“In the mind’s eye, a fractal is a way of seeing infinity.”
James Gleick, from Chaos, 1987
“We saw shadows of the morning light, the shadows of the evening sun, till the shadows and the light were one.”
Jane’s Addiction, from Three Days, Ritual de lo Habitual, 1990.
By opening time at 7am, the smells of warm dough and coffee are already swirling around Solly’s bakery and the place is a buzz with bagel worshippers, bleary-eyed commuters, and caffeine-fixers. The counters burgeon with bagels high-stacked in assorted pyramids: poppy-seed, sesame-seed, onion, cinnamon and plain. But my senses are invariably drawn to the inviting tray of cinnamon buns and chocolate babkas; cuboid confectionery etched with characteristic spirals; an array which bedazzles the eyes with an optic illusion of rotating bakery. They are alive. They are calling me.
Solly’s cinnamon buns are magical. They first seduce you with their sweet spicy scent, a serenade of homely comfort. Then, as you scoop it out of the box, you feel its weight – substantial, hefty – this is a bun that’s making its mark on the world, impressing itself on the Earth’s gravitational force. Next comes the squidge, that deeply satisfying sensation as you hold the bun and flex your fingers into its cushiony sides, taking sensuous pleasure in its initial give and then firmer resistance, before it slowly springs back to its original form.
Next, you feel for an opening, smoothing fingers carefully over the crusty surface like trying to locate the serrated edge of a sellotape roll. Then, slowly unfurl the dough like peeling off wispy threads of candy floss, tearing pieces off and easing them into the mouth as you go. The outer crust crunches lightly, soon yielding its soft pillowy interior. Like dense marshmallow, there’s an initial chew, but this soon melts into the surrounding smother of sticky cinnamon paste. And finally the taste: buttery sweetness, warming spice and doughy deliciousness.
As good as all this sounds – and those buns are beyond good – I’ve only told half the story. For you’ll find Solly’s not in London, nor anywhere in the UK, but 5000 miles away in Vancouver. And wrapped in its swirls and layers and embedded into the fabric of its doughy essence, are fond and vivid memories of my yearly childhood trips to this Canadian West-Coast city, home to my mum’s family.
It’s hard to write about Vancouver without first referencing its breath-taking natural setting, a world away from my Manchester childhood. To the west stretches the Pacific, whose blue waters gently spider their way across the city through its various inlets, whilst its waves gently crash onto the numerous sandy city beaches. Inland, the city is surrounded by towering mountains, under whose lofty grey peaks clouds calmly roll. Meanwhile the city itself is awash with an abundance of trees and greenery. In this way, the city is defined by its beautiful and idiosyncratic geography, and on this stunning canvas are painted layers of childhood memory.
We’d visit each year, staying with my Grandma, and do the rounds of aunts, uncles and cousins, and their respective dogs ( – a distinctive feature as my father’s family don’t do dogs, and their presence just added to other-worldliness of the place). Each year we’d do the same activities and eat at the same places, so that Vancouver became an annual pilgrimage of people, place and ritual.
Each year, we’d go cycling around Stanley Park, amaze at the toy and kite shops on Granville Island, and enjoy days out at Jericho beach. But what truly stands out are the specific seemingly-small details. When I was very young, such observations may’ve been almost insignificant, but just enough to have caught my childlike attention. And then, by dint of these snippets of experience being played out year after year, rituals that became cumulatively and increasingly enjoyed, they became embedded into the very fabric of Vancouver. My Vancouver. Layer upon layer of fond comforting memory. Swirl upon swirl.
The multi-coloured lakes of Canada’s Northwest Territories as seen from the air. The feel underfoot of the pebble-stone paving slabs that meandered through my Grandma’s apartment garden. The satisfyingly chunky buttons of the apartment lifts.The luminous bulbous glow of the driveway lights seen through jet-lagged eyes at 4am. The early-morning 60’s soundtrack from the cartoon ‘Rocket Robin Hood’. Glowing maps hovering over aquarium fish-tanks. Leaping joyously through garden sprinklers; assiduously timing runs under their ever-changing arcs. Spotting car license-plates with their myriad designs and slogans. Sea-planes flying low. The characteristic smell of underground car-parks.
And of course the food memories… The little plastic pot of French dressing on the flight (so tantalisingly sophisticated to a seven year-old). The salt-sweet crunch of a Grahams cracker. The towering stack of buttermilk pancakes topped with melting whipped butter and thrillingly accompanied by an array of syrup-jugs at the International House of Pancakes. The artificially sweet scent of store candy counters. White Spot fish n’ chips served in a cardboard pirate boat (which I’d invariably try to sail in the bathtub, usually to disappointingly soggy effect). Buttery salted popcorn, fresh from the stalls in Stanley Park.
And of course those cinnamon buns: whose spiralling layers echo the laying down of childhood experience; whose swirling cinnamon fractals into which any I can peer into and relive all those memories as one; and whose warm pillowy dough of comforting memory I can fall into and be cradled.
My Grandma died earlier this year. She was a real character, terrific sense of humour, loved people, and she’d led a distinctly colourful life. This summer family reunion was meant to celebrate her 85th birthday. The reunion still goes ahead, and if she’s watching, she’d be loving the sight of her family coming together from all over. No doubt she’d have a martini in her hand and a wink in her eye. And I toast her. With a cinnamon bun. And remember her. And this city.
And if you liked this post, here’s my tribute to my other grandma, Grandma Beryl, and her tremendous Chicken Soup.