Plumming the depths of memory

Memory is a funny thing.

You can forget about something for many years and then, due to a random association (or even no discernible cause whatsoever), remember it suddenly.

This happened to me yesterday while I was eating a plum. All of a sudden, a couple of lines from a German poem that I vaguely learned almost 20 years ago (and haven’t looked at or thought about at all for several years) came floating into my mind.

In this case, the association wasn’t too random since it is actually a short poem about a plum tree by Bertold Brecht (who, I believe, was more famous as a playwright, though certainly also a well-respected poet).  It is called Der Pflaumenbaum (the Plum Tree) and it runs like this:

Im Hofe steht ein Pflaumenbaum,
Der ist klein, man glaubt es kaum.
Er hat ein Gitter drum,
So tritt ihn keiner um.

Der Kleine kann nicht größer wer’n.
Ja, größer wer’n, das möcht er gern;
‘s ist keine Red davon,
Er hat zu wenig Sonn.

Den Pflaumenbaum glaubt man ihm kaum,
Weil er nie eine Pflaume hat.
Doch er ist ein Pflaumenbaum,
Man kennt es an dem Blatt.

Here’s my own rough prose translation: “There’s a plum tree in the yard. It’s small and you hardly notice it. It has a fence round it, to stop people tripping over it. The small thing can’t grow any bigger. Yes, it would love to grow bigger; but there’s no way it can – it gets too little sun. You’d scarcely believe it’s a plum tree as it never has any plums. But it is a plum tree – you can tell by the leaves.”

On one level it’s quite a mundane, almost banal little tale and the simplicity of the meter coupled with the strong rhyming makes it sound suspiciously like doggerel verse.  However, I think it’s quite charming and also, especially in the middle stanza, rather sad.

One detail that I find quite interesting is that while the first two stanzas follow an AABB rhyming scheme, the third stanza switches to ABAB.  Also, there are a couple of places where the basic rhythm of the stanzas is varied, most notably in the penultimate line (which is emphasing the identity of the plum tree against all evidence to the contrary and perhaps, therefore, most needs to be a stand-out line).  This slight break in the regularity, I think, makes a huge difference to the sonic impact of the poem (though it would make it slightly more difficult to set it to music – an exercise which I might one day try).

Another blog is born

Just over a year ago, I started a second blog.  The purpose of that one was to enable me to write in Welsh (mainly for the sake of practicing my written language skills) without cluttering up this blog with posts that most of my readers couldn’t follow (I’m assuming that most vistors here can speak English but not that many will know Welsh).

As I expected, my writing on that blog has been much sparser than on this one.  In fact, I only wrote my 5th post there yesterday, after a gap of over a year!  Still, it’s nice to have the blog and feel I’m doing a little bit to increase the amount of Welsh in cyberspace as well as keeping my own language skills reasonably rust-free if not exactly finely honed.

Last week I had my second ever visit to Spain – a lovely week in Catalonia with some most excellent friends (including some I’d never met before I went there).  In preparation for this, I’ve spent quite a lot of my linguistic energy over the past few months on trying to brush up on my (woefully limited) Spanish.  I got plenty of opportunity to speak Spanish (and learn a few words of Catalan) while I was there, and this has fired my enthusiasm to keep working on the language, partly in the hope that I’ll be visiting the area again before too long; I also hope to be able to visit other bits of Spain and perhaps Latin America and to continue to explore Spanish literature and films, as well as being able to talk to Spanish speakers who cross my path in North Wales or elsewhere.

I was very conscious while I was in Spain that, although I could understand a reasonable amount of written and (to a lesser extent) spoken Spanish, I was severely limited in what I was able to say (or write, not that I had very much occasion to write while I was there).

Therefore, I have just started yet another blog.  This one is similar to the Welsh one but in Spanish and purely to give myself *cough* regular practice at actively using the language.  Since I speak a lot less Spanish than Welsh, the posts are likely to be fairly short and I’ll try to keep them simple.  I’m hoping that I might get some useful feedback from Spanish speakers but even if I don’t, the simple act of forcing myself to write (and as far as possible, think) in Spanish on a fairly regular basis should be immensely helpful in my efforts to learn to speak and not just vaguely understand it.

As with the Welsh blog, this is actually my second attempt at a blog in Spanish.  (One of my first posts on this blog was a potted history of my earlier blogs, including both of these, if you’re interested.)  Similarly, the posts on the Spanish blog, like the Welsh ones but unlike the posts on this blog, won’t be automatically publicised on Facebook or Twitter but can be accessed via an RSS feed if you want to be able to follow them.

Macaroni and apples

Last week, I was on holiday in Catalonia.  This has reinvigorated my interest in Spain and the Spanish language (as well as giving me a taste for Catalan).  A few more posts related to my trip will probably follow soon, but for now here’s a trilingual treat that I came across while surfing Wikipedia earlier today.  (The third language in question, though, isn’t Catalan as you might expect from the start of this paragraph, but Latin, the grand-daddy of them all.)

In English, we have a well-known saying:

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

This is probably somewhat exaggerated but it’s certainly true that apples are quite healthy and eating them regularly is likely to have a positive rather than negative effect on your general health (sadly, I’m not sure that drinking cider counts).  Actually, I read an interesting blog post fairly recently (and, sadly, have mislaid the link to it) suggesting that bananas are even healthier and we’d do better to say “A banana a day…”, but that’s digressing.

There is also a Latin saying that probably still just about qualifies as well-known (at any rate, it’s one I’ve known for a long time):

Mens sana in corpore sano

This means “A healthy mind in a healthy body”.  Presumably the point of this is to indicate a correlation between mental and physical health.

The Wikipedia page on bilingual puns lists a delightful merging of these two sayings that approximates the meaning of the English one by substituting a similar sounding Spanish word (manzana = apple) for the first couple of words of the Latin one:

Manzana in corpore sano

(Literally, “An apple in a healthy body”).



NB in case you’re wondering about the title of this post, this Wikipedia article on macaronic language might help.

A positive sadness

I hadn’t intended to write another Doctor-Who-related post so soon after the last one, but I came across a lovely quote in the book that I finished yesterday, which was too good to pass by.

The book was Full Circle by Andrew Smith, who also wrote the original TV story.   Any Doctor Who aficionado worthy of the name will recognise this as the first story of the classic E-Space trilogy and the one in which Adric (the companion that most fans evidently love to hate, although I always quite liked him) was introduced.

The quote appears on the first page of Chapter 1 (which isn’t the start of the book as this one has a prologue) and reads:

The [Doctor's] face was at once immensely cheerful and yet tinged with the sadness of one who has known too many people for too short a time.

I’m nowhere near 750 years old (the Doctor’s approximate age at the time of this story), however much I may sometimes feel like it, and I’ve obviously not met anything like as many people as he had.  However, I’ve been living in or near a university town for the best part of the last 20 years (and, in case you know me and think I’ve miscounted, I’m referring to two separate universities), and these are notable for the transitory nature of large chunks of the population.  Therefore, whether or not it’s reflected in my face, I can certainly relate to the sadness of knowing many (though perhaps not too many) people for all too short a time.

It doesn’t help that my track record for keeping in touch with people when they (or I, though mostly I’m the one staying put) leave is generally pretty poor.  Of course, staying in touch is a two-way business so it would be unfair to apportion all or even most of the blame in one direction or the other.  Suffice it to say that my contact with some people I’ve known (and in some cases known very well and got on with excellently) is limited while for others it is non-existent.

Long ago, I came to the conclusion that (at least in the cases where you get on well with each other, which for me seems to be most of the time) it’s better to be able to enjoy the pleasure of someone’s company for a short while than never to have met them at all.

And if you are someone I used to know and have dropped out of touch with, please (a) accept my apologies, especially if you made attempts to stay in touch which weren’t reciprocated, and (b) feel free to drop me a line. [And if you're one of my former English teachers, please accept my further apologies for starting two consecutive sentences with the word "and" :-)]

(Re)discovered Noodlespruces

Tonight’s dinner, which I finished eating a few minutes ago, was noodles.  As usual, I subjected them to a bit of noodlesprucing, which improved them immeasurably.

The noodles on this occasion were chicken ones.  Rather, the noodles were plain old instant noodles and the supplied flavour sachet was chicken-flavoured (though whether any of the contents had ever been in sight of a real live chicken is another question).  Most of the treatment I gave them was my pretty standard basic noodlespruce, which basically consists of lightly frying a chopped spring onion and (this time) some garlic in olive oil in the saucepan before adding boiling water, the aforementioned flavour sachet and a few extra spices (on this occasion, a fairly liberal pinch of lemongrass and a dash of Maggi sauce), then simmering for somewhat longer than specified on the packet (around 10 minutes, instead of about 3).

However, in addition to this, I did two other things.  One was entirely new, as far as I can remember, to my preparation of noodles (though similar to a technique I’ve used countless times in cooking stews).  The other was one that I’m fairly sure I’ve tried in the distant past (long before noodlesprucing was so named) but not for quite a while.

The new idea was to throw in a handful (metaphorically speaking – it was actually somewhat less, probably nearer a tablespoon’s worth, though I didn’t measure it accurately) of pearl barley.  This relied on the extra cooking time to ensure that the barley was reasonably soft by the time the noodles were ready to eat. It was – just about – although possibly pre-soaking the grains in boiling water for a few minutes may be a good idea in future.  This helped to make the dish a bit more substantial, and provided a nice additional flavour and texture.

The revived idea was to garnish the finished noodle dish with a generous dollop of mayonnaise, which was allowed to percolate its own way through the noodles rather than stirring it in too much.  This provided a delicious, rich creaminess.  As I ate my way through the noodles, I added a bit more mayonnaise a couple of times.  By the end of the bowl, it had fairly well mixed with the noodle juice (or soup or call-it-what-you-will) and made it a pleasure to drink down to the last drop.

I’m not sure either of those spruces are going to be ones I use too often in the preparation of noodles, but they are certainly welcome additions to the repertoire.


Last night, I was planning to watch a DVD of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

As it happens, I didn’t get round to doing so (I’m hoping to watch it tonight instead) but while I was still intending to watch it yesterday I happened to be searching through some little used cupboards and drawers in my house, looking for something or other.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, but instead I turned up a programme for Lucia di Lammermoor that I picked up when I went to see it at the Bielefeld Opera House during a visit to Germany about 12 years ago.

This was particularly surprising since, although I remember that trip to the opera quite well, I’d entirely forgotten that I had picked up a programme there, let alone kept it.

Of course, the programme is completely in German, which makes it a little difficult to read since my knowledge of that fine language was limited at the best of times and is now quite rusty to boot.  Still, I can remember enough to get the gist of what the programme says.

Interestingly, while it has a synopsis of the plot and quite a bit about the history of the opera, it doesn’t seem to contain anything about the specific performance, such as a list of the cast (as far as I’m aware it was essentially the regular Bielefeld Opera House artists, without any internationally famous guests or anything).  It may be that they had different casts for different performances (assuming it was being shown several times over the season) and there was an insert (either long-lost or never picked up with my copy of the programme) giving details, or that the information is actually there and I just missed it on my fairly brief perusal.

I haven’t yet tried to read the programme in any detail but it’s nice to find a physical link between my current mostly-home-media-based opera enjoyment and my previous visits to the Opera House.

Minty Fresh

I’m not a great fan, in general, of herbal teas.  I don’t mind drinking them but I would generally choose other things in preference to them.

However, a few years ago I had the pleasure of being served some Iraqi mint tea (at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, of all places) and enjoying it greatly.

Subsequently I read up a bit on mint tea and, although I couldn’t find any specific references to Iraqi tea in my extensive researches (i.e. Wikipedia) I did manage to find references to North African mint tea, which seems to be known variously as Morrocan mint tea, Maghrebi mint tea or Touareg tea.  The latter is my favourite name, due to its alliterative appeal.

Unlike the more standard British versions of herbal teas, which are generally just infusions of the herbs themselves (e.g. mint) and therefore not technically tea at all (i.e. containing leaves of Camellia sinensis), this is actually green tea (most often, apparently, Chinese green gunpowder) infused together with mint leaves.

The authentic preparation of Touareg tea seems to be fairly complicated, involving boiling up the tea and mint leaves together in water with quite a lot of sugar.  I’ve not (yet) tried that but a few weeks ago it occurred to me, while drinking a cup of gunpowder tea, that a reasonable substitute (or at least, a nice refreshing and tasty drink with no pretension to being authentic North African mint tea) might be obtained simply by bunging a few mint leaves in with the tea when brewing it in the usual way.

I lost little time in trying that idea out (though I did have to wait a few days to get to a supermarket and buy myself a mint plant, as my last one had died a year or two back).  So far, I’ve made my mint tea probably about half a dozen times, chopping (or cutting up with scissors) one or two mint leaves to go with a liberal teaspoonful of gunpowder tea in my basket infuser to make a single cup of tea.  I’ve been very happy with the results.

That’s pretty much all I want to say about mint tea for now but I’ll finish with a couple of notes about the brewing of green tea in general.  These are things that I’ve learned through reading followed by experimentation.

I’ve been drinking green tea for quite a long time (in fact, on and off, for most of my life) but until a few years ago tended to find it came out a bit bitter for my tastes when I brewed it for myself.  I then discovered that green tea should be brewed with slightly cooler water than black tea (for which the water should be pretty much boiling).  I can’t remember the exact recommended temperature (which probably varies in any case between different types of green tea and personal tastes) but as a rough rule of thumb I usually aim to turn off the kettle just as the big bubbles start to form and then leave it for a few seconds before pouring.  The result of using cooler water is that the tea brews without releasing various compounds that cause the bitterness, so you end up with a much nicer tasting cup of tea.  (Black tea, by contrast, benefits from hotter water to release its full flavour.)  That’s almost certainly the single most important bit of advice I’ve come across for brewing green tea.

More recently, I found that green tea leaves can be successfully infused several times and still give good results.  In fact, by reusing the leaves two or three (or possibly even four or five) times you get subtle changes in the flavour which add to the tea drinking experience.  Indeed, for some types of green tea, such as gunpowder, the first infusion is considered to give a less pleasant taste than subsequent infusions, so it is quite common practice to discard the first batch and start drinking from the second.   I’m not sure whether that practice is officially called “washing the tea leaves” but that’s how I tend to think of it.  (Again, this is different for black tea, where most of the flavour seems to come in the first infusion; oolong tea, although superficially more black than green, seems to stand multiple infusions very well, although washing the leaves is neither necessary nor desirable.)

I’ve taken to doing just that, with the slight modification that I usually only use half a cup of water for the first infusion (if I’m using my single-cup basket infuser, which is my usual method for tea making these days) and that, rather than waste it, I’ll leave it to go cold and then feed it to one of my houseplants.  I’m fairly sure that the tea doesn’t do any harm to the plant, and may do some good, and I still get to enjoy two or three very pleasant cups of green tea (with or without mint; often I’ll do the first brew (not counting the washing) without and then add mint for subsequent cups).