A perfect morning — dark coffee, sunlight, a swan on the walk over to de Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam,
and a patient heron as we approached the garden:
For a lover of plants (and a consort willing to come along), this was heaven. The Hortus was founded in 1638 in the wake of a plague epidemic, a living storehouse of medicinal herbs. Wonderful arboreal specimens, e.g. a hinoki cypress (I know that our west coast yellow cedar has a similar wood which is exported to Japan when hinoki cypress is in short supply for building (among other things) Shinto shrines. Corsican pine:
I loved the knobbly cork oaks
and look forward to seeing them in Portugal tomorrow. (Tomorrow!) As for tonight, there’s a party to celebrate Anik and Walter’s wedding and we’ve been promised oysters and champagne. More perfect pairings.
— the bridges outlined with light as I look out on a sleeping Amsterdam. My body is on home’s time, 6:28, when we’d be eating by the fire; not tucked into a billowy white bed at 3:30 a.m. (that’s time passing as I write).
But look! The cover of my forthcoming book was waiting in my email box, designed by Setareh Ashrafologhalai:
It’s Rembrandt’s light — somehow subdued and luminous at the same time. The last time we were here, in 2010, our friends took us along the Amstel River on bicycles to see some of the places Rembrandt sketched. Trees over dark water with sunlight filtering through. Grey stones washed with watery light. Swans turning their elegant necks this way, and that. Now those friends are getting married tomorrow and we are delighted to be invited to celebrate with them. (There are rumours of champagne and oysters. And dancing…)
This is the view from the little balcony off our room looking out on the Amstel.
So much for plans. I wanted to revisit the Chelsea Physic Garden, a place that enchanted me in the mid-1970s. It was established in 1673 as an apothocaries’ garden and I remember feeling the first tendrils of what became a full-blown interest in ethnobotany as I walked along those tended paths. We took the bus over, riding the top deck in pleasure along Oxford Street, past Regent Street’s elegant curve. Got off the bus at the Royal Chelsea Hospital — a retirement facility for old soldiers, a few of them in red jackets and blue caps along the road. But, no — a sign on the gate saying the garden wouldn’t open until 2. (It was 10:30.; the opening time advertised on the website is 9:30…) We had coffee and a very expensive sweet in a little patisserie on Sloane Street and caught a bus back to the British Museum. Patrin Szkandery, the main character in my forthcoming novella, is interested in a wall-painting from the tomb of Nebamun (c.1350 B.C.) and I have only a vague memory of that work (which goes to show that fictional characters have their own interests and lives…). But looking today, I could understand her attraction to the painting. Patrin particularly loves the pool in the garden and I did like that, too —
— although now I want to know more about Nebamun and the whole excavation.
Last night we went to a concert at the Foundling Museum, a birthday celebration for Handel, with selections of arias from his choral works as well as Purcell’s, performed by musicians from the Academy of Ancient Music (Charman Bedford, soprano; Alex McCartney, theorbo; Reiko Ichise, viola da gamba). All of it was lovely but how sweet the two toccatas for theorbo by Giovanni Kapsberger, a composer unfamiliar to me.
Tonight, our last in London until late March, we’re going to see the new Tom Stoppard play, The Hard Problem, at the National Theatre. We feel very lucky because the play is sold out but we managed to get tickets by stopping in at the theatre on our way back from the Imperial War Museum yesterday (the “Truth and Memory:British Art of the First World War” exhibit is very powerful).
Tomorrow to Amsterdam and a wedding…
p.s. — I hope I’ve caught all the “corrections” this tablet makes to my writing. Somehow it thought I meant “ethnicity” instead of “ethnobotany” and “tomcat” rather than “toccata”. Well, who knows, maybe I did. And I can’t figure out formatting so you’ll just have to imagine italics, etc.
Everywhere the names remind me where I am and who I was. At the Tate yesterday, I was looking at the little map guide and saw a description of an upcoming installation, a response to the “grand spaces of the Duveen Galleries.” The artist — Christina Mackie. And I smiled, because Christina was my friend in high school. She was an artist then, with such a gift. I went to university and she came to London, to (I believe) St. Martin’s. We kept in touch for a few years; I visited her here twice, once in a huge squat she shared with other art students. Her installation — “inspired by her interest in pigment and the use of colour” — opens the day after we fly home in late March. So now her name will be part of the list I remember when I think of the Tate: her work part of the canon…
Our little local discovery today was Lambs Conduit Street, named for William Lamb who donated money in 1564 for the restoration of an Elizabethan dam in a tributary of the Fleet River. The street is charming. Walking along it, I was surprised to see the home of Persephone Books. I have a couple of their beautiful editions of (semi) forgotten women writers, Ethel Wilson among them.
I’d have gone in to pay my respects and no doubt buy a few books but it’s Sunday so it was closed. Instead we went to an afternoon concert at my favourite church, St George’s Bloomsbury (built by Nicholas Hawksmoor from 1716–1731), a building so beautiful I think I’d almost become a Christian to go there regularly,
And speaking of wishful thinking, there’s a little mews near Lambs Conduit Street called Doughty Mews —
— with the loveliest houses, roof gardens, an olive tree, and even an Egypt Exploration Society, founded in 1882. So no shortage of things to keep the mind active. And, oh, we ate one of the best dinners ever at Ciao Bella: salads of arugula and thin shaved Parmesan; mushrooms stuffed with cheese, breaded and deep-fried; rabbit with braised fennel and paparadelle; rack of lamb with gorgeous potatoes; two elegant slices of torte (one with pistachios and one lemony, with pine nuts). To drink? A dark and full-bodied Aldiano Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.
Coming back to our digs after a few hours at the Tate Britain, I saw this sign:
He’s probably my favourite composer; his arias for low voice led me to six years of voice lessons, every minute a pleasure. On Monday evening we’ll go to a concert at the nearby Foundling Museum in celebration of Handel’s 330th birthday, performed by the Academy of Ancient Music.
So, yes, this morning we ambled down to buy theatre tickets for tonight — a musical based on the Kinks (John’s choice) — and paused in Covent Garden to listen to an energetic string quartet play Vivaldi:
Then to the Tate where I used to go a fair bit when I lived in Wimbledon in 1977. I loved the Rothko room in particular but today I wanted to look at Turners after watching Mr. Turner on my birthday. And how glorious — the light, the pigments and textures…
I kept seeing things I’d loved as a young woman — the Spencers, the Sutherlands, a quiet Gwen John hung across the room from her brother Augustus’ s portrait of a Canadian soldier — and I realize now mine was a Modernist sensibility in the making. Those were the images which spoke to me and I still understand their vocabulary.
We arrived in London mid-afternoon, feeling tired and disoriented. We’re staying in the same block of short-term let studios we found in 2012 – wonderfully located near Marchmont Street in Bloomsbury, haunted by the ghosts of Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, even T.S. Eliot in his Faber office over at Russell Square. This time we have a tiny studio in the cellar, not as charming as the third floor one we had last time. But it’s cosy and clean and we shopped for provisions at the local Waitrose — cheese, wine, olives, apples, and malted wheat bread for breakfast.
What should we do for dinner? Not Tas, said John, referring to the Turkish place near the British Museum where we’be had deliciour meals in the past. We should try new places. I agreed. We went for a walk in the dusk and promptly got lost. Or not lost exactly but out of our comfor zone. And then, isn’t that Tas? And it was.
Did they have room for two lost souls? They did. The familiar warm chewy Turkish bread, hummus, spiced olives. The bright Anatolian wine tasting of pines and hot sun. A table of small meze dishes — broad beans flecked with dill, roasted eggplant, some sort of hazelnut thing with garlic, tabbouli, minted yoghourt, falafel, borek, and more of the warm bread kept appearing in a wooden bowl.
So London, and Tas, and a walk back past the British Museum with its treasures and plunder. Who could tell in the darkness which was which?
I’m getting used to the silly camera function of my tablet. In a couple of days, John and I are going to Europe for five weeks and although John will be taking his camera, I don’t see any way of uploading photographs from it to the tablet (which I’ll be using for email and adding posts to this blog). So I’m learning that my hands are not very steady and the images I’ve taken so far have been very blurry. But I can’t resist posting this one — a big colander filled with just-cut shoots and leaves of kale for tonight’s pasta. Last week the kale was pretty much picked clean. But the past few days have been so warm and mild that it’s sprouting away. The greens so dark, the purples so vivid! I’ll add it to the pasta pot for the last five minutes and then stir in some of my frozen stash of summer pesto, hoarded for occasions like this — one of the last dinners at home for some time. We’ll eat shoots and leaves. We’ll shoot the leaves. How would you punctuate it?
I spoke these lines to John when I married him in 1979. Angelica read them at Forrest and Manon’s wedding in 2012. A little room for lovers is a different thing from the little room that contains a family, an expanding family, yet that room is truly everywhere. A continent, a whole world.
I spent some time this morning looking at photographs:
“Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.”
The other day I saw bins of Seville or bigarade oranges in the grocery store. I could smell them from where I stood about five feet away, a drift of citrus in the humdrum February air. I thought of buying some and then I remembered — I’ve already made marmalade this winter. Not with Seville oranges but with Meyer lemons and the pretty little calamondin fruit from the tree I overwinter in the sunroom. The calamondins don’t ripen all at once so I pick them as they become orange and then freeze them until there’s critical mass. (This is sort of my writing process too! The accumulating, I mean; not the freezing…) This year I used organic unrefined cane sugar and the resulting marmalade is deep amber and almost caramel in flavour. Bitter in the best way. I make it for John because I don’t usually have toast in the morning but sometimes there are croissants for breakfast and the airy pockets are perfect for a spoonful of marmalade or honey.
Citrus taxonomy is a bit complicated. Seville oranges are a cross between Citrus maxima (pommelo) and C. reticulata, which are mandarins. There are other bitter oranges too — the C. aurantium var. myrtifolia or myrtle-leaved orange, which is the basis for the lovely tangy Italian orange soda. There are Bergamot oranges, a cross between (I think) the bigarade and Citrus limetta, sweet lime or lemon used in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking. (But it’s not the one used in Persian cooking, which is a hybrid, apparently — Citrus aurantifolia, or key lime, and true lemon.) And Meyer lemons, Citrus × meyeri, are thought to be crosses between true lemons (C. limon) and mandarins or else common oranges (Citrus sinensis).
In a way, these are all synomyms for sunlight. Small globes of intense colour, so welcome in winter. I brought out a cloth last week, a bright linen tea-towel Brendan and Cristen gave me for Christmas, just to see its vivid citrus panels contrasting with summer blue and green. I hadn’t noticed before that there’s writing on the cloth. Soleil. Well, I know what that is. You do too. Sun! But soulèu? My French dictionary didn’t help. So I emailed my Francophone daughter-in-law Manon and in five minutes she’d written back: “I just did a quick research on the internet and it appears that “soulèu” is “soleil” in Provençal.”
The other night friends came for dinner and they brought a gift jar of lemon marmalade, made with lemons from their neighbours who bring the fruit back from a place they have in Palm Springs (I think it is). That reminded me that we still have some lemon marmalade left from last year, made with a few Meyer lemons from the tree I’ve had for more than 25 years and which never seems to grow much — a blessing as I have to bring it in each winter and so it needs to stay a size I can manage to carry. It does produce lemons though not at this moment. It’s coming into flower and I love to catch a little of the scent of lemon blossoms when I’m lying in bed in the mornings, drinking that first welcome cup of coffee.
Once a year the smell of bitter orange wafts through the produce section of the grocery store and it’s always at a time when we need it most. Although there was sun last week and even the first butter-yellow primulas, this week it’s raining. Fog over the mountain, the sound of owls last night when we drove home in darkness from dinner with Joe and Amy and their children. So here are some jars of sunlight on a cloth to prove it.