Tuesday, May 06, 2008


There are some things that I remember in perfect pictures. The image of simultaneous Cyrillic and Roman signage on a dusty St. Petersburg afternoon, for example, seen through sleep-weary eyes and the dirty window of a tour bus driving in from the airport. Or, the first time I caught view of Grinnell College, also from a moving vehicle - a bunch of us kids, being shuttled in to our college home, were crammed in a van making uneasy conversation. The air was dusty, and I was disappointed when I wasn't dropped off on the tree-lined streets of North Campus (that didn't last long...South Campus is where the hippies lived, so of course I fit right in, even post-vegetarianism).

These memories feel to me like movie playback, scenes disconnected from the rest of eternity, but coherent and complete in the annals of my thoughts. But rarely does any image actually trigger a memory, making me woozy with nostalgia. Scents, on the other hand, do this all the time.

When I was younger, I used to think I was strange for reliving memories more completely through scent than through sound or sight. It seemed wrong - people were always telling me that the human sense of smell was far weaker than it is in other animals, and it didn't make sense to me that my brain would connect my memory to my nose. As I've grown, it's become apparent that many people live this way, that in fact it is in some ways hard-wired.

But science aside, I think scent-triggered memory is both interesting and beautiful, in part because it seems animalistic to me, primeval. I'll step into the vestibule of a restaurant and be completely overpowered by a memory of the in-window air conditioner at our motel in Soap Lake Washington, when I was ten years old. It's not the same as remembering what I did while on vacation as a pre-teen (read Nancy Drew novels, rub the "restorative" mud on my skin, watch the dragonflies copulate, get addicted to daytime television...) - instead, I'll remember for a moment what it felt like to be there, the way I was breathing, the boredom, a random itch on my left foot. And the constant top note is reconditioned air, with the knowledge of intense, bone-dry heat outdoors.

It's less a video clip and more deja vu.

Of course, the experience isn't always so intense - sometimes it's just sort of weird, and so it was with the inspiration for this post. The other day I went to the store and bought some new hand soap - nothing earth shattering, but I decided to buy a mango & something-else-fruity scent, because it was purple. And so is my towel. I like to have the bathroom matching.

When I first washed my hands I knew that the scent meant something to me, but I couldn't figure out quite what. It was somewhat pleasant, but not lovely - in fact, it was kind of saccharine, and I just couldn't place it.

So I started mulling over the sweet scents in my life that I don't really like - Naked Juice on someone else's breath, unpleasant perfume, cough syrup, bad rum drinks. But none of them quite fit the bill. Until I happened to glance at a photo of myself in Roatan, on vacation with Dave last year. And then it hit me! It was our bug spray. I have no idea what variety it was, as we bought all our liquids in Honduras, so as not to be mistaken for mad bombers in the airport. But, fueled by a mosquito paranoia and deep hatred for bug bites, I lathered myself with DDT each and every morning. And now, every time I wash my hands, I can relive it.

Hurray? I guess this is all a mixed blessing.

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Blogger SG said...

Yeah, I think smell is the reason why the changing of the seasons are so nostalgic for me. The smell of dry leaves, of the cold, and of new things budding all transport me to particular emotions from the past. This past fall, when it really started to smell like fall, it felt like way too long not to be returning to my friends at school. Then again, I think I have chronic nostalgia, so this doesn't really surprise me.

11:17 PM  

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