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.