Perfumed Letters

Reading the scent trail of fragrance and words

Smellscape: Fond Memory of a Smelly Commute


   I’ve always wanted to be a person who keeps a diary. But like every other journal idea, the “Smellscape Project” * seems fated to be little more than a name. I had short-lived success with a dream journal many years ago, but even that one went the way of other long neglected daily chronicles.
   In the purging of files from an old laptop,  I discovered the following forgotten entry from my would-be olfactory journal, written three years ago today. After many rounds of the same smelly commute, I finally registered the experience. Reading these words, I’m reminded that : a) it was very difficult to find nuanced language to capture the various smells I wanted to chronicle (and it looks as if I didn’t try too hard); b) nothing brings the past to life quite like the memory of smells (this discovery released a flood of related memories); c) while I mention sight and touch, not a word about soundscapes (equally pervasive on this commute) slipped into my notes. It is as if I closed my ears in order to focus on aroma.  Which reminds me…When I run with an iPod, I’m convinced the world is more saturated in scent. Why? The headphones. The block-out of ambient sounds, or substitution of those sounds, somehow brings smells into sharp focus. Headphones take me to olfactory Oz.

Warning: This post stinks. 

Monday, March 24, 2009
   It is the first day of my last week in Paris and I wish I had pursued my “Smellscape Project.”  Better late than never.  Taking the 12 train again from Pigalle to Madeleine. Mince! I prefer the #2 station, which usually exudes that familiar aroma of burnt electrical socket I fondly call l’air du métro. Pigalle, on the other hand, smells of urine–all day, every day. Yet here I am.
   In recent weeks, I  have drenched my black scarf with my new favorite perfume, Chergui by Serge Lutens, just for moments like this: I  like to pull the fabric up to my face as if it were a pomander, as I might have done in a different nineteenth-century life, were I navigating those crowded, mucky streets, before they were widened and paved.
   But not today. On the way out the this morning, I grabbed the freshly laundered grey scarf. Not  hint of Chergui there. I’ve applied Etat Libre d’Orange Rien (a deceptively named beaucoup plus), from a little sample vial, and to both wrists, but not in large quantity. The fragrance has had time to dissipate and dry to nearly…rien. So I lean into “my own self” (as a friend’s little daughter would say),  chin on wrist, in hope of catching a few lingering wafts of incense and amber.
Image source

At Madeline begins the descent to the #14 quay, a gradual immersion into this sulfurous atmosphere worthy of Dante’s Inferno. The stench persists, as always, once on the train. The plantings outside the train window at Gare de Lyon mock me with inaccessible freshness.

   Just before Bercy comes the shocking smell of feces: let us hope this is nothing but a poorly ventilated mobile toilet. No evidence of defecation on or near the train. Check. I wonder if I am overly sensitive. But I see my sleepy friend’s posture shift with the olfactory assault: yeah, he smells it, too.
   At Françiois Mitterand, we encounter new effluvial affronts: vomit replaces feces. My friend points out that he has been watching my face and, oddly to him, I register not disgust but contempt with each new fetid odor. But he knows me, and he knows that despite my dainty pretenses, I savor every malodorous moment of this commute.
   Here begins the ascent to the street and the short walk to the library. Sunny sky. A moderate breeze, unscented but for the occasional wisp of cigarette smoke. Refreshing. A reward.
   Having passed these pungent stations of the crossing, I’m pleased to have earned my way into the Bibliothèque nationale. The first escalator is not running. It has never worked, to my knowledge. My bags pass metal detection, my laptop and books fit into the pellucid briefcase provided at the mandatory coat check. The steps required to enter the inner sanctuary are well known to me by now: scan, avancez, poussez, tirez, one more escalator, down, down.
   A familiar, burnt-rubber smell reminds me never, ever again to touch the metal rim under the escalator’s handrail: it delivers electric shock. Not a pesky, static snap, but a sharp, startling zing, like the nick of  a razor. On the descent I notice once again the paper airplane someone has managed to lodge in the steel mesh wall covering, far overhead. How did they do that?
   Poussez. Tirez.  Another wall of windows to an off-limits garden, like the one out my train window at the Gare de Lyon station, but the scent around me is clean. Not cleaned, just clean, or having been cleaned, or never having been dirty. No lingering antiseptic product residue.
   At my reserved desk spot, with my stack of pre-requested books, I smell only that splendid, quiet, welcoming, dryish-mushroom, dust-and-time accord of pages and possibility.


For a riveting report (in French) on the smell of the Paris métro, featuring quotes from nez Céline Ellena (who always finds just the right words) check out “Mais pourquoi ça pue autant dans le métro parisien?”

* I first encountered the term smellscape in a 1985  essay by J. Douglas Porteous.

Video clip my own.

[EDIT: TEchnical difficulties with the clip. My apologies.]

Your comments are, as always,  most welcome!

6 thoughts on “Smellscape: Fond Memory of a Smelly Commute

  1. A wonderful olfactory picaresque through Paris above and below the ground!

  2. This is wonderfully evocative Cheryl: I used to do a very similar journey and this brought it all back to me. Thank you.

  3. I'm glad it revived your memories, too, Hannah!

  4. As I write scenes from the experience of a blind protagonist in the Amsterdam Assassin Series, I regularly sit with my eyes closed and try to note the smells to enrich the description in the scenes. Your descriptions are inspiring, thank you for that.

  5. What a fascinating perspective, Martyn!

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