Warmed by the Sun in Iza

Last month I visited Iza, a village in western Ukraine renowned for its grapevine weaving tradition. Tiny shops lining the roads offered a selection of baskets, boxes, furniture and toys. I walked from one store to another, admiring as much the intricate patterns of braids, stars and coiled loops as the scent of weaving warming in the spring sun.

The fragrance was sweet like vanilla biscuits, with a mellow accent reminiscent of an antique shop–wood shavings, dust and varnish. Have I smelled it before? It seemed familiar to the point of disturbing, like a half-remembered face in the crowd or a word sitting on the tip of the tongue.

Then I remembered what it was. My great-grandmother had woven mats in the kitchen, and when in the summer the sun flooded in through the mullioned windows, the rugs would have this characteristic smell, not quite of woods, not quite of biscuits. We got rid of the rugs a few years ago when they started to disintegrate into fine, buff colored powder and replaced them with sensible linoleum covers. Gone was the dust but so was the scent.

It came back to me as I stood surrounded by the sun-warmed baskets in Iza, that long lost smell. Although not noticed consciously in daily life, the scent of reed mats has been woven through my recollections of home, along with the chiming clock, the à cappella of the dripping washing-stand, or the cooing doves under the eaves.

Imagining these elements has just as much power, if not more, as returning home and finding all of the pieces of the mosaic intact. The truth is that they rarely are. People move in and out of our house, adding something of their own, removing some layers, changing others. I add “the smell of sun-warmed mats” to my palace of memories and buy a small basket as a souvenir of Iza.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

What scents of your home or childhood do you recall vividly?

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70 Comments

  • Becky K.: Another lovely post! Thank you!

    As for childhood scents, I have vivid memories of a book, “Little Bunny Follows His Nose.” The reader joins the bunny’s escapade by smelling scented stickers on the pages. The most vivid one is the scent of pine needles. About 35 years later, I still have the book. Yet, I miss the smell of the cinnamon cookies on the last page – my little brother tore it out because it smelled so yummy! May 31, 2017 at 8:45am Reply

    • Victoria: This books sounds so charming! I know that as a kid, I would have loved something like this. June 1, 2017 at 11:13am Reply

  • zephyr: A scent memory, the best kind! It always amazes me how certain scents transport us back, years and years. Treasure your basket, dear Victoria!

    The pale-ginger kitty sleeping the chair is gorgeous!

    Besides the scent memories of flowers in my paternal grandmother’s garden – especially the lilies of the valley – it’s the almond extract she used in her baking that has stayed with me. The odor, and the taste – marzipan, real marzipan – yum!

    My maternal grandmother splashed Jean Naté on liberally after her baths and in the mornings. I’m positive that citrusy scents are among my favorites because of her – O de Lancome, Mandarine Basilic… May 31, 2017 at 10:38am Reply

    • Victoria: Mmmm, real marzipan! What a treat.

      The cat was too cute, and he matched the chair perfectly. June 1, 2017 at 11:14am Reply

      • zephyr: I’m catless right now – I’d take him home in a split second! June 8, 2017 at 8:08pm Reply

        • Victoria: He wouldn’t mind, I think. June 12, 2017 at 10:59am Reply

    • Lydia: Zephyr, my maternal grandmother used Jean Nate too, and now my mother is using it. I think it’s become our family tradition. June 4, 2017 at 12:18am Reply

      • zephyr: Sorry such a long delay on your post, Lydia – my son is going into his senior year of high school and college-visit planning is taking up a lot of my online time!

        I think I’m going to grab some Jean Naté when I see some. I do occasionally. It’ll be worth it just for the memories! And who knows, I might start using it myself! June 8, 2017 at 8:11pm Reply

        • Lydia: Zephyr, I’m always tempted by that bright yellow bottle when I see it in the drug store. One of these days I’ll probably give in and continue the tradition.

          Best of luck to your son! June 8, 2017 at 11:52pm Reply

          • zephyr: Thank you, Lydia! June 9, 2017 at 12:18am Reply

  • Jillie: Scent memories are so evocative and act almost like a time machine, whisking you back to a scene from long ago. It’s strange that even odd smells are now pleasant as they suddenly remind you of a happy moment in childhood – I smell Zoflora Hyacinth Disinfectant and suddenly see the little golden puppy whose puddle necessitated the washing of the floor!

    May the fragrance of your basket long make you smile.

    And I love that kitty! May 31, 2017 at 11:00am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s true that it’s not only the pleasant scents that trigger powerful memories. In fact, the opposite could be even more true. June 1, 2017 at 11:15am Reply

  • KatieAnn: Beautiful. I can feel the golden warmth in your words. What a cherished memory to carry around in your heart always. In high school, my family moved into an old, upstairs apartment in our small hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky. The sun that streamed through the windows warmed the wood and furnishings that were on the landing. My mother said it reminded her of her grandmother’s house. I do recall how warm and comforting it was. I occasionally experience similar smells in old houses and the memory of that old apartment always comes rushing back.
    Thank you for sharing. Your photograph portrays your words perfectly. May 31, 2017 at 11:01am Reply

    • Victoria: This is such a beautiful image! Thank you for sharing it. June 1, 2017 at 11:16am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Scent Memories: I bought a bottle of vintage Bellodgia extrait, opened it and was somewhat intrigued. I remember that smell, but where from …? Then it came back: in our garden in Kathmandu there were thousends of insects. One of the beetles, when disturbed, emitted a strong, pungent smell. So that was it —
    How funny: smelling the epitome of French haute parfumerie and remembering bug poop smelled in 1975! May 31, 2017 at 11:06am Reply

    • Victoria: Ha! I know that kind of beetle, probably not the same one though. They descended on our raspberry patch, and as a kid I was too scared of them to pick berries. June 1, 2017 at 11:17am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Scents bring memories to my mind more than photos, videos or the written word. May 31, 2017 at 11:28am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes! It’s probably true for many of us. June 1, 2017 at 11:17am Reply

  • Ruth: Victoria, you write so evocatively I swear I visited your great-grandmother’s kitchen, and Iza.
    Thank you for the reminder to be open to the invitations that arise to visit our own ‘palace of memories’ and catalogue its contents. May 31, 2017 at 11:30am Reply

    • Victoria: We can visualize scents, with practice, as well as images and sounds, so it makes the “memory palace” experience richer. June 1, 2017 at 11:18am Reply

  • Kelly: I distinctly remember how my grandmother’s pantry smelled. Like food, but also like baskets and tins and other items. I’ve never smelled anything like it or since. I also remember the smell of their vegetable gardens and fig trees…like wet leaves and dirt. May 31, 2017 at 2:48pm Reply

    • Claire: Oh! I used to visit my grandparents in the summer, where for awhile they had a farmhouse in the Midwest and I loved sneaking into the pantry which could be full of treasures. My grandmother was an excellent baker and the pantry held such a strange blend of things, but the tins often held the fragrance of her spiced Christmas bars. There was also an underground cellar (think “Wizard of Oz”) where they stored food as well: a blend of musty earth and damp, but also of clean linen and laundry smells. And then there was the enormous garden: full of peppers and peppery tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, corn, marigolds (a natural insect repellant) and so much more. I feel lucky that my childhood was punctuated by these sensory experiences. May 31, 2017 at 4:04pm Reply

      • Victoria: Ah, the marigolds! I love their pungent, medicinal scent. June 1, 2017 at 11:20am Reply

        • Claire: Yes! When I was a child I found the scent “nose wrinkling”, I now love it, as I do the peppery smell of tomato leaves and vines. They are both infused with the fragrance of sun and Summer…..so well defined in our scent memories! June 1, 2017 at 8:06pm Reply

          • Victoria: Same with the tomato leaves. Another garden scent I love is that of green walnut shells and leaves, pungent, sour, verdant. June 2, 2017 at 9:48am Reply

            • Clair: I am not familiar with the smell of green walnuts, I can imagine it as a very green smell, but my family used to collect them (I was very young) and I remember the challenge of removing the kernels from the shells without getting stained black. From the tannin? On the other hand I tasted pickled young walnuts in Iran which were a revelation! A delicacy. June 2, 2017 at 10:33am Reply

              • Victoria: The scent of green walnuts would be familiar to you, then. There is also a type of ratafia made with green walnuts, spices and sugar. It has a caramel-like flavor. June 2, 2017 at 10:36am Reply

    • Victoria: Mine too had a pantry with the most peculiar scent–allspice, lavender, vanilla sugar, stale chocolates. June 1, 2017 at 11:19am Reply

      • Claire: Yes, stale smells, too (cookies, sweets, old wood) all part of the mysterious mixture! June 1, 2017 at 8:10pm Reply

        • Victoria: 🙂 An essential part, a hint of that musty, stale odor. June 2, 2017 at 9:48am Reply

  • Rita: So lovely and you definitely made me feel like I was in Iza.😀My childhood smell is vanilla.i am addicted to vanilla smelling perfumes but I can’t find any decent ones,any suggestions?🌹 May 31, 2017 at 2:48pm Reply

    • Kandice: Rita, have you tried Guerlain’s Spiritueuse Double Vanille? It’s my all-time favorite vanilla. Just a thought 🙂 June 1, 2017 at 7:58am Reply

      • Rita: Thanks Kandice that sounds lovely as well! I will look out for that one as well✨ June 1, 2017 at 3:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Have you tried Lutens’s Un Bois de Vanille? I like that one very much. June 1, 2017 at 11:20am Reply

      • Rita: Thank you victoria i will definitely look out for that one. Very kind of you June 1, 2017 at 3:34pm Reply

  • Claire: When my husband and I bought our current house (an older home, built in the 20’s) about 13 years ago, there was a scent of soap and toiletries in the Master bath that was almost achingly familiar. It took me awhile to place it: not from my childhood home but it remained me of my grandparent’s, their home and their cabin. It was not the deciding factor by any means, but it made the place feel truly familiar and when we purchased it like more of an inheritance. As for baskets, I have always found them beautiful and use them, large and small to store many things. I have collected new, vintage and antique baskets over many years and your reflections remind me of the scents that accompany the hunt: apple baskets, sewing baskets, they all have their particular scent. I spent summers when I was very young in an area where Native Americans made Sweet Grass and Birch bark baskets. The latter were decorated with inlaid porcupine quills. Both are rare now, and I treasure the few I have. The scent of the sweet grass is is wonderful: close your eyes and inhale warm sun on grass, fresh air mixing with warmth from above and mingling with breezes off the lake, dried pine needles, and meadow flowers.

    Thank you as always for your evocative scent memories! May 31, 2017 at 3:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: Isn’t it? It’s such a delicious aroma. Summer distilled. June 1, 2017 at 11:21am Reply

  • Maya: It’s so much fun reading everyone’s scent memories. As for my own- winter is walking back from school and picking wild calendula (cat’s claw) flowers and smelling their strong scent on my fingers. Spring is drenched in citrus blossoms that made the air almost thick with their perfume (there were commercial orchards behind our house). Summer was my grandmother’s overgrown honeysuckle bush whose flowers I would pick and suck the nectar from. Fall is guava fruits ripening and falling on the orchard floor- again near our house. Oh, how I miss those scents. May 31, 2017 at 5:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: It all sounds heavenly! June 1, 2017 at 11:22am Reply

  • Lisa: My fond scent memories of childhood take place in my grandparents’ home: the pungent smell of onion and garlic sautéing in olive oil, freshly brewed strong coffee, exquisite perfumes of their distinguished visitors on holiday mornings, and the sharp smell of a fresh bottle of good scotch! May 31, 2017 at 5:41pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love how with a few brushstrokes, you’ve painted the whole atmosphere of the house. June 1, 2017 at 11:22am Reply

  • Austenfan: Lovely, lovely post.
    I always remember my grandmother smelling of Maja soap. A couple of years ago I bought a few bars of it but somehow it didn’t work. I still love to smell them and they do remind me of her, but somehow the spark isn’t quite there. Maybe because it wasn’t a spontaneous thing. Smell associations are wonderful when they do click though, and in spite of the Maja madeleine not quite working, I have no regrets. The soaps do remind me of her, although not quite as vividly as I had hoped or anticipated. May 31, 2017 at 6:11pm Reply

    • Victoria: Perhaps, it was the reformulated version? June 1, 2017 at 11:23am Reply

      • Austenfan: That might be part of the problem but it doesn’t explain it completely I don’t think. I did smell it on her, so it was more than just the scent of the soap anyway.
        I love how the soaps smell but stopped using them, they are too drying. June 3, 2017 at 3:19pm Reply

  • Alexandra Fraser: Beautifully evocative post. Now I want Ukraine on my travel wish-list.
    My childhood memory smells? The weird woody/grapefruit smell of lantana in my grandmother’s garden and the warm wheat smell of her white duck Judy. The tarry smell of coal fires. Damp newspaper, hot porridge with thick golden syrup, cigarette smoke and sunlight on lemons May 31, 2017 at 7:03pm Reply

    • Maya: Alexandra, your scent memory of lantana brought back my own. It has such a fierce scent it would physically take my breath away whenever I walked by it. I wonder if it has any medicinal or agricultural usage. I bet it would make a great natural insect repellent. May 31, 2017 at 7:37pm Reply

      • Alexandra Fraser: I know many people hate the smell but I think it is fascinating – I have heard that it has traditional medicinal usages , not sure of specifics May 31, 2017 at 7:43pm Reply

        • Maya: Definitely fascinating! There is so much plagiarism in nature (think of all the white flowers that share a similar tone as other white flowers). Lantana is in a strange class of its own. Thanks for bringing back this memory. May 31, 2017 at 8:08pm Reply

          • Victoria: One of my favorite white flowers is night blooming tobacco. When I smell it, I smell the Ukrainian nights, with a chorus of nightingales in the lilacs. June 1, 2017 at 11:27am Reply

    • Victoria: What a great kaleidoscope of scents, Alexandra!

      Ukraine is definitely worth visiting, there is so much to see and discover. June 1, 2017 at 11:24am Reply

  • Alicia: Lovely post, Victoria. Except for my mother’s French perfumes I have no smell memories of my parent’s house. Instead I remember well the lavender fragrance in my grand mother’s linen, particularly on my pillow when I went to sleep. I also remember my grand father’s library, the dry smell of books, leather and the pervading aroma of his pipe, a sort of fruity tobacco, perhaps a faint baked apple in the smoke. The house had a very small chapel, and there were always gardenias in two crystal bowls. Since then I have been searching for that true gardenia perfume. Coming from the city and going to the seaside villa I was always surprised by the smell of the ocean. Now, coming from NY to California sometimes I relive that surprise. May 31, 2017 at 7:57pm Reply

    • Victoria: It sounds so beautiful, like a page from a 19th century novel. June 1, 2017 at 11:26am Reply

      • Alicia: My grand parents were born at the turn of the century, so a breeze of the 19th century may have reached my memory, Victoria. Borges, also a man of those times, when he mentions his memories, among many literary ones, he remembers the aroma of jasmine in the patios of Buenos Aires. Now there are very few patios left, and the jasmines are gone., but for him, and thanks to his poem for us, those jasmines are blooming again. June 1, 2017 at 7:52pm Reply

        • Victoria: I don’t know his poetry as well as I do his prose, but the few excerpts you’ve shared here are beautiful. June 2, 2017 at 9:47am Reply

          • Alicia: Victoria, Borges is a great poet, but poetry is less amical to translation than prose. In poetry one translates the meaning, the metaphors, but the sound -all important in poetry- is by necessity lost. Even so,, as much as I love his poetry, in my opinion, because of their utter originality, his short stories are what will become, in the long trajectory of literary history, his most lasting contribution. Thank you for your words on my little post. If the evocation of my grand mother’s house fragrances gave you an impression of beauty, then my words did convey a distant mirror image of old loves. June 2, 2017 at 10:57am Reply

        • katherine x: Lovely thoughts Alicia… they remind me of blooming “night” Jasmine from my youth in Montego Bay Jamaica, where I grew up. Our dear family friend Stacy grew them on the veranda that wrapped around her art gallery. I was just a little girl but remember burying my face in them when we visited in the evenings – couldn’t get enough! June 3, 2017 at 8:35pm Reply

          • Alicia: Thank you, Katherine. I have been in Jamaica. The infinite stars, the warm air and , thanks to you, the vivid memory of jasmines in the night. Magical. June 3, 2017 at 11:14pm Reply

  • behemot: Such a beautiful post! And picture, of course 🙂 June 1, 2017 at 12:34am Reply

  • elvie: How heart-warming! One of my favourite childhod smells was not even real:). I spent a lot of summers with my elder cousins. There was a specific bitter almond scent, medicinal but still nutty, really fascinating, which I only ever smelled when looking at their yellow-brown kitchen floor tiles. I LOVED that experience. Later of course we discovered my synaesthesia and it all made sense, but it still feels kinda magical to my kid self… Felt like I could do magic:). I have been looking for that scent ever since! June 1, 2017 at 1:13am Reply

    • Victoria: Wow! That’s fascinating. You’re lucky to have such an ability. How much more interesting does make your sensory perceptions, I can just imagine. June 1, 2017 at 11:25am Reply

  • Tam: When I was little I loved to play in the backyard. I made mud pies and drank from the gardenhose. I remember climbing a small apricot tree and the amazing scent of the ripest. Its been rare to smell or taste apricots like that again. June 1, 2017 at 9:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: There is really nothing like it. We also had an apricot tree, and I remember the speckled, not very pretty fruit it produced. Yet, the scent and flavor were huge. June 2, 2017 at 9:49am Reply

  • FearsMice: I remember the distinct scents of the outbuildings on my great aunts’ farm — the summer kitchen, the smokehouse, the well house, the barn…

    I love the photo of the kitty — looks a lot like my own furry boy! June 3, 2017 at 3:54pm Reply

  • Lydia: “Gone was the dust but so was the scent.”
    That is the trade-off as things become more modern and synthetic – they’re less vulnerable to decay, but the scent of organic material evolving and breaking down can be so complex and beautiful.

    I envy people whose childhoods were rich with scents of flowers and herbs and other rural smells. I grew up in NYC, so my childhood was full of the smell of hot tar in the summer and car exhaust, and that burnt dust smell of the radiators when they first came on in autumn.

    Other scents that bring me back: the food carts in Central Park used to have roasted chestnuts in cold weather, and the pre-war buildings smelled richly of old wood and old books and old plaster.
    When I drank jasmine green tea in adulthood, I was instantly transported back to the apartment of a young hippie neighbor who befriended me when I was a kid. (I actually think of jasmine green tea as being one of the predominant smells of the early 70s.) June 4, 2017 at 12:44am Reply

  • Aurora: This cat looks so relaxed… as only cats can. I am so pleased for you for the unexpected sensory experience in the shop. Like many people comment, remembered smells are mostly at my grandmother’s. A favoriteis the attic: an aroma of sun warmed dust, old books and newspapers. It smelled like heaven to me. June 4, 2017 at 3:26am Reply

  • Inma: Dear Victoria,

    What a beautiful article! Isabel, my paternal grandmother, used to use a soap called “Heno de Pravia” in spanish, Pravia´s hay. It smells close to grass. The freshness that comes from green cereal, not oranges or lemons. It is very popular here in Spain. I still love it.

    And some other memories are coming these days, so thank you!! June 7, 2017 at 7:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Such a beautiful image! I can just imagine the scent. June 7, 2017 at 12:39pm Reply

  • zephyr: Isn’t it interesting how so many of the scent memories posted here go back to grandparents’ homes?

    I see my Mom (Dad is no longer with us) and go back to her place in Maryland at least once a year. Yet nothing really “hits” me, scent-wise, when I walk in the door, except my Mom’s beloved Shalimar. I did live in that house for almost ten years (though not continuously) and maybe that’s the reason why – I’m still too close to its food and plant scents. June 8, 2017 at 8:24pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, isn’t it? It shows how early our scent vocabularies become formed. June 12, 2017 at 11:00am Reply

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