18 January 2012

Midnight in Paris - the Scent of the City

Midnight in Paris - the Scent of the City

*This article was published at some point in 2011 on the site that shall not be named, except I did name it in a previous article below. The New York section of this article seemed to cause consternation to some readers although no offence was intended. It was simply coincidence that had stuck in my head, one of the multitude of seemingly strange things that occur many times every day in this smaller than we think world of ours.

Every city I have been to has had its own individual smell. The trouble is I cannot always describe that smell in words.

Every time I have arrived in the City of London I have taken a deep breath, not only to prepare me for the unknown that lies ahead but simply to take in the scent that has become a recognisable part of returning once again to that city. But if you asked me to describe it in words I wouldn’t be able to.

New York has its own unique smell. Even though I was there for only two weeks and cannot conjure up the smell now, I know that it is buried somewhere in my head.

How do I know?

Ten months after I had been on holiday in New York I awoke in my flat in London one morning, and in that hazy just waking up moment I said to myself, “Why do I smell New York?”

I though maybe it was the remnants of a dream. For some reason I often had dreams, and still do, where I was lost wandering the streets of New York unable to find my way back to whatever destination I was trying to reach. I hadn’t been dreaming of New York but the smell when I awoke that morning was so powerful that for a few moments I was startled by how real it was to me. But then with the work day ahead I thought no more about it, it was just one of those things.

Later that same day, at around two in the afternoon, I was sitting at my desk at work when a colleague sitting next to me said, “I’ve just been sent a text that a plane has crashed into New York’s World Trade Center.”

To me it was just a strange coincidence, one that I didn’t and don’t usually mention to anyone, especially as I am not a big believer in signs or premonitions and I don’t want to appear a lunatic. But as this is a story on the sense of smell I though I would mention it and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Paris has a smell.

Paris has a smell that I can describe.
On my first trip to Paris I hadn’t noticed the city’s scent or if I had I wasn’t aware of it. It was on my second trip that I discovered for myself the smell of Paris. I had wandered the city one night, lost in a drunken haze for several hours, completely unable to find my hotel amidst the narrow dark winding streets that all looked exactly the same in the darkness. This seemingly never ending, unexpected journey ended with the smell of Paris.

The drunkenness was a result of six hours of drinking bottles of red wine in the numerous bars of Oberkampf that led to one final bar where they served the best Jack Daniel’s cocktails I had ever tasted, not that I had ever tasted Jack Daniels in a cocktail form before to be able to compare. It was the cocktails that did for me that night. The girl I was with recommended them and they were mixed by a barman friend of hers, a concoction of Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort guaranteed to detach the imbiber from their senses. I think I had four or five in quick succession in the hour prior to midnight before realizing that I was now truly drunk and left the bar on auto-pilot without a word with the intention of heading straight back to the hotel.

But that night I found myself walking in circles, walking for hours only to eventually return to the same point I had been to earlier. The voice in my head accompanying me on my journey shouted at me continuously, “It must be this way, there is a sign for Republique, just follow that sign. That is where the hotel is, it must be.” Every time I followed the signs I would end up back where I had started or somewhere else, just not at my hotel.

As the long journey into the night progressed the voice in my head grew angrier with each step and started calling me a variety of names, none of them good. The voice was infuriated that I had gotten myself lost, that I had no actual cash left on me and that hours earlier I had placed the wrong PIN number in my cash card three times in succession and could no longer withdraw any money and could not take the easy option of a no doubt quick taxi ride back to my hotel. As the night progressed past three o’ clock and then four o’clock the voice in my head eventually grew weary of calling me every profanity it could think of and simply begged to be allowed the luxury of the soft sheets of the hotel bed and perhaps an ice cold coke to take away the dry throat and thirst.

At one point on my journey I stopped and asked strangers standing at a bus stop where Republique was and was told to get the night bus and it would take me there. I had a one euro coin left in my pocket, exactly enough money for one bus trip and took my seat, immensely thankful that I didn’t have to put my now aching feet through anymore of this torture and I would soon be able to enjoy the bliss of sleep in that bed that I desperately desired. It was all just a short comfortable bus ride away.

I then got off at the wrong stop and my wandering through that dark night in January recommenced.

People say that Paris is a city to walk in, but not for seven hours straight. I wandered through many deserted streets and boulevards and saw many majestic illuminated Parisian buildings, which at any other time on some sort of organised tour would have made for a wonderful sightseeing trip. At one point I wandered through a deserted underground motorway tunnel that had a large section of wall missing. As I passed by the crumbling section of wall I peered through and noticed someone bedding down for the night on the waste ground. As the person crawled into what appeared to be some form of sleeping bag he or she turned and looked at me and then slowly waved at me. Not wishing to appear rude I waved back - of course, why not. I had never been envious of a homeless person before. Goodnight, enjoy your sleep, at least you have a bed for the night.

Eventually, finally, as my feet and legs were screaming for mercy, as I was seriously considering sleeping in a doorway, as night had passed and the early morning daylight had arrived, the Place de la Republique statue appeared before me and I knew that my hotel was only a few more minutes walk. I passed the early morning workers exiting and entering the Metro, some looking strangely at this shambling figure who passed by but I didn’t care. All I could think of was that hotel bed and the sleep that would follow once I had pulled those soft blankets over me. I had been awake and out on the streets since 10 the previous morning and I had walked for almost seven hours non stop throughout the night.

And I as I walked the remaining few steps to my hotel past the cafes and restaurants and took a lungful of air, the smell suddenly hit me.

If you are up early enough and are a newcomer to the city the smell of Paris will become apparent. It is the sweet smell that emits from the patisseries that line the streets and also the smell of the freshly baked bread and croissants. There is also a hint of freshly brewed coffee mixed in, which emanates from the sidewalk cafes and restaurants. I had never noticed this smell before because I had never been out of bed and out on the streets of Paris this early. But it is a smell that will stay with me and that I will be able to remember if I ever need to write about Paris. If had never gotten lost that night I would never have been up that early in Paris on my trip and I would never have experienced that somewhat overpoweringly sweet scent.

Every city, perhaps every destination, has its own unique smell. The scent of a place can reappear at any time without warning, taking you back to a destination or time in your past and bringing back long buried memories.


Some people will read this and no doubt be hit with the smell of bullshit but that’s okay.

Everyones sense of smell is different.

Images copyright: G Crystal

16 comments:

TJ Lubrano said...

"Some people will read this and no doubt be hit with the smell of bullshit but that’s okay." - I had to laugh for a few minutes before I could write my comment!! Haha.

You have a gift of getting lost huh? :) Reading this makes me miss Paris again ^_^ It's funny how a scent can trigger memories and make it seem like you were there only yesterday. I recognize the sweet scent you're talking about and I recall watching the patisseries open and start their day as I arrived in pairs on a school trip very, very early. First thing I ordered was a cup of coffee...fully in French of course...don't ask me to do this again though.

I believe I told you about Aruba on the site that must not be named and its scent? I can't recall and I do not want to sound like a broken record...if not. I shall tell you again.

Ciao!

Garry Crystal said...

I like getting lost in different cities, just not for that length of time. Annoyance. Yeah I miss Paris as well, fantastic place. It's a MUST visit city, and should be visited every year.

I remember you mentioning Aruba on the other site but cannot rememer fully, yes tell all again.

TJ Lubrano said...

Think about the writing material you can collect when you get lost...that is if you're not to busy stomping around ^_^

Ah I shall tell you again! Aruba in general has a typical beachy sea salty scent. However there are two other scents that alternate each other. One is the typical suntan lotion scent, a touch of pineapple and coconut, very tropical and easy to get an overkill from (especially if you're with a friend who wanted to get tanned like NOW. She was funny haha) The other one is aloe vera. They have an extensive range of lotion and after sun thingies that one can use. Which makes sense as all the cruise people go to Aruba for either sunbathing or shopping. Quite interesting I must say. The only thing that was a shame is that they painted all the lanterns black on the main street. So it has a for more serious vibe. When my uncle was there for work each lantern had like 4 colors and it looked so colorful on the pictures.

/end story :)

Garry Crystal said...

That sounds great TJ, you are making me want to go on holiday somewhere nice and warm now. Why paint the laterns black, that's a bit weirdy gothic, maybe that was the idea.

Julian had written an article or maybe it was a short story on smell and bringing back memories, would leave a link but I can't seem to find it.

TJ Lubrano said...

I wish I could go somewhere warm too. It's freezing here. Annoyance -_-'. I did read that the lanterns have to be repainted every year or so...maybe too time consuming? Aruba is really aimed at the American tourists, with shops like Gucci, Chanel, Dolci & Gabanna, Luis Vuitton...not your average day shopping. I was fine skipping the shops as I dislike shopping, my friends not so much.

Ah maybe I can find it on his blog? Let the search begin...after I grab my scarf :)

Garry Crystal said...

I've probably written about Aruba in one of the thousand or so holiday descriptions i've written for a travel company.

Yes let the hunt begin, i've already searched but cannot find it, was a good one too.

TJ Lubrano said...

Oh cool! What did you write? You don't have the descriptions hidden somewhere huh?

If you didn't find it...not sure if I can now haha :)

Garry Crystal said...

For four years I wrote holiday destination descriptions for a major UK holiday company. I'm sure I wrote thousands of them, mostly on places i'd never actually been to, that's where internet research comes in very handy...they didn't let me put my name on them either, bah.

TJ Lubrano said...

How rude! Must stop imagining you as a tourist guide now (you wear a funny hat). Bah sounds funny :)

Garry Crystal said...

Yeah i'm sure holidaymakers loved going to the places after reading my descriptions and saying, this is nothing like he described, DOH!

TJ Lubrano said...

Haha! They don't know it's you anyway. You're safe :)

Julian Gallo said...

I can clearly remember the first time I ever smelled Paris. I had stepped off the airport bus at Gare Montparnasse in the pouring rain (sound familiar?) and the first scent that hit me was this rotten egg smell in the air, very similar to how Newtown Creek in NYC smells in the blistering summer months. I remember thinking "God I hope this smell doesn't remain for the whole trip." But it went away after about an hour or so.

When I went back for the second time, and I got off the train from the airport at Jardin du Luxemborg, the same smell, but it put a smile on my face because I just love Paris so much; and it was that moment I realized I had returned. :-)

Garry Crystal said...

I think both trips to Paris I have landed at Beauvais airport about 60Km outside of Paris but always Charles De Gaulle coming back for some reason. So no rotten egg smell for me.

TJ and I were trying to remember the article/short story you wrote on smells and memory, think it was published on the other site.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, this was really useful. thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great article, I think you covered everything there. . . I would say freelancing is quite hard especially if you are not used to working on your own, can be quite hard to motivate yourself also. . . we all know what it is like to stare at the monitor.

Anonymous said...

I was going to say Paris, for me, smells like dogshit and snobbery, but I'm glad you got a better story out of your visit. :)

And you don't remember the chicken farm down the street from my apartment in NYC, I guess.