Names, smells or tastes that we remember from childhood and have since kept locked away somewhere in the vast storehouse of memories sometimes appear suddenly, like people who we take to be strangers before we slowly begin to recognize them. Coming across a name or a smell is the perfect recipe for a Proustian madeleine moment, when long-forgotten past experiences are suddenly brought out of the vast memory storehouse and begin replaying in our minds. These triggers of the memory remain so closely entwined with the past that when they are recalled, they drag with them whole reams of other, forgotten, seemingly unrelated events and experiences. Particularly those memories that remain hidden for years and then suddenly surface, seem to retain some of the intensity of the original experience.
I experienced such a madeleine moment when overhearing a word that escaped from a conversation between two Polish women on the tube. The word that would in my mind trigger a an avalanche of long-forgotten memories was the Polish word for “jar’: słoik. (pronounced swuh-eek). It was spoken under the train carriage’s fluorescent lighting, which cast a bluish glow on the passengers. Into this bluish glow, from “słoik” spilled minute snippets of experiences like beads scattering into all corners. For me this word remains linked to my grandmother who used to live in Warsaw and with whom I spent summers when growing up. She was probably the first person I had heard say that particular word and since then, it seems that the only voice in which the word “słoik” can retain its true identity is my grandmother’s voice. Her voice made the jam jar a true jam jar. She pronounced the “s” more slowly and then lingered on the “o” longer than usual, as if following the slippery curved surface of the glass with her voice. Any other incarnation of the word pronounced by anyone else seems just a poor replica, not to mention incarnations in other languages. “Jar” seems too far removed from “słoik,” even if only because of its meaning as a verb. On another level, “jar” is too shallow, incapable of summoning a specific set of associations. Of all spoken appearances of the words “jar” that I’ve come across – those in grocery shops, kitchen tables or paint supply stores- none retains the essence of a “słoik”. This essence though seems to be made of a diffuse web of associations, which shape a “słoik” in my mind.
“Słoik” reminds me of a stack of empty jam jars that would be brought out of the damp cellar every summer, when my grandmother would make apricot jam. She would assemble all the empty jars on the kitchen table whose tablecloth had a geometric tulip pattern. These tulips would deform into strange organic shapes when looked at through an empty jar. If the jar was positioned in a particular spot, a blue tulip petal would become a giant lake.
“Słoik” also brings to mind my grandmother buying strawberry jam, which usually had a white label printed with bright blue letters and pictures of strawberries which had pink halos as a result of having been misprinted. This grocer was located on a square whose square pavement stones were laid out in a diagonal pattern. Some of these stones were a different colour and gave the impression of a large chessboard, although one on which the black and white squares were distributed randomly.
“Słoik” also summons an image of a tall pickle jar filled with water and a single flower, usually a rose, that stood by the ticket window at a train station in Warsaw. The ticket hall at this station was painted with a pinkish beige glossy paint that reflected the bluish fluorescent lighting, which was ubiquitous in the public spaces of Poland in the 1980s. Bookshops, bakeries, pharmacies, jewellery shops and fish mongers were all subject to this uniform lighting. The light bathed bread, cans of herring, geography books and syrup bottles in a pale bluish glow, draining the surroundings and the people in them of colour.
When I overheard the bits of conversation between the two women, under the pale glow of the tube carriage’s lighting, this particular combination of elements: this other pale bluish glow, the paint in a train station hall, chess-like pavement stones, my grandmother’s voice, blue tulips and misprinted strawberries all intersected suddenly, briefly summoned by a single word.