Most Beautiful Thing

Some time ago, I began to ask people what the most beautiful thing they had ever seen was.  It was a  question  which seemed to open doors in people’s minds, you could see them having thoughts they hadn’t had for a long time. The answers came out slowly in a tangle of other ideas. People would ask themselves what “beautiful” meant. One friend commented that it is easy to complain about things with a perfect stranger but that saying what you most like is very intimate. It was in any case a question which set off a reaction which was never entirely predictable.

After a few months, I ended up with a list, with all kinds of answers, from people of all ages and from various parts of the world. People have interpreted the word “seen” in lots of different ways. What is exotic for some people will be commonplace for others. I used to re-read it from time to time and I felt that these memories had also become mine. It enriched me, made me travel in my mind to places I hadn’t seen and highlighted the beauty in some things I had overlooked.

I haven’t asked the question of anybody for quite some time now, but I will put up the list here and you can suggest your own through the comments box.  I am not going to indicate any names. (If you feel more comfortable expressing your idea in another language, I shall try to translate it – for the time being we can manage French, Italian, Spanish and probably German. It’s not a competition, there are no rules, but it is simply a kind of lazy susan for sharing out positive ideas).

There was one answer which came up repeatedly – and quite rightly. But as a result I am going to consider it automatic that for all mothers and other parents the most beautiful thing is seeing one’s children born and I am going to put it at number one. The  other answers are  in the order in which I received them.


  1. The birth of my child/ children.
  2. Rain falling on the dunes in the Sahara desert.
  3. The library of Ephesus.
  4. Vermeer’s milkmaid.
  5. Dawn in Jericoacoara, Brazil. Dawn in the tropics is always spectacular, but there it was special. An array of towering dunes- 50-100m. With white sand, which seemed like snow. And we were on those dunes. In front was the ocean and behind wer palm groves. I can still feel the cold and so soft sand and the leaps we took to go down, metres at each bound, and then the sun came up.
  6. The mountains in Spiti in Pakistan. South of Ladakh. The light there.
  7. A sunset in Asmara.
  8. I was studying in Gibraltar and I could see the harbour from where I sat. Unexpectedly I saw the Amerigo Vespucci sail into port and fire a salute.
  9. The colour of the water in the Maldive islands.
  10. The mosses in Kew Gardens.
  11. The volcano on the island of Flores with its three lakes.
  12. The night sky full of stars in Western Australia.
  13. The city walls of Jerusalem at sunset.
  14. The Andes seen from a plane.
  15. The plants they sold at the Botanical Gardens in Paris (lotus ?).
  16. There was a time when I had a recurring dream of flying in which I could zoom down onto plants. The perfection of the colour green in those dreams.
  17. A volcano in Chile.
  18. The photograph of a house on the Bosporus.
  19. The way houses move in an earthquake (if beauty can also be what is terrible).
  20. The first time I saw a forget-me-not and also pasta with tomato sauce.
  21. The Taj Mahal.
  22. My two children when they laugh together.
  23. Ukraine (I don’t remember where) 1981. It was getting dark and we had just finished putting up the tent for the night. Around us there was an endless expanse of yellow and green fields, with no houses or people, just a little wood. Suddenly the earth began to shudder, ever faster, with a sound which seemed to shake the trees one by one and get closer and closer and increasingly mysterious. There was no wind but the whole wood stirred and boomed as if there were something inside it moving it. At last a man with long black hair emerged from the wood on a galloping brown horse and all the stars in the sky were mirrored on them, lighting them until we lost sight of them.
  24. My parents holding hands at my marriage.
  25. Lake Tanganyika.
  26. A former military bay on the island of Lastovo, Southern Dalmatia, Croatia.
  27. A garden of stalagmites.
  28. Seeing a flic cause a mammoth pile-up on the Champs Elysées.
  29. Seeing a plane I had chartered land in Kenya and hearing someone say, “Madam, your plane”.
  30. During World War II, when I was a child, we lived on the sea about six kilometers from Ancona. One day the town was bombed while my mother and aunt were at the market. I was sent to look for them on my bike, but I couldn’t get through all the rubble and turned back. Then in the evening they walked through the gate. That is the most beautiful thing I ever saw.
  31. The house in Lebanon where I grew up and its garden.
  32. My children when they smile together.
  33. Human skin.
  34. My cat’s profile.
  35. The landscapes of Sri Lanka.
  36. It may seem trite but I am deeply moved by the change of colours that appear in the sky and on the surface of the sea after sunset. The hues and length of the time the colorus light up the sky and the sea before they begin to fade vary at different latitudes, but the magic never fails to captivate me. I know the Greeks talked about rosy-fingered dawn (another beautiful moment, especially in the desert) and Sciascia wrote a book called “un mare colore del vino” ( a wine-coloured sea). So that’s it for me with the second best the high plateau in the Pamir moutnains on the Silk Road going from China to Pakistan with Marco Polo’s track meandering beside the road and herds of yak tended by nomad families, and to boot the peak of K2 in the distance. I really did not want to come down and would love to go back.
  37. Mommy, Daddy, my cat, the first time I saw snow.
  38. The coastline of New Zealand from the airplane, beginning of South Island.
  39. Alone, in front of Lake Nakuru, covered with pink flamingoes (being alone was an important part of the experience).
  40. Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.
  41. Seeing dawn from the Assekrem, a mountain in the middle of the Sahara. You could see for hundreds of miles and it was like watching the creation of the world.
  42. It is difficult to answer the easiest questions, if you give any thought to them. I am lucky enough to have seen many beautiful things, so the most important thing was how to interpret the word “most”. My first idea was to go through my memories: how intense was the feeling and the emotion caused by the beauty of the things I had encountered ? But soon I realized that at most I could compare the intensity of my memories and measure their impact as re-lived now: with the effect of time’s passage, which adds, erases, changes and distorts. Therefore I decided to interpret “the most beautiful thing” in a different way and consider things which I find beautiful even after having seen them many times. Of course, this means discarding out of hand the beautiful things I have only seen once and which I will probably never see again: the black kites flying above the ricefields of Java, the carpet of night lights in Manhattan, the stormy crater of Aetna. But I think this is right. Beauty is an everyday goddess. Applying this criterion I have no doubts: the most beautiful thing is snow. I always like it, from when it is most luxurious to when it is at its humblest, from the ice of Mont Blanc to the mud-spattered gravel-like stuff alongside the roads in towns and I believe I shall always like it.
  43. A basket full of cherries (with leaves). The smell of the leaves.
  44. Our school play when we children were all like swallows.
  45. Hearing my daughter sneeze just after she had been born.
  46. The scent of the marchands de jasmin in Tunisia.
  47. The smell of humidity you feel when you get out of a plane in South-East Asia.
  48. The smell of Arab bread produced in those run-down bakeries, especially when harissa is spread on it.
  49. In Santo Domingo two poor kids were looking at the window of a toy shop discussing what they would buy if they had the money. I bought them the toys they had mentioned. Their look of astonishment.
  50. The most beautiful thing I have ever seen was my niece when she was a few months old opening her arms in excitement at the sight of her mother’s tits.
  51. If I had to give one experience that I found so beautiful that it took my breath away, it would be the Glacier of Perito Moreno in Patagonia, Argentina. To see the wall of ice with its turquoise reflections, and to see and hear large chunks break off and fall into the Lago Argentino was something that left an indelible mark.
  52. A black-faced lamb on the machair.
  53. Seeing a hippopotamus in Africa.
  54. Seeing a flock of birds in Africa and the noise they made.
  55. The valley of Jauja in Peru. I arrived by train from the coast. The valley opens into the central Andes, with wheat fields in the flat part of the valley next to the river. The broom with its intense yellow blossoms grew on the slopes in alternation with the various tones of green which formed woods up to the snow-capped peaks which stood out against the brilliant blue of sky lit by the midday sun. The houses had red roofs and the campesinos walking on the roads or in the fields wore many-coloured ponchos on which red and orange prevailed.
  56. Deep in the Hungarian puszta, a milk-white fog bank, visibility nil, total silence, fearful, not knowing whether it was safer to continue driving slowly or to stop in the swirling choking thickness and then suddenly emerging into pitch-black with myriads of huge bright stars so close I could reach out and touch.
  57. Anselm Kiefer’s exhibition at the Bilbao last summer: vast spaces, roomful after roomful of his poignant travels through history and nature, his huge earthy, powerful, tragic, poetic, whimsical series and finally his Doors for the Salpetrière… a wild, totally crazy idea ! Doors of the Emanation! Doors we can never cross. Maybe just stand a little close to, catching our breath, bowing our heads with a tear and a complicit smile…
  58. A Mark Rothko painting. The Mekong river above Luang Prabang. (sleep dreaming): yellow
  59. Sitting on a houseboat, just my partner and I, at Sebongewe, Kariba in Zimbabwe, with not a house, road or light to be seen and above me and reflected in the water below, millions and millions of stars. I felt I was floating in space.


1 Comment

  1. Laura Cowan

    A murmuration of starlings

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