At the beginning of James Ivory’s wonderful film Howards End, a perfect adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel, Vanessa Redgrave walks through a beautiful cottage garden, it’s hers, no doubt, she’s so very much at ease, she’s contemplating everything with such devotion as if she wanted to soak it all in, as if these flowers, trees, and the mere grass she’s walking on were as essential as the oxygen in the very air she’s breathing in, she’s completely in her element, utterly invigorated—this scene is of no particular importance to the film, at first glance she might appear just as another elderly Victorian lady from another English period drama, her role is just a supporting one anyway, but to me, this scene is everything, to me, it’s the best scene of the entire film, however more significant the rest of the content is, it’s just so true a moment, there’s nothing better than to take a walk through your garden, paying a visit to all these plants you’ve known for years and years, watch them grow and bloom, branches, boughs, and trunks, leaves and blossoms, they all have your complete attention, every single one of them, and this attention is what takes away your every problem, some kind of gentlemen’s agreement, you care for us, we care for you—pacta sunt servanda, and on goes the hose.
It’s hard to find a place without any trees in Berlin, they’re everywhere, even important buildings like Humboldt University in what used to be East-Berlin – the Berlin featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, a place much less horrid than the film, he must have been drugged throughout the entire production, or even at the time when he was reading the script, why would anyone shoot such a boring mess, anyone, I ask you, but I wildly digress – anyway, even this architectural gem is partially covered in leaves and blossoms of a majestic chestnut tree, actually, all of Berlin is covered in trees, up and down every place and street, they’re flourishing so opulently you can’t make out the trunk at times. I wonder who planned this urban jungle, some green spirit way ahead of its time – whoever he was, I proposed a toast to him today, with my little bird friend and my soy caffè latte venti at a very treed Starbucks.
Berlin’s façades fascinate me, the old ones, I mean, the ones talking of a great past, like the one above near Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden, right in the middle of Berlin. As the third floor lettering suggests, it was once a great hotel – the Splendid Hotel. But some research showed that period lasted only for fourteen years, however splendid it might have been, it got shut down in 1918, possibly due to a lack of customers, who would want to visit Berlin shortly after World War I? So its rooms were rented to small businesses, tiny offices instead of vast suites. The building survived even WW II and the GDR’s neglect of anything remotely elegant, and as it stands now in one of Berlin’s most cared for areas, it’s in perfect shape and wouldn’t have lost any of its appeal if it weren’t for spring — I can’t pay much attention to anything grey these days. And although this building as well as mine are under monumental protection, mine was not a hotel but it used to house female students in the good old days of the Kaiser, I tend to just look at the wonderful green of the trees from the very moment I open my door or a window…
I didn’t talk much at dinner, actually I didn’t talk at all. I just ate. Can’t remember what we had though. Something with grilled octopus. I didn’t care. I had just committed murder. A brutal murder. Most foul. Unforgivable. I had cut off an innocent rhododendron’s branch, a branch with tree blossom buds. Perfectly healthy obviously, not dead at all. Not even in bloom yet. Botanical abortion. Unforgivable, as I said. In court, my attorney might come up with excuses like he didn’t know what he was doing or he was in a hurry or even worse the lighting was bad, you see, he was working late, right before dinner time, the sun had almost set, but all this would be just some disgusting bending of the law, juridical malpractice, truth is, our rhododendrons are in bloom, the pride and joy of any gardener and the perfectionist I am, I was cutting dead wood, I had these flawless gardens in mind you see on Instagram, and was being careless, yes, totally careless, it was murder, no doubt, manslaughter at the very least – I am guilty of rhododendronslaughter. That’s a great word for scrabble, by the way…
The minute temperatures start rising, our dining table falls into some kind of hibernation – is there actually a term for hibernation in summer? It can’t be summernation, that sounds like a Tommy Hilfiger fragrance. Anyway, we declare the sombre mahogany totally useless, and adjust ourselves to teak. From then on, we not only have breakfast, lunch and dinner in the garden, we also prepare the meals outside, at least any part of the dish whose prepping doesn’t require gas or running water and allows us to enjoy a cup of tea or a glass of wine alongside cutting, peeling, trimming, snapping, or whatever you do with it. Asparagus, green and white, but the white ones especially, is the best example, peeling those bastards is such a pesky business, it makes you want to employ a cook, for my sake even with a staff of her own, but since nobody can no longer afford servants, we have to blame socialism, no doubt about that, we have do to such things ourselves, however tedious. But when sitting in an apple tree’s shade and sipping some red wine, the whole undertaking suddenly makes you feel blessed. And while I’m peeling away another spear’s tough outer layer, I hope autumn will come late this year, a week before Christmas will do.
Within a week, everything went from pale green to bright green, the magnolias and the azaleas burst out into splendour, the apple blossoms overcame their basic shyness, they’re not yet in full white bloom, they’re just peeking, all pink buds, but blushing is very becoming, that’s at least what Oscar Wilde once said and he should know, all while the camellias try to outbloom everything else. I spent all day readapting my eyes to spring, to tell apart all those different shades of pink, amethyst, purple, rosé, red, ruby, maroon, and fuchsia, shades I then had difficulties to specify, defining needs variety per se, but a variety that makes you run out of words is quite unsettling, what do you call a fuchsia with a touch of orange? Or worse, a lavender that is somewhere inbetween lilac and violet? Obviously, the human speech cannot not express in entirety the richness of nuances in these blossoms, our vocabulary does not reflect nature’s absurd wealth of shades. So, I came up with some new colours: opyr, trevine, joaquinth, horsate, satch, dorrak, and poppyl. Poppyl is popylo in French. The others, I’ll still have to translate into all known languages. I’ll keep you posted.
At the bottom of my heart, I am a Shropshire lad. Though never having been to Shropshire, I think this status of a man describes best the mind of someone who gets excited about nature in spring, about daffodils and crocuses, lilacs and violets, and who is going “Oh, look, a bumble bee!”, when he sees one cruising on Avenue Montaigne, totally forgetting about shouting out “Oh, look, there’s Inès de la Fressange!” first – or worse – at all.
Where ever I went in Paris this late March, there were little squares, backyards, museums and parks, filled with proof of spring that made me do just that, forget about all the things I came to see in the first place, but then again, how could I not get distracted? After all, I am a Shropshire lad.
Spring offers amazing opportunities. To fall in love, to visit Paris, and, most importantly, to have tea in the garden which is so much better for your complexion than having it in front of a fireplace, or if you don’t have a fireplace (which I don’t), next to a couple of Diptyque candles and nearly getting suffocated by the contrasting scents of Feu de Bois and Tubéreuse, and suffocation is not very becoming, you’re quite green, believe you me. Anyway, this year I’ll probably spend even more time en plein air as my friend Katja from Luxembourg was mucking out her house and garden before moving to another place, meaning we are going to have tea on her Belle Époque-ish garden furniture that turned a spot under the cherry tree into a Savannah backyard. I have to order some more of Fortnum & Mason’s Royal Blend. You really can’t have Earl Grey at this table. Way too unimportant a title. Unless he’s going to be promoted to Duke Grey any time soon, we must fall out.