Winter perfume


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.  

IMG_5174 calicanthus compYesterday 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.

IMG_5178 calicanthus crop compSuddenly 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.

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Categories : Venetian-ness


  1. Krystyna says:

    I don’t know this flower and it’s fragrance, but the way you describe it makes me feel it somehow…

  2. Michael says:


    You sister works with me and pointed me to this post on your wonderful blog.

    I spent a decade in Ithaca, so I, too, know about those winters.

    More to the point, though, I’m grateful to you for this bright spot in the current, almost-solstice drabness.

    Blessed Be,

  3. Erla says:

    Harold Ross, the legendary founding editor of “The New Yorker” magazine, once stated that “Nothing is indescribable.” I was on the verge of trying to describe it in a more specific way, then remembered that life is short. I’m glad you were able to appreciate it even without a chemical analysis.