Midday, I saw a person enjoying a lager in an outdoor cafe and I told my companion that there was something inherently "right" about that scene. This struck me as strange because I can almost guarantee myself frowning upon such an action in New York, where I would then ponder the person’s other alcoholic tendencies. Why the in world did I find it appropriate in the former circumstance?
This got me thinking...
I've always been keen on scents as memory triggers, some bringing me back decades to moments I thought were long discarded from mental storage; a perfume of a previous love from Barcelona, the scent of the first days of winter preceding a season of snowballs and ski-trips to Vermont, a deodorant that colored an entire summer of country getaways and early morning hikes through rural Russia. These are all very specific triggers that correspond to equally specific times and places. But just until recently, I have thought of scents as being the single strongest memory throwback with even visual cues resulting in weaker reminders of my past.
Exiting the plane in Copenhagen and getting hit with the cool sun and powerfully crisp breeze lent itself to a pleasure that penetrated my core. At first I thought it was just a relief of getting out of the 100°F weather of Milan and not immediately sweating through layers of clothing. But then a strange nostalgia started to settle. With every deep inhale, an unidentifiable calm was emerging from an unusual space in my mind and I couldn't understand why. The following mornings were leaving me even more clueless with an unplaced happiness, novel wonder, and a sense of contentment that usually did not accompany my usual caffeine buzz.
Then, after mechanically putting on a live-stream of a Russian radio station I used to listen to at my summer house outside of Moscow, I had the first inkling of a possible cause. The air was now becoming more familiar, the color temperature of the sun reminded me of the apartment I grew up in, and the air had the rejuvenating bouquet I once had the joy of smelling in Quebec. The nostalgia was becoming more clear and as memories of a road-trip to Canada, family vacation to London, ungoverned exploration of St. Petersburg, my first film premiere in Amsterdam, and most of my childhood in Moscow started to saturate with color, I realized that all of these places are more or less on the same latitudinal coordinates (the geographic coordinates that specify the north- south position of a point on the Earth's surface). Maybe I was off, but my memories all pointed to the very similar environmental indicators.
I decided to look into the geographical placement of these recollections.
Copenhagen - 55°
Moscow - 55°
Amsterdam - 52°
London - 51°
St. Petersburg - 50°
Quebec - 48°
(New York - 40° for comparison)
I even went a step farther to check out the Air Quality Indexes of places that were evoked in my memory due to a similar smell of the air.
Copenhagen - 26
Moscow (outskirts) - 19
Quebec - 29
Nice and fresh! Also very close in metrics. (Moscow, London, and St. Petersburg were excluded due to obvious air pollution)
New York - 62 (!!!)
Since the previous were lining up, perhaps UV indexes would also show similarities?
Measured at 10:00 am, when nostalgia was most apparent —
Copenhagen - 3.4
Moscow - 3.8
Amsterdam - 3.0
London - 3.7
St. Petersburg - 3.1
Quebec - 3.3
These are all medium level registries.
10:00 AM New York - 5.2 High
11:00 AM - New York - 7.4 Very High
The data points confirmed my nostalgic suppositions. I was even a bit startled to connect all of these strangely unrelated occurrences with a verifiable geographical explanation.
What is most interesting to note about this observation is how remarkably sensitive we are as human beings. My mind went as far as to cue memories based off tropospheric pressure (atmospheric pressure in relation to altitude), air quality, and UV metrics; not to mention the countless factors I may have not taken into account i.e. lunar position, pollen count, indigenous flora categorized by aroma profiles etc. These invisible factors were carefully labeled with distinct emotional cues that evoked feelings which I could not at first understand.
That beer I saw being consumed was contextually perfect because it evoked my own memories of enjoying lagers in similar environments, usually in a vacation scenario. It's strange in NYC for me because I don't day drink; I'm always working.
Memory is an astoundingly complex device that I am only starting to understand. But here’s to having a nice cold one and remembering all the others we had the pleasure to enjoy!