The Smell of Things

May 13, 2008

Ever notice how much the smells in a particular location create a sensory association with that location? I was thinking about how one of the things I actually love about NYC are the smells and then I got to thinking that it's not just NYC it's lots of places.

In New York I love the smell of the pretzel vendors, a sort of smoky, dry, charcoal and bread smell that is divine. I also love the smell of the nut vendors. They sell candy coated nuts of all varieties that smell lovely and sweet (and incidentally better than they taste). The smell of the subway, or better, the PATH train. It's a dry and warm smell that's particularly nice in the fall and winter when it's a welcome respite from the weather outside. Then there's the halal and falafel vendor carts, a nice middle eastern, curry-type smell. Oh, and let's not forget the shish-kabob vendors with their luscious lamb kabobs. Now that I'm typing this, I'm trying to think if all my smell connections with NYC have to do with food!

In North Carolina there's the smell of the ocean when you've just drove 4+ hours to get there. There's the smell of the inlets and the salt. There's also the smell of the earth that's just apparent when you're outside. When we get to my parents' house it's always nice to take in a big sniff of their yard and it's greeness and aliveness.

Of course there are food smells there, but they're really linked with childhood. The smell of Silver Queen corn ready to eat, my mom's biscuits, my mom's vegetable soup in the winter, mom's chili (you see a theme here?). Then there's the smell of my grandmother's egg house and cooler. They had an egg delivery business so one room was dedicated to the boxes for the eggs. The cooler was it's own building that was refidgerated for the extra produce they grew and had a wonderful smell of fresh produce. That smell coupled with the wonderful cool sensation of stepping out of the near 100% humidity into the refrigeration was marvelous.

Also associated with childhood is the smell of asphalt and gasoline that I associate with the school bus. The smell of old-style carbon copies that reminds me of report cards. The smell of the library (this can be repeated by going to any small, old library) and particularly the card catalog (an old relic these days, I'm afraid). The smell of honeysuckle and magnolia blossoms. The smell of the woods. The dusky smell of the crawl space under the house where there were always hordes of camel crickets.

I wonder what smells I will associate with Mexico down the road. Already I love the smell of the taco vendors (even though I haven't actually tried a taco from them- it has been reported by a friend that they are very good). I love the smell of arrachera grilling and the smell of pastor meat. Of course, these are food things, but I wonder if I'll be nostalgic over other smells that I don't even know about now.

People often talk about the light in Mexico. I can see how that would be something one would miss. I know I would miss the weather. I have gotten used to wearing shorts and tank tops all the time. I've gotten used to going to the beach once a week (at least).

When I was in New Jersey for one short week I missed Mexican accented Spanish. All the Spanish I heard in our old neighborhood was more Cuban or Central American sounding- where they clip off the s's. I know for certain that I will miss certain Mexican foods when I'm back in the states (although someone assured me that now that I know what I'm looking for, if I go to the Mexican part of town I can get some very good authentic Mexican food).

What smells do you associate with Mexico? What smells are special to you?


CancunCanuck said...

Oh yes, smells are such a part of our memory circuits. I think the biggest smell of Mexico for me is the ocean. When I drive into the hotel zone of Cancun I turn off the AC and roll down the windows for that first whiff of the sea, awwwwww. The smell of sun block, the smell of the bougainvillea and of yes the smell of carne asada on the grill.

It's been so long since I was back in Canada that I can't even think about those smells. When (if) I go back, I know they will come flooding back to me.

Jeffrey said...

I am making my very first trip to Mexico tomorrow, so I hope I can bring some of these olfactory memories back with me at the end of my trip. I plan on taking full advantage of Mexican food and beverages while in Playa del Carmen. I also plan on making a day out of an excursion to Tres Rios. Any recommendations while I'm in Mexico? I'm only visiting for a few days, so any suggestions would be great.

By this time next week I hope I will have a smell in mind that I associate with my trip...tal vez sera los tacos o carne asada (yummmm) que ya has descrito en tu blog :)

mexpat said...

I just remembered a smell that I love here, the smell of the laundry mats here. They use some special detergent or softener that smells so lovely. I'll probably miss that smell.

Jeffrey: If you want tasty eats for poco dinero, check out El Fogon for tacos al pastor and H.C. de Monterrey for arrachera. Both are located on Constituyentes between 25th Ave and 30th Ave across from Mega.

Ale said...

Oh, you are so right about that smell in NC (live here)
About smells in Mexico... what I miss is the smell of summer rain. :)

Fned said...

I can relate although sadly I can't remember any smells of Mexico in particular... but I know that as soon as I step off the plane they'll rush right back though...

I relate to the smells of Paris for the moment, the stiff scent of the subway, the grilling "cashous" of the street vendors in the winter, the spring smell of Paris which I can't associate with any thing except... spring in Paris... that smell of the rentrée which again is undescrible.... The smells of the cheese stores as you walk by or the perfume stores as you go in....

From the US, it is and always will be clean fresh smell of my grandparents' home.


D.R. Bartlette said...

Believe it or not, the smell of diesel fuel/smoke. It's bad...but every time I've been to Mexico, I've smelt it everywhere. So now it's inexorably linked.
Also, good smells: sizzling meat, onions and cilantro. And in Papantla, vanilla everywhere...

mexpat said...

Wow- I just realized I hadn't responded to some comments here!

Ale- the smell of summer rain here seems to go so quick! The sky darkens, it pours down, and then 5 minutes later it's already drying up! Oddly enough, it's a smell I associate more with NC than Mexico.

Fned- I'm sure Paris is full of awesome smells that are Paris-only. I remember the stinky foot smell of a raclette restaurant as we entered in Zurich- the cheese stores must be the same. Speaking of cheese- I heard that Tupperware makes a special cheese saver item that they only sell in France that lets the cheese "breathe." They don't sell it in the US because culturally we don't think of cheese as needing to breathe. Ever seen it?

D.R.- oooh- going somewhere that just smells of vanilla sounds awesome! There's also the smell of people burning their garbage here, which I've actually started to sort of like... weird, I know, but they're probably 50 blocks away, so it just smells like a camp fire.