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Month: October, 2018

OH NO, IT’S HALLOWEEN AGAIN!

Kyoto, 31 October 2018

Halloween is upon us once again! Time to don the costumes of ghosts, goblins, zombies, skeletons, witches, and other assorted weirdos which we’ve been storing in our wardrobes since last year, and roam the streets drinking booze and checking out each other’s costumes!

Time to light the candles in those pumpkins which we’ve been patiently carving into hideous faces (or we just bought ready-made in plastic at the local store) and plonk them down in front of our door!

A dim and distorted reflection indeed of the beliefs of our ancestors that this was the night when for a short while the thin membrane separating the world of the living from the world of the dead became permeable, allowing the spirits of the dead to roam the land.

A time not to be out and about, risking to be set upon by evil spirits. A time to stay safe at home with your family.

Our ancestors also thought that, born as they were at that moment when real world and spirit world temporarily connected, Halloween babies had the ability in later life to commune with the spirits. When, 32 years ago, I wrote to our friends telling them that our son had been born in the early hours of 31st October, I jovially added that I looked forward to him having a successful career as a medium. Somewhat like Whoopi Goldberg in the film Ghost, although she initially was frightened stiff by her gift.

As of this writing, our son has shown no such gift although he has done well enough in other ways.

I am no believer in spirits – I am, as I have said in other posts, a child of the Scientific Revolution and the rationalism that came with it – but I do find it sad that what was for our ancestors an important and holy feast day has degenerated into a twee happening fueled by companies egging us on to consume.

Even the Japanese are getting into the act! Here in Kyoto we are constantly coming across the same Halloween-related consumeristic crap that we see now from Seattle to Budapest and beyond.

Halloween, it seems, is following in the steps of Christmas and going global: any excuse is good to get us out of the house and do some shopping.

Better by far that we just stay at home and enjoy each other’s company over a glass of wine. That’s certainly what my wife and I intend to do.

___________________________

Halloween party: https://sf.funcheap.com/marin-singles-halloween-costume-party-san-rafael/
Jack-o-lanterns: http://www.maniacpumpkincarvers.com/jackolanterns/
Medieval living and dead: http://www.medievalists.net/2013/10/the-medieval-walking-dead/
Whoopi Goldberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsI5bREF20Y
Halloween shopping: http://www.halloween-online.com/articles/halloween-articles-budgeting.html
Holiday shopping: https://me.me/i/fox-10-holiday-countdown-days-until-halloween-400-days-until-2900508

KYOTO CITY BUS DRIVERS

Kyoto, 25 October 2018

In a previous post I mentioned in passing the wonderful delivery used years ago by an anonymous Amtrak employee when announcing the departure of trains from Penn Station in New York. Here, I want to come back to this theme, the delivery of messages on public transport, but this time the place is Kyoto and the transport in question the city’s buses.

Anyone who travels around by bus in this city cannot possibly have failed to notice the rather particular cadences used by bus drivers to announce upcoming stops, to thank you when you get off the bus, and to announce I know not what else (my knowledge of Japanese being limited to literally four words).

I think the Japanese already have a tendency to elongate the last syllable of the last word they pronounce, rather like the Czechs and Slovaks, but Kyoto bus drivers draw out that last syllable to an extreme. It’s as if a London bus driver were to say “Next stop: Trafalgar Squaaaaaaaaare” or “Coming up: Piccadilly Circuuuuuusssss” and “Watch your step getting off the buuuuussssss”. And it’s all said in such calm, caressing tones! As readers can see from the photo above, the bus driver wears a mic linked to the bus’s PA system, so he doesn’t have to raise his voice (it always seems to be men who drive Kyoto buses). He can just murmur quietly and breathily into his mic. My wife and I sit and listen (with some amusement, I have to say) as the driver’s litany of messages rolls out over us. We quite forget to admire the passing views, especially the tourists dressed up in kimonos and montsukis for the day.

The same cannot be said of the canned announcements on the buses, always by women. I don’t know what it is, but when Japanese women have to make public pronouncements they seem invariably to opt for a register in the higher octaves. I suppose they are adopting that childlike tone which seems to be the approved tone for women in this still very patriarchal society. I remember once meeting the wife of a Japanese colleague who spoke English to me in a high, squeaky voice but whose voice dropped an octave or so when she spoke to her husband. Those same squeaky tones emanate from Kyoto buses’ PA systems, announcing chirpily what stops will be next and various other information of public interest. Every time I hear that voice (and there seems to be only one voice used by the whole of the Kyoto bus system), I cannot help but think of the girly characters that populate Japanese cartoons, the ones with the impossibly big eyes and a suspiciously Caucasian look.

Women of Japan, arise! You have nothing to lose but the chains which tie you to ridiculous and outdated role models! Drop your voices an octave! And drive Kyoto buses, for God’s sake!

Well, having got that off my chest, let me go back to listening to the soothing tones of our bus driver. I should tape him, I’m sure playing his voice back in a loop at night as white noise would make me sleep very well.

_____________________________________________

Kyoto city bus:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Kyoto_City_Bus_200_Ka_1519.jpg
Kyoto city bus driver: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-kyoto-bus-driver-with-white-gloves-in-japan-133175829.html
Street scene Kyoto:
https://lexiskobe.com/2016/03/04/%E3%83%AC%E3%82%AF%E3%82%B7%E3%82%B9%E3%82%B8%E3%83%A3%E3%83%91%
E3%83%B3%E3%81%AE%E7%95%99%E5%AD%A6%E7%94%9F%E3%81%8C%E3%83%A2%E3%83%87%E3%83%AB%E3%81%AB%E3%81%AA%E3%82%8A%E3%81%BE%E3%81%97%E3%81%9F/lexis-japan-kimono-kyoto-3/
Girl cartoon character: http://www.nijisenmon.com/1070592288

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

As I struggle with jet lag on our annual trip to Kyoto and watch the night sky pale into day, my mind wanders to a previous post that I wrote about stinging nettles. I mentioned there in passing that brambles are also a bitch because of their thorns. And now my tired brain latches onto brambles.

Wicked little bastards those thorns are, capable of slicing with ease through clothing, never mind more delicate tissues like your skin. Look at the damned things!

Talking of which, there was a story doing the rounds of Medieval England which offered an intriguing alternative to the standard narrative of the start of the universal war between Good and Evil. As we all know, that war started with Satan daring to claim that he was the equal of God. Thereupon, in majestic rage, God, through the good offices of his Archangel Michael, threw Satan and his horde out of Heaven – a most dramatic rendition of which scene my wife and I recently came across in Antwerp Cathedral.

The standard story has Satan and his devils all falling into Hell. As John Milton put it so memorably in his opening lines of Paradise Lost

                             Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

In Medieval England instead, they had the poor devils land in bramble bushes, presumably as a pit stop on their way down to their eventual hellish destination. The pain was such that every year, on Michaelmas Day, the feast day of their nemesis the Archangel Michael, the devils would go round all the bramble bushes in England and spit, pee, and fart on the blackberries. I sense that on their satanic rounds, the devils would have looked something like this.

Now, there was actually a moral to this story, to whit: one should not eat blackberries off the bush after Michaelmas Day. A very sensible suggestion, I would say; who would want to pick and eat blackberries after they had been so treated? The precise date when this interdict should come into effect is the subject of some confusion. When the story started on its rounds, England followed the old Julian calendar, in which Michaelmas Day fell on 10th October (in today’s Gregorian calendar). In the Gregorian calendar, though, Michaelmas Day falls on 27th September. The key question is: have the devils continued to follow the Julian calendar or did they switch to the Gregorian calendar like everyone else? While my readers ponder over this conundrum, I should note that, like many fanciful stories from our past, a good scientific reason exists for eschewing blackberry eating after end-September, early-October: the damper autumnal weather encourages the growth of molds on blackberries, grey botrytis cinerea in particular, the eating of which could be perilous for the health of the eater.

It’s typical of devils that they would try to spoil the one fun thing there is about brambles, which is collecting ripe blackberries. Luckily, this is done – or should be done – late-August, early-September, before the devils get around to their nasty business. This summer, when my wife and I were walking the Vienna woods,we got few occasions to pick blackberries; there simply weren’t that many growing along the paths we took. But I still remember my siblings and I going blackberrying some fifty years ago. We would head out to the bramble bushes lining the small country lane which passed by my French grandmother’s house, each of us with a container, slowly moving down the bushes and picking the darkest, juiciest berries. This young girl epitomizes that perilous and sometimes painful search for juicy goodness among the thorns.

She at least managed to come home, with purple fingers (and probably purple mouth), with her finds.

We never seemed to come home with any; eating them on the spot was simply too irresistible, and we would troop home with nothing to show for our work but purple mouths and hands, much to the irritation of our grandmother who had been planning to conserve our blackberries for the winter. My memory fails me at this point but no doubt we would be sent off to the bramble bushes again, with strict orders to bring back the blackberries this time.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate for literature, captured well the joys of blackberrying in his poem Blackberry picking, although he speaks too of the heartbreak of his treasured finds going moldy, no doubt with the help of the devils.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Luckily, by the beginning of last century the terrors of the supernatural had been tamed by science, so that Cicely Mary Barker, in her collection of seasonal flower fairies, was able to transform the nasty devils of the past into this very twee Bramble Fairy.

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.

I’ll tear your dress and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.

I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace

But when the bramble-jelly’s made
You’ll find your troubles well repaid.

Twee it might be, but the poem’s last lines point us to the next step in the blackberry adventure, namely the eating of them in various yummy forms.

In my opinion, one can do no better than eat blackberries fresh with a dollop or two – or three – of whipped cream.

I’m sure my wife would agree. She once spent a Wimbledon championship selling strawberries and whipped cream to those going in to watch the tennis, and since she no doubt scarfed down a portion of her product when the manager wasn’t looking she will testify to the deliciousness of the cream-berry combination.

The English, however, also swear by the blackberry-apple combination, cooked together in a pie. The ideal is to use windfall apples, so slightly tart, with fully ripe blackberries; the tart-sweet combination which results cannot be beaten, I am assured in article after article.

I’m moved to throw in here a brief recipe for this delicious dish. Start by making the dough for the pie. Put 250g of plain flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut 75g of butter and 75g of lard into small chunks and rub into the flour using thumb and fingertips. Add no more than a couple of tablespoons of cold water. You want a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel, core and quarter 6 Bramley apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks. Put 20g butter and 100g caster sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on. Then add 150g blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.

Meanwhile, remove the pastry from the fridge. Cut the pastry in half and roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. Butter a shallow 25cm pie dish and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges.

Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish, mounding it in the middle. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Roll out the second piece of pastry and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers. Make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry. Place the pie on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.

In these troubled times of Brexit, when there are those Little Englanders who would question the UK’s belonging to a wider European culture, I feel that I should point out that this pie is not uniquely English. Already some 450-500 years ago, the Dutch painter Willem Heda lovingly painted a half-eaten apple and blackberry pie (unfortunately, my wife and I did not see this particular painting during our trip this summer to the Netherlands).

I feel I must include here a variation on the pie theme, the blackberry-apple crumble, only because my Aunt Frances used to make the most sublime crumble, whose magnificence I remember even now, more than half a century after the fact.

Once again, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. To make the crumble, tip 120g plain flour and 60g caster sugar into a large bowl. Cut 60g unsalted butter into chunks, then rub into the flour using your thumb and fingertips to make a light breadcrumb texture. Do not overwork it or the crumble will become heavy. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile, prepare and cook the apple-blackberry compote as before. Spoon the warm fruit into an ovenproof gratin dish, top with the crumble mix, then reheat in the oven for 5-10 mins.

Since the Bramble Fairy speaks about bramble jelly, and since something like it was the reason my grandmother sent us out to collect blackberries, I feel I should mention this preserve too.

Staying with the apple-blackberry combination, I give here a recipe which contains apples. But the purpose of the apples is different. It is to naturally add pectin to the mix so as to make a firmer jelly.

Put 1.3kg, 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.

It goes without saying that the juice of blackberries can be drunk too, in many forms. I will only mention one of these, blackberry wine, and only because I once made the closely related elderberry wine at school, with a couple of friends. More on this later. Let me focus first on the making of blackberry wine. If any of my readers want to try this, they can use the following recipe which I lifted from Wikihow.

To make 6 bottles of wine:
– 4½-6 lbs of fresh blackberries
– 2½ lbs of sugar
– 7 pints water
– 1 package yeast (red wine yeast is recommended)

Crush the berries by hand in a sterile plastic bucket. Pour in 2 pints of cooled distilled water and mix well. Leave the mixture for two hours.

Boil ⅓ of the sugar with 3 pints water for one minute. Allow the syrup to cool. Add the yeast to 4 oz of warm (not boiling) water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Pour the cooled syrup into the berries. Add the yeast. Make sure the mixture has properly cooled, as a hot temperature will kill the yeast. Cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for seven days.

Strain the pulp through fine muslin or another fine straining device, wringing the material dry. Pour the strained liquid into a gallon jug. Boil a second ⅓ of the sugar in 1 pint water. Allow it to cool before adding it to the jug. Plug the top of jug with cotton wool and stretch a pin-pricked balloon to the neck. This allows CO2 to escape and protects the wine from oxidization and outside contamination (the demijohn in the photo has a much more sophisticated stopper for the same purpose).

Let the wine sit for ten days. Siphon or rack the wine to a container. Sterilize the jug, then return the wine. Boil the remaining ⅓ of the sugar in the last pint of water, allowing to cool before adding to the wine. Plug the jug with the cotton wool and balloon and leave until the wine has stopped fermenting. The wine will stop bubbling when fermentation has stopped.

Siphon the wine as before. Sterilize the wine bottles and add a funnel. Pour the wine into the bottles, filling each bottle to the neck. Cork and store the bottles.

Cheers!

Reading this, I realize why our attempt at making elderberry wine fifty years ago was such a miserable failure. Readers should first understand that what we were doing – making an alcoholic drink – was strictly prohibited, so we were exceedingly furtive in everything we did. With this premise, let me describe the steps we went through. As I recall, we mashed the elderberries with water and yeast, a packet of which we bought down in the village (Lord knows what the lady behind the counter thought we were doing with the yeast; she was too polite to ask). I don’t remember parking the resulting liquid somewhere warm to ferment, we simply put the mash into (unsterilized) bottles that we purloined from somewhere; did we even strain out the solids? I have my doubts. Our most pressing problem was where to hide the bottles while the juice was fermenting into (we dreamed) wine. Our first idea was to put them in a sack and haul this to the top of a leafy tree where it was well hidden. But we had forgotten that trees lose their leaves in Autumn. So readers can imagine our horror when our sack became increasingly visible – from the Housemaster’s room, no less – as the leaves dropped off. We hastily brought the sack down one evening and buried it in a little wood behind our House. Later, when we reckoned the fermentation must be over, we furtively dug up the sack. Two out of the three bottles had exploded. We took the remaining bottle into the toilet and drank it. Of course, we pretended to be drunk, although in truth the potion we had concocted had little if any effect on us; the levels of alcohol in it must have been miserably low. And the taste was distinctly blah. I’ve had it in for elderberries ever since.

Unsurprisingly, we humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Swiss archaeologists have discovered the presence of blackberries in a site 5,000 years old while the Haralskaer woman was found to have eaten blackberries before she was ceremonially strangled and dumped in a Danish peat bog 2,500 years ago.

As usual, our ancestors not only ate the fruit but believed that the rest of the plant had medicinal properties of one form or another. As a son of the scientific revolution, I have grave doubts about the purported therapeutic value of berries (ripe or unripe), leaves, and flowers, when no rigorous scientific testing has ever been carried out to support the claims. However, there is one medicinal property which I will report, simply because two widely divergent sources, who could not possibly have known of each other’s existence, mention it. The first is a book of herbal remedies, the Juliana Anicia Codex, prepared in the early 6th Century in Constantinople by the Greek Dioscorides, and which is now – through the twists and turns of fate that make up history – lodged in Austria’s National Library in Vienna. This is the page in the book dedicated to the bramble.

The text relates, among other things: “The leaves are chewed to strengthen the gums ”. For their part, the Cherokee Indians in North America would chew on fresh bramble leaves to treat bleeding gums. The same claim by Byzantine Greeks and Cherokee Indians? That seems too much to be a mere coincidence. When the world has gone to hell in a handbasket because we were not able to control our emissions of greenhouse gases, and when my gums begin to bleed because there will be no more dentists to go to for my annual check-ups, I will remember this claim and chew on bramble leaves.

On that pessimistic note, I will take my leave of my readers with a poem by the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao. She lived through a period of societal breakdown, when the Song Dynasty was defeated by the nomadic Jurchens in the early 12th Century and retreated southward to create an impoverished rump of its empire around Hangzhou, known to us as the Southern Song. Li Qingzhao reflected on this period of decline and decay in her later poems. I choose this particular poem, her Tz’u Song No. 1, because it happens to mention blackberry flowers and blackberry wine.

Fragrant grass beside the pond
green shade over the hall
a clear cold comes through
the window curtains
crescent moon beyond the golden bars
and a flute sounds
as if someone were coming
but alone on my mat with a cup
gazing sadly into nothingness
I want to call back
the blackberry flowers
that have fallen
though pear blossoms remain
for in that distant year
I came to love their fresh fragrance
scenting my sleeve
as we culled petals over the fire
when as far as the eye could see
were dragon boats on the river
graceful horses and gay carts
when I did not fear the mad winds
and violent rain
as we drank to good fortune
with warm blackberry wine
now I cannot conceive
how to retrieve that time.

_______________________

Blackberry thorns: http://iuniana.hangdrum.info
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Devil: https://www.etsy.com/sg-en/listing/517991225/the-devil-ceramic-decal-devil-ceramic
Blackberry fairy: https://flowerfairies.com/the-blackberry-fairy/
Blackberry picking: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Jug of blackberries: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Blackberries with whipped cream: https://depositphotos.com/80606340/stock-photo-fresh-blackberries-with-whipped-cream.html
Apple and blackberry pie: https://www.thespruceeats.com/british-apple-and-blackberry-pie-recipe-434894
Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with a Fruit Pie: https://www.masterart.com/artworks/502/willem-heda-still-life-with-a-blackberry-pie
Apple and blackberry crumble: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/apple-blackberry-crumble/837e5613-3708-42f2-8835-dcd9dd3b3876
Blackberry jelly: https://www.bbc.com/food/recipes/bramblejelly_13698
Demijohn of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/371476669246000245/
Bottled blackberry wine: http://justintadlock.com/archives/2018/01/27/bottled-blackberry-wine
Glass of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.pt/pin/573294227542445354/
Haraldskaer woman: http://legendsandlore.blogspot.com/2006/01/haraldskaer-woman.html

ODD STATUES

Milan, 3 October 2018

When my wife and I are in Vienna, we very often walk down our road into the centre of the city. It is a very pleasant walk, down a historical high street with little shops lining it, in the shade of linden trees much of the way. At about the halfway point, we pass a very nice little square, with a café-restaurant on one side and a fountain in the middle. In the summer, when the weather is good, the restaurant puts tables out in the square around the fountain.

It is this fountain that interests us here. At first glance, it looks quite unremarkable. It seems a typical product of its time, which is late 19th Century. It is composed of three statues, two of which spout water. The composition illustrates some tale, which I suppose was once well known in Vienna, of a bright young girl called Elspeth who through some cleverness or other managed to outwit two infamous robbers. So, we have Elspeth, Goddess-like, standing on a column

while at her feet crouch the two robbers with their hands tied behind their back, looking disconsolate and spouting water from their mouths.

So far, so good. But actually there is something definitely odd about the composition. The pose of one of the robbers is such that it looks like he’s vomiting the water he’s spouting. Already that is a bit strange, but it takes on a surreal quality when you see people merrily eating and drinking at the tables while the statue behind them seems to be puking his guts out.

We’ve been walking past this fountain very often over the last several years, and its oddness strikes me afresh every time we pass (who knows, though? maybe I’m the only person who finds it odd). This frequent mental pause, this little stone in my mental shoe, has had the effect of making me start to think about other odd statues which I have seen over my lifetime. And I’m thinking here of statues where the oddity is unintentional; I’m not interested in statues such as this one where the oddity is very, in-your-face, intentional.

Well, there are these odd statues which my wife and I came across in Salzburg during a little trip we made there during this past summer. They are statues of pickles, or gherkins if you prefer.

The fact that anyone would spend his or her time making statues of pickles is odd enough. What I found even odder was the way the pickle statues were aligned with a very normal statue of Schiller in the middle distance.

But it seems that this was the point. The blurb which accompanied the statues helpfully explained:

A gherkin is a gherkin is a gherkin – or then again, perhaps not? …. “I find the diversity of forms, which by virtue of their uniqueness are inexhaustible, compelling” explains Erwin Wurm [the sculptor] “Although individually different,  each gherkin is immediately identifiable as a gherkin, and generically classifiable as such … analogous to man”. The forms are as different as gherkins and people tend to be: tall and short, thick and thin, rough and smooth, slender and stocky. By scaling his gherkins up to human dimensions and by creating the impression that they are sprouting from the tarmac, Wurm confers upon them the status of creatures, possessed of an intrinsic individuality. The artist leaves his work open to interpretation, hovering as it does between critical irony and playful teasing.

Indeed … Well, my take on the composition is that it looked very Star-Wars like. I could imagine that after a long journey through intergalactic space I was being brought into the presence of the (human-looking) ruler of some distant planet, whose court consisted of pickle-like creatures. In my mind’s eye, I can see them wave gently as I walk past on my way to pay my respects to the ruler, creaking a little perhaps and perhaps oozing some pickling liquid, murmuring in some incomprehensible far-galaxy language as I pass them. I would guess that they stay upright as a result of having suckers on their base. But how would they move around, I wonder?

Leaving this rather feverish daydream and coming back to earth, how about this statue?

It is of a young man, naked but for some sort of loin cloth, purposefully striding along. Its oddness comes from its location, which is in the vestibule of Milan’s main post office. The inference is clear. When he was installed, which must have been some time during the Fascist era, he was meant to be representing those thousands of postmen who stepped out every morning to do their rounds. It’s already odd enough that he’s nearly starkers. I’ve never seen any postman doing his rounds in the state in which Adam found himself in the Garden of Eden. But apart from that, the statue clashed mightily with the dominant image I had of postmen in the mid-1970s, which is when I first saw it. That image was shaped by the husband of the lady who looked after my French grandmother and who lived in one part of her house. He was the postman for the surrounding rural district. He looked something like this.

I would see him ride off on his bike early in the morning. I would also sometimes spy him delivering his letters, which invariably seemed to involve a chat, a Gauloise cigarette (unfiltered), and a glass of red plonk. By the time he wobbled home in the early afternoon, his face would be several shades redder than when he left. He would proceed to have lunch and demolish another half bottle of plonk, at which point he would put his head on his arms and pass out.

But I think first prize for oddity goes to a statue I saw on my first ever trip to Italy. I was traveling with a rail pass and staying in youth hostels. The youth hostel in Rome was near the headquarters of the Italian Olympic Committee. In the early 1930s, during the first decade of Fascism, a stadium had been built next to the headquarters, where Italian athletes could strut their stuff for the Committee. To make it look suitably Roman and imperial, the Italian provinces had been invited to send in statues in white Carrara marble of men intent on various athletic pursuits. Some sixty such statues duly arrived and were placed around the stadium in Hellenic style. I would look over these statues as I went by on my way to and from the youth hostel. There was one which struck me in particular, representing the noble sport of skiing.

Who on earth, I would ask myself bemusedly, would ever go skiing naked?? Because, of course, as befitted statues echoing their worthy Greek and Roman predecessors, most of them were carved strictly in the buff. I don’t remember now any of the other statues but in preparing this post I looked at some of them and found a couple which are nearly as odd:
The Naked Mountaineer

The Naked Footballer

The Naked Tennis Player

Somehow, I find that these statues represent beautifully Italy’s Fascist era: a time of bombast and chest-thumping which, though, was all rather comical.

That is what I have to date in my gallery of statuary oddities. But I will keep a weather eye out for other specimens. If readers have any suggestions to make, I will be more than happy to hear about them.

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Photos: mine, except for:

Silly statue: http://forumodua.com/showthread.php?t=318155&page=56
French postman: http://kenhtruyen.info/?i=Ann%C3%A9es+1970+en+France++Wikip%C3%A9dia
Naked skier: http://roma-nonpertutti.com/en/article/66/foro-italico-an-enclave-of-the-cult-of-mussolini-and-his-empire
Naked mountaineer: http://stadio.dei.marmi.dalbiez.eu/Stadio%20dei%20Marmi%202006.htm
Naked footballer: https://www.pinterest.at/?show_error=true
Naked tennis player: https://www.gettyimages.co.nz/search/2/image?events=50786504&family=editorial&sort=best

AUTUMN CROCUSES

Milan, 1 October 2018

We’ve had a hot, hot summer this year in Vienna, with very little rain. It seemed as if the summer was never going to end. But then, quite suddenly, it did. We had three days of heavy rain in the first week of September and summer’s back was broken. Temperatures tumbled overnight, as they can in this part of the world, by 10-15 degrees. The rains passed, the sun shone again, but now there was an autumnal chill in the air.

This weather pattern has been a godsend to mushroom pickers. I had lunch with an old colleague a week or so after the rains. He and his wife are dedicated mushroom pickers. As we tucked into our Wiener schnitzels, he told me that this year it was like manna from heaven: mushrooms were popping up everywhere. They had picked and pickled enough steinpilze to last them through to next September, he exclaimed, with a dreamy look in his eye. For those of my readers who are also into eating mushrooms, steinpilze are penny buns in English, although nowadays I suspect many people know them by their Italian name porcini. I throw in a picture of this delicacy in its natural state.

Even my wife and I, who like the occasional mushroom but are definitely not aficionados, had noticed on our last walks in the Vienna woods a sudden profusion of mushrooms everywhere we looked. But since neither of us would know a steinpilz from a eierschwammerl (chanterelle in English – actually French, but the Brits seem to have adopted the name), we did not dare to collect any: stories from our youth of whole families wiped out from eating the wrong mushrooms continue to resonate.

What my wife and I really noticed on our late-September walks were the Autumn crocuses. The Vienna woods are dotted with meadows large and small.

I think most of them were created for a very utilitarian purpose. During the hunting season, they allowed a clear shot of any poor beast which made the mistake of breaking cover, and in fact many of the meadows have a hide at one end.

But at this time of the year, a good number of the meadows are speckled with Autumn crocuses. We came across a particularly lovely display on a walk we did behind Klosterneuburg, the little town on the Danube to the north of Vienna clustered around its venerable monastery. We climbed the ridge which abuts the town, pausing to catch our breath, admire the surrounding vineyards, and take this photo of the monastery below us.

We then walked a long way along the ridge, on the suitably named Lange Gasse, Long Lane.

We ambled on through some woods, and then suddenly found ourselves in this meadow. It was carpeted with Autumn crocuses.

Crocuses are really lovely little flowers, so delicate, so tender. A much better photographer than I posted this close-up photo of an Autumn crocus, which shows off to perfection its subtle traits.

When I was growing up in the UK, Spring crocuses were my delight, beautiful in and of themselves but also a harbinger of the Spring and daffodils to come, banishing the grey cold of Winter. But in Vienna, it is the Autumn crocus which dominates, a last extravagant splurge by Nature before Winter starts closing in.

Like the birds whose inner clock tells them in August that it is time to fly south

the Autumn crocuses told my wife and I that the moment had come for us to migrate down to Italy. And so we have packed our bags, flown across the Alps, and are now ensconced in Milan for the winter.

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Steinpilze: https://apollo.tvnet.lv/5095184/senu-trakums
Meadow in wood: https://www.bundesforste.at/nc/produkte-leistungen/jagd/jagdreviere/detail.html?tx_jagd_dfb%5Brevier%5D=3&tx_jagd_dfb%5Baction%5D=show&tx_jagd_dfb%5Bcontroller%5D=Revier&cHash=36e512ac3435f6026d5490ce7c4e6882
Klosterneuburg: our pic
Lange Gasse: our pic
Autumn crocuses in a meadow: our pic
Autumn crocus close up: https://www.gardeningexpress.co.uk/colchicum-autumnale-autumn-crocus
Birds heading south: http://www.nhpr.org/post/heading-south-bird-migration-and-human-impact#stream/0