Monday, December 1, 2008

Ghost Scents

You wouldn’t guess it from the interior, with its pretty fountain, the enormous, suspended mosaic of two gigantic eyes following you everywhere in the main hall, the artwork in the hallways, the throngs of students happily chattering away between classes but… Many, many years ago, the Psychology building of my University used to be a Hospital. Nowadays, the building has acquired the familiar smell of Academic buildings everywhere, without a doubt, a special smell itself: The smell of students, library books, computers and a faint whiff of food and coffee from the cafeteria. It is a smell as instantly recognizable as that of high schools, as anyone who has visited their old high school for a reunion and has been hit in the face by a smell that is truly a blast from the past can attest. But there are times when one really comes to realize that this building’s current scent is actually the intruder, a smell that is trying hard to banish the previous occupant. The previous occupant sometimes strikes back, desperate, aggravated; running down the stairs to catch a class students are sometimes – in fact rarely enough so that it always remains a huge surprise- assaulted by the Ghost Scent: The smell of the Hospital. Where does it come from? How does it resurface? How does it manage to remain hidden the rest of the time? Why does it make our heart skip a beat when we smell it? I am not surprised we react to the smell with aversion and dread – we are, after all, socialized from an early age to fear hospitals, and their smell is a strong reminder of all the negative associations related to them. I am however surprised at the tenacity of the scent, seemingly becoming an entity that lives on and on, long after one would expect it to.

Ghost Scents are not always unpleasant however. Have you ever worn a loved one’s clothes and found yourself living with their smell all day long? I have a friend with whom I exchange clothes. She lives in Greece and I live in the Netherlands… We send each other packets of things that do not quite work in our wardrobes any longer. When her packets arrive, I open them to find myself surrounded by her presence. What’s most surprising is that even after several wears and subsequent washes, her clothes retain her own unique smell - the fibers completely drenched in her essence as it were. When finally the harsh detergents manage to strip away every last bit of her slightly vanilla scented skin, I always feel distinctly disappointed…

From clothes, to cars and houses, the smell of ownership is present, slightly different each time, mingling with the scent of fibers and materials. None are as distinctive and as potent as the smells created by diverse, unrelated individuals sharing a common goal. The smell of the gym, the same in every country you visit, decade after decade: Muscle and sweat, enough to make your adrenaline levels rise and your heart to start pumping the moment you walk in. Even more evocative, the smell of dance. A recent visit to the Ballet Academy to sign up for a class made me feel like I was about to faint from wistfulness the moment I walked in, recently. It smelled of learning, almost like elementary school and high school combined, and its familiar scent was mingled with that of sweat. Not the sweat of a single person, but that of many. It smelled of collective effort and art, of broken toes, blissful misery and hope. There is no way this smell could ever be eradicated, even if the Academy became something else. Like the smell of the Hospital, the ghosts of a thousand dancers’ smell would come back to haunt this place, claim it as their own.

Some ghosts are living, living through the ages. When I travel back to Thessaloniki Greece, I am always greeted by the scent of this ancient city the moment I step out of the airport. Air that’s slightly thicker than I’m used to over here, humid and salty, smelling of the sea and the people, the vague smell of herbs and woods. The smell of a particular sort of energy reverberating in the air. It makes me want to fall down on my knees, Pope-like, and kiss the ground that bore me.

Some scents are truly gone from this earth however. I am lucky to have them living in my head, and I am even luckier to have this strange ability to call them forth and smell them again whenever I wish to. The scent of my maternal grandmother, recently gone from this world, is probably the most precious such Ghost. It smells of her skin, scented like fresh dough after working her capable hands on each and everything that needed attention in the house. That slight smell of sweet and sour dough, the smell of light sweat over clean, soapy skin, calls forth an image of her working in her old kitchen, turning to smile down at me. And all I can do is wish I could run and hug her again. But at least I have her smell. Ghost of a scent.

Images: www.sxc.hu, www.morguefile.com


20 comments:

PinstripedZebra said...

Wow, that is a powerful article! This smells of the past: the smell of University, school, even kindergarten come to mind. I remember that they had a specific smell but I do not have your ability to call them to mind.

What does happen to me is that when I smell the perfume my dad used to wear I have to think of him. Or the perfume my mother wears whiffs through the air when I walk in the city and I have to think of her, only later realizing why...very interesting.

Great article, food for the mind!

//Z

Olfacta said...

A beautiful article.

My parents passed on within a year of each other. My mother was a photo-album person; she had many. We store them in old footlockers, also brought from their house.

The house smelled of age, musty basement, dog, Dial soap and elderly people. Not particulary pleasant, but when I open one of those footlockers and that scent wafts out, I'm happy to smell it. It truly is a ghost.

Ines said...

Dear Divina, what a beautiful post. And so true what you say of ghost scents.
It is truly a wonderful moment to be able to catch a ghost scent and be transported somewhere where some of our greatest moments happened and to remember the smell of people we love.

Jenavira13 said...

Ghost scents are such a funny thing Divina, I remember years ago when I was high school and we were renting a house and had an incident with a ghost scent. At one point my father came into my room and immediately asked if I had been smoking cigarettes, I looked at him dumbfounded by the question, but then realized I smelled cigarette smoke too. No one was in the house but us and I was most definately not smoking. I have always thought ghost scents should be associated with the weather's moisture and because of the change in it, it plays with the release of previous scents within buildings.

maisqueperfume said...

Ah Greece...last time i was there was winter and the air was freezing cold and the scent of orange was in the air....amazing.

ghost scents....I have a terrible experience with that.

I kept the fragrance of someone I loved very much once and while we were together it was the worst time ever! We suffered a lot because we could not be together.

This fragrance haunts me!

Every time I feel it I want to cry. It is like a ghost to me, it is there but it isn't really there, just the memory.

I also have a t-shirt that with my mother in law's perfume. She is like a mother to me and she is very far.
Every time I miss/need her close to me, I smell the shirt. It is weird but it gives me comfort!
She is alive and probably by the time the scent vanishes from the t-shirt we will have met again. I hope so!

I also keep the scent that brings my childhood back to me, deep down in my brain, a print that is there for good memories, times I felt really happy.

Rose said...

My sister used to wear so much perfume, I could tell where she had been in the house. When she went away to college I used to go up to her room and I could still smell her even after she had been gone for months.

Vetivresse said...

Excellent post, Divina. Just yesterday I was thinking about the the smell of the convent that was adjoined to my grammar school. God became associated in my mind with that scent of eternal cleanliness and order. The Jansenist God of Irish Catholicism.

ScentScelf said...

Divina,
Very nice. I love ghost smells. A long stored suitcase...dishes from my grandparents, kept in special boxes...a pillow from my grandmother's living room, which I put back into a sealed bag in order to try to keep the smell of her house...a select few clothing items from my children's baby years.

When I was an undergrad, the theater department had rooms on the top floor of what was an "old" building in the American midwest (100+ years)...the rooms had been "re-purposed" at least twice during their history, and depending on time of year, you could smell dance class or stored boxes.

Divina said...

Sweet Z, thank you so much! I loved reading about how the smelling the scents of your parents always reminds you of them, thank you for sharing. I will have to ask you, what was your father's perfume?

Divina said...

Olfacta, may the scent always remain lingering there, so that you can always recapture the scent of that house, dear.

Divina said...

Ines, yes, the call of the past can be tremendously moving sometimes. It is not always pleasant I fear...

Divina said...

JEN! That's f'd up! How cool?! And yes, how interesting your theory. It might well be correct! I never thought about that.

Divina said...

Simone dearest, first of all, how wonderful that you have managed to keep such a warm, sweet relationship with your ex-mother in law. Kudos to you! As for the perfume of an old lover... Oh yes. I know what you mean. Some of them have stayed with me too, along with the feel of the perfumed skin. Soft, warm, too long ago. Yes. I hope your heart heals in time and you never have to cry again over painful memories dear friend. *hugs*

Divina said...

Rose! I have such a similar story! I am planning to write about it when I review the particular perfume! It is my best friend's scent.. When she left the country for a while, she left all her belongings here. Her presence stayed with me for months, the guestroom was filled with her scent!

Divina said...

*smiles* Of course this makes me wonder what God would *like* to smell like? I hate the austerity western religion associates God with. If there is a God, look at this earth... Never austere, always tremendous, amazing, bedazzling. I do believe in God actually, but I don't believe in organized religion... Which hopefully does not offend people..

Divina said...

Scentscelf, how interesting that you mention the time of year. Convinces me even more that Jenavira really is on to something with her theory!

Flora said...

Lovely post, I am a big fan of scent/memory assocations, which I write about a lot,and you did a wonderful evocation of that feeling of being caught short by just a whisper of a smell from the past, or another place.

sage1 said...

Brilliant post, Divina,
and a brilliant blog. I stumbled on your blog this morning (synchronicity?) after a long, exhausting weekend. Reading this is like an instant vacation!

But the power of scent and the evocation of memories... Was is Proust who wrote about the scent of the madeline cookies that opened to him the storehouse of childhood memories?

We modern Americans are obsessed by cleanliness, and thus wash away our individual, biological perfumes (no, I'm not one of those 'body odor' creeps...); what I mean is that scent each one of us has... I had a boyfriend in high school who was blonde, and he had such a scent of warmth like honey and sunshine.. it was addictive.

Ghost scents? Oh yes... sometimes walking into one of those makes me emotional: the scent of lilacs is grandma's house. The late spring odor of the catalpa tree blooms reminds me of a childhood friend, Ellen, who died suddenly when those trees were in bloom. The overpowering perfume of easter lilies is church in the '50s.
And what can compare the the intoxication of the fir tree and Christmas memories?

The emotional states of people give off scents too: when people are in love, that perfume is obious. Newborn babies? If you've been a mother, you know what I mean.... And, take it from a professional... there is a scent of death...

I think you could write a doctoral thesis on this topic, my dear.

And thank you for opening my heart today! I'll be checking in with you often!

Divina said...

Flora, now you got me so curious, what do you write? It's so nice to see you again dear! ((( Hugs )))

Divina said...

Oh Sage, your comment is equally eloquent, I am sure you write beautifully yourself.. Your comment about the scent of old boyfriends started me on a path of thinking about the skin-scents of my own ex-boyfriends.

And what you said about babies.. Did you know they start recognizing (as well as prefering it to other scents) their mother's scent and vice-versa just after a couple of days? How beautiful is that?

Hope to see you here again. I loved your comment, so filled with thoughts and emotions.