Traveling by Smell

Sometimes when I go somewhere new or return to some place I’ve been to before, I wish I could bottle up some of the scents. It is easy to take a photo, or write a descrption to help us remember a place. But oh, if we could capture the scent for safe-keeping! I imagine I would have a room full of little bottles like the BFG with his dreams.

Last weekend we went to Sao Paulo to see my brother who was here on business. We weren’t gone long, just two nights. But it was long enough to notice, upon our return, the smells of our house, that we often no longer smell day to day. Everytime we are away and I open the kitchen/back door, the smell engulfs me and transports me to Memère’s house. My great-grandmother lived in a brown house on the top of a hill in Claremont, New Hampshire. When we used to hike up to Flat Rock with my grandfather we could easily point it out in the horizon. The house was old, lived in, with photos of a lifetime mounted on the walls, the kitchen counter used in the same spot from sliding the same tins of flour and sugar across it (I have those tins now, in pink and white with red flowers, and the matching tin breadbox too!). The backdoor would sqreech, the floor boards creaked, the rockingchairs squeaked. The scent there was the exact same as in our current home and when I smell it I am immediately taken to my great-mother’s house, and her big smile, her crochet projects, her tin of mint candy that melt in your mouth, and her decks of playing cards. I remember family visits, holidays, playing Pitch and Four-Corners, sharing, growing, reminiscing.

When I walk through our garden, a real paradise with the exotic flowers and the extraordinary plants, the scents of cut grass and turned dirt, of flowers, and farm animals in the fields beyond our street, these scents bring me back to summers in High School when I worked at a Girl Scout Camp in Weston, Connecticut. I am reminded of nature hikes, and trail mix, of singing, campfires and unique craft projects. Of leading, giving, sharing, growing, learning.

Today, I was walking down the main street of Campos Eliseos in downtown Resende. It was about 35°C today. As I walked, stopping into different shops, running my errands, a mix of the heat and smells of the shops as I’d pass the shops’ opened doors, with the colours of the products displayed in the windows, I was immediately brought back to Tokyo and the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa. I remember the first time I returned to Tokyo after a long long absence. I was walking around my new town of ‘Shimokita’, on the small streets with the colorful shops, the corner Seven/Eleven, with a green telephone out front. And the scent blew me away. It brought me back to my childhood. to Spring. to Cherry Blossoms. to Happiness. I remember calling my parents to tell them I had arrived safely and trying to describe the smell in the air.

Of course, the scents we smell our personal, bits of our own memories and recollections, of an experience that only we could have lived. I have never been able to say to someone, “You know what it smells like?” and have that other person truely understand. We can look through photo albums, or read journal entries, but scents are ephemeral, they come in a sniff, recall a moment, and in an instant are gone. But the memories they recall are infinate and precious.


About Alexandra

wife, lover, mother, sister, daughter, friend, teacher, blogger, scrap-booker, cross-stitcher, photographer, designer, multi-lingual speaker, dual-citizenship holder, world traveler, dreamer... hopeful, happy, blessed
This entry was posted in family, Japan, reflections, travel, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Traveling by Smell

  1. Catherine says:

    Oh how wonderful this writing is! I can so relate to it, and I feel the same way! It does my heart good to hear of Memere and your memories of her. How very special. Save this writing for your children!

  2. Jessica says:

    I second that. I love the descriptions. I have more sensory evocations of Japan than anywhere else. Particularly in the summer, or after a rain? Not sure why. I’ve been longing to hear the sound of a japanese semi. The american ones are nice, but not the same.

    Oh, and I want to say I totally love that you evesdrop and then join the conversations when you can. I wish everyone did that- I feel the same way as you- everyone knows you can hear them, and vice versa. I jump in anyway, but I often feel very uncouth.

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