Fragrance of the Past

Recently, I found myself walking around the streets of my hometown. I hadn’t been there for a while and this particular day I came face-to-face with something I had not gone looking for – my childhood. It was hot, humid, the sun beating down on my already sweating head, but there was also a small breeze, and whenever I walked in the shade, it was quite pleasant.

I haven’t lived in the city I was born in since I was seven, but I have visited it almost every summer, so I am familiar with its uneven pavements and over-crowded roads. I strolled about looking up at the old houses built in the late 19th and early 20th century, noticing how run down yet full of character they were, and a strange feeling started creeping in. At first, I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but it was deep and intense. It wasn’t an uncomfortable sensation – it was simply eluding me.

I went about my walk and didn’t do anything different to what I’ve done numerous times in the past, but the more I ascended through the narrow streets, the more my senses started opening up, fumbling with outstretched arms, until I was able to put a name to what I was experiencing. In one word, it was nostalgia.

Snapshot images of scenes from my past came hurtling back, not with a vengeance, but with something gentle, tender, dressed in soft pink and green shades. I couldn’t work out what had sparked this sudden onset of memories, but the more I walked on, the clearer everything became, until I knew exactly what had helped these long-gone recollections to come forward from the fog of ageing – it was a smell, or rather, a series of smells. I suddenly knew what summed up my hometown for me, what its fragrance was: the fresh doughy aroma of bakeries, with their scents of roasted sesame seeds, caramelised sugar, melted butter, and exotic vanilla and cinnamon. They mingled together, formed such an exquisite sensation in my body, it almost knocked me over!

They say smell is the strongest sense connected to memory and emotions and they're right! With these scents came a waterfall of memories: the hint of snow in the air, filling my lungs with the sharpness of life yet chilling the skin, forming goosebumps on my arms and legs; my woolly hat which I liked wearing but made my head itch; the distinct yet non-descriptive scent of century-old buildings, of sun-soaked bricks, dust wedged between the cracks, bringing forth the presence of days gone by, of lives lived, laughter, tears, death, fires; walking above the square with the Roman ruins, the memory of running my fingers around the chicken-wire fence came back, of how it numbed my hand and how that numbness spread up my arm, but how I loved doing it anyway; moments of hiding in my grandparents’ walk-in wardrobe, not because I was trying to avoid something but because I craved the silence and darkness of the enclosed space, gazing up at the shelves full of my grandmother’s high-heeled shoes and above them their old suitcases stacked one on top of the other, sniffing the pungent smell of naphthalene which, to this day, makes me cough; setting the tiny canary I had been given as a present free because I felt sorry for it being trapped in a cage, then being told it was probably going to be eaten by owls, the deep sense of guilt and sadness I felt – all these memories, and more, swept through me, uninvited, taking me by surprise. It’s as if fragments of my buried childhood woke up, resurfaced, breath after breath, until what I saw before me was a scrapbook of my life, snippets, internal commentaries which tugged and scratched at the lining of my heart bringing tears to my eyes.

What was I crying for? Were these memories too painful for me to handle? Too raw? Not really. Then, why did they affect me in this way? Did I want to trap what I had unveiled back into their dusty mould-covered box and close the lid, block out the sunlight, put the memories back where they belonged? Is that why I cried? Or, were they tears shed for the simple fact that I remembered, reclaimed a part of my life I had thought forgotten and lost? I don’t know why those drops of saltiness escaped my eyes and, in truth, I didn’t much care. I was just grateful I had glimpsed my childhood again. That was all.

The strength with which those recollections assaulted me made me understand that every city has its own smell, its own notes and colours, and if we don’t go looking for them, they find us and force us to remember.

 © Annia Lekka, Salonica, 2015

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