I have a peculiarly impulsive sense of smell that has led me to stopping random people and commenting on the scent they’re wearing. Women usually smile, take the compliment in their stride, and volunteer the name of their perfume. Men, once they get over my brazenness, seem inordinately chuffed that someone even noticed.
On the flip side, this heightened sense of smell makes travel on public transport during the summer an olfactory nightmare. It makes boiling bacon in cabbage water a torturous experience. And it makes opening the windows in my fourth-floor flat an impossibility during rush-hour. I still remember how happy I was when the blonde cider-drinking regular could no longer smoke her clove cigarettes in the pub I worked in, in LA.
I don’t have synaesthesia – I can’t taste sounds, smell colours, or see scents – but I’m sure I can smell words. I’m particularly susceptible to the words prejudice, hypocrisy, and intolerance. And with the world the way it is, my nose is working overtime. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded that anxiety and stress affect our sense of smell making neutral odours smell bad. And that’s not good.
I ran into Veszprém-born Ákos Pozsgai at a very international party last year and immediately took to him. Apart from smelling great, Pozsgai has a truth about him that is tangible. He has no side to him. It’s as if he sees the best in everyone, in everything, like he’s looking at the world, not with the jaded eyes of a failed idealist so common in his age group, but with those of a newborn, full of a contagious curiosity.
A graduate of what’s now considered one of the best schools in the country where he specialised in maths, Lovassy László high school, Pozsgai is evidence that the school was true to its motto: ‘The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.’ Fluent in German and English by the time he was 18, he moved to Budapest and studied in the College of Commerce before taking up a scholarship to Germany to study Marketing and IT. But the attraction to Berlin was more than the scholarship. Strongly driven by a passion for electronic music, Pozsgai wanted to be where it was happening. ‘I wanted to be there right in the centre of it and try to find out if I had a place in there.’ But many music events and a record company later, he decided that his strengths didn’t lie in the music industry.
After a number of years in online marketing for different start-ups and fashion companies, Pozsgai noticed that he was working through his five senses. He’d moved from hearing to seeing, now specialising in Consumer Behaviour theories. He was putting his mathematics and statistics education to good use and complementing this with an understanding of people. His sense of taste was awakened by a growing interest in wine; his sense of smell had always been part of his life.
When other travellers were looking for artwork or ceramics or chocolates to remember their visit to some far-flung place, Pozsgai was stocking up on local perfumes, shower gels, and incense, smells peculiar to where he was visiting. Later, back home, these smells would evoke memories and feelings he’d associate with his trip, much in the way Estee Lauder’s White Linen immediately transports me into the company of my long-since-passed Great Aunt Stush.
Our senses are overloaded. We’re bombarded with stimuli of all sorts from the minute the alarm goes off in the morning. And in the battle of the five senses, smell and touch often lose out to their stronger siblings, sight, sound, and taste. But perhaps if we paid more attention to the scents in our lives, we could relax a little more, be less anxious and more playful.
Taking a few minutes each day to stop and smell the roses, or the coffee, or the grass cuttings, would give us a holiday of sorts, perhaps trigger a memory that would take us to a different time, a different place. It’s about making space for memories. It’s about taking time to let the smells work their magic. It’s about giving ourselves permission to play.
The Comité Français du Parfum offers seven major families of fragrance, each with many subgroups: citrus, floral, fougère (fern, but think wood and lavender), Chypre (oak moss blended with fruity floral), woody, amber (oriental), and leather. Pozsgai’s mission is to convert us to their powers. With his new company, 7scents.hu, he’s ‘making beautiful things available in Hungary for people who seek for everyday luxury moments with products that are niche and interesting’. He wants to show us how we can have fun with scents, how they can heighten our experience of everyday moments.
It’s not just about perfumes, though. Think scented ironing water, drawer liners, and porous tiles. I’m a convert. In Doha last year, I spent my time in the fabulous Museum of Islamic Art not marvelling at the exhibitions, but completely subsumed by the smell of the place. My all-time favourite Tunisian got on the case, tracked down the smell, and presented me with a diffuser when we were leaving. Now, walking into my hallway in the village is like walking into that museum. I have a favourite French room spay that never fails to lift my mood. Three deep breaths and whatever angst I’m feeling is gone. And when I need to feel some Hawaiian heat, I break out the plumeria.
But what I really want to capture for 2020 is the essence of Ákos Pozsgai’s outlook on life: his quiet certainty that people are good, that life is good, and that despite the madness all will be well. If he can bottle the restorative sense of goodness that surrounds him, he’ll do well. In the meantime, there’s 7scents.hu. I’m hoping his online presence will morph into a bricks-and-mortar experience. Then you’ll know where to find me.
First published in the Budapest Times January 2020