the nose knows

Recently, my morning walk along the West Toronto Railpath has been affected with the comforting smell of burning. I think it's wood. The city is getting rid of a pile of junk (see photo in post re: stuff, Nov 3, 2010) and building something in its place. This burning smell, no matter where it occurs, always, always, always reminds me of Mexico.

I spent a couple of months there in the early 90's and they would often burn things. Wood, stubble, garbage. The smell would drift into the little beachfront town and give me that solid feeling of being somewhere else. It also didn't hurt that it was thirty degrees in December.

Smells trigger memories that are as vivid and precise as the original thing.

There are smells that are obviously wonderful. Bar-b-que, a cake in the oven, your lover's neck, freshly ground coffee, garlic, a good cheese shop, clean laundry, baby after bathtime, pizza delivery guy in an elevator, gin.

When you enter Village Meat (pictured above), a bakery/butcher shop in a Polish neighbourhood near me, it is almost impossible to leave without buying a slab of smoked bacon or a few slices of peppered salami or cured ham. They also make one tray per day of the best cheesecake I've ever eaten in my life. Go early if you want some.

There are the not so nice odours we try to avoid: wet dog, garbage trucks, fish gone bad, the litter box, an Irish pub after last week's revelry, burnt hair.

Places have their own personalities, and smells. Paris smells like bakeries and piss, Cape Breton is fresh and pine scented. Vancouver smells damp and sunny while Montreal is humid and smokey. New York smells busy and active, full of art and money and delis. The prairies are extreme - frozen or overheated, but they always smells wide and windy. Mexico City is polluted. So is LA. London smells like soot and sea and beer and fried fish.

It is a conditioned response. The first time we smell a new scent we link it to a person, place or thing. EFA skin cream by JASON reminds me of Costa Rica, because it's what we slathered on our sun soaked bodies at the end of each day. Nivea skin toner still reminds me of Cuba because I started using it there, over a decade ago. Hawaiin Tropic suntan lotion reminds me of the beach. Any beach.

Perfume. A specific scent can define a person. Alfred Sung (my sister), too much Polo (my brother), Kenneth Cole Reaction (my husband), Love's Baby Soft (my life as a teenager trying to hide the stench of cigarette from my parka), Farenheit (an ex I'd rather not remember), Oscar de la Renta (the woman I babysat for when I was seventeen), Vera Wang (me in the mid 90's).

A note to Alfred Sung if he's reading this: Why do you stop making things people are still buying? The scent my sister wears has been discontinued. By her account, she has about five years left of the stuff. This includes the traditional Christmas gift bottle from her husband and few extra ones she found from rogue sources on eBay.

The answer to why things change might be this; According to Amy Verner's article in The Globe and Mail's Style section a few weeks ago, she learned a few things from her L'Oreal scent workshop, the first for beauty editors and writers. Apparently, "fragrance trends and the development of new scents are not arbitrary but mirror the zeitgist and evolve each decade. In the 1980's, yuppies ruled and scents such as Poison, Opium, Cool Water and Egoiste were brash and overpowering. The nineties, of course, was the era of unisex fragrances such as CK One and Issey Miyake. The past 10 years can be characterized by the duality of glamour and nature, Gucc Guilty verses Terre d'Hermes."

I am part of the masses with that theory in that, at the moment, I enjoy wearing Chanel Sensual. However, I also carry around a little tin of Pacifica Waikiki solid perfume. The latter is made from organic coconut and soy wax with natural and essential oils. The woman at the store where I bought it said I could eat it if I had too. And it's vegan.

These are fads. Not to be confused with trademarks.

There is a guy in Kensington market named Moses who sells perfume oils in plastic containers. I started buying Egyptian Musk from him about ten years ago. (Prior to that, when I lived in Montreal, I found the musk in an store that sold African artifacts on St. Laurent Boulevard) Now, I supply a friend's sister in Regina with the stuff, along with Explorer for her, a thick green oil that smells like fresh soap and pine needles. Moses fills up little glass viles from his bigger reserves and sometimes doesn't charge me.

Well hasn't Moses disappeared.

His shop, that also sold Jamaican t-shirts, scarves, cards, candles, creams and lotions, was boarded up when I stopped in before Christmas. The fellow next door said Moses is working out of another space around the corner with no name and no sign because he had a riff with landlord. I'll be on my bike soon enough and have a look for this nameless place and hope I find Moses and his magic oils.

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning." A line made famous by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning. It means I am at the drop zone, near a plane prepping for flight and ideally, out of which I will jump.

Spring has sprung (well, tomorrow it will have) and with it comes its own smells. You can sense it in Toronto these last few days. Things are warmer, sunnier, happier. Nothing is slower, just...better. Then summer follows, with lilacs and fruit blossoms and those trees that smell like semen. Latin name: Ailanthus altissima, commonly knows as 'the tree of heaven'.

Speaking of semen, in her workshop, Verner also learned that perfumers have to identify over 3,000 raw materials from plant, animal or synthetic origin. The weirdest thing, as she pointed out, "arguably the most intriguing", was ambergris. "Produced in the intestine of the sperm whale, it becomes solid over time and takes on a sweet, musky smell. During Middle Ages, it was used to cover up the stench from plague."

I know what a thunder storm smells like. I grew up on the prairies. It's warm, then cool, then dark, then electric, then wet, then energized, then light, then over.