My family and I emigrated there when I was almost five, but we returned to Holland when I was ten. Somewhere in between, one day around Sinterklaas (December 5, Dutch celebration), we received a huge box in the mail. My grandparents had crammed it full of presents for us. One present—I don’t even remember what it was—was packed in a tin. It was probably a cookie tin or something.
I smelled the inside of that tin and I was immediately transported back to my grandparents’ living room in Bilthoven. It just smelled so intensely of that room to me that it brought tears to my eyes. I told my mother, and she took a whiff, but didn’t smell a thing.
Now the scent that most strongly evokes memories in me is that of grass. Especially the smell of grass on a breezy, somewhat cool but sunny day reminds me of backpacking in Britain.
It’s strange. It’s not like there wasn’t any grass in Holland. I could have memories of lying in the grass at school during recess as a teenager, or doing handstands on the grass in elementary school, or walking across fields and jumping across ditches in the polder on the other side of the dike from our street in Eemnes, or taking a break in a field with my friend Floortje when we cycled back from school in May and June, talking and making daisy chains.
But no, I think of vacations in Britain, hiking along the ridges of mountains (to Dutch standards anyway) in the Lake District or the Cairngorms or Dartmoor, camping wild by a stream or tarn…
I suppose it would seem odd that grass triggers memories in me at all, since grass is everywhere, always. It’s not like smelling my grandmother’s living room years after I last was there.
But you have to understand: when I emigrated to America, I lived in the Rio Grande Valley, an hour up-river from Brownsville, Texas. It was hot and ugly and there was nothing to do that didn’t involve dripping with sweat other than going to the movies or going out for dinner. Lying or even sitting on the grass anywhere was out of the question, thanks to the temperature and the fire ants.
After twelve years of the oven/sauna we moved to Austin, where it’s only unbearably hot for three months of the year, and now I smell grass again. I watch my daughter’s soccer games; I go for walks in the neighborhood; I love lying in the grass around the Capitol when I’m downtown. And there are plenty of days—or at least mornings—when the breeze and the temperature are just right for taking me back to grass in Europe.
And maybe it’s because I still can’t get over living in Austin, and how it feels like vacation all the time, that grass evokes memories of the many vacations to Britain that I took when I lived in Holland.