Sometimes, smells and tastes can elicit extremely old memories. Just ask Marcel Proust. In Swann’s Way, a madeleine cake sparks an involuntary memory that fills out the rest of a novel. That novel leads to six more after it that is now most commonly remembered as Remembrance of Things Past. I had a similar experience once, but it wasn’t nearly as epic as Proust’s masterpiece. In fact, it would be quite silly to compare me and anything I have done to Proust. I just know involuntary memory is real, and it really does happen. The older you get, the more it happens.
For a long time, I used to ride my ebike past Tartine on Jinling Road in Downtown Changzhou. It’s a French bakery. Normally, I had places to go and people to meet, so I never stopped. One day, however, I let curiosity get the better of me, and I walked in. The smell of the place was like a punch to the face that sent me reeling for a bit. The smell of fresh baguettes mixed with the sweet scent of pastry dough. For a long moment, I just stood in the door, motionless. In my mind, I was back in Belgium, and I was 1990. I had recently discovered Slayer, and I had South of Heaven in my portable cassette player and blaring through headphones. I was on my skateboard, and the smell of a patisserie made me stop, kick up my board, and walk in — even when I didn’t know what I wanted to buy or even the French words to buy it with. I just knew there was something in that patisserie I had to have.
Years later, somebody saying “Huānyíng guānglín! (欢迎光临!)” brought be back to reality. I blinked a few times and looked at the Chinese woman behind Tartine’s counter. Nearby, there were chocolate croissants, apple danishes, and so much more. Since it was lunch time, I opted for the quiche, which they promptly warmed up for me and served with a glass of water.
And? Simply put, that was like more than a year ago, and it is still the best quiche I have ever had in Changzhou. Back then, I took a picture of it and posted it on Wechat. Some of my Chinese friends gave me interested, but really puzzled responses like “Is that pizza?” I had to tell them it wasn’t — that is was eggs, mushroom, other veggies, and ham in a pie crust. Even more, the baguettes and pastries here are also quite good and arguable some of the best in Changzhou, but I always return for the Tartine’s quiche more than anything else.