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….