Monday, September 10, 2012

Monkey Monday: City Scents

Rotshield St. Tel Aviv by Omer Simkha
Rotshield St. Tel Aviv, a photo by Omer Simkha on Flickr.

“Cities are smells: Accra is the smell of iodine and spices. Haifa is the smell of pine and wrinkled sheets. Moscow is the smell of vodka on ice. Cairo is the smell of mango and ginger. Beirut is the smell of the sun, sea, smoke, and lemons. Paris is the smell of fresh bread, cheese, and derivations of enchantment. Damascus is the smell of jasmine and dried fruit. Tunis is the smell of night musk and salt. Rabat is the smell of henna, incense, and honey. A city that cannot be known by its smell is unreliable. Exiles have a shared smell: the smell of longing for something else; a smell that resembles another smell. A panting, nostalgic smell that guides you, like a worn tourist map, to the smell of the original place. A smell is a memory and a setting sun. Sunset, here, is beauty rebuking the stranger.” (Mahmoud Darwish, "In The Presence of Absence" - translated by Sinan Antoon). - Special thanks to Caitlin Shortell of Legerdenez for enlightening me with this quote!

I was quite certain that today's post was going to be "Monday Blues" and ways to beat it: yesterday Vancouver returned to its classic disposition: soaked, dark, contemplative, introspective and completely overcast. It's difficult to see the light through such a thick blanket of clouds; and most of the city's inhabitants seem to be in an ongoing SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder): happy and friendly on the rare sunshine days; but otherwise constantly battling with doom and gloom the remainder 85% of the year, which translates into introversion, inclusiveness and workaholism... Well, at least we get the job done here in the Pacific Northwest! And we do it fast, to keep ourselves warm while at it!

You can only imagine my delight to open the curtains this morning to a glimpse of sunshine that's been peaking among the highrises; and after greeting the school bus and walking down Bute street to visit the Nelson Park Community Gardens - I was noticing the enticing freshness of the sticky, semi-fermented leaves on the brick-paved Bute Square. Such an unusual smell that only comes out after a long dry period that is followed by a day or less of rain (usually when the rain comes to town it stays for way longer...). Delightful, and rare!

That smell of freshly rained pavement in the first rays of morning sun; sticky semi-fermented leaves of some unruly maple that's oozing honey and sticks to everyone's shoes - reminded me vividly of Tel Aviv in the early fall: completely unprepared, I'd find myself in Rotshield boulevard in a violent rainstorm - that although lasts as briefly as a run through the length of the boulevard, just enough to get me in to my first boyfriend's (to become husband) apartment... The boulevard is party paved and partly covered in sandy terracotta earth, street cat's excrement and an abundance of bat's favourite - semi-fermented sycamore fruit that has turned into a black marmalade spread lavishly along the boulevard.

And I could not agree more with Darwish's observations of the various cities he summarizes in a few scents: each city has a definitive odour, often comprises of several random characteristic smells (be it from food and other manmade odours - and malodours - created by city living, juxtaposed with the natural surroundings and unique vegetation that was chosen by the city's carefully designed - or uncalled for - flora and fauna). And indeed, "A city that cannot be known by its smell is unreliable". Which is precisely what Vancouver has been to me from the moment I arrived here, one terribly rainy October day (which lasted a month). Though it's not true that I did not recognize any scents, they were by no means lingering in the air. The city's only distinctive smell greeted you when entering someone's fungi-infested wooden home. And that was a common scent that takes years getting used to.

Likewise, it took me years discovering Vancouver's hidden olfactory treasures - privet hedges in bloom at the beginning of each January; plum cherry blossoms' savoury, bittersweet aroma that are reminiscent of coumarin and sweet red beans; the subtle salty kelp and boat motor oil that is dispersed in the air on the rare days when the city is above room temperature... You really know you know the city when you can sum up its smells with such vivid clarity. I feel I can only do that well with cities I actually lived in or visited more than a handful of times - so let's try:

Jerusalem is the smell of bus exhaust mingled with fresh spearmint and parsley bundles, dusty cobblestone and freshly baked bagels with sesame.

Tel Aviv is the smell of rusted fences, sweat, fermented sycamore fruit and sand impregnated with too many cat visits.

Akko (aka Acre) is the smell of fish on ice, brine, rahat loukum and chickpeas cooking.

Vancouver is the smell of fungi-infested wood, wet leaves, kelp, jet fuel and plum blossoms.

Victoria is the smell of stale tea leaves, English roses, expensive soap and moss-covered stones.

Montreal is the smell of metal and cement in the metro, rain-covered raspberry, ripe Bartlett pears, pink lotus flowers and almond croissants.

San Francisco is the smell of live honeysuckles and angel's trumpet, and nag champa mingled with cannabis smoke.

As you can tell, I'm getting worse and worse at this the more further I stray from the familiar... In other words - I need your help! Please leave a comment below, and enter to win a mini of the only city-themed perfume I've ever created: New Orleans. I never visited there (yet!!!), but I created it based on the city's native's description of it and the feedback from NOLAns was that it is very accurate.

P.s. Monkey Monday winner from last week's giveaway is yash - who wins a sample package from House of Matriarch.

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At September 10, 2012 9:57 AM, Anonymous Emily said...

Places I've lived:

Houston - slowly running water in a concrete bed, lined with a trickle of exhaust and frying oil, star jasmine.

Bryn Mawr, PA - walking through an arc of weeping cherry trees, frosted over with a late but thick snowfall.

Auburn, AL - a veil of ladylike magnolias and jasmine over a base that reveals what the town is really built on: pigskin leather and wood-smoke.

At September 10, 2012 10:53 AM, Blogger Susan said...

Oh gosh! I just honeymooned in New Orleans. What a lovely place! Gotta say, that in many ways it reminds me of a European city- streets can be dirty and VERY stinky. Kind of a swamp water smell can pervade. But then, there are many other wonderful pleasant smells, there, too. It's kind of an olfactory wonderland.

I have only really lived in one city - Austin (previously I lived in rural areas/tiny towns). Austin, to me, smells like cedar, hot pavement, minerals, cannabis... ha. I'm not sure I'd wear an Austin perfume!

At September 10, 2012 1:59 PM, Blogger solace said...

Aladdin smells like much of Wyoming... the dry crackle of sun baked hay, a touch of arid desert sand carried in the wind from the expansive interior and the faint musk of animal or cowboy or both. a leathery scent mixed with fecal sweat should one venture too closely.)
on a wetter day you can smell the evergreen of the Black Hills- pine and bark, but it always gives way to the demanding heat and slowly drying shoots of more hopeful spring grass now resigned in it's wait for fall harvest.
the winters bring a crystalline pause save for the occasional cloud of coal smoke bringing heat to unknown and far off so-called neighbors- speaking in hushed sulphuric tones of strip mining and the lands pioneering, yellow fevered past.

until those shoots come bursting forth with a promise of sage brush beauty ... waiting on the sun.

At September 10, 2012 4:41 PM, Anonymous BridgetTheodore said...

I think I've left a comment before describing the smells of my town. I live in San Juan Bautista, a very old Northern California town.

You can smell it's age in the wood of the trees you pass, from the gnarled pepper variety to the sweet lemon sprouting in nearly everyone's backyard. There's also the smell of newer wood, like the cedar of fences and the local post office that everyone goes to each day, since we don't have mailboxes here. Rose bushes sprout nearly everywhere, and in the summer it seems to bloom endlessly.

My favorite smell though is the local bakery that makes some of the most fabulous french bread(along with some other baked treats). The smell of fresh baked bread is like a siren's call and it takes all my willpower to pass it without stopping in for a loaf.

To me, this town is truly magical. Even though I've only lived here a few months, it's like I've never been anywhere else.

At September 10, 2012 10:52 PM, Anonymous muza said...

Moscow is not the smell of vodka on ice however :)) I live there, the city smells like limestone, river, poplars, cafe's sweet scents.
Loved the smell of Rimini. Coconut cream, piadas and green chypres.

At September 11, 2012 2:31 AM, Blogger yash said...

Cities having distinct smells is so true..good or bad..
Paris for me smells of dry cleaners' white musks emanating from hotels , cigarette smoke, the smell of freshly baked goodies miles around bakeries...and the drydown of many many perfumes depending on which arrondissment you are in...
Port Louis in Mauritius Island smells of salted fish drying, strong marine breezes and the sweet smell of over ripe mangoes mixed with pluleria blossoms..bizarre but so particular..
New Delhi smells of exhaust fumes , cow dung , agar bati burning in temples and champaca, jasmine, roses,tuberose mixing tgether in a symphony of flowery delight..
Barcelona smells of foliage , fried food and orange blossoms...
I would love to smell your interpretation of New Orleans

At September 11, 2012 8:01 AM, Blogger Ayala Moriel said...

Wow! You are blowing me away with your city smell descriptions.
Auburn sounds strangely intriguing and just like what a floral leathery perfume would be - I imagine it similar to New Orleans' flora but without all the swampy notes... Instead, leather and smokey notes.

At September 11, 2012 8:02 AM, Blogger Ayala Moriel said...

Congratulations on your wedding and honeymoon! Wishing you many happy and healthy years with your sweetie :-)
I heard a lot about New Orleans' swampy scents but it sounds like it's also beautifully balanced with flowers and a fresh salty ocean breeze.
Cannabis seems to be a going theme in so many West Coast cities... Well, at least in California and British Columbia, where it is probably one of the most important harvests ;-) I just tried to not repeat myself too much LOL!

At September 11, 2012 8:05 AM, Blogger Ayala Moriel said...

What? There is a city called Aladdin?! I imagine that it smells like the olfactory sound track of Brokeback Mountain ;-)

At September 11, 2012 10:53 AM, Blogger solace said...

*LAUGH* no... brokeback mountain was filmed in canada.

At September 12, 2012 8:02 AM, Anonymous Fiona said...

The centre of Edinburgh smells strongly of hops, when the brewing's in the right phase - you can smell it indoors with all the doors and windows shut, and you can smell it in the train as it pulls in to the station, before the doors open. The Old Town also tends to smell of urine, I'm afraid, but it's the hops that really stand out.

At September 13, 2012 9:17 PM, Blogger Ms. Watson said...

Jasmine flowers at the early morning market in Hanoi brought home permeate a small, hot space. Mint steams in hot soup at all hours, tobacco burns in the streets (along with the petroleum scent of garbage burning).

At September 13, 2012 10:30 PM, Blogger HJ said...

Hmmm - Perth (Australia) during the summer (rose coloured glasses version :P )..... the gloriously dizzying scent native Frangipani and Lemon Eucalyptus in the shimmering heat, with salt and seaweed of pristine sand and turquoise water, coffee and hot pavement. Wish it would smell that way all year round! :)



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