Thursday, August 20, 2009

Synesthesia and déjà vu, or a nose full of incense

The year I turned 13 I was summarily informed, as my first junior high school year came to a close, that I was to spend the summer at a language camp in Ambach am Starnberger See, a very small town near Munich, “to learn German.” (Why my father thought this was necessary is another story that I will share here some time.) Mother stayed home, and my father, who was traveling around Europe on academic business, planted me at the camp. I’ve long forgotten what it was called, but it was owned by Herr and Frau von Specht. Herr was bedridden, kind, elderly and very smelly; Frau was also elderly, but vibrant, and she let me play with their family of Afghan hounds, all, unaccountably, named Rahu. The other children at the camp were truly international—German, Austrian, English, African, Greek, and me. We had individual tutoring, classroom instruction, and plenty of field trips to places like the puppet opera theater of Munich, were I saw my first, if watered down, Magic Flute, the mines in Salzburg, Neuchatel,and all the other great landmarks, including Bavaria's myriad notable Kirchen and Kapellen (churches and chapels, mostly in magnificent castles). I learned enough German to take my mother shopping in Munich when she arrived to bail me out at the end of the summer, but camp was otherwise a mixed experience, one that on balance I have always felt was not a happy one.

I have not been back to Germany, except for a single night-time rail transit on the way from Rome to Amsterdam. But now, 46 years after I said good-bye to the von Spechts, a friend has posted a most luscious series of photos from his recent venture in Bavaria (leading me to think a reprise visit might be a good thing after all). When I first saw this photograph (of the Asamkirche in Munich) I was instantly overwhelmed by the pleasurable olfactory sensation of what I call "Catholic" incense. Even though I've not returned to Bavaria, I have visited my share of very old Continental and Caribbean churches through the years, and although I have always liked the distinct scent of incense permeating a two, three, or four-hundred year old sanctuary, until now I knew not how powerfully a visual experience could trigger a corporal experience. It was synesthesia, the uncommon phenomenon of two different but simultaneous sensory responses to one stimulus. Each time I look at the photo the visual and physical memories return, and intensely positively. Who knew that there was this deeply buried memory of that otherwise uncomfortable, awkward summer nearly half a century ago that could so unexpectedly and wonderfully make itself known?

Photo courtesy of David Sawyers, thanks Dave!


  1. Its strange how these olfactory memories pop out. Certain smells and I'm transported in time and space. Sulphur... I bet you can guess where that takes me!

  2. Good heavens, what a gorgeous church. Thanks for sharing that. Incredible.

    Veronica, I think you will appreciate this. Today I was thinking very similar thoughts about an olfactory memory sending me instantly back in time. I was driving near Seeley Lake, and I smelled plants from a marsh near Camp Paxson where I spent many of MY summer camps. It just about blows me away any time I smell that, and I normally only smell those plants in the Seeley Swan Valley of western Montana.

    It was so nice to see you at my blog again today. Thank you.