Not Quite 20 Questions…on smell!

Prompted by a post on Yesterday’s Perfume and Michelle Krell Kydd over at Glass Petal Smoke, which got me thinking about some of the things I all too often take for granted…
Here are my answers…what are yours?

Q: What does your sense of smell mean to you?
A: Smell is a way of defining and explaining the world without words, it can manifest a presence, define a mood, an ambience, a state of mind. I have a terrible time imagining a world without smell, because smell centers and deepens so many other sensory impressions – sight and sound, taste and touch. It does it in a way we have a hard time explaining or rationalizing, because the brain’s olfactory center bypasses the verbal areas to head straight for emotion – and few things are so evocative of emotion as smell.

Q: What are some of your strongest scent memories?
A: The smell of wild pears in autumn when I was very young. They had incredibly tough skin and took forever to ripen, but I can remember scratching my fingernails on their skins and breathing in that smell. A fur coat my mother used to have, which was impregnated with the scent of Jolie Madame. Later, hiding in her closet and breathing in the perfume from her clothes – Eau de Womanhood, let’s call it, a heady blend of Mitsouko, Shalimar, Fidji, Narcisse Noir. The scent of the Florida Keys, where I spent my later childhood – key limes and coconuts, seashells and ocean and the frangipani on the veranda of our house on Key Largo, the fishy-pink smell of mountains of leftover conch shells and rum stills in the Bahama islands. The orange trees in bloom at another house, and how narcotic that scent was in the heat. In general, the scent of southern Florida in those days – tropical scents and Coppertone and sand and sea. The scent of elderflowers and philadelphus, when I returned to Europe, which always spells midsummer to me. The first time I ever encountered true perfume for real and for my own at age 14, when my mother took me to Maison Guerlain in Paris, and a whole new world opened up to me…

Q: What are some of your favorite smells (things in nature, cooking &/or your environment?)
A: The smell of wild oregano, which always reminds me of Greece in the summer, the heat radiating off the earth and vibrating with that pungent, heady scent. A blooming orange grove, or any blooming citrus trees. The way that cinnamon smelled in a Moroccan souk, like nothing on Earth. The frankincense they burn in Greek Orthodox Sunday services, which I experienced once and never forgot. The smell of a beech forest in May, right after the leaves have all burst out. Poplar buds. Apple blossom. Chocolate. Pine trees, especially those vanilla-scented pines called ponderosas in New Mexico. Vanilla. It makes a long list!

Q: Do you have any favorite smells that are considered strange?
A: Horse stables. I used to ride a lot, and that smell is associated with some of my happiest memories. I love the smells of leather and suede. A lover’s armpit in certain situations. When my son leaps into my arms in the morning and I bury my nose in his neck and smell sleep and dreams, I love that, too. The smell of my cats, asleep in a sunny windowsill. Tar and the gasoline smell of old cars. The leathery smell of new, expensive cars.

Q: What fragrances remind you of the places you visited on vacation?
A: That Greek oregano. A friend recently returned from Athens and brought me a bunch. All I have to do is sniff the bag and I’m there. Cinnamon – not the cassia cinnamon you usually find, but the Ceylon cinnamon I first smelled in a souk in Casablanca – which was heaven on Earth. Roasting chiles, sage, sweetgrass, burning mesquite wood and ponderosa pines all remind me of my years in New Mexico, as do the blooming daturas I found in the courtyard of the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe. She called them jimsonweed. I call them otherworldly, on canvas and in real life.

A: Q: Describe one or more of your favorite cooking smells.
A: My tomato sauce, bubbling away for hours. Baking cinnamon pastries, or bread. Or cake. Any cake I make. Homemade curries, bubbling on a stove or in a wok, Thai or Indian, Punjabi or Keralan – I love them all!

Q: What smells do you most dislike?
A: Bad breath. Smelly feet. Cheap, low-grade musk and patchouli oil makes my stomach turn. (Although not the good stuff!). I’m not big on litterboxes, and I own three cats! Certain perfumes make me turn green, but thankfully, they seem to have gone extinct in the Eighties, among them Giorgio! And Giorgio!Red, except for Angel, which hasn’t, alas. Certain kinds of plastic. Lovers who are not-quite-so…beloved!

Q: What smell did you first dislike, but learned to love?
A: Patchouli, which I thought was horrible, until I found how good it can be. Labdanum, which I smelled in Greece in the wild for the first time, was a shock – all goat! All the time! – until one day, it wasn’t.

Q: What mundane smells inspire you?
A: Lemons or any citrus fruit, the scent of my rose geranium plant, the scent of leaves and mold and fallen apples on an autumn day, the scent of flowers and green in spring, the heady aroma of elderflowers in midsummer.

Q: What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
A: Jicky and Miss Dior take me back to Paris, where my mother took me when I was 14. And because they were the first two perfumes I picked for my new, almost-woman self!

Q: What scents do you associate with memories of loved ones?
A: Fidji, Shalimar, Mitsouko, First, Jolie Madame – all of these were my mother’s favorites. And with the exception of (vintage) Fidji, I can’t wear any of them for that reason. Chanel no. 5 reminds me of my sister, because it’s so divine on her, and horrid on me! Acqua di Parma, because my stepfather wore it. Drakkar Noir, because a former boyfriend did (so, guys – take note and pick something else, OK? 😉 )

Q: What fragrances remind you of growing up?
A: Coppertone suntan lotion, Seventies Clairol Herbal Essences (the one with the flowery earth Goddess on the bottle with the emerald green shampoo), Mr. Bubbles (I forgot that one!), Bazooka Joe bubble gum, Je Reviens and Blue Grass, because my grandmother loved them.

Q: What scent never fails to take you back in time and why?
A: Charlie! Makes me feel about 16 all over again, Jicky and (vintage) Miss Dior. Strawberry scented/flavored sticky lip gloss that everyone used in my teens, Magie Noire, Paloma Picasso and Cabochard remind me of certain men in my life (in a good way!), Chanel no. 19 of the subversive (if fragrant) punk I once was!

Q: Describe a piece of sensory literature that is very magical for you.
A: I couldn’t locate the quote I wanted. So instead, I’ll paraphrase from memory…
“I gave them money for food, but instead, June bought perfume, while Henry goes hungry.”
-from ‘Henry and June’ by Anaïs Nin.

Obviously, June Miller believed in hyacinths for the soul! As do I…

Do you?

9 thoughts on “Not Quite 20 Questions…on smell!

  1. Gorgeous memories and beautifully written! How fortunate we are to have the Internet as a catalyst for sharing the wonders of the senses.

    I thought you might want to explore this site, which sells Greek Orthodox Incense made in the Athos style referenced in your post; It is simply divine.

    Looking forward to reading future posts on your blog, as well as other bloggers responses to Glass Petal Smoke's “Scent Questionnaire” !

  2. Indeed we are lucky, and in no small part thanks to the Internet, my world – literal and metaphorical – is a much larger place! ;.)

    Thank you so much for the link (which is appreciated far more than you know, that frankincense is – numinous is the word that comes to mind!. Thank you so much for posting these questions and making me think – and write about it, too!

  3. Wonderful! It's interesting how varied the natural smells are, (like flowers and trees) in each person's reponses, but there is a lot of cross-over with consumer products, like perfumes and toiletries.

    Thank you for sharing! I'll be posting my responses in the next few days. Feel free to pop by and have a peek into my olfactive world.

  4. I think what's really interesting is to see both the common denominators and the differences between us!

    I'll look very much forward to reading your answers – and whatever else you may write about!

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