Inhaled Memories

Chai, Pakistan, Murree“Memories often return through the nose….”Peter Mayle

As soon as I stepped into the restaurant I smelled the pungent aroma of spices that make up a curry. In a breath I was back in Pakistan at a restaurant in Karachi. My family was with me as we sat around a table, too busy eating to talk. Hot chapatis served with thick chicken curry covered in ghee filled our plates. Small bowls of raita cooled our mouths. The memory was from years ago, but as I stepped into the restaurant it was as fresh as though it was yesterday.

I had just inhaled a memory.

Another breath and I inhaled another memory. This time I was at the chai shop across the street from my boarding school. Going to the chai shop was a privilege you earned when you entered high school. Though only steps from the front door, it was officially ‘off campus’ and outside of school property. As such it offered a space away. Hot chai served in chipped china cups warmed our bodies and filled our stomachs; parathas and spicy omelets were pungent, delicious additions to the boring and some might say hideous, boarding school diet.

Another memory inhaled.

In the novel Anything Considered Peter Mayle takes his character back in time through his sense of smell. “Memories often return through the nose. As he inhaled the odor of sanctity, a blend of ancient dust, mildewed prayer books, and crumbling stone, Bennett was taken back instantly and vividly to his school days.”

I stopped my reading and pulled out a pen and my always beside me small moleskin journal to write the quote. It was too good to forget, too true not to use.

We step into kitchens and smell the aroma of cinnamon and dough and suddenly we’re back home and tiny, waiting for that hot, fresh cinnamon roll. We walk into an unfamiliar house and in a moment feel completely comfortable, secure because the smells lure us to a past place and time of comfort.

And then there are those other inhaled memories – those that remind us of sickness, difficulty, poverty, even death.

Inhaled memories are not always pleasant.

But those that come to me as I enter Indian or Pakistani restaurants and stores are gifts taking me to places and foods I love. And so I embrace them and hold them tight, as though I am greeting an old and dear friend.

How about you? What memories have you inhaled? 

*The featured photo is a picture of our beloved chai shop, courtesy of Jason Philbrick. Jason has been featured in two complementary pieces:

23 thoughts on “Inhaled Memories

  1. I am so glad that someone was able to tap into memories that I couldn’t share with most of my friends here. I also am sharing some of your articles with my kids so that they can get a clearer understanding of their mother’s childhood.


  2. During college I worked at a refrigerated warehouse, going around on a small pallet truck packing orders of mostly cheese and dairy products for various grocery stores. At the end of Aisle C, where they kept sauerkraut and aged hard cheeses, was a spot I started to think of as “little Murree”. Every time I stopped there I would have sudden saudade for MCS, and the further I had to stick my head into the shelves, the worse it got.

    It took me a while to figure out that it was probably something about the lighting (pretty harsh flourescents which however didn’t quite make it all the way down to floor level), the feel of bare metal underneath your fingers, and especially the smell!

    Something about the mix of oil and grime, damp cold air and cardboard, and faint mildew and cabbage smells felt exactly like being either at the bottom of the stairs up to the old MCS HS library (before they built the current one), or in front of the cutlery cupboard in the Sandes dining room, stowing away knives and forks after getting dishes for not making your bed that morning. It’s amazing what you can get homesick for!


  3. Recently we moved back to New Mexico where I grew up as a child. As I drive around in late August the best smell flooded the car through the open windows. The smell of green chile roasting- taking me back to childhood memories from my grandma’s farm and my dad’s job in spice factory. I told my kids smell the scent of heaven- green chile! And they being Kansas born looked at me like I was an alien! :)


    1. Love this so much. Did your dad come home smelling like spices? And what kind? And love that you told the kids green chiles was the scent of Heaven. I look forward to visiting New Mexico and smelling Heaven!


      1. Would love to have you experience New Mexico! Robynn will be making her first trip here next week :) My dad worked for Baltimore Spice makers of Old Bay Seasoning in their Southwestern plant that dehydrated chile peppers for various spice packets. So the smell was red chile, paprika and such! Thanks for your great blog. Hope to meet you someday!


  4. When I left the airport in Dallas once I smelled India. It turns out that we were right by a sewage vent and that plus the humidity plus the fact that we were waiting for public transportation transported me back to South Asia. Funny thing is, even though the smell of sewage is not pleasant in any context, I love India and so I was pleased by this smell memory. I smelled the sewage, but my mind could see the beautiful people, colorful saris and spicy food.


    1. I love this comment. Your recognition that while the smell was bad, the memory was wonderful. This has happened to me before as well. And Pakistan, like India, has such a confluence of smells! From pungent spices to sewage…


  5. There was always a distinct smell which came over the plane when we descended from the mountains onto the tropical coastal plains in New Guinea on our way home from boarding school. That, coupled with the fact that my brother invariably got sick at about that point, is a smell in a hot 6 passenger Cesna you aren’t likely to forget.

    Now I’ve not actually smelled it (physically) since… But I remember being quite unhappy in college (who knew you could go to college and suffer more restrictions there than you ever did at home) and every time I’d be headed back for a new semester, that odor would waft across the car, and I’d have to pull over lest I get sick.

    It is a smell that haunts me to this day, when I find myself feeling ‘stuck’ in a particularly unhappy situation. I used to hate it, but I’ve learned to pay more careful attention to it and it has become a warning signal for me to examine my situation and recognize the factors which are making me feel trapped or stuck for what they are. Knowledge is power: when you can recognize what something is, you can act on it. So this unpleasant ‘smell’ (even though its imaginary) has become a God-send.


    1. Just catching up with comments on this post. This comment really caught me. Your description of heading back to college and the emotions it evoked. To this day I picture Chicago dark because my college years were so dark while there. I’ve been back and had some wonderful times but when I think of Chicago I see dark. I well remember the smell of kids being sick. We would drive from sea-level up to 7,500 feet in the Himalayas where our boarding school was. Someone was always sick on the way up. Then when I went back married, with a tiny one – she got sick on the way up..aiyaiayaia!! I think the road wasn’t built along the curve of the mountain but against it.


      1. yes. Winters in Chicago seem to be endless grey skies. Having grown up in the tropics (just 4 degrees off the equator and on the coastline) it is killer to me too. I remember coming back to the States for furlough, wearing a sundress and flipflop shoes (all I owned) and arriving at the airport in January. The culture shock knew no bounds!

        I have learned, now living again in Chicago, that I must keep a natural light lamp on at least 30 min a day… especially in the mornings… or my depression rears its ugly head.

        I love the idea of roads running with the grain of the mountain (instead of against it). I’ll have to think about that some more. I’ve certainly experienced what you are talking about!


  6. I inhale many a memory actually. One of the biggies is the smoke smell of my dad (not a pleasant one but familiar nonetheless) and my mom’s perfume.
    My sister and I have a joke in which we say “sshh…do you smell that?” It is kind of literal.


    1. Oh I love this SO much. That would make a great blog post title: “Shh- Do you Smell That?!” Thank you for this. Rose scent (Avon) which I don’t care for always reminds me of my Grandma (who I adored….)


      1. My mom wears Chloe. Thanks for the blog idea too! I am actually prepping a Daily Post about Twitter and the beauty of virtual silence right now. I will have to add that suggestion to my blog drafting book. Yes, I actually have one of those :)


  7. The combined smell of garbage and heat of almost every 3rd world country, sloppy Joe’s @Murree remind me of lunches and monkeys (who you could feed the sloppy Joe’s to), ladybirds @Murree (they leave a specific smell when they’re scared and lets just say it wasn’t a good idea to put hundreds of them in a jar and them drop it in our room), and Dettol reminds me of 3rd hospitals and orphanages and specifically me of the time I fainted in a maternity ward in Zambia after giving blood. I could write a book on this! Smells really bring back memories for me.


    1. I distinctly remember the smell of ether from a tonsillectomy in Sukkur when I was 11 and from high school when I saw my first eye surgery and almost fainted from the smell.


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