In my life, flower shops had always been the setting for performance anxiety. However beautiful, these were still the places where awkward teenage boys gathered the day before the prom, ordering last minute corsages and boutonnieres. They concealed the tensions of a long-awaited wedding day — Lilies-of-the-Valley to match the bride’s dress or red chrysanthemums to symbolize love? They masked the intense sorrow of a funeral or a wake.
But over my time in Vienna, I have come to see them in an entirely different light. Here a flower shop encourages the purest form of voyeurism, enacting little dramas of ritual pleasure that both the viewer and the beholder thoroughly enjoy.
On another Valentine’s Day, the door to my neighborhood flower shop was propped open in spite of the cold, and the sweet smells of roses leaked out in torrents of light pinks and vivid reds, pooling onto the frosty sidewalk. Thoroughly seduced, I wandered in. The floor was occupied by pots and vases, all arranged in chaotic fashion. I tiptoed carefully. The haughty Birds of Paradise fluttered their petal wings in the draft from the open door, while the eager daffodils lifted their yellow heads, inspecting their potential owner.
“Bitte? Könnte ich Ihnen helfen?” A voice says. I am startled out of my reverie, half expecting to be helped by a fairy sprite or flower nymph instead of a flesh and blood human being.
“Just something small for me, thanks.”
Although the siren-call of the large, ornamental flowers is relentless, I settle for a small pot of tulip bulbs. After all, the thrill of what will grow from these dull and listless stones is astonishing. Day by day, I’ll be able to watch the metamorphosis take place; watch the butterfly emerge from its cocoon. In these waning winter weeks, I’ll have a visual reminder of spring on my windowsill. As I pay and turn to leave, I stop and gaze a little more.
This is surely paradise, I think, filled with innocent happiness and no thought of shame. Any longing is understood, any gaze appropriate. The waltz of the flowers is immediate and timeless in the eternal Viennese Ball, whose debutantes in leaf and petal are bred to be admired. So different from pressing one’s nose against a bakery window, I realized, tempting fate and willpower; an eyeful of flowers leaves no hint of remorse – only two eyes dazzled by color and a nose tingling with nature’s perfume.
Some people choose to spend their lives among these wonders of nature. Christina Fink, owner of Blumenkraft/Fink Inc. on Schleifmühlgasse, began her career in flowers ten years ago. Christmas reaps the greatest success in flower sales, she said, with the red, delicate Amaryllis leading the way. Christine’s knowledge of flowers extends far beyond numbers, however, and figures to the symbolic meanings of different flowers — knowledge that stems back to medieval times. I learned, for example, that Gardinias represent “geheimnissvolle Liebe” — mysterious love. Her favorite flower? The striking Gloriosa.
On another cold day, a week or so later, thinking spring would never come, I passed the flower shop and was again drawn in as if by an unseen hand. Stepping through the doorway, the moist, humid air enveloped me. Treading carefully among the flashy tulips and the arched plumage of those Birds of Paradise, it might indeed have been the Garden of Eden; in the cloud of winter, where Black was master in a world where all life had faded into tones of Gray, I had forgotten color. I had forgotten how flowers have the ability to cry out, to demand admiration in sounds only the eyes can hear. I had forgotten the pleasure of burying my nose in the open petals of a Gardenia.
And all of it for free, if you’re careful. You don’t have to buy to enjoy what these seducers have to offer. These delicate creatures are an act of faith, a reminder that one day there will be flowers in the gardens once again. In less than a month’s time, the first crocuses will be poking their persistent heads out of a bed of chilled soil, getting ready for the great performance that is spring.
Every day, I get to watch the dress rehearsal through the windows of the flower shop. It’s a show no one should miss.