It is good to be back home again. My nose knows we have arrived.
I am referring to our return home to Kenya, but it could also be said about our return home to Oregon a month earlier.
The nose knows.
It is hard to think of America as having an unique odor about it, but it does. Years ago as a young college student I lived in Japan. I remember sneaking up behind a friend, hoping to surprise him. Shinichi greeted me by name without looking just as I was about to tap him on the shoulder. When I asked him how he knew I was right behind him, he answered, “I smelled you coming.” Turns out he was right. Americans have a distinct odor about them, as does our country. This time of year it is the smell of cinnamon, evergreens, and mulled cider. The rest of the year? I was told in Japan that our protein rich diet gives us an unmistakable odor. Not a pleasant thing to think about, but there you go!
No hiding the fact that the sense of smell is a strong trigger of memories and emotions…just cut into a fresh baked loaf of bread and feel yourself transported to a different, hopefully warm and tingly time.
Coming home to Kenya brings its own set of smells. The triggers here are strong. Driving down the roads I smell the rich smell of dirt and cultivation as we pass the rice and maize fields. In the villages I smell the acrid scent of charcoal. In the schools and homes I smell ugali (corn meal mush), githeri (a mixture of maize and beans) and the occasional pot of stew. A nation of predominately pit toilets and open sewers adds to the zest, and the occasional road-killed dog, goat or even donkey brings its own unwelcome addition. The press of bodies, the diesel exhaust – it all gives Kenya an aroma of its own
I have been thinking about smells a lot this Christmas season. When the kids were growing up I would bake gingerbread cookies that we would hang on the tree. I always dosed them (the cookies, not the kids) with extra ginger. And the smell of spritz, a Swedish sugar cookie of my childhood, always brings memories flooding back into my consciousness. Our Christmas dinner was almost always a standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding. And while I cannot abide mincemeat pie, it was always on my grandmother’s table. I like the smell even if I detest the taste! Peppermint, evergreens, vanilla, chocolate chip cookies fresh baked for Santa – they all bring back Christmases-Past.
Christmas-Present will bring the aromas of Kenya, mingled with the banana bread Sue is baking for Christmas presents and the bread I am baking for Christmas dinner. (I feel like Gene Wilder, in Young Frankenstein, as I yell “Rise! Rise!! RISE!!!” at the mass of dough in the bowl…just before Sue asks me if I remembered to add the yeast…). The smells this year will be of half chickens rubbed with sage and rosemary – as close as I can get to Cornish game hens (standing rib over here being out of the question). And there will be the odors from the flowers surrounding our home and the busy life of Kenyans in the streets behind us. They will all mingle and imprint an indelible memory in my heart and soul.
And next year, these odors, too, will be the aromas of Christmases-past.
It is good to be home, whether here or there, or there or here. The nose always knows when I find home…and the memories sustain me even as I add new memories for years to come.
May your days be merry and bright….and may all your Christmases, smell might(y)…