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?

Mare Nostrum

Mer de mon sang,

Mer de mon cœur.

Mare del mio sangue,

Mare del mio cuore.

Mar de mi sangre,

Mar de mi corazon.

Sea of my blood,

Sea of my heart.

It doesn’t matter which language it’s in, the Mediterranean Sea is the sea of my soul.