Friday, December 12, 2008

Group post: Holidays abroad

I once read or heard somewhere that smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory. I don't know if this is true, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me if it were. I couldn't begin to count the number of times a slight wiff has instantaneously catapulted me back to times gone by. Whenever the scent of wet fallen leaves signals the beginning of fall, I'm back panting on a floodlit soccer field with my childhood team, the formidable Pink Sleeveless Magic Thunderweasels (we were a well-coordinated scoring machine on the field, but we couldn't agree on a team name). Sniffing my once-beloved Victoria's Secret Love Spell perfume now makes me nauseous because I used to spritz it on before stuffing myself on to the brimming, lurching bus that hauled me to class every morning when I was an exchange student here in Chile. Unscrubbed rodent cage is third grade, and something resembling chemical cherry has struck perfect and maddening resonance for years with a childhood memory I still can’t identify.

And then there’s Christmas. For me, Christmas is firewood smoke, simmering turkey and ham, church incense and the empty scent of cold, cold air. And, of course, pine. Of the 24 Christmases I have experienced on this planet, not one has been celebrated in the absence of a real Christmas tree. Last year, when my mom said she could picture herself going the artificial route in the future, I almost cried.

That is one of the reasons why, despite having lived more than three years of my life abroad, I have never once spent Christmas away from home: It just doesn’t smell right anywhere else. Chileans decorate plastic trees. And have Christmas barbeques. And spend Christmas Day under the scorching summer sun.

Since it doesn’t smell like Christmas, it doesn’t feel like Christmas. This week, I bought holiday lights and listened to Christmas music, but I have no more yuletide cheer than I did on the 4th of July. And it’s depressing, because the lack of appropriate scents has robbed me of the anticipation and warm fuzzies I usually feel during the holiday season.

Of course, with a minimal amount of effort, I could scrounge up a pine branch and cook a ham in Chile. But in a way, that might be even worse, because those smells are intimately connected to the people who – much more than the smells themselves – truly make Christmas special for me. And those people are thousands of miles away.

So, you see, a gringa just can’t win. That’s why, in a few days, I’ll be speeding away from summer on a plane pointed north. My nose simply won’t have it any other way.

One could argue that I could retrain my nostrils to associate Christmas with barbequed sausage, sunblock and cut grass. Still, I think the results of such an effort would be superficial at best. Many autumns have come and gone since the disbanding of the legendary Pink Sleeveless Magic Thunderweasels, but the smell of wet leaves reminds me of them – not midterms or Homecoming – to this day. When it comes to scent memories, I’m pretty sure it’s the early ones that stick.

Thanks to Clare for organizing this group post! It made it feel just a bit more like Christmas. Here are a list of other people who have blogged on this topic:




Clare said...

Love the post... also utterly jealous that you have always made it home. My times away were:

1996 - Chile
2002 - Moldova
2003 - Moldova
2007 - Chile

New Years:
1997 - Chile
2000 - Chile
2003 - Hungry
2004 - Turkey
2008 - Chile

1996 - Chile
2000 - Chile
2002 - Moldova
2003 - Moldova
2007 - Chile

17 yrs old - Chile
20 yrs old - Chile
22 yrs old - Moldova
23 yrs old - Moldova
27 yrs old - Cambodia
28 yrs old - Chile

Abby said...

I totally agree with you about smells! I didn't feel like it was Christmas this year until we put our tree up and now our house smells like evergreen...yum. And I have a smell that triggers an unknown childhood memory too! It's kind of like a damp basement smell, but it makes me really happy :)

Also, I'm SOOOOOO sorry but I realized I had you down as Renee in my blog instead of Leigh...for some unknown reason I get you two confused. Anyway, I don't know if you even noticed but I changed it.

Have a Merry Christmas at home!

Sara said...

Interesting approach, but oh so true!

I'm really jealous that you are heading back to Minnesota. It's diifcult to be here again... I just have to tell muself that in January, I will be back for two months.

Anonymous said...

Could the "cherry" smell be the antibiotics you took for all those ear infections?

Leigh said...

Clare: You're an expat holiday champ. Has that changed your perception of holidays at all?

Abby: No worries.

Sara: Yeah, Minnesota is one of those places it's hard to be away from! I'm jealous of your two-month trip.

Anonymous (a.k.a. Mom or Julie): It's a pleasant memory, so I don't think so.

Shannon said...

have fun in MN!!!
I cant wait to also be home!! my mom doesnt even know im coming!!!
I cant wait to see this "blizzard" I have been reading about on facebook statuses!!! I leave tonight so I should really go pack!!

ResidentExpat said...

Safe travels. All the years of being an expat, I took the opportunity of the break to travel. Even in my current US posting, it's a time to get away from the usual....

Enjoy the smell of Christmas :-)

noel said...

Never fear, the real Christmas tree tradition continues, evergreen fragrance et al!