Monday, 4 August 2008


My house in England, a 200 year old converted barn, has a distinctive underlying smell all its own. Underneath all of the transitory fragrances and odors of the house – the scents of candles, cooking, or the cat, for instance – there is an indescribable, and yet readily identifiable, smell that never changes. When we returned to this house after five years of living in Texas, and despite the fact that two families had occupied the house in the meantime, I immediately detected that unique smell.

But just like one’s own skin, or the perfume one always wears, I lose the ability to discern that smell when I am constantly in the house. I have to go away for a time, and the house has to become slightly foreign to me again, before I can truly smell it.

When I returned home on Saturday, after nearly three weeks of being away, I was really struck by the strong, strange smell of my own house. It seemed to assault my fragile, exhausted senses, rendered oversensitive by that long and tedious process of getting from one distant place to another. (With the five hour time change, it takes exactly 24 hours of travel to get from the lake house in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire to my door.) Although my husband had made various, obvious efforts to tidy the house, it felt off-kilter to me. In some subtle way, it didn’t feel quite like “my” house. And yet, that dichotomy of being able to smell it for exactly what it is!

While we are on subjects olfactory, have you ever noticed that airplanes all have the same smell, too? Whether you are in first class or the cramped cattle car section, all of the various smells of humanity are boiled down to some airless essence: part human dirt, part chemical sanitizer, part lack of oxygen. I always have to bathe after flying because I can detect that stink of “plane” on me, and I feel it like an actual physical discomfort.

Perhaps it is a sort of ritualized cleansing too, like the post-plane purification, but I cannot apply myself to any task – even that of relaxation -- until I have washed and ironed every scrap of clothing that made the journey with me. When everything is unpacked and back in its rightful place, I start to ease back into my real life.

The very process of travel, not to mention the destabilizing effect of the time difference, is so unsettling. Having established a vacation routine, it takes me a few days to get comfortable again in my home routine. I’m so aware of the deep, dense quiet of this house – so different from the airy, open-plan companionable clatter of the lake house in New Hampshire. In the lake house, I could hear the downstairs shower start every morning before 7 am. The house would be flooded with sunlight. A pot of coffee, the first of the two that we would drink every morning, would be brewing by 8 am. Here, the light and the sound are muffled by carpet and dense walls and thick curtains, not to mention the low, cloudy English sky. It is early afternoon, but I might as well be alone in the house because my children are still sleeping – stunned by jetlag. Instead of coffee, I drink cup after cup of tea – which never tastes the same in the U.S., even if you bring English teabags.

I remember, just this time last week, looking around the lake house and taking deliberate stock: Thinking, this place so familiar to me now will soon be lost to faulty memory. Blue kitchen; pine floors; large wooden table, which has anchored meals, and conversations, and hours of puzzle play; the smell of pine trees, which can be seen through every window; the creak of the swinging door to the porch and sun room; the tobacco-brown leather chairs; the rubberized smack of the large American-style refrigerator door opening; the sound of crushed ice being poured into plastic cups. I felt so rooted in that place, but I will almost certainly never see it again.

My mother claims that when I was a child I told her that “the days move slowly, but time passes quickly.”

It must have been summer when this thought occurred to me. Remember how slowly summer days seemed to pass when you were a child? I always feel like summer vacation days, particularly when they are lazy and agenda-less, are almost the only time an adult can still feel the expansiveness of time. A week ago, I remember having that thought: How long a day can seem when all you have to worry about is what you are going to eat for lunch, and whether you would prefer to swim or read a book. It seemed like I was on vacation for such a long time, but the time has passed – and will start to recede quickly now, because it always does. And in a few more days, I will have almost forgotten what it even felt like.


JaneyV said...

Welcome back to Blighty. I've really missed your posts!

An identifying house smell …I know what you mean. In my house it's the smell of the pine bedroom furniture and beeswax that hits me when I come back after a long time. I find it comforting though, like that first lie down on your own bed.

I had a wonderful vacation in The Pacific Northwest a while back. I can't explain it but I felt utterly at home there immediately. The landscape, the smells, the water, the mountains, the sounds resonated with me and I was genuinely sad to go home. For a long while after I would sit on my deck and imagine I was on the deck next to the lake with the wind so warm and dry it felt as though there was a hairdryer blowing on the back of my neck but after a while I couldn't remember the sound of the water and the summer faded into chilly autumn and the memories faded too.

They are still my favourite photos to look at.

Good to have you back again.

Alyson said...

From your amazing descriptions, I felt that I could imagine the very house you stayed in. You did great at painting a picture.

I loved your comment from childhood and I can relate. You are so right that a relaxed vacation is the only time as an adult when we can have that same feeling. I'm hoping to recapture that when we stay in a rental house in the mountains of Vermont in a week.

I also think I take so many pictures because I want to remember those things and feelings that I will almost certainly forget as time passes. Did you take a camera?

Wonderful post! I loved reading your beautiful writing once again. Welcome home!

Bee said...

Thanks! It's good to be back, actually. . . if only to sleep in my own bed with own pillow!

I haven't really explored the Pacific Northwest, even though I have a cousin who lives in Portland. I do think that some places "call" to us much more than others, though. I love New England, even though I've only ever been there in the summer!

Where are you going in Vermont? We drove from Manchester, NH to Saratoga, NY (and back again), crossing through the bottom of Vermont. I wish that we had had more time to explore, but we only stopped for an amazing deli lunch in Brattleboro.

As for pictures, sadly we didn't take any. My camera seems to be permanently lost now, and my friends are equally negligent in this area. I have lots of postcards and mementoes, though!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Welcome back, Bee! I loved reading about your time in NH--a place dear to my heart. And you are so right about summers. It feels like Fall is right around the corner. As I wheeled my trash bin out to the curb this evening, I noticed that it was rather dark at 9:30 pm. The days grow shorter.

Taffiny said...

beautiful. I really enjoyed your writing.

Like the opposite of your days are long but time passes quickly, the subject matter seems simple, but it holds the expansive.

I can't help myself when traveling anywhere, from thinking while on the journey to, that soon I will be going in the opposite direction on the journey back, and then from thinking on the journey back how I thought about this on the journey to. Like I am trying to fold over time and get the perspective of two locations, spaces of being in time, at once.

Working on my draft, has quite taken my summer. There is no time when I don't feel like I am supposed to be doing. I don't feel idle and free. Not even when we were on vacation. I miss the laziness of freeness in my mind, watch a movie, go for a walk, hang out by the pool, without this sense of supposed to be doing something else.

Just today I stopped to wonder if this is how it will be, if I do continue on and try to be a writer. Is this what it is like? Or is this just transitional (growing pains) and what it takes for me, at this point in time, to push myself forward?
The stores are displaying scarecrows, and gourds, and carved pumpkins, TV commercials talk of back to school shopping, and I am screaming 'WAIT, wait, I haven't felt summer yet. Don't take it away from me before I get to fully taste it!". But I don't know if there is anything I can do, for it isn't about place or activity, (I spent a week at the beach. I have spent time sitting pool side) it is about state of mind, and mine is scrambling around chasing things in such a way that I don't feel where my body is at, at the moment. Words buzzing louder than bees.

Kate said...

Are you sure you're not some widely published novelist masquerading as a British blogger?
This writing, Bee, is stunning. So descriptive! So heartfelt. So pour-yourself-a-cup-of-coffee-whilst-I-tell-you-about-coming-back-to-my-home.
I positively love reading your posts. And it would be a lie if I said I didn't miss you when you were gone.
Perhaps once the kids start back to school you could write a novel. You certainly have the talent and insight into the human condition to make that happen.

Lucy said...

Welcome back!

And bravo, for catching this fleeting mood of tired, unsettled, enhanced awareness and making something so beautiful of it. Thank you for sitting and taking the time to write this.

Debski Beat said...

Welcome back Bee, I've really missed your writing. I was spellbound by today's post ... so true about the smell of a house, strange that the smell of the house was there when you moved in. I tend to worry about the smell of my house, I'm told by my son that wherever I live the house smells the same. Teenage rooms have a mind boggling smell, babies rooms equally mind boggling but more in a 'ah they are sweet' kind of way, lets not get on to the Elderly Auntie !

Yes, all aircraft smell the same except I think for Latin American aircraft as they have a wonderful smell of food, but not the AA/BA food smell and we all know what I mean here. My favourite smell is almost any American shopping mall due to the love of baking and cinnamon, also at Christmas you Americans do 'shopping mall smells' really really well, again cinnamon, pine, orangey smells all combined with a "madame can I ask you to try this perfume" waft.

The issue of tea bags, Brit tea bags are indeed good but American tea bags fare very very well against the notorious French tea bags ... just a tip, take your own !

Best 'smell book'. Perfume, hands down in my opinion.

Welcome back tho' rest up, enjoy the holidays. Sigmund is to be greatly congratulated on cleaning up efforts and I suspect is worth a blog on its own !

Please when recouped please let us know how the chickens faired when you were away and please do not forget the culinary questions in the last post.

I have just read my preview, no jokes (truly) were meant in relation to tea and Tips, no pun intended on recoup and chickens. I had better leave now as I'm going to make a fool of myself !

Bee said...

JAPRA, Never mind the encroaching dusk, today it was dark all day! I really felt that melancholy of summer drawing to an end, even though I know we still have five weeks of summer to go!

I'm feeling really homesick for the U.S. right now . . . not so much for Texas, but for New England! I just spent an hour reading Sarah's new stuff and now I really want to move to Maine.

Taffiny, I remember you mentioning how much writing you got done during your vacation. I was full of admiration! I was just the opposite, and didn't even crack open the new journal that I bought for the occasion. It IS difficult to balance accomplishment with the lazy bliss of enjoyment. (I think that I excel more at the latter than the former.) Without losing your writing flow, I hope that you find some lazy, summer days in you yet. (Pumpkins already? Good grief.)

Kate, you dear. About the writing thing: In the back of my mind, I've always thought that I might write a novel someday. It's a dream, yes. But I'm not sure if I have the discipline (or good enough ideas) to do it! I must say that blogging -- which has exposed me to so much good writing, not to mention WRITERS -- is inspiring.

Bee said...

Lucy, I love the way you describe what I wrote!

Debski beat, I'm glad that you remembered your password! Regarding smells: it is funny how some people's houses do have a very distinct smell. I like that. I need to visit you soon and see if I can identify the DB smell.
About American malls: It is Cinnabon!! One of the yummiest smells on the planet.
Yes, Sig did a fine job of holding the fort down. (And he did eventually manage to track me down by phone!)
More on chickens and food tomorrow, I hope. I will be writing about my favorite restaurants . . . and the chicken theme rears its beaky head more than once.

Alyson said...

We're staying in the Stowe area. It's a ski resort kind of town. It sounds like you were very close to me! Brattleboro is only an hour away from me. We only live 10 miles from the Massachusetts border.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for visiting my humble blog.
Yes, I'm rather keen on domesticity - of other people's variety.
I'm glad you enjoy Laurie Colwin. She was married to Juris Jurevicks my editor at Soho. Apparently she could not spell either. So terribly sad she died so young.
Have you read "Bliss" by Katherine Mansfield? I bet you have.
You might like " How Proust can Change your Life" by Alain de Botton? But you have probably read that too.
I have sent several summers in Saratoga Springs which is, indeed, rather retro - but also very spooky.
All best wishes from New York.

Sarah Laurence said...

Welcome home, Bee! That’s exactly how I felt times ten, coming home after a year abroad. The tea isn’t tasting right either, but I haven’t switched to coffee. The ice cream is better here. It’s nice to have you back, even if back is now farther away from me. A part of me will always remain in England.

I LOVE your description of the New Hampshire cabin – both what it is and all the senses you utilize to describe it. You were very introspective as a child. I can hear the dormant blogger.

Sarah Laurence said...

Elizabeth and Bee, I just noticed that you two connected. How perfect! One of you is a Brit married to American, living in the USA, and the other is an American married to an Englishman, living in the UK. I'm behind in my blog comments but will catch up later. It's a busy week.

Bee said...

What will you do in Stowe? Do you go there for skiing as well? I had NO IDEA that you were so close to Vermont. Texas is such a large state that I have difficulty adjusting my internal map scale to other (smaller) places. We visited the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. I think that would be a great trip for you and your little people.

Charmed to meet you!
It is funny you should mention the LC/JJ connection because I actually (in a roundabout way) got into blogging because of Laurie. I feel so sad that she died so young, but all of her books are dear friends of mine -- and I reread them (particularly the cookbooks) frequently.
I have not read either of your two suggestions, but I will attempt to track them down. Thank you!

One more thing: Why is Saratoga "spooky?"

Yes, New England is a paradise for ice cream lovers. I never bother with it in England.

I'm so pleased that you are happy to be home. Maine is very seductive.

Anne said...

Welcome back! It's funny, isn't it, the way certain houses have a smell all their own. My parents' house certainly does, and the darling little apartment I had in Houston did as well. Our current house doesn't as much, or at least it's not as distinctive, and I miss that about coming home after some time away.

As for unstructured days, lately I find that those days pass all too quickly. It seems that they're gone almost as soon as they begin! We had a couple of open days this weekend in Colorado, where we had a couple of things to accomplish but could do them more or less whenever we wanted, and it was amazing how quickly the time passed.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Good to have you back in your blog. I've missed reading you.


Bee said...

Where were you in Colorado?

It's one of life's truths that you can either be "open" (unstructured) or you can accomplish your "list." The two states do not happily co-exist!

And I've missed writing . . . and having blog-ersations with my friends.

cipriano said...

That post-bicentennial house seems positively delightful.

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