A Clean, Well Lighted Place


A European city: narrow masonry buildings on winding cobbled lanes, over which bicycles bump, along which tiny dun-colored cars are parked. The streets are interrupted by canals that no longer seem to serve any commercial purpose, but are undeniably picturesque. Into the pattern of the city are woven parks studded with personable trees and crisscrossed by walks and water.

When I visit I am returning to a familiar place, a city where I was student for a semester, a place where I was actually living on my own for the first time, separated from the intrusion of parental supervision and the improving ideas of a willful girlfriend. Away from the self-serving suggestions of others, following my own volition forward, struggling out of a cocoon.

It is October and the train has brought me from the business portion of my trip to the personal portion, to visit two old friends, the city and the man I met in this city a decade before: my co-conspirator, my correspondent, my traveling companion, my doppelgänger.

Like me he is a romantic (he thinks things are bad, but they could get better); like me he lives in his head (he is friendly, but many think him odd); like mine his first marriage is imperfect (his, unlike mine, still exists as my train pulls into the station).

It is 1992. He has not yet embraced the convenience of e-mail communication. We have kept in touch by letter and by a quasi-annual phone call on Christmas Day when he, several time zones ahead, has usually been quite potted. The greetings in train stations during the 1990s are therefore awkward and an immediate visit to a bar is, without discussion, the first sojourn.


The walk toward a beverage reintroduces me to my other long-unseen friend, the city. We move through crowds of people who are preternaturally alone, past storefronts that offer goods in a dignified manner, through a built environment constructed with varied textures and painted with muted colors that glow at odd moments when the light is briefly right.

In October the clouds are like a gray fabric, in motion and yet seemingly permanently in place. In mid-afternoon the sun drops below them, lighting up the top halves of ocher buildings, while in the streets the shadows merely deepen. As they darken the vended flowers seem to come on like street lights, popping out of their pots and bundles in their places next to piles of fruit along the sidewalks.

In this city you are perhaps never out of sight of a floral presence that is either being offered for sale or has been purchased and put somewhere to bring light and focus to the space. When we arrive at the bar, order glasses of lager, and my friend lights his fifth cigarette of my visit, there is a pewter vase in the window to my left holding a single aster.

His wife does not join us; there are unspecified difficulties and tensions. In the United States we have democratized the legacy of Freud; everyone speaks of others’ inner lives in a vocabulary that is simply in the air, like sports metaphors and Yiddish. In this European country psychologizing is for the upper classes. My friend is from a small island and proud of his agrarian roots; he has disdain for narrative tropes that douse for hidden causes. The problem in his marriage is a nameless cloud; it will blow over or it will not.

Their apartment consists of two rooms and a bath. The kitchen is an alcove off the L-shaped space that is their dining and living area. The bed fills the shorter end of the L that extends toward the street. A curtain provides a modicum of privacy. After two days the curtain is not sufficient privacy.

Neither my friend nor his wife is employed. They have a lot of time and not much money. I am informed sheepishly that periodically his wife feels the need to simply hole up in the apartment with him, away from the demands of interaction with her other unemployed friends. My visit has coincided with one of those intervals and I must go for a walk. It is time for me to spend time with my other friend, the city.

My walking takes me to old haunts: bookstores, museums, cafés, park benches, streets that crystallize the personality of this place. It is overcast, windy, and damp; it is beautiful. I buy a pair of gloves. I sit, drink fresh beer and read. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had bothered to learn the language and dared to return here to live.

On the way back to the apartment at the end of the day I see what I have seen repeatedly through the day wherever I have gone: potted cyclamens huddled on either side of the doorways of fruit shops and florists, their downward looking blossoms quaking in the brisk breeze. Around the corner from the apartment I select a white-flowered plant.

Their heads are hanging down, dragging on cigarettes; they have been here all day. The cloud of smoke drifts around the room. I tell her that I have brought her something. Her face is more bewildered than surprised. I hold out the cyclamen. She smiles.


Classical Namesakes

A large number of flower names are derived from (mostly unfortunate) characters in classical mythology. The gods were forever taking lovers among the mortal population or merely befriending them and one way or another getting them killed. These hapless casualties were often turned into plants, usually very attractive ones.

Asclepius “butterfly weed”

Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a lake nymph called Koronis. Koronis cuckolded Apollo, never a good idea when dealing with a god, and he sent his sister Artemis, the huntress, to kill the pregnant nymph. He spared his unborn son, however, who was sent to Chiron the centaur to learn the craft of healing. Asclepius ultimately became a healer of some reknown. Like his headstrong mother, he eventually overstepped his position as far as the Olympians were concerned and became so good at healing that he began raising people from the dead. Zeus disliked the idea of the gods losing their unique status as immortals and killed Asclepius.

Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th century inventor of the system of binomial nomenclature, by which all living things are identified and organized, named the milkweeds after Asclepius, because many of the species were associated with folk medicine. In particular, Asclepias tuberosa, the butterfly weed is also called “pleurisy root” because North American tribal people chewed the root as a treatment for pulmonary ailments.


The peony (Paeonia) is named after Paeon, a student of Asclepius. The student angered Asclepius by seeking a plant with curative powers as strong as those of Asclepius. Filled with jealousy, Asclepius plotted to kill his young student. The god Zeus, in order to protect the young physician, transformed him into the flower that bears his name today.

Apollo also plays a part in the story of Daphne. She was a river nymph who was a follower of Artemis and, as part of her allegiance, swore herself to virginity. Apollo, of course, would have none of that and pursued Daphne relentlessly. In desperation she begged her father, a river god, to turn her into a laurel tree.

When Apollo was informed of Daphne’s transformation, he made a wreath of the laurel leaves and branches and began the tradition of awarding laurel wreaths for superlative accomplishments.

The European laurels (genus Daphne) associated with classical and neo-classical art (the Romans continued the association of laurels with winners) are not related to the North American laurels (mountain-laurel, sheep and bog laurels), which are ericads (family Ericaceae). The European plants are in the family Malvaceae and are more closely related to the North American basswood (Tilia americana).


Endymion, the genus name for the wild hyacinth, is now retired; it has been replaced with Hyacinthoides. Endymion is variously identified as either a Peloponnesian king or a simple shepherd. In either case, he was an attractive mortal who became the lover of Selene, the moon goddess. As his youth began to wane, Selene could not stand the thought of her mortal lover aging and so put him into a deep sleep. Selene is able to visit him in his deep sleep.

The Greek lover may have become associated with his namesake by virtue of the fleeting nature of the hyacinth. It blooms for a short period and then the plant withers and disappears. The dormant bulb survives year after year, repeatedly producing its brief efflorescence before disappearing again. This pattern recalls Endymion in his eternal sleep, forever being briefly visited by his immortal consort.

Hyacinth and Apollo

The name Hyacinth is associated, like so many other flowers, with Apollo. The eponymous Greek (Hyacinthus) was a close friend of the god and they often threw the discus together in friendly competition. One day Apollo’s throw went far beyond his intentions and split open Hyacinth’s forehead. As Apollo held his dying friend in his arms, flowers sprang up where the blood poured onto the grass.

The flower that is described in the story doesn’t, however, resemble the hyacinth that we now know, but was rather a dark purple flower that seems more similar to an iris. The cultivated hyacinth, derived from Hyacinthus orientalis, is in the same family as Hyacinthoides (formerly Endymion).