Wednesday, February 26, 2014

City Scents

54th St and 3rd Ave. - 2014

Could we tell a city by its smell?

Finding a neutral word that refers to olfaction is a hard task. I tried with "smell", but this often indicates something rather unpleasant to the nostril: "What's this smell?". Then "odor", but I cannot help thinking of the next blonde-hair blue-eyed tall guy who's just out of the basketball court and raises his arm to hold on to the subway handrails: what comes from that armpit is total B.O. "Perfume" won't work either. "Fragrance" is a beautiful word, but it indicates a pleasant smell: still far from neutrality.
So what should we call a city's influence to our second chemical sense?

I thought of scent.
Neutrality isn't achieved, but there's consonance with city, and if I can use scent to indicate a characteristic and distinct odor, that's the word I need.

So can we tell a city by its scent?
The more we travel, the more we realize that each city is quite unique in the way it affects the chemistry of our nose. Exhaust gases smell different in L.A. than in Detroit.

New York City is recognizable by that rather sharp and thin railway smell that rises from the sidewalk grates at the passage of a subway train; it effuses in the atmosphere and combines with thick burned molecules of warm pretzels and 99c hot-dogs.
L.A.'s tacos and juice fountains are impregnated with sunlight and the rounded salty veil, a pleasing but sunset-sad one, that the breeze brings to you from the mild Pacific.
Venice has its salts mixed with rising moisture, alternating with pungent muddy odors and incense fragrances from the Silk Road.
The moist air of Hong Kong blends with incense, barbecued pork, and dry fish, minced meat and, yet again, the warm and mellow ocean wind.
Rome is an ancient lady. Its travertine porosity releases Canovian effluvia, and the southern sunlight evaporates olden drops from its Vestal temples and Forum vestiges.
There is something wild and clean in Adelaide, Australia; it might be the sand, and you can smell its ochre red.
I can't tell what Montreal smells like.
And Paris, Paris, if our nose could taste, it would taste warm butter and jam on a croissant; if it had a shape, it would be a long and beaky one; if it snored, it would be a cute non-rhotic buzz.
The acrid air goes hand in hand with the ominous sepia browns in Berlin, and you understand what a heavy load that city is carrying upon itself.
Salzburg's scents are imperial and elegant, just like Vienna's, with chocolate aroma filling the prickly winter air.

Does your city have a scent?