I was born in Serbia and brought up in Montenegro. That is where I met my husband, who moved from Germany to start working in the same company as me. After a few years living in Belgrade, we decided to move to Hangzhou. We spent four and a half years living in this magnificent city before moving again, this time to Mumbai.
However, two months before we left China, on my 40th birthday, I realized I had something to say, and I needed to say it quickly. So at that very moment, I pulled out my laptop and started writing a book. As my family was putting on their shoes and getting ready to head out for my birthday celebration, I was still finishing the first chapter. It took me less than four weeks to finish the first draft. I named it “23 Reasons to Fall in Love with Hangzhou,” because the first time we arrived in Hangzhou all those years ago, on the way from Putong Airport, the driver took highway exit 23 to enter Hangzhou. That turn marked the beginning of the best chapter of our lives.
然而，我们离开中国的两个月前，准确地说是我 40 岁生日那天，我感觉有一肚子话需要吐露。所以那一刻，我掏出笔记本电脑，开始写书。家人们穿好鞋子，准备出门为我庆生时，我仍在写第一章。我花了不到四个星期就完成了第一稿，书名为“爱上杭州的 23 个理由”，因为多年前我们第一次到达杭州时，司机从普陀机场出发，由 23 号高速出口进入杭州。那个转弯标志着我们生命中最美好的篇章由此开始。
So here is one of the reasons why we love Hangzhou so much.
Jar of Memories
That first year when we moved to China, we spent seven days in Hainan for Golden Week. Right after coming back, even though it was still warm outside, we could feel autumn at the doorstep. There was something in the air that reminded me of furnaces burning wood, some sort of smoky smell that seemed to announce that soon we would all be wearing sweaters and gloves. The pollution level started rising, and on days without rain we could smell it. It smelled faintly like burnt rubber and acid. But all around Hangzhou, all the time, wherever we went, we could smell something else as well. It smelled familiar and exotic at the same time.
For days I was trying to discover the source of that delicate, yet intense smell, until I ran into a neighbor who had lived in China for years. Through laughter she said it was Osmanthus flower, and it was now in full bloom. I had never been that interested in flowers, but the fact that I hadn’t even heard of this one shocked me. What kind of flower can make the whole city smell like a perfume shop? Not to mention this was a city, with concrete, traffic, construction sites and all.
The smell stayed for weeks, and it made autumn my favorite part of the year. All around the city you could find Osmanthus-flavored coffee, snacks, and sweets. My favorite until this day (even though I tried many) was a very traditional lotus root with sticky rice covered in Osmanthus flowers.
Starting with the New Year, we were already counting the days until October and planning routes we would walk. So, following that very plan made in the beginning of the year, we decided to spend one October weekend in a small guesthouse in Manjuelong Village (满觉陇村). At checkout, we were handed two jars of dried Osmanthus as a gift. I planned to search Xiaohongshu (小红书) for recipes and bake something with Osmanthus flower, but after unpacking my bags, “assisted” by my three-year-old and one-year-old daughters, only one jar survived. I opened it and felt my throat tightening. I was quite literally on the verge of tears. It smelled sweet like apricot jam, announcing the cold weather and evenings spent at home. It brought back countless memories of our autumns in China, pierced with memories of home.
新年伊始，我们已经开始制定 10 月之前的旅行路线了。按照计划，我们决定在满觉陇村的一个小旅店里度过十月的一个周末。退房时，老板送我们两罐干桂花作为礼物。我打算用桂花烤些甜点，于是在“小红书”上寻找制作方法。我三岁和一岁的女儿“帮助”我拉开背包，拜她们所赐，只有一罐幸存。打开它时，我感到喉咙发紧。我真的快哭了。桂花闻起来像杏子酱一样甜，思绪涌上心头，让我想起了寒冷的天气和在家里度过的每个夜晚，勾起了我们对中国秋天的无数回忆，戳中了我们内心深处对家的记忆。
By then we already knew we may not be staying for another year. We were missing our families and home country, but at the same time it seemed unreal, even impossible to leave China. I honestly wondered how we were going to survive this goodbye. I felt homesick, for both of my home countries and for China at the same time, even before we left.
In the end I never made any of the dishes with Osmanthus flower, and I decided not to use it. Of course I could always buy another jar, but it would be a different jar, bought, not gifted. It may not contain the essence of that weekend in the mountains, the long-into-the-night conversations with our friends and giggles of our kids while planning another trek to the ice cream shop.
If you visit Hangzhou in October you will understand. During the Osmanthus season, all around the Manjuelong Road (满觉陇路), Zhongshan North Road (中山北路), or really anywhere around the Shangcheng (上城), Xiacheng (下城), and West Lake (西湖) districts, the smell is so unique and overwhelming that it will paint your every moment. Whenever you smell Osmanthus in the future you will remember Hangzhou. That is why I keep my little jar safely locked away from everyone.
如果你 10 月来杭州游玩，你会发现，满觉陇路、中山北路一带，或者上城一带的任何地方，都有桂花盛开。在上城、下城和西湖一带，桂花的香味是如此独特，令人难以抗拒，让每一刻都变得香甜。今后每当你闻到桂花香，你就会想起杭州，所以我把这罐桂花锁起来，不让别人知道。
It was as quick as snapping your fingers, and despite the unfinished contract, our time in China has actually come to an end. What was left was longing for this magnificent city that gently embraced us at every corner. When we tried to explain the situations we got into to friends and family back home, it was impossible. The words were scarce and inadequate to express all our feelings, and truly describe images and sounds.
It was only when we met someone, quite often a complete stranger, who too lived in China, that we could be understood. This understanding felt complete and intimate because we had both once felt the same deep, unexpected love towards this country. We will forever be grateful.