Sense and Sensibility…and Time Travel

Have you ever caught whiff of a scent that transports you back in time? The sweet aroma of ripened cantaloupe and peaches takes me back to my grandmother’s home in North Carolina, circa 1973. Grandma Pearl would keep fresh Carolina peaches and melons in her cellar. Today, if I wander through a farmer’s market or grocery produce section and inhale the sweet fruity perfume, the Proust Phenomenon smacks me between the eyes…actually between the nostrils. Suddenly I’m 9 years old again, I’ve selected a handful of juicy, velvety freestone peaches, the ones that you bite into and the sweet tangy nectar pirouettes across your tongue. I am taking turns churning homemade peach ice cream on the front porch with my brother and grandparents.

Our memories can capture vivid flashbacks. Sometimes they are so powerful, they contain sensory and emotional components.

Recently I spent a week of magical thinking and deep inhalation; I’m practically giddy at the potential memories that I will be conjuring up in the near future from our dulcet vacation. My husband, another couple and I spent our days traversing the French countryside, gallivanting through castles, gardens, D-Day beaches, bakeries and cafés, and our evenings were spent at the elegant Chateau de Courtomer, an exquisite 18th century castle tucked into 300 acres of picturesque Normandy park land.


As soon as we drove our rental car out of Charles De Gaulle airport, we were accosted by gorgeous, sublime, inspiring landscapes, providing a catalyst for my beaucoup writing ideas. The week awakened my olfactories, whetted my writing appetite, and left me thirsting for more time to focus on reading and writing.

I even cooked up an idea for a reading retreat at the chateau (my plan involves 10-12 guests, some may be members of book clubs, a chef, Anne Bogel, the modern Mrs. Darcy, and her literary matchmaking expertise…perhaps there will be yoga and cooking classes, bicycle rides into town for crusty baguettes and wine, and piles of fascinating books and enchanting conversations). Ah, I have drifted dreamily into my creative zone; I can hear notes of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune emanating from a pianoforte in the background. Let me return us to the Orne Valley.

It all started on Day 1 of our French Adventure, when I forgot to turn off my iPhone app, the one that encourages me to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. That little passive-aggressive device demanded that I wake up many hours before the sun even considered rising. Despite the jet lag, I practically leaped out out of bed, grabbed my book and iPad, and set off exploring Chateau de Courtomer in the delicious early morning hours.

Like a cat stalking its prey, I slinked down the back staircase, tiptoeing along the parquet corridors. In the kitchen, I brewed a pot of coffee, sliced an apple and a baguette, and placed them on a tray. I had unwrapped a small bar of french milled soap, the delicate hints of lavender blended in with the morning breakfast fragrance. It was intoxicating. Absently, I had folded up the fragrant paper envelope, sans soap, and placed it in my pocket.


Balancing the tray, I slipped back into the library, which has now transformed into a writers sanctuary. A corner chaise became my epicenter; a steaming cup of coffee, my iPad, a spiral notebook, and a pen are my tools.

Photographie du Château de Courtomer par Thomas Michard.

With the exception of the barely audible peal of a church bell in the distance and the soft cuckoo of a bird that I thought only existed in wooden German timepieces, Courtomer was silent.

This was idyllic. Alone with my thoughts, drinking in the sights, sounds, indelibly inscribed in my imagination, I envision this to be a perfect setting for a self-induced writers retreat. Or readers retreat, but I digress. Again.

Ideas streamed into my head, flooding me with the catalyst to transform the desert that my writing had become into the fertile & fruitful oasis I wish it to be. And the Cortez Peters speed-typing course of my youth comes in handy as my hands fly across the keyboard, mimicking the staccato beat of Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca.

As I reached for my coffee, I heard a soft crinkly-paper sound. I pulled the contorted soap wrapper out of my pocket and placed it on a settee beside the chaise. The fresh soap scent wafted upward, slightly more intense, since I had positioned it near the radiator. It is fresh, cottony, delicate, elegant, sophisticated.

What magic ingredients are manufactured into that petite bar of soap? My smile grows wider, my eyes go dewy, the skin at the corners of my eyes crinkle as I realize that whenever I breathe in the fragrance of L’OCCITANE en Provence bar soap, I will see this bucolic manor home and remember the precious moments that were lived in the past week.

I close my eyes and deeply inhale the brown paper packaging. There. It’s imprinted.