitoes were added by God afterwards as part of Adam and Eve’s punishment …

DOUBLE HAPPINESS

7 February 2013

A little while back, when the weather was still pleasantly autumnal, my wife and I decided to take a stroll through a hutong (one of the old districts of Beijing, rather worse for wear now). As we wandered from lane to lane, we came across this sign sellotaped to the wall of a house.

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Intrigued, I took the photo for later clarification. We also picked up another of these signs which had fallen down, to add to our collection of urban flotsam and jetsam which we have found lying in our paths during our walks across the city: an abandoned set of Chinese chequers, some large chunks of raw coal, bits of brick from destroyed hutongs, broken pieces of ceramic

This was a weekend. On Monday, I went to my usual expert source on Chinese calligraphy, namely my secretary, and showed her the picture. “Double happiness”, she told me with a smile. After a certain amount of clarifications from her and some reading on the web, I can report back.

As I think is clear from the picture, this Chinese character is actually a composition of two identical characters, which both stand for , or ‘joy’. Hence its meaning of double joy or double happiness. It is very often used in weddings – this was almost certainly the case in the hutong – which I think is very sweet: marriage as the union of two happy people. Of course, we know that marriage is not all sweetness and light but two happy people is a good start. The colour red is also significant. The Chinese are somewhat mediaeval (at least to my way of thinking) in attributing moods to colours. Red stands for happiness (so Chinese communists no doubt saw a much deeper meaning in the communist flag than the original European communists ever did).

So we took our trophy back to the apartment and laid it down for future hanging. By the time we got around to doing that, we had forgotten which way was up – being illiterate in Chinese, we couldn’t read it of course. After some debate, we decided to hang it up like so.

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Only then did I remember to check the photo.  The alert reader will immediately have spotted what we discovered, that we had hung it upside down. After a moment of consternation, we decided that actually this way it looks even more like two happy people arm in arm. So we’ve left it that way. Lord knows what our cleaner thinks; she’s been too polite to say.

We’re away next week, so I use this post to wish everyone a happy St. Valentine’s day, the two-happy-people day.

A HORSE! A HORSE! MY KINDGOM FOR A HORSE!

5 February 2013

I was all atwitter this morning when I saw the news. The skeleton found under the car park in Leicester, England, is indeed that of Richard III, last of England’s Plantagenet kings! OK, there are some sour-puss academics raising doubts, but that’s probably because the skeleton wasn’t found under their car park.

I spent the early morning skittering around the house with one shoulder up and shouting “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” instead of getting ready for work. My wife looked on and rolled her eyes. But what Englishman has not at least heard of Shakespeare’s play Richard III? What person, who – like me – has thespian pretensions, has not dreamed of prancing about a stage as a mediaeval version of Quasimodo, murdering all and sundry with devilish glee and getting the beautiful women into the bargain? If it wasn’t for Shakespeare, who would remember King Richard III?

I did most of my acting at school. To my great regret, we never put on Richard III. But I’ve seen it a number of times, both in film as well as on the stage. I first saw it years ago with my wife, in some poky cinema on Paris’s rive gauche. That was the 1955 film version,with Laurence Olivier doing a marvelously over-the-top evil characterization of Richard.

laurence olivier

This film stayed in some sort of medieval setting. The next version I saw, with Ian McKellen playing Richard III, was made 40 years after Olivier’s movie. It tried to be clever and set the story in some sort of 1930s fascist version of Britain where the king’s deformity was moral rather than physical.

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We saw this film in Milan. As you can imagine, given Italy’s history

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the fascist overtones of the film had a certain resonance there.

And then, about a year ago, through sheer serendipity – we just happened to be visiting Hong Kong when the play was running – we saw Kevin Spacey play Richard III with a manic savageness.

kevin spacey

One of the amazing things about Shakespeare is the sheer number of quotes he has generated. Half the quotes people use, or so it seems, come from one Shakespeare play or another. Richard III has its fair share. There’s the quote which I’ve used as my title, which must be one of the most famous quotes in the English language. Then there is this quote:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York”

which seems to be one of those quotes that everyone knows. Then there is this quote:

“Off with his head!”

which my father was very fond of using  whenever I was naughty.

Apart from these, the play has some deliciously cynical lines:

“Conscience is but a word that cowards use
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe”

“And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

“Why, I can smile and murder while I smile,
And cry ‘content’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face for all occasions”

Yes, we never did put on Richard III at school. But we put on Shakespeare’s Richard II; the events it recounts were the original cause of the War of the Roses, whose final act was the unhorsing of Richard III on Bosworth Field outside of Leicester and his killing with several savage blows to the head as shown by that skull beneath the car park.  I played the Duke of York (I should have played King Richard II, of course, but we’ll pass over that). As usual, the play has many memorable lines, but one set in particular remains with me, uttered by my elder brother John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, as he lies dying in Act I:

This other Eden, demi-paradise;
This fortress, built by nature for herself,
Against infection, and the hand of war;
This happy breed of men, this little world;
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England

I don’t go back to the UK very often, but those lines echo with me when I stand in the countryside and see how so very lovely it can be.

english-countryside

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Laurence Olivier: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-Z1o-IQnC1nE/UK8xybvIJ7I/AAAAAAAABCU/OJcjGS2QOzE/s1600/tumblr_m3xc1hNXLZ1rrfb56o1_1280.jpg

Ian McKellen: http://www.mckellen.com/images/r3/ban-15.jpg

Mussolini: http://757f8ed9aaa522dde29d-4c07cfa4f788be17c79661948c0f2477.r99.cf1.rackcdn.com/5728_1323465695_july-25th-benito-mussolini-deposed.jpg

Kevin Spacey: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01934/Richard_a_1934160b.jpg

English countryside: http://www.style-passport.com/style/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/english-countryside.jpg

DUST TO DUST, ASHES TO ASHES

4 February 2013

From time to time in Buddhist temples in this part of the world one sees a metal sculpture standing on altars, which takes the form of a stem of a lotus plant to which are attached a flower bud, a fully opened flower, and the seed pod from which the petals have fallen off; sometimes they are accompanied by a young leaf unrolling, a fully mature leaf, and an old leaf, ragged and torn.  It is a visual allegory for the cycle to which we are all subject: birth – life – death. It is a gentler reminder of what I was harshly told every Ash Wednesday when I was a boy: “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”.

I was reminded of this as the tulips – so lovely two posts ago – paled, wilted, and lost their petals, to finally leave the stamens standing naked and forlorn. I decided to record this decay down to death.

Friday morning:

04 tulips

Saturday morning:

06 tulips-saturday morning

Saturday evening:

10 tulips-saturday evening

Sunday morning:

13 tulips-sunday morning

Sunday evening:

16 tulips-sunday evening

I would like to think that my life currently stands at Saturday evening.  Cold objectivity suggests instead that it stands at Sunday morning.