Friday, October 26, 2012

Inside the Olfactory Mind of Oksana Marafioti

Oksana Marafioti's American Gypsy is a memoir of assimilation told from a Romani point of view. Her story is frank, poignant and often humorous, allowing readers more than a glimpse into a culture that is home in many lands, but rarely understood. Romani culture is one of fusion yet there's a constancy that pervades everything when it comes to family and tradition. Whether Marafioti's intention was deliberate or not, she is part of a growing number of Romani who are putting a human face on the word "gypsy", a word distorted by stereotypes, fashion trends and prejudice. Marafioti is no stranger to the world of the senses as you can see from her responses to the Glass Petal Smoke Sensory Questionnaire.

1.  What does your sense of smell mean to you?
If you think of a human being as a Matryoshka doll, levels of "self" confined inside a single outer shell, the sense of smell would be the closest to the center, to the heart. The deepest, most hidden and most unexpected memories are linked to my sense of smell.

2.  What are some of your strongest scent memories?
I remember walking through an old Russian cemetery on a dare. It was overgrown with oaks and pines and flowers of all kinds. I carry this smell with alarming clarity; probably due to the terror I felt. Fresh pine needles combined with overturned earth, and a soft, barely noticeable scent of lavender. Vanilla from the paskha cake my grandmother used to make for Russian Easter also comes to mind. Very sweet and reassuring.

3.  What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking &/or your environment)?
My kids. Every smell about them makes my heart sing. I know it sounds silly but that’s the best way I can describe it. One of them will run up and give me a bear hug, and I’ll bury my nose in their hair and think, "that just made my heart sing."

In nature, the ocean. The scent of an ocean is as wild as the ocean itself. A whole bunch of ingredients rolled into one gorgeous presentation. Salt, but not as high-pitched as table salt. This is deeper and bigger. Salt mixed with the sun and the sand. Together they create a layered kind of a sensory atmosphere. The top layer is dry and feels baked, maybe because of suntan lotions and what they smell like after a long time out of water. The bottom layers are noisy and wet and fishy, more primal. Every time I take a deep whiff of this combo, I feel emboldened.

4.  Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?
Sauerkraut. I love its sharpness and intensity. 

5.  Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
Onions fried in butter. Where I come from almost everything is cooked in butter. I grew up with it, and it gives me an instant dose of comfort no matter where I smell it.


6.  What smells do you most dislike?
Gasoline. Mom once told me she used to crave the smell of gasoline when she was pregnant with me. I also dislike a mixture of blood and alcohol. Metallic, burning, foreboding.

 7.  What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?
The smell of lamb cooking. It used to make me feel sick to my stomach when I was a kid. It was very invasive. There’s no way you couldn’t smell lamb for miles. With time, I grew used to it. Because the Greek/Armenian side of my family makes lamb dishes regularly, it was inevitable. Plus, once you taste lamb chops, your nose grows to love the smell.

8.  What mundane smells inspire you?
The smell of a fresh new notebook always makes me want to write!

9.  What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
The smell of clean linen, but without all the perfumes. I associate it with the smell of sunshine. I never realized that sunshine had a smell until I figured out this connection. In the old country, my mom used to hang the laundry to dry outside, and the sun would etch itself in the fibers. Every time we changed the sheets I’d bury my face in the sunshine convinced that I could actually wrap myself in it.

10.  What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?
For my mom, the scent of Climat, her favorite French perfume. For dad, the smell of a velvet lined guitar case.

11.  What fragrance(s) remind you of growing up?
Pussywillow trees in bloom. They grew all over Moscow. Once the air was filled with the aroma of the pussywillows you knew that spring had arrived.

12.  What fragrance(s) remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
Grilled meat always reminds me of living in Italy where I’d go to the downstairs Greek restaurant to get my gyro fix almost every night. I also remember the stuffy incensed smell of old Italian churches. Now, every time I come across any smell close to Frankincense, I remember walking around those beautiful buildings during my stay in Italy.  

13.  Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.
Perfume by Patrick Suskind. It is a startling realization that we are influenced by our senses even as we go through life under the impression of complete control over them.


You can listen to a great interview with Oksana Marafioti talking about her book, American Gypsy, on NPR.

The Gypsy Chronicles, a wonderful website, is filled with timely, relevant news about Romani life and culture. Glass Petal Smoke recommends that you bookmark it for future viewing.

UK Chef Tom Ewer celebrates his Romani heritage on The Gypsy Chef and is currently working on unearthing the culinary roots of his heritage.

Great Russian Gifts sells beautiful nesting dolls online. The photo of the set in this article is called Camilla. Rights revert back to Great Russian Gifts.

"Forest Cemetery" is a landscape painting by Ivan Shishkin that accompanies the second question in this article. Shishkin also has a planet named after him.

Image of Sauerkraut from Steffan's Dinners

Image of onions in butter by Saffron and Salt. Rights revert back to the owner.

Image of lamb lentil stew by Five Rings via Creative Commons.

Image of Rhodia "Webbie" notebook from Exaclair.

Image of clothes line by Michael Gäbler via Creative Commons.

Image of blooming pussywillow by OutdoorPDK via Creative Commons.

Photo of botafumerio in the Cathedral of Santiago by Michael Krier.