Yesterday I crossed another of the myriad little stepping-stones of life here that form my path across the seasons, things that are wonderful the first time partly because they’re surprising, then become more wonderful as I anticipate their annual return.
Yesterday I was given a flower. And not just any flower: two slim branches of calicanthus (Chimonanthus fragrans), with their small yellow blossoms and — supremely important — their fragrance. You hardy gardeners out there probably take it for granted (“a spiny shrub from Japan related to Carolina allspice”), but its common name, wintersweet, hardly begins to do it justice.
I grew up in Upstate New York, where winter comes with multiple personalities, most of whom are not in the mood for jokes. It snowed from October to April, for starters. Skiing, skating, sledding — all great for kids with some free time. Frozen locks, icy streets, whiteout conditions on the Thruway, chilblains — not so great for anyone responsible for anything or anyone.
So winter in Venice, with its heavy, grey skies and lacerating northeast winds and films of ice on the immobile water of the canal — or even its dazzling, diamond-cut dawns or scintillating, frost-encrusted trees — brought out the primitive, Protestant, life-is-real-life-is-earnest-and-the-grave-is-not-its goal side of my spirit. Winter isn’t just something to survive: One must prevail.
Then I was walking down a street one rigid day; the Calle de le Pazienze, to be precise, not far from Campo Santa Margherita. It’s not so different from most streets: narrow, stony, lined with solid objects (in this case, houses on one side, a brick wall on the other), and I was just passing through.
Suddenly I inhaled a waft of music, a delicate little caress, an aroma so warm and so sweet that it made me stop in my tracks. What? Where? And more to the point, how? Winter doesn’t smell like chiffon steeped in sunrise; winter smells like a constructivist experiment, all angles and sharp points and edges.
I looked up and saw a mass of branches rising from behind the brick wall, and (I am not making this up) the sun was shining behind them, turning the tree into a huge bouquet of tiny, glowing yellow blossoms.
Tears came to my eyes but they didn’t fall because I was too entranced by how something so blithe could be so compelling. A philosophical point which I will attempt to resolve some other time.
And so, every December, I manage to snag a few branches. Of course the thrill of discovery is gone, but in its place is the knowledge that winter has a heart that isn’t made of titanium. My Protestant forebears must be pretty pissed that I’ve found that out.