Thursday, June 30, 2022

Silent Spring

Our red dahlia bloomed while I was in Bruges. I came back to find it in full flower, the first dahlia of the season. There are buds on almost all the others, so we'll have plenty of blossoms soon.

Also blooming now is our acanthus, which has sent up a bizarre multi-branched flower spike shaped like a saguaro cactus. I've never seen it do that before.

The buddleia by the birdbath is full of big clusters of flowers that look like pink sponges. Hopefully we'll see some butterflies soon, if it ever warms up out there -- it's 57º F (about 14º C) this morning!

And finally, the purple Amistad sage is blooming as well. It's been blooming for a while, actually, but the blossoms are fuller and more mature now. Don't those little stamens (or whatever) look like forked snake tongues?

Dave and I have noticed a peculiar phenomenon this spring -- an almost complete lack of squirrels. Normally our walnut tree would be full of them, all gnawing and dropping nut shrapnel on the ground, and they'd be racing through the treetops at the back of the property. I've recently seen only one, last week. Right now the tree, though laden with nuts the size of golf balls, is completely squirrel-less. I have a bad feeling that something has happened to them all.

If I had to guess, I'd say that a neighbor who was freaked out by the same presence of rats that we've noticed in our garden put out poison and killed the squirrels. That's just conjecture on my part, but I don't know where else they'd be. Then again, I haven't seen any dead ones either.

I spent yesterday getting my life back in order after my trip -- doing laundry, vacuuming the house, going to the cleaners, that kind of thing. I also caught up on almost all my blog reading, which took the better part of the afternoon! I don't know how I got so behind on blogs. Today I'm hoping to finally finish off "A Gentleman in Moscow," but we'll see.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

From Bruges to Brussels to London

I woke up early yesterday morning in Bruges and went for another walk, this time to the Bonifacius Bridge, which I'd seen on the previous day's walking tour. For some reason this bridge is considered a particularly scenic spot, and it is perpetually mobbed with people. I got there early enough to catch it without any crowds, which made for some nice pictures -- although I preferred the one above of surrounding buildings taken while standing on the bridge itself.

Then I went back to the hotel, got cleaned up, had breakfast and checked out. I left my bag at reception and walked to the Groeninge Museum, to see its remarkable collection of Flemish art.

The collection spans a wide range of time, from the Middle Ages to the modern era, and includes artists such as Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Pieter Bruegel I, Hieronymus Bosch and others. Here's one of my favorite paintings -- "The River Lys at Astene (The Thistles)," by Emile Claus, from around 1885.

And check out this woman, who was in a huge crowd depicted in Bruegel's "The Sermon of St. John the Baptist," from the early 1600's:

She was way ahead of her time! (Though, as Dave said when I showed him this picture, "She's wearing it below her nose.") She was the only one in the entire painting in a mask. I wonder if she's a baker or miller or someone who worked around a lot of dust. Maybe that's a sack of flour on her back?

Anyway, I was happy I had a chance to see the museum. I walked back to the main square for a final cup of coffee, and then made my way to the train station.

Let's call this "Self-portrait with Swans." There was no way to take the picture and stay invisible, so why not embrace the reflection?

I got on the train and headed back to Brussels, where I still had several hours to kill before catching the Eurostar back to London. I walked into the old part of town for some quick sightseeing. Brussels is undergoing several huge construction projects, particularly along the Avenue de Stalingrad, and there were huge bleachers either being set up or dismantled for some event in the Grand Place -- so there was a lot of chaos. But at least this time I didn't get assaulted.

I said hello to the Manneken Pis, the fountain of the pissing cherub that is the Mona Lisa of Brussels. (In other words, the city's must-see attraction.)

I spotted Tintin and his dog Snowy (or Milou in French) overlooking the city from this high rooftop. The author of the Tintin comics, Hergé, was from Brussels.

By this time I had about an hour before my train left, so I hoofed it back to the station, went through passport control and security and spent my last Euros on a bottle of Belgian beer for Dave. The trip was uneventful and I was back in our garden with Dave and Olga by about 5:30 p.m.

A bit of Brussels sidewalk philosophy! I'm awake now, but I sure slept like a log last night.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Rain, the Park and Other Things

Another busy day out and about in Bruges! I started yesterday with an early morning walk to Queen Astrid Park, near my hotel. Queen Astrid was a Swede who married the king of Belgium and then died young in a car accident in 1935. Belgium marked the occasion by issuing stamps bearing her portrait, familiar to any collector for their unusual black borders. When I saw that there was a park named for her I had to go check it out.

It was a good time to wander with the camera because the streets were quiet, and normally popular picture spots, like the one above, weren't thronged with people. Apparently this area was featured in the movie "In Bruges," which I saw years ago but don't really remember. Maybe I'll rent it when I get back home.

I kept walking for a while, venturing north of the Augustijnenrei, or Augustine canal. That area seemed to get less touristy and I found some unusual antique shops, like the one with this little settee in the window. If I'm reading that tag right, it's hand-embroidered and made in Mexico. I can't make out the price, but I have nowhere to put it anyway!

I went back to my room, and I have to pause here to show you the ridiculous journey I need to make to get between my room and the hotel's front door. This place has the weirdest architecture:

I think the building has been expanded several times. It needs colored lines on the floor like a hospital.

Anyway, back out on the street again, I met up with my former co-worker Venisha and a small group of fellow tourists for a "free" walking tour (not really free because of course we tipped the guide), which took a couple of hours. It was quite interesting and we saw a lot of sights.

Here we all are at the Beguinage, or Begijnhof, a sort of group home for unmarried women.

After a lunch featuring a savory Belgian waffle, Venisha and I went to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, the home of a holy relic -- allegedly a vial of Christ's blood, brought back to Europe during the Crusades. I didn't get near the relic itself, which looked like a rather intimidating affair. People were visiting it one by one, praying and crossing themselves, and it was presided over by a serious-looking robed woman. I stayed back and just appreciated the colorful interior of the church. Apparently the organ was getting a tune-up.

In the afternoon I did climb to the top of the Belfort, the bell tower on the main square. Here's the view looking downward. It wasn't a terribly arduous climb but the stairs are very narrow and wind upward in a very tight spiral. While I was up there the bells rang (as they do every 15 minutes), so here's what that sounded like:

Yes, it's a two-video day here at Shadows & Light! Can you stand it?! I can't identify that music but the carillon does occasionally play recognizable pop tunes, which is pretty fun.

It rained in the late afternoon, so Venisha and I retreated to our respective accommodations before meeting up again in the evening. We had a beer just off the main square and then she left to pack for her departure today while I went for another drink and dinner on my own. I settled into a busy bar overlooking the scenic spot in the second photo above and ordered a Chimay Blue.

That waiter was running like crazy. As I paid my bill I told him, "You're the hardest working waiter in Belgium!" He laughed and said, "Am I?!" And then, of course, immediately ran off to serve someone else.

It was about this time that I began to think mildly drunken thoughts, about the fact that as a kid in Florida I dreamed of going to other countries -- even the Bahamas seemed wildly exotic. And now here I was, sitting on the banks of a canal in Flanders.

I wandered down the road a bit to a place with actual food. I sat eating my Flemish beef stew and frites, watching the swallows swoop and dive in the sky overhead with the sunset glinting off their wings, and hearing ABBA's "Thank You For The Music" echoing out of the carillon at the Belfort, and every so often a cute guy would wander past, and I actually teared up a bit thinking: You know, life is pretty darn wonderful.

Monday, June 27, 2022

In Bruges

Paris was a good guess, especially given the I swear completely accidental reference in yesterday's photo! But no. That was a red herring. I'm in Bruges, Belgium.

I took a 9 a.m. Eurostar train from London to Brussels, and then caught a local train to Bruges. That turned out to be a little harder than I anticipated because none of the notice boards in the Brussels train station actually say Bruges. They just give the train's ultimate destination or the name of a station ("Sint P de Kokken" or something like that). So I had to ask around before I knew which train to catch. Anyway, I figured it out. Travel time, all told -- between three and four hours.

I had lunch on the big market square above, basking in the sun and surrounded by ornate peaked and crenellated buildings. I had a Leffe Ruby beer and croque monsieur at a cafe called De Vier Winden (The Four Winds, I presume). The name reminded me of an old motel we used to pass when I was a kid on our semi-annual drives up north to see my grandparents -- The Five Winds Lodge in Starke, Florida. I had to laugh that I was sitting in Bruges and thinking about Starke.

After lunch I took a little walk and happened to be in a vintage clothing store when this parade of protesters came by advocating for women's and LGBTQIA+ rights. "My body, my choice!" they yelled. I gave them some enthusiastic cheers and fist pumps, but the clerk at the clothing store was perplexed that they were protesting in Belgium about a shift in American abortion law. (Abortion is legal in Belgium.)

I kind of felt obligated to buy something after having that conversation, so I got a great shirt by Kenzo, which the clerk informed me was "a nice piece."

My former library co-worker Venisha is here in Bruges on a trip from the United States, so I met up with her and we strolled around town and took in some more sights. (And yes, a few more beers.)

This is the Stadhuis, or Town Hall.

There are several canals winding through town. See those red chairs on the left? That's where we had dinner. I had moules frites, and I swear there must have been 60 mussels in the kettle they brought me. I also ordered a beer that came in the most ridiculous glass I've ever seen -- shaped like a gigantic bong, about a foot and a half high and held in a wooden stand. I felt like a frat boy on Bourbon Street.

And of course there are windmills! Apparently the Netherlands does not have a monopoly on those.

Here's the Belfort, or Belfry, completed in 1482. Apparently one can climb to the top, but I haven't done that. De Vier Winden, where I had lunch, is visible under the green awnings just to the right of the Belfort.

Today we're going on a walking tour where we will no doubt see more of these sights and get some more information about them all.

Oh -- my hotel -- that was an adventure. I reserved a perfectly nice room in a hotel called Martin's, right off the market square. But when I went back after wandering around with Venisha last night, I found that I couldn't get the air conditioner to turn on, and I couldn't get the bathroom light to turn off. I called reception and they said there was a switch at the bottom, but I swear there was no switch. I even took them a photo of the light fixture, and said, "Show me the switch!" So they upgraded me to a nicer room! I'm now in a room with a cathedral ceiling, a king-sized bed and a bathroom light that turns off. Sweet!

Sunday, June 26, 2022

A Whirlwind with Anne Boleyn

Well, things have become a bit crazy here over the last few days -- in a good way. First there was our train dinner, which I wrote about yesterday.

Then my friend Pam, from my Peace Corps days in the early '90s, came to town with her family and I spent the afternoon and evening with them yesterday. We went to a West End show ("Six," a pop musical about the wives of Henry VIII, which was really fun) and then out to dinner.* Pam's son Spencer scoped out a West African restaurant, which was perfect for us because Pam and I traveled in West Africa together in 1994. It turned out this particular restaurant only served a nine-course tasting menu, so dinner turned into a three-and-a-half-hour extravaganza, which was fine with me because I hadn't seen Pam's husband or kids in about 12 years. When I last saw them the kids were buzzing around their neighborhood on their bikes. Now her daughter's going to college! Christ.

And today, I'm off on a little journey of my own. An international train trip, to be exact. It's been years since I've taken a train anywhere outside the UK -- not since the pandemic -- so I'm excited. I'm meeting a former co-worker who's been doing some traveling of her own while Dave happily stays home with Olga. And on that note, I've got to go pack. I'll be coming to you tomorrow from my mystery destination!

* I am adding a late addendum to this post because I forgot to mention the most exciting part of the evening. We were walking from the theater to the restaurant when, about 30 feet ahead of us, we saw a guy in black wearing a balaclava and riding a bicycle smash the window of a Tesla and grab a gray suitcase from the back seat. He rode off with amazing speed and agility, considering he was carrying luggage, and it all happened so quickly that none of us could react. I gave a vague description to the police, but that's all we could do. I turned to Pam's kids and said, "Well, now you've had an urban moment!"

(Photo: Carnaby Street, on Wednesday.)

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Dinner on a Train

This was one of my household projects yesterday -- repotting my Rhipsalis, or bird's-foot cactus. This poor neglected plant lives in the front window of our flat next to my grandmother's old Roseville vases. It's kind of a family heirloom itself, having been grown from a cutting taken from a cactus I had back in Florida that was decades old. (It was originally given to me when I was a child by a woman who took care of me after school. She was a plant maven herself and passed on that love to me.)

Anyway, I water it once a week but that's about the only care it's received in years, and it's been looking a little yellowy lately. It also didn't bloom this spring. I discovered it was badly rootbound and bone-dry, so I put it in a new and larger pot with some fresh compost. Hopefully it will be happier.

And look! My datura, or jimsonweed, seeds are coming up! You might remember last year I bought a packet of seeds, and only one sprouted. That plant grew and produced seeds of its own, and I dutifully gathered them not knowing whether they'd even be fertile. I planted them a week or ten days ago and now I count seven seedlings so far. What am I going to do with all these daturas?!

Maybe the ones I bought originally just weren't very fresh. Hard to say!

I feel like I have to at least mention yesterday's momentous news about Roe, but I'm not going to talk about it much. You know how I feel. All I'll say is the decision just sickens me. I also don't think it's going to satisfy the religious extremists, who are now going to make the blue, pro-choice states their battlegrounds -- along with targeting many of our other rights like contraception and same-sex marriage. How did the United States become a theocracy?

Let's change the subject:

Yes! That's me. I never blog photos of myself but this is a special occasion. Dave and I celebrated his birthday last night with a chef-prepared dinner aboard a vintage British Pullman train rolling through the countryside. It was quite a schmancy affair, and as you can see, I wore the jacket. (With that tie it made me feel a little bit like one of the Four Seasons.)

And here's Dave, obsessively Facebooking as is his wont. You can see the interior of our carriage, which was called "Phoenix," so named because it was apparently heavily refurbished after a fire in the 1930s. It was later supposedly part of the royal train and the favorite car of the Queen Mother. The servers emphasized that we really must check out the scrupulously clean and ornately tiled loo and, in fact, take pictures of the floor. So I did:

It was a fun evening. We chatted with the couple at the table across the aisle -- Erika and Neil, who work in hospitality recruitment blah blah blah -- and we drank a lot of champagne. Holy cow.

While rolling through suburbia, we were looking out the windows and enjoying the views of passing houses when we suddenly saw a man standing deliberately in his own window, apparently naked, facing the train. We couldn't see everything because the window sash came up to just the right height. "He's performing," said Dave. "That's fantastic!"

We had a good laugh.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Defeating Roy

Well, we did get some rain yesterday after all. Not a lot, but enough to dampen the ground and liberate the snails. This one was gliding across our daylilies, perhaps nibbling on fallen blackberry petals.

I had to go out this morning and unlatch the gate to the street before I sat down to write. The Russians told me they were having "plumbers" come yesterday and today and they needed access to the side of the house. I am putting "plumbers" in quotation marks because these guys are doing more than fixing a leak. Yesterday they drilled a huge hole in the exterior wall up near the eaves, which resulted in chunks of brick and dust and all kinds of stuff raining down into our side return. (And crushing the campanula and breaking the foxglove, much to my annoyance.) Then they ran a big pipe up the side of the house and into that hole.

I have no idea what the Russians are doing. Putting in another bathroom, maybe? At any rate, It was a noisy job. I hope the worst of it is over.

I've said it before but I'll say it again -- the upstairs neighbors mystify me. They are on a constant campaign of home improvement. There is literally a project going on all the time. I'm just not that kind of person. I live with whatever I've got.

Here's one of our dahlia buds, getting ready to open. This is the bright red variety and it looks like it will be our first dahlia flower of the season.

I did a bunch of work in the garden yesterday, mainly weeding. As I've said before, although I like our weedy, casual approach to gardening, I'm trying to keep it neater this year. It is much easier to see the plants when they're not buried in weeds. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising.

Also, reducing some of the ground cover will help with another little garden problem we're having -- rodents. Specifically, rats. You know how we were getting all those beautiful parakeets and chattery starlings on our bird feeders? Well, they were dropping crumbs of suet and bird seed on the ground, and in the last few days Dave and I have seen brown rats scurrying around in the grass. We can't have that, because God forbid they should get in the house. So I have reluctantly taken down all our bird feeders -- the birds should be fine, given that there's plenty to eat out there in summer -- and we're going to hope that Roy the Rat and all his family move elsewhere.

About a week ago I listed our two old lawnmowers on Freecycle, offering them up for anyone who wants them, and so far -- much to my surprise -- I've had no takers. I thought they'd go right away, perhaps to someone who wants them for parts or who's handy with repairs. But no! Maybe they're just not worth it, even to someone who fixes lawn mowers. I may have to send them to the landfill after all.

This picture may not look like much, but here's the impressive thing -- it was taken at 4 a.m.! I happened to wake up (briefly) at that time, and inspired by Keith at Hiawatha House, I thought I'd take a photo that shows how light it gets at that time of day around the summer solstice. It was a cloudy morning but you can still see plenty of detail in the gray light. I am still not used to living at such northern latitudes where we have daylight so early. (Granted, there's also a street light, but trust me -- most of that light was coming from the sky.)

I am reading "A Gentleman in Moscow." I've heard so many people rave about this book, but I have to say, so far I am not impressed. I'm about 125 pages in and I'm finding it pretty tedious. It's about an aged aristocrat wandering around a hotel where he's under house arrest in early Soviet Russia. I expected a bit more action or intrigue. I'm not quitting, but when I sit down to read I find my mind wandering.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

A Prideful Day Out

I took the tube into Westminster yesterday to run some errands, and I found that decorations are already up for Pride, even though the parade is still a little more than a week away. That's Regent Street above.

Dave and I wondered about this new Pride flag. See that little circle on the yellow field? Apparently that's a recent addition -- it stands for intersex. Even I, a member of the LGBTQIA+ club, must work to stay educated on these things.

Coutts bank also got into the act in a big way, decorating the facade of their offices on the Strand.

One of my goals was to stop into Stanley Gibbons, the stamp dealer, and give them back the duplicates from that bag of stamps I bought several months ago. I had no use for all the extras and they could include them in other assortments. So I did that.

As long as I was in town, I decided to stop by Covent Garden market and see if I could find that guy who sold me the old photos a couple of months back. But he wasn't there -- I guess certain vendors are only there on certain days, or maybe only for a short time. I'm not sure how that works. In any case, no old photos were to be found yesterday.

Covent Garden wasn't flying Pride flags -- not yet, anyway. I think they're still on the queen's jubilee.

I walked around that area for a while, then back through Soho and into Mayfair, taking photos and enjoying the amazing weather.

Eventually I stopped at Pret, bought lunch (a posh cheddar and pickle sandwich with Thai red curry soup, my usual) and ate it on the grass in Hanover Square, where Yoshitomo Nara's sculpture "Peace Head" is on display. (This is the back side; there's a face on the front.) The square was full of workmen on their lunch break, all wearing their bright orange safety gear. There's a lot of construction going on in that area and has been for as long as I can remember -- I think it partly has to do with Crossrail, the transportation project behind the new Elizabeth Line.

Anyway, after lunch I made my way home again. Dave and I spent much of the evening watering the garden, although apparently there's a chance we're going to get rain today. I'll believe it when I see it.

We've started a new show on the BBC called "Sherwood" that we're enjoying quite a bit -- another murder mystery. (Why are TV viewers so enthralled by murder and crime stories? I'm as guilty as everyone else. I guess killing someone is the most inherently dramatic thing one human can do to another!)

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Two Poppies and More

We're moving into a new season in the garden. The spring plants like foxgloves are falling by the wayside, and the summer flowers like hydrangeas are beginning to flourish. Here are some things we're seeing at this transitional time.

Above, some borage that grew of its own accord with my hollyhock seedlings. I transplanted it along with them when I put them in the ground.

We have two kinds of poppies blooming, the field poppies (above) and a red-hued opium poppy (below).

I think those opium poppies came from some seeds I collected and planted a couple of years ago. I guess they can hang around a while before germinating.

Remember the crab spider I photographed on the wallflower not too long ago? Well, here's one of his smaller relatives, hanging out on a slightly damaged beach aster.

And finally, here's our last lupine. I expected it to be yellow, but as you can see I was mistaken! I think it's a variety called Gallery Red, which is a bit darker and slightly more purple than the Beefeater.

You're getting lots of garden photos because Dave and I didn't even try to leave the house yesterday, given the tube and transit strikes. Supposedly things will be running again today so I may go into town and run some errands.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Wildflowers in the Moat

Yesterday was busy as all get-out. Both Dave and I had medical stuff to do -- I had a chest x-ray at the Royal Free Hospital in the morning and Dave had an MRI down by London Bridge in the afternoon. The x-ray (a precautionary measure, no big deal) was easy. I walked to the hospital with my form from my doctor's office, bought a coffee at the lobby cafe and sat down in the waiting room with a couple of New Yorker magazines, thinking I'd be there a while. Instead, I was done before I even finished the coffee! I drank it on the patio in front of the hospital before I walked home.

The MRI involved both of us taking the tube down into London, and while Dave dealt with the big magnet, I took a walk. I crossed London Bridge and walked along the north shore of the Thames. It was a beautiful day so there were tons of people out, and I admired the views of Tower Bridge (above) and all the ornate architecture along the river.

After mentioning writer Barbara Pym in yesterday's post, I was stunned to find this scrawled on a wall on the riverbank:

What are the odds?! It's like the universe is affirming my desire to read her books.

I found a good reflective window, perfect for a self-portrait.

At the Tower of London, I was impressed by the colorful wildflowers that have been planted in the dry moat, which is normally just plain grass. This is part of an event called Superbloom,  meant to both attract pollinators and celebrate the Queen's Platinum Jubilee. Apparently you can buy tickets and wander among the flowers, and there are some other attractions, too -- but I just enjoyed it from the free sidewalks above.

I crossed Tower Bridge and popped in to see Antony Donaldson's "Waterfall" fountain in the Shad Thames neighborhood, which I've photographed a couple of times. Five or six years ago there were controversial plans to move it. I'm not sure what ultimately happened, but the fountain is still there.

Then I made my way back along the riverfront to the hospital. You hear lots of interesting things walking through crowds. I passed a woman sitting on the wall beside the path, saying into her phone, "I told him to stop gaslighting me!"

Dave's MRI went fine, though they did give him some mildly sedating drugs, so we took a tube straight home. And it's a good thing we did, because no sooner did we get here than Mrs. Kravitz called and said she had an emergency -- her dog-walker was dropping off her dog and she wasn't home. Could we watch it for her until she returned in 20 minutes?

I resisted the urge to ask her why her dog-walker couldn't unlock her door and leave the dog by itself, as ours does with Olga. Instead I just said fine, which is how we wound up with this in our garden:

His name is Cherry. As you can see, Olga basically ignored him. I played fetch with both of them, but then Mrs. K's "20 minutes" turned into an hour. I was glad when she finally showed up to take him home.

It's a good thing we got all this done yesterday, because today there's a massive tube and rail strike that's going to paralyze public transportation in London and all over the country. Everyone is advised not to travel, so Dave and I will be staying home. I'd planned to meet a friend from my Peace Corps years, who's visiting town with her family, but we've put that off until later in the week.