*This article was published at some point in 2011 on the site that shall not be named, except I did name it in a previous article below. The New York section of this article seemed to cause consternation to some readers although no offence was intended. It was simply coincidence that had stuck in my head, one of the multitude of seemingly strange things that occur many times every day in this smaller than we think world of ours.
Every city I have been to has had its own individual smell. The trouble is I cannot always describe that smell in words.
Every time I have arrived in the City of London I have taken a deep breath, not only to prepare me for the unknown that lies ahead but simply to take in the scent that has become a recognisable part of returning once again to that city. But if you asked me to describe it in words I wouldn’t be able to.
New York has its own unique smell. Even though I was there for only two weeks and cannot conjure up the smell now, I know that it is buried somewhere in my head.
How do I know?
Ten months after I had been on holiday in New York I awoke in my flat in London one morning, and in that hazy just waking up moment I said to myself, “Why do I smell New York?”
I though maybe it was the remnants of a dream. For some reason I often had dreams, and still do, where I was lost wandering the streets of New York unable to find my way back to whatever destination I was trying to reach. I hadn’t been dreaming of New York but the smell when I awoke that morning was so powerful that for a few moments I was startled by how real it was to me. But then with the work day ahead I thought no more about it, it was just one of those things.
Later that same day, at around two in the afternoon, I was sitting at my desk at work when a colleague sitting next to me said, “I’ve just been sent a text that a plane has crashed into New York’s World Trade Center.”
To me it was just a strange coincidence, one that I didn’t and don’t usually mention to anyone, especially as I am not a big believer in signs or premonitions and I don’t want to appear a lunatic. But as this is a story on the sense of smell I though I would mention it and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Paris has a smell.
Paris has a smell that I can describe.
On my first trip to Paris I hadn’t noticed the city’s scent or if I had I wasn’t aware of it. It was on my second trip that I discovered for myself the smell of Paris. I had wandered the city one night, lost in a drunken haze for several hours, completely unable to find my hotel amidst the narrow dark winding streets that all looked exactly the same in the darkness. This seemingly never ending, unexpected journey ended with the smell of Paris.
The drunkenness was a result of six hours of drinking bottles of red wine in the numerous bars of Oberkampf that led to one final bar where they served the best Jack Daniel’s cocktails I had ever tasted, not that I had ever tasted Jack Daniels in a cocktail form before to be able to compare. It was the cocktails that did for me that night. The girl I was with recommended them and they were mixed by a barman friend of hers, a concoction of Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort guaranteed to detach the imbiber from their senses. I think I had four or five in quick succession in the hour prior to midnight before realizing that I was now truly drunk and left the bar on auto-pilot without a word with the intention of heading straight back to the hotel.
But that night I found myself walking in circles, walking for hours only to eventually return to the same point I had been to earlier. The voice in my head accompanying me on my journey shouted at me continuously, “It must be this way, there is a sign for Republique, just follow that sign. That is where the hotel is, it must be.” Every time I followed the signs I would end up back where I had started or somewhere else, just not at my hotel.
As the long journey into the night progressed the voice in my head grew angrier with each step and started calling me a variety of names, none of them good. The voice was infuriated that I had gotten myself lost, that I had no actual cash left on me and that hours earlier I had placed the wrong PIN number in my cash card three times in succession and could no longer withdraw any money and could not take the easy option of a no doubt quick taxi ride back to my hotel. As the night progressed past three o’ clock and then four o’clock the voice in my head eventually grew weary of calling me every profanity it could think of and simply begged to be allowed the luxury of the soft sheets of the hotel bed and perhaps an ice cold coke to take away the dry throat and thirst.
At one point on my journey I stopped and asked strangers standing at a bus stop where Republique was and was told to get the night bus and it would take me there. I had a one euro coin left in my pocket, exactly enough money for one bus trip and took my seat, immensely thankful that I didn’t have to put my now aching feet through anymore of this torture and I would soon be able to enjoy the bliss of sleep in that bed that I desperately desired. It was all just a short comfortable bus ride away.
I then got off at the wrong stop and my wandering through that dark night in January recommenced.
People say that Paris is a city to walk in, but not for seven hours straight. I wandered through many deserted streets and boulevards and saw many majestic illuminated Parisian buildings, which at any other time on some sort of organised tour would have made for a wonderful sightseeing trip. At one point I wandered through a deserted underground motorway tunnel that had a large section of wall missing. As I passed by the crumbling section of wall I peered through and noticed someone bedding down for the night on the waste ground. As the person crawled into what appeared to be some form of sleeping bag he or she turned and looked at me and then slowly waved at me. Not wishing to appear rude I waved back - of course, why not. I had never been envious of a homeless person before. Goodnight, enjoy your sleep, at least you have a bed for the night.
Eventually, finally, as my feet and legs were screaming for mercy, as I was seriously considering sleeping in a doorway, as night had passed and the early morning daylight had arrived, the Place de la Republique statue appeared before me and I knew that my hotel was only a few more minutes walk. I passed the early morning workers exiting and entering the Metro, some looking strangely at this shambling figure who passed by but I didn’t care. All I could think of was that hotel bed and the sleep that would follow once I had pulled those soft blankets over me. I had been awake and out on the streets since 10 the previous morning and I had walked for almost seven hours non stop throughout the night.
And I as I walked the remaining few steps to my hotel past the cafes and restaurants and took a lungful of air, the smell suddenly hit me.
If you are up early enough and are a newcomer to the city the smell of Paris will become apparent. It is the sweet smell that emits from the patisseries that line the streets and also the smell of the freshly baked bread and croissants. There is also a hint of freshly brewed coffee mixed in, which emanates from the sidewalk cafes and restaurants. I had never noticed this smell before because I had never been out of bed and out on the streets of Paris this early. But it is a smell that will stay with me and that I will be able to remember if I ever need to write about Paris. If had never gotten lost that night I would never have been up that early in Paris on my trip and I would never have experienced that somewhat overpoweringly sweet scent.
Every city, perhaps every destination, has its own unique smell. The scent of a place can reappear at any time without warning, taking you back to a destination or time in your past and bringing back long buried memories.
Some people will read this and no doubt be hit with the smell of bullshit but that’s okay.
Everyone’s sense of smell is different.
Images copyright: G Crystal