So we’re spending the weekend in Cambridge, the missus and I. Our agenda for the weekend is one big, refreshing, rejuvenating void. We intend to breakfast gloriously every morning at our b&b, and then ensconce ourself in one of this wonderful university town’s many cafes. Where we will read and write and talk and think and over-caffeinate ourselves into a state of zen. (Currently I am slowly, but rapturously, chewing my way through a book of essays by AJP Taylor. While the misses has just started an Abraham Eraly and is proceeding very slowly because there is too much happening on Twitter.)
And so it was this morning. Our B&B, the best bed and breakfast in the whole wide world so far, is a brisk 40-minute walk away from the city centre. Most of those 40 minutes are spent along the banks of the river Cam. Though it does seem a little embarrassing to call the Cam a river. I’ve seen potholes in Thrissur that are wider, deeper, have more consistent fluid flow, and have a livelier water sports scene.
But if the locals insist it is a river, who are we to disagree?
This morning the Cam was, as usual, fabulous. Swans and ducks and college rowing teams jostled for space on the Cam’s surface as your blogger and his missus and other pedestrians calmly walked by in the biting cold and glorious sunshine. (This is, without a doubt, the worst weather in the world to dress for. Every layer is one layer too much for this much sunshine. Every layer is one layer too little for the cold. Bloody nonsense.)
So we walked, occasionally stopping to watch the rowing teams piston by, and generally wondered how much it would cost to buy a little house in Cambridge. And then, suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, the smell of somebody burning some kind of wood wafted over on the back of a gust of wind, penetrated my nostrils, activated a vast array of nerve endings and smell receptors, all of which then relayed a burst of electrical signals into my brain.
Et, as the french say, voila. Suddenly, clear as crystal, I could see my grandmother hunched over the wood-burning stove in the kitchen of my old ancestral home in Kerala.
Smell is the WinZip of the brain. One moment somebody is burning something somewhere. The next moment you have a full 3D diorama in your head of something that happened years and years and years ago.
We don’t burn wood in our stoves back in Thrissur any more. We don’t have grandmother anymore either. But the memories are vivid. I can still smell the bits and pieces of dried coconut palm fronds and coconut shells fogging up our kitchen and sooting up the insides of our massive chimney. We cooked simple meals in those days. (We still do, mostly. You need a lot of wealth to wash away even the slightest run in with poverty.) But depending on where you ate your food it could taste completely differently. Eat in the kitchen and everything tasted smoky and sweet and, frankly, a little grainy. Things got better in the dining room. Take your plate outside to the courtyard and the tamarind in the fish curry and the coconut in the kadala curry began to slowly emerge from beneath the smokiness.
There are other smells that mean much to me. The smell of the carpet in the lobby of my building in London is a powerful sensory marker. It tells me I am home. And that everything is ok. And that you no longer have to use strange toilets or eat strange breakfasts. The smell of carpets, though, is an ancient totem for me. The smell of carpets also remind me of my flat in Abu Dhabi. Of how we’d come back from the airport after annual vacation in Kerala, open the door, inhale the smell of carpets and… suddenly realise that it was time to go back to school, and read the Khaleej Times, and eat sausages from a plastic bag. It meant that you no longer woke up each morning to hear cows being milked and grandparents fighting and uncles battling with scooters and cousins carving wickets out of wooden sticks. It was a sad feeling. It was a happy feeling. And it was all because of the carpets.
Yes. Smells. Awesome things. I just thought I’d share.