Opinion / 24 July 2019

Olfactory Tourism

With memories, photos, videos, travelogues, and blogs, we try to convey the uniqueness of our exploration of the world

Travel photographs often fail to evoke a sense of ‘being there’. One reason, of course, is scale. Only professional skill or amateur luck can even begin to capture, in two small dimensions, the height, bulk, and distance of a mountain, the vast plane of the sea, or the space a cathedral creates. But another reason for this failure of representation is that the original experience is usually imbued with smells, which cannot be preserved or communicated.

More than other sensory experiences, smells evoke memories, yet memories cannot evoke smells. Moreover, encounters with smells are usually less intentional than other sensory inputs. Smells are contingent, incidental, seldom sought out for themselves. Yet when we chance upon a smell associated with an episode long past or a place far away, it can conjure nostalgia, homesickness, the urge to return.

We travel to see local sights, natural or cultural; we travel to hear local dialects, languages, birdsong and music, and to meet local people. Many travel to taste local specialties. This is called “culinary tourism,” a term coined by my friend Lucy Long, a scholar of the folklore of eating. For Lucy, culinary tourism is “more than trying new and exotic foods. The basis of tourism is a perception of otherness, of something being different from the usual” (Culinary Tourism, 2005).

If there is culinary tourism, is there such a thing as olfactory tourism? Like other sensory experiences, olfactory impressions are often unique to times and places. But who travels to encounter local smells? Very few, probably, but nonetheless we do experience such impressions while journeying for other purposes. And so I’ve come to realize I’m something of an olfactory tourist.

My earliest travel smells are from my Aunt Betty’s house in Darien, Connecticut, where my family spent seaside weeks during many summers in the 1960s and early 70s, and which stood right on the shore of Long Island Sound. Arriving from La Guardia or Grand Central, I knew we were there when the car tires crackled gravel and we stepped out into the air whose freshness and salt tang signalled the nearness of the ocean. The closer you got to the water, the denser the salt air grew, and when you swam in it, the water salted your nostrils and lips and left a brine-scented cladding on your skin, impervious to beach towels. That saline scent could stick to you for hours.

Aunt Betty’s house too was an olfactory smorgasbord. In her big kitchen you could smell fresh peaches, blueberries, and bananas, and at breakfast the aromas of brewing coffee and toasting bread and frying eggs mixed with the morning air sifting through the screens. These quotidian fragrances were made exceptional by the shortness of a week and the nearness of the sea. The musty house itself conspired with the ocean air to form a unique odour you might call saltdust. It smelled like a trace left by time itself as it passes.

The railroad stations on those trips also brought remarkable whiffs. To a boy, the odours of oil and grease and the sting of scraped steel were mysterious and exciting, and they blended with the permanent twilight on the platforms. In the concourses, a potpourri of passing perfumes and colognes marked this as a special place, away from everybody’s home.

Like railroad stations, airports were also good for encountering a mélange of other people’s scents. Weirdly, I associate the fusion of pungent jet fuel and cosmetic fragrances with the excitement of traveling. But now, with new formulas and conservation efforts, you don’t smell aircraft fuel on planes and at airports as much as you used to.

I first went to Austria in 1982. In the winter streets you could smell smoke from wood-burning stoves. Smoked meats are also popular in Austria, and the smoky aromas of air and food blended in my mind. More nostalgia: more central heating and improved technologies mean Austria is not as smoky (nor as dirty) as it was back then.

Around noon in Austria, hallways and streets fill with cooking smells: sautéed onions, and meaty broths and herbs. These and the clink and clank of kitchen utensils join to impart the quaint sense of families gathering for the midday meal. Such sentimental associations raise a question: is there such a thing as olfactory kitsch?

As an olfactory tourist, I am more interested in the smells of culture than those of nature. The scents of meadows and forests and lakes are delightful, but human activity produces more odours that bring “a perception of otherness, of something being different from the usual”. Still, the line is not easily drawn between culture and nature. Both in Europe and in the USA, I delight in the brief weeks in late spring when the linden trees blossom. Their scent, flowery and woodsy, is pervasive but subtle, and more enchanting for being ephemeral. But these are planted trees, placed by humans to adorn the green Nonntal neighbourhood in Salzburg, the banks of the Spree in Berlin, and my own Prospect Street in Bowling Green, Ohio.

My first time in London, our hotel room faced the courtyard, with the kitchen several floors below. On the first morning, the smell of poached haddock for breakfast came through our window. The breakfast room was dominated by the haddock on the steam table. In the United States, we generally don’t eat fish for breakfast. My nose was full of “otherness, of something being different from the usual”. Out on the street, I imagined I smelled more fish. Maybe I really did smell it wafting from fish-and-chips stands and pubs. Similar to my sense that Austria was a smoked country, I felt, or smelt, that London was steeped in fish. Later visits, even to the same hotel, did not yield the same impression. Had the haddock triggered olfactory hallucinations?

Perhaps not all olfactory tourism is pleasant. Is there a smell-based equivalent of the ruin tourism that delights in abandoned buildings in places like Detroit? Even disagreeable smells can be penetrating and evocative. On the other hand, the direct experience of stench is less bearable than the sight of an old movie theatre with a collapsed ceiling, since smell is channelled directly to the nervous system.

There is one great drawback to olfactory tourism: it is hard to share. There is no odoriferous equivalent of vacation photos. You cannot pick up CDs of aromas from souvenir stands. To share specific smells, we rely on our shared experiences. And if the experience has been exotic, “different from the usual”, that path is blocked.

Or perhaps the idea of olfactory tourism reveals the paradox of all travel: we go beyond ourselves to confront otherness, only to find that the experience has been largely private. With memories, photos, videos, travelogues, and blogs, we try to convey the uniqueness of our exploration of the world. Pictures and words can stand in for sights and sounds, but nothing can stand in for a smell except the smell itself – and that is fleeting.