Smiles of a summer afternoon

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As a child I grew up listening to and reading Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful stories of adventure. The Just So stories have a particularly special place in my heart and for as long as I can remember I have wanted to visit Bateman’s, his family home in Kent. For a man who did not come to England until he was 36, he chose the most quintessentially English place to live and one where I’m pleased to say you really do feel the family’s presence.  There is the vintage Rolls Royce in the garage in which he adored tearing round country lanes (it didn’t go very fast by today’s standards!), prone to frequent breakdowns, but still magnificent to look at.

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The house is beautiful and intimate, filled with the 17th century furniture bought to preserve the spirit of the place but famously uncomfortable to use. Just outside, you find the pond into which Carrie, Kipling’s rather intimidating but devoted wife, once fell according to daughter Elsie’s entry into the visitors’ book. Tucked away behind the roses and the hedges, there is even a small section of the wild garden where family pets are buried and hens wander. You imagine the family lying in the shade of the walnut trees, entertaining their many friends on the magnificent lawn or striding out for walks in the acres of countryside they acquired. I found the cottage garden particularly enchanting where runner beans, courgettes and other vegetables jostle for space with sunflowers, dahlias and other wonderful flowers and plants. I wandered through a section with nasturtiums in bloom to an arch where pears were growing. It really is the loveliest place imaginable, one where time seems to stop and you fully appreciate the magnificence of an English summer over tea and cake.

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The garden of England

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We arrived just before the garden opened on a blisteringly hot day. Sissinghurst is so famous and in my mind I had been there many times through TV programmes, books and photos. Yet nothing really prepares you for the real thing. With its famous design scheme of long alleys and separate rooms, I had expected it to be a little like Laurence Johnston’s magnificent Hidcote which was an influence. But it is even more intimate and beautiful. Everything seems in such perfect harmony that it’s hard to imagine it not existing 100 years ago and easy to overlook the challenge Harold Nicholson faced of mapping out straight lines in a garden which is not a perfect rectangle, using only a tape measure and string. And you feel Vita’s presence everywhere – in the rich abundance of her remarkable planting schemes and in her room in the Tower which remains as she left it so many years ago. Lingering in the extraordinary rose garden, which captivates you with its colours and scent, or in the much imitated but never equalled white garden, I pictured her and Harold working each day in the gardens or observing the changing light and seasons from her window. An earthly paradise.

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The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses

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It could have been a little warmer but the dazzling sunshine peeking over the rooftops as I set off on my journey at 6:30 am made me optimistic as I shivered in a summer dress and thin cardigan. I have a special fondness for Wales despite not knowing it very well and being unable to read the names written in its beautiful language. But my paternal grandmother was Welsh and my father often rode his motorbike from the family home in Liverpool to North Wales, especially Conwy. Bodnant Garden is justly famous for its stunning laburnum arch which is even more remarkable in real life. But what captured my heart were the roses. Endless rows of them in white, various shades of pink, crimson, peach turning to purple, bright yellow, all of them exquisite and with different scents ranging from intoxicating to delicate. No other place has quite captivated me this much.

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IMG_6518Of course, around every corner there is a feast for the senses – tall blue Himalayan poppies, white wisteria,  water-lilies on the pond, blue and brown bearded irises, extraordinary hostas in every shade of green, with the sound of a local Welsh choir singing gospel music from below the terrace as we explored all the different avenues. I wished that we could have stayed all day to wander through the meadows and woodland beyond.

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We stopped on the way home at Conwy, climbing up to the ramparts of its remarkable castle, looking down at the beautiful bay below and the suspension bridge which my parents knew so well from all their earlier holidays. It felt sad to leave the sea and mountains but my mother had kindly bought me an exquisite old rose named after Gertrude Jekyll to plant in the garden so that a little of Bodnant could return with us. Its heady perfume accompanied us throughout the long journey home and I look forward to seeing it bloom each year and being transported back to that heavenly garden of roses.

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London pride

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I’m always critical of the UK for being poor at certain things other countries do well, such as providing affordable and reliable public transport and producing decent bread. But then again, the tea is superb and the museums not only have amazing collections but are a real pleasure to visit. Never have I been told off for eating a sweet, not carrying my handbag on my arm instead of my shoulder, getting too close to paintings or even just having a camera. There is simply a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy the art.

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The courtyard of the Royal Academy where I called on my way to the NPG.

I’ve been going to the National Portrait Gallery for many years and have lost track of the number of wonderful exhibitions I’ve seen there: Henri Cartier-Bresson, John Singer Sargent, Russian portraits, Man Ray, Giacometti, Audrey Hepburn portraits etc. But I have fewer opportunities to visit the permanent collection which is really a shame because whenever I return there, I realise just how magnificent it is and see how much I still need to discover. There are familiar paintings and photos to visit again, almost like old friends. Perhaps a portrait of a favourite writer or someone I admire, or others where the subject is less important compared to the extraordinary face or the beauty of the fabric. And then you see something new and find it impossible to tear yourself away from that particular room. Needless to say, however much time you spend there, it will never be enough to see everything you want to and there is always a little sadness and frustration upon leaving this wonderful place.

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No visit to London would be complete without refreshments though and I knew I had to return to Maison Bertaux in Soho which I discovered thanks to my friend Jan. This was my second time there and I enjoyed it even more than the last. The staff are lovely – finding you the best table, waiting patiently while you agonise over which cake to choose because there are so many and everything looks amazing. In the end, we chose a wonderful chocolate one as well as some cheesecake and devoured the enormous slices, accompanied by a huge pot of delicious tea. They really were some of the best cakes I’ve ever tasted. My only regret was not having lunch there because the range of quiches was truly mouthwatering.

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At the end of each visit to London, there is a little sadness and regret at not living closer but also the promise I make to return very soon to discover more. And you really can’t ask for anything better than that.

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Some impressions from my walk around Mayfair.

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Dreaming of my future scarf and handbag at Hermès.

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The Burlington Arcade.

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Some Manolo Blahniks.

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At Maison Assouline on Piccadilly.

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Spring past and present

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One of the things I miss the most about living in the city, especially one as green as Berlin, is that element of surprise. My favourite thing has always been to get up very early at the weekend and go out to walk and take pictures. Riding in the S-Bahn, I would often look out of the window and spot a group of trees in blossom, or some lilacs, or particularly beautiful light on a favourite building that would make me rush off at the next station, even if it was nowhere near my planned destination. The light changes by the minute, the sunny morning can turn to rain and dash the blossom so you’re forever chasing shadows and fleeting beauty. Catch joy while it flies. And then there are the markets. I was lucky enough to live close to an amazing one in Charlottenburg on Karl-August-Platz that took over the whole square twice a week. Saturdays were always something special and I would return laden with bags packed with magnificent seasonal fruit and vegetables, bunches of flowers, French cheeses, apple croissant and huge eggs which often had double yolks.

The setting has changed of course, but my habits remain the same, never sleeping for more than 6 hours so I can get up and catch a glimpse of the sunrise which is more and more elusive. Each day, I walk in the garden to make a note of the smallest changes which I’m sure I’ll remember but never do. But I still dream of returning to my favourite cherry trees in the Buergerpark in Pankow and lingering to talk with them for a little while, just like Proust’s narrotor does with the hawthorn blossom.

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Schloss Schoenhausen in Pankow

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At the market on Karl-August-Platz in Charlottenburg

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My place (almost)

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Spring unfolding in the park outside my old building in Pankow

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French connection

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Shortly after I had moved to Charlottenburg, I placed an ad on the Connexion française website for a language exchange so that I could practise my French conversation with someone and they could learn English in return. I had a few responses but the meet-ups weren’t really successful because we didn’t have much in common. But on the verge of giving up hope, I received a message from a young French woman (let’s just call her J.) suggesting  we meet at the S-Bahn station at Hackescher Hoefe.

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Dressed in jeans, a white sleeveless top and gold Nike trainers, she was instantly recognisable on the platform. I can’t remember where exactly we went that first evening in this rather touristy area with generally mediocre and overpriced places to eat but thereafter, we met once a week, at first to speak French and then English and then just French which suited us both better. Sometimes we would head  to Datscha in Friedrichshain, a Russian café-bar with a Soviet style living room lined with pictures of Lenin and other communist memorabilia, where we ordered borscht, followed by Russischer Zupfkuchen, which isn’t actually Russian at all, or the warm blinis with quark and blackcurrants. Despite sharing a love of exercise, we both had a weakness for any rich desserts (rather like Diane Keaton and her neighbour in Manhattan Murder Mystery). Other times, we went to see French or English films at the Hackesche Hoefe Kino, the Sony Center or at my favourite Arsenal Kino on Potsdamer Platz.

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Our tastes didn’t always coincide. She hated Juliette Gréco and Jacques Brel and found the attitude of Mersault abhorrent after I gave her a copy of Camus’ ‘LÉtranger’. But the only really awful thing about being with J. was that she is stunningly beautiful. Next to her, I knew what it must have felt like to be friends with Lana Turner. In a city where no straight men ever look at you unless you’re wearing an evening gown and heels (speaking from personal experience), all the heads turned whenever we walked into a place and I was completely ignored. Alongside someone blonde, tanned and super slim, I felt plain and badly dressed. Even my all my male friends admired her looks and constantly pestered me for her number which I had to somehow diplomatically refuse.

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After a few months, we started hanging out at the Insitut Français on Ku’damm which has a wonderful cinema and exhibition rooms on the ground floor with large windows shining light across the pavements as dusk falls, reminding me of the aquarium like ones at the hotel in Balbec through which observers could watch the dinner guests in Proust’s Recherche. Afterwards, we always headed for the one cheap place to eat round there – an Italian pizzeria on Uhlandstrasse where you sit on wooden benches and they announce when your order is ready to collect in garbled Italian which meant listening out closely in mortal fear of missing it. The owner was rather un-Italian looking, bald with glasses, but he was clearly smitten with J and asked her out. She told me about their date – how she waited until 2 am for the restaurant to close, then they went to a nightclub owned by his brother where they started dancing. Gradually she became aware that he was giving directions for other couples and dancers to clear the floor until they were completely alone with the music.

Despite that, J. decided that she didn’t want to see him again which meant we could never return to the pizzeria. She told me she was bored with the city and that, “Berlin me semble fade”. A little later J. returned to Paris where she still lives to this day. Our paths have crossed only once since then when she invited me to stay in her tiny apartment in Montparnasse. I think I annoyed her with my large suitcase and inability to be tidy, even in such a small space. At a party with many of her friends who gathered to eat Galette des Rois, nobody spoke to me all evening and I felt hurt when she asked me if I hadn’t found it too boring. I decided then that she was probably just too cool to be my friend, that things weren’t the same and that I was OK with that. After returning to Berlin, I picked up my copy of ‘L’Étranger’ and had dinner at the pizzeria on Uhlandstrasse.

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The joys of spring

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No matter how much I try to notice each little sign as the days grow warmer and longer, spring always takes me by surprise. I remember walking down my street in Charlottenburg on a particularly lovely evening with a softness in the air and suddenly noticing that all those buds on the trees which had remained stubbornly closed for so long were suddenly open and that the city was in bloom.

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Back then, the parks and squares were my back garden but these days I’m lucky to have one of my own where I can watch the seasons change much more easily. There is always something new. As the snowdrops dry and fade, there is a blaze of daffodils, the forsythia threading its way through the branches of the apple tree under which snake’s head fritillary have spread. And as all of those become a little less vivid, tulips start to emerge in carnival or soft colours, single or double. There is so much beauty to savour and so much still to come – the bluebell woods, the rhododendrons, the apple blossom, the elegance of the magnolia. I realise how important it is just to try to take each day at a time and look for the good things, rather than getting caught up in worries of what has been and what may be or never be. I wish you a wonderful spring.

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