THERE’S NO ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE…
“Potatoes?” Nigel says, holding the microphone under my chin.
“Yes, and tomatoes. And brinza, the crumbly white cheese, best in the world. I’m serious, Nigel, if you’re asking me about my first impressions, from the early days, I want to include the food. It evokes powerful memories, emotions.“
“Marcel Proust would probably agree,” says Nigel. I’m glad to hear it. We’ll get to Marcel later.
My friend Nigel is working in an interesting project, interviewing non-Romanians about why they came to Romania, why they stayed here, and how they see it. He has recorded 35 people so far, one hour each, and hopes to put the answers on radio, on the Internet and in a book. Nigel is inspired by Studs Terkel, an historian and broadcaster, who interviewed over 7000 Americans in the 1930s and ‘40s, to create a remarkable collection of oral history, preserved forever in the Library of Congress.
I don’t think Nigel plans to do so many, but the results are sure to be interesting.
When the interview is finished, he packs away his expensive recording gear and promises to get in touch, when he’s edited and transcribed our chat. Bye for now.
That evening, I boil some potatoes, let them cool and eat them with brinza and tomatoes, olive oil and herbs, on my balcony looking out over Bucharest. It’s a perfect meal for summer 2012, but in my mind, it’s autumn 1994 and I’m here for the first time. Nigel was right about Proust: certain foods have a magical effect.
You’ve surely heard of Marcel Proust, but just in case, I’ll explain the connection.
In his most famous novel, In Search of Lost Time, published in 1913, the narrator eats a madeleine cake dipped in tea, the taste of which triggers an intense flashback to his childhood in a French village, and the seven-volume novel unfolds. Proust called this feeling ‘involuntary memory’ – as opposed to voluntary memory when we consciously try to recall the past – and his idea helped to popularize the development of modern psychology. Today, we readily accept that tastes or smells or a combination of both can trigger our deepest memories, as they did for Marcel.
But back to the present.
A few days after Nigel’s visit, I’m shopping in Cora and buy some Cheerios, because I like the bright logo and I can’t remember the last time I ate them. Back home, mid-afternoon, I rip open the packet because I love cereal, anytime. It’s fast and tasty, just add cold milk and eat a spoonful and hey…. wow, what’s happening…?
Suddenly, I’m no longer sitting in Bucharest. I’m in Toronto, I’m aged 9 or 10, staying with my British uncle and Canadian aunt. They’ve invited my elder brother Eddie and I to visit for two weeks, because mum is in hospital back in Liverpool and dad work nights in a factory, sleeps all day and would find it difficult looking after us as well. So, we came to Canada.
It’s an incredible place. Uncle’s car is big; his fridge is big and we can drink cold apple juice from that big carton inside. The yummy brown stuff is peanut butter and my aunt sits in the garden, orders food by phone and some guy brings it in a box, by motorbike. Imagine that? It’s called pizza. And for breakfast, we have Cheerios with milk. Dead tasty. I send a postcard from Niagara Falls, to Mum and Dad and finish with the words: Wish you were here.
It was perhaps that trip to Canada that made me want to see the world, to travel far and wide as soon as I left high school. Back then, I was in love with France, and, these days, whenever I taste Dijon mustard, I’m 18 years old again, standing outside a café in Lyon, trying to hitch a ride south. French mustard is milder and tastier than English mustard, which, of course, reminds me of roast beef and serving Sunday mass every week as an altar boy, dressed like a Christmas tree.
My favourite dessert in an Indian restaurant is Gulab Jamun. As you may know, it’s a small, round cake in sugary syrup. I find the taste triggers such vivid memories that, whenever I eat Gulab Jamun, I am transported back in time. I am sitting in a café in Lucknow, on lunch break from my job at a local university, working with student journalists.
I picture my friend Rajiv sitting alongside, pointing across a busy road to an old statue of some guy in a long coat clutching a book. We can hear laughter and applause because a young bride and groom are having their photo taken, nearby.
“For good luck,” says Rajiv. “We call it the Honeymoon Statue. Or sometimes, when we celebrate our Hindu god Hanuman, we call it the Hanuman statue.”
Now I’m lost, and ask, “So who’s the statue of? Who’s the guy in the coat with the book?”
“Samuel Hahnemann,” says Rajiv. “The father of homeopathy. German, I think.”
The name rings a bell, and, after a moment I say, proudly, “Hey, I’ve heard of him. He invented homeopathy in a basement in Sibiu. It’s a museum now, the Brukenthal.”
Now Rajiv seems lost. “Sibiu, where’s that?”
“In Romania, my adopted home.”
I watch the young couple and wonder if they know about clever Hahnemann. Rajiv still looks puzzled and says, “Romania? Oh, how interesting. I thought you lived in England. So how do you like Romania?”
It’s a good question, and I will definitely mention the potatoes.
Dear Reader, please rate my story, see yellow stars, above, top left? Thank you! MO
(First published in Playboy, July&August edition, 2012 by S.C. Mediafax Group SA, Romania).