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Scents of Place

by Chandler Burr

Published December 2006

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but to Chandler Burr, a smell—perfumed or putrid—is invaluable for recollecting travel memories

I went to sleep one evening last summer in New York City and awoke in Hong Kong. I'd left a window in my apartment at East 40th Street and Third Avenue wide open. The sky was crystalline blue, and there was a July breeze coming in from the Atlantic, sweeping the ocean up Manhattan, pushing in some car exhaust and some garbage odors from the trash cans on the curb. There was an air-conditioning smell from the skyscraper opposite and from the dry cleaners downstairs. The perfume of fresh flowers was coming from the Korean deli next to it, along with the aroma of vegetables from the Chinese place around the corner that had started prep. And it simply appeared in my bedroom: the essence of Hong Kong. The smell of the Star Ferry, roast duck, fish, traffic in Admiralty, sulfur from firecrackers—all of it.

The illusion lasted about a minute, and then some ingredient in the accidental olfactory recipe evaporated and the scent hologram vaporized. New York reemerged in the air. I got up and looked out the window. To the west I saw the Empire State Building; in the opposite direction the East River and, beyond it, Queens.

"Take a camera!" my father always says when I travel. I never do. I have never taken photographs of places. For memory, for me, there is really only smell. I am a traveler. I always have been, but not a visual one. Smell is my best, most reliable sensory trigger. While others may situate themselves by sight, marveling at vistas, taking photos, drawing pictures, recalling images, I have a brain that forms a record of time and place via remembered combinations of fragrances, a kind of smell track.

The process of travel is imbued with, drowned in, smell. The smell of my first passport, which was that of book (new paper, binding glue) and fresh plastic (the thick photo lamination). The smell of jet fuel and the synthetic carpet of the airport, the lonely nose of concrete-and-Formica of the train station, the scent of seawater and engine oil and metal of the ship. In between check-in and jet lag, there is smell. It tells us where we are. We may shuttle from airport to airport and stay in luxury hotels from Shanghai to Seattle, but local smells still reach us, marking these places as indelibly as light.

I once landed at Don Muang International, in Bangkok, was met by a driver with an air-conditioned Mercedes, and was swept to the Four Seasons. I was enveloped in the tang of tropical heat and coconut, car exhaust and red curry, and my body knew that I was back in Bangkok. I've stayed at the Sheraton in Dhaka, Bangladesh; the Hotel Jerome in Aspen; the Metropole in Monte Carlo. The pungency of Bangladesh, the crisp freshness of the Rockies, and the thick Mediterranean and concrete of Monaco greeted me even inside these palaces of privilege. Smell is my landmark.

Don't worry about missing out on an assemblage of travel memories. You can collect smells of places. I promise you. Marjorie Langston Stewart lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the 1960s, two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. While I remember her voice and crisp face, my maternal grandmother exists in my memory primarily as a fragrance: the perfume of fresh citrus and the poisonous sweet oleander that she warned me never to touch; the waft of hot wet breezes off the fishing boats; the clean, rich Victorian smells of the England she grew up in; and the scent of her immense white Pontiac's interior. My scent collection began with her.

Washington, D.C., my hometown, doesn't have much of a smell: a humid, muted, reassuring suburban odor. In winter, the cold imbues Washington with a neutral, hollowed scent. San Francisco, though, which I discovered the summer after my freshman year of college, has an astonishing perfume in constant metamorphosis: misty and arid, soft and hard, eucalyptus astringent and thick lily sweet, carbon monoxide and cut grass, oyster seawater and Chinese food. I walked the concrete hills, ran the pine trails of the Presidio, absorbing it. San Francisco has the most beautiful fragrance of any city. It is where I became conscious that travel means smell.

There is a Third-World smell. All Guerlain perfumes contain a signature odor with a vanilla scent and hints of spice and amber, which acts like a fingerprint. Similarly, all of the developing world has a common base note. No matter where they are, no matter how different their cultures, these countries all have the same scent element so instantly diagnostic that no matter how many times I come upon it, it is always striking. The smell hits the nose somewhere between the plane door and the end of the Jetway, whether you've landed in Bangkok, Cairo, or Mexico City. The rank fragrance is a green one, of faintly rotting grass and overripe mango plus the essence of diesel fumes, with notes of moisture and dust. It persists despite cosmetic improvements. I landed in 1999 at the impressive, immense, white, brand-new vastness of Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok International. There the odor was, telling the truth about the place: Despite its veneer, Hong Kong belongs to the mainland.

Some places have a scent that is all their own, more singular than any image of them. Looking at Japan, a country of surfaces, you see nothing of its true nature. Instead, inhale. Tokyo smells of metal and plastics, rich broth, the cloying sauce of barbecued unagi, the amino-rich odor of soy, and the intoxicating fumes of highly refined gasoline. (Never forget what we smell like to them. When Commodore Perry opened the country, the Japanese were disgusted by the milk-heavy diet that gave Americans a bata kusai, a butter stink. They still smell it on us.) Tokyo's scent is clean in the way that first-world countries are clean—scrubbed and sanitized if not actually pure. Even the soot smell of Tokyo is a filtered, first-world soot.

To photograph Tokyo is to try to capture lightning on film: Yes, you get the flash, the jag of light. But the lightning? No. You miss the fizzing electricity in the air, the zinging scent of ozone. If only you could bottle the air from Shinjuku Station, the smell of miso, tires, viscous pork ramen noodles, the Marunouchi train, sliding glass doors, steel light poles, and aluminum elevators. You could uncap the bottle and be instantly transported.

As I travel—and as I think about my memories, organizing them mentally, filing them in different folders—I realize that places which look different can smell similar. Take the smell of Tokyo, filter out some of the metal, add ocean and an old scent from a 1940s American wood building, and traces of desert and astringent eucalyptus. That's the smell of Los Angeles. Take the humid, rich odors of Bangkok, coconut and galanga and lime leaf, add clove smoke and lower grade fuels, take away the sharper Thai curries, and add betel nut and the lactic balm of es campur, and you have Jakarta, a city I wandered, mesmerized by the clove. Rio's perfume is Madrid's, a smell of Europe in the 1950s, but with oceanic head notes. Take from the Philippines the perfume of automobile, and it is the smell of the nights I traveled through Burma, rot and heat and curry and chaos. A smell is like a drug. I get a good hit of it and I'm flying.

There are places I've visited that today I experience at a great remove. Because you can't see smells coming, because they materialize around you, then vanish, the experience of place-as-smell is usually one of surprise. My most recent trip to southern Vietnam lasted about forty seconds. I was standing physically in a perfume shop at LaGuardia smelling Donna Karan for Women. It's all there, the strong, warm, golden, rich chicken stock of pho soup for sale on the street, the superhot red peppers, fresh lemon, nuoc mam, mint. I'm told Karan was aiming at the scent of clean laundry. What she got is Saigon, and it is deliriously mesmerizing, but the strange thing is that in that moment, I smelled the place better than I had when I was there.

There are places I remember for an idiosyncratic scent. On Cheju Do, Korea's large southern island, I sat with a bunch of fellow backpackers on the roof of a four-dollar-a-night pension (it was 1987). I put the whole milk, butter, chopped onions, parsley, and fresh clams we'd bought in a market into a banged-up metal pot while the student riots for democracy raged below. My memory of Cheju Do is the fragrance of New England clam chowder delicately flavored with the intermittent tangy tamarindlike scent of tear gas.

Smell has all kinds of surprises, oddities. After studying in Beijing in 1984, I was able in an elevator to identify a Chinese mainlander in three seconds, tops: the hair products, the diet, the soaps, a smell now lessened and altered as China becomes richer. I could smell the difference between India and China in an instant, but the Indians, whose country smells so quintessentially and powerfully of its own fragrance, smell to me like…nothing at all.

India has a smell so integral to it that I cannot imagine it otherwise. Ireland's smell—a lovely, subtle, moist, lush old tang—permeates everything in it, but India is suffocatingly saturated in its olfactory nature. Every time I enter, I am instantly bathed in it: the smell of fire. Of ash, garbage, and dust; cloying jasmine, ghee, and chameli flowers; and the startling opiate richness of incense, cow, and carbon monoxide. I swim in this concoction. When it's over, and I move from city to taxi to departure terminal to airplane to sky, India's smell departs from me slowly, although it remains indelible in my neural wiring.

I cannot imagine being unable to smell. It is a real physical affliction called anosmia, but there is something worse. A man I know once told me a story about a baffling medical case in which a woman had suffered for three years from a very rare disorder named cacosmia. The disease's symptom is simple: Everything smells vile. She lived in a permanent noxious haze, the world as a sewer. Flowers smelled like vomit. Fruits and vegetables smelled of filth. Everyone stank to her, their skin, their breath. The doctors couldn't find a solution. They were going to sever the olfactory nerve in her brain, an experimental and dangerous procedure.

"You know what it turned out to be?" the man asked. "Epilepsy! Uncontrolled reverberation of the smell signals from her nose in the brain's olfactory bulb." They put her on a cheap anti-convulsive used by millions. One Saturday evening, the woman was sitting on her sofa when she suddenly wondered if there was something different about the room she was in. The dimensions of the walls seemed to have changed, an alteration in the geometry of the space around her, the objects in it, and their relationships to one another.

Then she realized that she was smelling normally. She went about the house sniffing everything she could get her hands on, opening tins of things she hadn't smelled in years—biscuits, soap, flowers, clothes. Everything smelled as she remembered, and each smell jogged her memory with a strength that amazed her. Cardboard and bananas, tea and furniture. She couldn't believe it. She laughed for joy. She dug shoe polish out of a box and breathed it in.

What I found oddest about this odd story, I told the man, was that when the woman's sense of smell returned, her sense of physical space changed. He frowned at me as if I weren't very bright. "You wouldn't be surprised if a change in your eyesight or hearing changed the way you perceived the dimensions of space," he said. "Smell is just as much about where you are and what relation you have to other things in time and space."

If you've ever not been able to smell a place, you know this weird experiential disjuncture. During the days I spent zooming from Beijing to Moscow through Siberia's endless forests of exquisite, fairy-tale, papery white birches, I could smell nothing but the cars of the Trans-Siberian Express. It was a fine, romantic smell, the European train smell, but I never got the pure essence of Siberia. Not even when I would go between the cars and stand on tiptoe and inhale as deeply as I could. There was always grease, metal, hints of a freshness in the air sharper than the purest menthol, green leaf, and raw earth, and very cold water. My memories of Siberia are strange. I feel that I was never really there.

I envy chemists who can identify molecules that make individual smells. Ethyl maltol smells of cotton candy. Calone of oyster and knife. Phenylethyl glycidate is strawberries and pepper; cis-3-hexenol, cut grass. Butyric acid smells like feet. And perfumes: Aldehydes are the secret of Chanel No. 5; dihydromyrcenol of Drakkar Noir and Davidoff's Cool Water. Musk R-1 powers Tommy Girl.

But I know the elements that create the perfumes of the parts of the world I've been to: the smell of Colorado thunderstorms just before the rain starts pulverizing the earth, throwing the dust in the air, then sluicing it violently away and snapping small plant stems green and raw. I know the vinyl and rubber smell of a Jakarta rickshaw, the olfactory confection of a raspberry chocolate bar in Lausanne, the humid dirt of San Antonio (where I pitched my tent), the fragrant mixture of pine tree and old motor oil on a turnout in the Sierra Nevadas. I know that the smell of Wyoming on an icy February night with the wind over the frozen land is the scent of the surface of the moon.

This is why I love living in New York. It has, hands down, the most singular American city smell—an acrid, pungent odor that's everywhere, from the subways under Grand Central to the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Dean Street in Brooklyn. I love it. It excites me, anchors me. My best analysis is granite with cement, air shaft, blacktop, and deli garbage, but it's more than that. It's ineffable. Below Delancey Street, it's an odor crudely alloyed with fish and soy sauce. At East 74th Street and Fifth Avenue, it's a perfume refined with money. On East Sixth Street, Indian curry. I travel in New York all the time. I just open a window.

Published in December 2006. Prices and other information were accurate at press time, but are subject to change. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip. © 2006 CondéNet Inc. All rights reserved.

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