Friday, May 20, 2016

my new stink

I had a baby in January! She changed the way I smell in more ways than one, even before she arrived. I had that super-smell power in pregnancy; along with my already keen schnoz and some nasty nauseau this made me weak in the knees in the worst way. The streets of Cambridge have known my vomit. Certain late-summer evening-time plant smells that have always felt a bit scandalous became wretched with their desperate ooze. I remember telling people that I could smell poop through a wall, with the door closed. (I was fun to be around, and I got some of that renowned new-parent poop-talk practice in early.)
Then I gave birth and my sweat changed, during labor and after. It became potent in a way that I associate with too-close quarters and equatorial sun. Stink is one of the ways a baby knows her mother, so perhaps the strength of my stench had a use, but it was strange to be so potent during such a hazy, dreamlike time, as though someone else had snuck into my clothes, my skin, in the night. The strongest of it seems to have faded into what I now consider a 'chicken stock stink,' a kind of brothy underarm smell that I'm not wild about but that doesn't bowl me over. (If I return to this blog in earnest, you can trust it is likely to only get grosser!)
Baby Zo in February, freshly bathed, regards her mother, a bit of a stinkpot 
It is too hard to talk about a new baby's smell, but I will say it is beautiful and strange in ways I did not expect. There is something about her clean milky brand-new puppy breaths that feels too tender to say much about. At one point, she smelled to me like a (gently spiced) graham cracker--the way my own dried drool used to smell on the pillow some mornings, one of the best smells I've ever made now emanating from a new person I helped to make. She smells like a sun-warmed kitten and the cleanest creek, so soft and sparkling and elemental. Mineral and tang. Yogurt pop and cheese puff. Now she is four months old and it is spring.

She goes out walking in the evenings with her father and comes inside with that clean spring smell lifting off her, and it’s enough to knock me to my knees again, the radiance of it, but also a kind of grief that the world can touch her now, and she has to carry it, beautiful and blooming, on her skin.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Nosy Interview: Chris Miota

Chris sings in Stars and Dust in Corona Australis,  ©CHART32 Team, Processing--Johannes Schedler

I've known Aunt Chris since I was a kid, and though she's not my aunt by blood, she is part of the best-represented family on Nosy Girl (her daughter Katie, son Joe, and niece Jenny have all been featured here), and one of my favorite families on earth. If you can't make it to outer space to hear Chris beautifully belt it out with Freddy and the Blifftones, you can follow the band here and hopefully catch them soon in Milwaukee. 

What do you smell like? 
I smell like teen spirit. I recently joined a fantastic band, Freddy and the Blifftones, as a “chick singer,” as Freddy likes to call it. Total serendipity; long story; dream come true. When I was a teenager, Freddy and the Freeloaders used to play at our high school dances—and now through a series of unexpected confluences, I am in the latest incarnation of the band.  Imagine the smell of that—pure oxygen all mixed up with rhythm and blues, reggae, rock ‘n’ roll, show tunes, folk music, gospel and weekly practices in Pete the drummer’s basement with some of the best people I know.  When I come home from band practice, I smell happy and endorphinized, and it takes several episodes of DVR’d  Real Housewives to un-jazz the musical high. When I come home from a gig, I smell like spilled beer and laughter and sweaty hugs. 

I sometimes smell festive, as when I spring for a real eau de something, usually figgy with an undertone of something else green, like tea or cucumber or peony—my favorite flower. Our old house had a real Victorian garden, with peony bushes, and our rooms were filled with that lushness for weeks in late spring. Now we live in a small condo overlooking beauteous Lake Michigan, with its metro/lakefront smells. I guess I smell urban-y, from walking through the neighborhood of restaurants and bookstores and coffee shops and rich people and skateboarders and people from St. John’s with their garland-festooned walkers and homeless people pushing carts of cans who never fail to wish a good morning and a God-bless. 

What do you like to smell? 
Attics. Basements. Old dimestores. They all make me have to pee. In a good, excited way. Babies’ feet. The necks of my kids, when they were little, after a day of being outside.  Forests. Snow. That wisp of smoke from a blown-out kitchen match. My beloved grandma’s empty real bottle of real Chanel Number 5—because it smells like her, not like the perfume, to me. Our little cottage up north, because it always smells the same when we open it up in April—indescribably ready, steady, and fraught with the unknowability of the season to come—and the occasional dead mouse.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Nosy Interview: Rebecca Scherm

Rebecca in Solar Flare from a Sharper Sun, © Solar Dynamics Observatory/AIA, NASA

Rebecca sent me a delightful e-mail last year (after discovering Nosy Girl through her reading of Alyssa Harad) wondering whether I was still collecting nosy interviews. It was a fine question as this interview space has been woefully under-utilized! But let Rebecca serve as signal flare, launching us back into more regular postings of Nosy Interviews. (I've missed them.) Rebecca's debut novel, Unbecoming, comes out next week and after reading her responses you'll probably join me in jonesing to read it. While we wait, let's visit Rebecca's website and follow her on Twitter @chezscherm

What do you like to smell?
I like bracing smells —Aquavit, grapefruit peel, black pepper—and green-grungy smells like moss and damp bark. I love the smell of Sun Bum sunblock, which has the best “postcard from the beach” memory-scent. I love the smell of my gentleman when he has just come in from playing basketball—the fresh sweat of single-minded exuberance. The timothy hay my rabbit eats. Saltwater. Cilantro. And what I sometimes think of as cellar smells: cardboard, wet rocks.

When I was a teenager, I liked all those blue-bottle “clean” scents—Gap Dream and any lotion called “calm” or “serenity.” But one day I was watching a maxi-pad commercial on TV and when they poured the blue juice, I conflated it with all those blue bottles and that was the end of that. Now that I’m older, I guess I like to smell a little dirty.

The first not-food smells I remember loving are grass clippings left on a lawn and the small hardware store, then called Botkin’s, where I grew up. Concrete, dirt, fertilizer, unknown greases and glues. I love the smell of wet paint as you roll it on the wall (the sound, too). Murphy’s oil soap. I love the smell of black mulch and cedar mulch. These are all home-owning smells, aren’t they? I can’t explain it. I don’t own a house. Maybe these are my smells of childhood happiness—the scents of playing outside and then coming home, together.

What do you smell like? 
I was an unlikely candidate for perfume. I turn my nose up at “fancy” things, ads that quantify sex appeal, the notion that you can purchase something that represents you better than you can.

What happened was that I was in Manhattan and needing to pee so I went into Bergdorf Goodman, somewhere I only ever go to pee. On my way out, a man waved a fuchsia glass bottle at me and swore I would love it. Instead of just saying no thanks and moving on, I told him that I didn’t like fruity smells. I may have been prickly. I didn’t like how he’d pegged me. Then he asked me what I did like, and I stopped and said “grass clippings.” I guess I thought that would end the conversation. Instead, he leapt to a bottle at the other end of the counter, and I let him spray it on me. I had no idea what I was smelling, only that my skin smelled rebellious—languid, arrogant, humid, and green. The word I always want to use for it is “humpy.” I felt almost stoned.

That’s how it starts, right? I felt transformed, like this perfume had given me some new quiet power. Later, when I held out my wrist to a friend, she recoiled. To her it smelled like a rich old man offering to show us his etchings. I couldn’t believe it! I second-guessed myself and smelled hundreds of perfumes that weekend, but everything else seemed sweet or powdery or like a red scarf thrown over a lamp. But I couldn’t buy Humpy. For one thing, it was $300—which didn’t jibe at all, since to me it smelled like drunken skinny-dipping in a slippery, algae-skinned watering hole. $300 was out of the question, both really and philosophically. It made so mad that I liked it.

A month later, I bought a sample vial on the internet. My feelings about it have changed since that first spell of mad lust. What we have is a summer thing. It’s only Humpy when it’s hot outside, when it mixes with sun and sweat. In the cold, it smells moneyed, and I hate it and don’t get it at all. 

But that was my first bite of the apple. I know I'm still at the beginning of this, and I only like perhaps one perfume in a hundred, but the odds just stoke my appetite. I have to find them. When I do, I feel this rush of both revelation and recognition, as though I’ve found something I was trying to say but could not find words for.

To finally answer your question: I smell of Annick Goutal L’Eau d’Hadrien and Voyage d'Hermes when I’m feeling nice and Creed Original Vetiver (yep, that’s Humpy) when I’m not. I still have only sample vials. But the scent of my truest heart is Wild Hunt, from CB I Hate Perfume. In it, I feel profoundly mine

Monday, November 24, 2014

late-fall reading list

What are you reading? I have four end-of-fall recommendations, all from Nosy Interviewees (all fragrant, foxy, and friendly):

Foxes on the Trampoline by Charlotte Boulay
Charlotte, the first-ever(!) nosy interviewee featured on the site, published her first book of poems and it's gorgeous, funny, and brilliant. It gave me chills on a 90 percent humidity day this summer in Boston and now it's giving me comfort as the days grow short, and cold. You can read Charlotte's poem "Scientists Have Discovered," on your phone right now, as you walk to the bookstore to buy her book.

Friendship by Emily Gould
Read the first chapter of Emily's lovely and funny and bittersweet debut novel here, and     then get into it with Bev and Amy as they sort out their lives in contrast to and connection with one another in a way that is so welcome.  If this list has you hankering for still more book recommendations, hightail it over to Emily Books and subscribe to receive one great ebook each month for a year.  (Emily, self-proclaimed perfume nerd, also has a great review of Mandy Aftel's Fragrant, next on this list, at Bookforum.)

Fragrant by Mandy Aftel

That cover! It matches the amazing packaging Aftel uses in her shop (where you can buy the companion kit to Fragrant and "smell along" as you read), and you can bet what's inside this book will be more beautiful still. How have I not read this yet?!? I revere Mandy! It tops my to-read list, and here's a taste from the jacket copy:
In Fragrant, through five major players in the epic of aroma, she explores the profound connection between our sense of smell and the appetites that move us, give us pleasure, make us fully alive. Cinnamon, queen of the Spice Route, touches our hunger for the unknown, the exotic, the luxurious. Mint, homegrown the world over, speaks to our affinity for the familiar, the native, the authentic. Frankincense, an ancient incense ingredient, taps into our longing for transcendence, while ambergris embodies our unquenchable curiosity. And exquisite jasmine exemplifies our yearning for beauty, both evanescent and enduring.

The Self Unstable by Elisa Gabbert

Elisa's writing is so smart and funny and humane and it will get under your skin in a good way and change the way you see. The cover makes me a little bit dizzy, but champagne-dizzy, where everything holds so much promise and sparkle, and everyone is wittier and more beautiful than they were just a few hours earlier. Elisa makes it so.

{All the pretty drop caps are courtesy Jessica Hisch's Daily Drop Cap.}

Saturday, June 28, 2014

grown in rwanda

Lowell interviews Nyirahabimana in Gisagara, Rwanda.

Minsi myinshi (long time), Nosy friends! I have missed you. I apologize for this fallow period. I've had a lot of trouble accessing Blogger from Rwanda, where I'm still happily sniffing the best coffee on earth and burying my nose in my scarf against burning-tire smells. I've also neglected this space some in favor of finally finishing a big draft of my novel, which I hope smells like the air before a summer thunderstorm. Though I haven't been posting much, I'll return to the U.S., thanks in a major way to my Kinyarwanda-speaking partner (pictured in the field above, eliciting the laughter that "What do you, yourself, think you smell like?" was usually met with), with heaps of really amazing Nosy Interviews that I'm so eager to share with you. (We've collected nearly 100! I'm also sitting on a small but marvelous backlog of interviews from sniffers in the U.S. and other parts of the globe--I haven't forgotten you either!).

Look what grows in Rwanda (floral arrangements by Ru, one of my very favorite visitors)

We return to the U.S. this week, and once I catch my breath I hope to deluge you with so many smells you'll be dizzy. Apologies to those who have provided such lovely interview responses only to have them languish for this long (fermenting nicely!), and to you, if you've come here lately hoping for some fresh smells only to find me wishing you a Happy New Year/Valentine's Day yet again. I do hope the first half of your 2014 has been fragrant, that beautiful flowers are blooming wherever you are, and that you'll stick with me even after this sorry stretch of blog-anosmia. A sneak preview of some of the smells people here have shared stories about: snake's breath, the flower that kills luck, clean riverbeds, sun-dried laundry, warm milk, and every smell you can imagine (and some you haven't yet) relating to cows. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

love you, stinkpots

Yow! Happy Valentine’s Day! What could be more romantic than the removal of the toilet in your home, exposing a vast waste-well that dwells just beneath the floor? It is tremendous, really, the smell of so much waste, and contrary to my hyperbolic moans and groans, and the speed with which I fled the scene, I suppose I still believe it is good to be reminded, once in a while, of the shit just beneath the antiseptic pink bathroom tiles. And this shit, forced as it is to linger in the city, underneath so much concrete, confronts with such force precisely because it is indoors, doesn’t even have the benefit of being surrounded on all sides by trees and breeze and grass and dirt and the shit of other animals, powering up the plants that fuel our future shits. [Updated to add: The source of the ongoing toilet drama turns out to be tree roots growing into, and blocking, the pipes. Know our power!, say the mighty trees, even as we rip out their roots.]

I smelled many amazing things in January. Some highlights:

Sniffin' hard
  • Early in January, my new friend Mario, who has been incredibly generous with his amazing olfactory knowledge, invited me to a cupping at the Starbucks Farmers' Training Center in Kigali. It was great fun to play around with the coffee notes kits, to sniff and slurp freshly-roasted coffee with expert cuppers, and to gain insight into how professional noses approach coffee. Mario stressed the importance of being able to differentiate between preference and description, something I struggle with when approaching complex aromas. My nose zooms right in on the notes I love (chocolate, maple syrup, and toast when it comes to the coffee I'm drinking most often these days), and I want to work on sussing out those notes that I don’t love so well.

    Mario in his element
  •  Mario, pictured above with an in-bloom coffee tree growing in his front yard, is also responsible for introducing me to the smell of a coffee flower. It was so beautiful! It smelled of jasmine and lilac, two flowers I adore, and I was swooning at the thought of encountering whole fields of these. Mario and Lucius, resident coffee geniuses, have both spent loads of time in just such fields, and their descriptions have propelled coffee-field-in-bloom to the top of my travel wishlist. 
  • I learned that the heady, crazy-making flowers in the previous post are called brugmansia, or, in Kinyarwanda, ikigogo/ikijojo, and that they can legitimately make you mad. (Thanks to Elizabeth and Diana for sharing your plant wisdom.)  
    Ice-chip-sized hail!
  • In late January, there was a freak hailstorm in Butare, amidst day after day of sunshine and near-90s weather. The ground near the National University was steaming as the huge pieces of hail melted, and this seemed to set off every fragrant plant in the area—my husband and I could smell blasts of eucalyptus and lemongrass from the car even with the windows rolled up. There was also a super-intense curry-like smell that reminded me very much of asafoetida. We found the scratchy little leaves that were giving off the hing-smell, and I'll endeavor to find out what the plant is called (when the leaves dried, they smelled much fruitier, almost plummy or currant-like. Nature is nuts!).
In spite of the hail, it's the short dry season in Rwanda, and this means the return of what I've come to think of as dusty B.O. The hot sun leads to sweatier humans, to be sure, but I think there's a particular bite to the B.O. that's mixing with so much kicked-up dust. It’s one of the first smell-changes I noticed in myself when I arrived in dusty Kigali last summer. I want to learn to embrace elements of this powerful stink, to again distinguish between preference and description, and to fight against the fact that I was, like many Americans, “born with deodorant in [my] hand.” (Click that link for great interview with Sissel Tolaas in Swallow magazine.) To understand a place, to know a person, you must smell them at their worst. Not that I think it’s possible to understand anywhere, to really know anyone, but the joy comes in the endeavor, the trek through all that shit.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

new year, new smells

Mwaka Mushya, Nosy Readers! I've neglected this space lately, but I’m still experiencing all sorts of new smells in Rwanda. We’ve relocated from Kigali to Huye/Butare, where the dusty red roads, rows of semi-abandoned storefronts, and legitimate cowboys give the place a real Wild West feel. But the people are warm, and Butare is home to the best ice cream and coffee in all of Rwanda (more on both in later posts), so it’s a good move. I will be back with new Nosy Interviews soon, but in the meantime, here are some of the best and worst things I’ve smelled in the last few weeks:

The best:
Image via Mallee Native Plants

  1. Eucalyptus seeds! Have you ever seen these? They look like darling vintage buttons, bell-shaped and clustered together, their star-shaped openings secreting the stickiest rich sweet smell of their seeds. I’ve had a dried cluster on my desk for a couple of weeks, and it still yields its plummy (more in terms of the color of the smell than the actual smell), tangy, resinous scent. Let’s hope I don’t get one of these gum nuts stuck in my nostril.
    (so overwhelmed by the scent that I've gone blurry)
  2. These yellow bell flowers! Their smell is totally insane! (That’s me above, standing under them, drunk with delight. Does anyone know what these are? I must get myself a field guide.) These bloom at dusk and in the evenings and they will give you a new understanding of the word intoxicating, their sexy indolic smell enough to make you wish to become one of the bugs or birds that goes bell to bell, helping these plants propagate.
    An inyambo gets scented up 
  3. It’s been far too long since we’ve discussed manure around these parts. I recently smelled some very fine dried and burning cow dung (royal cow dung) in Nyanza, where the royal herd is kept. The herders burn a huge stack of dried dung to keep flies away from the cows, and these majestic (and smart!) creatures come over and stand inches from the fire to season their skin with the smoke, and make its fly-repellent power last.
The worst:
  1. Burning tires/garbage still holds my top-spot for smells I like least in Rwanda. On a walk, my dear friend D. mentioned how the smell reminds her of her childhood, and because of this, she likes it. People are often surprised to learn that others like smells they consider gross: manure, gasoline, skunks. This might be the first time I joined in such surprise, and even though the odor of burning tires still makes me want to gag, I do think of it a bit differently since she shared her nostalgia with me.
  2. A new contender for grossest smell in Rwanda is the sausage-like aroma that rises up from one of the toilets in our new place (Welcome/warning, future houseguests!). Yesterday I think I came closest to an accurate description when I described it as ‘hot-rot turkey carcass.’ We’re working on it (both getting rid of the smell (me & my husband) and figuring out how best to describe it (mostly me, as he doesn’t think it’s quite as bad as I do—hopefully future houseguests will find they agree with him.)).
I’ll be back soon with some recommended reading and more notes on smells, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear about the best and worst things you’ve smelled so far in 2014.

Monday, December 23, 2013

a red smell after sudden rain

Kalahari Desert © Hentie Burger
It took me a long time to finish the remarkable Mating by Norman Rush, and even longer to stop wishing I were still reading it. I'm still calling up things I learned from the book in regular conversation, wondering for a moment who told me this or that, remembering, again, that it was no one I've met, but someone I do know well. Here is our unnamed narrator on a smell she can't forget: 
The smell of the Kalahari after sudden rain is something you never forget. What blooms up, especially when the sun gets to work, and even in cool-tending June weather, is an odor so powerful and so elusive that you want to keep inhaling it in order to make up your mind which it is, foul or sweet. It seems poised midway between the two poles. It’s resinous or like tar, and like the first smell of liver when it touches a hot pan. It fades as the dryness returns, and as it does you will it to persist until you can penetrate it. It’s also mineral. Nelson thought I was hyperventilating, until I explained. I think he said he agreed it was remarkable—I had gotten to the point of claiming the smell was red, or maroon, somehow—but that if he didn’t react as strongly as I did, there was a reason. I’ve been here longer than you, he said.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

kigaloween, and the tale of the scary spice

Kigaloween spirit 

Happy Halloween! Or Kigaloween, as I'm celebrating this year. The scariest smell of the week was definitely the overpowering olfactory force of the seeds of dozens of urusenda, or hot peppers (very hot peppers), that I was preparing for pili pili sauce (I followed these guidelines, plus olive oil and salt). Having been in Rwanda only three months, I am already at pains to tolerate a potato without the homemade hot sauce that's available at most restaurants. We use (and love) Akabanga and Sabana at home, but I wanted some of the fresh stuff, so I set about deseeding dozens of the beauties pictured below with the protection of some latex gloves (kindly provided by my friend and housemate, from her stash dedicated for use in archival research--who says it doesn't pay to live with graduate students?). I was not prepared for the power of these seeds! (My hands may have been, but my nose, throat, eyes, and brain were unguarded.) Even the next day--when the bulk of the seeds had been discarded, but a few remained, along with the peppers, waiting for the superglue to dry on the food processor (owned by that same beloved, well-prepared researcher)--everyone who entered the kitchen came away crying and coughing. 

My apologies, housemates! Please enjoy the hot sauce in the fridge, now de-weaponized. 

So I have even more sympathy than I otherwise might for the residents of Irwindale, California, who have filed a suit against Huy Fong Foods, maker of the indispensable Sriracha (and, even more delicious in my estimation, chili garlic sauce): 
...[In] Irwindale, where the hot sauce’s production facilities are, residents are complaining of burning eyes, irritated throats and headaches caused by a powerful, painful odor that the city says appears to be emanating from the factory during production. The smell is so aggressive that one family was forced to move a birthday party indoors after the spicy odor descended on the festivities, said Irwindale City Atty. Fred Galante.

The spicy odor descended! This is the kind of smell news I savor. I can just see the ghoulish little phantasm of a fiery pepper (probably baring teeth similar to those pictured on the pumpkin above) snaking into this celebration, forcing everyone to clutch their party hats and run inside with their cake. A judge will decide whether Huy Fong must "stop production until the smell can be reduced,"and I suspect I speak for hot sauce lovers worldwide when I say I hope the company and the city can come to a speedy resolution. Huy Fong produces 20 million bottles of Sriracha each year, and it's certainly scary to imagine all the foods out there, counting on that delicious spice, remaining bland in its absence.