SCENT OF THE SEA
Genova, 20 July 2016
All those nobbly, horribly hot beach pebbles which I spoke about in a previous post could not stop me from registering the scent of the sea as I finally waded into the waves washing onto the beach. How does one describe that inimitable scent? Salty? Briny? Fishy? Seaweedy? Tarry? All of the above? Whatever descriptors you line up, you know it when you smell it. Of course, what we are actually breathing in is chemicals, which register in our brains as “scent of the sea”. Are we smelling ozone? or maybe iodine? These two chemicals were popular candidates in my youth; my mother-in-law favoured iodine, instructing my wife when she was young and at the seaside to fill her lungs with all that iodine, while my mother inclined to the ozone hypothesis. But actually, if I’m to believe the latest theories, neither of these chemicals are involved. I will not name names; I don’t want to spoil all those rosy memories evoked in us by the scent of the sea with flat, matter-of-fact, totally nerdy chemical names (I cannot resist, though, mentioning that the chemicals in question have to do with sex, death, and natural food additives. If any readers want to know more, they can do no better than consult this website).
Let’s focus instead on those memories, which often first seeped into our subconscious when we were at the sea as young children.
After working my way down the corridors of my memory, opening doors here and there to check what lies behind them, working my way ever further back into the dimmest and darkest recesses of my mind, I have concluded that my Ur-memory, my foundational memory, of the scent of the sea situates itself in Massawa on the Red Sea, in 1960.
I have mentioned in past posts that I was born in Eritrea, where I spent the first six-seven years of my life. We lived in the capital Asmara, up in the highlands. This was one of city’s the main streets
while I remember going to this cinema
and I see that this gas station has become a popular tourist attraction for its 1930s architecture.
During part of the year, when it was less hot – I’m guessing Christmas time – we would take the little train which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post down to the port of Massawa on the Red Sea.
One could also go down by road, but it was an incredibly twisty journey
and it went through countryside still infested by bandits, who were likely to stop you and rob you blind.
Contrary to Asmara, of which I have many memories, I remember nothing of Massawa itself. I know we went to the beach; I have seen the old photos of us children playing and bathing there. The only memory I have of that beach is us passing some rusty barbed wire, a remnant of the War, and my older brother and sisters warning me portentously that there could still be mines hidden under the sand! What a shiver of delighted horror that gave me … But my memory of scent of the sea does not come from there. It comes from the hotel we stayed at.
I have no idea what hotel it was. I’ve looked at old maps of Massawa but nothing obviously fits. All I remember is that our room overlooked a small harbour – the hotel’s, I suppose. The memory I have been chasing through the corridors of my mind is of me one morning, very early – just after dawn – sitting on the ledge of the window with my mother’s arms around me. There is not a sound. Looking down, I distinctly see three sting rays lazily undulating their way through the clear water of the little harbour. This photo captures the beauty of these fish.
As I watch, enthralled, my brain is also registering the scent of the sea rising up to me, to be captured for ever in my olfactory memory bank. Sometimes when I’m at the sea, that scent will register in my memory bank and I will suddenly see in my mind’s eye those beautiful sting rays, undulating their way through the sea.
I invite my readers to fetch up their memories of the scent of the sea. In the words of Van Morrison, “smell the sea and feel the sky. Let your soul and spirit fly”.