There is so much comfort in the familiar — in the same sights and smells that come back each season and provide a sense of renewal and yet fond reminiscence — a reminder that time is, in many ways, cyclical, not linear.
For me, here on the east coast of the US, this is what the spring means to me — thawing soil, lily of the valley, fresh-cut grass, new mulch, and yes, even the pleasantly unpleasant smell of those awful, invasive bradford pears that give the appearance of a fresh snowfall in March. In the summer? Fresh basil and Old Bay, tomato vines and charcoal grills. In fall the familiar is harder to pinpoint — rotting leaves, crisper air, the hay bales at the pumpkin patch. In winter it is the omnipresent smell of wood burning fireplaces, Christmas trees, clean, damp air.
And yet, in chatting with a friend who works for the travel industry, it occurred to me that some things I cherish the most are cherished precisely because they are exotic. Perhaps one of my very favorite flowers is one that you’d never see here at all. It is just something that reminds me of happy, youthful, relaxed and incredibly memorable trips I’ve taken to warmer climes. So it got me thinking — what are some sensory experiences that take you back to somewhere NOT familiar — a place that is special to you even if you’ve only been once or twice, because of the fond memories it holds?
I have been fortunate in my life to have had work trips and educational experiences that have taken me to some of my favorite places on earth — but this is not just about checking foreign countries off your bucket list. It is also about discovering the exceptional in the mundane. Some of the items on my list are not really that exotic — I just think of them that way given the context in which I experience them.
So while I could go on and on about my favorite native Maryland flowers, foods and experiences, here are some things I love because they remind me of elsewhere in space and time:
The aforementioned favorite flower. Quite simply: you know you are in paradise once you see the bougainvillea growing. On my patio of the house in South Africa I lived in for a semester. Lining the retaining walls of southern France where I spent a summer in college. Growing nearly wild and uncontained in Costa Rica and Vietnam. It’s copious fuchsia flowers are hard to miss. They seem to be always in bloom, like the perpetual summer that is the tropics, a place where you never have to worry about packing away your flip flops.
These two aromatics, when combined, will forever remind me of the cold 10 days I spent in China. You’d be hard pressed to find a menu item that did not include the two. It is on every person’s breath.
Cafe au lait
I was never a coffee drinker before I spent a summer in a French immersion program in Aix-en-Provence. But France will change you like that.
I’m not talking about any of that sweet zinfandel crap. I mean the dry, Provençale rosé the southern French drink all summer long. You can buy it here, imported, but some how it’s not quite the same. When I cracked open a bottle I brought back myself, I was immediately transported back to Provence. I haven’t found one here in the US that brings that same sensation.
One of my (guilty?) pleasures is buying specifically the wild frozen blueberries to add to my morning oatmeal. Because they remind me of the amazing week I spent in Acadia National Park, where you can grab blueberries by the handful on the side of the road in August. I had never seen anything like it.
One of the more disturbing trends I have noticed encroaching into weddings throughout the US is the serious lack of sparkling wine flowing all night. Champagne may not be everyone’s usual drink of choice, but it is what you imbibe when you are celebrating something. When you drink it, it reminds you of those happy, celebratory times. But it goes beyond that: weddings, new year’s eve, life transitions: champagne is what we drink when we want to mark the optimism of a new beginning. It signifies not only joy, but shared hope and anticipation. Life will not always be easy and fun, but it’s important to take time to stop and celebrate on those occasions, when, if only for a moment, everything you see on the horizon is going to be perfect. Life needs more champagne, not less.
Everyone says that this icing tastes terrible, that it is just for decoration. But I love it, probably for the same reason I love champagne. I did not have it on my own wedding cake, a decision I have come to regret.
Pomp & Circumstance
Because I needed an audio cue to add to this list. Graduation season is upon us and I count myself among those who will be enduring another long-ass graduation ceremony this year (LOL, sorry honey!). But no matter who it is, even I, an avowed graduation-hater, gets a little choked up when this song starts playing. Partly because it brings back fond memories of my days in high school band. But in all seriousness, completing a degree is a significant achievement, no matter how long it takes or what number it is, and I’d venture to say that hearing this song allows us all to relive that unique combination of relief and accomplishment we once felt about that onerous final paper being done and done once again.
I know, I am probably one of 100 million people who would list this as well, but any time I am in a little Italy, whether NYC, Baltimore…I must get myself some cannoli.
What are some things you love precisely because of the rarity with which you experience them? Nutella? The smell of Jasmine? UNsweetened iced tea? Leave a comment!