Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Nosy Interview: Britta Ameel

Britta pictured in "The Comet and the Galaxy," © J.C. Casado

Britta and I first met at a party. She was a prospective student at the University of Michigan, and I (already a student) remember hoping she'd decide to attend. Lucky me, she did (and the rest is ongoing, rather than history). Internet haunts where you might encounter Britta include Oh, the World is Very Big and Tavern Books.

What do you smell like?
My mother will tell you I smell like garlic. I’m not as embarrassed as I used to be, my breath an identifiable record of a good meal. And it helps that the person with whom I spend most my time smells equally sweet/strange/noxious/earthy. My mother is convinced I have a particular intolerance to it, that garlic smells more intensely on me than anyone else she knows. Physiologically, I can understand how this may be possible, but I’m not yet willing to admit I might be one of them.

(This compound, allyl methyl sulfide, is a byproduct of garlic digestion and is directly aerated through your skin and lungs a few hours after eating your favorite spaghetti sauce. In 1936, doctors proved it was the GI tract and not the mouth’s responsibility: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,756476,00.htm)

I read somewhere that, although our sweat is mostly water and trace minerals, some ridiculously small percentage is a laundry list of less-abundant and not-always-identifiable odiferous compounds that vary much more between people than in an individual’s lifetime. We sense these on each other as our individual scents but not on ourselves because we are so used to them. I am always amazed by this, that even rolling over on his pillow in the deepest sleep tells me that it’s his pillow, distinctly him, even if we just did the laundry.

I can smell myself after skiing, brewing beer, cooking, and working on a motorcycle with my husband (read: holding greasy parts). I am also keenly aware of smelling like Burt’s Bees classic lipbalm. When Elizabeth and I are in the same room, building, hell—even city, she always notices when I reapply.

I would have told you in college that I smelled like Pikaki, an oil I bought at the local perfume shop. I was intensely proud of wearing what I thought was a rare scent, picking it out myself, being known for smelling as such. So when my roommate came back from winter break with another Pikaki perfume, I was, as any idiotic, self-obsessed adolescent is wont to be, pissed. I got over my frustration—it did smell good on her—but the obsession is still there. In looking up pikaki, I learn it is Jasminum sambac, closely related to the jasmine in my new favorite perfume. Some desires never die, I suppose.

Perfumes don’t last long me. I am intoxicated with my jacket cuffs for days after the rare spritz. It might have been Kiehl’s Musk layered with their Coriander or Grapefruit oils, Le Labo’s Jasmin 17, Stella McCartney’s Stella. I used to smell like Acqua di Gio, but now the bottle won’t spray anymore and I’ve forgotten its scent. Recently I’ve been into Kate Walsh’s Boyfriend—Elizabeth is right in that it smells a little pineapple, a little benzoin, a little beastly. But I love that it also smells like pencil shavings.

What do you like to smell?
Pencil shavings.

Fresh hops. Sawdust. Sage, rosemary, lavender, spearmint, basil, cilantro. Hyacinths. Jasmine. Grapefruit. Buddha’s hand. Honeycrisp apples. Ginger. Coffee. Lumber yards and pine forests and peaty scotch.

Wet sweat when I take off my ski jacket at lunch. Wet wool. Wet leather (car interior—my first car, drowning in the winters of Oregon and refusing to start all spring). Wet grass. Wet soil. Bark. Moss. Snow.

Heating the cast iron pan for dinner. Regardless of its last dish, it smells like my favorite chana masala recipe by Madhur Jaffrey (thanks Charlotte, for introducing me).

I loved the headiness of smelling the distilled compounds in the otherwise tedious organic chemistry labs. These absolutes, though you might know what they are, never smell like what you think. Linalool smells incredible: spice and floral and chemistry heaven (side note: in looking up the ingredients to Acqua di Gio, I spot linalool among plenty of other smells mentioned here). Once we made methyl salicylate, the “wintergreen” gum smell, and my lab partner had to pinch my nostrils to get the collecting beaker away for disposal (into the organic waste bucket—good god, that’s a smell I hope never to whiff again). It was like sugar and lavender and mint times a million, but all wrapped up in a smell that only smells of itself, so pure your brain can’t even really understand it, grasps at straws for comparisons. Another time we made limonene, serious orange—perhaps the only time I’ve come close to synesthesia. I sniffed and my brain flashed orange, orange, orange like the time I fell off my bike days after moving to San Francisco and ended up concussed and peeing in a plastic basin in the hospital. (My man knew to call the ambulance when I told him everything looked orange, that I had dreamt of this.) I love the smell of clementines. I discovered them for myself when I lived in France and ate clementines, Nutella, bread, tomatoes, Babybel cheese and wine for just under a year. I must have smelled delicious then.

I love the smell of my husband and his closest boys smoking cigars on a porch. Bourbon, clove, cinnamon, and lemon steeping for his hot toddies. The added honey. The hatband inside his driver’s cap that we bought together in Sweden one afternoon when it rained so hard my purse filled with water. The apartment of the poet we went to visit reminded me how much I love the smell of old pianos. And books. Bookstores, good lord, bookstores. I could sleep in that smell, and I can smell it on my husband when he comes home from Portland, hours spent in Powell’s blue room. Or Ken Sanders here in Salt Lake—it smells like covered wagons and desert dust.

I absolutely cannot stand the smell of synthetic fruits—my gag reflex gets the best of me, likely because I inhaled all the scented ink out of those awful fruity markers in fourth grade and went home sick. I also do not like perfumes that smell like something you should eat for dessert. But I love dessert.

I love the smell of metals, particularly silver and copper—Gilt, in Portland, smells incredible, especially if Jessie is behind the counter and wearing Kiehl’s Imperial Body Balm.

I love smelling the women in my life. I get teary thinking about leaning in for the hug that prompts wrist-sniffing and rifling through our purses or dresser drawers for the new perfume we’re into. I live too far away from the women I love. I spent an evening with a woman in Stockholm who wore Acqua di Parma and had real Picasso sketches on her wall. That perfume, almost more than any other scent, reminds me of the incredible, strong, intelligent, elegant, light-giving women who inspire me to smell, look, think, smell again. And then tell them about it.


Jake said...

"I love smelling the women in my life" - such a wonderful line

Christine said...

i'm so happy to read this! beautiful and fun!

Preets said...

So wonderful! Your interview, B, is a cabinet of wonders, just like your wedding reception was -- startling details in every nook, eye-openers, brain-openers. Anyway, I wanted to say about methyl salicylate: it's the primary ingredient in a popular Malaysian "medicated oil" called Minyak Cap Kapak (translation: Axe Brand Oil). Old ladies sprinkle a few drops on the corner of a handkerchief and sniff it or rub it on their temples to stave off headaches, nausea, motion sickness, etc. Some people also rub it on their tummies for tummy aches. Others use it for joint pains or muscle aches. It's kind of an iconic, cure-all, fixture of Malaysian life. As a child, I was completely addicted to the stuff, just like I was addicted to Vicks Vaporub, although I didn't try to drink it (I did try, many times, to eat Vicks Vaporub, because I kept thinking it would taste like the inside of an After Eight). I haven't used Minyak Cap Kapak in decades, but now you make me want to order a bottle on the internet.

nosy girl said...

Jake, how perfect that your first comment around these parts would be about beautiful women.

Christine, thank you for reading! I am glad I am not the only one having fun.

Preets, I want a bottle of this Minyak Cap Kapak just to say the name, 3x fast.

Britta said...

Hi Jake, my tearful wedding buddy! Thanks for reading. And you too, Christine and Preeta. This was the most enjoyable writing I've done in years, so thank you, dear E, for the chance!

Preets said...

Since you brought up the name, E, I thought I should include a pronunciation guide. It's pronounced, roughly, Min-yuck Chup Kah-puck. (The "chup" rhymes with "sup," as in, to dine.)

dianestaudt said...

love loVED LOVED reading this interview!! And, in reviewing the britta bonus, it did not surprise me that compounds named, skatole and indole, occur in feces.

Natalie said...

This is wonderful. Such an essay, really, in its twists and turns and surprises. Beautiful!

I'm wear Acqua di Parma. But there are no Picassos on my wall. Yet.

Mothership said...

And, this is your mom, my darling child. You often do smell heavenly, especially when I can hug you close enough to smell your the perfume o your neck as well as your shampoo. This is a thought-provoking essay and it also soothes my soul and amuses me at the same time. I remember almost every perfume on you that you have ever worn. And, when I smell them again, I think of you - what an amazing sense the olfactory is! It can link me to overwhelming love for my oldest daughter no matter where I am and no matter where she is...

Britta said...

Thanks again, everyone, for reading! @Nat: of course you wear Acqua di Parma. I can smell you in my head right now. So elegant. Who needs Picassos when they've got your curls and words, that's what I say. @Diane: I know! I want to meet the scientist who got to name skatole. Good on him or her. @mama: I owe my taste in scents and big sniffer to you.

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