the rhododendron

Can there be a more pitiful and tiresome plant than the rhododendron?  Its leaves are discoloured, blotchy, and have some sort of funny powder on them. Its flowers are not very interesting and wilt after a day or two. Its leaves seem never to disintegrate, but instead collect all over the place and make a mess. And on top of that, some people have had the nerve to make this tedious plant the ‘state flower’ of Washington!

The rhododendron, or Rhododendron macrophyllum, is native to this area of the world– that is, the Pacific coast of North America from about central California up to British Columbia. It grows all over the place and never ceases to be unsightly. Local people refer to it with the irritating nickname “rhodie”. In the 1890s, Washington women, lacking the vote and itching to cast a ballot about something or other, got up a list of candidates for ‘state flower’. The Bellinghamites wanted the clover, which I am assured grows around there. The Spokanites wanted some other flower- a lilac, perhaps. But a Mrs. Fry of Seattle put forward the rhododendron due to its “wild profusion, great beauty and its evergreen leaf, which goes with the Evergreen State” (source).

Wild profusion: Check. Like beer cans, frat boys, yuppies, dog-walkers, young urban professionals, etc.

Great beauty: Check out the photos and decide for yourself.

Evergreen leaf: Yes, it does stay green year round, if that’s a deal-maker.

Great Beauty.

Anyways,

[v]oters flocked to post offices, drugstores, hotels, and other public business places to cast their ballots… There were no landslide victories in this contest. In the end, the coast rhododendron was favored by capturing 53 percent of the 15,000 ballots cast. (source)

Now I suppose we are stuck with it, this terrible eyesore of a plant. I might note that in the suburb of Federal Way there is an outfit calling itself the “Rhododendron Species Foundation and Botanical Garden” where they charge you eight dollars to look at some rhododendrons. What sort of madness is this– these humdrum and wearisome plants are visible all throughout Seattle for no change at all! As an even better deal, you can come look at the rhododendrons all over my garden for only six dollars (two dollars less than my competitor in the suburbs) and I’ll throw in a running commentary of obnoxious patter for free.

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seattle parks, pt. 1: danny woo garden & kobe terrace

Here in Seattle there are many parks, but since this is not exactly a walkable city, I can’t say I’ve visited them all. Contrast that with somewhere like Paris, which has maybe four times the population of Seattle, but in an area 1/4th the size. In Paris, I’ve probably visited all the parks, gardens, squares, and every other type of green area, but in Seattle, I’ve not visited many, for they are too spread out and the city too sprawling. Paris also has a sort of set-up whereby events are held in the city parks– events that people might actually want to go to: musical groups from Palestine or Mexico or Bordeaux, for example. In Seattle, the events in the parks tend to be Easter egg hunts for babies or trash clean-up days, neither of which interest me all that much. The City of Paris also has the common sense to stagger (or rotate) events around to all the different parks, so that out-of-the-way parks see some action and get discovered: in this way I’ve visited any number of parks in out-of-the-way arrondissments that I wouldn’t otherwise maybe see. Seattle, by contrast, hosts events in Volunteer Park and one or two others, if that, and uses the other parks as pot-smoking refuges for underage hippies, dog-walking areas for pit bull fanciers, and frisbee-throwing areas for brawny frat boys. As these three activities don’t interest me in the slightest, and Palestinian musical groups do, I find Seattle’s parks to be lacking in excitement compared to those of Paris. That said, Seattle’s parks are certainly larger, and possibly greener, and contain some points of interest.

The Danny Woo Garden and Kobe Terrace are to be found in the Japanese area of the International District in Seattle. I was taken there by my associate and band-mate Bon-Bon, who, living in close proximity to said gardens, visits them often and was quite familiar with the whole to-do. It was my first time there.

You can get to these gardens quite easily by bus or tramway; they are about three blocks from the International District stop. That is what me and Bon-Bon did, arriving via tramway, and we wended our way up the streets to the gardens, which are across the street from Ichiban Japanese Restaurant and the Panama Hotel café (about which I’ll post something another time; it’s an interesting place and I used to deliver things there about ten years ago).

Danny Woo was a Chinese-American capitalist who, in a moment of social enlightenment, leased out this land at some point in the 1970s for the pithy sum of a $1 per year; it became a community garden for use by old folks and residents of low net financial worth, which is how people are judged these days. There are said to be about 100 plots there, and there is also a large chicken coop full of clucking birds with fanciful names. Bon-Bon said she’d never seen the chicken coop before, and surmised it must be a recent addition, as Seattle is suffering from an urban chicken craze of late as local residents become keen on caging up poor creatures in hastily-constructed backyard chicken coops. I believe the most popular local chicken name is “Henrietta”, based on anecdotal evidence.

We also spotted kale, carrots, some squash perhaps, and some various other vegetables. Actually Bon-Bon spotted these items; I being a city chap was most unfamiliar with the various stalks and above-ground parts of common vegetables. In one area there were some terraces on which were written things in some various Asian languages: I spotted Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, and some others.

At the top of the vegetable-growing area, the garden gives way to Kobe Terrace, which butts up against the freeway and features a 200-year-old 4-ton stone lantern, which was a gift to Seattle from the people of Kobe, Japan (our sister city on the other side of the Pacific). According to the badly-copyedited City of Seattle website, the area is “adorned with Mt. Fuji cherry trees and laced with ground vines and pathways winding alongside the freeway”. We didn’t see any cherry trees at all, but a man with two pugs walked by playing what sounded like Frank Sinatra out of a transistor radio in his pocket. I asked the fellow about the music. “Big Band sound!” he told me proudly, asserting that the two pugs liked it immensely, and that said dogs were “famous in San Francisco”.

We examined the giant lantern, which sits in what appears to be a pool; Bon-bon told me she had never seen water in it, though, and there did not appear to be a mechanism by which water would be pumped into the area, so perhaps it’s meant to be a dry pool. At the same corner, next to the lantern, sits the Nippon Kan Theatre, which used to put on Japanese plays. It has since gone under, as the Japanese are no longer interested in emigrating to Seattle, leaving that to the Vietnamese. Furthermore, local Japanese-Americans have lost interest in such things, perhaps turning their attention to monster trucks or such other forms of Americana- a Seattle P-I newspaper article from 2005 (‘Seattle loses icon of Japanese heritage’) on the theatre attributes the fall of Seattle’s Japantown to lower Japanese emigrant numbers post-1965 and a general assimilation into mainstream American ‘culture’ by later generations of Japanese-Americans.

This little park is a nice place to sit around; Bon-bon also showed me an area of concrete bench-type creations which she asserted was a cool place to sit on scorching 62-degree Seattle summer days; I also found a stash in the bushes of a bunch of bags of chips, which Bon-bon believed must belong to a local transient. If I were you, I’d go have coffee at the Panama Hotel (or bring it over to the park even) and spend a nice little while there if you ever find yourself in this part of Seattle.

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making yogurt

If you are like me, you think yogurt is mighty tasty, and you want to eat a great deal of it. I’m not talking about Yoplait-gelatin concoctions, but just regular nice yogurt. Having a fair amount of free time at present, I decided to try my hand at making my own yogurt at home. I took some photos so you can see how it went down. I apologize, as the photos are not that exciting, but it is not all that dynamic of a process.

The whole thing was quite simple. I don’t know if I even did it right, in the manner of Turkic nomads, but I did it and it came out yogurty, so follow along and see what I did.

First I poured some milk in a pot and heat it up and stirred it until it began to bubble. I didn’t put that much milk because this was just an experiment.

Then I let it cool until it was pretty warm, but not hot. Then I added a spoonful of yogurt from the store- I think this acts as some sort of starter, or gets the proper cultures mixed up with the warm milk. I stirred this around.

Then the next step involves keeping the mixture warm for anywhere from four to twelve hours. This was the tough part, and maybe where I failed. Every recipe I found for making yogurt advises you to place the yogurt in a warm spot such as a “sunny windowsill” or “atop the radiator”. These directions were not made for residents of Seattle, I suppose, for it is mid-August and no sign of sun anywhere (60 degrees and overcast), let alone sunny windowsills. There is no spot in my house or immediate environs that is warm at any time, ever. So I had to improvise here. Some people said you could light the pilot light in your oven and warm it that way, but that involved unscrewing a lot of things, so I came up with my own idea: I placed the tub of yogurt in a large pot some German hippies left at my house about five years ago. In the big pot I put boiling water, which I changed about every hour or so. The yogurt tub kept bobbing around, so I set some potatoes on top of it. This was not in the recipe, but it worked.

I’m not sure this step went well, because the water cooled off quickly, and possibly the yogurt requires more heat, or more consistent heat.

I went to the post office and to the store to see Mr. Mallick and buy cumin seeds and garam masala.

After about six or seven hours, I put the yogurt tub in the refrigerator. It grew a little more solid, but was still semi-slimy.

RESULT: It tasted like yogurt, but a pretty mild yogurt. This may be since I didn’t leave it out long enough or exposed to enough heat. It was a little drippy- more like ayran or raita than thick, creamy yogurt. In fact, if I salted it, I think I’d have pretty nice ayran. The thickness may be because I used 1% milk, as that’s what was around. Next time I’ll use whole milk and see what happens. I’m also unsure if this method is any cheaper or tastier than store-bought yogurt.

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the world of rice, pt. 1

On returning to my house after some absence, I was surprised to discover a shiny silver packet in my cupboard. A number of items had appeared in my house, due to various comers-and-goers watching the place whilst I was away: a 1970s-era book-and-LP set about the U.S. Civil War, a pile of 8-track tapes, a jar of pineapple salsa, and a number of other inexplicable items. However, my greedy eyes immediately set upon this foil package as being of the most interest due to the foodstuff contained within: basmati rice!

The small shiny packet, pictured above, proclaimed itself to be ‘Shrilalmahal’ (all one word) ‘Excellent Quality’ basmati rice, and what was more, was labeled ‘SAMPLE (No Commercial Value)’. One the front, as you can see, ‘rice’ is written in a variety of languages- no Hindi, funnily enough, although the company is based in Delhi and has a plant in Haryana. In fact, the company has gone to the trouble of placing Arabic on the package- at a first casual glance, I assumed it to be Urdu, but when I examined the package closer, I saw it to be Arabic, in Kufic script no less (القصر الاحمر, i.e., al-Qasr al-aHmr, Lal Mahal [Red Fort] in Arabic)- not sure what the reasoning is behind this. (I was also proud of myself for being able to read Kufic, which is a bit decorative for my tastes).

A blurb on the back of the package stated that ‘ShriLal Mahal Basmati rice is the choice brand with all the leading chain and Restaurants in different part of the world’ (sic) and went on to tout that said rice was ‘Sugar free & Fat free’, like all the other rice in the world.

I had no idea where this rice could have come from, but while cleaning up the house I found a couple of back issues of Femina magazine, the popular Indian women’s monthly. I was interested in a few articles touted on the cover- ‘Why Bengalis Look So Happy at the Table’ and ‘Israel, for a Med holiday that packs a punch’ (I was hoping the title was a political statement, but I didn’t see occupation mentioned once in the feature). In any case, buried within the magazine, at page 216, I found a full-page advertisement for Shri Lal Mahal rice, and it occurred to me that the rice sample must have been a free gift that came with the magazine, as is common in India when pavement-sellers have not managed to steal the free gift out of the magazine before you buy it.

The ad, in typical Indian hyperbole, describes the rice as ‘suitable for all ages’ and continues:

Espesially [sic] grown paddy that is aged for 2 years… in a way to evidently make it the healthiest…

Evidently!

I visited the Shri Lal Mahal website and found a looping commercial (warning, just starts playing of its own accord) full of singing and dancing. There were also a lot of grammatically-questionable sentences. I also noted that in addition to rice, Shri Lal Mahal is in the business of washing powder (“Pleasant Fragrance”) and scrap metal (Ferrous Metal Scrap, Non Ferrous Metal Scrap, Lead Scrap – “the unblemished quality of our products has fetched us the accolades of our clients spread across the world,” they note).

I ended up using the rice yesterday to create a dish I call “Jaan-tar Mantar”. It has nothing to do with the similarly-named observatory in Delhi, but rather comes from the Hindi jaan (darling, my love) and the Turkish mantar (mushroom); thus, mushroom, my love. And a love affair it certainly was, albeit one that came to a close as I licked the last grain of 18.00mm Shri Lal Mahal rice from the plate and smacked my lips in a most atrocious manner for a while.

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where have you bean?

It was back in 2007 when I last brought up this scintillating topic- how to pronounce ‘been’. I wrote back then:

I pronounce it /bin/. Absolutely the same as ‘bin’. Been/bin. How come no-one ever investigates this merger? I have heard British say the word the same as ‘bean’, as in baked beans. As in how have you bean. It sounds ridiculous to me, but I can’t offer an explanation as to why I pronounce it /bin/, except to say I’ve never said it any other way. (what is going on, 2007).

Well, today on a walk around Seattle, I saw a sign that takes it one step further:

Here we have the spelling ‘been’ to represent the word bin. It is surely true (at least in my ideolect, and I guess in this area of the U.S. as a whole) that been and bin are homophones. However, given their different orthographies, I would be surprised that anyone would mistake the two in their written forms– especially, someone, so attentive, to comma placement!

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Alliances Françaises in the world, pt. 4: Pnomh Penh, Cambodia

(See here for AF background).

The AF in Pnomh Penh is a pretty large structure that covers two sides of the street. One side is full of classrooms and large banners advertising DELFs and such; the other side houses a movie theatre, a library, a café, a bookshop, and a few other things. The library is on a few different levels and within was full of Cambodians studying French. I wept tears of joy to see people studying French.

I really didn’t see anything too special at this AF that was worth recounting. Evron, a dude who I was walking around with at the time, had never been to such a place before and was so excited by the comic section that he briefly considered learning French.

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Alliances Françaises in the world, pt. 3: Bucharest, Romania

(See here for AF background).

AF inner chamber, Bucharest. Photo via l'Institut français de Bucarest (www.ambafrance-ro.org)

You never know what you’re going to get at the different AFs of the world. This one was a bit of a let-down. It’s in a grand old building- too bad I didn’t take any photos, so you get a stock photo off the AF website. The interior is the best part, a fancy wooden carved chamber.

That’s about as far as I got. Upon going in, I found this wooden chamber, and wine in plastic cups laying around half-drank and with flyers and trash scattered about. There seemed to be some to-do in a café/bookstore adjoining the main chamber, but I didn’t linger there too long.

BATHROOMS: Used them, and filled my water bottle. In one of the sinks were hundreds of ice cubes. Not sure what that was about- perhaps an ancient French custom (they do things with much more style than we Americans), or some Romanian thing.

LIBRARY: I saw a sign pointing upstairs and a sign reading “mediathèque”, so up I went. A hangdog foul-looking dude approached me and grumbled something.

La bibliothèque, c’est par là?” I asked.

He chuckled and said with relish “Fermé. Fermé tout. Vacances.”

So off I went. I did see a sign on the front door on the way out reading “13h: Fermeture exceptionelle”. No reason was given.

Later I met a dude of Sri Lankan origins from Australia who went on about the oft-debunked "Dropa Stones", which, according to him, feature “microscopic grooves” that play sublime music. He refused to elaborate on the exact mechanism or any other details.

Since I neglected to take any photos of the AF building, here are some various Bucharest scenes.

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