Gardening is known to be good for mental health. But even lazy people can benefit from the sheer beauty. Take it from me.
A Tribute to Our Lady of the Manor – How Our European Landlady Created an Oasis of Bliss on the Edge of Town
The first thing I noticed was a sign over the front gate that said “Die Hohe Luft.” It means “The High Air” in German.
It fit. The cozy little apartment building on the quaint residential street stood on a hill overlooking the German-speaking medieval city-village of Basel, Switzerland, and lay just below the rolling farm hills of the countryside, with cow pastures, horse stables, and open fields of flowers the public could pick in the summer and leave a few Swiss francs in a jar on the table by the side of the road.
We’d lived in a cheerful little flat closer to the center of town for the past few years and were happy there. But the lease had expired, and I’d just made the difficult decision to transition from an ex-pat contract to a local one with the big pharma firm that had brought my wife and me to Europe. I’d come for the career opportunity, but we both fell in love with the life. And it was soon about to get even better.
My wife had walked through the apartment earlier with the broker and thought I’d like it. So we went back and the three of us were greeted by its proprietress, Frau Jolanda Wackernagel, whom we came to know as the wealthy owner of the stately manor in the back. She was a somewhat imposing, formal but pleasant older woman who insisted on inspecting her prospective tenants every bit as carefully as they inspected her apartments.
Upon entering, I took a look at the kitchen, to my immediate right. It was serviceable, but nothing special. Then I looked at the living room to my left, peered out the floor-to-ceiling window onto the spacious balcony that ran the full length of the bright and airy three-bedroom flat, and overlooked a garden. Even in the dead of winter, with its sprawling evergreen trees, sea of ivy, and a magical little pond with the cherub fountain, it was enchanting. “Where do we sign?” I blurted.
Frau Wackernagel seemed to like us and soon gave us her blessing to sign the lease. We lived in bliss for the next 12 years.
Our Lady Celebrates a Milestone
Our Lady of the Manor is turning 90 now. She’s lived a charmed life and dedicated a good portion of it to seeing that people like my wife and me, and many others, could bask in the warm glow of that charm for a while. My wife and I have been back in the U.S. for three years and we’re still enjoying the residual effects.
Beyond the sheer physical beauty and tranquility of the setting – it felt more like a retreat than a city-dwelling – was the sense of community our landlady created, and the kindness she exhibited to others that gave the flat on the street called Thiersteinerrain an almost spiritual quality. Not one that hit you like a transformative bolt, but, like so much about life in Switzerland, one that crept up on you gradually and after a while affected you deeply.
Frau W.’s august exterior caused us to be reserved and keep our distance for a while. But by summertime we felt close enough to have her over for the first of many dinners with us, reciprocated manifold in her home, in her garden, and in the beautiful carriage house she used for special gatherings.
In time, we got to know her and the exceptional life she’d led. It was like streaming a multipart, epic movie, but in real life, over a succession of fine meals with world-class red and white Bourgogne, often from Frau W.’s well-stocked wine cellar from vineyards she’d known and frequented for decades..
Her childhood was hazy, but we learned that she had studied interior design in Paris in the 1950s. She returned to Basel and became involved with an older man who was a prominent attorney from a family of means. After a couple of glasses, she’d giggle and announce she was getting “drunky.”
We were always careful to keep the classical music playing softly in the background, so as never to disturb the neighbors – especially not if front of the landlady. But I’ll never forget the moment when Frau W. stopped everything in mid-meal to take in a passage of violinist Hillary Hahn playing Partita No. 2 in D Minor. “Please make it louder,” she said. “Louder,” she said again after I’d moved the volume up a couple of notches. “More!” she commanded. She closed her eyes, raised her hands, as if conducting the orchestra, and exhaled “trahn-sahn-DAHNT!” as if experiencing a sensual epiphany.
When her reservations subsided, the grande dame would share morsels of her love affair, telling us of romantic getaways in Ramatuelle, a village in the hills above Pampelonne Beach near Saint Tropez on the French Riviera.
The young Jolanda and her paramour married and lived happily in the estate overlooking Basel. From there she bloomed. As a pet project, she designed the apartment building with her own meticulous hand, embellishing it with small circular window features augmenting and brightening the living and dining rooms, French doors, round brick fireplaces, and roomy balconies that overlooked her real life’s work: her prized English garden, featured perennially in European horticultural magazines.
Frau Wackernagel’s Garden. Photo by Andreas Graune.
In addition to her own magnificent garden, she planted another one especially for tenants of our building. Each year she’d plant thousands of tulips there – red, white, yellow and pink. In summer they’d make way for all sorts of other colorful floral species, along with tall, graceful grasses in flowing tans and greens. Different flowers bloomed in succession, from daffodils, sometimes coming in late February in warm winters, to roses in the summer and many species beyond my floral vocabulary until well into the fall. She’d have her gardening crew drape the huge evergreen in white Christmas lights from December through January, and she’d come personally every New Year’s Eve to ring the bell the roof of the apartment building.
Living with the Flora and Fauna
In addition to the diverse flora on the property, there were the fauna: squirrels – red, gray and brown; rabbits; a family of mallard ducks, who settled at the pond for a few months to breed some years and stayed away from others; and all types of other birds, including a ferocious hawk that once flew a good-sized pigeon into our patio window, the two of them crashing with a boom that sounded like a missile had hit us. Only the hawk remained standing. The feral creature glared at me gawking and flew off, but only for a short while. He came back later that day to feast on his prey and returned for left-overs the next several days until all that remained of the bloody mess were a few scattered feathers.