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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Alissandratou

Constantinople, St. Germain-en-Laye, Istanbul; St.Helena: Flowers, Flowers Everywhere!

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Flowers and perfumes! Both transport me to heavenly heights. The fragrance of incense I associate with Church ceremonies – it is profuse in the Eastern Orthodox rites, all stemming back to the early days of Christianity, the Byzantine Church in particular where Divine Liturgies were celebrated, rituals of yore that continue to the here and now. While my focus today is on flowers and perfumes and the effect they had and continue to have on my life, first indulge me a very brief tour behind the walls of Constantinople.

Gardens were everywhere in the capital, founded by Constantine I. The flower of preference for many an emperor, the rose, with its multiple varieties and perfume, adding beautiful ornamentation to the already exquisite architecture and the landscape of the city. While early on flowers were eschewed by early Christians, except for medicinal use, with time, what was once associated with pagan practices, became a source of lush adornment in palaces, homes, gardens, and streets: the beautification of the capital.

Fortunately, we continue to appreciate the teasing, exquisite joys flowers evoke, as well as the perfumes emanating from their petals. Today we perpetuate these practices of days long gone by with flowers in our gardens, in window boxes, along streets, highways. Flowers are used to celebrate, honor, mourn. We find them at gravesites. Divas accept floral bouquets, flowers thrown at their feet in homage; rose petals blanket the bridal couple’s walk down the aisle. When I was at a Greek taverna in Cyprus, carnations instead of plates were thrown to cheer on dancers. (A lot safer, as well as aesthetically more appealing and gracious.)

Flowers serve as markers, rites of passage in my life. The man who was, many years later, to become my husband and the father of my only child, at the age of fifteen, saved his bus money so that he could offer me a bouquet for my birthday, gladiolas.

The following year, he gave me a record album, La Violeterra, the theme song from the Spanish movie by the same name about a young woman who sells violets on the street, and the man with whom she falls in love. Flowers! And what a wonderful memory. I still have the vinyl among my souvenirs of a young man in love even then.

Flowers and their perfume evoke memories. My mother’s favorite blooms were violets, lilacs, and gardenias. Reminiscences of the lilac bush outside her window often come to mind: how the fragrance filled her room in the spring. Many years later in Ann Arbor, and then a grandmother, she enjoyed walking with my five-year-old daughter through a lilac grove near the graduate student housing complex, often “stealing” a branch or two to replant in a vase at home. Later, here in California, I found a lilac tree and planted it for her, and while I still have it in my garden, it has yet to give us any flowers and remains more a twig. Bay Area climate is not conducive to the growth of lilacs, though I tried! And so it remains in its twiggy pose. I have yet to give up on it: I do believe in miracles. Perhaps one day….

Every February my mother celebrated her birthday with a sprig of violets, a tradition we shared as I grew up. On the corner of our apartment in the beautiful Istanbul section of Nisantas was a vendor selling small bouquets of violets in winter. Saturdays for as long as they were available, we would indulge ourselves, Mother to pin the small bouquet on the lapel of her coat, and I to simply carry mine in my gloved hand. For her 85th birthday in St.Helena, luncheon guests were given little violet plants in remembrance of that afternoon.

While living in France, Mother and I often visited the Sunday marché in St. Germain-en-Laye, whatever the season, for the sole purpose of purchasing bunches of flowers. Our basket overflowing, we filled every corner with blossoms of all colors imaginable and whatever was in season: every table of our living room was abloom. In particular I recall the small white snow flowers that lasted for weeks on end and brought unexpected enjoyment and relief to the monotony of gray that marked the long, dreary, rainy winter months.

Later, in Turkey, floral fragrances emanated once again from ever part of our home.

Never arriving empty-handed when calling, guests heralded the wonderful onslaught of more flowers! Oh! The bouquets were beautiful. And if there were a special occasion, flowers were in abundance. Birthdays, holidays, whatever occasion came to mind. We never lacked. This civility, the offering of flowers, is one I cherish. A couple of summers ago while in Istanbul I went to pay my respects to one of my professors, Dr. Ercüment Atabay. Though quite elderly, well into his nineties, he remembered me after so many years, recalling my time as his student, as well as a later visit I paid him with my eight-year-old daughter. Following custom, I arrived with a large bouquet in my arms. Not long after, I learned of his passing. This lovely man, who now lives on among memories of those halcyon university years. I can only hope the flowers brought a few rays of sunlight to the twilight of his days.

Flowers do brighten life. When we lived in Bahrain, I had bought a lovely plant with a large pink bloom which I placed in a brass planter. Every morning, while taking my coffee, I would sit looking at it, meditating, planning my day, my week, dreaming my dreams. To this day, its name alludes me, though its vision for eternity in my mind's eye.

My own floral penchant is for jasmine, gardenias, lilies of the valley, orange and lemon blossoms and roses. Roses and jasmine bloom on my deck, their perfume wafting softly, gently, alluringly through open windows and doors. In the house, large sunflowers dance gaily in the sunlight of my kitchen; my living room and dining room are often a plethora of orange roses in brass planters; white roses on the piano;

and my favorite yellow roses pay homage to the youthful St. Mamas and the Panagheia Glykophiloussa, the Virgin of the Sweet Kiss, my precious icons. Knowing my fondness for flowers, friends often bring white, violet, pink orchids that adorn the window alcoves. The rooms are alive in floral beauty, elegance and color.

And from flowers, perfumes: evocation of memories, loved ones, identity. Be it with fragrances we use to smell alluring, or just for self-satisfaction, a particular scent becomes a part of us, of who we are. It permeates our clothes. The other day, I donned a favorite sweater and was amazed at how my perfume had lingered on. I recall when my late husband was quite ill, I went into our closet and grabbed one of his sweaters, brought it to my face and sobbed as I took in his fragrance, praying that he would not be taken from me. When my mother died, I took to wearing her lotion, just to smell it and feel her closeness. Sometimes I sprayed a room with her favorite perfume and walked through the haze, my eyes closed, feeling her presence.

Flowers, fragrance.

And so we come full circle, what I like to think of as the Byzantine presence in my 20th century girlhood and in my 21st century home, the wonderful fragrances, what we think of as times long gone, hovering over us in our collective memory.

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