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Archive for the ‘Garden’ Category

Amsterdam appears to be forcefully redefining its public image. I dare to suggest that Amsterdamers themselves never had any doubt about its nature, but city officials seem intent to present a better image to the general public outside. So when a certain disreputable commentator from the United States described the city as a “cesspool of corruption and crime” (which not surprisingly makes no sense at all) two residents, supported by the local tourist bureau came out with the Youtube video “The Truth About Amsterdam.” The country then gave itself the Citymarketing Innovation Award as a little pack-thyself-on-the-back.

Less original but even more alluring to me, for the first time this year Amsterdam, the International Bulb Center and the Tulip Museum got together to plant a whole lot of tulips in public spaces, museum gardens and even a few backyards. This is their attempt “to revive the city as a tulip capital.”

Ten euros bought us a scavenger map, descriptions of the plantings and admission to some rarely seen regal Amsterdam corners. The best by far were the backyard gardens. Some of these were the central spaces behind small museums — Museum Van Loon, Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen, Prins Bernard Cultuurfonds and the Museum Willet-Holthuysen — situated in former canal-side mansions donated back in the day for their current curatorial life. 

Even more remarkable were the equally stately private homes in which Amsterdamers currently live. These included a small patio garden reached through a basement-level kitchen in perfect yellow, the mayor’s home and a dashing estate with a view of the kitchen — vintage silver and china set on display, along with the gentleman of the house eating his lunch.

Of course the biggest garden of them all is Keukenhof, which we had strolled for three hours on a previous day. Between the two tulip tours we witnesses greater shape, height, texture, saturation, density and color variety than I had ever imagined possible in a tulip. There were brand new hybrids, wild varieties and heirloom selections.

Of course, the practical Dutch included in the Tulpen Dagen Passepartout an honest caveat in the guide’s introduction: “Let’s hope they will all be in full bloom!”

They were not. A cold spring has not been overly inviting to the tulips.

But that just meant some of the most notable bulbs were the tulips’ often overlooked companion: the daffodil. This too came in many more varieties than I could have guessed. Some grew with clumps of flowers on each stem. Another in white and creamy orange was called “Butter and Eggs”. But the most memorable was the densely petaled “Narcissus odorus plenus,” which three months of high school Latin meant smelling either really good or really bad.

I took a chance. The flower rewarded generously.

Narcissus odorus plenus

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It started off as The Great Tulip Caper: Three days of biking through the bulb fields of Holland, staying at cozy bed and breakfasts and visiting charming towns, gardens and windmills. Then Iceland got involved and the trip truncated. Deftly adapting to new circumstances, my visiting friend and I rerouted a one-day excursion combining train and bike to maximize both the pedaling and flowering experience.

We opted for the bike shop located at Amsterdam Centraal. Although dauntingly heavy and ominously broken-in, not to mentioned bright red, our rides were deemed part of the adventure. After battling the ticket-purchasing process which erased any illusion Dutch efficiency, we sought out our track. Unfortunately, the entrance involved a narrow staircase with a 90-degree turn and a flood of pushy passengers who had just disembarked. Did I mention the bikes were made of iron?

With the exception of some confusion at our transfer station in Haarlem — Track 4 being located so that only Hogwarts students might guess its location — we smoothly arrived in Hillegom to a cool breeze saturated with the sweet scent of hyacinths. One more set of long steps down and we were on our way.

Both guidebooks and our biking map encouragingly print little tulips throughout the region. The late spring brought us past one field of disappointingly green tulip buds, but we pedaled on and were soon rewarded with row upon row of vibrant colors from tulips as well as hyacinths and daffodils, normally spent by this time.

The simple pleasure of biking through these fields could not be replicated by car, or certainly bus. Yes, the wind was nippy, but with so intoxicating an aroma, we envied the woman who carried her laundry out to line-dry.

Biking also enabled us to take on a late-day adventure after our long stroll through the Keukenhof gardens. With the advantage of long daylight hours, we decided to bike back to Amsterdam. 

It started off well. The Netherlands offers an incredible network of dedicated bikes lanes, often running parallel to roads, but safely separated from them. In addition, motorists plenty familiar with the concept of share the road, provide little concern in the few areas where lanes merge. We ventured off on one such path, soon finding ourselves pedaling past small homes along the side of a wide canal. Pens of sheep and gregarious horses greeted us along the way. Ducks and egrets fished in the waterways that outline every field. It was delightful.

Of course, we did not realize then that the route home would wind us around for 56 kilometers (35 miles). Nor had we come to grips with the reality of a natural feature we had considered: wind.

“I know you said Holland was flat,” my friend had written to me, “but it just occurred to me that Holland is also famous for windmills . . . WINDmills.”

We had made good time before that wall of force hit us. For the most part, the breeze had been to our backs, making the ride smooth and fast. Unfortunately, where our route redirected us into the oncoming gales was at an immensely boring stretch that circumvents the enormous Schipol International Airport.

Just when hope for a good end to the day dimmed, however, we came upon a pleasant surprise. Just past the airport, we stopped to gobble down a much-needed granola bar and examined two signs indicating Amsterdam but pointing in opposite directions. If my limited Dutch was correct, it seemed the one was via the woods or bos. After watching  a solitary jogger turn in, and thus convinced that it could not be too dangerous for two biking ladies at twilight, we followed.

The meandering, perfectly maintained paths drawn along trees and small grassy fields reinvigorated us. When we popped out in the southern outskirts of the city, our enthusiasm was more than amply restored to tackle the slightly more complex city biking. And when our last leg slipped us into Vondel Park we felt a surge of accomplishment as we pedaled past the royal residences and late-day strollers.

It ended up a great tulip caper indeed.

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Slowly in Slinks Spring

It would be unfair to claim that we have seen no fine weather, for we have been treated to a scattering of blue skies and warm sunshine. But with spring about three weeks behind schedule the joyous outburst of colors in the garden and along grassy paths has been tempered. Nevertheless, ever-so-slowly the petals are popping.

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Skylight

Among the advantages of our home here are the skylights. As the days lengthen they act as natural alarm clocks, dismissing the notion of sleeping in. They offer natural light to my cozy writing nook and even some added warmth on particularly sunny days. Most of all they capture beautiful snapshots of the sky that we might have otherwise missed.

These are great moments I have enjoyed since childhood. The whole family would be called outside to watch a stellar pick sunset or a blue breaking sunrise. There is something about sucking in the fresh air that makes those magical sights all the more poignant. So when the skylight gives a glimpse of an unmissable sky, I scurry out — often in slippers, occasionally in pajamas and mostly without a coat — to take it in fully.

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The Scent of Nostalgia

We interrupt these London dispatches, overwhelmed by the scent of approaching spring.

The day offers that perfect moment with the first step outside, when I  can not help but inhale deeply to take in as much air as my lungs will fit. The typically Belgian rapid succession of rain and sun has lifted the scent of each waking plant and all the eager, soft dirt. This whole town holds scents of nostalgia, but this day offers one globally applicable to all the locations of my childhood: from either coast of the Atlantic and on various sides of the once-pulled-taught iron curtain.

Appropriately, I opened the January 25 New Yorker to the story “The Dime Store Floor,” by David Owen, to read beside my sandwich at lunch.

There’s a grove of tall white pines and blue spruces behind my house, in Connecticut, and the first time I walked into it I experienced a form of time travel: the trees smelled exactly like the summer camp I attended when I was thirteen, and for a moment I was transported  to Florissant, Colorado, in 1968 . . .

The author continues on his tour of childhood locations and the scents he finds today, and recollects the particular odors associated with the people and places of his past. As a nostalgist and sentimentalist, it is the kind of story that sweeps me up and sets loose a collection of scented memories of my own.

This town produced distinct scents that send me back a quarter of a century wherever I catch them again.  The Dijla River that curls through town reeks, really, of barely recognizable sewage, but presents a pleasant visit to a child’s year of made-up games and explorations. The 17th century house in which we lived still smelled of vacancy, ancient wood and plaster withstanding a humid climate when we returned to stay there again nearly 25 years later. (Even the bathroom had its same distinct odor.) And I have long promised myself that when I have my own garden I lavishly will plant boxwood throughout simply for the aroma, which to others is reminiscent of cat pee and to me always invokes a smile of Belgian memories and a deeper breath.

Take  a moment, breath in and travel back.

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Snow Triggers Chaos on the Roads”

“Treacherous Conditions Across Flanders”

“. . . of spring there is no talk.”

Yes, another two inches fell earlier this week and the shock of it all brought the country to another standstill. As friends in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore dug through icy trenches and everyone up the U.S. East Coast braced for another truckload of the stuff to be dumped on their front step, here we found ourselves in yet another crisis over an embarrassingly paltry accumulation.

Drivers were stranded in their cars for hours, trucks were told to pull off the highways, buses were recalled to the garage and at one point nearly 1,000 kilometers of traffic wound its way across a not terribly large country; in fact, you could have lined those cars up and nearly traced the whole of Belgium’s border. The airport shut down and flights were canceled. In Antwerp, the second largest city in the country, they simply ran out of salt, and don’t expect more to arrive before next week.

It was the surprise attack that caught everyone off guard, we are told. This seems a bit irregular in this nation seemingly obsessed with its entirely unpredictable and fickle weather. Though, the range of its meteorological mood swings are generally less dramatic than witnessed this winter — which explains the general hysteria when the white blanket covers the first few green inches of those persistent early spring bulbs.

Indeed, there is some irony that the forecasts are calling for the snow cover to stay through the start of the “Crocus Holiday.” The upcoming school break (roughly a winter recess) which starts next week is named after that prelude to spring: the crocus flower. Of course, this year, it looks like the little guys are in for a challenge.

Not to fear, the snowdrops in the front garden declare, with more courage than  municipal workers on the job tearing up the street out front. Any time the temperature drops below 0 (as in just freezing), they get to stay home.

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. . . Mother Nature gave to me: a beautiful dawn sky over a blanket of snow . . .

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