That smell is extremely evocative is evidenced by neuroscience. The olfactory system has close anatomical affinity with the limbic system and hippocampus, 'areas of the brain that have long been known to be involved in emotion and place memory, respectively.'31 Olfactory information is therefore easily stored in long-term memory and has strong connections to emotional memory. Smell can remind us sharply of a precise moment a very long way back. Perhaps the smell of an old relative or the whiff of perfume that enveloped you in one of your early kisses. A classic example linking smell with memory occurs in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust. Early on in the first book ('Swann's Way'), the protagonist Charles Swann finds that the smell from a small piece of madeleine cake soaked in tea triggers a raft of memories from his childhood.
But powerful as it is, smell is a sense that we have neglected in cultural terms. And it is the one people are most willing to give up when asked, 'Which sense would you be prepared to lose?'32 Yet without this sense, our sense of taste would be terribly depleted. If you eat something while holding your nose, it is impossible to distinguish subtle flavours. Smell leads to heady feelings and triggers emotions: at one extreme we can smell arousal and sexual excitement; at the other, fear, as the body releases aromatic substances called pheromones. Smells affect our mood quite easily, relaxing us or dulling our senses. As we can detect atmospheres, our sense of smell gives us a strong grasp of place and location. But, as noted, in contrast to the sound or look of a place, smells are hard to describe. They defy onomatopoeic encapsulation and visual metaphor. We therefore resort to their associational relations.
So the smellscape is transient and difficult to capture in words. As Pier Vroon notes:
Our terminology for describing smells is meagre or inadequate due to our neural architecture. The parts of the brain that are closely involved in the use of language have few direct links with the olfactory (smell) system. Because consciousness and the use of language are closely connected, it is understandable why olfactory information plays a part mainly on an unconscious level.33
To make matters worse, although we can measure sound in decibels, colour in frequencies and touch in units of force and pressure, we have no scale against which the intensity of a scent, smell or odour can be measured, so we resort to human inspectors, who are by definition subjective. Perhaps this is a reason for the lack of campaigning organizations to improve our smell environment.
Nevertheless, classifications of smell go back as far as Plato, whose simple dividing line was pleasant and unpleasant. Aristotle and later Linnaeus in the 16th century enlarged these to seven: aromatic, fragrant, alliaceous (garlic), ambrosial (musky), hirci-nous (goaty), repulsive and nauseous. Two other smells have since been added: ethereal, which is fruity, and empyreumatic, the smell associated with roasted coffee.
Smell exacerbates the differences between urban and rural experiences. Smells in nature have a purpose - to attract or repel. Honeysuckle's smell, intensive yet transitory and fragile, often attracts a double take. Rotting flesh repulses through smell, and for good reason. Evolution doesn't favour those who find the poisonous, the diseased or the dangerous sweet-smelling or tasty. Smell is part of the signal world of nature. The smell of cut grass is a familiar one throughout Western culture. Behavioural studies have shown that this 'green odour' involving cis-3-hexenal and other compounds has a healing effect on psychological damage caused by stress. Another familiar smell is that after rain. The wetness and force of rainfall kicks tiny spores - actinomycetes - up into the air where the moisture after rain acts as an aerosol or air freshener. The spores have a distinctive, earthy smell. There are also other scents after it rains as the impact of rain stirs up aromatic material which is carried through the moist air. Most people consider it pleasant and fresh. It has even been bottled.
In the city after rain, the air feels polished and cleaner as the rain has pushed down the dust. Dust is a quintessential ingredient of the urban sensescape. It flattens and makes bland the air. Not so much a source of smell, it muffles the perception of other smells. If it has an odour, it will be a composite of the particular urban matter from which it has arisen.
There are so many subtle smells bumping into each other in the city. Unfortunately, most are unpleasant, unhealthy and bad for us, yet the background smell remains predominantly petrochemical, so it is difficult to discern the detail. If you are exposed to it for long enough, the fumes from cars can give you a foggy, swimmy feel with light-headed giddiness. After a while it feels like a dulling thwack on the head. To an avid urbanite the fumes may be intoxicating at the beginning, but then your head starts to swirl. You can wretch and gag if by mistake you happen take a deep breath in Norilsk in Siberia or Lagos as a 30-year-old diesel-powered bus expels its exhaust into your nostrils at the changing lights. Even with modern buses, the acrid smell and taste can be sickening. When you get close to the running motors of cars and lorries, you can smell the chemical activity before particles become charred and olfactory activity begins to tail off. You can taste petrochemicals, but this does not excite your taste buds, make you feel hungry or build up your appetite. It feels empty and disappoints.
You cannot move an inch without petrochemicals. They are everywhere - in petrol, grease, paint, heated-up engines, white spirit, turps, plastics, trainers, households cleaners, cosmetics and glue. They envelope us like a smog. What is the smell of a new car? It is essentially like sniffing glue. The new car smell emanates from 40 volatile organic compounds - 'primarily alkanes and substituted benzenes along with a few aldehydes and ketones.'34 You slide into a new car and see plastics, fabric, and upholstery - held together with adhesives and impregnated with sealants whose gases are released into the car as it warms. You smell solvents, adhesives, gasoline, lubricants and vinyl. Perhaps you also smell the 'treated leather' odour of shoe stores. Tanned leather smells slightly rank so tanneries add an artificial 'treated leather' fragrance. Some car makers spray this in their cars.
This is a cross-cultural, homogenizing, globalized smell and it blankets the intimate smells distinctive to a place. It sits low rather than rises like gases do; its synthetic feel is almost like a physical layer. Often heat is involved, and the smell rises in waves and convection currents. There are petrol-fuelled industrial environments where the grease on machines leaves a residue and the sparks on metal create a tighter and more tinny scent. This common fume-filled urban experience can be debilitating, irritating and have a degenerating effect.
For a more varied olfactory experience, head to a market. Markets can be thrilling urban smell experiences when not inundated by endless, odourless variations of T-shirts, jeans and other cheap clothing or the cheap plastic whiff of shoes and trainers. It's the scent of food that hits you right up the nose as if it is pushing your head back. This is most strong in a covered market, where smells and scents are trapped and can circle in a whirlpool with their mixed messages: fish and fowl, meat and offal, fruit and vegetables, beans and pulses, nuts, berries and dried fruits, pastries, bread, flowers, and most of all the wonderful smell-world of herbs and spices. Displayed to entice and to make your mouth water, they play on both your sight and sense of smell. This organic scent-world conflicts at edge points in the markets when we move to synthetic household goods, cleaning materials, polishes, the DIY section, haberdashery, and cane and wicker work.
If you enter a market at the vegetable end, you are hit first by the overriding smells of a complexity of freshness. There are too many subtle aromas around to discern individual ones, save perhaps for bunches of mint, coriander or rosemary. And many vegetables hold back their aromas until cooking. But overall, there is the smell of earth, of green. But the smell of individual vegetables is contributing to the whole, especially when samples have been cut to release scent. The earthy, moist tones of root vegetables - carrots, parsnips, potatoes, beetroot; the ebullient, fuller, subdued pepperi-ness of the allium family - red and white onions, shallots, scallions, leeks and garlic; and the clean chlorophyll of greens - cabbages, chard, spinach, lettuces.
Over to the fruit. The zesty citrus of lemons, lime, oranges and tangerines, as powerful in their scent as they are in their colour. Ripened summer berries, mangos, guavas, bananas and pineapples give off aromas that hint at what they will taste like. In East Asian markets, you might encounter the durian, with its enigmatic - to some, foul - stench.
To many, spices release the most evocative of scents, and here individual smells become distinguishable: the warm, spicy-savoury tones of ground cumin and coriander; woody powdered ginger; the penetrating, bittersweet burnt-sugar smell of fenugreek; the arresting, sweet aromatics of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and green cardamom; and the more complex composites of Indian garam masalas, Jamaican jerk or Moroccan ras-el-hanout.
Far more confrontational to the nose are the smells of meat, fowl and fish. In many markets, the produce is still alive, along with the unattractive smell of chicken shit and, by association, fear: the juxtaposition of live and dead flesh will unnerve the squeamish as well as the livestock not long for this world. In the meat section the unavoidable smell of death hangs in the air, leaden, thick, dense, bloody, congealed, concentrated. Offal might contribute a smell of urea or bile. There is an urgency about the smell of flesh and blood in that you might be conscious of the potential transition to the fetid and therefore repulsive.
The incipient decay of fish is arrested in ice. Some oily fish like sardines and mackerel are particularly pungent as the digestive juices in their stomachs begins to digest their own flesh. A tinge of seaweed, ozone, a bit antiseptic and oddly heavy, static air. The smell of even fresh fish is unpleasant to some, but the fish water that runs off the display slabs becomes repulsive to all within a matter of hours, hence the need to continuously wash the area. There is not an individual aroma to any individual fish species bar the fresh shellfish which smell of the sea itself. Overriding everything is the superimposed blanket of coldness.
Contrast the vivid smell sensation of markets with the neutralized, antiseptic scent-world of supermarkets. These cultivate the smell of nothingness, impenetrable, empty, blank. Creating the smell of absence is an art in itself - the blander the better - but there is a constant background tinge of refrigeration: dry, sickly and plastic when you get your nose right into it. You are smelling iced water and air conditioning. The non-smell of food in supermarkets is ironic. It smells not of what you are buying, except for the bakery, where they pump out the flavours of hot crusty bread, or the roast turkey smell at Christmas.
Cheaper supermarkets or grocery shops do not succeed in creating an odourless world. More often there is a stale, sweaty odour that seems to cling to grease that you cannot see. The typical shop smell in the old Eastern Europe was old sugar mixed in with disinfectant and lino, which you can sometimes also encounter in a hospital setting. Yet even hospitals are seeking to control the smell environment through herbs, such as the relaxing lavender, as awareness of the power of aromatherapy becomes more widespread. Aromatherapy is defined as 'the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essence from plants to balance, harmonize, and promote the health of the mind, body, and spirit'.35 Essential oils range from the calming to the stimulating, such as citrus or peppermint oils. Increasingly shops aware of its potency are constructing smell environments, often linked to sound, to seduce people to buy. There is an irony in that we pump the air with unpleasant petrochemical odours, then neutralize their smell in controlled settings and try to put back natural smells.
Interior environments are now essentially controlled. The odour control and creation industry is massive. In the West you wonder about the origin of the smell, whereas in a less economically developed context at least you know where it is coming from. The odours, scents and fragrances have uncalculated effects. For instance, around 70 per cent of asthmatics report that their asthma is triggered by fragrance and skin allergies are known to be common.36
Department stores are an example where you might be affected. In colder climates they first hit you with a waft of warm, stale air and in warmer climes, a draught of cold. Yet from Dubai to Tokyo, from London to Buenos Aires, the first impression is of a powerful, heady blast of perfumes and cosmetics. With profit margins high, the ground floors provide an oversaturated smell environment. The perfumery hall is full of sales women who have put on body lotion, piles of foundation, powder, scent and deodorant. The smells are different and are fighting against each other. Every perfume company is fighting the fragrance battle, luring and seducing customers into their smell zones. Chanel, Guerlain, Issy Miyake, Dior, YSL. The list grows yearly as fashion designers, pop stars and the odd football player branch into fragrances. The continuous squirting from tester bottles replenishes this heavy petrochemical cocktail. Modern perfumes are constructed chemical smells with a substantial benzene base. The odour industry can create any scent from chemicals and, just in case we get starry-eyed about fragrances, let's remind ourselves that perfume-makers use the odours of urine, sweat and vaginal wetness in their products, knowing it is a turn-on. Their scents are nearly accurate, yet a good nose will tell the difference between the real and the fake. Synthetic fragrances do not linger and have no staying power. Long gone are the days of real constituents in perfume. Everything is synthetic: remember the real smell of jasmine, rose, lavender, gardenia, lily of the valley, violet, cedar wood, sandalwood, frankincense, myrrh or eucalyptus?
Walking in dining areas of cities, you might hit a row of Indian or Chinese restaurants whose food smells emanate from their air conditioning, either by design or inadvertently. The good Chinese restaurant will exude a blend of ginger, garlic, spring onion and soy sauce. If it is cheaper this mixture will include a fullish greasiness, partly inviting but interspersed with the smell of plastic and disinfectant. The dominant smell of Italian restaurants is often that of pesto, the mix of basil, parmesan, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil, tart but fruity. The Indian restaurant's exhaust might smell of cumin, coriander and turmeric, but pre-made sauces which blur distinctions between individual spices are beginning to dominate.
The fast-food chains have a smell of their own. McDonald's, KFC, Wendy's, Subway, Burger King. They mush into one. They are almost sweet, crusty, a slight smell of cardboard, dry. Grease and ketchup liberates and heightens the papery cardboard smell from which you eat the chips and chicken nuggets.
Let's move from the crusty smell of fast food to the antiseptic non-smell of electrical goods. Think of non-smelling computers, televisions and radio equipment, where only the rubbery connections exude a tiny whiff. However, changes are on the horizon to control our smell environment comprehensively. The Japanese communications ministry is investing large resources in creating the first 3D virtual reality television by 2020 to change the way we watch TV. It is proposed to have several thousand smells so as to create any mood. If that is frightening, consider that Las Vegas casinos already pump the smell of money on to the gambling floors: dry, sweaty, sweet.
Cities have their own scent landscapes and often it is an association with one small place that determines a smell reputation. We can rarely smell the city all in one so we can say that a city's smell makes us happy, aroused, or down and depressed. It depends on circumstance. There is the smell of production (usually unpleasant) or consumption which is hedonically rich and enticing. There is even a smell of poverty. Our home has a smell, but we don't smell it as much as visitors do. Going home is about presence as well as absence of smell.
But there is the sulphurous, bad eggs smell of Los Angeles which grabs you by the throat as this high pressure area holds everything in. The same is true for tall buildings in narrow valleys, as in Caracas, that act as a canyon and container so that smells do not circulate freely. And this equally applies in Broad Street in beautiful Georgian Bath, one of the region's most polluted streets, from fumes that are trapped as the older buildings bend in. The breweries of Munich throw out a distinct aroma of heavy yeast: piercingly pungent, acrid, it darts into your nose and catches you unawares. The tannery in Canterbury, England is just as bad as that of Fes in Morocco. Left untreated, the hides or skin of animals quickly begin to rot, putrefy and stink, which is why originally tanneries were on rivers at the edge of town. The penetrating smell in Fes is caused by the use of all kinds of animal products (excretions, urine and brains). It makes you look at the leather products in a different way.
Finally us. What do we smell like? The city smell is that of people, and the cross-cultural issue is ever-present, with this as with every other sense. Different countries perceive the same smells and tastes differently. To the Chinese and Japanese, Europeans apparently smell cheesy or like congealing diary products, unsurprising, perhaps, given the lack of diary products in their diets. We smell of what we eat and that is a fact, but in our antiseptic world, talking of the smell of people is seen as politically incorrect. We prefer to mask ourselves in deodorant. Personal body smell is affected by several factors - the types of food consumed, the use of scented products, and even the distribution and abundance of scent-producing glands in the skin may vary from culture to culture.37 The interplay of these factors may result in a body odour which is specific to a culture, a city or a geographic region. With mass mobility and migration, the variation within a culture or geographic region is very wide. Equally, within cultures, people interpret smells differently. For some, petrol fumes are fine while for others they are sickening. So people and places have their scent DNA related to trades, industry, diet, landscape and level of development. The 'developed' West tries to sanitize smell, masking what is bad behind created odours of 'pleasantness'. 'Less developed' places smell much more as they are.
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