The instant I smelled the unmistakable notes of Shalimar in the ferry toilet I knew it was going to be my next post. I had to wait, of course. It became my new adventure: smell this city.
Home life often becomes a case of ‘familiarity breeds contempt’, and this adventure of smelling Sydney took my usual routes from home to work, from my travels on foot and on public transport. There was a moment on a train where the all-too familiar smell of sweaty socks, or feet enclosed in shoes too long, made me wonder if I should include it here … I guess I have now. Alas, no photo evidence of that, but I sat there chuckling like I’d discovered something naughty.
The process of this smelling the city adventure is simple: smell, take a photo, and write down the notes. In the first part, the first three I smelled, I recognised manufactured perfumes from three different brands. With parts two and three I recognised – as simple as I can describe it – singular notes. I wondered if an adventure, or exercise, like this transmutes its own journey, without direction, nor premeditation. Does this kind of curiosity create a layered map of one’s own environment? I have no clear answer, but the adventure is enough.
As you may have read from previous posts, I am a fan of smell researcher and artist, Sissel Tolaas’s work. On her last visit to Sydney she said she was in the process of collecting smell molecules of this emerald city. I wonder, and desire, what that smells like.
Sydney, with its hills, eucalypts, harbour, beaches, large clouds skies, tempestuous weather, graces me with its beauty to no end. I’m no molecule collector but this small adventure saw me through moments of despondence. Perhaps your discoveries will see you through your city.
I was surprised to smell Shalimar in the ferry toilet because the room spray on the wall there usually spurts its typical rose-scent (along with the pink hand soap on the right), and not Guerlain’s classic perfume of the vanilla-citrus kind. Its contrasting notes of civet, castoreum, birch tar, and musk played to perfection the toilet’s aluminium and ultraviolet radiance.
A street in Darlinghurst stops me in its tracks. Andy Tauer’s Gardenia is recognisable for its white floral-vanilla juice. Though I didn’t wear it that day, I know its sandalwood, tonka, vanilla dry-down, without it being too sweet, nor sickly. Its quality is intimate, like those images of Isabella Rossellini in Lancôme’s Trésor ads.
After work people walk up the stairs and find their seats with a view of their phones whilst the night descends on the harbour. The cliffs and headlands become the darkest green, the harbour surface a charcoal with wisps of white spaces, and the rows of seats create a cosy enclosure, especially in winter. Etat’s incense, leather, and musky rose provides a shield in this space of exhaustion as we are ferried to rest. Rien’s cumin note imparts the human element – perhaps coming from those well-worn seats – so common in public, and private, places.
Ensaladang latô in the Phillipines is a salad of sea grapes, vinegar, fish sauce, and maybe slices of small red onions. I smelled this in this garden, and the popping of these grapes in my mouth releases the odour of the sea, both salty and sour. It brought back childhood memories of eating a typical, humble dinner of white rice, fried milkfish, and this salad, on plastic covered tables.
Here in the foreground, the smell of earth, grass, and luscious variations of trees play their part on a bed of harbour, ocean, wind, and sky.
Commercial wharves have their businesses lined up, emitting scents from their produce, appliances, electrical goods, lights, etc. The ramp at the centre of the picture is freshly painted with a non-slip paint that gives this whole space a wildly familiar, strong scent: amyl, or poppers. I wonder if the ingredients in the paint – solvents, binders, pigments, and other additives – has anything in common with the vasodilator “lite” drug that relaxes muscles, creating heat, blood flow, and excitement? If so, I can smell.
Leaving this health shop in Darlinghurst with a friend, our cold expirations rise. Bergamot floats, like Casper the Friendly Ghost, where long streets, bars, boutiques, cafes, and traffic commingle.
At the end of our art excursion, friends – fellow artists, and health nuts – walk through a walkway that leads to St. Mary’s church. To the left is a public pool, to the right is a park filled with bay figs and grassy knolls. I wondered if the smell came from my friends, whom I stepped away from just to go back and take this shot so I can smell what I smell.
In the same vicinity, and within minutes of each other, the scent of wood fire follows the earlier catch of vanilla. We pass the Archibald Fountain, to the right is the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, on the left is St. James church (not in photo), and on the top left of the photo is the Supreme Court of N.S.W. Another large fig tree becomes a one-sided gateway to Macquarie Street.
Synonymous for its summer fires due to Sydney’s dry climate, combined with the oil-rich eucalypts, this is one of my favourite smells.
Go! Smell your city, and share your notes, please.