Sensory Memories of Home

With summer around the corner and many an expat getting ready for a trip back home, thoughts about what truly signifies home keep popping up in my head. I have noticed that the longer I live abroad, the more intense my sensory memories of home seem to get, or rather, the more easily my sensory memories get triggered — sending me back to a certain time or place, reminding me of something that feels, tastes, or smells like “home”. The other day, for example, when out for a run through my local neighborhood, I came across a garden that smelled just like my grandparents’ place the way I remember it from when I was a kid — a mix of faint lavender, sweet rosehip and something earthy with an ocean breeze mixed in. I had to stop and just breathe, to take it all in. If I could, I’d bottle it.

I was talking to my sister back home the other day and she told me about how spring is finally putting its mark on the landscape in Sweden — how everything is green and fresh and fragile, how spring flowers are blossoming. This kind of spring green is different from any other I know, it’s more spectacular than anything I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it’s a function of the long dark Nordic winters being so unforgiving that when spring finally arrives, the contrast is so extreme, it can’t be anything but spectacular. Or, perhaps I’ve just built up a romantic view in my head after all these years abroad. Regardless of the reason, there it was in my head, an overload of sensory memories — a vision of blinding greens, combined with the smell of fresh cut grass, and the excitement and possibilities of near endless summer evenings.

Food is yet another of these triggers. When I first moved abroad many years ago, it could be hard to find the right ingredients to make some of the traditional dishes that I longed for. These days that’s not an issue. International foods of all kinds have become much easier to find — at restaurants inspired by cuisines from around the world, as well as at local grocery stores, and if not at a store nearby, then online. Still, there are some foods more than others that just scream “home”. Earlier today, my son and I baked a batch of Swedish cardamom buns. We had both been longing for them for a while and had finally gotten around to getting the ingredients we needed. Biting into a fresh-out-of-the-oven cardamom bun was definitely a sensory throw-back — a very delicious one at that.

I know that what I’m talking about is not news — most people seem to experience these kinds of sensory triggered memories. There is even science to back up the idea — smell, for example, is one of the strongest memory sensors we have. The (very) basic theory for that has to do with where we process smell in our brain: the olfactory bulb, which sits right next to two brain areas that are active in emotion and memory — the amygdala and the hippocampus. That’s as far into the science of this that I’ll go, but there is plenty to read about the subject for those interested (see links above to start).

In contrast to the pleasantness of the sensory triggered memories, actually going home for the summer isn’t necessarily that serene of an experience — rushed and frazzled are maybe better words to describe how you feel. Between getting together with family, visiting a few favorite places and catching up with friends, there really isn’t much time to “stop and smell the roses” as it were.

By: Felicia Shermis

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