For me, the aroma of meat cooking on a grill outside mingled with dust and hot pavement only makes me think of one thing: my medieval childhood. Add to that the tweetling sounds of distant recorders, the thumping of not-so-distant terrible drummers and the occasional jingling of somebody's ill-advised coin scarf, and, in toto, we have an instantly recognizable memory category that encompasses approximately fifteen years of my life.
When I was thirteen years old, I went to my first Pennsic, with my mom. This was back when you could pay per day, and the price rolled over at midnight. I come from the Kingdom That Sings, aka Ealdormere, which means that we didn't need directions to get there since they had already been laid out for us in filk -- "As we headed down the Queensway...as we drove up to the Peace Bridge/so much was on our minds/What would the customs guards say?/What did we leave behind?"
I mostly remember a jumbled blur of excitement and tents and dudes in spurs and fuzzy naked people, who were fuzzy because I took one horrified, breathless look at the Classic Swimming Hole and immediately squeezed my eyes shut and begged my mother to take me someplace else. That's a lot of nudity for a thirteen year old girl. This is why I am occasionally amused when people tell me they lost their virginity at some absurdly young age, because I couldn't even look at someone with their pants off when I was thirteen, let alone assist in the depantsing.
Pennsic has blurred over the years into snapshots so specific that I can't even remember what year they're from: the time I camped in the Swamp and one of our campmates discovered her husband was cheating on her with another campmate, who was younger, and hurled his armour cup right over the wall of the encampment, shouting, "He won't need THIS anymore!" The time I camped on the bottom of Runestone Hill and they had pudding wrestling for the last year. Playing live action Vampire: The Masquerade and being so taken with the Storyteller that I begged him to bite me on the neck (he didn't. Fortunately, he was, in retrospect, immensely dweeby, so it cured me of any potential teenaged obsession with vampires). Watching fighting on the battlefield; being too cool to watch fighting on the battlefield. Listening to the same songs being played over and over again. Watching people do pavanes. Organizing events. Going to the same parties. Seeing the same people get older, more sunburned, have children.
The smell is always the same, tying all those years together. The smell of HOT, especially with a slight tinge of humidity, and especially asphalt. The smell of meat cooking outside. The smell of frankincense & myrrh. The smell of unwashed sweaty bodies, especially pressing a little too close to me. I knew a guy once who claimed to have an overdeveloped sense of smell; he said he could smell what kind of pipes his bathwater had gone through. Pennsic must have been an olfactory midden for him, because there was so much not-washing, and sweating, and fire-spinning (in later years) and staying up late and getting drunk and playing Risk, and none of that leads to smelling like a rose...but it is definitely a REAL smell.
I went to the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire. I was not a Ren Fair girl; I've never been a Rennie. I didn't grow up at jousts or crying, "Prithee, milord, wouldst give me a penny?" or "Huzzah for the tipper!" I didn't spell it "Drynks" or add an "e" on the end of everything, although I do know that when you add an E, it means you pronounce the last syllable, you that last word should be pronounced "sil-lah-bul-leh." I did spend a lot of time scoffing at the un-periodness and inaccuracy of Ren Faires, their pretentious dragons on shoulders and mixing of fabrics and time periods. WE were different. WE did the research. THEY just tried to sell people pewter mugs with dragons on them and give everyone a good gander down the bodice.
Yeah, not so different, really. I went with Colleen and Peter; Colleen was a Ren Faire baby. She grew up in Faires and suffered the same lasting, potentially deleterious effects that I got from growing up in the SCA (an intensive knowledge of scifi television! knowing who Cory Doctorow is! caring!). They were used to the Ren Faire madness, of stages with performers, and people shouting and talking in silly Faire-speak, and constantly pushing and peddling for the next spare change, and selling pickles, and going on rides, and the more I wandered around, the more I thought how wrong people are: Pennsic is not like an overgrown Ren Faire. Pennsic is so much more like Burning Man.
A Ren Faire is always acting, except at night when the townies go home, and the Rennies converge in their trailers to drink bottles of whisky and have sex and play Risk or Axis and Allies, with some of the latest and most lucky Faire groupies. Pennsic and Burning Man are just weird places to live for one or two weeks. But the smells of Faire...that brought me back. The bodices and pewter mugs, the used-to-it movement of someone folding a skirt out of their way to sit down, the smells, the singing songs that were only familiar four hundred years ago and are now known by name.
It's a different world, for sure. I traveled further than I thought this weekend, and I only went to Irwindale!