When my family first moved to Casablanca, we lived in a hotel for a week while we shopped around for an apartment to rent. I was five years old. There are a few details that I remember: that the hotel was near the train station, which was near the harbor. I remember the stairwell, and the elevator, and that my siblings and I sometimes wandered through some of the nearby souvenir shops with my mother, just to kill time. There is a limit to how long four children (ages 7, 5, 3 and 1) are willing to entertain themselves in a cramped hotel room.
Yesterday, a new memory was awakened for me. One that is now more than three decades old, and that I was unaware even existed.
Upon checking into our hotel room in Hanoi, Vietnam, I reached over the coffee table and then happened to glanced down. Something about how the mugs were placed, with their lids and with the saucer just below, under the glass tabletop. Something about it was just the same as our dishes in the hotel room from back in 1984. Not identical, but close enough.
In the flash of just a second, I could remember everything about our breakfast routine from that week; how we ate picnic-style in that room, and precisely what we ate and how it tasted.
The memory was powerful, like a strong flash because it was full of sensory impressions and detail but it disappeared suddenly and now all of the information is hazy again. To be honest, right now I don’t even remember the memory at all–just the impression of it.
Where did that flashback come from?
Immediately I knew: a trace of the French presence here in Vietnam, some remnant in style or presentation that was somehow conveyed by the empty dishes on the low table was enough to draw out that memory from wherever it had been hiding deep inside my mind. It is a memory of a distant and very different place, but not unrelated to this one. Both Morocco and Vietnam were colonial possessions of France at one time, after all.
Sure, in most ways they are not similar: climate, agricultural landscape and yields, language, customs, clothing…none of those have any correspondences. But there is something here that is similar, and I recognized it, however briefly.
Architecture. Food. A certain aesthetic flavor. I am not sure exactly, but for a few milliseconds, I could see it.
Today, I’ve spent some time reflecting on that experience. What it means about my personal history, and how that is linked to greater world forces in history. I wonder about globalization, about the invisible influences people and policy have on other people, and even without their realizing it. It makes me think about colonies and conquest and identity and the erasure of what used to be with the forming of new traditions. I can’t help but think about all kinds of things now, thanks to a coffee mug, carefully placed on a table.
Several years ago, a friend told me about an article on memory that she had read and could not stop thinking about. The memories that we draw up frequently, perhaps by retelling or maybe just by reliving them quietly to ourselves, begin to lose their sharpness and even their accuracy. They are the most unreliable kind of memories. In contrast, the memories that are hidden (or forgotten) are the most vivid when we do access them; perhaps because they are fresh and not yet exhausted by revisiting. That was the thesis of the article and it came to my mind because of the power and intensity of that moment yesterday, in the hotel room here in Hanoi–a moment which did not begin with a smell or a taste, but instead with my sense of sight, and I cannot seem to get over my surprise about that, either.