It’s long been known that smell is the most powerful sensory trigger of memory, sound being the next one. I’m very familiar with sound – certain songs trigger certain memories or just feelings, sometimes very strongly in me. My mother singing to me as a toddler, the first song I ever remember hearing (ABBA’s Knowing Me, Knowing You, for the record), my first time in London (Republica’s Ready To Go), living in London (Timbaland’s The Way I Are), around the time of my engagement (Roxy Music’s Love Is The Drug), you get my drift. Music is a large part of the way I classify my life and my memories. Albums represent whole periods of my development and experiences.

To a lesser extent, I also get smell. It doesn’t happen that often, but it’s usually with people – Brut reminds me of my father, Lynx Africa is my boyfriend, Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew is my mother. In my experience, smell is much more subtle and mysterious than sound, and it can come from nowhere.

Last week, I was having a shower, minding my own business, and then bam – I was blindsided by a rush of ten-year-old memories. The new shampoo must have been similar to one that I used ten years ago, one that I’ve long since forgotten, but it managed to unlock a cavalcade of memories and feelings from ten years ago. I suddenly felt cold, remembering my first experience of a Northern Hemisphere winter.

December, 2001. Christmas. New York City. I was fifteen, shy, quiet but not quite as broken as I was later. I was still in the very early phases of discovering myself and the world, and the experience was so profound, so life-changing, that even now my life is divided into pre-New York, and post-New York. The two weeks I spent there with my sister were so amazingly happy and enriching, and it literally set me on the course of my life as it stands. If it wasn’t for this trip, through various threads that started there, I wouldn’t have met my future husband, or my friends. I saw with my own eyes the aftermath of probably the most significant event that will ever happen in my lifetime.

New York is a fabulous city, but back then it still had a massive hole in its heart. Everywhere we went, we were thanked for coming. The city was nowhere near as busy as it should have been, and they were suffering. The trip was booked long before September, and we came close to cancelling, too. But we thought about it. New York would be under massive guard; it was the safest place in the world. It was still scary when armed guards were at every airport security checkpoint in the States – I nearly died when my underwear set off the metal detector. I was put through endless metal detectors and frisked.

Despite this intimidating welcome, I fell in deep, deep love with this place. We walked endlessly in the cold, bought countless tacky souvenirs, ate at all of those horribly fattening but tasty restaurant chains (heresy when I think about it, but I was young). Central Park was an amazing oasis in the concrete jungle, so close to it all but yet so far removed. There was a touching memorial to the recently-passed George Harrison in Strawberry Fields. There was the touristy but wonderfully romantic horse-drawn carriage rides. It was lush and green, even in the winter, with herds of squirrels roaming and being cute in that squirrelly way. The city was bustling but not overwhelming, crowded but not claustrophobic. There were so many things to explore, and what I remember best is how friendly everyone was. The sound of foreign accents was very much welcomed, when tourism flatlined in those months after. Everyone was terribly lovely and sweet (minus being ripped off coming from the airport [only take a taxi!] but oh well – there’s a train now!).

So, we went to see it. Ground Zero. It did feel dreadfully morbid, especially since it was still a recovery operation and they were still retrieving bodies. But I really did want to pay my respects.
Most of the fire stations further down the island still carried memorials to those lost. Little signs, flowers, crosses everywhere the further down you went. It was odd. It was like we were in a vacuum and the closer we got, the more silent it became. All sound just vanished. We laid flowers. The devastation was still evident – the debris wasn’t really visible, but the surrounding buildings had all their windows smashed in, dust still on the ground. Some even had whole facades ripped off. You could see the worklights at night from miles away. Others had laid flowers, posted memorials and photos. There were still missing signs taped to poles. It was so incredibly heartbreaking, but even then people were starting to rebuild themselves, and the city. It was definitely one of the formative experiences of my life, and I was and will be forever changed.

The other major event in New York that altered the course of my life happened on Christmas Day. Now, I’m not used to ANYTHING being open Christmas Day, so for the cinema to be open was strange, but good. But, we couldn’t think of anything to see. We’d already seen Harry Potter six times.
‘Wanna see Lord of the Rings?’
*shrug* ‘Okay. Trailer looked okay.’
Three hours later, that was it. I was a Ringer, and still am to this day. After we came home, I found the copy of the book I knew was at the back of a cupboard, never read, and read the entire thing in three days. I went online and found forums and blogs and chat rooms and all that (chat rooms, I know, but this was 2001, just before the world got broadband). I met a girl in a chat room from my city. After a few months, we met up. We got on well. So well, in fact, we stayed in touch. In fact, four years later she lived with me briefly while my sister was overseas. We threw a party, and the theme was the British sitcom, Black Books. My flatmate said to me:
‘Hey, should I invite this guy from uni? You’d like him. He looks just like Bernard.’
He was duly invited, and just over two years from that day, we became a couple. Four years after that, through 18 months of an antipodean relationship (I lived in London), job losses, graduating university, graduating college and myriad other traumas, he proposed to me. This time next year, we’ll be married.

So, thank you, New York. I’ve been dying to come back but I haven’t quite got the chance yet. I plan to get there April/May 2013, for my honeymoon. I can’t wait to see familiar places, and explore new ones, and more importantly, share it all with my husband. So, thanks again. Couldn’t have done it without you.

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