Scent Memory

Everyone has those moment when a certain smell sweeps under their nose and they are suddenly taken back to a specific memory.  On certain fall days, like today, the air will have a specific, crisp, pre-winter, slightly salty quality that picks me up and plunks me right back to Edinburgh, Scotland in 2001.  The memories are so sharp and clear that it’s like I got hit in the gut.  Or maybe that’s just how much I miss the city.

In the fall of 2001 (6 days after the World Trade Center fell in New York City) I flew to Edinburgh Scotland for a three month study abroad.  Classes didn’t start until mid-September, so I had about two weeks before reporting to orientation.  Taking advantage of time and opportunity, Mom flew over with me, we rented a car, and set off on a Grand Adventure.  We had one hotel reservation for the first night in Scotland, but beyond that, we had a tiny red car, a road map, and a rough idea that we wanted to drive north.

Cowgate, Edinburgh Scotland (respectfully borrowed from

Cowgate, Edinburgh Scotland (respectfully borrowed from

That was the most amazing way to kick off the what became the best three months of my college years.  The University of Edinburgh was everything I could have hoped for and more.  The campus was big and bold and gorgeous – the classes were interesting and (somewhat) challenging – and the city … the city of Edinburgh is like nothing that can be described.  Better writers than I can ever dream if being have tried to capture of essence of the city (Muriel Spark, Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin to name a few,) and even they have a difficult time describing a city with such vast dichotomies.

For me, it felt like coming home.  Perhaps it was because, like many Americans looking to reconnect with their “heritage”, I was in a place where my ancestors lived.  (Tangent: This was problematic for me even when I was in Scotland because I loathed those tourists who couldn’t wait to buy a kilt, run up and down the Royal Mile, find their family’s castle, and suddenly BE Scottish.  I have no illusions that I am Scottish — I’m not.  I’m American.  That is my heritage for good or evil.  End Tangent.)  Anyways, perhaps there is some deep-rooted connection to a place that people can feel, but I think it’s more likely that Scotland is remarkably similar to New England in temperament and temperature.  It’s a cold, wet place, rocky and hard, with people who reflect the geography.  Yet, like New Englanders (especially those from Northern New England (Connecticut and Rhode Island don’t count as New England in my book)) the Scots, once they get to know you, are an incredibly warm people.  They are generous and loving, if not overly passionate and demonstrative.  It felt familiar.

This was also the first time I have ever lived on my own and in a city.  There was no campus meal plan, I lived in a real apartment (not a dorm) and as such, I did my own cleaning and cooking.  I LOVED it!  It was scary, yet liberating.  This experience was so rich, wonderful and life-changing that I wanted it to continue long after my time there was over.  I looked into transferring to the University of Edinburgh permanently, and during my senior year I looked into grad school overseas.  However, life had other plans, and when a fire ripped through my old neighborhood in 2002, I knew it wasn’t meant to be.

Now, on certain fall days, when the air is particularly crisp and cool, it makes me miss the city, and my experiences there, with a physical ache.  It used to make me really sad, but now it makes me happy.  How lucky I am to have these memories!

Found via Flickr; Grant MacDonald, Photographer

Found via Flickr; Grant MacDonald, Photographer


One response to “Scent Memory

  1. Your adventure with your mom sounds just like the one we took on our first trip to Ireland. No map, no hotel reservations, no nothing. We had a week and just knew we needed to be back at the airport by the last day. We had some experiences that would have completely ruined some people’s ideas of a good vacation, but for us, it was, and still is, the best one we’ve ever had. I’m not Irish or Scottish by any stretch that I’m aware of, but being there was like being home for me, too. I so identify with the traditional simplicity and goodness of the land and the culture, just like you described. I can’t wait to also go to Scotland someday and experience it there, too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s