• Monkey Monday: City Scents
  • City ScentsMahmoud DarwishMonkey MondayScent and Memory

Monkey Monday: City Scents

Rotshield St. Tel Aviv by Omer Simkha
Rotshield St. Tel Aviv, a photo by Omer Simkha on Flickr.

“Cities are smells: Accra is the smell of iodine and spices. Haifa is the smell of pine and wrinkled sheets. Moscow is the smell of vodka on ice. Cairo is the smell of mango and ginger. Beirut is the smell of the sun, sea, smoke, and lemons. Paris is the smell of fresh bread, cheese, and derivations of enchantment. Damascus is the smell of jasmine and dried fruit. Tunis is the smell of night musk and salt. Rabat is the smell of henna, incense, and honey. A city that cannot be known by its smell is unreliable. Exiles have a shared smell: the smell of longing for something else; a smell that resembles another smell. A panting, nostalgic smell that guides you, like a worn tourist map, to the smell of the original place. A smell is a memory and a setting sun. Sunset, here, is beauty rebuking the stranger.” (Mahmoud Darwish, "In The Presence of Absence" - translated by Sinan Antoon). - Special thanks to Caitlin Shortell of Legerdenez for enlightening me with this quote!

I was quite certain that today's post was going to be "Monday Blues" and ways to beat it: yesterday Vancouver returned to its classic disposition: soaked, dark, contemplative, introspective and completely overcast. It's difficult to see the light through such a thick blanket of clouds; and most of the city's inhabitants seem to be in an ongoing SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder): happy and friendly on the rare sunshine days; but otherwise constantly battling with doom and gloom the remainder 85% of the year, which translates into introversion, inclusiveness and workaholism... Well, at least we get the job done here in the Pacific Northwest! And we do it fast, to keep ourselves warm while at it!

You can only imagine my delight to open the curtains this morning to a glimpse of sunshine that's been peaking among the highrises; and after greeting the school bus and walking down Bute street to visit the Nelson Park Community Gardens - I was noticing the enticing freshness of the sticky, semi-fermented leaves on the brick-paved Bute Square. Such an unusual smell that only comes out after a long dry period that is followed by a day or less of rain (usually when the rain comes to town it stays for way longer...). Delightful, and rare!

That smell of freshly rained pavement in the first rays of morning sun; sticky semi-fermented leaves of some unruly maple that's oozing honey and sticks to everyone's shoes - reminded me vividly of Tel Aviv in the early fall: completely unprepared, I'd find myself in Rotshield boulevard in a violent rainstorm - that although lasts as briefly as a run through the length of the boulevard, just enough to get me in to my first boyfriend's (to become husband) apartment... The boulevard is party paved and partly covered in sandy terracotta earth, street cat's excrement and an abundance of bat's favourite - semi-fermented sycamore fruit that has turned into a black marmalade spread lavishly along the boulevard.

And I could not agree more with Darwish's observations of the various cities he summarizes in a few scents: each city has a definitive odour, often comprises of several random characteristic smells (be it from food and other manmade odours - and malodours - created by city living, juxtaposed with the natural surroundings and unique vegetation that was chosen by the city's carefully designed - or uncalled for - flora and fauna). And indeed, "A city that cannot be known by its smell is unreliable". Which is precisely what Vancouver has been to me from the moment I arrived here, one terribly rainy October day (which lasted a month). Though it's not true that I did not recognize any scents, they were by no means lingering in the air. The city's only distinctive smell greeted you when entering someone's fungi-infested wooden home. And that was a common scent that takes years getting used to.

Likewise, it took me years discovering Vancouver's hidden olfactory treasures - privet hedges in bloom at the beginning of each January; plum cherry blossoms' savoury, bittersweet aroma that are reminiscent of coumarin and sweet red beans; the subtle salty kelp and boat motor oil that is dispersed in the air on the rare days when the city is above room temperature... You really know you know the city when you can sum up its smells with such vivid clarity. I feel I can only do that well with cities I actually lived in or visited more than a handful of times - so let's try:

Jerusalem is the smell of bus exhaust mingled with fresh spearmint and parsley bundles, dusty cobblestone and freshly baked bagels with sesame.

Tel Aviv is the smell of rusted fences, sweat, fermented sycamore fruit and sand impregnated with too many cat visits.

Akko (aka Acre) is the smell of fish on ice, brine, rahat loukum and chickpeas cooking.

Vancouver is the smell of fungi-infested wood, wet leaves, kelp, jet fuel and plum blossoms.

Victoria is the smell of stale tea leaves, English roses, expensive soap and moss-covered stones.

Montreal is the smell of metal and cement in the metro, rain-covered raspberry, ripe Bartlett pears, pink lotus flowers and almond croissants.

San Francisco is the smell of live honeysuckles and angel's trumpet, and nag champa mingled with cannabis smoke.

As you can tell, I'm getting worse and worse at this the more further I stray from the familiar... In other words - I need your help! Please leave a comment below, and enter to win a mini of the only city-themed perfume I've ever created: New Orleans. I never visited there (yet!!!), but I created it based on the city's native's description of it and the feedback from NOLAns was that it is very accurate.

P.s. Monkey Monday winner from last week's giveaway is yash - who wins a sample package from House of Matriarch.

  • City ScentsMahmoud DarwishMonkey MondayScent and Memory
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