The Scent of Bougainvillea shahnaz radjy two drops of ink marilyn l davis

The Scent of Bougainvillea

By Shahnaz Radjy

We were visiting a property in rural Portugal when I walked by them. The bougainvillea were visually striking, a splash of color that always remind me of the summers of my childhood. My subconscious had already started humming a happy tune, but when I got closer… had I been in a scanner, my brain probably would have lit up like fireworks.

The smell of those flowers, soft and subtle yet unmistakable, transported me.

I was back in those very summers of my childhood. As soon as school was out, my father would take me to the shoe store in the shopping center near our house. I bee-lined for the summer section now filled with what I always called jelly-shoes. Made from plastic, they had a criss-cross design on top, a sturdy sole, and a buckle system that kept them firmly in place.

Good thing, too, because once I put them on, they would stay on almost day and night. These were my summer shoes, my Mallorca shoes. They made me unstoppable, invincible, fearless. With them, I could swim in the pool or the ocean, climb rocks, run upstairs and after the cats.

The delicate flowers that remind me of paper lanterns, these bougainvillea, are everywhere in this little bubble of a paradise. Their branches look like they are coming out of the desert colored walls warmed by the sun. Elsewhere, they grow beyond balcony limits as though they were there first. They probably were.

Their smell mingles with the smell of the sea, of summer, of freedom. The perfume that the bright pink flowers exude are the anchor that bring the other, more intangible, scents together.

My first solo travel experience by plane was to Mallorca, from Switzerland where I grew up. My grandparents were at the airport to pick me up, and then it was just me and them for a month. That’s a lifetime when you’re seven years old. The best kind of endlessness, the one of summer vacation.

As soon as we stepped out of the airport, that smell embraced me, a long-lost friend. Every day of my summer holiday, it was there. It welcomed me when I woke up early to sneak into the living room and watch cartoons, only to find my grandmother already there waiting for me with a mischievous grin on her face.

The smell of bougainvillea was right there with me on every one of my summer adventures. It was the last thing my senses registered before I fell into a deep sleep at the end of every long, wonderful day. Click To Tweet

Mallorca is where I met my summer bff. She was a sparkling Russian Jew from New York with wild curly hair. She often challenged me to Broadway singing contests (I always lost, but it was worth it to witness her belt out her favorite tunes). It’s also where I developed an obsession with grilled cheese sandwiches, peaches, and nectarines.

My grandmother, who by some definitions could qualify as a saint, knew I didn’t like many fruits or vegetables. Two notable exceptions were peaches and nectarines. As a result, throughout the summer, we always had a mountain of the fruits within reach. I don’t know how it started, probably a mixture of me being a fussy eater and my grandmother being willing to spoil me if it meant I would eat fruit. The embarrassing truth is that I ate my peaches and nectarines not just cut up into pieces, but peeled. I think I ate between three and fifteen of these fruits a day. Every single one was peeled and cut. See what I mean about sainthood? 

If I am being honest, it’s only when a colleague laughed at me when he saw me peel a nectarine that I even began to have an inkling that peeling peaches and nectarines wasn’t standard fare. I was 25 years old.

The grilled cheese obsession was dual. First, Tony made a mean grilled cheese down by the pool, and even cut the crusts off the Bimbo toast bread he used. It was the perfect snack. Second, my grandmother had a grilled cheese sandwich machine in the little kitchen of our apartment. Now that I think about it, she spent so many hours a day peeling peaches and nectarines… it’s no wonder I often had grilled cheese for dinner. The speediness of that meal almost balanced out the tediousness of the fruit.

On paper, my summers may or may not resonate as special. In my heart, there is no contest.

That little piece of the Mediterranean that we had access to is to date the best part of any body of water I have ever swum in. The sting from the saltiness of the swimming pool wasn’t a nuisance. It was proof that you were on holidays! Building a resistance to the saltiness so you could even open your eyes under water? That was proof you weren’t a passing tourist, but that you belonged.

Even the funny giraffe looks my feet had from wearing the jelly shoes from morning to night was a badge of pride. Come fall, it didn’t matter if the light and dark splashes on my feet were covered by socks. I knew they were there, a reminder of how brilliant my summer had been.

Mallorca was my haven, a special place I visited every summer until I was 16. Then, my grandmother started having trouble managing the 87 steps down to the sea. My grandparents sold the apartment, and summers in Mallorca gained that ethereal quality of childhood memories no longer quite within reach.

During my formative years, while the aroma of the bright pink paper lantern bougainvillea flowers stayed put in Mallorca, I came and went. But I did take a piece of it with me, coded into my brain.

Today, anywhere with those flowers is automatically a great place. And no matter what kind of day, week, or month I am having, just a whiff of that bouquet will realign my neurons so that they are vibrating with the thrill of summer, and freedom.



Bio: Shahnaz Radjy

Shahnaz Two drops of ink marilyn l davisShahnaz is an adventurer, foodie, bookworm, and horse-lover. She is a freelance writer based in Portugal as well as the co-founder of an eco-tourism project. Alumni of the World Economic Forum and the University of Pennsylvania.

Shahnaz has lived in Geneva/Switzerland, Philadelphia/USA, La Paz/Bolivia, and New York/USA.

You can read Shahnaz’s blog, visit her Medium profile, or follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

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    • Thanks Michelle, that means a lot. Nowadays, my feet look like giraffes in summer but the pattern is no longer the criss-crossed jelly shoes pattern, but the birkenstock pattern. Same same, but different 🙂

    • Thank you, and three cheers for #PennPride ! It feels like that learning curve for learning how to do “real” writing is never ending, but very satisfying if you’re on the right track. If you have any favorite writing books (other than “On Writing” by Stephen King which I read and loved) or resources, I am all ears/eyes!

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