Scents and Sensibility

The smell of lavender. The smell of freshly fallen pine needles. The crisp smell of a cold winter’s day. The smell of mountain air. The smell of the sea. The smell of certain foods and spices. The smell of a fine wine.

I could go on mentioning other smells that are special to me and trigger memories that I love. Memories of places, of people, of foods that make me happy and are part of who I am.

Lavender will always make me think of Provence, in the south of France. Breathtakingly vibrant fields of purple; a dash of brilliant color amidst the green and gold. The smell of summer, of sunshine and of happy, lazy days surrounded by loved ones. Lavender also reminds me of the suburbs we lived in just outside of Paris – across the road from us were a few rows of lavender, the sweet smell floating in the air and attracting the bees. Their blooming signaled the arrival of summer days, as we walked past them on the way home from the train after classes or from the boulangerie with a warm baguette in hand. Lavender reminds me of our beautiful wedding day – summer in Provence and dried lavender was thrown on us instead of confetti or rice. Oh, it was everywhere and I was still finding it in my hair the next morning, but it looked and smelled beautiful. It smelled of summer, of Provence and of love.

Provence, France. Words cannot convey the love I have for this region.
Photo credit: my family (provided by my brother).

The smell of pine needles brings back many memories, but I’ve noticed that different varieties of pine trees each correspond to its own set of memories. I only realized this recently and I find it fascinating how one seemingly simple sense is actually infinitely complex. The smell of pine trees here in New England reminds me of being a little girl in Wisconsin. We had several huge pine trees in our yard and my sister and I spent hours playing in the shade of those majestic trees, inventing stories and making pine needle crowns. When I moved back to the U.S. with my husband two years ago, memories I hadn’t thought of in years suddenly flooded back when I smelled the pine trees, especially in the cool autumn air.

Pine tree in the crisp autumn air of New England.

Pine trees near the Mediterranean, however, have a different smell and another set of memories. The first time I was near the Mediterranean (well, the first time I can remember – being born in Cyprus doesn’t count!), was when we finally visited Lebanon as a family. The smells from Lebanon are deeply engrained in my senses, even though it has been 10 years since the last time I was there. Certain areas of Provence have a smell that conjures up images of Lebanon in my mind. And most recently, it was in Italy that I smelled those pine trees. The smell of them in the mountains is what most closely resembles their scent in Lebanon. In the middle of the hot, humid summer, the mountains provide respite from the heat and a haven of forests for walks and games. The cooler mountain air mixed with pine trees is both invigorating and relaxing, energizing yet soothing. I find that the silence of the forests in the mountains is so peaceful, so restful after all the noises in our everyday lives. And the smell of the pine needles completes the feeling of perfect serenity, bringing back many happy memories.

Pine tree in Tuscany, Italy on a warm summer’s day; they remind me so much of Lebanon.

The smell of a crisp winter’s day or of a snow covered mountain makes me think of snowy winters as a kid and sparkling ski slopes under a dazzling blue sky. It makes me think of hours of playing in the snow with my cousins, of building snowmen and throwing snowballs. It reminds me of family ski trips and finally finding real pleasure in skiing when I tried snow blades, after years of mixed feelings about skiing. I can almost hear the swish of the skis on the slopes and see the sparkling snow when I smell a cold winter’s day. It reminds me of happily eating a snickers bar on the ski lift, deliciously frozen after hours in our pockets. I can recall the glorious, exhilarating yet peaceful sensation when the skis carve the snow just right, when it’s a perfect fluffy powder that sprays up, glistening like diamonds in the sun. You can block out everyone around you and just enjoy the gliding motion, the smell of the pine trees, the crisp mountain air, and the musical rhythm in your head. I haven’t been skiing in many years and I was surprised to find how much I miss it. The cold New England winters awoke a longing I didn’t even know I had. I long to see the wide open views from the mountain tops; the clear blue sky defining the peaks lined with pine trees and the snow glittering like millions of diamonds. I long to once again feel the swish of my skis and to eat a frozen snickers bar while hanging in the air. I long for the invigorating rush of the cold air on my cheeks while I glide downhill and the golden warmth of the sun when I pause along the way. But most of all, I long for that fleeting moment of pure, blissful freedom.

The French Alps – a hard view to beat.
Photo courtesy of Rawi Fayad

Although the mountain and sea are infinitely different from each other, they both give me that feeling of freedom. They both invigorate me and renew me. The sea has a special hold over me. So many memories are linked to the sea that it is difficult to go through them all, but they are among my happiest. The smell of the sea soothes me in a way no other smell can. The sound of the waves crashing, the sand under your feet, the horizon that goes on forever… The smell of the sea means summer days, family, cousins, grandiose sandcastles, picnics on the sand; it means reading a good book under the warm sun with the ebb and flow of the waves as music. I am not a Pisces without reason – I’ve always felt a pull towards water: rivers, lakes, waterfalls, oceans and seas… They all have such beauty, but the sea has the strongest pull of all, and I will return to it, always. Being in the water in what I love most about the sea. It soothes and cleanses me; it gives me renewed energy and a serenity I cannot explain. The smell of the sea calms me and reaches the deepest core of my being.

The eternally enchanting Mediterranean Sea.

I won’t delve into detail on the smells of food, spices and wine, because there is much to say but it’s hard to explain. I’m sure we all have certain smells that remind us of something. The smell of a certain dish that conjures up an image of grandma’s kitchen, or baking cakes with mom as a kid, or popcorn nights with dad… Spices that remind us of an exotic vacation or of home, snuggled in on a cold winter’s night. Each smell and each thought stirred more memories in me. Memories that are sometimes hidden so deep that only my nose seems to remember them.

The sense of smell is such a powerful one and can stir such deep memories, yet we often overlook it. It’s one of the first senses to develop and one of the last to go… Imagine how many memories it can hold for each of us?

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19 thoughts on “Scents and Sensibility

  1. Thank you Dounia, for a particularly beautiful post. Apparently the smell center of our brain is very close to our memory center, hence the remarkably quick recall response we have to certain smells. I agree it’s a very overlooked sense, and I try to point out smells to my kids. i often notice the smell of people who walk past me, or who were in a lift before me- their perfume, their laundry detergent- or lack thereof- their cigarette-y smell, and I make a point to notice this and use that sense. I love the smell of wet asphalt when it’s started to rain after a long dry spell, and on a recent visit back to Egypt, as we stepped off the plane I was a bit overwhelmed by a scent that was familiar but long-forgotten (we lived there when i was 6!)- i think it’s burning tyres or something, pungent and not actually very pleasant but evocative nonetheless!
    But your description of skiing was what really struck me, although I’m a very mediocre skiier. I hadn’t skiied in over ten years when my husband and I rented out a little chalet with another couple, and oh what a treat it was to be back out on those slopes! It’s true there’s something special about the crispness of the mountain air, that very still blue sky and the dazzling snow in the sun… Your description made me think of Maslowe. We learned about this psychologist in IB (also a long time ago for me now) and he had the quite famous pyramid of our hierarchy of needs: food first, then shelter, then companions, etc… I don’t quite remember the exact order but the thing I liked best about his theory is that occasionally, ALL of our needs are fulfilled entirely and we achieve what he calls a ‘Peal Experience’, when we are utterly content and aware of the present moment. I’ve had a few of these Peak Experiences- one I distinctly remember is one evening as my dad was playing the piano at our house in Frankfurt, with the cat asleep on my knees. It was so calm and serene, my dad was playing one of my favorite pieces, Chopin perhaps, I can’t remember now, the cat was warm and heavy on my lap, purring occasionally, my mom and sister had recently gone up to bed and I could hear them moving around as they settled for the night, and I just had a few minutes of complete and total bliss. I like to pull that memory out every now and again, just thinking about it cheers me. Your skiing vignette sounds like a Peak Experience!

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    1. Something that I love so much about your comments is that you always share memories and experiences of your own. I love to hear/read about what other people have been through, what they have seen, what they’ve taken away from some place… And you describe these memories so beautifully and vividly that I could picture that scene perfectly in my mind. It does sound like such a beautiful and peaceful moment. I can also almost smell the wet asphalt and that burning tires smell you mention 🙂 The smells we remember aren’t always pleasant odors, but they’re special to us – sometimes comforting, sometimes amusing… But always evocative, as you said. I also love how you often teach me something new in your comments – I loved reading about that ‘Peak Experience’; that’s absolutely fascinating and I love to think that there are certain moments that are absolutely perfect in every way.

      Thanks so much for this wonderful and beautiful comment!

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment 🙂 I completely agree with you about the weather doing that as well – the past 2 summers here in New England have made me think of Philippines so much because of the intense humidity, and the seemingly tropical rains we had sometimes!

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  2. It’s said that the sense of smell is the most strongly tied to memory … you’ve certainly made your case for it here! This is beautiful, I love your descriptions and as always I admire your writing. Dried lavender at a wedding instead of rice … oh how romantic is that???

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    1. Thanks for your absolutely lovely comment, as always, Paige! 🙂 I had such a nice time writing this and thinking about all those wonderful memories. And the dried lavender was truly romantic – we learned that it was a tradition in the region and we loved the idea so we decided to do that too…We are so happy that we did 🙂

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    1. Hello and thanks so much for stopping by my blog and for your kind comment! I’m happy you could relate to this post – it’s funny that you mention eucalyptus, because that smell always reminds me of Australia! 🙂

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  3. I feel like I’ve been whisked on a tour of your life through scents and it does indeed paint a spectacular picture. Thanks for sharing and for stopping by to like my ‘Autumn leaves’ post 🙂

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    1. Thank you for such a beautifully written and lovely comment. I’m very happy you stopped by and that you enjoyed this post. I thought your photos of the first signs of autumn were great – I love autumn so it’s always nice to see more photos! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

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  4. Dounia, You are so insightful in your descriptions of how certain fragrances or odours can stir memories. As I was reading this post I was reminded of a trip to Tahiti many years ago. As I stepped off the ‘plane, the first thing which struck me was the sweet smell of coconut heavy in the warm air.

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    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Margaret. I really appreciate it, and I’m so happy this post could bring back memories for you. My favorite part about comments is when someone shares their thoughts and stories, and I could almost smell the coconut and feel the warm, tropical air your described! Thanks so much for stopping by and for leaving such a wonderful comment 🙂

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    1. They are so worth seeing. They’re absolutely stunning – the color is so vivid and it stands out against all the gold and green around it. If you ever go to Provence in the summer, make sure to check those out, and you should also see the sunflower fields – they’re amazing too.

      And it definitely made for some beautiful wedding memories (and lots of lavender in my dress!!!) 🙂

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  5. Huh. I think I only just read this one (a little bit behind, I know..or I might have missed it) but I really liked it 🙂 Especially since I could predict what kind of memories would come up for each scent 😛
    Also, I get photo credits – a definite strength for this post 😉

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    1. That’s ok if you’re behind. But only because you comment on my posts, and I love that. 😉 I knew you guys would be able to guess and understand each scent and the memories it brought with it! 🙂 And of course you get photo credits – I always give credit where it is due, that’s only fair. 😉

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      1. I do, indeed – I’m glad this compensates. You know what they say, “no noose is good noo-” wait, no. that’s not right. Oh, “better than then never”. Thats the one.
        And that is indeed very fair and very good of you, thank you. 😉

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