Alone

Loneliness smells like myself. It’s generally believed that you can’t know how you smell. That may be true; if it were so, I wouldn’t know it. A much bigger problem is actually hidden here: how do I ever know that my perceptions are the same as any other human being’s? As I started to write, however I was thinking about no philosophical quibble. In fact, I may not know how I smell, but I know many of the smells I carry on me.

When I’m really scared, my body odour changes into something acrid, not quite like simple perspiration. As I struggled to overcome the anxiety that had been building up over my first year of high school, a foul smell settled in at the back of my throat. I remember it clearly. It was awful – not the smell itself, rather the feeling that it would never go away. Every time I inhaled, I’d smell my stress levels rising and rising. I don’t remember how I overcame that phase – I think my body found a different way to deal with anxiety, some physical symptoms that haven’t left me up to now. (I think the smell was easier to deal with.)

Now it’s not about anxiety, though. Smelling my own skin can be calming, even though I only feel the traces of things I’ve touched during the day. Right now, for instance, I smell like shower gel, and my hands retain the scent of the cheap liquid soap I’ve bought for my college room. I never smell like this when I’m home. At home, I smell like different kinds of soap and cat fur (next post should be about my cats, by the way – it should have been this one, but something different came up) and too many books in the same place (yeah, that means dust). Today, in my college room, I also smell like clean sheets, because I’ve not been here for a while and the bed linen has been changed, and I’ve been lying on it for a while after I showered. I still retain the faint stench of the train couch I’ve got here with on my jeans. It smelled like disinfectant, as every train couch in Italy is bound to. I hate it, but I’m leaving again tomorrow, so there’s no point in washing anything.

Remember, this has little to do with the smell of my room itself, which smells like clean bedsheets, but also floor cleaner and stale paint and something dry and hot which I cannot pinpoint exactly but which means “home”. Or, at least, the i’m-in-my-room-at-college version of home. The home-home version is much sweeter and has more than a tinge of wood (parqueted floors) and people. Yes, there’s no other person’s smell in here. I rarely let anyone in my room – there are comfier places to sit and talk here – and I’ve had no guests recently. Even my smell wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t present, because I’ve been staying home for a couple of weeks. When I get back here, in September, after the long Italian summer holidays, there won’t be anything different here from any other room in this building.

You know, that’s exactly where I wanted this post to end. Be it just smelling the perfume on my own wrists (which I seldom wear, and often exactly for this reason) to drive away some stink I’ve been forced to inhale, or thinking about the fact that I can only smell myself here and even my own smell won’t linger for long, I only smell myself when I’m alone, or when I want to be.

And now, I think I have a vial of apple scent somewhere in here. Time to smell something different, and maybe go to bed.

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Colours

Different people have different smells, and different smells have different colours. That’s something I’ve been clearly perceiving since many years. No, I’m not talking about synaesthesia – not in the neurological sense, at least. I don’t perceive smell as colour, nor do I perceive them simultaneously. Rather, I associate smell and colour in a semi-rational way. This works better when the source of it is a person, but I can generally describe smell better if I “work with coulour”, so to speak.

Obviously, since colour always carries symbolic connotations, I have a tendency to depict the kind of relationship I have with someone through the colour I associate with their smell. I guess this sounds complicated, or at least like I have some sort of colour-based table in which I chart everyone I know. Well, I don’t. I just know that a person who smells, for instance, orange is different from someone who smells green, and since I know people through the relationship they have with me, this is almost equally based on the actual smell of the person and on how I see them. Rest assured, though – there’s usually no correlation between the colour of a smell and the composition of the smell itself. That is, if you’re wearing perfume which contains tangerines, I probably won’t see you as orange. (Anyway, the particular smell of a person is never based on the perfume they wear – everyone’s skin smells different, and you usually don’t even have to get too close to catch a whiff of it.)

This means I know a yellow person (or, at least, I knew her), a golden person, a green one, some people who are different shades of orange (orange seems to be a pretty common colour for me to see people in), a pink person (more like flesh-coloured, actually), and many other shades of people. I even know someone who smells silver and blue. Two professors I know both use the same aftershave, so they both smell something like red, but one is definitely golden and deep red, just like old velvet, while the other one is a lighter, more metallic shade (they’re two completely different people – moreover, the first one smokes an impressive amount of cheap cigarettes). I know someone who smells white, but their smell is progressively fading into something diaphanous, like opaque glass or thick mist. I’ve known someone whose smell I couldn’t give a colour to – and that was terribly frustrating, not only because that almost never happens, and never to someone so close, but because I could exactly pinpoint and recognize their1 smell everywhere. Now I know that their smell is a dark, reddish brown (although this might have been slightly influenced by the colour of some sweatshirt of theirs), and it fits very well with other people I know who have smells in the “red area” of the spectrum. (Deep red usually means comfort to me, not alarm, while different shades make me nervous – see the light, metallic red I just wrote about. It’s a difficult balance, and is related to things I really care about.)

As I said above, it’s not just about people. Places and things have different colours too, based on their smell, but it’s more closely related to their actual appearance, and I don’t always associate smell and colour. My two cats, for instance, smell clearly different from each other, but I can’t say either smell has a colour, even though I have a pretty close relationship with both of them. Conversely, the four kittens who a couple of weeks ago tumbled down a roof and into the courtyard of the college I live in definitely smelled creamy-white, almost sickly (well, they weren’t exactly healthy themselves), and the flea-collar my oldest cat is wearing definitely smells pale green (I’d say it stinks pale green, but that’s not exactly grammatical, is it?).

I don’t know if what I wrote makes sense for anyone else. At least you will get what I’m talking about if future posts have colours as a title, or if I use them to describe smell. Next post should be about a particular situation, person or thing.

1 Yep, I use singular they. I find it pretty useful, actually, and would prefer you use the same pronoun in comments, should you refer to me in third person. That’s because I’m genderless, that is, I don’t identify as male nor female.

Why?

If you’re wondering about what could possibly lead someone to start a blog about smell, well, I think I can understand you. There’s a bunch of different reasons why I’m opening this blog right now, and I’m obviously going to share them. Why else would this post have such a title?

First and foremost, English is not my first language. I’m Italian, a first-year student in university, and currently hoping my writing doesn’t sound too weird. The truth is, even though my English speaking skills are pretty good (yep, this is almost purely self-evaluation) and I am able to read pretty much everything, as soon as I’m staring at a blank page I seem to forget spelling and syntax all at once. And, since I will soon need to be able to write fluently for my studies, I figured some practice was badly needed. What could be better than starting a blog?

(By the way, this also means that if you’re an English speaker and spot something which doesn’t sound right I would be happy if you pointed it out in a comment. Be harsh if needed, just don’t insult me.)

Of course, I’m aware of the fact that my need for writing practice explains why I started a blog, but not this blog. Why did I have to choose a theme, and why this one?

Choosing a theme, of course, can help if you’re writing in your second language. By sticking to it, I will feel compelled to write every time I notice something smell-related (and, as we’ll see in a moment, that happens almost every day, although I don’t think I’ll have that much time for writing), without feeling pressured to find a completely different topic for each new post. And, since choosing smell as a general topic will probably bring me to write quite short descriptions, I should be able to practice syntax and fluency without being too stressed out about conveying a message. (Yes, I know this sounds quite lame, but it’s what I need now. Maybe I’ll be writing about different topics in the future. I already have an Italian blog where I write about whatever I feel like to, however, and I’d prefer the two things not to overlap.)

So, about smell. It’s interesting how smell, smelly, to smell convey a mostly negative meaning – always so when used absolutely (that is, without a complementary adverb). You can read a lovely discussion on this phenomenon here. (It’s not the same in Italian, by the way, where you must use different verbs for profumare – to smell good, as in perfume –, avere un odore – to smell –, puzzare – to smell bad, to stink –, odorare/annusare – to sense with smell, to sniff.) Usually, we don’t like to smell other people (unless we are attracted to them), or to enter smelly places. I, however, love smelling things. And people. And places. I don’t care if the smell is good or bad (although I have an obvious tendency to associate smells I like with people/places/things I like), I must be able to feel it. Sometimes I catch a whiff of the perfume (or simply the body odour) of a stranger and I am captivated by it, almost to the point that I’d go up to them and say something like “Hey, you smell nice, wanna talk?”. (Fortunately, that’s creepy even for me.)

I analyze the world by sense of smell, don’t mind talking about it (well, I love talking about it, as some people already know), and feel like smell should get the place it deserves in our everyday life. Even if that place is on this blog.

About the name of the blog: if you’re thinking “The Wind in the Willows”, you’re right. It seemed appropriate for someone who goes around sniffing people (and stuff).

Sniff you later.