Anglo-American gardening tips

When my children were young, I was too busy to tell them bedside stories. Most of the time. Often, at the time I came back home, they were already asleep. Nowadays, I have plenty of time and an abundance of stories to tell. But they have even less time than I had at their current age. I do not see them often and when one of them is around, we have to get a move on. Sometimes, a few minutes after starting with one of my captivating stories, one of them raises a hand and says: ‘stop Pa, information overload.’

So I ponder and I blog.

There was this old gardener during a stay in England, when I was sixteen years old. During a weekend, I was watching a game of bowls. A weird game (so I thought at the time). It was being played by elderly people on a manicured lawn which looked like the surface of a brand new billiard table.

It would seem to the uninformed that such a lawn is as flat as the surface of standing water. No sir. My English teacher Nellie Schokking aka Miss Shocking had already explained to us fourteen year olds that such a surface is rolled into some kind of cone, being about an inch higher at the centre than at the edges. If you did not know that, you wouldn’t notice. Neither if you knew.

Next to me stood an American. That was very visible, because in the fifties American tourists always wore Hawaiian shirts hanging outside their trousers and always wore big cameras on their chests. A very nice guy. He said to the old greenkeeper: ‘Great!  I am going to have a lawn just like that,  next to my house. Do you have any tips?

The man sucked at his pipe for a while, and then said:

‘You mow’em and you roll’em’.

‘Is that all?” said the American.

‘Yes’, said the greenkeeper, ‘and you keep on doing that for the next 400 years.’

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Geology spawns intuitive neurology

A geologist once flattered me by lending me his subscription copy of the Journal of Improbable Research with its motto: ‘Improbable research is research that makes people laugh and then think.’ In those pre-internet days, the JIR was  still a small samizdat coming out at very irregular intervals to amuse a select group of the most brainy to which my friend belonged but not me.

Since then, IR have come a long way, if only because of their illustrious counterpart to the Nobel Prize, the iG Nobel Prize. This prize was recently conferred for a breakthrough in psychology: ‘Leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower look smaller’(a joint project of Peru, Russia and The Netherlands). I hasten to add that the timing of this project was unrelated to that of recent French elections.

The article which my friend insisted I should read was, though futuristic and visionary, written in the past tense. I cannot anymore remember its precise title but it must have been something like: ‘Important geological discoveries during the ten to the power 4-th century after Hillel the Elder’. The article describes in vivid detail how, during a deep-drilling campaign in search of Usantis, the lost continent of North-America, strange cuttings were carried up to the surface.

Minute slivers of a thin metal, red on the outside, shiny on the inside accumulated on the shale shakers. It took several weeks before a young geologist managed to arrange these slivers intuitively into small composite pictures of strange oriental characters like la, ca and co and an abundance of C. With the help of chinese onomasticians and artificial intelligence, scientists decided on Co ca co la as being the most likely combination. Thereupon,  geologists decided to name the very thick geological strata just penetrated the Cocacolian.

This recollection is, at least for me, a logical run-up to my own specialization in improbable research: intuitive neurology. I have initiated this novel field of research only recently, after reading ‘Proust was a neuroscientist’ by Jonah Lehrer. To focus my attention I have set a target: to win an iG Nobel Prize in about two years from now.

Lehrer shows us that long before the advent of modern neuroscience, artists had already discovered how brains, neurons and nerves work. I was intuitively attracted to this book by Proust’s cookie which adorns the cover and yes indeed, Jonah Lehrer gives us a lot of food for thought. What to think of Auguste Escoffier (1846-1935) of Pêche Melba renown, who discovered the fifth taste by forever broiling bones into bouillons, long before the Japanese found it in seaweed? They cheated, by not broiling but doing chemical laboratory experiments and synthesizing the infamous MSG, monosodiumglutamate which poisons me on a daily basis ever since.

What to think of Marcel Proust (1871-1922) who activated his memory so as to build a cathedral of 4000 pages just by dipping a madeleine in lime-flower tea? Which reminds the francophile in me that Chateaubriand wrote 4000 pages from beyond the grave after hearing the trill of a thrush near to his house on a late afternoon.

And of the painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) who experimented with colours, brush strokes and shades and discovered that personal interpretation goes on betwixt retina and brain? Seeing is highly individual, even mood related. He painted the Montagne Sainte-Victoire eleven times in oil and seventeen times in aquarel and he saw the mountain differently each time, as you can see at the top of this article.

Some regular neuroscientists dismiss Lehrer’s book. Poor fellows, I am sure that they have never tasted a Peach Melba or read Proust – and that they prefer the beauty of a blackgammon board to that of a Cézanne painting.

I think that I am particularly suited to undertake this research. A long time ago, scientists of Philips Electronics discovered during a secret television research project, that a higher quality sound makes the viewer believe that he sees a more beautiful picture. I could have told them so intuitively, already then. Some women produce the same effect on me.

Right now I am studying the uninterrupted transmittal of nerve impulses from the mind and body of Liszt to current-day listeners. Keep me in view.

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Mexican dream


‘Only a Kahlua can save me’, my wife said as she stepped into our appartment with the groceries. That remark did not surprise me at all, because I’ve been hearing it at least once a day since that fateful evening, about thirty years ago, when she ran out of Tía Maria. The emergency liquor man was out of TM that night so he recommended Kahlua to her as a substitute. Since then, she has never had anything else but Kahlua so she turned me into an addict as well.

What has occupied my mind ever since is ‘how can we turn that magnificent slogan into gold? Why keep it all to ourselves?’ I have no connections in the advertising aka communications world. But think of all the business opportunities lost by the distiller unaware of my wife’s brilliant invention! It is crystal clear to me that the use of this slogan will result in flocks of women getting hooked on this wonderful elixir. Anyone who likes coffee liqueur and reacts favourably to rum, coffee and extract of cactuses, will fall for this stuff and be stuck with it for the rest of his or her life. This is precisely what the English call an ‘acquired taste.’

Strangely, I am now reminded suddenly of our late solicitor. We were sitting in front of his desk, a few days before our marriage,  as he read out aloud the full text of our prenuptial agreement, complete with lists of all possessions on either side. He read these out in full, at the special request of my wife. Every plate and doorknob and florin. Frankly, I saw no use for all this. Being a romantic, I thought that marriage was forever and  I believed in our everlasting undivided interest in all. But my wife had insisted.

As the man read on and on, he saw a certain look on my face, so he briefly interrupted his litany and said to me re-assuringly, in a voice full of empathy, with a twinkle in his eyes: “Maak je geen zorgen Jan, simpel gezegd betekenen deze huwelijkse voorwaarden: ‘wat je hebt daar zit je mee”. So: “Don’t worry Jan, this agreement simply means that from now on you’re stuck with what you’ve got.” That shook me up. Startled, I glanced at my wife out of the corner of the only eye I have available for such observation. She was unconcerned, the enumeration of all her possessions made her radiate.

My belief that cactus juice is a determining ingredient in Kahlua is based on a dream. At dusk, I was riding a horse in a Mexican desert. Cactuses and Joshua trees all around. Men on horseback, colossal hats. Mariachi music. The sound of a singer, sobbingly chanting his dramatic love story, interrupted by engaged shouts of his audience, such as ‘carajo, me moja el niño’. I had had quite a number of Kahluas the night before. As I woke up I thought: ‘carajo, se me olvidó que les olvidé’ (I forgot that I forgot) as the dream evaporated and I continued in French to my Dutch wife (not the bed roll, I hasten to add with reference to Somerset Maugham). Mind you, it is very difficult to keep five languages in one single head. Since that dream, the connection between Kahlua and cactus is for me an established fact.

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She was mine, just one night

“It’s a shame that it has become impractical to visit a grande dame in style, dressed in one’s gala uniform and seated in a milord, the horse and carriage taxi of Paris in the Nineteenth Century,” I said to my friend, the artist. I had just read La Cousine Bette by Honoré de Balzac and I told him that its first paragraphs had struck me like the beginning of a good black-and-white movie.

“Those yellow gloves!”, said Peter Peereboom, who has the mental eye of the painter. “You read the book, too?”,  I reacted. I knew that he has lived and worked in Paris for fourteen years but I was yet to fathom the depths of his literary interests. Every week on Thursdays and Fridays I visit him in the famous cigarshop of De Graaff, in the Heulstraat of The Hague, the only days of the week when Peter can be found there, fortuitously for me, because those are the days I buy Le Figaro and Le Monde with their weekly literary supplements. We always have plenty to talk about, in between ravenous customers who do not only come for their weekly rations of Havana longfillers but also of ‘heavenly  Chocolaad bars’ and of nougat de luxe (with a pure gold leaf on top). Noblesse oblige, the family name De Graaff means: The Count.

It was one of our rare, quiet moments together. Peter lit a fresh Havana. “This may sound unlikely to you, but I have lived and worked very close to the house of Balzac’s Madame Hulot, in the rue de Bellechasse. One day,  I had a very mysterious experience, right there, where your milord was about to come to a halt.

“It happened about 20 years ago, one Sunday afternoon. In autumn, but the temperature was pleasant. From my window, I could look down into the walled gardens of the grandiose hôtels particuliers across the street, like the one belonging to the family de Rothschild where preparations were being made for a garden party. Servants decorated the terrace with flower garlands which they made out of vine branches and asters from the garden. Four children were playing about. As in the days of Balzac, the girls had ribbons around their straw hats, in autumn colours. Other servants were busy setting a long table, they wore yellow leather gloves. By a peculiar natural angle of the natural light I could see that the damask tablecloth was of the highest quality, the silver cutlery silver of Puiforcat (I thought), and the carafes made of Daum crystal.

I already knew that Peter’s sharpness of imagination equaled that of his eye sight.

“The sun was going down, I had just clamped a new linen on my easel, fully prepared to engage my fantasy with a vengeance, hence the tubes of brightly coloured paint ready for use on my table. The terrace of the hôtel particulier was filling up with distinguished guests, a tiny red spot on many men’s lapels indicating their Légion d’Honneur. Then, it happened.

“A young woman left the crowd and went to the swing where a little one had fallen in the autumn leaves. As the child was hastily taken away by servants,  the woman looked up and  saw me. She stared at me with a particular smile which I have seen only once before: when I passed the actress Isabelle Adjani on the Boulevard St. Germain.” At this point, Peter remained silent for a while, deeply immersed in his thoughts. Then he resumed:

“My painting became rather abstract, the afternoon passed and lights were lit in the garden. There was quite a hustle and bustle of servants, they served the most exotic dishes you can imagine. After a while, the young woman got up and moved to the same spot, near the swing. Her frail figure being illuminated by the distant soft lights, she stared at me a long time, with a penetrating glance. For a short moment I imagined that she would speak to me, because I had seen some acquaintances in the garden. The neighbours of the de Rothschilds,  with whom I chatted at times, in the shop of the traiteur. À propos, the woman belongs to the American branch of the Tolstoi family, I’ll tell you about her later.

“When it became dark, the party continued inside, the window panes steamed up.  I heard piano music. The abstract painting had become a success. I named it: “She was mine, just one night”.

“A week later, I had an exposition down the road, in the rue de Bourgogne. My new painting was there. A couple came in. They looked around, curiously. The man had almost passed my abstract without really looking at it, when he stopped in his tracks, mesmerized. He stared at the white card with the name of the painting. Then, obviously on an impulse, he bought it, without bargaining. His wife first said she liked my colours and composition but froze when she read the card. I still remember how they left the gallery with the painting, arguing. Some weeks later, the gallery owner told me that they had divorced. Just like that, a shotgun divorce.

Peter blew out a cloud of tasty smoke and remained silent for a while. Then he said:

“That year, winter came early and the gardens across the road were covered by a carpet of snow. No children’s activities. I often watched the garden, hoping that I might see her once more. Not even a footstep in the snow. She was mine, just one night.

It was only back home that I realized that I had left my newspaper in the cigar shop.

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