Monday, July 18, 2011

Scents and sensibility

This article in yesterday’s Boston Globe opened with what seemed like an obvious point: “Scents are very much linked to memory,” says perfumer Christophe Laudamiel. “They are linked to remembering the past but also learning from experiences.”

Of course they are, I thought. The article went on to explain new efforts under way to include scents in historical depictions: for example, “Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, is famous for taking visitors right into the smells of Viking life as part of its re-created Viking village. Dale Air, an environmental scenting company, imbued the center’s exhibits with smells that would have been present at the time - right down to the odor of a fish market and a latrine.”

And then in this morning’s Globe was a book review of a memoir by a woman whose intended career path in the culinary arts became derailed when she lost her sense of smell in an accident, emphasizing again the importance of smell in our perceptions of the world.

While I might not rush to a historical site specifically for the sake of inhaling the odor of a fish market and a latrine, I always find discussions about scents interesting, because they matter so much to me, and I know it’s not unusual to feel this way. In just a few minutes’ time yesterday, I made this list of ten scents, odors and aromas that always carry the same very specific connection for me:

Gasoline: Boating and waterskiing on the Maine lakes of my childhood summers

Grease in a frying pan: The apartment building in which my husband lived during our college years

Moth balls: My paternal grandparents’ lakeside vacation house in Maine

Coconut oil: The trip to Aruba that Rick and I took in the mid-1990s

A certain kind of furniture polish: my maternal grandparents’ guest house in Colorado, but also my aunt and uncle’s house in New England, since they had the same kind of antique furniture and probably used the same polish

Lemon Pledge spray: Tuesday afternoons of my childhood, which was the day our housecleaner came to our house each week

Industrial strength cleaner: a particular hallway (the one on the lower level of the Performing Arts Center) at my high school

Wet indoor/outdoor carpeting: the tennis club my parents belonged to when I was growing up, where a favorite privilege was getting to drink a can of Coke while watching them play tennis

Creosote: a bed and breakfast in Edinburgh where I once spent several days (though I can’t remember why it smelled of creosote)

Pepperoni pizza: the basement of my freshman dorm in college (the exercise room, where I worked out every evening, was adjacent to the campus pub)

And there’s a crisp, chilly, earth-like scent that every year fills the air in Carlisle on October nights: this to me is the quintessential smell of home.

Aromatic memories make for good writing prompts. Any of the above would be a good place to begin an essay. And I’ll keep adding to my list.

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