What Do Your Memories Smell Like?
In this morning’s Washington Post newspaper, something interesting caught my eye.
A quote about pop artist Andy Warhol, and how he used fragrance to “conjure memories of a specific period of his life.” Warhol, the article said, would wear a specific cologne for three months then put it on the shelf, returning to it whenever he wanted to evoke memories from that period.
I thought about memories I have that flood back as I touch mementos, fabrics and other textural pieces, photos, sounds and yes, even fragrances, each connected to sensations and memories, pleasant and unpleasant.
One of the strongest memory triggers for me is violets, the sight of the delicate flowers, the colors and the scent. Violets will always be tied to my first real crush. A boy I met at summer camp, 1969, and stayed in touch with long distance by letters after camp was over.
I wrote to him on the most romantic stationery a 14-year-old girl’s baby-sitting money would afford. It was over the top- a pale lavender, whisper-soft onion-skin, that delicate translucent hardly-even-paper that we used to write long letters when they would be posted as “par avion” and required additional postage if too heavy. It was scented with the sweet fragrance of violets that I’m quite sure is connected somehow with purple being the color of my guest room bedding today.
I first saw him playing the piano at the camp fire amphitheater. He was playing the theme from “The Exodus.” That Christmas, I received a gift of Ferrante & Teicher’s 10th Anniversary album, which contained this song. It was almost worn through from playing it over and over (yes, in vinyl ‘LP’ form).
Like Andy Warhol, I know well that fragrance, music, sounds and tastes can take us back swiftly and immediately to days gone by, and places we want to keep with us forever. They can also as clearly recall bitter moments, a break-up, love lost, the loss of loved ones.
What are the strongest memory connections for you? Smell or sounds, cards and letters? What do you connect with a sentimental family moment, favorite expat assignment or vacation spot? It’s nice to reflect once in a while on things long since tucked away.
Over the weekend I was chatting back and forth with Alice Keys about one of my favorite places, Turkey. I mentioned that I was collecting and choosing photographs for a post on travels in Turkey, about a trip I took with my daughter- the one she says is her favorite of all the places we traveled together. Alice mentioned the influence of one of her favorite poets, Rumi.
I began to think back over the many trips I made to Istanbul in my 10 years in Baku. I started out, as many of you know, coming round to Baku via my interest in Russia. I thought of Baku as former Soviet, and my interest in Azerbaijan had been formed in that perspective.
But, somewhere along the way, anticipation gave way to memories, and focus shifted under the weight of associated pleasure and pain.
Why, what changed? How had I gone from Doctor Zhivago and a love of Russian history to being charmed by Turkey? What experiences and memories had turned my heart toward the turquoise waters, sunset-colored apricots, and the simple exuberance of dancing to Mustafa Sandal’s rhythmic “Araba”?
In Baku these were almost polar opposites. It’s the experiences and the feel of the memories… that first meeting, the first impression that lingers.
When I first arrived in Moscow, I was met by friends. The airport was cold and dim, many of the lights were missing or not working. It was early after the collapse, so I didn’t expect much more. There wasn’t much money to improve anything.
On the way home from Международный Аэропорт Шереме́тьево (International Airport, Sheremetyevo), we were stopped twice. Money changed hands and an appointment at the police station the next day was necessary- that’s all I knew. Elkhan was familiar with the discrimination his tanned skin brought in Moscow, and yet he volunteered to pick me up anyway, because his friend in Baku asked him to keep me safe.
On the way out of town to visit relatives, again 5 times we were stopped for various reasons. I remember being mad, outraged in fact, that people would treat others so badly.
My first impressions? Russia was cold, punitive, greedy and perilous. Even after travelling there over the course of my 10 years, it remained more like Nelson Demille’s “Charm School” than Doctor Zhivago, and I was deeply disappointed.
Conversely, my first visit to Istanbul was on my way to Baku. My (then) husband and daughter were joining me to see where I was going to work. We stopped in Istanbul to meet friends I had been working with for a few years. The visit couldn’t have been more delightful.
We were welcomed by friends of friends, taken out on the town (never hassled, even when our friend drove down the sidewalk), shown the sights by a taxi driver who must have been a former showman, so charming was he. Where Russia had greeted me with rules and strictures, Turkey was full of smiles, warmth, and “what do you wish”.
Don’t get me wrong… I do like Russia- old Russia. I still love Russian history, and I have a healthy respect for “modern” Russia, but, as far as quality of life, Russia is a tough sell. Even for those who don’t live there through the winter.
My memories of Russia will always be colored by surly shopkeepers and arbitrarily being fed beef stroganoff and boiled chicken for breakfast until I declared myself a vegetarian so I could have hot gretchka (buckwheat porridge) instead. Every time I see beef stroganoff on a menu in a Russian cafe or restaurant, I am right back there in that chilly dining zal, watching plates of beef and noodles come out at 7:00am, thinking I had overslept- by a lot.
In the same way, my memories of Paris are different from my daughter’s. I feel snowy nights, full of ham and onions, potatoes and cream, chocolat chaud and green trees. My daughter remembers rain, cold and crawfish heads. I wished for her to love it as I do. Even though she spoke to few people, her perception is of rudeness. Perhaps because of the Gare du Nord theft... c’est la vie.
When I touch my pottery pieces, from Turkey, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Japan, or Portugal, I am right back there in those shops. Usually tea is involved. I’m laughing with the shopkeepers who tell me stories of the potter and the artists, their families and how this will make their livelihood that month. We haggle, we drink more tea. I always want to pay more, because I can. He always wants me to bargain more, because I should. In the end, we always come away with a price he likes for pieces I want. And we drink more tea, becoming friends for life, or until the next bargainer appears.
Pizza with hot dog slices evokes the Pizza HAT in Baku; enchiladas without the sauce, tostados with shredded radishes remind me of Table 11, Elvis Presley Blvd at the Sunset Cafe. The sight of electric space heaters makes my frost-bitten fingers tingle, thinking of that cold February when I had heat but no way to turn it on- for 3 frigid weeks. Libraries with books recall the images of donating carton after carton of books to the schools and university libraries in Azerbaijan- one of the most pleasant feelings I ever had.
I don’t have a bottle of cologne to go to when I want to remember specific periods of my life, but I have touchstones that are every bit as powerful. Names that bring back outings, songs that bring back love and happiness (Marty Robbins’ El Paso is one), the mohair throw that I bought in Scotland, the sweater I bought in London – each of these is imbued with potent memories that are as clear as if they happened just yesterday.
What is it for you? If you could share a memory like a crystal ball, what would you share? Does it smell or taste? Is it warm or cool? How do you keep your memories alive and vibrant?
As we leave 2013 (a year to which many will say good riddance!), what do you want to remember?
Do you have favorite memories attached to colognes or wines or chocolate? I hope this year was good to you and that 2014 will bring even more memories, and maybe discovery of a unique fragrance to remember it by.
As for me, I think I will go out and look for a bit of violet stationery…