City Notes

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

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1. Shalimar, Guerlain.

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.

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2. Gardenia Sotto la Luna, Andy Tauer.

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.

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3. RIEN Intense Incense, Etat Libre d’Orange.

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.

II

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4. Sea grapes, or Caulerpa Lentillifera.

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.

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5. Poppers, or Amyl Nitrite.

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.

III

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6. Bergamot.

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.

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7. Vanilla.

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.

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8. Wood fire.

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.

A collection of passages 2

January sent me to isolation. In February anxiety boiled over, leading me to an aggressive and charged March. It helped me socialise again. The beginning of April was reflective, and I began to desire a change in my life: relationships, work, location, state of mind, and ways to play. As May nears, I feel these changes consolidate themselves in my ability to be patient, prepared, present, sure, but ready. How exciting to think that the middle of the year is yet to come.

In the first collection of passages, I mentioned collecting magazines to the point of obsession. It’s hard not to collect. If not something physical, something to keep in the mind. Philosopher, fragrance blogger and curator, Liam Sardea, and I had a conversation recently about conscious experiences as either physical or “something beyond” the physical. It made me wonder of our abilities as alchemists. Or, magical thinking. Survival aspects of our nature. This enquiry brings me to the first passage in this current collection where Ruby Wax, in A Mindfulness Guide for the FRAZZLED, (Penguin Life, 2016), goes into a 6-day mindfulness retreat. On day three she smells a rose “…making sure no one is looking and decide to do my walking up and down near it so that, when the wind is right, I can get smacked in the face by that smell. Every time I pass it, I get a hit. The next day the rose is dead and there’s no smell. I think there’s a lesson in there… I’m not sure what. No, I know: the lesson is that all things die, so don’t depend on them.” She returns to the spot just to “check and smell it.” It lives on in that place beyond.

Here are smell descriptions I’ve collected from some of the books I’ve read this year:

“Whenever you stroll through a eucalyptus grove you are engulfed in a unique smell, acrid and spicy and a little bit soapy too. What you are actually sensing is an airborne chemical that is created and released by the trees, a “volatile organic compound,” or “VOC” for short.” (An antiseptic that keeps the trees healthy if it is wounded to prevent infections).

And,

“I left Atlanta knowing more than I had when I arrived. To this day, I need only close my eyes to summon the smell of a crushed sweet gum leaf, as pungent as if I were holding it in my hand.”- Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (Fleet, 2016).

“His mother used to smell of shampoo and their old house. She used to smell like her bed and her sheets, she used to smell of different cigarettes. She used to smell of beans on toast and bath time. But all he can smell now is Maureen’s air freshener, stronger than the smell of his mum and where they used to live.” – My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal (Penguin Viking, 2016).

“It was foully hot: the rancid sewer air could prompt a smile between two strangers in the street as they passed each other: can you believe we live here? It was like bile, and it was the scent of Mulberry Street that afternoon.” A description by the personal assistant to an international singer after being fired in New York City on her way back to London. – Swing Time, Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2016).

“Many people situate themselves by sight; they marvel at scenic vistas, take photos, draw pictures, recall images. In this job I find my brain recording time and place in scent. I remember places by smell.”

And,

Céline and Hervé Ellena, children of famed perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, questioned their father for scents of Madeleine cookies, clothing, snow, including what the smell of clouds were. He created them. Céline says, “When I was a child, he didn’t tell me about princesses; he told me about scents. We didn’t have Cinderella. We listen to his stories in perfume.” – The Perfect Scent, Chandlerr Burr (Picador, 2007).

“The grass, as she walked in, was just beginning to be wet from the moist night and the moon that earlier had shone so nicely on her elm and her cypress and her pines was curtained and faint in the mist – that mist that the Gulf breathed over Houston almost every night, as if to help the city sleep.”

And,

Flap cuts his hand on his wife, Emma’s (Aurora’s daughter) teeth as he aims for her face. Patsy, Emma’s best friend, knocks on the front door. “She held the door open and Patsy swept in, smelling nice and looking wonderful, cheerful and happy. Their bedroom was also their living room, and the minute Patsy stepped into it she said, “I can smell blood.”

And,

Turning down one of Aurora’s many suitors, Trevor – a veritable sea man, and ladies man, who blended the smells of salt, leather and spices – “…had always smelled better than any man she had known.” In the restaurant she got off her chair and sat on his lap, and “gave him a lavish hug and a nice kiss on the cheek and smelled around a little for good measure enough to last her for approximately six months.” – Terms of Endearment, Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster, 1975).

October 5th: While driving home May Sarton wanted to write a poem about silence being the language lover’s know. When she arrived home she shivered in isolation, “and must face again and try to tame the loneliness. The house is no friend when I walk in. A smell of stale tobacco, unopened windows, my life waiting for me somewhere else, asking to be created again.”

And on

October 6th: “Yesterday I weeded out violets from the iris bed. The iris was being choked by thick bunches of roots, so much like fruit under the earth. I found one single very fragrant violet and some small autumn crocuses. Now, after an hour’s work as the light failed and I drank in the damp smell of the earth, it looks orderly again.” – Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton (W.W. Norton & Co. 1973).

As Nicola gets her ozone sauna treatment for cancer, Helen, and her scepticism, remains quiet. “I held my peace. Morning sunshine fell into the room through the high window. The ozone smelled delicious, very subtle and refreshing, like watermelon, or an ocean breeze. I sat on a chair in the corner and pulled the lid off my coffee.” – The Spare Room, Helen Garner (Text, 2008).

Sarah Hall was a recommendation. This short story book packed a punch as her writing, and her characters’ sensuality gets under the skin. Her abundant smell descriptions for a small book excited me because of her generosity with them, without skipping on the other senses.

Butcher’s Perfume: As Kathleen’s holiday ends she discovers in her friend’s farm shed the slow butchering of a horse. “A dead horse was lying on the ground between the metal cattle chocks. The ground was slick yellow-brown, like concrete covered in piss and diarrhoea. I stepped closer, in under the gable, and a stink rose.”

The Beautiful Indifference: An ailing writer meets her lover in a hotel room. Hall offers many clues about her life in this story, stringing us to read the lines deeper. “The smell of his wet hair was one of her strongest memories now. Like the feeling of deep humiliation for injuring the junior-school pet rabbit. Like the unsealing gash on her mother’s cheek where the hospital orderlies had caught her with a metal instrument while wheeling her to the morgue. Bracken burning on the moors.”

Bees: A woman breaks up with her partner and moves from the “slow machinery in the black fields, livestock cropping the tufts, your once vernacular scenery” north to the “ornate, sooty, modern” London. In the city, she discovers a legion of dead and dying bees. Perhaps a metaphor for all that has ever existed in her. “You memorise noises, chimes, electrical thrums, the euphonic character of the place. And smells: the stale pavement, body odours, doorstep musk, green ponds.”

And,

Remembering their sex life through the “smell of silage and diesel in the farmyard, the feel of him butting behind you, increasingly minimal in his inquiry, complaining if you weren’t wet enough, pulling out and moving it into a tighter place. A bonny pair: that’s what they called you. Best match of the town.” It makes me think of the grieving process, and all that plays, buzzes, in your mind.

The Nightlong River: Magda, Dolly Carter’s best friend, is dying. Dolly and her friends hunt mink cats one night to sew Magda a cape, to keep her tiny body warm. “And the night welcomed me, gave me senses. I was struck by the ability of the river to ferry odours on its back. It seemed to enhance everything it touched: the mineral stones of its bed, the wet shag of the dogs when they went swimming, the bark of sour thorn trees whose roots sipped at the shallows. Sometimes I imagined I could, like the dogs, detect the waft of mink through the ferns. I knew that binary scent of blood’s soft iron and glands secretion.” How rich is that?! – The Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber, 2011).

Currently, I am reading Why We Love and Lust, Dr Theresa L. Crenshaw (HarperCollins, 1997). She writes of chemical contact communication, through smell, caused by pheromones, and how that affects us. Nothing new there, but it is one example of how our hormonal system (eg. endocrine) influence behaviour through the sexual stages, and relationships.

One more read –

“I confess that I still have a shirt that belonged to this man I have written about, hidden among sundry ragged shirts from my past. He mailed it to me when I first moved away to graduate school. It held his smell for years.” – An essay by Steven M. Phelps on aeon.co. about the brain and touch

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Night walk entry

The sea was calm. The horizon and the sky’s charcoal gradient were almost one. The beach were dotted with fishermen wearing headlamps over their buckets. I wondered about the state above – Queensland – and the cyclone up there. Tonight, dogs went for their walks, or sat on the grass as their owners looked at the beach, or ran along the white crash on the shore. My nose lifted. As walkers pass I smell the musk in their clothing. Under the Norfolk pines and above the grass the scent of fish and chips in white trays and paper bags slip through like oil on one’s fingers.

Today, I was a hound.

Earlier, Lynda and I hugged. She smelled sandalwood on me. In the afternoon I walked through Hyde Park and wondered if I sprayed Geranium Pour Monsieur from Frederic Malle, a gift from perfumer Daniel Pescio. I looked around, I smelled my jumper. Was it the woman drinking from the fountain? Was it just this part of the park? I circled. I searched for geranium and mint in the park. None were found other than the pines there – Hoop and Cook pines. It was the woman wearing green twenty metres ahead. We stopped at the lights on Park Street. I looked at her. A visitor. Another woman walked past. She wore Chanel No. 5. I walked up the stairs to the other side of the park and smelled mandarins, peeled and eaten. I felt my mouth tingle. Under the naves of the Hills fig trees, a younger woman walked past and she wore Narciso Rodriguez For Her.

I turned left towards the city. The grass was cut fresh. Its scent thick. It didn’t smell the green of grass or trees. It was not the smell of a romanticised green in perfume. In fact that volatile smell of freshly mown grass is a distress signal to ward off plant-eating insects. I wondered if the woman on top of her man knew that as they kissed and pressed against one another. Their black clothes on the grass almost made them one, too.

I read Denyse Beaulieu’s top ten spring scents. She included Pierre Bourdon’s Sous Les Magnolias. It isn’t stocked in Sydney, so I was content to smell Carlos Benaïm’s (I love saying that name) Eau de Magnolia, another Frederic Malle, from Mecca Cosmetica. It reminded me of Jean-Claude Ellena’s Jour d’Hermés, which my mum wears. I sprayed it on my left wrist and on top of my grey jumper. It’s still here. This is not a review but one thing is for sure, Eau de Magnolia’s sillage is great.

Sweat intensifies under my jumper, and my legs feel heavy. I am tired and hungry, and decide to have peanut butter on toast when I get home. As my night walk closes two more scents come. On a bench two men sit and talk. They wear CK One. And, as I walk up stairs I smell the trail of cigarette smoke from the woman ahead.

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The Beach.

Kouros Crush

I

At five-, or six-, years-old I had my first crush on a teen called Bax. I sat on the middle of the staircase one night – our single-mother family lived with his single-mother family – when he and his girlfriend ran up to his mother’s room. They rushed back down, as fast as memory would serve me, and I smelled something minty in the air surrounding these joyful teens. I wanted that: whatever it is they had. I walked into his mother’s room – the door was open – and searched for that scent. On the vanity, its mirror as wide as the room, I saw a white, opaque, squarish bottle edged with shiny metal. The words on the bottle read ‘KOUROS‘. I felt the matt, curved skin of the bottle and lifted the nozzle to my nose. I don’t remember spraying it in the air, but the next thing I know is I spray it in my mouth, the nozzle directed at the back of my throat like some primordial act. My face contracts – squishes, even – to an uncomfortable axis. Was it bitter? Was it poison? It was alcohol. It’s not mint I smell – that was from the little green-coloured can of breath freshener spray she carried around, I later observed. What I smell is the burning, pink flesh of my throat. My open mouth, stunned.

Did his mother wear KOUROS? I don’t remember. I do know she wore YSL’s Opium. She was a Gemini, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that bottle was hers. I watched her get ready for work sometimes. She was a singer, like my mother, and I watched her apply makeup – like I watched my mother – in bold colours. I first saw in her the comedy and the tragedy masks of theatre discovering her transformation from a tough single mother holding down the fort to a physically-demanding stage performer. I often caught her sleeping with one leg bent and an arm above her head, just like I had caught him, her son. Only I never looked at her the way I looked at him. I couldn’t comprehend the symbol of this back then but it was the first lesson in creating experiences from the invisibility I felt. Mistaking a bottle of perfume as breath freshener I understood, as a forlorn crushee, pulled me further from ‘them’.

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Kouros. Photo from ancientrome.ru

II

‘Youth’ is the ancient Greek translation of kouros. Its modern translation is of a freestanding sculpture, of a young man standing naked. Inspired by a trip to Greece, Yves Saint Laurent named Pierre Bourdon’s 1981 perfume after the strapping and broad figure.

I rarely smell it on the streets. Only on a few occasions have I smelled it on the commute to and from work, a busy ground floor waiting for an elevator, or a party, but on men over 55-years of age. Or, perhaps something like it – Eucris, Aramis (which I love), Paco Rabanne, Drakkar Noir, Tuscany per Uomo.

For me, nothing has changed in KOUROS. It smells the same as when I first smelled, and tasted it. I savour its layers of camphor/pine, metallised skin (think of licking someone’s chest or armpits that use aerosol deodorants), and fresh piss on sweat pants (no judgment). Its impact, and tenacity, is still special. Breath fresheners are fleeting. KOUROS stands the test of time. There is no substitute.

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Advertisement, 1996.

Featured image of study by Mart Basa.