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Category: China

GARLIC

Manila, 6 June 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I went for a walk in the Wiener Wald, those woods which drape the hills ringing Vienna on its northern and western sides. It was a public holiday, the Feast of Corpus Christi, so it seemed an excellent excuse to go for a ramble in the woods. On top of it, it was a beautiful day, bright, sunny, with a slight breeze.

We were not disappointed. We found surprisingly few people. The beech trees were splendid

with sunlight filtering through their leaves.

Wildflowers peeped out from the undergrowth

Deer crossed our path …

In a word, it was perfect.

Except for one thing: the fetid smell that periodically wafted up from the forest floor.

The source of the smell was these plants, which carpeted the ground in many parts of the woods.

They are wild garlic, Allium ursinum, so readers will not be surprised if I say that the smell they emanated made me think of rancid garlic cloves. It was quite similar to the nauseous smell given off by some of the hole-in-the-wall kebab joints in Vienna, where garlic powder is used with wild abandon.

Our walk was too late in the season for us to at least enjoy the delicate white flower they display.

For that, you need to go into the woods in April, early May. But it was just as well we had come late: previous experience had shown me that when the plant is flowering the smell is even more penetrating.

I remember talking with a German colleague of mine about my first brush with wild garlic’s exhalations in the Viennese woods. He sympathized, but waxed eloquent about the soup which can be made from its leaves. As previous postings record, I am no fan of garlic and so have never tried this soup. But for readers who are better disposed to garlic than I am and who happen to have a wood nearby in which wild garlic grows, I throw in an Austrian version of the soup’s recipe (the amounts cited here should serve four people). Pick 200 grams of wild garlic leaves (one source suggests picking them young and tender, even before the plant flowers, to get the most delicate taste). Wash, drain, and chop finely. Melt 50 grams of butter in a saucepan, stir in 3 tablespoons of flour, and slowly add 1 litre of vegetable stock. Bring to a boil. Stir in the chopped wild garlic leaves. Bring to a boil again. Simmer gently, all the while seasoning with salt, pepper, a shot of lemon juice, and a pinch of anchovy paste. Finally, stir in 1/8 litre of sour cream and two tablespoons of whipped cream, season to taste with a pinch of nutmeg. The soup should look something like this.

I should note that a number of recipes from the German-speaking world suggest adding some cubed potatoes rather than flour and cream, but I feel that the recipe I’ve cited sounds more authentic (a number of recipes also suggest adding onions and/or shallots and/or garlic cloves, but this really seems to be exaggerating the presence of this malodorous family!).

My favourite source of information – Wikipedia – tells me that wild garlic is native to the temperate regions of Europe, from Britain in the west to the Caucasus in the east. Wikipedia also informs me that we Europeans have been munching on wild garlic leaves in one form or another for the last 10,000 years or so – an impression of a wild garlic leaf was found in a Mesolithic settlement in Denmark. Did our European forebears also munch on the bulb? Perhaps only if they were very hungry, because the bulb of wild garlic is very small.

No, it’s not Allium ursinum which gave us the garlic cloves that we are so – unfortunately – familiar with today. We have to thank a Central Asian cousin, Allium longicuspis, for that.

Early farmers in Central Asia cultivated the wild variety, and as has happened so many times with other plants they played around with it and slowly turned it into the plant we know today, with that pungent – oh, so pungent! – bulb.

It seems that garlic was one of the very first plants that our farming ancestors tinkered with. Their tinkering was so successful that the plant got carried out of Central Asia along the Silk Road and other trade routes, east to China and south-east Asia, south to the Indian subcontinent, west to the kingdoms of the Near East, followed by Egypt and later Greece and Rome. As the plant was moved out of its homeland, farmers kept tinkering so that today there is a bewildering number of sub-variants.

Now, I know this will raise hackles among garlic lovers, but really, what on earth possessed those early farmers to spend their precious time in developing this bulb?! It tastes really strong (“pungent” is the word used in the garlic literature), it leaves a metallic taste in your mouth after you’ve eaten it (well, in mine at least), it makes your breath – indeed, your whole person – smell “pungently” after partaking of it, and it – hmm, let me see how best to put this – it disrupts your digestive system resulting in odorous wind and other unpleasant side effects in the bathroom (at least, it does so in my case).

But develop it they did. And they found enthusiastic consumers far and wide. The ancient Egyptians consumed particularly enthusiastically. The poor buggers who slaved away to put these up

were, it seems, paid with the stuff – garlic was believed to give one strength, and what did these guys need but strength, and a lot of it? It’s not as if the workers were forced to eat it, either. It seems they loved it. One of the only two known slave revolts in Egypt occurred after the failure of the annual garlic harvest.

Generally speaking, in all places and at all times garlic was believed to be good for your health and a cure for all sorts of maladies, from the plague to the pox. In fact, this may have been why garlic was originally developed – for its supposed health effects rather than as a food additive. There must be people who still believe in garlic’s curative powers; why else would companies offer these sorts of over-the-counter products for sale?

One persistent belief is that garlic has antiseptic properties. It seems that garlic was used during both World Wars as an antiseptic and a cure for dysentery. I can hardly believe it; doctors in the mid-20th Century had no better medicine than that?! What I do know is that until very recently the Chinese were using garlic as a sort of antiseptic mouthwash. A friend of ours who had been already living in China for some years before we arrived told me that in the early noughties it was common for people to rub their gums with a garlic clove in the morning before going to work. He said that taking the bus in the morning was not for the faint of heart. I shudder inwardly every time I think of his story.

Talking of shuddering, in ancient Greek and Roman times (and probably even before) it was believed that garlic was a powerful aphrodisiac. Quite how anyone could have come to this conclusion is beyond me. But then the human mind has an infinite capacity for self-delusion. And of course it must have been men who believed this. I can imagine the scene: a randy old goat who munches on the ancient world’s equivalent of a little blue pill and then rushes off to bed to perform. Pity the poor woman who is the recipient of his performance!

In fact, smelling of garlic has always been associated with being uncouth. Those Egyptian priests who eagerly fed their workers garlic never touched the stuff themselves. Upper caste Indians never let garlic pass their lips in case it made them smell like their lower caste compatriots. In ancient Greece, it was generally believed that the gods disliked the smell of garlic. In temples dedicated to the goddess Cybele, this was taken to extremes. Those who wished to enter one of her temples had to pass the garlic breath test. King Alfonso of Castille ruled that any gentle person coming into court smelling of garlic was banished for a week. In the US until the 1940s the reek of garlic was used as an ethnic slur, being called such things ‘Italian perfume’.

I suppose that the thinking which led Greeks to conclude that the gods disliked the smell of garlic also led to the belief that garlic could ward off witches, evil spirits and the like. Which belief no doubt underlies the use of garlic to ward off vampires. All this tells me is that vampires have good taste.

Readers may protest and say that garlic’s main role is surely now in the kitchen. True. And to show that even with garlic I can be broadminded let me throw in here a famous recipe where garlic plays the main role, for the garlic lovers out there to try if they have not done so already. It is the recipe for another soup, Sopa de Ajo, Garlic Soup, which is eaten throughout Spain. Once again, the amounts cited here will serve four. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan over a low heat. Add 4 to 5 large garlic bulbs (yes, four to five), broken into the cloves – do not remove their skin. Fry gently, stirring often, for 15-20 minutes, until the skins are golden brown and the flesh is soft. Remove them from the hot oil. Wait until they have cooled a little, then squeeze out the garlic flesh, discarding the skins. Puree and set aside. Meanwhile, add 100g of cooking chorizo, cut into little pieces, to the pan and fry until crisp and caramelized. Add 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves, fry for a few seconds. Then add the pureed garlic and stir it in well. Add ½ teaspoon of sweet smoked Spanish paprika, and pour on 1 litre of chicken stock. Bring to a boil, gently simmer, and season to taste. About two minutes before serving, poach four eggs in the soup and add 8 slices of ciabatta, toasted and torn into rough pieces. The finished product should look something like this.

Four to five garlic bulbs … For all my broadmindedness, I cannot suppress yet another inward shudder. What the consumers of this soup must smell like when they rise from the dining table! Quite possibly, it was this soup which had been eaten by the Spanish gentlemen who plays the lead role in my most searing memory of garlic breath. I invite my readers to dip into the post where I write about this painful episode in my life. In the meantime, once I am back from my travels my wife and I will go for other long and pleasant walks in the Wiener Wald. The wild garlic plants were already wilting when we took our walk on Corpus Christi Day. Hopefully, they will all soon be dead and I can enjoy the woods without my nostrils being assailed by the smell of rancid garlic.

___________________

Woods photos: ours, except:
Deer in woods: https://viennalife.wordpress.com/tag/vienna-woods/

Kebab shop, Vienna: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wien_Bellaria_Kebab_Pizza_Dez2006.jpg
Wild garlic in flower: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarfrazh/26388112004
Wild garlic soup: https://www.chefkoch.de/rezepte/25941006183503/Baerlauchsuppe.html
Wild garlic plant with bulb: https://scottishforestgarden.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/growing-and-eating-wild-garlic/
Allium longicuspis: https://thebetter.wiki/en/Garlic
Garlic: https://www.shopevoo.com/products/infused-garlic-1
Building the pyramids: https://exploredia.com/top-10-shocking-facts-ancient-egypt/
Garlic pills: https://www.amazon.com/Natures-Bounty-Extract-Release-Softgels/dp/B002Y27JD8
Garlic breath: https://dailykale.com/2011/09/16/foods-that-heal-garlic/garlic-cartoon/
Garlic and vampires: https://horror.media/four-theories-about-why-vampires-hate-garlic
Sopa de Ajo: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/may/04/10-best-garlic-recipes

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ORANGE CARROTS

Istanbul airport, 5 May 2018

I was in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, over the last few days, working with some old colleagues on supporting the government to develop a national action plan to minimize the effects on the population of the country’s pollution. Fascinating stuff, but not the subject of this post.

As part of the work, it was necessary to schmooze with the local diplomatic community, preparing the ground for future requests of assistance to deal with the country’s pollution. I therefore found myself one evening attending the event put on by the Dutch to celebrate the King’s National Day. As is customary on such occasions, the Dutch Ambassador made a speech, thanking us for coming, listing the important Dutch-Kyrgyz partnerships, and of course – given the occasion – mentioning the Royal family. He did so in an interesting way. Having mentioned partnerships in the agricultural field, he segued smoothly from this to inform those of us who didn’t know it that carrots were orange because patriotic Dutch farmers had selectively bred this root crop to turn it orange, in honor of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, patriarch of the Dutch Royal family.

Well! This was interesting indeed. As anyone who has even a passing interest in sporting events knows, the Dutch national color is indeed orange.


And this patriotic show of orange is indeed linked to William the Silent’s feudal title of Prince of Orange, although the orange in this case is the pretty little town of Orange in southern France, which was William’s fiefdom (and an old Roman city).

But to say that Dutch farmers had turned carrots orange as a patriotic gesture … Such is the dominance of orange carrots in our supermarkets, groceries, and farmers’ markets that it had never, ever occurred to me that carrots could have been anything but orange!

In other posts, I have demonstrated my interest in the humble history of vegetables. The Ambassador had now given me a wonderful opportunity to study the history of the carrot. So these last few days I have been spending time which I should have been more usefully devoting to the pollution problems of Kyrgyzstan to happily digging into the carrot’s history instead. I am now ready to report back.

The first thing I have to say is that the Ambassador was indeed correct in his basic contention, that Dutch farmers had turned the carrot orange. This happened in the 17th Century and, for reasons that I shall explain in a minute, the orange carrot took over the carrot world. But first let me throw in some pictures of different colored carrots:
Purple carrots


Yellow carrots

Red carrots

White carrots

Black carrots, even!

Here we can see all these different carrots in glorious technicolour.

Personally, I have never seen any of these. I suppose they are like heirloom tomatoes: there are some enthusiastic aficionados out there who are growing these in their vegetable plots and trading seeds with other carrot enthusiasts. Perhaps one day, like I’ve seen in upscale Californian supermarkets, there will be a corner of the vegetable section devoted to these – to my eye – strange and wonderful carrots.

But why did the Dutch farmers breed these orange carrots? Here, I have to say that, with all due respect to his august person, the Ambassador seems to have got it wrong (along with 99% of the Dutch population). The farmers did not do it to honor William the Silent and his House of Orange. They were looking to breed carrots which were sweeter and whose core was smaller and less woody. The root of wild carrot is actually quite bitter, so since time immemorial farmers had been trying to breed the bitterness out of the root, and as anyone knows who has eaten a big and mature carrot, its core can take up a good part of the carrot and be disagreeably tough to eat.

It just so happened that the carrot they bred was orange. I suppose the carotene which gives the carrot its color also gives it its sweetness. It was only later generations of Dutch who saw the political dimension of the carrot’s color, and actually saw it in a negative sense. Dutch burghers of strong Republican sentiment frowned upon carrots because of their too Royal orangeness – in their Republican zeal they also went after other orange plants, discouraging the planting of marigolds for instance.

Another example of the politics of color.

Before I leave orange carrots, I should report that analysis of carrot genomes strongly suggest that the Chinese independently bred orange carrots. It pleases me no end to know this, because in my years in China I was always puzzled by Chinese carrots. They somehow seemed different from the European carrots that I was familiar with. I throw in a picture of Chinese carrots to show what I mean.

They are a darker orange – the fact that the Chinese obtained the orange color by changing different genes from the ones which give European carrots their orange color probably explains this. And they were much stockier than European carrots, a fact that I put down to the Chinese breeding carrots more as animal feed (like the wonderfully named mangelwurzels) than as human food.

I could not resist the temptation of using this research into the orangeness of carrots to carry out research into the broader history of the carrot. It turns out that the wild carrot is at home in Central Asia – so it is indeed apposite that this little piece of research was kicked off by a chance remark made in Kyrgyzstan, which happens to be one of the homes of the wild carrot. For those of my readers who, like me, have never seen a wild carrot, I throw in a picture.

It seems that its root is bitter and woody, but I suppose that hunger makes one tolerant of not-so-tasty food – better than having nothing in one’s stomach. The wild carrot, perhaps in some domesticated form, was carried far and wide from its Central Asian homeland. Carrot seeds have turned up in archaeological digs of prehistoric lake dwellings in Switzerland.

The Babylonians knew of it; it is mentioned in a cuneiform tablet listing the plants growing in the garden of King Marduk-apla-iddina (King Merodach-baladan in the Old Testament).

Seemingly, the Egyptians knew of it, although the evidence is rather weak. The Greeks and the Romans knew of it. But in all these cases, it seems that it was the leaves and seeds which they were interested in; the root was too bitter. They used the root or the seeds for medicinal purposes and ate the leaves much as we would eat spinach (I am reminded of a story my mother used to tell us young children, of how during the War, when she was trapped in occupied France, one could not find carrots in the market. Only the leaves were on sale. She and her mother made do and ate those – better than having nothing in one’s stomach).

All this time, our ancestors were tinkering with this foodstuff as they were tinkering with all their foodstuffs. Finally, possibly as early as the 6th Century, one or more farmers somewhere in today’s Iran and Afghanistan bred a carrot with a sweeter, less woody, more edible root. This plant was destined to become the ancestor of all modern carrots. From there, the seeds were carried by passing traders and travelers both east and west, no doubt along the Silk Roads which I have had cause to mention in earlier posts. In the case of its carriage to the west, Arab traders seem to have been the vector after the Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th Century, much as was the case for the lilac bush, the subject of an earlier post. More tinkering and crossbreeding took place in today’s Turkey before a carrot with an even more edible root continued on its journey to Europe. It arrived there in the 10th Century, eventually ending up in Northern Europe in the 13th Century. It came in two colours, yellow and purple, with a rarer white variety thrown in. For some reason, the Dutch got heavily into carrot production and the rest is orange history.

Since the Dutch started this post, let me finish by throwing in some of those still lives so beloved by the Dutch, of kitchens full of vegetables and fruit. Normally, I pass these over with a yawn (I have never understood our ancestors’ fascination with this type of paintings), but it seems appropriate to admire them in this case. I invite my readers to locate the carrot in each of the paintings.



_____________________

William the Silent: https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Death-of-William-the-Silent
Dutch football players: http://www.football-oranje.com/sweden-v-netherlands-match-preview/
Dutch fans: http://www.newsweek.com/dutch-men-latvian-women-are-tallest-world-study-483868
The city of Orange: http://be.france.fr/fr/a-decouvrir/orange
orange carrots: https://www.well-beingsecrets.com/health-benefits-of-carrots/
purple carrots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HU03lczH6mk
yellow carrots: https://www.bukalapak.com/p/hobi-koleksi/berkebun/benih-tanaman/fs8sg5-jual-biji-2-benih-wortel-kuning-yellow-carrot
Red carrots: http://www.gardenpicsandtips.com/18-vegetables-that-are-colorful-and-worth-eating/2/
White carrots: http://blue-myhanh.blogspot.com.tr/2014/08/khi-trai-cay-co-mau-khac-voi-chung-ta.html
Black carrots: https://www.amazon.co.jp/%E8%BE%B2%E6%A5%AD%E5%B1%8B-%E3%81%AB%E3%82%93%E3%81%98%E3%82%93-%E7%A8%AE-%E3%83%96%E3%83%A9%E3%83%83%E3%82%AF%E3%82%AD%E3%83%A3%E3%83%AD%E3%83%83%E3%83%88-%E5%B0%8F%E8%A2%8B%EF%BC%88%E7%B4%84300%E7%B2%92%EF%BC%89/dp/B00NHD5BCY
Carrot spectrum: http://sezahrana.tumblr.com/page/130
Split carrot: http://www.thesweetbeet.com/carrot-recipes/
Marigold: http://www.thesweetbeet.com/carrot-recipes/
Chinese carrot: https://www.pinterest.com/kurskinlab/spa-men/
Wild carrot: https://myediblebackyard.net/2014/05/02/wild-carrot/
Swiss prehistoric lake dwellings: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_prehistoric_lake_dwellings._Wellcome_M0015374.jpg
Cuneiform tablet: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3066115&partId=1&searchText=Merodach-Baladan+II&view=list&page=1
Pieter Aersten, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary: https://www.tumblr.com/search/christ%20in%20the%20house%20of%20mary%20and%20martha
Anonymous, Kitchen scene in Parable of Rich Man and Lazarus: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/art1.html
Pieter Cornelizs. Van Rijk, Kitchen Scene: http://www.carrotmuseum.co.uk/art1.html

THE LATE AFTERNOON OF ONE’S LIFE

Los Angeles, 10 April 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend at a concert being given at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece we heard was das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth, by Gustav Mahler. As its name suggests, the piece is composed of six songs. The word “songs” risks to simplify the nature of what we heard. Perhaps musical meditations might describe it better. Mahler built his music around the texts of several Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty. He wove the music and words together to tell us a story of ineffable sadness, of regret of things not done, of memories of youth, of premonitions of one’s mortality, all things which I, at the age of 64, occasionally suffer from; who doesn’t, in the late afternoon of their lives? Aged 48 when he wrote it, Mahler was younger than I am today, but had recently suffered grievous blows: his eldest daughter had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal congenital heart defect, and he was being forced out of his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the antisemitic element in Viennese society.

I cite here an English translation of the first and last of these songs, the two which spoke to me most.

The drinking song of earth’s sorrow

The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; I’ll sing you first a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughing in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul, wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!

Master of this house,
your cellar o’erflows with golden wine!
Here, this lute I call mine.
A lute to strike and glasses to drain,
these things go well together.
A full glass of wine at the right time is worth more than all the realms of this earth.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, how long your life?
Not one hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.
See down there! In the moonlight, on the graves squats a wild ghostly shape;
an ape it is! Hear you his howl go out
in the sweet fragrance of life.
Now! Drink the wine! Now ‘tis time, friends.
Drain your golden goblets to the last.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The farewell

The sun drops down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening descends,
Bringing its shadows, full of coolness.
Look! like a silver bark
The moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I sense a delicate breeze stirring
Behind the dark fir trees.

The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep;
All desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary folk turn homewards,
So that, in sleep, they may learn anew
Forgotten joy and youth.
The birds huddle silent on their branches.
The world falls asleep.

A cool breeze blows in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him to take a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side,
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
On pathways which billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal-love-and-life-intoxicated world!

He dismounted and I handed him the drink of farewell.
I asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
‘Ah! my friend – Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going? I will wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!’

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!

Forever . . . forever . . .

As I bathed in the music and the words, another poem about the consciousness of time passing and of regret at things not done floated into my mind, A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright.

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

I only recently learnt of this poem, through Morse, that most intellectual of police chief inspectors on British television, who cites the last stanza in the very last episode of the series. He speaks it as the sun goes down over the Meadows at Oxford and as he faces the bleakness of his imminent retirement, little knowing that death awaits him the next day.

Housman’s metaphor of the sun rising and setting is echoed in a poem by Sara Teasdale, which I quoted in an earlier post, The River

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

My discovery of this poem several years ago resulted from a student giving me a modern Chinese poem, a poem on departures, in this case from Cambridge. Funny that. In that roundabout way so typical of life, Tang Dynasty poems a thousand years old have been connected by way of Vienna, Los Angeles, and two ancient English university towns back to a modern Chinese poem.

Come on, old man, time to have another glass of wine.

ROCKY OUTCROPS

Milan, 28 January 2018

I’ve just come back from Yangon, where I was giving a training course on the implementation of cleaner production methods. An interesting topic, but not actually the subject of this post. It so happens that on the first night I was there I stumbled across this picture.

This is Popa Taung Kalat, a monastery perched atop an old volcanic plug some 50 km away from Bagan. I immediately sent my wife a WhatsApp asking why we had not visited this place on our visit to Bagan. The question was rhetorical since I know the answer: we didn’t go because neither of us knew that Popa Taung Kalat existed until I came across this photo.

Which is a great pity, because I have a certain fascination for places perched on knolls, buttes, tors, or other rocky outcrops, especially if they sit in a flat plain and are visible from miles around. My wife and I recently spent a very pleasant evening in a similar place to Popa Taung Kalat, the small town of Laon close to Reims, when we did our tour of French battlefields of the First World War.

In this case, although it sports a magnificent 12th-13th Century cathedral

the outcrop’s original use by the Gauls was martial rather than religious; they built a fortress on the top. The outcrop’s military vocation continued for centuries thereafter. Given its position, this is not really surprising. Whoever commanded Laon controlled one of the major entry points into the Île de France.

Polignac, in the Auvergne, is another rocky outcrop where military considerations seem to have been paramount in its original colonization. The Velay family built the first castle in the 11th Century and continued to live there and rule the surrounding country for some six centuries.

Edinburgh, too, where my wife and I met more years ago than I care to remember, when we were both university students there, sports a magnificent castle atop an ancient volcanic plug.

Here, though, that rather special effect of being able to see it from miles away is lost, the old sight lines having been obscured by the urban jumble that has spread out from the historic core of the city which lay huddled at the base of the castle or which clustered along the long road, the Royal Mile, that led down from the castle to the royal palace below.

A similar stony promontory lies close to my French grandmother’s (now my sister’s) house near Mâcon, the Roche de Solutré, one which I spent many happy hours in my youth climbing.

It was first used by our ancestors 20,000 years ago to kill wild animals in large numbers. They would drive the poor beasts up towards the edge where, in their panic, they would fall off to their deaths below, to be butchered on the spot. The archaeological finds gave the name Solutrean to a phase in the Upper Paleolithic. But coming back to our martial theme, it is of greater interest that a certain Raoul de Bourgogne built a castle on its top in 930, and his descendants used its dominating position to harass those passing by and demand protection money. Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy, finally decided that enough was enough and ordered its destruction in 1434. Popular jubilation was such that several people were killed in the crazed desire to rip the castle apart, stone from stone. Since then, no human constructions have gone up on the Roche; as the picture above shows it only sports vineyards on its lower slopes, vineyards which, I may say, make excellent wines – Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Mâcon-Solutré – and which have made millionaires of the local viticulturists.

Thousands of kilometers away, in Sri Lanka, another outcrop similar to that of Popa Taung Kalat, Sigiriya, is now the site of peaceful gardens.

There was a time, though, back in the 5th Century, when it was a fortress built by King Kashyapa. But it seems he was also a lover of the arts. There is only a small piece of fresco left now in a concavity

but apparently the whole western side of the rock was once frescoed. It must have been an incredible sight. Perhaps for the good of his soul King Kashyapa turned his palace over to monks at his death, who installed a monastic community. They stayed until the 14th Century, then moved on. It’s a pity that the last time I was in Sri Lanka the country was still being torn apart by the civil war, making travel outside of the capital Colombo risky. Who knows, one day maybe I’ll go back there with my wife and we can go and visit this enchanting place.

But actually, coming back to where I started this piece, at Popa Taung Kalat in Myanmar, while I understand the cold logic which drove warlords to view these outcrops as natural fortresses, I prefer the more mystical impulses which have driven men, and sometimes women if they have been allowed to, to perch a monastery, a church, or just a simple hermitage on top of such outcrops, where they can pray in peace far from the madding crowd. It’s given us some wonderful blends of nature and architecture. There are the Orthodox monasteries in Meteora in Greece.

There is the chapel of Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay, in France, which was first established in 969.

There is the little hermitage/monastery in Katskhi, Georgia.

The last picture makes me think of Simeon Stylites, the 5th Century Christian monk who, it is reported, spent some 30 years on top of a column, and who started quite a craze in holy men perching themselves on columns. There is of course no picture from the period but this is an imaginative rendering.

As for his column, this is all that is left of it after centuries of devout pilgrims chipping off pieces as relics.

Over the ages, monks have shown an enduring enthusiasm to climb up to inaccessible places to be left alone, leaving behind wonderful creations in the process. When my wife and I were in China, we once visited the Hanging Temple near Datong, a Buddhist monastery literally clinging to the side of a cliff.

The monks had excavated a series of caves in the cliff face, connected by a series of suffocatingly narrow internal staircases or alarmingly rickety walkways pegged to the rock, and then had clamped a temple facade onto the exterior. The effect is quite magical.

Meanwhile, in Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, Christian monks had also burrowed into mountain sides to create their communities far from the world.

Some of the churches they dug out of the rock still carry their frescoes.

And up in the Ethiopian highlands monks have built their churches high up on cliff faces, like the Abuna Yemata Guh church in Tigray province, which can only be reached after an arduous climb

and some sphincter-clenching shuffling along narrow ledges with long, long, long falls if you take a false step.

But once there, you are greeted with delightful frescoes in the Ethiopian style.

How much trouble those monks went to to get away from it all! I can’t complain since they created such wonderful places for me to visit one day. But surely they could have made their lives a little bit easier and still managed to pray and contemplate to their heart’s content. But hey, who am I to judge? The contemplative life never attracted me; the real world, with all its troubles and vicissitudes, but also with all its joys and satisfactions, is much more my scene.

____________________

Popa Taung Kalat: http://www.wondermondo.com/Countries/As/Burma/Mandalay/PopaTaungKalat.htm
Laon: https://www.tourisme-paysdelaon.com/Cote-histoire/Historique-du-Pays-de-Laon/La-mutation-en-ville-prefectorale
Laon cathedral exterior: https://www.taringa.net/posts/info/18971189/A-que-no-sabias-esto-lince.html
Polignac: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/33272295
Edinburgh Castle: https://erasmusu.com/en/erasmus-edinburgh/erasmus-photos/princes-street-gardens-and-edinburgh-castle-75483
Old print of Edinburgh: https://phrenologyandcrime.com/2014/08/31/edinburgh/
Solutre: https://www.geo.fr/environnement/france-nature/les-paradis-nature-de-bourgogne/solutre-rocher
Sigiriya: http://www.gocaribou.com/blog/2015/7/4/the-cultural-triangle-of-sri-lanka
Sigiriya frescoes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya#Frescoes
Holy Trinity Monastery, Meteora, Greece: http://www.touropia.com/meteora-monasteries/
St-Michel de l’Aiguilhe: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Le_Puy-en-Velay,_%C3%89glise_Saint-Laurent_et_Aiguilhe_PM_48569.jpg
Katskhi Pillar Church: http://orthochristian.com/89130.html
Simeon Stylites: https://www.vimaorthodoxias.gr/theologikos-logos-diafora/agios-simeon-o-stilitis/
Remains of the column of Simeon Stylites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint_Simeon_Stylites
Hanging temple, China: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Temple
Cave churches of Cappadocia: https://www.expedia.com/things-to-do/full-day-tour-of-cappadocia-region-goreme-open-air-museum-with-lunch.a395058.activity-details
Cappadocia cave church frescoes: http://www.aydinligoremetravel.com/goreme-open-air-museum/
Climbing to Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN67Zsxx-Vo
Arriving to the Abuna Yemata Guh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_GxzdGS84M
Abuna Yemata Guh inside: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2823326/Abuna-Yemata-Guh-church-sky-Ethiopia-world-s-inaccessible-place-worship.html

OSMANTHUS FRAGRANS

Osaka Airport, 22 October 2017

My wife and I have been in Kyoto these last three weeks. I was here to once again give my course on sustainable industrial development at the university. But I don’t want to discuss that, I want to talk about a scent wafting on the breeze.

As we walked around the quiet neighborhood where we had taken an AirBnB, I found my nose suddenly being assailed by a very sweet smelling scent. The first few times it happened, I couldn’t locate an obvious source around me and I began to fear that I was suffering from olfactory hallucinations, that a tumor was growing in my brain and was beginning to press against whichever bit it is that controls one’s sense of smell. What made me particularly susceptible to this theory was that the scent was distinctly similar to the one most toilet cleaning products emit; you know, the scent which wafts off that bright blue or pink stuff you squeeze into the toilet bowl, leaving your toilet smelling like heaven.


Maybe the tumor was triggering olfactory memories of my toilet … Luckily for my growing levels of paranoia, the third or fourth time it happened I located the source. It was an unprepossessing tree on the corner of the road.

It was covered in small orange flowers.

Relieved that the scent was not a figment of a diseased brain, I set to work trying to figure out what plant it was. A google search quickly revealed its Japanese name to be kinmokusei, and that in the month of October it fills the air with its sweet scent. A further search revealed that its official name is osmanthus fragrans, with its English names being sweet olive, tea olive, or fragrant olive (the reference to olive apparently having to do with a similarity in leaf shape to the olive tree).

According to its Wikipedia entry, the several varieties of osmanthus are “native to Asia, from the Himalayas through southern China to Taiwan and southern Japan and southeast Asia as far south as Cambodia and Thailand”. The mention of China rang a bell somewhere in my (non-diseased) brain, something I had read once, while living in China, about osmanthus jam. Sure enough, the Wikipedia article revealed that the Chinese make an osmanthus-scented jam, but also osmanthus-scented tea, dumplings, cakes, soups, wine, and liquor. My wife and I never tasted any of these delicacies when we lived in China, but that was Beijing, in northern China, outside the osmanthus’s range.

The China connection and the nostalgia it evoked in me made me dig a little more. I discovered that the plant’s relationship with China is long; the Chinese have been cultivating it for some two and a half thousand years – its sweet scent saw to that. As might be expected, the Chinese poets weaved it into their work. Here is Wang Wei, an 8th Century Tang Dynasty poet:

I’m quiet, osmanthus flowers fall,
Tranquil is this spring night, empty the hill,
The rising moon startles mountain birds,
Which call awhile in the spring stream.

Or here we have the 12th Century Song Dynasty female poet, Li Qingzhao:

I recover from illness,
My temples have turned grey.
I lie down to rest and watch the waning moon
Climb up my screen.
Tender lips meet sweet mace, boiled in water,
Aromatic as tea.
Books and poems are so dear to me
While I sit idle against a pillow.
The outside scene freshens when rain falls.
All day long, facing me lovingly
Is the sweet osmanthus.

Things have come to a pretty pass when a flower’s scent, which made the Chinese poets sing, only makes me think of toilet fresheners! What a dumbing down we are witnessing …

Luckily for me, the Chinese themselves have made a connection between the flower’s sweet scent and more malodorous things. Osmanthus flowers bloom more or less in the eighth lunar month, which is when the Imperial civil service examinations were originally held.

This temporal connection gave rise to a phrase in late Imperial China which was used to euphemistically indicate that a candidate had successfully passed the exam: “pluck osmanthus in the Toad Palace”. Passing the exams would now open up to the successful candidate positions in the administration where myriad possibilities would exist for him to conclude sweet deals to his advantage during the rest of his no doubt illustrious career. Imperial examinations have vanished, only to have their place taken by the gaokao, the university entrance exams.

This is the first critical step to defining how successful a career you can have in China and how much of a life of preferment and sweet deals you will enjoy. “Plus ça change et plus c’est la même chose”, the more things change and the more they stay the same, as the French writer Jean-Baptiste Karr once observed.

While I have been reading up on all this, Typhoon Lan has been brewing in the Pacific to the east of the Philippines. Now it is moving ponderously northward towards Japan. The rain that’s been falling as a prelude to its arrival has stripped the Osmanthus bushes of their flowers.

Their scent is finished for this year. It’s time for us to fly home, hopefully before Typhoon Lan makes a landfall and closes the airport.

_____________

Toilet cleaner: https://wifinowevents.com/news-and-blog/22000-agree-clean-toilets-wi-fi/
osmanthus fragrans: my pictures
Chinese Imperial exams: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=AXGQt7Ts1wo
Gaokao exam: http://blog.tutorming.com/expats/what-is-gaokao-chinese-college-entrance-exam
Fallen osmanthus flowers: my picture

SACRI MONTI

Kyoto, 26 November 2016

Two weeks ago, my wife and I visited the temple on mount Kurama, a mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto. We took the train to the mountain’s foot and then climbed to the top – well, “climbed” is perhaps misleading, since rather than toil all the way up using the path that snakes its way to the top we took a cable car to very near the summit and toiled lightly the rest of the way. It was the Fall colours which had brought us there, and indeed the red of the Japanese maples and the yellow of the ginkgoes were a sight to behold.
mount-kurama-2

mount-kurama-3
Since it was a cool, rainy day, the surrounding landscape was enveloped in drifting cloud and mist, strongly reminiscent of painted Japanese landscapes.
misty-japanese-landscape
At the top, we walked around the temple

and enjoyed the view.
mount-kurama-1
After which, we walked down the other side of the mountain
mount-kurama-4
to take a well-deserved lunch at the bottom.
mount-kurama-5
A week later, when our daughter joined us for Thanksgiving, we took her to the Fushimi Inari Shrine on the hilly eastern edge of Kyoto and hiked up the mountain behind the shrine, passing through the famed tunnel of torii on the way
Torii gates—Fushimi Inari Shrine
(although when we passed through the tunnel, it was packed with people – the disadvantage of visiting Kyoto at this time of the year).

After admiring the view at the top and inspecting the small shrines sprinkled along the path, all of which were smothered in small votive torii
http://regex.info/blog/2008-06-19/841
we made our way down again and had a well-deserved bowl of rahmen at the mountain’s foot.
noodle-shop-inari
Ours was an admittedly very secular version of a pastime as ancient as civilization itself, the climbing of mountains to pray to the gods. I suppose it makes sense. Gods often have been thought to reside up in the sky somewhere, and mountains were as close to the sky as we humans could get before the age of aviation. And before there were 7 billion of us, working our presence into every nook and cranny of the planet, mountains were remote, mysterious places, where our ancestors could more easily commune with the divine.

So it comes as no surprise to see that all religions have their mountains. Several degrees of longitude to the west of Kyoto, the Chinese had their Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism and their Four Sacred Mountains of Daoism, and scholars sitting at the foot of mountains is a common scene on scrolls.
scholars-under-mountain
Hinduism, along with Jainism and Buddhism, has its Mount Meru, a mythological mountain, which for many believers, though, finds its material incarnation in Mt. Kailash in Tibet.

Processed by: Helicon Filter;

Many Hindus and Buddhists make the arduous journey to the mountain. Once they reach it they will reverently circle it (I highly recommend the book “To A Mountain In Tibet”, in which that great travel writer Colin Thubron relates his journey on foot to this mountain up through the high valleys of Nepal).

Moving further west, Judaism has its Mount Sinai, traditionally thought to be this mountain.
mount-sinai
The Bible tells us that Moses climbed it to commune with Yahweh in the Burning Bush, and from its top he brought down the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. Charlton Heston gave a great performance as Moses in the Hollywood film epic “The Ten Commandments”
charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandments
although I personally prefer Michelangelo’s splendid Moses.
michelangelo-moses
Islam also has its holy mountains; since it is a religion of the Book, many of these are linked to stories in the Bible: Mt. Sinai because of its link to Moses, Al-Judi, reputed to be where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Flood, the mount of Olives, where the righteous will be chosen and evil abolished. But it also has mountains which are holy because of events in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. One such is the Temple Mount, the scene for Muslims of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven in his Night Journey, and on which they built the beautiful Dome of the Rock.

dome-of-the-rock

Another is Jabal Al-Nour, on the outskirts of Mecca.
jabal-al-nour
This mountain houses the Hira Cave in which Muhammad began receiving the revelations which became the Qu’ran. The cave is extremely popular with Muslim pilgrims who make the arduous trek up the mountain to reach it.

As for Christianity, Jesus was crucified on a hill, Mount Golgotha, outside Jerusalem. It’s really quite a modest hill, a hillock really, which in Christian art, though, grew into a respectable hill, as shown in this painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
procession-to-calvary-by-pieter-bruegel-the-elder
Imagining a good-sized hill gave later generations of Christians an excuse to bedeck local hills with a Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, which would wend its way up to the top of the hill and along which would be dotted the fourteen stations. The faithful would climb the Via Crucis, stopping and praying at each station (I remember well doing this as a young boy). UNESCO has canonized as a World Heritage Site nine such hills, the Sacri Monti or Sacred Hills, which are strung along the alpine foothills of Lombardy and Piedmont, not too far from Milan where we currently reside. Their Vie Crucis were all created in the 16th-17th centuries.
sacri-monti-1
sacri-monti-2
I’m trying to persuade my wife that we should go and climb a couple. To make the suggestion more palatable, I’m suggesting that we now wait until Spring – and that we choose sacri monti that have good restaurants at their foot to which we can repair after the climbs.

____________________
Misty Japanese landscape: https://loganbalstad.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/japanese-landscape-painting/
Mount Kurama temple: http://apdl.kcc.hawaii.edu/roads/18_temples.html
Other pix of Mount Kurama: ours
Scholars under mountain: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2013/fine-classical-chinese-paintings-n09009.html
Mount Kailash: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kailash
Torii Fushimi Inari Shrine: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Torii_gates%E2%80%94Fushimi_Inari_Shrine_(9977683204).jpg
Fushimi Inari mouintainside shrine: http://regex.info/blog/2008-06-19/841
Noodle shop, Fushimi Inari shrine: http://www.picrumb.com/best-restaurants/inari/
Mount Sinai: https://www.lds.org/media-library/images/mount-sinai-egypt-moses-1244104?lang=eng
Charlton Heston as Moses: https://theiapolis.com/movie-20AU/the-ten-commandments/gallery/charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandments-1081961.html
Michelangelo’s Moses: http://syndrome-de-stendhal.blogspot.jp/2012/04/der-moses-des-michelangelo.html
Dome of the Rock: http://www.123rf.com/photo_42141970_aerial-view-the-dome-of-the-rock-on-the-temple-mount-from-the-mount-of-olives-in-jerusalem-israel.html
Jabal Al-Nour: http://dreamzs338.tumblr.com/post/132478018857/jabal-al-noor-the-mountain-of-light-in-makkah
Pilgrims to Hira Cave: http://mapio.net/pic/p-16183166/
“Procession to Calvary” by Peter Breugel the Elder: https://mydailyartdisplay.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/the-procession-to-calvary-by-pieter-bruegel-the-elder/
Sacri Monti-1: http://www.unescovarese.com/Sacri-monti-in-Piemonte-e-Lombardia
Sacri Monti-2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacro_Monte_di_Varallo

RINGING BELLS

Milan, 13 September 2016

It wasn’t until our first Sunday back in Milan that I realized what it was we had been missing all those years we had spent in China and Thailand: church bells. The carillon that pealed out from the campanile of the nearby Church of San Giorgio
image
for morning mass startled my senses, and I found myself actually listening. Probably Italians, after a lifetime of hearing church bells, simply shut them out: “church bells? what church bells?”

It’s not as if the soundscapes of the cities we have lived in these last seven years have been very different from what we were used to in Europe. Like for everything nowadays, there was a depressing uniformity.  The noise of traffic predominated; given China’s building craze, construction noises came a close second in Beijing. The one typically Chinese noise which we often heard in Beijing was the machine-gun sound of strings of firecrackers going off to celebrate the opening of a new business.
image
Since the economy was doing nicely, this happened quite often. The noise of firecrackers grew to a huge crescendo as the Chinese New Year rolled around.

image

We were always in awe of the massive amounts of firepower, in the form of firecrackers, fireworks, and other noise-making products, being sold on the streets in the days leading up to the New Year.
image
Bangkok was more interesting, noise-wise. From our balcony, as we admired the view over the Chao Phraya river, we would often hear the local muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. Muslims are a more-or-less tolerated minority in Thailand and as a consequence tend to be very discreet. The Muslim community in our area was no exception. So discreet were they that I never located the minaret and its associated mosque. Was it this one, I wonder? I saw the sign once or twice but never went down the narrow lane to investigate.
image
These calls to prayer were counterbalanced by the morning chanting from the Buddhist monks in the temple across the river.
image
In Thailand’s current politically charged atmosphere, where an aggressive Buddhism is emerging, one has to wonder if the loudspeaker-enhanced chanting was not calculated to remind the local Muslims of who was in charge, just in case they had forgotten.

There was also a period when a government institution across the river would blare out the royal anthem twice a day, at 8 am and 6 pm, to remind the populace to venerate their king.
image
Mercifully, from one day to the next, the loudspeakers fell silent. We never figured out why. But we were thankful for the respite.

Noises from the new religion of our time, fitness, would assail our ears in the early evening, as an aerobic class would start up in the nearby park at Phra Sumen fort, with the disco music booming out over the river, interspersed with the trainer’s shouted instructions and encouragement.

image
Memories, all memories now. From now on, our soundscapes will be made up, at least in part, of church bells. Christianity may be fading in Europe, but the bells will remain. They will be ringing out the hours of the day and night (even as I write this, the nearby church bells are striking seven pm). They will call the few remaining faithful to Mass on Sundays. They will toll somberly for our brethren who have departed from this world (“Cold it is, my beloved, since your funeral bell was toll’d: / Cold it is, O my King, how cold alone on the wold!”). I may even witness once more, in a Catholic nation somewhere, the bells of a whole city ringing peel after peel in a mad cacophony to speed the soul of a dead Pope on its way; I heard this in Vienna when Pope John Paul II died.

Yes, these sounds are part of my Christian heritage to which I return after many years of absence.

_______________________
San Giorgio: http://www.milano24ore.net/cityinfo/churches/church_of_san_giorgio.php
Fire crackers: http://yourenotfromaroundhere.com/blog/firecrackers-evil-spirit-beijing-china/
Chinese New Year: http://chinesenewyearblog.com/cny-fireworks-victoria-harbor-hong-kong/
Sellers of fireworks: http://iainmasterton.photoshelter.com/image/I0000OGZzPAzdPPM
Mosque Masjid chakrabongse?: http://zlynn17.blogspot.it/2010/02/halal-food-in-banglamphoo.html
Buddhist monks chanting: https://monotonundminimal.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/day-240-bling-bling-bangkok/
Thais venerating the king: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/asia/thailand-king-bhumibol-gallbladder/
Aerobic class Phra Sumen Park: http://www.iamwannee.com/a-nice-walking-path-from-tha-phra-chan-to-tha-phra-athit/

MIRROR, MIRROR, ON THE WALL

Bangkok, 28 February 2016

Every morning, I stare at myself in the mirror as I shave, a ritual which has enslaved me these past forty odd years. And I stare at myself in the mirror as I brush my hair, or brush my teeth, or – more lately – inspect that suspicious mark on my face (is it melanoma?). And I watch as the face which stares back at me grows rounder and more creased, as the hairline recedes and the temples grow greyer, as the lips thin with the loss of back teeth, as the skin begins to sag under my chin.

I grow old, the mirror remorselessly reminds me every day.

I can’t escape my reflection. It follows me everywhere I go, staring back at me from all the mirrors which we have scattered with wild abandon over our urban landscapes: the bars, the restaurants, the public toilets, the elevators, the shops, the lobbies, … My reflection even beckons to me from the smooth, shiny sheathing and coated windows of our fancy modern buildings.

It was not always so. There was a time, not so long ago in the great arc of human history, when we hardly ever saw our own faces. We saw the faces of others: our mothers, our fathers, our siblings, our tribe, our village, and the few strangers who came from the other side of the mountain and passed through. From time to time, when drinking in a still pool, we would have seen a tremulous reflection staring back at us. But it’s not easy to see one’s reflection in water. Water bodies have this infuriating habit of giving a beautiful reflection of things far away but of being blankly clear at one’s feet.

Numa and Rainbow Peaks Reflecting in Bowman Lake, Montana

This young girl has managed to capture her watery reflection quite well

reflection in water

but I think this picture is more typical of what most of us see when we peer into water.

reflection in a puddle

That’s why I’ve never really understood the legend of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who caught sight of his reflection in a pool, fell in love with it, and died at the pool’s edge unable to drag himself away.

Narcissus-Caravaggio

What reflection could he possibly have been so enamoured with? In my experiments in the kitchen with various pots and pans of different colours, the best reflection I got was from a black frying pan

image

and even that reflection was, as readers can see, murky in the extreme. How could anyone, however beautiful he or she may have been, have fallen in love with this evanescent reflection? Perhaps the original teller of the tale had seen a reflection of a person in a dark pool or vase from a distance, like this photographer has

reflections in a bowl of water

and invented the story around that.

Be that as it may, eventually our ancestors found other ways to see themselves. Obsidian, that beautiful, black, glassy material, product of volcanic activity

imagewas used in the first attempts at non-aqueous mirrors, in Turkey. The country was famous in the pre-metallurgical era for its obsidian, which could be used to make razor-sharp arrow heads – such arrow heads have been found hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away from the mother lode in Anatolia. But large obsidian pieces could also be split open and the faces given a high polish to act as a mirror.

obsidian mirror

Obsidian may be beautiful, but it gives a dark reflection, almost as dark as the water in my frying pan. I am reminded of St. Paul’s famous phrase in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly”.

The metallurgical age brought us one step closer to seeing ourselves, in polished copper or bronze mirrors, like this Egyptian copper mirror.

copper mirror egyptian

Copper mirrors would have given reddish reflections like those we see in highly polished copper pans, such as this

reflections in a copper potor this.

reflections in a copper pan

(If nothing else, both photos show the need for a uniformly flat surface for a good result …)

The Chinese especially made mirrors out of polished bronze. These would have given yellowish reflections, like this one

bronze mirror-2

or this one, from a Japanese bronze mirror.

bronze mirror

Mirrors such as these were very expensive – indeed, the Chinese turned the backs of their mirrors into admirable works of art, such as this 9th Century one from the Tang Dynasty with its admirably carved dragon.

image

So only the rich, the ancient world’s one-percenters, could afford to peer – curiously, vainly, or dolefully – at their reflection. The man and woman on the street still could only see their reflection in water.

It seems that it was the Egyptians who first thought of coating glass with metal to make glass mirrors, but their reflectivity was poor. As for the Romans, Pliny the Elder mentioned mirrors where gold leaf was applied to glass. I don’t know if any such mirror has survived the ravages of time, I certainly didn’t find a trace of one on the Internet. But very fancy gold-plated mirrors such as the one in this photo are now made, for high-tech applications.

image

I suppose a bleary-eyed Roman plutocrat staring at himself in his gold-plated glass mirror after a night of orgies would have caught such a yellowing reflection as this of his face.

It is the Venetians we have to thank – or curse – for bringing us the modern silvered mirror, which finally allowed humanity to see its own reflection in glorious, embarrassing, or painful technicolour. The glass-makers of Murano figured out a way of making flat – and clear – glass as well as depositing a thin coating of silver on the back of it (my professional self cannot but help notice that they used a silver-mercury amalgam to do this; the mercury inevitably sickened and killed off a good number of Murano mirror-makers – an interesting twist to the French saying “il faut souffrir pour être belle”, “one must suffer to be beautiful”, which here becomes “you suffer, and I admire my beauty”). Once again, it was initially the one-percenters of the European courts who enjoyed – or suffered from – a much clearer reflection of themselves. Venetian glass mirrors such as this one were worth a king’s ransom.

old venetian mirror in good shape

The French one-percenters couldn’t stand the idea that they were sending so much of their wealth southwards to the misbegotten Venetians for glass mirrors. They tried mightily to worm the secrets of mirror-making out of Murano. But La Serenissima, fully appreciating the gold mine they were sitting on, passed draconian laws forbidding these secrets from leaving the lagoon. Eventually, though, the French suborned a group of Venetian mirror-makers, persuading them to bolt from the lagoon and set up shop in the St. Gobain works. Among many other things, this gave us the Hall of Mirrors at the palace at Versailles.

image

This hall has impassively reflected the fun and games of the French monarchy, but also two crucial moments in recent European history: the declaration of the German Empire in 1871 after the Prussians trounced the French in the Franco-Prussian War

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and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 between the Allies and the new-born German democracy

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that humiliating “diktat of Versailles” which Hitler used to such good effect in his rise to power.

Alas! The silvering process which the Venetians invented, and the French copied, did not last forever. With time, it would crack, it would peel, it would dull, so that reflections would become evanescent once more. How many old houses contain mirrors like this one!

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Even our apartment in Milan holds a mirror where Time has inserted its bony fingers into the silvering and has started to strip pieces off.

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Like my face, mirrors age. But as men have found ways of making faces last longer, so have they found ways to make silvered mirrors that last longer and reflect better. And through the genius of industrialization they have found ways to make these much better mirrors much cheaper, so that 99-percenters like me can also stare, once vainly and now despairingly, at the reflection of our crumbling selves.

I need to escape from my reflection. My wife and I could have ourselves shipwrecked on some remote islet in the Pacific Ocean. Yet even there, I fear that I would find a shard of mirror on the beach, washed up together with all the plastic bottles and other flotsam and jetsam of our consumeristic life that now fill up our oceans.

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Reflections in a lake: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get2/I0000WnV35_OekPk/fit=1000×750/Numa-and-Rainbow-Peaks-Reflecting-in-Bowman-Lake.jpg (in http://bretedge.photoshelter.com/image/I0000WnV35_OekPk)
Reflection in water: http://www.aheadworld.org/wp-content/gallery/reflection-in-the-water/bellareflectionwater-1.jpg (in http://www.aheadworld.org/2014/07/15/reflection-in-the-water/)
Reflection in a puddle: http://www.nambya.com/wp-content/uploads/image6.jpg (in http://www.nambya.com/gallery/photography/image-7/)
Narcissus by Caravaggio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_%28mythology%29#/media/File:Narcissus-Caravaggio_%281594-96%29_edited.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissus_%28mythology%29)
Reflection in a black pan: my photo
Reflection in a bowl of water: http://inapcache.boston.com/universal/site_graphics/blogs/bigpicture/reflections/bp12.jpg (in http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2012/02/photo_reflections.html)
Chunk of obsidian: https://www.thinglink.com/scene/504686617127026690
Obsidian mirror: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/a0/77/4e/a0774e9d5c812c328852a4850ea59899.jpg
Egyptian copper mirror: https://assets.paddle8.com/510/266/21339/21339-1380672291-Coburn-Item%2033-xl.jpg (in https://paddle8.com/work/egyptian/21339-hand-mirror)
Reflection in a copper pot: http://www.jeffclaassen.com/photos/2013/11/copper_pot_05.jpg ( in http://jeffclaassen.com/blog/2013/11/copper-pot-selfies-in-the-kitchen-after-dinner/)
Reflection in a copper pot-2: http://www.jeffclaassen.com/photos/2013/11/copper_pot_02.jpg (in http://jeffclaassen.com/blog/2013/11/copper-pot-selfies-in-the-kitchen-after-dinner/)
Reflection in a copper pan: https://40.media.tumblr.com/e295593980f36d1411e869333c84b63f/tumblr_mgbmbnhFJl1rjg7f0o1_500.jpg (in https://www.tumblr.com/search/loppapeysa)
Reflection in a Chinese bronze mirror: https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2601/3810835438_947331566d_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisckemp/3810835438)
Reflection in a Japanese bronze mirror: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_WxoUP_Y9N1A/RysHFDtbP1I/AAAAAAAAADo/smZF2ussZLo/s320/te-kagami2.JPG (in https://kgtou.wordpress.com/2007/11/02/te-kagami-hand-mirror/)
Chinese mirror – back: https://www.flickr.com/photos/asianart/405662049
Mirror coated with gold: http://www.epner.com/processes-and-products/laser-gold/
Old Venetian mirror in good shape: http://www.antiquario-dellapiana.it/esposizione-antiquariato-alba/dipinti-antichi/
Galerie des Glaces: http://www.historylines.net/history/17th_cent/versailles.html
Proclamation of the German Empire: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galerie_des_Glaces
Signing of the Versailles Treaty with Germany: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galerie_des_Glaces
Old Venetian mirror in bad shape: http://www.juliamarkert.com/galleria-riproduzioni-cornici-antiche-firenze/cornici-antiche-firenze/specchio-veneziano/
Reflection in Milan mirror: my photo

LONG LIFE!

Bangkok, 12 February 2016

I saw my doctor recently, for my annual check-up. After all the tests and probings were over, we sat down and talked over the results. Then came the awful verdict: I had to cut out coffee, tea, Coke, anything with caffeine in it. So here I am, sitting at the breakfast table, mournfully sipping water. My body has let me down. It is getting old. It needs maintenance but there are no spare parts. As T.S. Elliot’s Alfred J. Prufrock lamented, “I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”. The grave yawns ahead of me!

Sitting here, bathed in an existential funk, I am reminded of another poet, Chinese this time, by the name of Tao Yuanming, who wrote this poem in the year 409 AD, during the Double Ninth Festival, so called because it falls on the ninth day of the ninth lunar month.

Slowly, slowly,
the autumn draws to its close.
Cruelly cold
the wind congeals the dew.
Vines and grasses
will not be green again—
The trees in my garden
are withering forlorn.
The pure air
is cleansed of lingering lees
And mysteriously,
Heaven’s realms are high.
Nothing is left
of the spent cicada’s song,
A flock of geese
goes crying down the sky.
The myriad transformations
unravel one another.
And human life
how should it not be hard?
From ancient times
there was none but had to die,
Remembering this
scorches my very heart.
What is there I can do
to assuage this mood?
Only enjoy myself
drinking my unstrained wine.
I do not know
about a thousand years,
Rather let me make
this morning last forever

The wine Tao Yuanming is alluding to is chrysanthemum wine, made by blending chrysanthemum – flower, leaves, stalks and all – with millet and letting it ferment. It was made during the Double Ninth Festival, with chrysanthemums picked that day. It was left to sit for a whole year, to be drunk at the next Double Ninth Festival.

“Chrysanthemum” in Chinese is pronounced “ju”, which sounds similar to the word for “long”, “jiu”. By that strange Chinese habit of giving deep meaning to homophony, the chrysanthemum was therefore believed to be imbued with the spirit of longevity, and thus – through an animistic belief in sympathetic magic – its consumption would help the consumer live longer. It helped that the chrysanthemum is a flower of the autumn, a flower which blooms when other flowers are withering. Surely such a flower, which defies the dying of nature all around it, must be imbued with the spirit of longevity? “Chrysanthemum” also sounds like the number “nine”, “jiu”, therefore it seemed divinely ordained that this flower should play a central role in the Double Ninth Festival. Drinking chrysanthemum wine at the Festival was an affirmation that, even as winter started to close in, Death did not yet have us in its grip.

I suppose, then, that at this moment when my body betrays me, when I have doubts about my own longevity, I should drink long drafts of chrysanthemum wine. But even in my current brown mood, I don’t think I could drink this brew. It sounds distinctly unappetizing. I shall plump instead for chrysanthemum tea, which can happily take the place of my coffee and tea. In a coincidence which I’m sure the Chinese would find significant, my wife and I recently bought – in Bangkok’s Chinatown – a packet of dried chrysanthemum flowers: not the big, showy chrysanthemums you see in flowerbeds, but small, almost daisy-like, flowers.
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I will use these flowers to prepare myself infusions of a very delicate taste.
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And I will peer deep into my cup, drowning my existential sorrows in that lovely pale yellow liquid. Who knows? Maybe the Chinese were right, maybe I will live longer, and, like Tao Yuanming, “I will pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge / And gaze afar towards the southern mountains.”
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Or maybe, as my wife and daughter have very sensibly suggested, I should start drinking decaffeinated coffee and tea instead …

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Dried chrysanthemum flowers: http://www.botanicalspirit.com/chrysanthemum-flowers
Chrysanthemum tea: http://kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com/en/8Kaleidoscope2197.html
Tao Yuanming: https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/T%27ao_Ch%27ien

SPADES, CLUBS, HEARTS, DIAMONDS

Bangkok, 8 January 2016

In a previous post, I sketched out a rough agenda for my retirement. I think my wife was pleased with it. But she does have certain anxieties about this upcoming event. She has recently been reading about some Japanese syndrome called Retired Husbands Syndrome which attacks Japanese housewives. Suddenly, this guy whom you’ve hardly seen in the last 40 years – being a good Salaryman, he’s been leaving the house at 6 am and not getting home till midnight – is now constantly hanging around, getting in your way, messing up your routines, and expecting you to do things for him. Not unnaturally, the stress levels rocket up. While we’ve maintained a more balanced lifestyle, she does have fears of me moping around the house, lounging around on the sofa, eating natchos and watching TV all day. This dystopian view of hers is not helped by a number of films we’ve seen recently, describing exactly this situation. Nor is it helped by my fondness (my wife thinks more obsession) for playing Spider Solitaire on my iPad. She’s afraid that come retirement all I’ll do all day is compulsively play Spider Solitaire, with a little Freecell on the side.

It is true that I tend to play the game whenever I have a spare moment. I do admit that it can get a little out of hand. But I’m sure it’s good for my aging brain to carefully plot my strategy for getting the cards out. And those little electronic cards, with their glossy black spades and clubs and glowing red diamonds and hearts, and kingly Kings and queenly Queens and knavish Jacks, are really very pretty.
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I was thinking about their prettiness the other day during a Spider Solitaire game, and when it became clear that I was dribbling towards defeat I decided to quit and do a little research on the history of playing cards, principally to understand where the suit design of hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs originally came from. I was very pleased that I did so, because I discovered that what we have here is yet another example of the Great East-West Exchange which took place along the Silk Road and other trade routes that once criss-crossed the Eurasian continent. Of course, most of what was exchanged was traditional goods, but ideas also flowed along these routes. So did less obvious things, like the the willow tree and the pomegranate, both of which I’ve had occasion to write about in the past. Now I can with pleasure write about a third such item, playing cards.

Our story starts in China. Some time in the Tang Dynasty, around the 7th-8th Century, it seems that someone in the Imperial Court came up with the idea of a pack of playing cards, divided into four suits. The suits were Coins, Strings of (1,000) coins, Myriads of strings (10,000), and Tens of myriads. Like our modern cards, each suit contained cards with different numbers of pips. Here we have a Three of Coins and a Three of Strings-of-coins.
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These packs also included face cards, like this one from the Ming dynasty.
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These ‘chi-pai’, which is Chinese for playing cards, are still in use. This next photo shows the cards from a three-suited variant. Note how the design of the suits became highly stylized – this is important for our story.
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I’ve no idea what games exactly were played with these cards back in Tang Dynasty times, I’m not sure anyone knows, and actually it’s not important for our story. What is important is that the use of cards spread westward. This could have happened through trade; I can imagine Chinese merchants whipping out a pack of cards to while away their down time in the caravanserai that dotted the Silk Road.
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Alternatively, it could have happened through conquest, with conquering soldiers picking up new habits from the conquered. In this case, the Mongols, who conquered China in the 13th Century, seem a very good candidate. At its height, the Mongol Empire stretched from Korea to Ukraine.
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Any new fads picked up by Mongol troops in China could have spread, through many an evening around soldiers’ camp fires, all the way to Kiev.

I don’t think the two diffusion mechanisms are necessarily exclusive. I could imagine that the Mongol conquest also amplified diffusion of card playing through trade. The two maps above superimpose quite well, and in fact the period of the Mongol Empire brought political stability to Asia which in turn encouraged a surge of trade along the Silk Road.

Whichever way, Chinese playing cards diffused westward. Some time in the 13th-14th Century, maybe earlier, so-called Ganjifa playing cards started being used in Persia. The etymology of the word Ganjifa is uncertain. Some see its root in the Persian word gunj, which connotes treasure, treasury, or money, and suggest that this connects them to the money-suited Chinese playing cards. Others see a more elaborate etymology, proposing that Ganjifa is actually a corruption of ‘han-chi-pai’, or ‘Chinese playing cards’. In this case, there would be a very clear line of descent from China. In any event, variants of Ganjifa playing cards began to be used throughout the Muslim world, as well as in India (brought there in the saddle bags of the Mughal conquerors). What interests us most is the variant used by the Mamluk in Egypt.

The Egyptian Mamluk were an interesting bunch of people. Initially, they were slave soldiers recruited by the Ayyubid dynasty. For the most part, they were drawn from the Cumans-Kipchaks, a nomadic group who controlled the steppes north of the Black Sea. They were conquered by the Mongols and then absorbed into the Mongol Empire as the Golden Horde. Some time in the 13th Century, the Mamluk slave-soldiers kicked the Ayyubids out and reigned in their place. This happy state of affairs continued until they were in turn defeated by the Ottomans and their territories subsumed into the Ottoman Empire. Luckily for them, the Ottomans kept them on as governors of Egypt.

Perhaps because of their Mongol connection, or in some other way, the Mamluk picked up this new fad of card playing and brought it to Egypt some time in the 14th Century. What is of interest to us here is the fact that Mamluk packs of cards had four suits: Coins, Polo-sticks (the Mamluks were great polo players), Cups, and Swords. In addition, each suit had three face cards, the king, the first vizir, and the second vizir. Some clever people, who know more about the history of playing cards than I do, see a link between these four suits and those used in Chinese playing cards. Their thinking goes as follows. There is no problem in seeing the Mamluk Coin suit being derived from the Chinese Coin suit, that’s an easy equivalence to envisage. After that, it gets trickier. The clever people propose that the Chinese String-of-coins suit was transformed into the Mamluk Polo-stick suit, on the grounds that a String-of-coins pip could easily be misinterpreted as a stick to those unfamiliar with this very Chinese way of dealing with coins. It is true that the String-of-coins suit in the photo of Chinese playing cards above has been so stylized as to look stick-like. Then the clever people suggest that the Chinese Myriad-of-strings suit became the Mamluk cup suit, on the grounds that the Chinese character for myriad, 万, which was often used as a sort of pip, was simply inverted by the Mamluks, at which point it does indeed look cup-like. Finally, the clever people suggest that the Chinese Tens-of-myriads suit, where the Chinese numeral for ten, 十, was often used as the pip, was simply interpreted as a sword by the Mamluk and so gave rise to their suit of Swords. The ice over which we have been scrabbling these last few sentences is indeed thin, but the romantic in me is willing to believe this wonderful story of Central Asians scratching their heads over these strange-looking cards which had come all the way from China and giving their own interpretations to the drawings on them. To enliven all this text, I throw in here a photo of one of the rare Mamluk playing cards to have survived, a Six of Coins, found in Istanbul’s Topkapi palace.
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The next leg of our journey is somewhat easier to envisage, the transit of the Mamluk playing cards to Italy. I’m guessing that Venice was the entry point, although there could have been more than one. Until the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made for the Spice Islands, most of the spices which Europeans lusted for entered Europe through Venice, which in turn picked them up in Egypt. In addition to picking up spices, I can imagine Venetian sailors and merchants picking up packs of Mamluk playing cards to while away the long journeys back to Venice. Once in Italy, the use of playing cards spread rapidly, with each region having its own particularities. Here, for instance, is a pack of cards from Bergamo.
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Italian playing cards basically adopted the Mamluk suits, except that they changed Polo-sticks to Clubs – the game of polo was unknown in Europe at that time and I suppose the polo-sticks looked club-like to the Italians. They also adopted the idea of three face cards per suit but Europeanized them into king, upper marshal, and lower marshal.

There followed a fairly rapid diffusion of playing cards throughout Europe as the craze for card playing caught on. The Southern Europeans – Spain and Portugal – kept to the Italian design for their suits, with some minor modifications. The Northern Europeans instead experimented with a lot of different suit designs. Given the aristocratic background of many players, the suits were often hunting-themed like this pack from Flanders.
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Through the newfangled technology of printing, in which they were leaders, and through which they were the first to produce cheap packs of cards, the German lands popularized the use of the following suits:
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Personally, I don’t see much connection between these suits and the Italian versions. I think the Germans just used their fantasy. In any event, here are some old German playing cards with suits of Bells and of Acorns.
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Not to be outdone, the French came up with a somewhat different set of suits.
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The Hearts suit was taken as-is from the German suits. The Spades suit seems to be a slight modification of the German Leaf suit. The Clubs suit could be considered a geometric transformation of the Acorns suit – the sides of the acorn shell pulled out, the acorn itself shortened. The circular Bells suit of the Germans was replaced by a different shape, the diamond. As the cards above show, the French also introduced Queens, who displaced the upper marshal.

The French suits have since become those most used worldwide. Why that should be is not completely clear to me. I think it probably has something to do with the fact that the French suits are easier to read; I would have got really confused using those German cards I show above – “wait, is that an Eight of Acorns I have in my hand, or a Nine?” Or perhaps it was because the French were the arbiters of good taste in Europe until World War I. Or perhaps it was because the British adopted the French suits and happened to become the most powerful country in the world with the biggest colonial Empire, which allowed them to impose their choice of card suits and card games on their colonial subjects. Or perhaps it was because the Americans, who took over the title of the most powerful nation, followed the British in choosing French suits for their playing cards. For any or all of these reasons, or maybe others again, French suits now stare up at me from my games of Spider Solitaire and Freecell.

Well, now that I’ve figured all that out, I can go back to what I was doing and actually win my Spider Solitaire game.

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Old Chinese cards, coins and strings of coins: http://www.gamesmuseum.uwaterloo.ca/Archives/Wilkinson/Wilkinson.html
Old Chinese cards, face card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card
Chi-pai three-suited cards: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_playing_cards#Money-suited_cards
Silk Road: http://archive.silkroadproject.org/tabid/177/defaul.aspx
Mongol Empire: https://mapcollection.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/the-mongol-empire/
Mamluk card: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playing_card#Egypt
Bergsmasche deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_playing_cards#/media/File%3ACarte_bergamasche.jpg
Flemish hunting deck: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flemish_Hunting_Deck
German suites: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_playing_cards
Old German playing cards, acorn: http://www.spielkarten24.de/flohm.htm
Old German playing cars, bells: http://deerbe.com/unt/59680-___alte_spielkarten_playing_cards_dondorf_301_deutsche_spielkarte_1868___.html
Old French playing cards: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/public/mistral/joconde_fr?ACTION=CHERCHER&FIELD_98=AUTR&VALUE_98=BERGERET%20Pierre%20Nolasque&DOM=All&REL_SPECIFIC=1