Thursday, February 9, 2012

A taste of tranquility

Earlier today I was reading over and editing an article about Valentine's day candies and specifically British chocolate. As I was bumbling through the names of various English sweets, I started thinking about how much of my love for various countries comes from a love of junk food there.

The only time I ever took a picture of my food in London.
In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana tells her friend Lottie that "the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach." Well the same must be true for women because somehow I pack away a lot of my nostalgia for countries in bags of candy that I've taken home from vacations across the ocean.

When I returned from London the first time, I stupidly forgot to bring back any candy whatsoever. While there I'd snacked on McVitie's Digestives, Cadbury Buttons, Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles and bags and bags of Walkers potato crisps. But forever the luggage overstuffer, I could not bear to pack one more item, regardless of how yummy and nostalgic it was.

In subsequent visits I wouldn't make the same mistake. I've come back with bags of Crunchie bars, Jaffa Cakes and Wine Gums. I've tried carrying Vegetarian Haggis back from Edinburgh but "abandoned can" when my bag almost popped from the extra mass.

Going through security at London Heathrow, I probably had guards completely baffled as to why I didn't weigh 500 pounds. After all, I was smuggling about that weight in chocolate out of the country. There was barely any room for clothes in my bag with all the snackfood.

When I visited Japan in between senior year of high school and freshman year of college, I grew obsessed with the candy there. Hi-Chews, which I'd been introduced to in high school, were my junk food of choice, along with giant bags of seaweed-covered crackers called senbei. I consider myself a true Japanese-American hybrid, but in reality I teeter more toward the latter with my (pre-vegetarian) disgust for sushi and my everlasting passion for salty snacks.

It's weird how even craving these foods can make you nostalgic for the places you've been. I still can't eat certain vegetables or have crescent-shaped pastries without thinking about being in the London Victoria Station eating some West Cornwall Pasty Co. And, like with the scent of rain or the sound of The Beatles singing in my ear, I don't just long for the concrete objects of these places, I wish for the feelings that being there gave me.

A photo I took while at Kiyomizu-dera.
A lot of nostalgia for me is based on the premise of remembering comfort and tranquility. When I'm wandering around my college campus feeling stressed about classes, I think on times when worries have melted away. These times are rare and many of them I associate with places.

When I was in Japan two summers ago, I went to this amazing Buddhist temple called Kiyomizu-dera. Some consider this a tourist site, but for me it was like walking out of reality and into a dream. If heaven exists, this is how it must feel to be there.

As I walked around the temple which is set in the hills of eastern Kyoto, I lost all feeling of anxiousness and worry. I wandered along the hillside shrines and let my hair grow curly in the warm and humid air. My make-up melted, but so did my soul.

I still remember walking back down from Kiyomizu-dera and smelling the food in the shops along the stone-paved hill. The air smelled of red bean paste and warm batter, or of roasted chestnuts. The scents of street-corner Japanese cuisine.

For me, memories are associated with symbols. In sound, in sight, in scent, in taste. When I feel something that I've felt once before, I'm transported back to where I was when I first felt it.

Now I look through my closet where I stash away all my junk food. There are Hi-Chews there. Crunchie bars. Some Digestives of indeterminate age.

I may not be able to get those same feelings of calm and empowered tranquility when I am at home or in school, but sometimes just a taste of where I've been is enough to rekindle that feeling. And maybe that's enough.

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