The Smell of the Past

by

01/23/2010

Neighborhood: Inwood

The Smell of the Past
Cloisters by Laura Bittner

There are secret portals all over New York City, and without warning you can get sucked into one. I fell down one of those rabbit holes myself in the last icy days of winter and, after the briefest of wonderland experiences, was unceremoniously coughed back up and spat out again.

One of my loftier 2009 New Year’s Resolutions was, whenever possible, to actually go to a specific place instead of Googling it, so when I began to wonder how a medieval European monastery that pre-dated Henry Hudson’s birth by a few centuries anachronistically appeared in Manhattan, I decided to head up to The Cloisters and find out for myself. As Foreign Service kids stationed in Vienna, my brothers and I were dragged by my parents to every castle, museum and cathedral in Europe, so in the spirit of paying it forward, I grabbed my daughter on the way out the door and took her along with me.

Once we got there, we went into the long entrance hallway, which was redolent of old damp stone, and that’s when it happened – it was the smell that did it.

“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed, “That’s it! Do you smell that?” I shook my daughter vigorously by the shoulders in an effort to explain it a little harder. “These are the smells from my childhood!”

Weirdly, I almost believed that I heard the sound of Gregorian chants, although that was not even possible, and the sharp smell of freshly struck matches was sitting unmistakably in my nostrils. I was overwhelmed with memories of the smell of hot wax and cold stone; I remembered lofty vaulted chambers with damp and icy winds blowing through them. My daughter might just as well have vanished, although, from her point of view, I was the one who disappeared.

***

I’m only seven years old now, and I am wandering unattended in a massive cathedral in Rome or Paris or Vienna, but at my age one European city is not much different from another, and all cathedrals are alike, so much so that they seem to be a single entity, but vast – one massive collection of stone sanctuaries, antechambers and hidden passageways, but accessible through the secret entry portals of many countries.

My parents are somewhere, but I don’t care – they will be able to find me if they need me.

I wander around alone, but I am not afraid in here. I cool one hand on a massive stone pillar, and warm the other as I stroke a vast and lush velvet tapestry. These tapestries are centuries old, and show mysterious and colorful scenes of people and animals, but their age means nothing to a child drinking up their rich, silent stories.

Monks and nuns glide silently through the chambers from time to time, and although they can see me, they don’t trouble themselves with my presence or my motives. We exist in different planes and in different centuries, but they nod toward me with approval, and I am allowed to continue my respectful exploration.

I reach up high and let my hand slide over the rim of an enormous marble font. It has cold clean water in it. I have seen people touch their faces and shoulders with this, and they look so serene I know it must be the best water in the world – they can receive joy from it without even drinking it.

I see a young man go behind a velvet drape, and I can hear him whispering in a language I do not understand. When he leaves I go in behind him and whisper too, but I whisper in German because that and English are the only languages I know how to speak.

I know that this place is like some waiting room near God, but I don’t know much about other people’s religions, and I don’t know if their God looks like my God. I know what my God looks like because I saw Him in a dream once, just before I turned seven. He didn’t speak to me, but there was a sound all around that I have never been able to describe, and which could never be recreated with any earthly sound that I have heard.

My nine-year-old brother shows up at some point, and together we go by silent agreement through a narrow stone chamber and down a circular stairway into the depths of the cathedral’s underground passageways. We have been here before; we know the way – we must be in Stephansdom now, in Vienna.

It is dark in the passageways, the only light coming from a few candlelit antechambers, and the torches held by guides quietly passing by with their groups of anxious-looking people. We follow one of the groups down a long corridor, and as we go, the smell of wax, flames and cold stone walls begins to blend with the clean and earthy smell of the catacombs, with its unimaginable library of bones and skulls organized in alcoves, layer upon layer, towering to the very tops of the chambers.

***

“Uh, Mom?”

My daughter’s voice poked faintly into my reverie.

“Whoa, sorry – I was just having a really Proustian moment,” I said, albeit one evoked by smell rather than by taste, and suddenly I had this hilarious urge for a madeleine. Still a little dazed, I finished the climb to the heavy wooden door that separates the stairway from the museum’s entry vestibule, and we made our way in.

As soon as we opened the door, we were engulfed in an eye-stinging miasma of air “freshener,” to which I am frighteningly allergic, and which was no doubt unleashed by some plebeian in an effort to combat the persistent smell of history inherent in the centuries-old structure.

Snatched from my visit with the past, I fled down the stairs Dracula-style, with the front of my coat draped across my nose, and then stood outside on the icy cobbles sucking in draughts of cold, clean air. I was furious at having been yanked across centuries and continents, and back to the 21st century where strange beings beat back every aroma or scent that nature or history has to offer by engulfing it in a cloud of sprayed odor – the embodiment of “Better Living Through Chemistry,” I guess.

I dropped my daughter off at home with all due apologies, and headed for Starbucks, where I knew I could get my hands on one of those three-packs of madeleines – and if I could not dip them in lime-blossom tea, a wet cappuccino would do just fine. I went to the furthest corner of the room and sat down, inhaling the healing aroma of fresh coffee and thinking that somehow I could find a way to port myself back to that wonderful place in the Vienna of my childhood, if only for a few minutes.

Within seconds, someone marinated in the classic French designer perfume that deludes women into thinking they resemble Catherine Deneuve sat down next to me, and la comedia, as they say, was finita. Her fumes permeated every cubic inch of breathable air, and I could taste the reek all the way down to my clavicles; the madeleine dissolved like dust on my tongue. Proust, an asthmatic famously known to despise perfume, would have hated this moment, and this woman, too.

I snatched up my madeleines and coffee and, glaring balefully at this destroyer of time travel, stalked out to my car where, wrapped in my own personal bubble of safety, I could finish my coffee and cakes in peace. On the way home, my brain began to retreat from its brief foray into adventure and excitement and soon flat-lined into its old, familiar state, which is basically a dial tone.

So, I ended up on Google after all, and discovered that the chimerical Cloisters was pieced together from the imported medieval ruins of five different European monasteries and reassembled on a hill in Manhattan in 1938.

If my daughter ever wants to consummate her visit to the Cloisters though, she’s on her own.

Faith Wurtzel is a software specialist and closeted writer who occasionally fires off curmudgeonly letters to the New York Times, and has previously contributed to Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

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