28 February 2013

Winter comforts

In this indoor season that is conducive to wool slippers & feather duvets, reading, baking & tea drinking, a passage from Christopher Alexander's A Timeless Way of Building often comes to mind. (This is the book that lays the foundation for patterns such as those from yesterday's post.) Alexander asks the reader to envision this scenario, which describes the concept of 'comfortable', in an attempt to explain something he calls the 'quality with no name':
Imagine yourself on a winter afternoon with a pot of tea, a book, a reading light, and two or three huge pillows to lean back against. Now make yourself comfortable. Not in some way which you can show to other people, and say how much you like it. I mean so that you really like it, for yourself.

You put the tea where you can reach it: but in a place where you can’t possibly knock it over. You pull the light down, shine it on the book, but not too brightly, and so that you can’t see the naked bulb. You put the cushions behind you, and place them, carefully, one by one, just where you want them, to support your back, your neck, your arm: so that you are supported just comfortably, just as you want to sip your tea, and read, and dream.

When you take the trouble to do all of that, and you do it carefully, with much attention, then it may begin to have the quality which has no name.

'Comfortable' is just one of several words Alexander cycles through in an attempt to further describe the 'quality with no name'. He begins with 'alive', next is 'whole', then back to 'comfortable', and on to 'free', 'exact', 'egoless', 'eternal', and 'ordinary'. After analyzing them one at a time, he finally concludes: "And so you see, in spite of every effort to give this quality a name, there is no single name which captures it." I like his suggestion that we "Imagine the quality without a name as a point, and each of the words which we have tried as an ellipse. Each element includes this point. But each ellipse also covers many other meanings, which are distant from this point." And, whether it gets us 'there' or not, I find the passage about making yourself comfortable with tea, books, cushions & dreams to be a lovely image.

{In case you haven't come across it before, this past entry offers more
details about Alexander, his patterns, and the 'quality with no name'.}


On the theme of such comforts as tea, every time I wait for a pot to brew I think of this passage from The other Alice: The Story of Alice Liddell and Alice in Wonderland by Christina Björk, which is, as the author explains in the foreword "...a 'mischmasch' of of what we KNOW happened, what PROBABLY happened, and what COULD have happened." (Charles Dodgson was Lewis Carroll's real name.)
Mr. Dodgson boiled the water and poured it over the tea leaves. Then he walked back and forth, carrying the pot. "Why are you doing that?" asked Alice.

"Well, you see, the tea draws better when it can move around a bit," said Mr. Dodgson. "Once upon a time, there was a T that only stood still. It became so depressed it had an attack of nerves and went all to pieces."

Mr. Dodgson drew a picture of how terrible it had been for poor T. And by that time the tea was ready. Alice ate quite a few scones with jam...

Naturally, this leads to visions of scones dancing in my head; below is how I make them.

  • Preheat oven to 225 C/440 F.
  • In a medium bowl combine 2 cups flour, 1 heaped tsp baking powder, a pinch of salt & 1 heaped tbsp sugar.
  • Cube 60g/2 oz cold butter and work it into the flour mixture until the texture is similar to a coarse meal.
  • Stir in ½ cup cream & finish pulling together the dough with your hands. You may be inclined to add a bit more cream at this point, but first try rolling the dough around the bowl to gather it together (it seems to help if it's a cold metal bowl).
  • Press the dough onto a parchment paper-lined baking tray, forming an approximately 7x7-inch/18x18-cm square, sprinkle with a little sugar (I like to use castor sugar), then cut into nine squares. You may want to trim the edges before dividing into ninths; if so, you can use the trimmings to form a tenth scone.
  • Separate the scones slightly and bake until just golden, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Enjoy warm, with butter and/or jam, or jam topped with a dollop of cream (though I find that, with the sugar-sprinkled tops, you don’t actually need jam, butter or cream). I've also made these with half a cup of raisins, dried cherries or dried cranberries. Sometimes I also add a handful chopped pecans or hazelnuts along with the dried fruit.




Hoping to somehow preserve the deliciousness of the blood oranges that are in season right now, I recently I bought six kilos of them (both the Moro & Tarocco varieties) and tried making marmalade for the first time. I found a recipe for a small batch of blood orange marmalade, which requires only four or five orangesleaving plenty to eat whole or juicehere. A broken candy thermometer (plus my lack of canning experience) led me to overcook the marmalade, but it's still incredibly good once it's been softened in the microwave—and perfect on the scones...




Milky coffee is my drink of choice in the morning, but making a pot of tea is the ritual I look forward to in the afternoon.
I find there's also a certain beauty in the humble tea bag, which is the 'material' I have been exploring this month. As with last month's materialpaperthe exploration is not so much about making something with it, but more about the beauty of the material in its original form.

While I generally prefer loose leaf tea, Le Palais du Thés also offers very good tea in muslin bags. As I enjoyed a box of Margaret's Hope (their Darjeeling tea), I began saving the little cloth bags, with their pretty labels, hoping to use them in the studio somehow. I've considered different ideasperhaps slitting the side of each bag and replacing the tea leaves with folded papers to write on; adding more 'pages' to the existing labels at the ends of the string (to form miniature 'books')/otherwise involving the string; or embroidering/stitching on the muslin—but for now have simply focused on playing with & photographing them. 

It seems a lot of artists find inspiration from drinking tea. One example is Heidi Zednik, who records her thoughts on tea bags salvaged from her daily tea ritual. I first came across her project via an exhibition held at the Abecedarian Gallery, One Unit per Increment, which brought together works created within the framework of a regular interval (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.—a concept I love). Another artist’s work in that exhibition was also tea-centric: '100 days' featured bowls that artist Tatiana Ginsberg crafted from paper and then used for her daily tea. Each bowl assumed a unique character as it "reacted to and recorded the specific act of drinking." An artist whose work I have come across more recently, Patti Roberts-Pizzuto, uses tea bags as the foundation for many of her lovely 'dailies' (daily drawings). It should be fun to see where my muslin tea bags lead me...

{A past blog entry about the pleasures of tea time can be found here.}




Here's hoping that, wherever you areand whatever season you may be enjoyingyou have a comfortable place to sit and read and daydream with something wonderful to drink.

27 February 2013

At the window

Like January's, and in keeping with the season, this month's patterns are also focused on the home (visit this post for some background on Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language, the book that has inspired this series). Just as we are growing restless and beginning to look outward again after these months of grayness, wind & rain, these patterns relate to the edge that lies between the cozy indoors and the world that's about to awaken outside our windows. 

In a blog post last April, I explained that when rearranging furniture, "My primary consideration is always to take advantage of the windows and the path of the sun—to allow daytime activities to be as close to the source of natural light as possible." I also mentioned that I make sure the windows are fully accessible because, "I love to watch the goings-on in the street & the slice of piazza that's visible from the apartment." While the apartment has seen countless re-arrangings in the months since, the windows continue to serve as the starting point.

First this month is pattern 164: STREET WINDOWS. This pattern explores how windows are not only important to the people inside the buildings, but also to the people in the street, and explains why streets only truly come to life when there are people at the windows as well. Alexander says this creates "a unique kind of connection between life inside buildings and the street,"  with people "hanging out of windows, laughing, shouting, whistling." Paints quite a picture, doesn't it? For some reason this conjures up the image of people hanging from their windows in the fashion of monkeys!

Yet this scene—people laughing, shouting & whistling at one anotheris not unusual for the street that our main windows overlook. A lady in the palazzo next to ours seems to carry on her entire relationship with one neighbor via her window; sometimes he's in the street, other times out on his terrace across the way. It's part of my routine to go to the window to wave to my daughter as she passes below the apartment on her way to school or to meet friends—handy since I often remember to tell her something, or even toss down a forgotten permission slip, snack or coins for a gelato. When my daughter's friends pass our building, they like to ring the bell and ask her to go to the window for a quick helloAnd, taking a cue from the nonne (grandmas) I see doing this occasionally, one time I motioned to my daughter and her friends, who were enjoying a picnic in Piazza Pitti, to come get a basket of drinks & treats I lowered down for them.

Alexander believes this pattern works best for buildings that are just a few stories high, so that people in the street and at the windows are still able to communicate with each other through gestures, words or by reading the expression on someone's face. Ground-level apartments present some limitations, since people that near to the street are more inclined to protect their privacy with curtains or shutters, but he proposes a raised alcove-type of situation in the vicinity of the window. This is generally not an issue here, as the piano terra tends to be devoted to more public spaces, like shops & cafés.

Alexander quotes a short story from Kafka's Contemplation ("The Street Window") to illustrate the beauty of the pattern:

Whoever leads a solitary life and yet now and then wants to attach himself somewhere, whoever, according to changes in the time of day, the weather, the state of his business, and the like, suddenly wishes to see any arm at all to which he might cling—he will not be able to manage for long without a window looking on to the street. And if he is in the mood of not desiring anything and only goes to his window sill a tired man, with eyes turning from his public to heaven and back again, not wanting to look out and having thrown his head up a little, even then the horses below will draw him down into their train of wagons and tumult, and so at last into the human harmony. 

Though I am not quite as solitary as the hypothetical man described, I do go through phases of not leaving the apartment for days on end (during a deadline, for example), and can very much identify with the importance of being drawn into the city's activity through the frame of my window.

Maybe I am also able to appreciate STREET WINDOWS because I've seen what happens when this seemingly simple pattern that we may take for granted is lacking. The place we stayed when we first arrived in Florence had a lot going for ita spacious apartment at the top of the building, with plenty of light & air, it was centrally located just one block from the lovely Piazza della Signoria and had a generous terrace. Yet I remember feeling cut off from the city because the top floor was set back from the street, which therefore wasn’t visible from either the windows or the terrace. I found it so frustrating to hear, but not see, the action on the bustling Via Calzaiuoli that ran along one side of the apartment! Considering how often I am drawn to the window now, I realize that being able to see what's going on is even more important to me than having a terrace (as wonderful as one would be).



In examining other patterns that stem from 'STREET WINDOWS', we are led naturally to pattern 180: WINDOW PLACE. Again, this one appears quite basic, but Alexander qualifies it by putting a familiar desire into words and offering examples of the pattern in use, as well as providing guidance in creating such a space. Based on an 'organic intuition'that people want to sit/be comfortable, and that they are drawn to the lightthe introduction to WINDOW PLACE is very simple: "Everyone loves window seats, bay windows, and big windows with low sills and comfortable chairs drawn up."

As with last month's 'pools of light', I find there's a certain poetry to many of the pattern names. I'm drawn to any concept that involves the word 'place'; it implies somewhere I want to go, somewhere I want to be. Add a window to that place, and my imagination is immediately hooked. In the case of this pattern, Alexander defines a 'place' as being identifiable as a distinct area of the room and at least partly enclosed, even if simply by an armchair. Ideally, it will have a nicely-framed view and a low sill that lessens the separation between inside and out.

We could certainly do with more windows in our apartment; in part, this is because buildings in Florence are often designed with an eye toward maintaining a uniform pattern of windows on the street elevation. (The fact that floor height varies from one building to the nextas does the total height of each building, and in turn the roof lines—ensures that the streetscape still possesses a very appealing character despite the regularity of the windows' positioning.) Also, while we consider ourselves lucky to be on the top (i.e. brightest) floor, it is the piano nobile (American second floor) that typically has the tallest windowsand they become progressively shorter with each subsequent level. 

Still, we make the best of the windows we have. The main studio table gets the prime space in the room where I spend most of my time, with plenty of space around it so I can easily reach the window. In the living room, the armchairs are situated either side of the window, while, in her own room, my daughter has integrated the window with her bed 'place', where she does homework, reads & plays her guitar. (I love that you can see Santo Spirito's church bells flying back and forth in the bell tower through her window.) The kitchen window is probably the one that I appreciate the most; when this apartment was renovated a few years before we moved in, someone went to a lot of trouble to carve a small window from the extremely thick wall. Fortuitously positioned in front of the sink, it makes the tiny kitchen an infinitely more bearable place to spend time, and I love the view of the rooftops that recede toward the local hills (which are sprinkled with snow at the moment).



Yet a third pattern is intrinsically linked to the other two I've mentioned192: WINDOWS OVERLOOKING LIFE. If you have the luxury of designing a house or other building, this pattern will help you to plan the number of windows there should be, find the right positioning, and calculate their total area according to your geographical location. Like the other window-related patterns I've mentioned, its premise is very straightforward: if people are required to be in a space for any length of time, it must have windows. This seems obvious, but somehow rooms without windows do get built; bathrooms are a prime example. We've been lucky to have two bathrooms in most of the apartments we've stayed in locally, but it seems the bathtub is always in the one without a window (which means I nearly always choose a quick shower over a relaxing bath). I still remember how much I disliked college classrooms without windows. This may not be true for everyone, but I always found that windows made it easier for me to think, and test answers seemed to come more easily when my gaze could wander to the world beyond the four walls of a classroom. I still find my thinking to be freer in rooms with windows...




Some of the pleasures of living in a city apartment ended up working their way into a children's book manuscript I wrote a few years back, A House up in the Sky (which I have yet to find a home for). Here's an excerpt inspired by the life in the street below our own 'house up in the sky':
Caterina runs to the window whenever she hears something exciting going on outside. The narrow street below is full of life. Bells constantly ring out warnings as bicycles whiz past everyone: grown-ups rushing to work, students laughing and chatting on their walk to school, shopkeepers discussing the day’s news and exchanging the latest gossip. Caterina spots the owner of the little grocery store filling a basket attached to the end of a rope. Once the basket is ready, a woman hoists it up to her window and calls down her thanks. “Grazie, Mario!” she says, satisfied with the ingredients that she will turn into a tasty lunch for her family.

Plants and pretty handmade signs draw people’s attention to the many shops, and each morning the produce sellers set out the most tempting fruit and vegetables at their entrance, along with a little bench where they can sit during quiet moments.

Sadly, both the fruttivendolo (produce shop) and the alimentari (tiny grocery store) have closed since I wrote the manuscript. Though they have been replaced by other businesses, the street is not quite the same without these everyday shops.



I'm looking forward to the sunshiny days and warmer temperatures that spring will soon bring, and expect that next month's pattern(s) will start looking beyond the home, and out in the city.

22 February 2013

A gathering of red things

After using the rustic white studio table as the backdrop for so many photos lately, I decided to try something differenta chalkboard that is usually completely obscured by pictures, paper & bits of inspiration. I was thrilled when I saw the contrast that it lent to these wintery staples that ended up becoming my contribution to this month's ROY G BIV challenge. As you may already know, Jennifer Coyne Qudeen & Julie Booth organized this photo challenge (which cycles through the seven colors of the rainbow one month at a time) last year; this time around they are also proposing the inclusion of tints & shades. For February's color—'RED'—this means pink, burgundy, etc. It's definitely a good choice to brighten up this month of grey skies/drizzle/snow we have in the northern part of the world during this period. Originally my 'color of the month' was going to be gray, like this view of the Arno:

But when the ROY G BIV challenge started up again with red, I thought, 'Why not infuse the month with a nice jolt of color'?



First up are red onions. We eat a lot of red onions, and I have the pleasure of slicing several a week. One thing I had never really appreciated until photographing them is the way the skins twist at the top—like the finishing touch to a sweet little package. And the layers tinged with gentle curves of red are also very appealing as they're diced, sliced or cut into wedges.




Next are these pale pink, paper-thin garlic skins—their delicate color made me start saving them in a ramekin a few weeks ago. Little did I know they would also find a place in this month's ROY G BIV. (At least, now that they have been photographed, they won't be sitting around on a kitchen shelf for the next few months!)




And here are some peperoncini...along with a little garlic & olive oil, are a classic way to dress up an otherwise plain bowl of pasta. After eating in bianco (literally 'in white', meaning bread, rice) for several days as I recovered from the flu, this was the first 'adventurous' thing I craved. The peperoncini shown below are not the usual ones we get, with the familiar long shape, but I love how these look like miniature fluted pumpkins. They are extra spicy—and just about numbed our taste buds, as I didn't know how to gauge the amountbut I seem to be getting the hang of them after adding them to several dishes over the last week. Like red onions and garlic, they can take a meal from okay to memorable. I especially liked the little blossom shape of the slices...




This cyclamen already showed up in my Twelve days of Christmas post, but I snipped the last little buds and did a little deadheading to extend its life a little longer. As beautifully velvety as the vibrant red petals are, I quite liked the darker red of the shriveling blooms that I removed too...




Instead of the usual primroses we buy at this time of year, for this month's flower, I chose a species of primula that is new to meperhaps the 'primula prolifera', but I'm not sure if I've identified it correctly. The leaves are smaller than primroses and several tiers of blossom clusters quiver at the top of tall skinny stems. I found them very difficult to photograph; for one, the golden sunlight we had earlier in the week has given way to gray skies & drizzle, which casts harshly on the blooms and makes their color appear almost florescent. Plus I found that the inherent structure of the flower stems made it hard to compose pleasing shots while they were on the plantthey appeared to all be huddled together in kind of a clump. (I like to think I would have found some way of capturing them if the sun had shown up though!) I ended up plucking off a few stemswhich in turn caused some of the sweet little flowers, with their heart-shaped petals, to drop offand I found their 'parts' more appealing as photography subjects.

Once again, I used the chalkboard as a background (since it often appears gray against the light, I suppose I did work some gray into the month after all). My favorite photos were controluce, which I often favor in the absence of sunshine—and, more and more, with sunshine as well. The more photos I take, the more I'm recognizing just how fickle the light can be as it plays on a subject, whether onions & garlic, flower petals or paper. And it's amazing how quickly the light can change, even in a discreet period of time. I suppose this is why the same background/subject can appear slightly different from one photo session to the next. It's also fascinating to see how different things appear depending on their position in relationship to the sun. Through trial and error, I am learning a lot about photo-taking, and I must say it's a lot of fun. It feels like Christmas each time I upload a series of photos; it's so exciting to see what the camera finds. Sometimes they aren't as wonderful as I expect, but there are almost always some nice surprises. The hardest part is sifting through the photos afterwards, trying to choose favorites!




20 February 2013

A time for sorting things out

As part of our concerted effort to declutter, yesterday my daughter and I went on a little excursion to the Goodwill bin, which was followed by a gelato at the nearby Il Gelato di Filo (an excellent gelateria near the intersection that lies at the heart of the cozy San Niccolò neighborhood). Then my daughter and I parted ways: she toward home, and I to the rose garden. I'd had a quick walk through the garden with a friend last week, but there hadn't been time to linger. I'd never seen it right after the severe late-winter pruning, and its starkness took me by surprise; yet it also felt familiar, perhaps because I feel as though I'm at a similar point right now. In any case, I've been waiting for the chance to return so I could experience this favorite garden of mine in this particular phase.

I'm almost embarrassed to admit how many of the one-hundred-and-sixty-eight pictures I took were of thorny rose stemsbare of dried leaves, frost-bitten rosehips and just about all else (and most of which I am not including). I do find the garden very appealing in this state, and love how the structure of the plants is revealed at this time of year.

As I wandered, I wondered if I might find some red for this month's ROY G BIV photo challenge (details at the bottom of the post in case you haven't seen this mentioned before). I was not disappointed; there were rose hips, berries, red-tinged leaves and fresh red shoots on a tree/bush that I am really fascinated by but have yet to identify (all pictured below). As I'd noted last January, which was during the first winter the garden had ever been open to the public, the relative colorfulness is surprising for this time of the year. One lovely discovery was what may have been the caretaker & his family's Christmas tree (first image on the left); closer inspection revealed that clusters of berries had been tied onto a camellia bush with lengths of red ribbon.

Each time I visit the garden I like to check on things I've been observing from one season to the next. Sometimes there are hints of what was, or what is to come. Left: The newest growth of another unidentified plant that develops the most amazing red stalks in late summer; you can just see the faintest trace of red in the young stems. Right: Some of the climbing roses, which weren't as severely cut back as the bushes, are already beginning to send out delicate clusters of leaves.

And finally, once I have made the rounds, if there's still time, I like to sit under my favorite olive tree (shown in the photo at the top of this post). By the time I reached it yesterday, the sunlight had thinned in that part of the garden, so instead I settled on a sunny bench nearby. As I enjoyed the warmth of the lowering sun, watching the shadows lengthen, February's word finally came to me. I've been trying to find the right word since the month began. Busy words, like 'sift', 'sort', 'separate', 'organize' & 'prepare', have all popped into my mind; so did quieter ones, like 'breathe' & 'cherish'. It's been a month of figuring out things before confronting a series of changes—some inevitable, some still unclear—so I've been torn between scrambling to get my life more organized and simply appreciating the momentary tranquility.

So finally, while sitting quietly at the top of the garden, a sign I had seen on a shop earlier crept into my consciousness. When I recently noticed its display windows obscured by paper, I feared it had joined the many others that have gone out of business in recent months, but on the way up to the rose garden I noticed there was a small sign saying 'Chiuso per riallestimento'...in other words, that it was closed while things were being sorted out. It is fairly common for shops to take a break in February, probably since it's the quietest season in Florence; the reason may be renovations mandated by laws or codes, a fresh coat of paint, a change of stock...or even just a well-earned & much-needed vacation. In any case, riallestimento, which derives from the verb allestire (to prepare/set up/fit out/stage/mount), with the prefix 'ri-' implying 'afresh' or 'anew', certainly feels like the right word to describe my state of mind right now.

Looking into the sun...
Top: A view of Forte di Belvedere and the area just outside Florence's old city walls. Bottom: Paving stones on one of the garden's lookout points.

Looking down at the garden's main lawn, which is nearly bare after the heavy pruning (so very different from the rest of the year, when the bushes are full and create mini- semi-private zones where people picnic and read and nap)...

Lengthening shadows...
Left: A railing in the garden (which, alas, does not appear nearly as dramatic in the photo as it did in person). Right: The foot of the one-hundred-and sixty-two steps that lead from the San Niccolò neighborhood up to Piazzale Michelangelo, taken as I left the rose garden's lower entrance (another one can be reached from midway up the steps).

And no outing would be complete without a photo of the Arno. Much of the walk home is along the river (one of two routes  you can choose). This view shows the water passing over the weir-type of thing under Ponte alle Grazie (one bridge east-ish of the famous Ponte Vecchio). I have never gotten a photo of the Arno quite like this; it reminds me more of Venice's lagoon...

One last note: tomorrow artists Jennifer Coyne Qudeen and Julie Booth are kicking off round two of the ROY G BIV photo challenge. Details & guidelines are here if you'd like to join them for 'RED'; you have until Saturday to post up to five images inspired by shades & tints of red. Please check back here in the next couple of days for my contribution...

{Past posts about Florence's rose garden can be found by clicking on
'rose garden' in the 'Things I like to write about' section in the sidebar.}

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