Not only is French novelist Marcel Proust famous for penning the world’s longest novel at an eye-watering 1,267,069 words, his name has been given to that moment when a whiff of something transports us back in time to an event or memory of the past. With taste and smell immutably linked, the treat of Madeleine cake transported Proust’s character back to childhood and his aunt’s home of a Sunday morning. Proustian moments are rife from childhood, where the sense of smell is the paramount sense, with odours travelling to the areas of the brain that play key roles in cognition, memory and emotion.
The scent of Frangipani flowers reminds me of making flower chains for my English Granny, while freesias wafted through my childhood window as spring erupted. There’s a particular sunscreen my parents used, when such things were not common, that I might occasionally sniff on holidays, taking me back to Palm Beach in the early 1960s in a little rental called Cosy Dell. The smell of rain or the sprinkler on hot concrete almost has me diving for my nylon togs and bathing cap (yes, I wore one of those even under the hose).
Give me a handful of wild raspberry lollies and I am stepping into the corner shop outside our school gates with two cents in my hot little hand. See me at the fireworks secretly filling my nostrils with the heady scent of ignited gunpowder? Red, green, blue – ooh look, Peter only has four fingers left. Ahhh, such memories.
There were always the delightful smells that issued forth from Mum’s kitchen, like bottled peaches, steak and kidney, and apple crumble. Can’t do the bacon bone soup though — nope, nope, nope! Speaking of peaches, that delicious aroma takes me back to a holiday in Stanthorpe when there was a stone-fruit glut and we helped ourselves to buckets of the things. “Slop to the north,” my dad used to say, as he rolled over in bed in the caravan.
The smell of canvas takes me right back to camping with my family. Throw in some eucalypts and a campfire and Dad is with me. The smell when I open our 1964 Franklin caravan door hits me like a veritable tsunami of nostalgia, while that old car vinyl smell finds me sitting in the back of the FJ Holden on hot summer days.
Then there are those times when scents hit you out of the blue. A smell that triggers a long lost memory, brought forth from the recesses. That little man in our brain rifles through the filing cabinet until he finds that particular listing.
Of course, not all smells are memorable in a beautiful way. One’s hippocampus likes to reminisce about everything, and will often dig up a smell-related memory that you thought had been pushing up the veritable daisies. You know the ones: that cheap and nasty after-shave your first boyfriend used to wear, which, unless you are really unlucky, you’ll never smell again, as it should have gone out of production.
One that gets me is raspberry flavoured chocolate fudge. I have the most unfortunate memories of some I consumed, and so strong is the memory that the smell can still make me gag after 40 years. (I had a similar reflex to gin for a while, but I’m pleased to say I got over that one.) Also, I do still recall the sickly-sweet acrid smell after the 1974 floods in Brisbane, when we were cleaning out people’s houses. It conjures up the full gambit of images and emotions.
Brilliant memories combine smell, taste and visuals. But do you have olfactory memories, or are you far more cultured and have Proustian moments?