Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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MAY 3, 2011 1:11PM

My Nose at Home

Rate: 23 Flag

In my normal state, my sense of smell has been described as “acute”.  I think that if you put a hidden camera in our apartment, you’d find I’m a poor man’s Francine Fishpaw, sniffing things and reacting strongly to odors of all kinds. 

But these last three weeks, while I mainly spent my days in the air conditioned calm of American suburbia, I only smelled five things.  The first was chlorine during a week-long trip with my father’s side of the family.  I love swimming, and find that smell so soothing it makes me want to sleep.  The second odor was a blocked sewer at Universal Studios, Florida, where my boyfriend, my sister, her husband, and I, had a great time – especially in the new Harry Potter section of the park, our main reason for going.  The third thing I smelled in the US was my mother’s perfume – or, rather, her scent, since she doesn’t wear perfume. I don’t know if it comes from the lotion she uses, or just her general self, but it’s a lovely, soft smell that I wish they could bottle.  None of my other family members smells good or bad, just neutral.  And in general, I wasn’t around anyone with a body odor or over-perfuming issue.  The fourth thing I smelled was the traditional and divine Italian meal my mom made for our big family dinner night.  The last was the intoxicating smell of new books as I walked into a Barnes & Noble. 

Besides those, nothing. I was near the ocean, but didn’t smell it.  I ate some delicious meals, but barely caught a whiff of them before they arrived at the table.  The world around me had no particular odor (probably because I stayed in so often, due to the high pollen count).  It seemed like my nose had taken a vacation, too.

But that changed almost immediately after our flight back home left the ground.  Our dinner included (free!) wine, which thrilled my boyfriend.  He opened his little bottle and I smelled the strong and (to me) unpleasant odor.  I know, I know, how can I possibly live in France and hate wine?  The mystery remains unsolved.

When we got to London’s Heathrow Airport, we found out we’d missed our connecting flight to Paris.  I wasn’t too surprised, since for some reason there was only one hour’s margin between our arrival in London and our departure.  I was annoyed at British Airways for their poor planning and very slow reaction time (we could have been told to come to the front of the plane and they could have put us on the first bus to the main terminal, but nooo) – until they very kindly made up for it, not only by getting us seats on the next flight to Paris, but also by handing both of us 10 pound vouchers for any food items in the terminal.  We weren’t hungry, so we spent it all on extra large Toblerones (three for nine pounds!  Huzzah!). 

While on our chocolate shopping spree, I kept catching whiffs of tuna fish from one of the airport restaurants.  It was the first food I’d vividly smelled in a while, and the feeling was sort of heady.

Back in Paris, I knew we were home when the taxi (which my defeated anti-taxi boyfriend only took because we had way too many bags) let us off in front of our building and there was...that smell.  I call it “Europe smell”, since it seems to exist everywhere I've visited on “the continent”, as those lovely folks at Heathrow Airport who discounted the Toblerones might say.  “Europe smell” is a faint odor that floats on the air, just below other scents. I’ve never quite been able to define it.  Maybe part of it is from old stone, but I’m not sure at all.  I used to think “Europe smell” was only a figment of my imagination, but one day I strangely detected it in New York, and I blurted out, “It smells like Europe today!” My friend E, a very practical girl, heard me and said “Yeah, it does.”  So I think “Europe smell” must actually exist, and isn’t merely a delusion produced by my scent-obsessed brain.

Like the scent of chlorine, Europe smell always makes me happy, bringing back wonderful memories and promising adventure all at once – and, over the last few years, truly being the smell of home.

Things kind of went downhill odor-wise after that, though.  When we opened our front door, our apartment was musty.  When I went to the grocery store, the man in front of me smelled.  Europe is the first place I ever really got a whiff of a filthy human body.  I’d smelled body odor before, sure, but here for the first time in my life I encountered people who, for various reasons -some understandable, others not so much- just don’t seem to shower all that often.  I don't mean all the people here, of course, just a a stinky part of the population. They love to sit near you on the Metro, or stand near you when you’re food-shopping.  Yuck.  Going back up our street, I was surprised (and disgusted – my mouth was open!) that our local square smelled like urine.

Luckily, our bakery saved the day with the wonderful smell of warm dough floating from its open door.  I wish the world could smell this way. 

Unpacking our bags later that night, the smell of Tide detergent, my mom’s favorite, wafted from so many of our clothes. I thought of my mom’s house, and my family, and got a little teary-eyed.

Today was my first day back at work.  On the Metro, a man sitting next to me smelled like my boyfriend.  I think it mainly comes from shampoo. I wanted to ask the man what kind he used, but I didn’t want him to think I was nuts.  Hmm....If you're reading this, you probably think I'm nuts...then again, if you've read any of my other posts, you probably knew that already....

This evening, on my usual walk home through Paris, I smelled so many other things: a Subway restaurant’s unmistakable, undeniably appetizing odor covering whatever I might have smelled at the terrace of the neighboring Café Panis (it seemed like a sort of microcosmic rendition of globalization); car exhaust; aromas from all kinds of food places; perfume or body odor from close misses with fellow pedestrians (my reaction time was seriously compromised by jetlag); fresh plaster from an old building whose ground floor was being stripped and re-done; and, of course, cigarettes.

Whatever happens, wherever you go outdoors, cigarette smoke in the City of Lights is inevitable and unavoidable.  Smoking in offices, restaurants, and public buildings was outlawed in France a few years ago.  I’ll never forget my chain-smoking father-in-law’s wailing and gnashing of teeth at this “American legislation” – he was so distraught that I didn’t have the heart to say, “Um, hi, you do remember I’m American, right?”, or to tell him this kind of law actually started in Northern Europe. Today, clusters of people stand smoking outside of almost every Parisian doorway, while others try to have a cigarette on the go. Pedestrians are assailed by puffs of smoke from all directions.  Often when I walk around in Paris, I get home and realize my hair smells like cigarettes. Before the smoking law, it was the opposite; even a small amount of time spent in a café left you smelling like an ashtray.  Oh well, c’est la vie – and probably part of the reason why so many of the French are so thin; their cigarettes block out the delicious bakery smells.

So here I am back home in Paris, and my nose is back, too.  I wonder what we’ll smell next?  I’m guessing Toblerone…. 


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I'm happy to be back on OS - but a little overwhelmed! I'm going to try to catch up on as much reading as I can!
Welcome back! Yours is the first post I've been able to see all day!
Smells... My life revolves around smells. I will need to write a post about what smells means to me otherwise I will take up your whole comment section! Sometimes I love people just because of the way they smell...~r
Smell the stench of the OS wheels not turning..:)
Glad to see you back and rated with hugs
Hooray! Welcome back and welcome home. What a lovely, um, lens, (what is the olfactory equivalent? waft? cloud? breeze?) for describing your people and places on both sides of the pond.
I was downright giddy to see you back. Welcome back, to you and your oh so literate snout!!! My nose was twitching as I read this most excellent post(nasal?). I looooved this.

I just followed your nose amongst continents and what fun that was. Who knew? Who nose(sorry!).

I laughed many time. Especially when you started describing the smelly folks. Bathing isn't for everyone, I guess.
I too don't like the smell(or taste) of wine and thought I was totally alone in that. When I lived in Northern California, I felt like a freak.
Giddy, I tell you.
Alysa, welcome back, and your nose too! I'm next, I leave for a three week vacation to the states in one week. I'll be in S. Calif. and right on the beach, so I'm hoping for the smell of salty air.
Joan, I thought it was just my German connection; I've been trying to connect for over an hour now.
You really like the smell of chlorine?
I am so glad you're back in one piece and relieved to know that you didn't get blown to Oz with the last few weeks' weather in the Southeast.

It's been a trying several weeks here on OS. Your return has already lifted my spirit.

Smells. I found warm baguette and peanut butter (you could get PB from Marks and Spencer in Paris 20 yrs ago) was my favorite "European union".
My sense of smell is nothing special, but I often think I have a bit of a sixth sense...always thinking of people right before they call or write. Now I know it's true! I was thinking a lot about you today, wondering when the hell you would be back in the OS bosom where you belong. Seriously though, I'm glad you had a good time at home and even more glad you're back home with us.

P.S. No, I don't think you're crazy, but yes I do think your selective, stateside olfactory situation is odd :)
Welcome back to you and your nose! I think some parts of New York City might have "old stone smell." Cats have a smell all their own. I think they smell warm, sweet and lovely but people who dislike cats seem to dislike their scent, too. It's all so personal. And now you've got me thinking about it...
I complete understand what you mean about the scent of Europe. Another one on my list is being in a good library. It's the comforting smell of real books!
Joan – Thanks and I’m glad you finally managed to get onto OS…it has been going really slowly today! I hope you’ll write your own post about odors – especially because of what you said about loving people based on how they smell! I hope that isn’t the only reason. Inquiring minds want to know….

Linda – That is an unpleasant odor, indeed. As I write this response to your comment, things are moving faster, though. On the bright side, I guess we need the bad to make us better appreciate the good? Nah, it still stinks! (Pun very much intended.)

loveinmexico – Thanks, and I’m glad you liked this…er…whiff?...I guess I’d go with whiff? of a post!

fernsy – Thank you for your warm welcome back – and for confirming I’m not the only adult on this planet who hates wine! I feel your pain!

Out on a limb – Thanks, and I wish you safe and wonderful travels and the refreshing smell of sea air. As for connection issues, I had trouble getting onto OS for a while, too. I think it’s the site….

littlewillie – I seriously do.

neilpaul – My powers are indeed more a burden than an advantage. And though I have them, I don’t even qualify for the next X-Men movie. Sigh….

another steve s – Thanks, and yes, we were very close to the tornadoes but I’m very happy to say my family and friends are all safe. My prayers go out to those who weren’t so lucky, and I hope anyone who can, will donate money or goods to the Red Cross or other charities. On a lighter note, peanut butter is an iffy thing with me and today I couldn’t imagine eating it, so blech for now for the baguette and peanut butter…but maybe one day I’ll try it….

BB – Thanks so much for your kind welcome back – it means a lot! And I am very impressed by your ESP! As for not smelling much in the US, I have no idea what was going on. But it was probably a blessing; one night, one of my mom’s dogs had an “accident” in the house. Normally I would have smelled urine for a long while, but I only got the faintest whiff. I really think my nose checked out and went on its own little vacation.

Maurene – Thank you for your kind words and I’m glad you liked this post. As I wrote to BB, I am also amazed I didn’t smell more stuff in the US. It’s just really strange…. Guess my nose needed a break?

Naomi – Yess! Glad I’m not the only chlorine fan out there! Hope the swimming lessons went well!

Eva – Thanks, and I totally agree about cats. I love the smell, too, but know people who find it offensive. You also made me remember one more thing I smelled in the US: my sister claims that one of her cats always smells like dryer sheets, no matter what. So randomly one day I picked him up and smelled his fur and…she was right! I feel like dogs have a special odor, too, and alas it’s one I don’t really like. I love dogs and their spirited ways, and grew up with two, but I never feel totally at ease cuddling with them the way I do with cats.

Megan – Yes! Yet another person knows the “Europe smell”! And I agree about libraries – and any other place where books are found! Until gadgets like the Kindle can spray the scent of actual books, I can’t see giving up paperbacks and hardcovers and their printed ilk.
welcome back. I have missed you
DO NOT try to catch up. That way lies madness.

Also flirting with madness, but still I urge you to consider it, let's see lotsa posts about your trip, w. pictures.

Interesting, this smell approach. Europe cannot but help having atmosphere in all ways, being ancient, layer upon layer of dense human habitation. When I'm there, I feel that all of us are like children running around, having fun with our modern ways, in places that are old, old, and were used to *serious* grim life of the past. (I am continuously/continually [?] happy to be in this time & place...)
Welcome back, Alysa !
Your nostrils were cold in all that air-conditioning, that was the problem... : )
Hope you had a great visit--
I missed you!! Welcome back!! At first I thought your lack of being unable to smell was from antihistimines. They can do a number on your sense of smell. Wonderful post. I think it smells differently everywhere I go. Just wait until you get pregnant some day. OMG the sense of smell heightens like no other!!
Have you ever read "Perfume?" A totally creepy book about a man who is born with no smell...
Made me imagine yourself in a trenchcoat with just your nose peeking out as in the short by Gogol...

Just imagine what "Ali" must go through with his/her sense of smell?

And (with apologies to your hair) I was reminded of somewhat malodorous Montparnasse, where I bought and puffed my Gauloise.

Lingering in my memory, the pungent smell of the salt marsh at the Jersey shore.
The smell I remember from Paris was the smoke of Gitanes and Gauloises. Loved it. Smoked 'em and would be smoking them now if I still smoked. Welcome home - and back on OS. We missed you.
Glad to see both you and your nose back where you and your nose belong--here.
Interesting take! I was in Orlando last week, too. Maybe we crossed paths.

Btw, the strongest country smell I ever had was coming off the plane in New Delhi, India.
For me the smell of chlorine is the smell of summer and all its attendant pleasures as I spent a lot of each summer as wet as possible.

Nobody would ever mistake my nose for that of a bloodhound, but whenever I'm near someone who is a reluctant bather, I'm grateful for my not so acute sense of smell. =o)

olfactorally rated!
Welcome home!
You were in NY? Everything smells in NY. What about the corner hotdog? The pretzels? Ummm...that's about it, I guess. Europe smells like burnt chestnuts to me.
Actually, Matt's got it right.
Hi Lea - some years ago I got off a plane in Calcutta - now that was an olfactory experience. In fact, all of India was, and not in a good way. Ironically, it was an environmental smell of sewage and not of the crush of human bodies. My Indian friend was proud of how his countrymen kept themselves clean with so little available water compared to the people in Europe, who had so much more water and right in their houses...
So vivid and nicely written. We missed you! Places and people surely have smells. So do the seasons here. I just started smelling Spring, Winter was still an undertone until the last two weeks. Now wisteria is here, my favorite. Tide detergent reminds me of home too. One of the reasons I fell for my husband was he always smelled good, and not cologne. Like many, Old Spice reminds me of my Dad and right now hurts my heart. Glad you are back, hope it's a fresh bread day.
Simone – Thank you, and the same to you!

Myriad – Very interesting how you feel about the past. I think it depends on the era. I know that Paris a hundred years ago was a pretty joyful place. Even in the late Middle Ages, it was very cool to be here as a student. On the other hand, times of strife – and especially the Nazi Occupation would not be so cool. It’s interesting to live every day with history. What you’ve written makes me want to write a blog about it – thanks for inspiring me and making me think. And as for pictures, no worries – I’m posting a photo thing today….

Just Thinking – You know, maybe you’re right – it might have been the air conditioning. If that’s the case, not smelling much was totally worth it!

Susie – I didn’t take many antihistamines because my strategy was to stay inside most of the time. A necessary evil, since my mom’s house is surrounded by lovely pine trees – one of the plants I’m most allergic to! As for the pregnancy thing, yes, I’m really curious to see what my sense of smell will be like then – and a little afraid! I have read “Perfume” and seen the movie – coincidentally, it’s my boyfriend’s favorite book! Maybe he relates to the protagonist because his own sense of smell isn’t great – but he’s not creepy, though – luckily!

Inverted – You know, I haven’t really thought about Ali’s sense of smell…he’d knock it out of the park! One more reason I wish he could talk – it would be so cool to see how he relates to the world via odor. For now, he can only sometimes type emoticons but there’s always hope… No worry about the cigarettes – we didn’t cross paths, so no harm done :- ) And the last line of your comment was beautiful and makes me wish all the more that I’d been able to get some sea air.

Matt – Thanks for the welcome back and congratulations on having quit smoking, though I’m glad you have such great memories of smoking in Paris – I’m not a smoker, but I can see how, of all the places in the world, it really does seem like the best place to savor a cigarette.

Brassawe – Thanks. My nose and I are very happy to be back!

Lea – Whoa, maybe we did cross paths. Though I’d like to think us OSers can sense each other the way vampires do in the movies. I was only in Orlando one day, to go to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter. More on that later…. And you make a very good point: I’ve heard India has an extremely strong and distinct smell everywhere in the air. I’d like to go there one day and experience it for myself.

Shiral – Glad you agree on the chlorine, too – and you are lucky indeed not to have a strong sense of smell when it comes to non-bathers!

bob – You are absolutely right: New York is a very pungent (in good and bad ways) place, but I wasn’t there this time around, alas! Burnt chestnuts…hmmm….

Myriad – I know you were addressing Lea but just to cut in, what an interesting observation your friend had about people keeping clean with little water, vs. Europeans, some of whom don’t wash enough even though water is easily accessible. Food for thought….

rita –Thank you and I’m glad I got you thinking about some smells you love. I’m sorry about the sadness you feel about your father. A good thing is that the smell of Old Spice is yet another way to remember him, and he’s even more with you that way. Thanks for your good wishes, and unfortunately today isn’t a fresh bread day – like many boulangeries, ours is closed Wednesday’s. :- (
Your nose knows and gives you best of everything the world has to offer if only you enjoy what you are smelling. One of the greatest things is when one visits a foreign country and the new smells are a blessing to the mind. Thanks for this and enjoy the smells of Paris for me too.
- a wonderful article, Alysa. There is a scent in Milan that is like nothing else I have found. Perhaps it is the distant sea breezes or the closeness of the mountains. It is just wonderful - I would go back to Milano just for that calming scent.

*and welcome back!