Familiar Aromas

I changed my washing powder this week.

Now, before you click away to something more interesting, stay with me, for a couple more sentences, at least.

It wasn’t a plan.  I went to buy the stuff I normally get, but I couldn’t see any, and as there is something in the washing powder aisle in the supermarket that sets my eyes running and my nose to itch, I can’t stay there very long making informed choices.  So I picked the most familiar looking box of non biological cleaner and rolled my trolley round the corner for coffee.

The first time I used it and hung it out to dry my flat was filled with an aroma that was both remarkably familiar but which I knew I hadn’t encountered for a very long time.  It thrust me back to a younger self in a different place.  It was a smell of childhood, and was surprisingly comforting; the smell of fresh sheets on a single bed, and clean pyjamas and big towels that engulfed me after a bath.

Aromas have a great power to trigger memory; they take us back to a time and place.  Sometimes we can’t recall straight away, we just know that it’s familiar.

When I was writing my novel about Rose Fleming’s adventures in Moscow I spent quite  a lot of time thinking about the smells of the city which would augment and shade the portrait of the time and place that I wanted to paint.

But it’s quite tricky to describe aroma isn’t it?  They are so distinctive and for there to be any point to the inclusion of the description it has to capture what is unique about it.

I spent ages trying to find the right way to describe that particular smell of the air just outside the door at Sheremetyevo airport.  The routine at arrival was always that a driver would wait in the bustling melee of the arrivals area, when he had found me we’d walk to just outside the door, and then I would wait with my luggage while the driver went to get his car and pick me up.

This outside waiting area was underneath a huge concrete canopy; every inch of the road and parking area was jammed with cars with their engines running.  As soon as I inhaled the freezing air laden with the fragrance of  unburned petrol and paraffin I knew I was back in Moscow.

I’d been living in the city for a few weeks before I found Stockmann, at the time the only decent supermarket.   I’d tried various ‘retail outlets’ near my flat, but found a bewildering lack of anything I really wanted to buy.

I don’t think I’d ever before spent any time analysing what a supermarket should smell like, but when I first visited the Finnish shop I knew that I had found what I thought of as a ‘proper shop’ simply from the aroma as soon as I stepped through the door.  That mixture of soap powder, cabbage leaves, milk and coffee, somehow promised that I would find things I could buy.

There is a particular scent that, whenever I catch a whiff of it walking past someone in the street, takes me straight back to the office in Nikitsky Pereulok where one of my Russian colleagues wore it, in some quantity.

The problem is, I never liked it, and at first thought it was a Russian product, until I caught a whiff of it in a Paris street.  Then I found out a little more about my young colleague and realised that the most likely reason I wasn’t familiar with it, was that it is very expensive.

Occasionally I think about trying to find out what it is, but how would I describe it?  I think it’s expensive, and it smells a bit sour?  Which one of those over made up assistants in the perfume department is going to help me out with that, do you think?

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1 Comment

  1. margaret nickels

     /  May 5, 2011

    I do agree with you ; smells are the most powerful memory triggers .Its the sneakiness that I sometimes do not always care for however because when you scent an aroma memories come up unbidden and may be unwelcome . There is also the curious aspect of smelling something you do not like which triggers wonderful memories: for me it is the smell of Gauloises which takes me to many a café terrasse and happy gossipy times !

    Reply

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