Friday, July 20, 2012

The Garden (and the neighbors that came with it)

I won't lie:  sometimes the garden is buckets of fun.  Like when we find lizards hanging out in Nutella jars.  That's great, because I love creatures, the kids get a kick out of it and get to feed the little scaly friend some worms and bugs, and everybody has a good time.  

 The fruits of our labor are also wonderful:  No store-bought tomato can compare to one you pick from the vine yourself and cook, make into a salad or just eat like an apple.  These things are packed with flavor you can't even imagine if you've never eaten a fresh garden tomato.
 Ah, yeah.  The cucumbers.  They're delicious, too.  There's also a great story behind the cukes, but more on that later.
 Experiments are also great entertainment, like my kiwi plant.  Of several, just this one survived my neglect, which is pretty impressive.
 Making stuff out of our produce is fun, too.  This is probably the reason that I like having a garden.  I certainly don't like the actual work of it much, like weeding and watering and taking care of the thing, but I certainly enjoy cooking the stuff we grow.  These peas were turned into a delicious pea-herb cream soup, for example.
Here's another bit of fun I've been having:  making variations of pesto with those giant basil bushes in the greenhouse.

But the garden also has a dark side.  That dark side is the other gardeners.  At the beginning last year when we bought the garden, everyone seemed really nice and presented us with such welcome gifts as rhubarb plants, flowers to plant, herbs and seedlings.  People would walk by and comment on how nice everything looks, since the previous gardener hadn't done any actual gardening for a number of years.  That was eventually his downfall, he didn't do the required work.  In garden clubs like this you MUST garden, or you're history.  So they kicked him out.

The honeymoon phase ended quickly, though, and I began to see why gardeners are scorned by the rest of the population.

The gifts and kind words took an abrupt end with the onset of fall.  We stopped going to the garden after we covered the roses and tore out the last remains of the vegetable plants.  What should we do there?  That's when the not-so-gentle motivational speeches started from next door.  In a feeble attempt at making small talk with our neighbor, who is the husband of the (former) cashier and vice chair or vice president of our garden street, the master gardener in the family mentioned how cold it was and how he had nothing to do in the garden in the winter.  To which the neighbor replied in a gruff voice, "Well, you could take all that wood you have lying around from cutting down the bushes to the collection station".  To which the Master Gardener scoffed and replied:  "Why should I pay money to get rid of it when I can burn it?"  

Let me note:  All those evergreen branches that they thought were randomly strewn around the garden were actually generously covering our rosebushes and other plants, which did not freeze last winter.  Our neighbors´ roses were obviously covered rather carelessly, because they all froze. 

This was just the beginning. 

All of a sudden, those jokes and snide remarks about "Kleing√§rtner" were beginning to make sense.  You see, people like to make jokes about members of gardening clubs like the one we belong to, because they are very attentive to details like the height of your hedges, just what you're pouring or spraying on your plants, what amount of fruits and vegetables you have planted and what time of day and what day of the week you mow your grass or do any other loud activities.  Since we weren't dotting our I's and crossing our T's quite like they thought we should, we were beginning to be treated like little children who needed some guidance.  That quickly changed to shunning and outright yelling, but I'll get to that soon enough. 

The Master Gardener found a source of free horse manure, and when springtime rolled around, he started hauling manure to the garden every weekend, making several large mounds.  It was too early to plant, but we had big plans, so we also required large amounts of poo.  This attracted the curious and bemused stares of the neighbor in question.  It also attracted catcalls from 2 of our 3 neighbors that "You don't want to overfertilize your garden!"  But almost directly following their derisive remarks, Neighbor 1 requested some manure for himself, and suggested that maybe we could give Neighbor 2 some manure, since we have so much.  We shared with Neighbor 1, because we wanted to foster good relations, but not with Neighbor 2, since he didn't ask himself. 

Things were relatively quiet for quite a while, until we stupidly decided to take a vacation right in the middle of a very important gardening time:  early summer.  Neighbor 1 was friendly enough to agree to water the garden (and the expert nearly drowned our plants, but they survived).  Upon the Master Gardener's return, however, he proceeded to yell at him because he didn't know, wasn't informed or maybe just couldn't remember because of his numerous drunks how long he would be gone.  Shortly following this debacle, new water lines had to be installed.  The workers trampled our new asparagus patch, leading to cursing and swearing from the Master Gardener.  Neighbor 1 basically called him stupid for planting so much stuff in the garden in the first place and said it was his own damn fault.  Before the next visit from the workers, the Master Gardener cordoned off large areas of the garden, creating a clear path for the workers to follow.  This was also the wrong thing to do, because we "shouldn't force them to walk so far, they have work to do," according to Neighbor 1.  So they should trample our potatoes and asparagus?  When it would literally take 2 more seconds for them to walk on the path?  Hmm. 

Things have reached the boiling point in the last couple of weeks.  We had visitors, and they must have overlooked the speed limit sign, because they drove a little too fast in the garden colony.  I told them that they need to drive slower, because we also used to get in trouble with the neighbors for driving too fast.  Later in the evening, just as they were getting ready to leave, Neighbor 1 appeared from his drinking corner to yell at us over his hedge, "Tell your visitors to slow down!  They can't drive so fast in here!  The limit is 10 km/hour, not 50!  There are kids who play in here, and what about your own kids?"  This went on and on, and we told him that we'd already told them, and that it won't happen again, etc, etc, but he just wouldn't stop.  Not pleasant.  So our guests had some fun with it, and rather than driving their car away, they pushed it away from our garden!  I'm sure the neighbors were not amused.

Lots of statements like "I could help you with that, but you just don't want to hear it" and "I could tell you how to fix your greenhouse so that the panels don't blow out, but you just don't want to know" have been made in the last weeks.  The drunken rants have also continued.  Last year the neighbor's drunkenness just led to friendly talkativeness, this year it's leading to aggression.

The next interesting twist was a week or so ago, when Neighbor 2, who is famous for drinking canned beer, became the subject of some gossip.  We had a visit from another gardener on our street, who carefully approached the subject of Neighbor 2.  We're not his biggest fans because he likes to listen to a crappy radio station really loudly and his girlfriend has a staring problem, and as this became clear, the other gardener quietly stated with distaste, "Well, I've observed him peeing over there in the corner outside of his garden."  He also greeted Neighbor 1 and his wife with "Mr. and Mrs. Neighbor 1" rather than their first names.  Later we found out that they can't stand each other.  After our visit, Neighbor 2, aka Canned Beer, arrived at his garden.  Upon the sound of many beer cans opening, I peered through our meter-wide wall of sunflowers to see Neighbor 1 and his wife joining Canned Beer for a cold one and some grilled bratwurst.

Following this visit we reaped yet another telling-off from Neighbor 1 because of our sunflowers.  They're hanging a half meter into Canned Beer's garden!  We can't expect him to accept that!  To which the Master Gardener replied:  "Well, he can cut off whatever hangs into his garden.  That's the rule, isn't it?"  What did we find upon our next trip to the garden?  A little pile of leaves from our plants that Canned Beer had cut off and placed on our side of the fence.  This lead to the Master Gardener going to the fence and brutally snapping off all of his branches that were on our side.

The latest conversation between the Master Gardener and the husband of the now-dethroned cashier and vice president of our garden street took a comic turn.  Yesterday evening, the Gardener was picking some zucchinis which he hadn't picked the day before, only to have Neighbor 1 request some of our zucchinis for themselves, and Neighbor 1 just couldn't resist commenting how small our zucchinis are.  Master Gardener replied that yes, it's possible for them to get quite large, but then they don't taste good, Neighbor 1 continued to make fun of our garden because we just have a lot of big leaves on our plants and no fruits, and anyway you can't even see all the weeds in all those big leaves and then stated that he's already had 40 kilograms of cucumbers.  The Master Gardener laughed and said, "What should I do with that many cucumbers?  I can't eat them all, and my compost pile isn't big enough for the rest."  This was met with a blank stare, a pause, and, "Well, I gave a bunch of them away, and I eat cucumber salad for lunch and dinner every day."

Since we have no political motivations for good relations with Neighbor 1 and his wife, we can have our fun.  You see, Neighbor 1's wife was cashier and vice president until last weekend.  The previous president of our street had decided to step down from his post due to health problems, and had given Neighbor 1's wife a statement to post on the bulletin board several weeks ago.  She didn't do this, supposedly due to her own interest in becoming president.  This was all explained in a speech at the street-wide meeting, Neighbor 1's wife broke down in tears, stepped down from her position as cashier and vice president and didn't even run for a new position in the new election.  Since they don't like the new president, we don't have to worry about them breathing down our necks as vice-president or anything else. 

The rest of the summer should prove to be amusing.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

More Michigan

 The Michigan vacation wasn't just a trip to visit my family or do some urban sightseeing, we also travelled to the north and had a little active vacation as well.  Whenever you want to visit Michigan's Upper Peninsula, there's just about no other way than to cross the Mackinac Bridge, unless you're coming from Wisconsin or Canada.  This suspension bridge was for a short time the longest suspension bridge in the world.  It's currently the third longest, which also isn't bad.
 It's one heck of a bridge, and the really creepy part is driving or walking on the middle two lanes, which are just metal grating.  When you look down you can see the water, and that kind of makes me dizzy. 
 We made it to the UP!  This bear pretty much says it all.  Paradise is a small town in the Upper Peninsula, and I was quite enamored of their fancy sculpture.
 It really was that empty on the beautiful white sand beaches.  We had very long stretches while we were driving where we saw no cars, no people and no houses.  Northern Michigan is not very densely populated, and the Lake Superior beaches are not only pretty far away for most, but Lake Superior is also rarely warm enough for a comfortable swim. But it certainly is pretty!

 The first night we stayed in Grand Marais and had a delicious breakfast at this fabulous fifties style diner. 

 We made it to our destination:  Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Our first hike was to Grand Sable Falls.


 We continued on to Grand Sable Dunes, which were also super fun.
 We took the scenic turnout to have a look at Miner's Castle, too.

 Above are a couple more shots of the sandstone cliffs that make up the Pictured Rocks lakeshore.
 After staying a night in Munising we visited the Chapel area for a full day's hike.  We saw probably hundreds of these precious little chipmunks!
 The first sight was Chapel Falls.
 Our goal was Chapel Rock, here's the top.
 There's our lunch guest.  We didn't notice this friendly guest when we sat down for lunch on a piece of driftwood, then I quickly found a total of three snakes and a chipmunk dwelling in and around the driftwood!  But they're all harmless.
There's Chapel Rock from the beach.

 After spending a night in Escanaba and eating delicious Michigan specialties like homemade pasties, we drove to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where we saw this shrine to awful, disgusting beer. 

The last big event was a ride on the SS Badger, the only coal-fired car ferry in operation in the US.  It was a long ride across Lake Michigan (about 4 hours) and nearly made me sick, but I was okay.  The kids had a blast, and so did I as soon as I got over the fact that I was out in the middle of Lake Michigan and can't swim!

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Heidelberg Project

A few weeks ago I returned from a few weeks in my home state of Michigan.  The whole trip was pretty nice, but the very last leg of my visit has really stuck with me and just won't leave me alone.  That was my visit to the city of Detroit.  The whole thing started on my last Friday evening in Michigan, when we arrived at my sister's house.  I decided that I wanted to be a bit of a tourist in my home state and see some things that I've only ever seen photos of, like the Michigan Central Station that loads of people in Germany seem to know about due to a documentary on television and now the famous book by French photographers, The Ruins of Detroit, but that I didn't even know existed until a couple years ago.














The empty shell of a building that was once a train station and hotel:  Michigan Central Station.

You must understand, when you come from a tiny town in the middle of the state, you don't generally know much about the big cities except that they are scary and dangerous and best to be avoided.  That said, this drive into the city was not at all scary.  It was much more saddening than anything else, and a little exciting to see that, yes, there is still life in Detroit.  There are people out and about, small businesses and things are happening.  But it's certainly nothing like being in other big American cities like Chicago, New York or San Fransisco where there's true hustle and bustle.   
My sister, beautiful genius that she is, said that if we're going to Detroit, we might as well stop by the Heidelberg Project too.  This name rang a bell, I'd heard of this street before...



















It's the location of an outdoor art installation right in what a lot of people might consider the ghetto, a neighborhood that just fell apart in the second half of the 20th century, people moved away, houses have been burned, demolished, the empty lots were unused and not taken care of.  The artist Tyree Guyton grew up in this neighborhood and started this project with his grandfather in 1986 as a kind of protest against these negative developments in his neighborhood.  Here are some pictures of the installments.


















This art environment stretches along two city streets.  It's packed with social commentary.  For more about the history, development and details of this project, visit these sites:
http://heidelberg.org/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidelberg_Project
http://www.detroityes.com/art/12heidelberg.htm
I experienced a whole range of emotions on this visit.  The colorful, creative environment was exhilarating, but then looking at these abandoned houses and empty lots stirred up some sadness, confusion and anger.  This used to be a place where there were lots of houses and families and people going about their daily lives, now there are only a handful of houses that people actually live in.  There are many empty lots.  Some houses have visible fire damage and are clearly uninhabited.  This is not the only part of Detroit that looks like this.  But why?  Why are these cool old neighborhoods left to rot away and the people left to their own devices while the edges of the city just stretch and stretch and stretch and people hunker down out there behind their chain link fences?  Is that the American way?  Does that have to be the American way?