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.  

fall harvest

Kigali kindly provides some relief for my leaf-longing. 

Autumn offerings from talented Nosy Interviewees: 

Jesmyn Ward's memoir, Men We Reaped, is out now, and it's every bit as harrowing, gorgeous, and essential as early rave reviews have suggested. Here's a scent-related fragment from Jesmyn's essay honoring the memory of Trayvon Martin, as well as her brother, Joshua: 
"I don't know if I imagined it or not, but his dog seemed quieter, subdued after my brother died, as if he spent his days wondering where his owner, the tall boy with butter yellow skin who smelled like coconut oil and hay burned fragrant in the sunshine, went."
Frequent collaborators Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney have a new chapbook, The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go, available now from Hyacinth Girl Press. Here's one line from a suite of five smart, lovely poems you can read at Nailed:  
Don’t start thinking about how smells smell to anyone else. You’ll only start freaking out about the limitations of knowledge.
Kate Lebo has a very exciting year in store (and, woah, a gorgeous new web site! Perhaps you can meet Kate on her tour in support of A Commonplace Book of Pie) and her poem, Rhubarb, the Green Age will appear in the fall issue of Gastronomica. The first two stanzas: 

          What puckered honey was potted last fall,
          its rootball a muddy peach, split dead 

          center and buried to kindle a pair 
          of pie plants. What bitterleaf 

My nosiness most certainly extends into (perhaps excessive) interest in the contents of people's handbags (and refrigerators and medicine cabinets), so I was delighted to get a peek into Katie Puckrik's purse, and read the accompanying interview, which includes this ringing & tingling endorsement of Safran Troublant (a favorite of my own main squeeze): 
I love turning people onto the off-beat seductive powers of Safran Troublant by L'Artisan Parfumeur. With its saffron, rose, vanilla and sandalwood, Disturbing Saffron is an unusual variation on a gourmand. And sexxxaaaayyyy....hoo boy. Put it this way: in ancient Rome, the expression 'sleeping on a bed of saffron' referred to a long hard night of making whoopee. 
Rebecca Hoogs and Maggie MK Hess have beautiful poems in the Fall 2013 issue of FIELD. What luck that you can read two of these poems online! But FIELD clearly has very good taste in poets, so you may also wish to order the issue. (You'll get a bonus poem by Rebecca!) The first two stanzas of Maggie MK's poem, "Role Play": 

Let's be lesser known suns.
You love me up close and I'll love you
from over here. We'll be ok if our legs 
are strong against the horse. Oh, quick,
quick, he's getting away. Let's rub
our noses until we smell of home.

Not available online, but so worth seeking out, are Britta Ameel's amazing poems in the September/October 2103 issue of The American Poetry Review. Here is the opening of "Self-Portrait with Planet and Hypothetical," one of my favorite poems by Britta (one of my favorite poems, full-stop): 
Yes, my body, my boss, my blood, yes,
my sucking heart. The world radiates
forth in its phosphorescent slump. 
Nosy friends and former interviewees, please let me know if you have something to add to this fall bounty! 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Nosy Interview: Saskia Wilson-Brown

Saskia in NGC 2170: Celestial Still Life, © Ignacio Diaz Bobillo

Saskia is the fearless founder of the awesomely innovative Institute for Art and Olfaction. If you're in the Los Angeles area, you should definitely check out their events and stop in for an open session. No matter where you are, I recommend nosing around (how could I resist?) the IAO website and liking their Facebook page (they post great links!), and not just because I'm proud to be have their support for my nosy research in Rwanda. You can find and follow Saskia (and the IAO) on Twitter, too. 

What do you smell like?  
Right now it's Sunday night, and I think I smell like a day well lived: Sun baked skin, myriad bits of displaced leaves and grass, steer manure (unfortunately hard to remove), a smidge of 'Jeux de Peau' by Serge Lutens, and, inevitably, coffee and cigarettes. Every perfume I buy has to compete with a base of cigarette smoke. It's a unique challenge, but I like to tell myself it makes my life a little more Brigitte Bardot. 

So let's just say I smell like Brigitte Bardot (minus the steer manure: I sincerely doubt she gardened).

What do you like to smell? 
Other than the obvious pleasant smells like flowers and frying onions and such, some smells I've always loved are: Los Angeles after it rains (steaming cement, basically: strangely earthy), sandalwood, grapefruits, tacos, an art studio (oil paints make me nostalgic), chlorine, an empty ski run in freezing weather (solitude!), cigarette smoke after an especially long meeting, jet fuel, the nape of my husband's neck... 

What I always enjoy spending nose-time on is an unfolding idea. I've never had a hyper-developed nose like so many folks who are into scent. For me it's been an extremely strange process of learning how to identify and put words onto what I'm smelling. But the concepts behind the scents are what really get me. When someone is using scent as an art medium, and can use elements in a symbolic way-- when a perfume becomes an illustration of a concept or a story. So I guess I love the smell of a good story.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

like rocks long for rain

Is it possible I learned the word petrichor from Tumblr? I believe I can thank Tumblr for both leading me to believe the lovely word referred to the scent of any and all earth after rain, and for teaching me that it's, more specifically, the smell of rain on dry earth. Petrichor, according to Wikipedia, is "the scent of rain on dry earth, or the scent of dust after rain. The word is constructed from Greek, petros, meaning stone + ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology. It is defined as 'the distinctive scent which accompanies the first rain after a long warm dry spell.'" According to Scientific American, "Petrichor was first described in 1964 by mineralogists Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas...As they defined it, it occurs when airborne molecules from decomposing plant or animal matter become attached to mineral or clay surfaces. During a dry spell, these molecules chemically recombine with other elements on a rock's surface. Then when the rains came, the redolent combination of fatty acids, alcohols and hydrocarbons is released."

Our street corner (before the rains) in Kigali 

Petrichor is on my mind and in the air so much lately, here in Kigali. When we arrived it was so dry and dusty that the insides of my nostrils, when I tried to blow them clean at night, would be sometimes clogged with the same red dirt from the roads. Now the rainy season is beginning, and the wet fresh smell rising from all those stones and clay after rain is one of the very best things about being here. If you've gotten an e-mail from me lately, it's likely contained a lament about how much I'll miss fall, my favorite season, all those smoky, caramelly, woolly, crunchy-leaf smells. Petrichor may prove to be my consolation. Though it's not salty, it has the same calming effect as sea air I've smelled and loved in New England and the Pacific Northwest. Everything in the air here changes after these heavy rains--the light, the weight, the sounds. Things turn dark green and then golden and the smell is close to chlorinated, but with none of the burn. I will long for autumn as I’ve always known it, but feel lucky for the chance to fall in love with this new (to me) season’s smell also, all that wet clean rock, all that dark rushing road. 

twitter sniffer no. 4

Everybody wants to know just exactly how good Oprah smells. Can it be true that she doesn't wear scents?

I'm going to miss that fall-in-the-air smell so much this year!

Friday, August 16, 2013

sun's up smells

Rwanda is making an early bird of me.

Mwaramutse neza from Kigali! The best things I've smelled here so far (besides my beloved tree tomato) include: herbs from the garden in our yard (basil, lemon dill, and cilantro), still-steaming rosemary rolls and sweet carrot bread made by my bread-baking marvel of a housemate, and the dirt roads after it rained. Here are some smells I've enjoyed reading about:
  • Aaron Paul on his Breaking Bad co-star, Bryan Cranston's, smell: "To be honest, he smells like a freshly bathed unicorn on a summer day in Barcelona." 
  • My friend Stephanie Santana's excellent close reading of We Need New Names
    NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel We Need New Names ends its first and last chapters with the same sensory detail: the alternately ‘dizzying’ and ‘delicious’ smell of Lobels bread. It is a smell that wafts through otherwise macabre scenes. In the first, a woman hangs dead in a tree and the smell is only imagined, as Darling (our narrator) and her young friends anticipate with delirious joy the bread they will buy by selling the dead woman’s shoes. In the last, it is a real, overwhelmingly delicious smell that accompanies the death of something that the children were looking for and wanted desperately to find. In the simple smell of fresh-baked bread we find joy, hope, death, desire.  
  • I've been meaning to write something about the farts and hearts of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, but Willa Paskin said it all on Slate
    Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, TLC’s divisive reality hit about the antics of an energetic, self-identified redneck family, begins its second season on Wednesday night. To celebrate the show’s return, TLC has wedged scratch-and-sniff cards into issues of People and Us Weekly, and will prompt viewers to use them during the show’s premiere, possibly scratching to sniff bad breath, fish, rotten milk, a baby diaper, a fart, or maybe something more pleasantly aromatic—cheese puffs? The scratch-and-sniff is a goof that sounds about as enjoyable as eating the snot-flavored jelly beans from Harry Potter, but it effectively establishes just how the producers want us to feel about 7-year-old Honey Boo Boo and her family: that they are totally fun and totally gross. I’m with them on the former, but it’s the producers who are gross. 
  •  Charles Baxter, on his writing routine, in the Daily Beast: 
    I work during the morning. I pace; I stare out the window. I sit with my head in my hands. If I can feel myself breaking out into a sweat, particularly from my underarms, and if I give off a noticeable body odor that even I can smell, I know the writing is going well.

Monday, July 22, 2013

nosy in (& about) rwanda

Kigali as seen from St. Paul's

Nosy friends! Two weeks from now, I'll be back in Rwanda. I'm headed there for ten months this time, and I imagine my already erratic schedule for posting Nosy Interviews will grow even more so. But I'm eager to gather new Nosy Interviews while in Rwanda, and excited to say I'll be collaborating with the way-cool Institute for Art and Olfaction to showcase the responses I collect in a meaningful way. 

So much fun, fragrant, & innovative work is happening at The Institute for Art and Olfaction.

My fondest smell memories of my last visit to Rwanda include the smoky green tomato leaf scent I wrote about here; the damp, resinous air on our hike to see the mountain gorillas, who were feasting on huge strips of eucalyptus tree bark; and the steaming veggie roundels served at Zaaffran. My least favorite smell memory is of the intense automobile exhaust in Kigali. Another strong smell memory that defies such categorization is that of the bodies preserved in lime at the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre. That is a smell I will never forget, but should I mention it? Is it wrong to describe what it was like to stand in those rooms, windows wide open to the hills surrounding us, a song carried in on the slow breeze from the church on a neighboring mountain? What can I say? For the same reason it feels wrong to post a photograph, devoid of context, it feels wrong to say this one thing, what the rooms smelled like, and nothing else.

On our way to Volcanoes National Park to see the mountain gorillas

But it feels wrong to leave it out, too, to write only about how much I loved the tree tomatoes, how even the gorilla's shit smelled pretty good (all that eucalyptus) and not say also that there was a smell in those terrible rooms, and I stood there inhaling it, trying not to think about what it meant. It feels somehow depraved to speak of certain things in smell terms, but I don't think that's because it's disrespectful. Maybe a smell detail gives too much life to the things we wish to distance ourselves from: wounds, rot, death. 

Here's a Kinyarwanda (the language of Rwanda) word I learned (from my anthropologist husband, whose PhD fieldwork is driving our trip) today: 
guhumura: to smell good, to stay calm, to be consoled or comforted, to not be afraid

If a word can be a talisman for travel, for this project, I can't think of a better one. I hope to smell good, to smell deeply and well (even when my nose resists). I hope to stay calm in the face of challenges that arise from living outside of my comfort zone, like when I inevitably and inadvertently look/act a fool in my attempts to connect, and to not let fear--of seeming foolish, of being sad or uncomfortable, of threats real or imagined--keep me from staying open, asking questions, and sharing what I can with the people I meet, and with you. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

nosy recommends: natural deodorants (revisited)

I've previously expressed my devotion to the great-smelling, natural deodorant powerhouse Soapwalla. But after a while, it began to irritate my skin. What's a girl living in mega-muggy weather who prefers all-natural deodorant to do? Stay inside, stink, or rely on a few other favorites:

E Plus High C Roll-On Deodorant, Aubrey Organics
This deodorant caught my eye as it had the "Customer Favorite" designation at Cambridge Naturals, a local store that attracts its fair share of natural deodorant seekers. I like the smell so much that I will defend the hyperbolic language on the packaging: "Like the musical notes in a fine symphony, the herbal essential oils and natural vitamins harmonize in Aubrey's E Plus High C Roll-On." It is a harmonious smell! Whenever I catch a whiff of it, I find myself wondering what smells so good, as the fragrance remains slightly unfamiliar and changeable to me, even after near daily use for the last two months. It smells a little bit like an Aveda salon, mixed with the freshest section of the natural foods/crystal store, with floral and citrus notes that tread very lightly, and smell as cool as the roller ball feels.

The Healthy Deodorant, Lavanila 
This was my favorite deodorant before discovering Soapwalla, and it's back near the top of the heap these days. Both the Pure Vanilla and the Vanilla Coconut (my preferred flavors) have this minty, paste-like note that I find so satisfying. The worst thing about this deodorant is its product to packaging ratio feels like its 40:1, and a bunch goes to waste because of the poor design--extra-irritating when you are paying $14 for a stick of the stuff.

Deodorant Fresh, Dr. Hauschka
If you thought paying $14 for a stick of deodorant was nuts, steer clear of Dr. Hauschka's Deodorant Fresh Roll-On, which sometimes runs double that (though I've found it for $20). My friend Jenny was teasing me recently about my $40 deodorant habit, and in defending myself against what seemed like an absurd accusation, I failed to realize how close to the bone she was cutting! Looking at this lineup, it would appear my pits are prized skin real-estate. Dr. Hauschka's Fresh Deodorant, in its heavy, frosted glass bottle, does have a luxurious feel to match its price, and it smells very good and blue-green, with a faintly woody barber shop vibe that I think will be especially appreciated by those taking tentative first steps into the land of natural deodorants.

Weleda Citrus Deodorant 
I find this spray deodorant intermittently effective, and sometimes a bit too bracing (it's like Listerine for the armpits). Perhaps the key to success with natural deodorants is to keep switching them up. Even though it seems I've had my bottle of this forever, I like having it in the mix. I was disappointed, though, to dislike the rose in this deodorant line, especially since most of Weleda's rose body products are so pleasing to my nose.

If you have other natural deodorant favorites, I am clearly all ears and eager armpits. Tell me about them!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Nosy Interview: Marc Mazique

Marc in the Porpoise Galaxy from Hubble, © NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team

Marc and I were in a writing group together, in Seattle, along with Elizabeth, Cienna, and Steven. We met mainly at the Stumbling Monk, which I recall smelling of cement and wood and beer-wet napkin. I loved that place! You can help Marc's rad & radical musical group, Movitas Marching Band, make it to BAM! (Bands Agitate and Mobilize!) by donating here

What do you smell like? 
I smell like peanut sauce mixed with old books with yellowed pages.  

What do you like to smell?  
I like to smell peanut sauce mixed with old or new books, along with lavender. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

summertime pleasures

Smelling peonies at any opportunity is also recommended.
Nosy Interviewees are an inspiringly productive bunch! If you liked their interviews, here are some new ways you can enjoy their work: 
Wow! So much summertime entertainment for your nosy brains. Congratulations and a (virtual) bouquet as enormous as the one pictured above (scenting up my parents' whole house last week) to each of you listed here. If you're a Nosy Interviewee with some good news, let me know!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Nosy Interview: D.S. & Durga (David Moltz and Kavi Ahuja)

Kavi & David in The Large Magellanic Cloud in Ultraviolet , © NASA, Swift, et al. 

Regular readers will know I'm an ardent fan of D.S. & Durga (a.k.a. David Seth Moltz and Kavi Ahuja), a perfume line whose storytelling I appreciate and whose scents I adore. East MidEast and Sir are my enduring favorites (When I learned that the former was being discontinued, I enlisted understanding friends around the country to scour their local Anthropologie stores for the precious remaining vials), but I'm eager to learn whether either will be unseated by one of the dreamy-seeming new offerings in their HYLNDS series. I'm delighted to share interviews from both D.S. (David) and Durga (Kavi) here.

D.S.'s responses: 
What do you smell like? 
Usually a combination of 4 different trials - 2 on each arm.  Sometimes three.  Thus, it varies!  If I'm going out at night, I wear our "SIR" - a rich rose/jasmine chypre.  Sunny weekend days, I like cologne water (one I made, but not released).  I like to wear pure sandalwood oil from Mysore.

What do you like to smell? 
Almost everything. There is something interesting to smell in most aromas...I like to pick apart what I am smelling.  I love the smell of good tea: most of the high grade chinese "red" (black) teas, tung ting jade Oolong from Taiwan, Gyokuro from Japan, first flush Darjeeling from Margret's Hope plantation.  I love the smell of Glenlivet 18.  The smell of my home town in New England--ocean and forest combined.  The beach roses that grow on Phillips Beach in the summer.  The "bacon" smell my cat used to have when he would cold inside after being outside in the cold winter night.  Clover.  Good patchouli.  Leather.  Mandarin.  My 2 month old daughter's pure breath.  Hibawood.  Wild olibanum (frankincense) from Oman or Kenya.  Motorboat exhaust over the water in the summer.  Hyssop. Ground Ivy.  (those two very similar).  Orange blossoms on the Cote d'Azure.  Eastern Hemlock Spruce.  Haitian Vetyver.  Bonfires.  Tobacco.  Motia (jasmine sambac).  Any white flower in the real world.  Most any flower.  Lilacs! Lilies obv. English Roses.  Endless.

Durga's responses: 
What do you smell like? 
Whatever D.S. has last created and we are testing out.

What do you like to smell?  
All sorts of things. Fresh lilies, tuberose, cut grass, peaty scotch, bread baking, the beach. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

twitter sniffer no.3

A few fragrant tweets for your Friday enjoyment:

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Nosy Interview: Victoria Frolova

Victoria (whose blotters from the original photo were burned up by the sun) in Blue Sun Bursting, © Alan Friedman  (Averted Imagination)

Victoria has taught me so much about fragrance that I should probably pay her some kind of tuition. Instead I asked her for still more of her insights in the form of a nosy interview, and, lucky for all of us, she obliged. Bois de Jasmin, Victoria's wonderful blog about "perfume and other fragrant pleasures," is an absolutely essential resource for anyone interested in perfume. I have so much faith in her taste and expertise that I should probably also warn you about her blog, as regular reading may lead to a serious uptick in your perfume cravings.

What do you smell like?
Cacophony! Since I work with perfume and research raw materials, by the end of the day I smell like a mixture of things, often strange ones. If the project involves gourmands, I come home smelling like a cotton candy factory. If I’m working with aldehydes, I smell of snuffed out candles and dirty hair. I suppose, if you still love perfume after this kind of experience, you’re either very passionate or crazy. Or both!

Off-duty, I smell of whatever perfume I’m infatuated with at the moment. I also like to spend at least one day smelling of nothing to give my nose a rest. Plus, in the spring, there are so many great scents in the air that you don’t even need to perfume your skin. On the weekend if the weather is nice (and this is not a given in Belgium), I’m usually outdoors soaking up the sunshine and the fragrance of magnolias.

What do you like to smell? 
Anything at all! My husband is used to it, but whenever I go for walks with my friends, they’re often surprised that I pick up various leaves and pieces of bark and smell them. And although they find it an eccentric habit, they always join in, because smelling is so enjoyable and we don’t do it consciously often enough.  

If I’m to name my favorite things I love to smell, I risk boring you, since my list would be too long! But bread and jasmine are among my absolute favorites. Whenever I walk past a bakery and notice the smell of freshly baked bread, I instantly feel happy. It’s such a comforting, cozy scent.  At home we never baked bread, but my grandmother made a brioche-like Easter cake, and when she prepared it, the whole house smelled of yeast, nutmeg, vanilla, and rum soaked raisins.  

Jasmine is another scent that makes me happy (hence, the blog name). It’s such a strange smell if you think of it—apricot jam, horse sweat, white petals, but it’s incredibly sultry. On another level, it reminds me of my childhood summers.  Since my family is scattered all over the world, I miss them very much. Thinking about the time we spent together and recreating some of it through scents and tastes is how I approach my nostalgia.

I also love catching a whiff of perfume on people around me. It doesn’t matter what fragrance they are wearing, even if it’s something I don’t like on myself, it’s always a pleasure to notice what others are sporting and what they pick for different occasions.

Monday, May 20, 2013

smelling of nothing & pretending to be someone else

"Princeton, New Jersey, 1960s" [via]

I've been anxious to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah since I heard her give a fantastic reading from the novel-in-progress last year at the Radcliffe Institute, long before I laid eyes on the book's beautiful opening paragraph: 
Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history, New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell. She liked taking deep breaths here. She liked watching the locals who drove with pointed courtesy and parked their latest-model cars outside the organic grocery store on Nassau street or outside the sushi restaurants or outside the ice cream shop that had fifty different flavors including red pepper or outside the post office where effusive staff bounded out to greet them at the entrance. She liked the campus, grave with knowledge, the Gothic buildings with their vine-laced walls, and the way everything transformed, in the half-light of night, into a ghostly scene. She liked, most of all, that in this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else, someone specially admitted into a hallowed American club, someone adorned with certainty.
Adichie is back in town this week, reading from the recently released Americanah on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store.  Local readers, I hope to see/smell some of you there!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Nosy Interview: Gina Balibrera

Gina in The Horsehead Nebula in Infrared from Hubble, © NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team

Gina and I have not yet met, but she left a lovely, smell-related comment on a link to V.V. Ganeshananthan's interview and, when I immediately pounced, asking if she'd be willing to write more on fragrant matters, she was gracious enough to accept. (Readers, please remember that I welcome your nominations for potential nosy interviewees!) Gina is currently at work on The Volcano-Daughters, a novel set in El Salvador, Hollywood, and France, during the 1930s and 1940s. While you wait, you can read more of her nonfiction on the Michigan Quarterly Review blog.  

What do you smell like? 
I consulted several close friends to answer this question, and the consensus was nearly unanimous: rose. (My sweetheart, however, said that I smell “nice,” and “like the best.” Outlier). This rosy ruling flattered by vanity. My efforts have been rewarded! I tend to spray myself several times a day with a neon-pink plastic bottle of rosewater that can be found in many health food stores. The mysterious text on the bottle’s label reads: “Recommended in the Edgar Cayce Readings” and “Vor-mag Water (water that has been vortexed and magnetized to raise the energy to a higher vibration that we believe to be more beneficial).” Beneficial for what purpose, I am not sure. But I do find it refreshing, and I am fond of its reviving, rosy scent. I use this magic water in lieu of hairspray, and, often, in lieu of smelling salts. I use a German rose oil in a green glass bottle on my body instead of lotion, and I like rosehip oil on my lips. In a pharmacy in Geneva, I bought two cheap, tiny vials of perfume oil, which I like to dab on my wrists and neck after the shower: one is amber, the other vanilla. I love that amber in a glass bottle looks exactly as it should, honeyed and luminous, and smells just like the color of the veined golden stone. There are no cheap and luminous vials of perfume oil in the pharmacies of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I now live. A dear poet friend of mine, Gala Mukomolova, who smells like sweet milk, told me that in addition to roses, I smell of baking bread. Perhaps this is also true. In the grocery store’s personal care aisle, I like to pick up those expensive handmade bars of soap and hold them to my nose--I usually go home with almond or bee pollen or camomile or red clay with rose, or sometimes, more rarely, cucumber. My very favorite soap is made of sandalwood, but I’ll get to that in the next question. 

What do you like to smell?
I love smelling cardamom and real vanilla, good gin that is particularly rosy, honey, honey, honey, Mysore sandalwood soap that comes in a red cardboard box with pink roses and a tiny elephant, amber oil in the glass bottle, violets, the Redwood forest, the sunwarmed calico head of my favorite cat, Olive, olive oil, truffle oil, creosote, a Sonoran desert plant that smells just like summer monsoons, and fresh rosemary.  Leather guitar cases (and the shiny wood  and inner felt and nylon strings of a classical guitar), a special tea made from bergamot oil and sage. Library books, of course, who doesn’t? Especially in the spring and summer, I love the scent of a golden hour picnic on a wooden porch: rosé, cantaloupe, strawberries. Also, lavender, champagne, fistfuls of mint, purple thai basil, lemongrass, cherries, and ruby-red grapefruits sliced in half. I am pleased that my plan to smell like roses has succeeded in the noses of my friends, because I like the smell of large, velvety roses in surprising colors--violet-streaked, magenta, and cream--best.

I like the smell of a new broom, which I suppose is just straw. My friend, fiction writer, Jide Adebayo-Begun, told me about a Hausa idiom which means the knot at the center of the straw broom, typically referring to a deep and lasting bond of friendship or love between people. There’s also the tinny, winterfresh smell of cheap men's shaving cream, but only on the skin of my sweetheart. A few years ago, I gave him one of those fancy-hippie shaving kits that smells of cedar and pine and the earthiness of some sort of real hair that was collected to make the brush. He didn’t really use it, and his beard smells sometimes like Walgreens shaving cream, when it is neat, and like a dense human forest--rosewood, clean wool sweaters, and river stones--when it is tufty.

In childhood, I was fond of a particular marker, a bright, Lisa Frank turquoise, that smelled precisely as that color should, like the Pacific Ocean, juicyfruit gum, and strawberry lipgloss, but was named, curiously, “mango.” Another strange dissonance: as a kid, I used to walk up a hill to eat ice cream, past an auto body shop with oily rainbows on the sidewalk. Then and now, the smell of diesel exhaust makes me crave ice cream, usually cherry.

When I was a bad teen, I would go to bonfires on Ocean or Baker Beach, and return home smelling exactly like a Honeybaked Ham. What did you do tonight? My parents would ask. Nothing, I would say. Once or twice I smoked those clove cigarettes, to which many sensitive, melancholy teenagers find themselves drawn for a quick moment of cliché, and which are terrible, but which attempt to smell, via crude, poisonous, chemical shorthand, mystical and leathery and like a good autumn cake. These days, when my nose desires such fiery warmth, I prefer the scent of lapsung souchang tea, which is campfire smoke and spice, or the scent of actual autumn cakes baked in my oven with real cloves and cinnamon and cardamom.

Two old chestnuts most everyone enjoys smelling: chestnuts roasting beneath beaten-up pans on chilly city street corners and hot coffee. Right now, I’m working on a novel in which coffee plays an important role. Coffee is magic and nose-magnetic in the cup, but in the fields of El Salvador, just after the harvest, the rotting berries smell truly terrible, in a bodily sense. I was on a train there a few years ago, and the ticket-collector arrived beside my seat, a gust of something truly foul blew in through the window, and for a moment I thought that the ticket-collector was ill. But that foul gust was the coffee outside, those soft, red berries. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

twitter sniffer no.2

One of these days I'll just get over it & give in to Twitter. In the meantime, I found a few more fragrant tweets you might enjoy:

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Nosy Interview: Eli Hastings

Eli in the (stretched) Sun with Solar Flare, © NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

Eli and I met in Seattle, where, through the Writers in the Schools program, I got to watch him work a kind of wake-up magic on formerly-groggy high school students. His latest book, a memoir called Clearly Now, the Rain, was just released last week, and you can learn more about Eli, his writing, and his adorable "nutcase toddler" here

What do you smell like? 
I smell like dried spray paint and midgrade aftershave lotion.  I think.  But I’ve never really checked, I just make that assumption because I have to shave everyday or I look weird and I spend a lot of time in my “garoffice”/mancave, which is heavily tagged—though with words of wisdom not the scrawled hubris of taggers (that was way earlier).  Lately the scent of raw garlic is always on my fingers because my wife is a doctor and I am not and so I have had to learn to cook and garlic disguises the fact that I am, at best, learning.  To be honest, I probably smell like old dog (that’s dog + dust and decay) because I am overcome with love for my 14-year-old golden and embrace her unreasonably at least a few times a day.  I probably smell slightly like pee in the mornings because I often have to sleep with my 3-year-old dervish. 

What do you like to smell? 
I like to smell many things that rather universally are inviting: fresh ground coffee brand spanking new azaleas and whatnot.  But I also enjoy scents that may be more subjectively pleasant: gasoline, fresh tarmac, wicked cheese.  My favorite smell in the world comes in August in the north Cascades where my mom lives.  It’s an invasive plant of some kind that sprouts in spring and starts to dry on the vine as the sun slams away the weeks and is pungent and spicy by the end of summer and looks a lot like marijuana (I’m told), but is not.  I swear.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

peach pepper milk

Images via treesandempathy (photo credit unknown; painting is "Odette" by Ryan Pickart)

At the moment, I'm finding it difficult to do anything other than read Meg Wolitzer's wonderful The Interestings. I just read this paragraph, and wanted to share:
At night during that weekend in Underhill, Jules and Ash lay together in her bed, with Ash's head against the footboard. Many years later, they would lie across other beds with their children playing all around them, and it was a relief to know that even in getting older and splitting off into couples and starting families, you could still always come together in this way that you'd learned to do when you were young, and which you would have a taste for over your entire life. Ash, up close in Jules's bed in Underhill, having performed a series of elaborate nighttime ablutions in the house's single, peach-colored bathroom, now smelled milky and peppery at once. Maybe the soap she'd brought with her from the city was called Pepper Milk, Jules thought as she grew sleepy. Whatever it was, anyone would want to be around that smell, to drink it in from a girl if they couldn't drink it in from a bottle.
This one small smell moment is such an elegant evocation of some of the concerns of the book: class anxiety (Jules's single bathroom vs. Ash's sophisticated city soap), the overlapping intimacies of teenage friendship and desire, longing in general (to drink another in! to consume someone, in as many ways you can), and beauty (Ash is remarkably beautiful; Jules is not). Even though peach is the color of the bathroom, and not named as a smell, it falls in the olfactory mix for me, perhaps in part because peach--gleamy, smothering, plastic peach--was an important fragrance in my own adolescence, an early smell I remember seeking out, finding sexy and gorgeous and strange. This one choice--peach--makes the passage so much more potent: downy skin, juice & flesh, a mysterious stone. All of this along with the creamy, innocent/nurturing notions we have of milk, and the bracing spice of pepper makes this a standout moment for me in a book brimming with them. I'm not even halfway through and already I find myself slowing down (pausing to write this post, for example), wanting badly for this book, and my time with these characters, not to end.