Yesterday I smelled lilacs for the first time this year. Interesting how the memory works: I see UBC campus around me, but the scent brought me back to the hot and dusty Petersburg, right to that moment when lilacs begin to bloom. The magical season of white nights, long walks along the canals, final days of spring before the summer takes over.
In Saint Petersburg lilacs are everywhere, they blend into the landscape and create a veil of scent that accompanies you no matter where you go. First, you see a lilac at the front door in your neighborhood, a dusty industrial overpopulated maze of high-rise buildings. It is standing there in the midst of garbage piles and washed out playgrounds and its subtle scent reminds you that there is beauty everywhere, including these sad outskirts of the most magnificent city in the world.
As you exit the subway in the centre of the city, hurrying past ice-cream vendors, beggars and tourist guides looking for their next client, there is not a tree in sight. Saint Petersburg is notorious for the lack of green spaces, where a tired city dweller can hide from the heat and the sun. The city is painted in yellow maddening colour (if you don’t believe me, read Dostoyevsky) until you pass through an arch and into a small green park that leads to the university. And here they are again, lilacs are everywhere in their full majestic bloom. They are purple, while, pale pink and the cloud of their scents envelops you and carries you through the day. You can feel lilacs everywhere, in the bright classrooms, the murky hallways, on the back porch where students hide to grab a smoke, even in the cafeteria where you have a choice between a stale piece of pie and a bowl of cold soup for lunch.
After class in spring the weather is always good. It just is. You didn’t suffer five months of atmospheric uncertainty for nothing. You go for a walk, you think that you can choose where to go, but you really follow the lilac scent. Down the street, to the Field of Mars where Hungarian lilacs frame the views of the Cathedral in an array of colours, across the bridge to Petropavlovka, the birthplace of the city, to find rare lilacs that, who knows, could have been planted here in the 18th century. Another bridge and you are on Vasilyevski to catch a rare sight of Turkish blooms, tiny and sweet lilac coloured flowers. No the most efficient walk, but a rewarding one.
The day is over. You drop by grandma’s home, she has made tea. Her hair is as white as the lilacs on her window seal. She takes an old paining from the storage, she says that these lilacs were painted for her by an admirer way back in the 60s, but you know it was a graduating piece of a family friend. This is your paining now, she says, keep it to remember me.
I would call my mother and we would sit by the lilac bushes, sipping coffee from small porcelain cups, catching up on the latest news. Once I told her the news that I would be moving across the ocean to start a graduate degree. The lilacs were there to share these news. I had to put my lilac paintings away before I moved to Canada and it’s been a while since I could take a two-hour walk through Saint Petersburg following lilac scent, but there is a part of UBC campus where I can say hello to the flowers that bring me home and relive those blissful days, when lilacs bloomed.