I don’t have the most sensitive nose in the world. I don’t even have the most sensitive nose in the household. And yet some smells trigger the strongest memories, as smells are want to do.
Yesterday, as I was snuggling up to Jeff, I smelled the booze on him. It is one of my favorite smells, either after beer or harder liquor. I realize what a strange thing it is to admit, and I certainly don’t encourage Jeff to drink just so I can sniff him and wallow in pleasant memories. And with Jeff, it doesn’t take a lot of alcohol — the smell comes through his pores even after a few sips. We’ve just come home after having dinner at my parents’ house, where are usually shots of vodka and toasts involved. Oddly enough, it’s the smell of my youth.
To say that alcohol was prevalent in Soviet Union is an understatement of the century. Reality was so grim, that a hangover was preferable to it. This was a nation of drunks — one had to step over passed out men who were laying in the gutters, when crossing the street. One had to step around them when walking into a store, since the drunks were passed out on the steps. And out of the nation of drunks, the true casualties were the alcoholics.
My uncle, Rafael, was brilliant. One of the most agile, creative, intelligent minds, he was also very kind to me and had a great sense of humor. He was one of my favorite people. Unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic, one who really couldn’t handle his booze.
In our apartment, I was the only one with an actual bedroom. My parents slept in the living room, making our large couch into their bed. At the occasional parties they threw, my Uncle Rafa would sometimes drink too much, and get sleepy. My parents would then put him on some blankets, with a pillow, on the floor of my room. I remember listening to the party, people talking and laughing, and my uncle snoring gently, filling my room with alcohol fumes. It was a comforting smell and a comforting sound, something I’ve always associated with my father’s brother.
Whenever I’ve encountered people walking around, smelling like a brewery, my first thought had always been, “They smell like Mother Russia.” It’s a smell deeply ingrained in my memory.
The second best smell of my childhood is the smell of snow, or rather, right before it snowed. If a smell could have a color, this one would be slate silver, a smell almost of metal, one that had a taste to it. I realize that the ozone-y smell before the rain triggers wonderful memories for many people (including myself), but the smell of snow is no less important for me.
The winters of Minsk certainly had their fair share of snow, so it’s just a part of the childhood memories that I treasure.
And the third smell that almost brings me to my knees is actually two scents — garlic and onions.
My mother used to take a thick piece of white bread, slather it in unsalted butter and stick little pieces of garlic throughout. I loved the texture combo, soft bread and a little crunch of the raw garlic. Sure, and no vampire ever attacked me, either.
The smell of sautéing onions permeated my grandmothers’ and now my mother’s kitchen. Where before it got cooked down, onion is sharp and pungent, after it’s browned in either butter or oil, it becomes sweet and mellow. Served on a thick, brown piece of bread, it is still one of my favorite things to eat for lunch. And that smell, that warm, yummy smell takes me back in the best possible way.
We all have smells that trigger memories, some good, some unpleasant. What are the smells of your childhood that bring the memories flooding back?