Dispatches: A meeting of minds, memories, and bad wine

Jem Bosatta explores a connection between memory and the senses

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My Canadian co-workers Davi and Amir had been farmhopping for some time and they said that their awful experiences with awful people are what makes them know what a good experience is. That sounds wise. Perhaps you might add that nowhere is perfect—and I assure you, that place was anything but. You take it all in then you decide, on the balance.

For all the farm’s flaws, the food was good. And you can get good food at a restaurant, but you can’t get an experience like that, and the whole experience is poured into the meal: the unrefrigerated apéro, the shouting match between the landlady and her lodger, the subtle layer of grease on each item of cutlery, the constant threat of kittens nosing at your plate, the flypaper that swings over the dining table like a candelabra, the stench of piss on the saucepan shelves…

Even that’s not quite all. The afternoon of shovelling dirt adds a sweet tinge of hunger to each forkful. Those flea bites, ram chases, goat games, lamb placentas and horse whinnies ramp up the flavour. The tension of the day’s petty politics adds a heavy grind of salt to each dish. And when I finally take a mouthful, the rabbit stew reminds me of home. You can’t repeat the past, but you can taste it (ask Proust).

The landlady’s boyfriend—former policeman now taking on unemployment bottle in hand— insists on his voice being the only voice, until he has recounted everything he knows about preparing the eaux-de-vie of different fruits, and once he’s finished he leaves the room. Every sentence of mine that he cuts off, I replace with something from the cheese board: notes of frustration. To be fair to him I learn a lot, and the next morning I find the moonshine in the garage. The leathery scent of fermenting figs creeps through the must of hay and dog shit, and makes me think of him. You see, memory does its best work through your nose.

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Similarly, there’s no use discarding a good memory because you were drinking bad wine. Picture how I saw the place when I first arrived: a woman reclines miserably on a sofa, stubs out a cigarette and promptly lights another. At her feet and her side, dog after cat after mangy dog flick their tails half-heartedly at the blanket of flies. The television in the corner emits tinny screams, the colours of a low-budget horror movie flickering and warping on the screen. At the other end of the room a turtle paddles furiously at the glass of his tiny, opaque-green home.

The woman tells me I’m sleeping in the other building. I pick up my backpack and boots and trudge over. There is a wall hanging of the Joker with a maniacal grin, and beneath his leer the room heaves with shelves and counters. Everything down to the ancient baguette in the cupboard is encrusted with months of deep brown dirt. I slump on the sofa, filled with dread. Twenty-four hours later and it’s sea, sun and sand. Germanic holidaymakers bare their gloriously reddened morphoid bodies upwind. My harmonica is out of tune. The wine is cheap and metallic, and the brim of the throwaway cup is slightly sandy. And, as I am soon to find out, the month to come is going to be very unpleasant. But in that moment, on the balance of things, that was pretty good.