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  • Sarah Vaci

The Sweet Smell of Normality


I am one of those unfortunate humans who's best sense is located in their 'socket nose' (a Hungarian saying for noses that stick up slightly - electrical plugs having 2 slots, not 3). The other one was 'the rain will fall in'... (reader - it never did).

I wear strong glasses, I use subtitles to watch most shows (although I recently did have my hearing checked and it's fine, albeit selective)




and yet give me a fart at 50ft, and I'll tell you the lunch that created it. My younger sister used to complain that I shouldn't point out bad smells, because until I mentioned them - she hadn't noticed! Of course that's looking at smell as a negative when actually it is one of our most useful, fascinating and powerful senses.



⬅︎ Here are my electrifying nostrils!



Many years ago I investigated putting on an art exhibition on smell and memory. It would involve a maze of rooms and in each one (imagine dimmed lighting for an extra arty effect) would have the audio of someone describing a memory and the room would smell accordingly. I began investigating who manufactures unusual smells and how I would begin to describe the buttery, dusty, stale, cat pee smell of an old lady's living room (ok, I suppose that is a good start right there). I sent out requests for companies manufacturing scratch cards with unusual smells, and was very disappointed with what I received (I think one was called Viking!!?), and certainly were not as delightful and fun as the scratch-and-sniff stickers (eg. bubblegum, candyfloss) I had as a child. The most significant smells for me growing up were surprisingly simple yet strong - Fahrenheit aftershave, worn by my first boyfriend and randomly also my grandmother! Old Spice deodarant, worn by my grandfather and weirdly me as a teenager (coincidentally or not at the same as my gender identity crisis), White Musk body spray from Bodyshop, worn by myself every teenage girl I ever knew and finally, a perfume worn by my mother that sadly now makes me nauseous, because once when I was ill she carried me in her arms to the doctor and I inhaled an unforgettable whiff firmly attached to the moment. During my two pregnancies, smell also came to be a seminal ('scuse the pun ... yes it is deliberate) part of my pregnancy experience. With my first pregnancy I made a most remarkable and unfortunate discovery. Heading home after an outing, I thought 'Darnit' (maybe not that exact word) I have stepped in dog poo (perhaps also not that word) but could not see any on my shoes. I circled my entire flat for lengthy minutes unable to trace the source. It happened repeatedly over the next few months and at one point I did a quick google search and Lo and Behold! Phantom dog poo smelling is actually a very random and unfortunate pregnancy symptom (if anyone else has had this - please let me know!). I can only imagine it is connected with some kind of growth/hormonal surge in the body but why that would be a biological benefit who knows! Fortunately I am of the mindset that this was more fascinating than disgusting, unpleasant as it was. My second pregnancy I had an entirely different experience, this time decidedly positive.

My sense of smell became highly attuned to the delicious, intoxicating smells of rubber, leather and Flash lemon antibacterial wipes. I watched TV while sniffing tennis balls, I went into Shoezone (a cheap shoe shop chain in the UK) to get high, and would make trips to a railway station lift in the next town (Redhill, arriving from London side) just to get my daily hit.



Tough as pregnancy is on the body, I am delighted I got to experience these incredible highs (and I still enjoy the odd sniff of my rubber wellies). I have also been searching for decent 'new car smell' room sprays, but alas they are all quite toxic and un-environmentally friendly so I'll just have to keep buying new cars (I wish).




I realise some of these olfactory experiences are not about connecting with my environment, but they have made me very aware and focussed of what is actually happening in my nose in a way most people may not be. When I was considering my smell/memory art show I did try and write a 'smell diary' I encourage you all to have a go! Don't even write anything, simply close your eyes sometimes and smell deep, you might be surprised at how much of the sensorial world you are missing! I find it so peculiar that everyone's house has a smell and yet we don't notice our own - unless we have been away for a while. Similarly bodies have unique smells, but these are often masked or seen as intensely negative due to social conditioning (I'm not talking about extreme hygiene neglect) and so we come to how lockdown has limited our world in more ways than we may be aware. A few weeks ago I took a lengthy (6 miles, does that count?) walk in the countryside near my town and decided to turn it into a scented treasure hunt. As I walked I realised how little I could actually smell (I'm clearly hopeless at identifying which flowers are scented) and I began contemplating what smells I have noticed more since lockdown, and more importantly what smells were missing, that I am looking forward to again. For those of us stuck at home, or with only small outings - our 'smell world' is greatly diminished. My scented day largely consists of my morning coffee, the smell of spinach and ricotta filled pasta and morning breath (not necessarily mine) and typical biological smells.

We've also been baking Hungarian pastries which I find almost heartbreaking in the sense of loss and longing they provoke. Just after lockdown we were meant to have a huge family trip to Hungary, and as anyone who has ever been will know - cafe, pastry and cake culture is huge. And so our baking has been bittersweet (not literally) as a deliciously familiar smell of home, but also reminding me of what I am missing.


(I can highly recommend kalács, ours is pictured here, pogácsa and dobos torta)




Social distancing has also resulted in a huge loss to our scented sphere because we simply aren't close enough to others, I actually feel a slight thrill if I smell somebody's cigarette or perfume because I feel connected to a world beyond just me, I feel a connection to other people and to a lost world from the past. I have started wearing masks and this also shrinks the wonderfully 'grounding' smells of the world, if you're really unlucky you may only smell your own breath - and not even the 'freshly baked bread smell' surreptitiously pumped into the entrances of many supermarkets. I recently visited the seaside for the first time in months, and have a river near my home, I've become almost drunk on the heady fishy, watery scents, no need for GnT to make me light headed! (ok, maybe sometimes I need that too). So next time you take a walk in our altered world, take a moment to close your eyes and take in a wonderful whiff. I would love to hear the smells of your day (both good and bad) and what you are missing or yearning for. My favourite cafe is closed, and I cannot remember how it smelt and yet when it opens, I might be found outside simply breathing deeply - invoking those coffee and poached-egg-on-sourdough-toast smells to memory as well as enjoying the sweet scents of normality once again.



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