How many languages do you speak? If I'm honest, I'd say one – English (along with a 'get-by' smattering of Greek, and the sort of French that helps me find a loaf of bread and the loo!). Unless, of course, you count 'garden talk', in which case I can probably lay claim to Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Albanian, Russian, Japanese, Berber, Bengali, Thai, Malay and several others. In fact, I don't think I've ever visited a country without having first learned to say: "Your garden's looking very nice", "What do you call this one?" and "Yes, I have a garden, too".
It's a language that opens doors because it opens hearts. It takes you immediately to the very essence of who a person is – whether it's a little old lady in a tiny Athens apartment with two geraniums clipped to her balcony railing, or a tired Romanian farmer steadying the plough behind his horse as he earths up an entire field of potatoes. And as I'm seldom the sort of traveller who's interested in visiting more than one museum or art gallery a week (in fact, what I do most of the time I'm away from home is wander around obscure places looking for whatever is growing in backyards) this 'gardenese' it's really the only language I need. Sometimes, however, it can have unexpected and slightly inconvenient consequences.
In the backblocks of Tuscany (yes, it's not all 'Villas Under the Tuscan Sun') I once stumbled upon an Italian allotment, and made the mistake of admiring too enthusiastically a patch of basil with a backdrop of those gorgeous plum-shaped acid-free tomatoes. Suddenly, I was surrounded by men (yes, it was all men and no women in that lush vegetable garden) with forks and hoes. It seemed they all grew basil and tomatoes and if I admired one plot, I had to admire them all. I've never said: "Mi piace il tuo giardino" (and I probably didn't even get it right!) so many times in the space of half an hour, or been plied with so much produce! Grateful though I was, stumbling upon the allotment occurred just before I was about to board a bus to Florence to do some 'real' sightseeing. Have you ever tried to enter a 600 year old Italian church, stuffed with priceless paintings and antiquities, while carrying a backpack overflowing with tomatoes, Florence fennel, and bunches of wilting basil? Or attempted to eat the same in the space of half an hour?
Last month, I read of a forthcoming Orchid Society conference in the North Island. Next weekend is the annual get-together of her Trillium Society. I expect those attending these events will be speaking in languages which I could never hope to understand. But I'm equally sure that if I was to show an interest in their specialist areas, especially if armed with even one botanical term relating to them, we would immediately strike up a conversation – and it wouldn't be just about gardens. People who grow things, whether it's common garden vegetables or rare alpine plants, share a passion for the earth and a never ending fascination for what they can bring forth from it. What ever language you say it in, gardening is glorious!