Monday, January 26, 2009

A Bishop, Vikings and The Ark

mosaic in the oratory of Germigny-des-Prés

Do you remember Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark? In the movie, the Nazi Germans are trying to find the Ark of the Covenant in the belief that whoever possesses it would never be defeated in combat. This assumption is based on several references to the Ark in the Bible as the “strength and glory of God.” (source: Wikipedia). The Israelites consulted and carried it with them during battles, helping them gain victory over their enemies. The most famous is the crumbling of the walls of Jericho after carrying the Ark around the city for seven days, allowing the people of Israel to enter and take the city. However, the Nazis forgot that there are also Bible accounts saying that looking into the Ark or even merely touching it would result in death. So, even when they got possession of it near the end of the film, it was only short-lived. They even weren't able to use for they met their death upon opening the Ark to "test " its might before presenting it to the Führer. And Indiana Jones and his friends were saved from their clutches, and the Ark was safely sealed and stored in a secret place, along with other religious and mythical relics.

Well, if one believes in the power of the Ark and link it to the survival of the oratory of Germigny-dès-Pres during the tumultuous Middle Ages, then one can write a good story, even a novel about it. When Vikings raided the town by the end of the 9th century, everything except the sanctuary was destroyed. And what is inside this chapel that exempted it from being torn down? --- a beautiful mosaic of the Ark of the Covenant with two cherubim guarding over it. Like the Mosta Dome in Malta, its survival can be considered “miraculous”. Can it be due to the presence of the Ark, even if it is just an image? Maybe. And with the two sentinel angels which seem to be almost a replica of the ones on the Ark’s cover, perhaps it is a representation of the double protection of the Ark and the place it is housed in. Bishop Theodulf might have foreseen the destruction of the villa and sought to protect it by having the mosaic created in his private chapel. Or more likely, the Scandinavians spared it for being a place of Christian worship. During that time, many Norsemen were being converted to Christianity and this may have contributed to the oratory’s preservation.

Whatever the reason (and all these are just my conjectures), the fact remains that the mosaic has survived twelve centuries and is still visible up to the present. The oratory might have been renovated with indifference to the original materials used, but at least the mosaic is preserved. The Spartan atmosphere inside the church emphasizes the warm, golden colors of this beautiful religious artwork. And maybe, it can inspire you to write a historical-mystery novel about the whereabouts of the real Ark of the Covenant or the fate of Bishop Theodulf who was a prominent theologian and member of the court during Charlemagne’s reign but end up in exile for treason and was believed to be poisoned on his way back to Orléans upon his release. Or better yet, a romantic story between a Viking knight and a lady of the Frankish kingdom during the siege of the town *winks.*

The Latin inscription below the mosaic reads:

As you gaze upon the holy propitiatorium and Cherubim, beholder,
And see the shimmering of the Ark of God's covenant,
Perceiving these things, and prepared to beset the Thunderer with prayers,
Add, I beg you, Theodulf's name to your invocations.'
- Source: Wikipedia

(Germigny-des-Prés part II, see part I)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Not-so-Wordless Wednesday

a butterfly and a bee “sharing” a flower

If you knew what I know about the power of giving,
you would not let a single meal pass without sharing it in some way.

I was actually trying to get a photo of the flower with the butterfly on it, but I got more than what I hoped for. Another winged creature flew and joined the limelight with Mr. Brown-spotted Yellow Butterfly. And it appears that Mr. Busy Bee is not only intent on having his share of camera exposure but even more on having his portion of the “feast”. The flower must be nectar-filled as these two insects seem to be oblivious to my presence. Or maybe it was just my lucky day *grins*

I’m not an entomologist, but I thought butterflies are territorial. So I’m expecting that it would chase the bee away. However it seems not to mind the other insect’s partaking of the food. Perhaps the amount of nectar in this flower is more than enough so it doesn’t mind sharing *smiles.* Or the butterfly might be thinking since it is a lot bigger than the bee, its size would scare the other away. But the bee seems to be undeterred to have his piece of the banquet.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad I was able to capture this moment, even for posterity’s sake. And maybe, I should try to grow this flower to attract more bees and butterfly. And speaking of the flower, can someone please tell me what kind it is. It looks like some sort of thistle, but I’m not sure. And for butterfly lovers, any idea about the name of the one in the picture? I would greatly appreciate your help *thankful grin.*

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Feel of the South

oratory of Germigny-des-Prés, Loiret, France

No, this is not in the Mediterranean region. This oratory in Germigny-des-Prés is in the Region Centre of France, built at the start of the 9th century by Bishop Theodulf of Orléans. Now one of the oldest churches in the country, it was once part of the bishop’s palace complex in the Gallo-Roman villa of Germaniacus. The chapel is built around a square lantern tower extending towards the four cardinal points, forming a Greek cross. This layout became the archetype for many Byzantine structures. And in France, the oratory of Germigny-des-Prés seems to be the oldest with this architecture.

When we visited the town last summer, we could have passed the chapel without knowing. It does not have an elaborate structure or ornately-designed edifice. But I like its “austerity” --- it coaxes you to shed your pretentions and bare your soul to the One above. As a sanctuary, its “massiveness” amplifies the feeling of safety, a solid refuge from the “evil” and harshness of the world outside, if not for the people of today, at least to those who lived during the uncertain times of the Middle Ages. I could imagine Bishop Theodulf coming here to meditate and seek guidance as he tries to expound on Christian morality, write theological capitularies and combat faulty interpretation of what was discussed and agreed upon in the council of Nicaea. With its narrow windows and thick walls, the interior exudes silence and solemnity, a great atmosphere for contemplating and praying.

On a clear blue day, there’s a kind of serenity, just by gazing at it from the outside. And with the conifers around it, it has a Mediterranean feel to it… like I’m somewhere in Provence or Tuscany. And it being in north-central part of France, the view is quite uncommon. I believe it would have more of the “Roman” feel about it if during its restoration in the 19th century its original construction was respected. But then, there’s nothing we can do about it now. At least we can still see a glimpse of how it must have looked like almost a dozen of centuries ago. In fact, the oratory is the only surviving structure when Vikings invaded the villa several decades after its construction. And even if some architectural historians find the present-day oratory a "reconstruction" and not a restoration, I believe we're still fortunate to have it still standing after all these years.

(Germigny-des-Prés part 1)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

And Then There Was One

citronella-scented pelargonium that I'm hoping to grow

Do you remember my favorite pelargonium? The two remaining cuttings I have of it now lay brown and shriveled. They did not survive winter *sad sigh*. I was actually expecting them to make it through the cold season because they actually sprouted new leaves and stems for the past several months since I planted them. I kept them inside the house knowing that they wouldn’t be able to withstand the freezing temperature outside. Until about a week or two ago, they were doing okay. But then the leaves and stems started to droop. I thought the soil must have dried up. So I watered them. However, it did not do them any good. They just sort of withered away *sad face.* Maybe it’s because I changed their location (I thought they were not getting enough sunlight so I put them by the window). Or it’s just that my gardening skills are still limited to easy-to-care-winter-tolerant plants. Oh well, I can always try again next year, right?

flowers of my favorite pelargonium

I feel sad but I am not fully dispirited. I still have one cutting of the scented-leaf type. I had several cuttings of it last year, just like my preferred pelargonium. However, with my brown thumb, I have only remaining. But it is still good news because until now, it still remains healthy. I just really hope it won’t die on me. It would be the last one from the cuttings last year and I really would like to grow one. I grew garden pelargonium (Pelargonium x hortorum) about two or three years ago from seeds. But they also did not survive winter.

So I’m putting my hopes to this sole cutting I have. Its flowers’ color and appearance are close to my favorite pelargonium. However the hues are darker, and what’s more the leaves smell like citronella grass. I like its tangy, crisp fragrance --- it surrounds you with a feeling of freshness, not only physically but also emotionally. Its scent invigorates the mind and the spirit, like a sudden rain shower drenching our heated body on a humid afternoon. Or being under the rush of waterfalls, feeling the rivulets of water dripping down our back. Or taking dip on a cool pond with the ripples glistening with the sun’s rays.

Well, I really hope this cutting survives. But if it doesn’t, then I’ll try again next year, and the year after that and the year after that. *smiles.* Who knows, I’ll be able to grow one successfully in the coming years of trial and error.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Not-so-Wordless Wednesday

a view of the mountain tops of the Massif de Néouvielle

I feel like I’m on top of the world seeing this spectacular panorama from Col de Portet (Portet Pass, around 2200m above sea level) in the municipality of St. Lary Soulan, Hautes-Pyrénées. It’s neither a view from Mont Blanc in the Alps nor Mt. Everest in the Himalayas, nevertheless, the landscape took my breath away. The drive up here was quite difficult (the unpaved road snakes through the mountainside with a sharp inclination) but I’m fairly certain you’ll agree that it was worth it. The route is not always open, especially during bad weather conditions, and we were lucky enough that vehicles are allowed to pass on the day we chose to visit the place. And I believe we’re even more fortunate to witness the mist and the clouds lifting and swirling around the mountain crests giving it an almost heavenly appeal. I guess no one can blame me if I started singing “I’m on the top of the worldà la Karen Carpenter (though I don’t have her voice) *smiles.*

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Pink Nose, the Snowman

my lovable snowman, Mr. Pink Nose

The past week is considered to be the coldest winter week. It even snowed in the southeastern part of France, which is a rare event. In our area, the temperature was below zero for almost a week. But we had a good dose of sunshine. I can tolerate cold winter as long as there’s some sun. Even if I cannot go out to do some gardening, at least the brightness cheers me up. It is so depressing when it’s cold and gray. (Well, even if we don’t have a freezing temperature, a drab day can really make me feel down.)

snowman, what round eyes you have!... what cute nose you have!... what a big smile you have!...

Because of the negative temperature, the snow here stayed for almost a week. It’s delightful to see everything covered in white with the sun’s rays lending them a golden glow. The sun’s warmth is not sufficient to thaw the snow but it surely did lift the “heaviness” of the winter atmosphere. And it is more than enough to beckon me to go out, gather the fallen flakes and make a snowman *grins.*

now, see my right profile

I don’t know how others do it, but I cannot seem to make snow balls big enough to be used for the head and body of my bonhomme de neige (snowman). All I can come up with was a big mound of snow --- good if you’re trying to make a mountain or an ant hill, but it was far from looking like a decent snowman. So what I did was to flatten the top part, create a dent on the mid-part of the mound to act as a neck and put the “eyes,” “nose,” “mouth” and the indispensable scarf and bonnet. And voila! There’s my smiling Mr. Pink Nose *grins.*

i'm ready for my close up shot!

It’s not exactly Frosty the Snowman, but I’m quite happy with it (and see that smile? he appears to feel the same way about me *giggles*). I just hope that by next time I’ll learn to make a real one --- huge snow balls one on top of the other, a carrot nose and stick hands. For the mean time, I'll content my self with Mr. Pink Nose who seems to love the camera (and the camera loves him back) *smiles.*

Friday, January 9, 2009

Blooming Friday

our Cosmos bipinnatus in our garden last summer

In my experience, Cosmos bipinnatus, also known as Mexican aster, is one of the easiest plants to grow. The term “cosmos” is the genus by which other species like Cosmos sulphureus (yellow cosmos) and Cosmos atrosanguineus (chocolate cosmos) also belong to, but it is more commonly used to refer to the bipinnatus kind. In our area, cosmos are grown in some fields while they lay fallow. And you can sometimes collect flowers and make a bouquet of them, provided the access to these fields are not forbidden.

There are several varieties of bipinnatus; the ones I plant every spring are of the Sensation variety. The seeds are not that expensive compared to other types of cosmos and the color of the flowers ranges from white to magenta --- hence, you’ll have more hues in your garden plots. They grow up to a meter high and their spindly leaves and stems create an air of "lightness " in your flower beds, especially combined with thick-leaved plants. The big brightly colored flowers attract a lot of butterflies and bees which make them really interesting to have in one’s garden. They also don’t need much care once they germinate and even drought-tolerant (but of course watering them from time to time will ensure continuous flowering).

One just has to be careful with slugs (and sometimes with aphids) when they are still young. I use ashes to prevent these gastropods from eating the seedlings. But generally, they resist diseases and pests. And they flower for a long time, around 6 months if planted at the start of spring. They can be planted directly on the ground, as long as the soil temperature is around 20-25°C. But one can also sow the seeds in small trays by March and just transplant them when the ground is warm enough.

My favorite is the magenta/fuchsia-colored flowers. I normally collect seeds at the end of each flowering season to avoid buying them for the following year. A handful of them can be gathered from a single flower, so even if you don’t have that much blooms due to the weather conditions, you will still have enough seeds for next spring. Or if you don’t have time to collect them, you can just let it self-sow. With the ease of cultivating cosmos, as a budding gardener, I could say that growing them is a great way to start your garden.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Not-So-Wordless Wednesday

lac d'Aumar (Aumar lake) in Hautes-Pyrénées on a clear day

This is lac d’Aumar (Aumar lake), one of the series of lakes in the Natural Reserve of Néouvielle, seen from the route des lacs (lake road). We passed by this road twice on our way to our hikes last autumn. I didn’t know that on these two occasions, I took pictures of the view on approximately the same spot. Vehicles are not allowed to stop at any point on this road as there is a succession of blind curves. So I took them while in the car. Good thing one cannot drive here fast, so even if we weren’t able to stop, I was able to take some clear photos (This is the joy of being on the passenger seat *giggles.* But I feel bad for my husband as he cannot enjoy the scenery --- he has to concentrate on the road and the oncoming traffic.)

the same lake with cirrus clouds in the sky

I cannot decide which panorama is better --- the one on a clear day or when there are “feathers” of cirrus clouds artfully scattered in the sky. Even if you see the same landscape, it is not exactly the same scenery. And I am in awe as to how one factor can change our “view” (or at least “my” view if others don’t agree with my perception) of the same vista.

another panorama on a cloudless day

Well, maybe this is a lesson in life. Things might look the same, but it’s not altogether similar. Sometimes, all it takes is one element to be added, taken or changed, and you have something new. Maybe not completely new but not certainly the same either. I guess, we just have to keep an open eye and an open mind.

a scene I find worth remembering

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Delightfully Bubbly

harvesting --- the first of a series of mosaic scenes about champagne production in rue de Mars, Reims, France

Well, with the holidays nearly over, I believe some of us have had their fair share of Champagne or sparkling wine to cap the celebration. This golden bubbly liquid has become the traditional drink, especially during New Year’s Eve. Well, it has been the wine for great occasions since the Middle Ages as it is associated with the coronation of French kings. Because the anointment of kings was always held in Reims cathedral in the Champagne region (northeast of France), the ceremony, was celebrated by drinking the wine from the area. Hence, Champagne (or the drinking of it) has become one of the symbols of luxury, momentous events and of course, great festivities.

second scene: the blending of wine --- the wine produced from one to three types of grapes
or from
various years (for non-vintage wines)

The name “champagne” is actually due to the fact that this alcoholic beverage is produced in the region bearing the same name. But until the end of the 19th century, “champagne” was used to refer to any sparkling wine. Now, the term is reserved for wines coming from the region and which follows the standard set by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine, a French regulating body for products of noteworthy names. However, in the United States, some sparkling wine producers are allowed to use the word “champagne” provided the geographical origin of the wine is indicated on the label.

third mosaic: riddling (shaking and inverting of bottles), disgorging (taking out the dead yeast), dosage (addition of liqueur d'expédition: a certain amount of base wine and sugar)

Champagne, or any sparkling wine for that matter, is produced by secondary fermentation to have its trademark “pop” and bubbles. When we visited the town of Reims last summer, we saw this wonderful mosaic-decorated façade of a building in rue de Mars illustrating the steps of champagne-making --- from the harvesting of the grapes to the wine’s bottling and packaging. The mosaic’s colors are very rich and it must have taken a lot of time to make the details of each scene. The date written on bottom right corner of the first tableau is 1898, so I assume the mosaics were dome during that time.

fourth tableau: corking and putting a wire collar around the cork

This process is called méthode champenoise although the term is now restricted for wines produced in the region. For sparkling wines originating outside the area, the technique is called méthode traditionnelle. After fermenting the wine the traditional way, it is bottled for a secondary fermentation. Yeast and sugar is added on the bottled wine and left to mature for a minimum of 1.5 years (3 years or more for a millesimé or vintage wines) . Then it undergoes riddling (remuage) --- shaking the bottle and putting them in racks at an angle starting from 45° – 180° by the end of the 6-8 week riddling process. Then disgorging (dégorgement) is done to remove the less (composed of the dead yeast and other particulates) deposited on the neck of the bottle. Before corking, a certain amount of sugar and base wine is added to balance the acidity of the Champagne, called dosage. Depending on the sweetness, there are 7 kinds of Champagne ranging from doux (sweet; it has more than 50 grams of sugar per liter, hence the term) to brut natural or brut zero which contains less than 3 grams of sugar per liter. I personally prefer sec (dry; 17 -35 grams of sugar per liter) or demi-sec (half-dry; 33-50 grams of sugar per liter). The other types are extra sec (extra dry), brut, and extra brut in decreasing order of sugar added. (source: Wikipedia)

last illustration: labeling and packaging

Champagne was once known as the Devil’s wine (le vin de diable) because of the damage it produces during its production. The pressure build-up inside the bottles due to carbon dioxide production causes the bottles to burst. And sometimes it takes only one bottle to break to cause a chain reaction, making wine producers lose a lot of their wines. Cellar workers even have to wear iron mask (like those worn by baseball catchers) to protect themselves from bursting bottles. (source: Wikipedia)

But of course, nowadays, it’s not anymore associated with the devil but more with festivities, happiness, and love. And with Valentine’s Day 5 weeks from now, Champagne will surely cross many people’s mind, especially couples’, with thoughts of a romantic dinner on a starlit night, whispering sweet nothings sealed with a kiss.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Blooming Friday

white rose balsam in our garden last year

I’ve been growing rose balsam (
Impatiens balsamina, also called garden balsam) from seeds for two years now. For the first year, I bought them. Last year, I used the grains I collected from the flowers of the previous year. But unfortunately, last autumn, I wasn’t able to collect any seeds because we’ve had a lot of rain and the cold season settled in earlier. The seeds got rotten before they even mature.

Anyway, balsams are great flowering plants because they can be planted either in sunny or shady areas. As long as the soil is kept moist, you will have a lot of flowers from June to November. That’s around six months of blooms! They are easy to grow. In my experience, they don’t need a lot of care; like what I said, just keep the soil humid. And this doesn’t mean watering them everyday. If planted in sunny areas, maybe watering them twice a week (or even just once if you put mulch) will be enough. In shady areas, once a week of watering or just when the soil gets dry will be sufficient.

I usually plant our balsams in shady areas because there aren’t many plants which flower in shade. And this plant is an excellent choice if you want to have flowers in parts of your garden that don’t receive much direct sunlight. The only tricky part is in germinating them. The seeds have a hard covering so it would be better to soak them in water before planting. And if you want to plant them directly to where you want them to grow, the ground should be sufficiently warm (around 18-20°C) for them to germinate. Since soil in shady areas would take a longer time to warm, what I do is to germinate them in small trays kept in a sunny area in our garden around March or April. And then I just transplant them when they’re big enough and there’s no more risk of ground frost. Fertilizers are not needed; I’ve read they will only make the plants fragile instead of making them healthier. So once the seeds germinate --- grow roots and sprout leaves, there’s really nothing much to do except keeping the soil damp.

And for half of the year, you will have flowers from purple to white, passing through red and pink. Bees love them and by the end of the flowering season, you can collect the seeds. The ones I grew give camellia-like flowers and reach a height of around 75cm. Although I haven’t tried eating them, the whole plant (except for the roots) is supposed to be edible. Crushed flowers can be used to cool burns and the extract from leaves are said to be a treatment for warts (source: Wikipedia). But I haven’t tried using balsam for any of the purposes I’ve stated. So I cannot attest to the effectiveness of its supposed medicinal or culinary uses.

But in any case, rose balsams are great garden plants. The colors are so vivid that they can liven up even the most abandoned and darkest corner of your garden. It’s just too bad that I wasn’t able to collect seeds this year. It feels better to grow plants from the seeds you’ve collected rather than the store-bought ones. But then, I cannot do anything about the early winter this year. Well, maybe spring would come sooner and then I can grow them earlier --- which means their seeds would mature before they get soaked in rain and frost :).

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Ab Initio

dawn in our backyard

From the end spring new beginnings

May this year bring us closer to our heart's desire, the courage to accept things we cannot change and the wisdom to choose what is best. Here's to a wonderful year ahead of us.