Fifteen years ago, a colleague of mine arranged a visit to the Swedish state alcohol monopoly’s lab. She was a member of their language task force that aimed to come up just the perfect words to describe the wines on the shelves, to make sure the way the words matched the taste of the wines so that the nakedly elegant wine truly was that and that people intuitively understood what that meant.
We weren’t there to taste wines, we were there to see how difficult it was to put things like taste into words, but the thing I remember the best was our cinnamon test. Each one of us got a little cinnamon, maybe a half a tablespoon, while we held our noses, waited a while and then, at the instructor’s signal, let go of our noses.
I’m sure you know, or can guess, what happened, but I’ll tell you anyway.
As long as I held my nose, I didn’t feel the cinnamon taste. I knew it was cinnamon, and I could feel its soft texture on my tongue, but it could have been any powder. When the instructor nodded to us, and I let go of my nose, a taste of a cinnamon bun flooded my mouth, and as it did, I was also taken back to our tiny kitchen when I was ten years old, sitting by the oven, waiting to get a first bite of the cinnamon buns Mom had baked.
That bun was sweet, but also rich, vivid, full-bodied, wholesome, hearty, and personal.
I had a similar experience last night when I returned to my old high school with a group of old schoolmates. We started our tour from the school’s new and shiny extension, admiring the new classrooms, the new teachers’ office, the weight room – the weight room! -, the band rehearsal room, the canteen, well, everything. And it was fun.
My old math teacher was there – now retired – and my old, history teacher was there – still in active duty – and they looked about the same as they did then and they most certainly sounded and spoke they did back then: the history teacher wise cracking one-liners, the math teacher briskly walking ahead of everybody and looking you straight in the eye when asking questions.
But it was all very cordial, too, as if we were people who hadn’t seen each other in three decades.
Then, we walked across to the old side. Our side.
We kept on walking around, pointing at closed doors: “Oh, that’s where we had Swedish!” and “did we have math here?” and “I think they’ve flipped the classroom”. We walked up to the fourth floor where the old physics classroom was, and found a well-lit modern classroom, with no sign of the dark room in the attic I remembered.
I knocked on the door of our IT classroom where we had one computer, and where our math teacher taught us coding by reading lines of BASIC out loud, which we then wrote down in our journals.
Outside another classroom, I told a classmate of mine how I had enjoyed her presentation about Bruce Springsteen, and as we talked about it, I re-told the story to another classmate and when I hesitated on which name to use about because she now uses her second name, she filled the pause by using her old name, under her breath. And when I heard somebody refer to me with a nickname I almost haven’t heard since, I smiled.
We took photos, and we went from one small group to another, comparing notes and our do-you-remembers.
I had actually been in the building since our graduation, so I knew things didn’t look exactly the same as back then but when I had been there, I didn’t have the same access as this time around. I knew that my locker wasn’t where it used to be, the school cafeteria had bene moved, and both the library and the sofa outside it were gone but last time around, I had been alone. This time, I shared the space with the same people as back then made it better.
And then, we entered the assembly hall – and I let go of my nose.
Suddenly, it all came back to me. That was the place where I had first heard the regional song for the first time, amazed at how important it seemed to be to the others. That’s where I sat on the floor, waiting for our matriculation exams begin with foreign language listening comprehension. That’s where I sat on pins and needles, watching the younger class’s parody show about our class, wondering if I’d be in it, and fearing and hoping I’d be in it, and then puzzled about the skit in which “Risto” was stuffed into a hockey trunk, with a Bryan Adams song as the soundtrack.
That’s where we danced, waltzed, boys in tails, girls in gorgeous evening gowns and that’s where we took our final exams, facing the other way than usual. That’s where we took our school photos every year, that’s where the school’s male teachers danced in tights, in the Swan Lake, and that’s where our high school ended, too, as we walked out of that ballroom with our student caps and diplomas.
I looked around at our group of long-lost strangers, people who had shared important moments with me for a few years a long time ago and I realized that in some ways, those strangers knew me better than I ever imagined.
It was as if I had been handed a warm, wonderful cinnamon bun.