Remembrance of Things Past

For the first time in many years, I’ve begun to go to bed early.

No no no… I haven’t been making my way further in Proust. I brought it with me, but it still just sits there on my bookshelf, taunting me that I haven’t read it. But I was thinking about it this week. There’s a line early in the Overture where old Marcel is sitting, eating a biscuit and drinking a cup of tea. He sips his tea and is overcome with passion, but he can’t understand it. He takes more and more sips, but he is unable to grasp the meaning of the feeling that has overcome him.

Old man Marcel puts down his cup and starts thinking, perusing his mind: what’s going on here, why such strong feelings simply from my tea and biscuit? As he sits there thinking, memories start tumbling in, and he reflects:

“… in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

This is at the end of the introduction, and what follows is 9 books and roughly 3,000 pages of the old man recalling his life. His whole “remembrance of things past” is simply a man sitting, examining his memories, sparked by the taste of tea and a particular biscuit.

Yesterday I had an exciting day of wandering around Kadikoy, which I might describe at length later. I had come home with four souvenirs of my journey: three delightfully battered paperbacks I’d found in one of Kadikoy’s many charming used bookstores, and 200g of magnificent coffee. After I woke up on this lazy Sunday, I walked over to my stove and excitedly opened my new bag of coffee. This coffee, my spectacular find of the weekend, is better than the Mehmet Effendi coffee which I had understood up until now as the best coffee in the world. As I opened the coffee, I was immediately plunged into remembrances of coffees past.

The smell of coffee beans usually takes me back to one Christmas maybe five or six years ago. This was after all of us brothers had taken after our father and had developed a nice habit. With Graham and I in college, our daily coffee routine was breaking the bank. This particular Christmas (I can’t recall what year it was, just that it was one of the years Mike and Elizabeth came over for a week or so, so I think it would have been either 2006 or 2007), dad bought Graham, Jay and I each a six pound bag of coffee. Northwest Blend, Fogchaser, and Sumatra. I think Mike had given us a few pounds as well, and we brothers might have gone in together to get a six pound bag for dad. I remember we went through the first of the six pound bags in two weeks. Things tapered off when Graham took off for his training camp, though. I’m not sure, but that may have been the first time we broke the coffee grinder. I know it was going pretty much non-stop for a few weeks. With roughly twenty pounds of coffee beans arriving at the house that week, though, whenever I open a fresh bag it almost always reminds me of that Christmas.

But this particular day, however, I was transported to a different time, into a time before I had discovered the delights of the heavenly nectar. There, in the aroma from the fine, black grounds in the bag, emerged days in my youth of running down the hill to Kingma’s Market. Either going shopping with mom or buying candy with my brothers, I remember the coffee bins on the wall. We’d lift the lids of the bins and inhale the pleasant aroma. I remember at home, dad would always joke with us about his coffee drinking habits, saying it was the reason why he was so small and bald. Jay made this hilarious cartoon which we didn’t find again until recently, after all of us had become hooked on the bitter bean.

Standing by my stove in Istanbul on a miserable Monday morning preparing to make my coffee, I was transported back to the coffee bins at Kingma’s Market.

My friends

My other souvenirs from Kadikoy also served as keys into the days of my youth. I spent Saturday wandering in and out of used bookshops, finding that the selection of English books in Kadikoy is much better than it is in Taksim. I love used books, and I love shopping for used books. I haven’t been wandering around and exploring the city as much as I would like, but I have been going to a lot of used bookshops over the past few weeks.

I don’t think I could ever use a Kindle because I love the aesthetic of a wonderfully battered paperback. Used books always have a particular smell to them. Normally they just smell like used books. But as the coffee sent me to the days of running down the hill to Kingma’s and lifting the coffee lids to smell the beans, I must have been thinking of family outings. My recently found used books didn’t just smell like a used bookshop, but sent me back to weekends when I was small and we would go to used bookshops with dad. We always had a few places that we would go, but now I only remember a few of them. Argos in Eastown and Bargain Books near 29th street. I don’t remember ever getting anything, I remember dad was always perusing the aisles and Jay was looking at the comic books, but I can’t recall ever looking for anything myself. I just remember the smell.

It’s interesting how the senses trigger memory. When dad was here in September/October, he mentioned as we were walking on the Galata bridge that some combination of roasted chestnuts, the sea, and diesel fuel are ingrained in his memory as what Istanbul smells like, and it sends him back to when he was 7 or 8, visiting Istanbul with his parents for the first time. I know the smell of Prague whenever I smell candied almonds, because the tram stop I went to every day was right next to a place that sold candied nuts. Then there’s a certain way that cheap toilet paper smells in many Eastern European cities, and whenever I smell it, it sends me back to the days of living in Budapest when I was young.

You never know how these memories are forming, how these smells, sounds or tastes are being burned into your memory. But it’s pleasant to stumble upon them later in life, to put down your cup to peruse your memories, and reflect why these coffee beans or books have sent your mind spinning.

1 Comment

  1. Ahh, the way the olfactory system triggers memory. It’s very strong, isn’t it?! I remember that particular Christmas when you guys went through all that coffee – Mike remembers it too. Mike says that he assumed it was always like that when all of you were there!! There was a lot of coffee consumed those two weeks, and I’m not surprised the grinder broke! I’m trying to tell him that those weeks were a bit … extreme, HAHA!

    Whenever I have a strong lemon smell (or taste) I am brought back to the days of being a child at grandma & grandpa’s … and standing beside Grandpa’s desk in the bedroom. They had these pieces of lemon candy shaped like slices of fruit that I can still remember!

    And I too have a smell that transports me back to Budapest, but it’s not toilet paper (why does it not surprise me that you remember how toilet paper smells?!)! Every now and then I’ll be walking down the sidewalk, or waiting at the corner to cross a street and a particularly dirty truck will go by spewing yuck into the air, and the smell of that exhaust immediately transport me back to the streets of Budapest. Ahhhh … truck exhaust.

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