To smell or not to smell

Like most sentient beings, I react immediately to smell. I associate smells with people and places. As I child, I could tell when a particular great-aunt had come to visit long before I saw her. The musk she wore both signalled her coming and lingered long after she had left.  As I was growing up, the neighbouring farmer, even starched to within an inch of his life in his Sunday best, always smelled of cow manure and boiled bacon. The mix of pipe tobacco and whiskey belonged as much to the old men of my childhood as the smell of lavender oil and cigarettes belonged to old women.

Driving from Dublin airport down to see my parents in the summer, I can pinpoint where I am and how far I’ve travelled by the smell. The heady mix of chocolate and potato crisps as I cross North Dublin; the bittersweet tang of hops from the Guinness brewery as I drive up the quays; and that clinging aroma of freshly cut silage as conurbation gives way to countryside and I get closer to home. But smells are omnipresent. The merest hint of fresh garlic or lemon soap finds me in France. A whiff of basil or parmesan cheese and I come over all Italian. The scent of salt water tinged with plumeria takes me to Hawaii, while that same salt water with a hint of coconut sends me to Spain. The glorious smell of freshly chopped cilantro conjures up images of Mexico just as quickly as the waft of freshly cooked lángos tells me I’m back in Budapest.

Pungent promises

The smell of something can transport us back in time and temporarily suspend reality, or catapult us into the future full of expectation. So much of the pleasure we get from eating starts with the aroma of fresh bread, sautéed onions, and roasted meats. So much of the pleasure we get from our gardens comes from the fragrance of freshly cut grass, cherry blossoms, and roses in full bloom. So much of the displeasure we get from progress comes from the pong of exhaust fumes, polluted rivers, and chimney stacks. Why then can we never seem to smell ourselves? This has to be one of the greatest mysteries known to man.

Back in the day, long before progress jammed us all into metal boxes on tracks and wheels and ferried us to work to spend our days in air-conditioned cubicles, the smell of fresh sweat, the perfume of cowboys and construction workers, was regarded as a signature of hard work and manly labour. Back then, when perfumes and colognes were saved for state occasions and holidays, we took the time to check. We were masters at masking a quick sniff of the armpit; experts at exhaling into a cupped hand; and connoisseurs when it came to frustrating our own flatulence.

Sweat sensations

(c) Alexandra Owen (Tanzania 2011)

On my first hunting trip in Alaska, I was told to always stand upwind so that the moose wouldn’t catch my scent. Good advice. In Alaska. But what do you do when you’re trapped on the No. 7E between Blaha and Keleti, sandwiched between an armpit and a foul mouth? Or worse still, bellied up to the bar with someone on a diet of Iron Bru and garlic who hasn’t seen the dentist in a while? More and more often, I let my ear take the brunt of bad breath by feigning deafness.

Maybe I missed that article in the tabloids about a sharp increase in halitosis and diaphoresis in 2010,  but I don’t think I did. There are those who genuinely suffer from these conditions and my sympathies lie with them yet those who have legitimate complaints are very much aware of their condition. It is the vast majority who cannot blame their lack of personal hygiene on a medical condition that bemuse me.

More than a hundred years ago, American author Elbert Hubbard  defined perfume as any smell used to drown a worse one. How little things have changed. Spraying deodrant or perfume or colonge on an unwashed body is about as effective as trying to collect water in a collander. It simply doesn’t work. If, as I firmly believe, we cannot smell ourselves, then we need to rely on our friends and family or even complete strangers to set us straight. But we think it rude to point out the obvious and instead suffer in silence, distancing ourselves from them, cutting conversaton short. And so we become complicit in the great unwashed. Perhaps it goes deeper than I’ve imagined. To tell or not to tell….that is really the question.

First published in the Budapest Times 11 october 2010

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