To smell – or not to smell….

For seven weeks I could smell… nothing.

A problem with my sinuses meant I could not register any smell at all: from pungent to sweet, acrid to scented – the good and the bad.

It became the new normal. My whole world was a odour-free zone.

Gone were all the rich, salivating cooking smells that accompany the most delicious meals. No fresh tang of oranges or sharpness of salt and vinegar crisps.

Gone were the sweet, soft, mellow, deep, coffee aromas.

Food is much less interesting when it smells of… nothing.

Some odours we can control: cigarettesburnt toast, grease, hyacinths, cleaning fluids.

Some are just part of who we are and who we live with and how we live: oil-fired heating, polished wood, wet dog, new carpet, fresh paint, nappies.

And then there are the environmental odours that we cannot contain: heavy exhaust fumes, pervasive farm smells, ventilation outlets, fresh tarmac, newly mown grass, living above a fish and chip shop. 

With no olfactory sense to keep odours in check I feared there would there be lurking, lingering, heavy smells on me, and in my home? Of cat food….. congealed cooking oil… blocked drains… damp…something burning… gas.

Might other people smell something fetid, putrid, rotting in my home?

Is there a rancid overpowering heavy smell and lingering odour of fish, of curry and garlic… Of dirty flower water that needs changing… damp dish cloths that have been sitting too long…

Is there an over-powering sickly sweet of pot pourri?  

How would I know?

Over-compensating for a loss of smell by adding even more powerful odours to the mix: Lemon, pine, cotton fresh, lavender. So, by pitting one smell against another smell, was I just making it worse? 

Then, yesterday, my sense of smell returned. 

First, it was a hint of an odour, a mere whiff of something… something different. But it was also an awakening; an unexpected stirring of the senses that was odd and unnerving.

This was something peculiar, yet strangely familiar.

I am rediscovering that odours are complex. And as I move from room to room I recognise how they can add a powerful dimension to spatial experience.

As if for the first time I am confronting heady, deep tones combined with pungent highs; stench vs  scent.  Locating and identifying these odours is about making sense of a world where you can take nothing for granted.

Opening the fridge suddenly becomes an experience rather than a routine action. It releases the subtle freshness of fruit and vegetables, the pungency of old cheese, the fragrance of something sweet.

This reminded me that my granny’s fridge smelled of spilt milk; sour and heavy. My grandfather’s house smelled of stale cigarettes, and coal fires. 

I recall the heavy, pervasive smell of over-cooked cabbage ( school dinners) of steamy, laundry-day (my mother’s twin-tub), of turf fires and pipe tobacco. These odours are not in my life any more. 

A designed experience makes full use of the senses.

Aromas draw you in (coffee, freshly baked bread), but stinky smells turn you off, and away (bleach, cigarette smoke).  Multifarious layers of odours, with underlying base notes can confuse, and repel.

Every estate agent knows a bad odour can actively put buyers off.

Quite simply: it’s hard to picture yourself living somewhere that smells rank.

We rely on ‘smell’ to override what we ‘see’ in order to decide what we ‘think’.

We can live without being able to smell – many people do. But then we lose the ability to call on all our senses to protect us and alert us to danger; to something that could be potentially harmful, or just, ‘not right’. 

In the Oscar award-winning film Parasite the young son identifies the link between the four people working for his family, because they all ‘smell’ the same. As a child, he says it as he thinks it (out loud) and without the social filters of adulthood. 

The family of tricksters could present themselves with confidence because they were clever and savvy. But their underlying odorous hints were something they could do nothing about, and revealed much more than they would wish. 

Necessarily living in close confines in a basement, odours of sweat, stuffiness, poor ventilation, perhaps damp and poor drains is a smell associated with poverty. But also, of shared washing powder, cheap soaps, shampoos, shaving balms. 

These odours linger, can be carried on our bodies and clothes, and are difficult or impossible to mask or control.

Wealth has a more than a whiff about it.  The smell of success is neutral and unobtrusive, perfectly pitched to be appealing, subtle yet uplifting. It is: leather seats, fragrant flowers, polished floors and the evocative aromas of ‘newness’ that is, freshly painted, clean, scented, delicate, expensive and pristine

it is said that Queen Elizabeth 2 is immersed in a world that smells of fresh paint. Her visits are carefully stage-managed so she only ever see places looking spruce and smelling ‘new’.  She wafts in, and wafts out, in a fresh, sweet-smelling cloud – or bubble.

In Parasite, it was a permeating smell that changed everything.

For the wealthy family, this ‘offensive’ odour was a deal breaker. They could not tolerate it in their charmed and privileged lives.

For the poor family, living in a cramped environment, it came down to a distinction that reeked of an abject lack of respect.

While, there are some benefits to having no sense of smell – zero stench, nothing putrid or rank. It is a world that smells of nothing.  

I can now experience the world as it is, and as everyone else.

To smell what they smell (good and bad) and to recognise and enjoy those smells, is to have a full and rounded sensory, spatial experience.

What a wonderful world it is.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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