30 March 2011

remembrance of things past: french nostalgia

As I wrote earlier this week, I've been getting a little nostalgic for France, as I normally do in the spring, possibly because of that song "April in Paris."

Or it's possibly because after months of feeling out of place in France {when I lived in Normandy 6 years ago}, spring is when I finally started to feel at home.

So this is a remembrance of things past kind of post {with a nod to Proust, of course}: here is something I wrote about the smell of France when I was living in Normandy.

I wrote this for my hometown newspaper, The Hawk Eye, which was publishing occasional columns from me about my life in France (with a nod to Julia Child there}.

You know you're from a small town when you can get a column in the newspaper just for going somewhere else. {And to this day in Burlington, people will reference me as "that French girl."}

In this column, I wanted my Iowans to be able to breathe in France, just as I was. I also wanted them to take a deep breath of Iowa and appreciate where they were.

{A good note before you read this: I lived in France twice. My junior year, I studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, so when I talk about my French life before or what my life was like after coming back to America—well, I'm talking about that period in between Aix and moving back to France after college.}


I’d forgotten the smell of France after going back to America. I forgot a lot of tiny details of my French life when I returned to the Midwest, small everyday nothings that together created days of everything.

I think that I let so much of my French life slip through my mind because back in America, my normal, expected, and loud life pushed away the inconspicuous pieces of France.

I remembered my idealized chunks—mostly based on the vague notion of a better way of life that seems to lengthen every minute of every day until they melt into each other.

In my memory of France, there was little room for realistic details; I painted a large canvas quickly, catching the light and colors like an Impressionist. I smudged over the deceivingly mundane, so my picture of France comes out somewhat like a Renoir.

The faces are animated, full of life and accuracy, but the food and drinks on the table are blurs of color and short strokes. You know there’s a croissant and maybe a cup of café noir, though, in the same way that I knew vaguely that the forgotten details of my French life—the details that had sustained me—had been real and solid.

I felt that there were details, like the exact sound of French sirens and what fromage blanc tastes like with three scoops of sugar in it, but they were only sketched in short strokes as the immenseness of American life marched over them.

But the smell of France...it’s come back to me.

Smell is, of course, an impossible, indefinable memory to capture. You can’t recreate a smell in the same way that you can recreate a picture for your mind’s eye.

Even now, I can close my eyes and see the view of downtown Burlington and the Mississippi from my parents' back deck, a rainbow in the Rocky Mountains, a palm tree against the sea and sun on the British Virgin Islands, what Bracewell Stadium looked like as I cheered for the football team at my senior Homecoming, and the Quad at Truman State in the fall.

I can’t, however, remember what my house smells like when my mom, grandma, and aunts are making Thanksgiving dinner, even though it’s something I’ve smelled every year since...well, since forever. I can smell something that reminds me of another, more potent and important smell, but so far in France I’ve found nothing that carries the feeling of that distinctly American holiday with its turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.

France is, of course, full of its own smells and sights, and with my first step from the airplane into Charles de Gaulle airport, I started remembering.

Details, the tiniest of details, have been coming back to me, and I feel a bit like someone waking up to the real world after amnesia, not that I actually know what that’s like.

I remember what a warm baguette feels like in my hands.

When I walk, I can again feel cobblestones, which are so much more daring than American sidewalks.

I see what the manicured gardens are like full of flowers and with carefully trimmed lawns that ask for picnics and games of football, but I smile remembering that you can’t touch the grass in most of these perfect French gardens.

No walking, no picnicking, no playing on it—and the astonishing thing is that the French don’t break this law. They’re proud of their tax evasion skills, but when it comes to keeping France beautiful—the gardens and parks are an essential part of France’s beauty—they don’t look for loopholes. They just stick to the path.

Most importantly for my senses, I can smell France again, the one sense I couldn’t entirely re-create back in America.

Once during my senior year of college, when I was out for a morning jog in Kirksville, I smelled a little something that reminded me of France. I actually ran around the block five times, trying to figure out what it was exactly that was French-ish. I couldn’t do it, and since the neighbors were starting to get curious, I ran on—but with a sensory ache for France.

I never knew it was possible to miss a country—just another country that isn’t really home—so much just because of a wishful reminiscence.

France smells like...is it the smell of baking mixed with the exhaust of those myriad little cars?

If that’s it, then wouldn’t that area out on Mt. Pleasant Street in Burlington right by Vista Bakery smell like France? It has baking and cars, but it’s not French. It’s too sweet and too full of concrete and oversized cars to be right (not that I don’t love the smell of Vista Bakery because it makes West Burlington smell like everyone is baking cookies on a hot summer afternoon with the back door open for a breeze).

Maybe the smell of France is the smell of cobblestones on winding streets that used to be cow paths into town for market day. France could have the smell of history: revolutions, wars, kings, power, defeats, religion, triumphs, trade, patriotism, art, and scandal. It could be the smell of cathedrals that took 500 years to build (try to comprehend that time span, America).

In Paris, one of the bridges connecting Ile de la Cité, where Notre-Dame is, to the main banks was built from the stones of an old cathedral that was torn down during the revolution of the late 18th century, a time when religion was banned and reason was worshipped.

The cathedral had been standing for hundreds of years, so the stones that are now in the bridge were originally shaped by a French craftsman long, long ago, probably before a centralized France even existed. It makes me feel so small to consider even the rude work of that man’s hands, lasting through the centuries.

France could smell of history, but the other European countries I’ve visited don’t smell like France, and they’ve got their fill of history, too.

It must, then, be a mixture of smells, created haphazardly and without the precision of an expert creating a perfume.

It must, in fact, be French perfumes mixing with exhaust fumes and ancient times stirred together with globalization. It’s the smell of petite French bakeries next door to Chinese restaurants, Moroccan tea rooms, and kebab stands. It’s from the workers who wash down the streets every morning and evening and from the fresh flower markets.

Probably the smell of France has a bit to do with how many people smoke, a respiratory shock to my American system.

It’s the smell of gray mornings of sharp air.

It’s the half-timbered buildings in Rouen, the wrought-iron balconies in Paris, and the colorful shutters in Provence.

The smell of France is indescribable but recognizable. It’s a comforting smell to me because it’s starting to mean home—but now I’m grasping to remember what Iowa smells like.


  1. Why don't I remember this? My favorite smell - freshly plowed earth.

  2. I like that smell, too, Mama, the freshly plowed earth smell.

    I don't know why you don't remember this; I'm pretty sure it was published in the Hawk Eye... :)



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