Monthly Archives: May 2014

Sense of smell as time travelling machine

I am amazed again and again about the dimensions with which we can percept the world. We can see, we can touch, we can hear (maybe not always listening), we can taste and we can smell. We can also feel the world in many other ways too, outside of what is considered to be traditional five senses. But even the five already blow my mind how they provide us with five dimensions (four additional to the three of vision) to experience the world around us. Simply amazing!

Every living being has one or more leading senses. My father had incredible strength of vision. Once as we were driving on a not illuminated road in Algeria in the middle of night, he suddenly stopped the car on the side lane, walked out of the car and went some distance so that my Mom and I lost him out of sight. He came back holding a black umbrella, which we brought back with us to Moldova and which we used for many years to come. We still keep wondering how he could have seen a black umbrella in the middle of the night.

My sister’s hearing sense is close to miraculous. When I was a kid, I hated it, because she could hear every single complain I had about her to my Mom. And I loved complaining. I will not exaggerate too much saying that my sister can hear through walls and closed doors without any intention and without any special tools. I was not the only one not liking it. Her students were not quite comfortable with it either. They had no chance to gossip behind her back during her lectures. But ultimately, they didn’t have to. They loved her too much. She still stays in contact with quite a few of them after so many years.

My mother has also a good vision, but more in a photographic sense. I remember when we went sightseeing in a town we had never been before. On our way back to the holiday apartment my Mom found the way immediately, while my sister and I argued which turn to take.

My niece is brilliant in hearing and listening. She and also my husband are the masters in concentrating on a task at hand and focusing. I am still to find out what my son’s leading sense is. Right now, it looks like all five. Or more.

I’ve been blessed with a sharp sense of smell. When I tell this to somebody, many start wrinkling their noses sympathizing with me having to experience the bad smells stronger than others. The interesting thing is, I don’t remember having been shocked by some really bad smells. I surely disliked one or another, but those that remained in my memory are all about wonderful experiences.

And the best thing about these smelling highlights is that they transport me into the world of wonderful experiences I have made long time ago.

I probably won’t be unique to say that I used to suppress my past and tried to negate it in one or another way. I used to think that after my father’s death most of it was negative. But my top three smelling experiences I have had after leaving Moldova have proven to me that the time after my father’s death was full of many wonderful memories about it and that not all in the “Soviet times” was that bad.

Sicily, summer 2007. My husband and I had spent that summer vacation in Sicily. One of the highlights of our vacation was the eruption of Etna on our last evening there. We were watching it from a safe distance from the hotel terrace and calling our families who were watching it through a live-cam on the Internet. Another memory is connected to the taste senses, when we walked into a small pizzeria on top of one of the mountains outside of Taormina and the owner of this little business has served us the simplest but most amazing dishes we have ever tasted. Dipping fresh bread into olive oil was like a beautiful song.

The highlight connected to my sense of smell happened when we walked along one of the old narrow streets of Taormina, which we did quite often during that vacation. At some point I told to Michael: “Wow, can you smell it?”

“No. What?”

“Freshly cooked tomato sauce with fried onions! Can’t you really smell it? It’s so strong!”

“No, I can’t.”

After walking about twenty meters, Michael said: “Now that you say it, I can feel something, but it’s quite weak.”

I was in awe that I could experience this wonderful aroma from the very beginning to the end of the long street. I sighed with pleasure and said: “Just like my Mom used to do!”

It was the year before my sister, my niece, my husband and I, and a bit later my mother moved to Denmark and my closest family was reunited again after twelve years apart. Since 2008 I could taste many meals with that famous sauce from my Mom.

Darmstadt, Germany, Fall 2000. Indian restaurant. I worked as a post-doctoral assistant at the Technical University Darmstadt during that time. One of our guest PhD students from India has recommended me an Indian Restaurant in Darmstadt, the meal in which, he claimed, tasted just like at his home in India. He said that usually the Indian restaurants outside of India were often very different from what they were at home. But this one had the flair and the meals just like in India, where to locals would go, not the tourists. My colleagues and I were intrigued. So we went there.

When I entered through the door, I was struck by both vision and smell memories. It wasn’t the smell of a particular meal. It was an overall smell of the room. And the hand-woven carpets and rugs lying on the floors confirmed what place I had been reminded of. This restaurant smelled and felt exactly as the houses of my relatives in the villages around fifty kilometers away from the capital we lived in. When we couldn’t go on vacation, my mother sent me to my great-aunt for a couple of weeks. Or we went to the village and the house my mother grew up.

I somehow thought that I didn’t like those times because I always thought of myself as a city girl. But being transported from the Indian restaurant to those places, made me remember that there were wonderful experiences with animals our relatives had, with flowers, picking cherries in summer, getting warm near the old stoves in winter. And walk over all those hand-woven carpets and rugs. Simply wonderful.

Outskirts of Bonn, Germany, Spring 2005/2006. Bonn and its surroundings offer a lot of great hiking routes and Michael and I used to hike many times there just the two of us and with friends. On one of the hiking tours with our friends I caught up a familiar but long forgotten smell. I stopped, turned around. And saw them. Rose bushes! Tall bushes with gigantic light pink flowers open completely to the sun, showing their yellow middle to the world. These were tea roses. You would not usually find them in a flower shop. They are not quite suitable for bouquets and flower arrangements. These flowers are used for perfumery, medicine. And in Moldova they are also used by many in baking and in confectionary.

I ran to those bushes and called all the friends who were with us and made them smell. “This is the true smell of a rose! Not the one you buy in a shop. Smell it! Smell it!”

All girls on the tour joined me and agreed. They loved it. “But how do you know?”

“Ah!” I was thrilled to be able to share one of my childhood stories. “The students at the Universities and sometimes the students finishing the ten classes, equivalent to high school, were taken to collective farms to help with the harvest. While at school, I remember two such harvesting trips. One was to gather apples. And the other was to gather petals of tea roses.”

We had to gather baskets full of petals and we had to be very careful with them, in order not to damage them. Therefore the work had to be done with bare hands. We ended up with many scratches. But I was simply bathing in that wonderful tea rose aroma. It was like from the little rose oil bottle my Mom got as a present, but was much more gentle and embracing.

The boys first protested doing this and claimed it to be girly work, but later were taken by the competition who could gather the most baskets in the shortest time. I don’t think I managed to finish one.

All these experiences and many other have transported me to the time after my father died and reminded me of wonderful times I have had with my family, relatives and friends, while growing up. I am in pure wonder of the way how fast and how exact the sense of smell leads me to the exact memory in a flash. Immediately with a wonderful experience I am transported into time and space of my childhood or my teenager time. There is not a glimpse of thinking or wondering where I could have experienced it. It is just immediately clear. And all I can think is: “Wow! That is wonderful and what I have experienced is so amazing and uplifting.”

Whatever your favorite and leading sense is: let it transport you to the wonderful times and moments, I am sure, you have experienced in your past. Past is not something to worry about that it could repeat itself. It is something to include, to take pride and pleasure in. It led to where you are today. To the beautiful moment of now.

What was your latest time travel to your past?

Pictures: With my strong sense of smell I simply devour flowers. You can find me quite often with my nose poked into a flower, however strong and dizzying its odor might be. I can’t get enough! A clematis in my parents-in-law backyard, Germany, and a young rhododendron bush at the zoo, Aalborg, Denmark.

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You don’t need exact words to make yourself understood

We often evaluate what we have said, sometimes long after the listeners have forgotten what we were talking about. And we judge ourselves for the word choice.

My son reminded me last week how sweet “the wrong use of words” can be and how much fun playing with words is.

One of the wonderful memories in this respect is connected for me with teaching English to beginners. One of the courses I taught was at a large hotel in the center of Moldovan capital, Chisinau. The staff of the hotel had to learn English, and their abilities to talk English at the end of the course would determine how secure their jobs there would be. More and more foreigners were staying at this hotel and English skills were essential. All of my students were elder than me, some of them close to my age but most of them at least two times my age at that time, which was beginning of my twenties.

One of the assignments I gave to my students was to describe their homes. And one of the students, who was a bit more advanced than others, but wasn’t trusting herself in this, made a wonderful description of her home. She used some beautiful details describing colors and shapes in various rooms. She was truly in the moment and thinking in English. I knew this as soon as she named kitchen “cooking room” without realizing it. It was just a logic thing to say. She didn’t even stop to search for the “right” word. She just said: “cooking room”.

I loved that and pointed this out to her when it was time for me to evaluate her presentation. I was touched how proud she was to realize that she could think in a foreign language and make herself understood even if she didn’t have all the words “at her hand”.

My son reminded me last Friday of this wonderful encounter. He, my husband, my mother, who lives close to us, and I went to an adventure park not far from the city we live in. It was a bank holiday and we enjoyed sunny and warm weather. Shortly before the park closed we re-discovered the airplane carousel, which my son enjoyed last year. So, we hurried to test it again. Moms and Dads were allowed to join in one of the two seats on an airplane. Niklas asked me to fly with him. I agreed.

Immediately after that I got some instructions. Niklas has forbidden me to touch the handle that makes the plane goes up or down as it circles with the merry-go-round. He claimed the handle for himself. I happily agreed and called him captain. He loved this and took on this role immediately.

More instructions followed. Niklas has pointed to his tummy and said: “You must not sit here in front of me,” and pointing to his back he added, “But here in front of me”.

I had a big smile on my face and such a wave of warmth at the sweetness of this sentence. It was perfectly clear that I was supposed to sit behind him.

These sweet encounters and realization, that a “wrong use” of a language could be sometimes more fun, allowed me to dare to write in a language of countries, which I visited only briefly, but which I deeply respect and language of which I love and cherish. Help and support from my friends who are native speakers in English is absolutely inspiring and encouraging.

Just the day after my sweet experience with my son, my writing teacher, dear friend and a wonderful author, Menna van Praag, has praised my fellow students from Germany and me on our English skills. It was at one of her monthly writing seminars, which I immensely enjoy and at which I learn a lot. She liked the way I structured sentences to enhance the emotion and feeling in a scene. And she praised me on my word choice. One example made me smile. I have written the following paragraph searching for reasons of the feelings the main character has for his fellow student at the university:

“One of the reasons may lie in her constant merriness. And carelessness. People around her often appear grim and unhappy in contrast to her smile and lightness. All troubles of the world seem to pearl up and flow off her like heavy raindrops on a windowpane. I forget my worries with her.”

Menna’s comment to this was: “Lovely structure. I don’t know the expression “pearl up” do you mean “peel off” or is it a new one on me? :)”

I tried to figure out where I first heard the expression “pearl up”. I couldn’t come up with the exact source. It might be from my time and interest in semiconductor and material science. I read an article long time ago about so-called lotus effect, which allows the lotus leaves to always appear clean and free of dirt and water stains. A very specific structure of the leaf surface does not allow water to adhere to it. Water gathers in large drops, reminding me of “pearls”, and carries the dirt rolling off the leaves. This inspired some of the car building companies to create similar surface structure on the wind-shields, so that they would remain clean and needed less washing, which in turn would save water consumption.

I don’t know if I will keep the expression “pearl up” in my novel or not, but the smiley from Menna strengthened me in my will to continue writing and playing with words in this language, which doesn’t feel that foreign to me anymore.

And the mother tongue of my son is German, which is theoretically foreign to me, since my mother tongue is Romanian, but not foreign to my heart.

Wishing all, who read this, joy in using whatever language you wish, whether the one you were born into or chose to speak or write in!

Picture: On the way home.


Mother’s day now and then, here and there

My husband and I both grew up in socialistic countries. He – in the former German Democratic Republic, and I – in the former Soviet Union, and more precise, in the Moldovan Soviet Socialistic Republic.

We didn’t know of Mother’s day there. Instead, mothers were congratulated with the International Women’s Day, on March 8. As for Mother’s day, women, and especially mothers and wives received flowers and small gifts from their husbands and children. As here, children were drawing pictures and writing cards for their mothers. As my mother moved to Denmark to be closer to us, she brought with her from Moldova a notebook I made for her and my sister on this occasion. It was sweet to see what words, pictures and poems I found, wrote and quoted to honor the two wonderful women, who brought me up after my father’s death.

One 8th of March remained in my memory. I was a teenager then. I think it was a Saturday, because I was not at school, and the first thing I was sent for that day were groceries. It was my turn. I went for smaller rounds, while my mother and my sister went for bigger rounds, when more things needed to be carried. Sometimes we went together.

On that particular Saturday, March 8, while standing in queue for fresh bread, I noticed something unusual. There were almost no women in the stores except the shop assistants. Only men were there. And most of them looked quite lost. I realized then, that on other 364 days (minus Sundays) mostly women went for groceries. You could see men standing in queue to give back empty bottles, but the rest was done by women.

Especially the picture of the most of men being still half asleep and looking lost, not knowing where to find which product, or what they were supposed to buy, was very amusing to me.

With time this picture changed, but how much different it is today in Moldova from then, I am still yet to find out. I haven’t been in Moldova for more than thirteen years. So, everything will be new for me when I go. And I will definitely go. Just don’t know yet when.

My husband and I tend to forget Mother’s Day as we know it today. I guess partially because it is not a fixed date in the year, as March 8, and partially because we grew up with a different tradition. And old habits, especially those from childhood, do not change, or not so easily anyway.

But I was lucky that my mother spent almost the whole day with us yesterday. And as soon as we remembered that it was Mother’s day, we invited her for dinner. My son was so happy to have his Bunica for a bit longer with him. We all had a lot of fun.

Being a mother myself, I love everything that relates to this day. I am so happy to be a mother. There is nothing that can compare with this feeling. And smiles, hugs and kisses from my son were the best possible gift I could get on this day or any day.

A happy Mother’s day week to all mothers! As I read somewhere yesterday: “Every day is mother’s day!”

Picture: My mother in December 1960, a year before my parents met. I am not surprised my father fell for her.


Follow your heart’s wish, however small; someday it might save your life

When we talk of a heart’s desire, we often talk of big dreams and wishes. Here is a story, how a small desire of heart can turn to have a significant influence on one’s life. My sister taught me this lesson and I hold this story dearly to my heart.

It was the time when I was beginning my PhD course at the Academy of Sciences of Moldova. Svetlana was already done with hers for several years and giving lectures in economy to students at two Universities in Chisinau, the state one and the private one. Before starting at the private University, where she led a department, she worked also as an executive director of an economical association in Moldova. Ever since Soviet Union collapsed and Moldova has proclaimed itself independent, my sister had at least two full time jobs at the same time, which was the main income in our family.

The state salaries and grants were small and paid sporadically. So, while being a PhD student at a state organization, I had to have an additional job, too. After helping out in a marketing study, I had several jobs as English teacher for beginners at various places like hotels and economical organizations with number of people reaching as many as thirty. I was also giving individual lessons to those members of my groups, who wished and needed to learn more. I had a really good time. In fact, my sister helped me also here. She helped me getting the marketing job and my first English course I taught.

My sister, my niece, my mother and I lived together at that time. Since both Svetlana and I were working from early morning to pretty late in the evenings, we often had only nights to prepare for our lectures and lessons.

And this was one of the very best times in my early adult life. We worked together at the kitchen table, made tea and bread with butter for short breaks. And we laughed a lot stifling our giggles. Sometimes our mother would wake up and hush us so that we don’t wake my niece Mihaela, who was a baby at that time. My mother joked that she doubted our efficiency when she caught us laughing and suggested that we went to bed and got some sleep. But we always had good arguments why we still needed to be awake and have breaks with tea, bread and butter. And laughs.

Actually our laughs were often connected to what we were doing. I’ve learned a lot from my sister during those nights. Especially, how to find and see joy and lightness in seemingly hard tasks.

It was early time of Moldovan radio stations, which played only music. “Wonderful World” from the band “Black” was a big hit. Svetlana and I were huge fans and four of us, including our mother and my niece, would stop any talk or activity when this song has been aired. And we would listen until it finished. And as it ended we expressed longing for the next time.

One day a friend of mine recorded this very song on a tape for me.

On the evening of that day, my sister and I were again late home and just in time to give my niece a bath and put her to bed.

Svetlana and I worked at the kitchen table after that for a while.

At some point, my sister suggested going to the living room and listen to the tape on our big music center, which my father bought before he died.

We didn’t have headphones back then, and the small table recorder, we had also from my father, didn’t allow fine tuning of the volume so that we could listen to it quietly in the middle of the night.

After some doubt and fear on my side that we could wake up my niece and Mom, and even our neighbors, through the “paper-thin” walls, I agreed.

My sister was always the driving force in her and our daring adventures. Here is a small account of some of her adventures and the counterpart on my side.

Svetlana was using her school bag as a sleigh. That led to the need for a new bag every spring in the least. I changed my first schoolbag for another in the seventh or eighth grade only because it was too small and looked too childish. But it was as good as new because I was always careful, or rather afraid, not to scratch or damage it somehow.

In winter as an adult in her late twenties, mind you, Svetlana used to skate on her high-heeled boots on the slippery sidewalks, while I made small steps in my flat boots being afraid to fall down. Sometimes my sister would catch my arm and say: “Hold me!” and skate further, so that I would have to run beside her and make sure that none of us fell down. And if it happened, if one of us fell, she always had a good laugh, while I was confirmed in my fears and was more careful the following time.

So, also with the song “Wonderful Life” from “Black”, my sister was the driving force.

We went to the living room, took our work with us and listened to the song many times, rewinding again and again to listen to it from the beginning.

About twenty minutes after moving to the living room, there was a terrible crash sound of breaking glass in the kitchen. It was like someone has thrown a big stone into our window, which was rather unlikely in the middle of the night and the flat being on the fourth floor.

Our mother woke up and came with quick steps to us worried what happened. Together, we switched on the light in the kitchen and the bulb was still hanging above the kitchen table. When we looked down, the table and the kitchen floor were full of small glass pieces from the shattered lampshade. It somehow loosened from its holding and fell. We were shocked seeing the damage, especially when we realized that less than half an hour before this happened Svetlana and I were sitting with our heads right underneath it.

Since then we often tell the tale how a song saved us from serious injuries. But actually it was Svetlana’s drive and her listening to her heart’s desire, however small, that saved us.

Pictures: Me and my sister as children. And a calendar sheet from May 4, 1964 saying: “at 18:15 our Svetlana was born”. My father made this note and one for me in his calendar and kept these two little pieces of paper in his notebook up to the day he died.

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Happy birthday week and month, my dear, sweet sister Svetlana!
You are the best sister one could wish for!