Buildings have their own smell. Have you ever noticed it? With the change of weather, buildings exhale their age, materials, and history.
First, homes definitely hold their owners’ scents. You could lead me blindfolded into a home, and I’d tell you in a second if the occupant was a vegetarian or had pets. (Honestly, vegetarians smell a little mustier than meat eaters.) I have a housesitter, a terrific guy, and when I handed over my keys, I wondered if he’d feel comfortable in my home surrounded by my odor: two cats, flowers on the mantel, old furniture, a ripe cantaloupe in the refrigerator. I changed the sheets and gave the mattress a few spritzes of Santa Maria Novella cologne.
The Parisian apartment I’m staying in has its smells, too. Coming up the stairwell, I smell the old wood that makes the frame of this 1930s building. On the wool carpet running up the stairs, fastened by brass rods to each step, hangs traces of the occupants who climbed it with arms full of groceries or terriers or rain-heavy wool coats over the past few decades. The woman whose apartment I’m staying at used to smoke, and the vaguest — really, just a bare hint — of tobacco clings to the walls. Lucky for me, she’s also a perfume lover. Sotto voce fragrance murmurs in the background.
On the street, buildings breathe a dirty-stony scent in August’s muggy air. Cafés exude coffee and floor cleaner. Courtyards right now are thick with the indolic, sweet fragrance of glorybower trees. And, of course, diesel fumes infuse the streets, competing with the occasional pocket of urine.
A building doesn’t have to smell “good” to be good. It’s life that I like to smell. I love imagining the stories that have chased and teased and counter-chased through the years on every stretch of hallway or sidewalk I pass. Scent has a way of sticking around when sound and sight have long gone.
What about you? How do you feel about strange and even unsettling smells when you travel?