Sunday, 13 January 2008

Scents of Smell

I have an acute sense of smell.

Although this has stood me in good stead in the past -- I am everyone's first line of defense in the event of a gas leak -- it can be a real headache. At a friend's house a couple of months ago I sat on her sofa fidgeting and desperate for a breath of fresh air: she had bought a new air freshener, I later learned, which no one else in the room seemed to mind one bit. I'm pretty sure they weren't just pretending: two of them asked her what it was and I know for a fact that one of them went out and bought the same thing because when I next visited her, I went through the same torment.

My problem is that although I can smell the difference between my children, can smell when the cat has brought a rodent into the house or the next-door neighbors are brewing coffee or smoking, I can't always tell what the source of the smell is -- even when it is me. Once, years ago, I sat in the dentist's chair, waiting for the dentist, wondering why the room stank so badly. Only minutes before the dentist finally entered the room, I discovered the source of the smell: I was breaking in a brand new pair of hiking boots with a half-inch tread, and on inspection, I saw that I had stepped in a big one. Wet, too, and very fresh. That made for a pretty embarrassing encounter.

Another time, I helped a group of friends sell their daikon pickles at an open-air market in Tokyo. Every culture has its own particularly strong-smelling food, and the Japanese have their fair share. Daikon, or large white radishes, taste great but tend to smell a bit fecal, especially after they are pickled. As I was just getting over a cold, my sense of smell was blunted, and what with that and the fact that we were outside on a brisk, windy autumn evening, the pungent quality of the daikon pickles eluded me. But on the overheated train home, I looked around me in irritation, wondering whose baby was in such desperate need of a change and why everyone else was ignoring this. Two or three young couples with infants suffered my exasperated scrutiny; so did a grandmother with a toddler. Only after I had changed seats once and changed train cars twice, each time taking with me my complimentary bag of daikon pickles, did I realize that I myself was the source of the smell. Oh, the shame, when I remembered the dirty looks I had given those innocent children and their guardians.

Yet another time, I was complimented on my perfume at work, which I found odd because I wasn't wearing any -- given my sensitive nose, there are few that appeal to me. Hours later, sitting in a seminar, my perfume was commented upon again. It was only when I got home and changed out of my clothes that I realized what had happened. On the train to work in the morning, a man who had virtually bathed in aftershave had sat next to me, almost asphixiating me. Thirty minutes later he got off and my nose, duly traumatized, had grown so used to the smell that I could not tell it had rubbed off on my clothes. Even my hair still reeked of it.

I'm lucky in that my husband and I tend to like and hate the same smells. We both love the smell of lavender, cedar, oranges, garlic and coffee. Artificial air fresheners, fragrance oils, deodorants, and detergent make us ill: we'd rather put up with the odors they are intended to mask. And for both of us, a little bit of anything goes a long way.

For the past few weeks, I've been suffering from a cough. Last night I went to put a few drops of eucalyptus oil on my pillow and spilled half of the bottle on the quilt. My husband, already fast asleep, was clutching his side of the quilt so tightly that after a few half-hearted tugs, I gave up on trying to pull it off the bed. I put my pillow over my head in a desperate attempt to block the smell, but it was in vain: the eucalyptus was absolutely overpowering.

I lay there for a good twenty minutes, utterly miserable, wondering if I could die from eucalyptus overdose -- or worse still, if I were possibly murdering my husband with it, too? I rolled up the tainted corner of the quilt, which made no difference whatsoever. Finally, still swooning from eucalyptus fumes, I got out of bed and found another quilt. I rolled the affected part of the first quilt over, wedging it against my husband, and covered myself with the new quilt. This made a little difference, but the smell was still so awful I woke up dizzy from it. Eighteen hours later, I can still smell it on my hair, and our room is going to smell of eucalyptus for some time to come.

At least this time I knew I was to blame.

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24 comments:

Kim Ayres said...

Next time I call round I'll be in a real dilemma about taking my boots off at the door...

Kara said...

I love the smell of gasoline and freshly cut grass. I hate the smell of Chanel No. 5 and hops. Edinburgh reeked of hops to me and no one else could smell it. I was choked by a city. The end.

Gorilla Bananas said...

Has anyone tried pheromone perfume?

Danette Haworth said...

I can so relate to this post. Perfume just about knocks me out.

Christy said...

Baking soda can remove odors. Maybe sprinkle a little on and leave it for a day. It can't hurt to try anyway. Eucalyptus is definitely a ... let's say unique smell.

But you did remind me of a funny story. My husband and I were at a cocktail party once when my husband grabbed a white spear from a vegetable tray. He bit into it, then wrinkled his nose and declared, "This is the WORST jicama I've ever had in my life!" I couldn't stop laughing because it wasn't jicama at all! It was daikon. Yum!

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- But you see, that is a NATURAL smell, and given the pungent feet in this household, yours would just join in the medley. Feel free to take those boots off, though fortunately you usually don't have to because I can't be bothered to sweep the floor anyway. That last time was a real fluke.

Kara -- I love gasoline too, and I have come around to appreciating freshly cut grass. My all time favorite smell is pavement after rain, but there are so many great smells out there. Chanel No. 5 isn't on my list either. If you think Edinburgh is bad, stay clear of Amsterdam. I lived near the Heineken Brewery on Wetering Schans for a few months and it was far worse than Edinburgh.

GB -- I wouldn't go for this, but work on the name and packaging and I'm betting you'd get plenty of takers. L'eau de Testosterone, or L'essence de whatever-the- French-is- for- armpit.

Danette -- People who practically bathe in it are the ones who really get to me. Maybe they wish I'd wear it and they're just trying to hint?

Christy -- We've got plenty of baking soda in this household! The good thing about essential oils is that they're not as pervasive as fragrance oils. That eucalyptus smell in our bedroom is quite bearable now. Normally it is one of my favorite smells.

Tell your husband that I once bit into a piece of jicama and assumed it was a bit of daikon gone bad!

Kappa no He said...

Daikon. Oh yes. My mother-in-law's house smells perpetually of boiled daikon. I cooked with it today and just about gag everutime I enter the room. Although, it does taste good. Why's up with that?

Beloved said...

You daikon story reminds me of the time I tried to bring vacuum-packed bags of kimchi on the airplane from Korea to the U.S. The bags popped with the change in air pressure and let me tell you, that was some fecal smell. Unlike you however, I knew immediately where it was coming from which was terrible because I was so self-conscious. And it's not fun being the source of stink--especially on a 13 hour flight. :(

Ello said...

Oh Mary, you are so similar to me it is eerie! I am the official bloodhound. My middle child is just like me. We can smell anything. And I can tell if it is me first. I have the same affliction where I can get violently ill from certain odors and unfortunately even certain people's body odor. My sense of smell is helpful but most of the times it is a terrible burden because it can make me ill. I do feel for you.

halfmama said...

I have the same issue. G calls me a bloodhound. Whenever I smell a bad odor, I ask, "What is that smell?" and G says, "I don't smell anything but I'm sure I will in two days." Or if we're in the car, I will smell things 20 miles out before he does. And when I was pregnant... fuggedaboutit. Horrible. And perfume! I just don't understand why some people need to put on SO MUCH!

Phil said...

A good read. I don't think I have a particularly good sense of smell - but I do love the smell of creosote (sp?) I don't know if it's because of what it reminds me of or the smell itself. Hard to separate the two.

My wife has an unusual sense of smell. She can smell things the rest of can't. 'Can you smell a smell?' she asks and then procedes to hunt around the house.

Take care.

Phil

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- The daikon is the durian of the vegetable world, no doubt about it. I can't get over how awful durians smell, but they are perfectly delicious. Weird, isn't it?

Beloved -- That is a terrific story, and I will certainly repeat it! My father used to have a great uncle who was a huge fan of Limburger cheese and made the household reek for days. I've always wondered how Limburger cheese and kimchee would taste together: what a powerful weapon that combination would be. We've got kimchee in our fridge right now, and some Stilton cheese that is past its prime. Quite a combo.

Ello -- I'm always glad to meet other bloodhounds! A keen sense of smell really is a burden sometimes: I'll never forget how awful locker rooms were in high school what with all the deodorants, hairspray, etc. I don't mind seeing gory sights, but smells get to me every single time.

Halfmama -- Thank you for commenting on my blog, and how reassuring it is to know that there are others like me. When I was pregnant, even the merest whiff of rice cooking made me nauseous. Even smells I liked such as coffee, garlic, fish, etc., made me retch. I felt like wearing a surgical mask every time I went out. As for perfume, a friend gave me a small bottle of L'air du Temps in 1990. I still have 3/4 of it left. One drop a month is about all I can take.

Mary Witzl said...

Hi, Phil -- our posts crossed!

For some reason, women seem to have better developed senses of smell than men do, or maybe it is just the case that we are willing to admit to this. Creosote is a good smell all right: it always reminds me of my father and the greenhouses he worked in. When we were kids, my sisters and I used to lament the fact that perfumes were always cloyingly floral and icky -- not of nice things like coffee, rainwater on crushed stone, or the first puff of a cigar.

debra said...

Geez, Mary, you are writing about me, too!! I cannot tolerate artificial smells-- some essential oils in very small amounts are ok. Unscented laundry soap and minimally scented other products are for me. My daughter bought Herbal Essence shampoo o-n-c-e. I thought I would die.
I can also tell which of my daughter is near by the smell, and I can tell when any one of my family members is having a good or bad day by the quality of their scent. It's good to find others who share this!

Mary Witzl said...

Debra, my daughters are going through a body spray phase right now that has had my husband and me gagging. Why oh why do teenage girls need so much hot water and so much nasty-smelling stuff? We've outlawed them from ever spraying anything in the car again: the last time that happened, my husband practically drove the car off the road.

The Anti-Wife said...

I too have a very acute sense of smell. It can be a real pain in the ass sometimes, but I'd rather be this way than not realize when I'm offensive to others.

Mary Witzl said...

Although I missed what was on my hiking boots that time, I can ALWAYS smell myself -- especially when I am nervous. Most of the time, I smell okay, but when I don't, I take action. I just don't cover myself in body spray as my daughters seem compelled to do. I object to the term 'body spray' anyway: it sounds like something you'd need if you were troubled by lice. Whatever happened to 'cologne?' or 'cheap perfume?'

Charlie said...

For some reason, women seem to have better developed senses of smell than men do . . .

That may be true, but not at my house. I wish I had $1 for every time I've said, "What's that smell?" and Martha's replied, "What smell?"

Perhaps the fact that she grew up on a farm with livestock, hogs, ans sheep has killed any sense of a major natural gas leak.

I seem to be the bloodhound of the family and what kills me is women who drown themselves in perfume. I don't know how may times we've gone to the theatre with $$$$ tickets, only to have it ruined by a cloud of perfume. And some do it even in church.

I would love to try a Daikon pickle, but I would use an old trick first: a little Vicks Vaporub under each nostril.

Mary Witzl said...

A friend and her husband once gave a friend of hers a ride home and her husband stopped the car, telling them he would walk home: the friend's perfume, it turned out, was too much for him. When my friend told him she thought what he did was rude, he commented that throwing up would have been ruder still. My sympathy is entirely with him: I've been in cars with women who splashed perfume all over themselves, and I too have been tempted to get out. And what can you do if you're sitting in a theatre or a church? Maybe we should have tee shirts...

I'll pass on the Vicks, though. Smells too much like eucalyptus!

Eryl Shields said...

My mother-in-law uses those plug in air fresheners and I can feel my throat swell when I go to her house. It's so bad I've actually stopped visiting so often and for so long.

The smell of other people's laundry kills me too. When my neighbour hangs out her washing I have to come in from the garden. I've had to walk out of classes due to detergent poisioning.

I once came home after a few days away and my house, which normally smell of old ashtrays due to my filthy habit, reeked of stale biscuits. I turned it upside down searching for the source but to no avail. Cleaned everything: scrubbed floors and paintwork, washed loose covers and cusions and vacuumed every crevice. Now I worry that rather than having eliminated the stench I've merely become accustomed to it and so don't smell it anymore.

So I know what you mean. Some smells are incredibly invasive.

sruble said...

It's good to know I'm not alone! Great post. Sorry about your shoe. Dog poo is the worst to get rid of, the smell never seems to go away.

I always wondered about standing near stinky people, especially when crammed into the subway for a long ride; sorry to hear the smell actually transfers. I know smoke can invade your clothes and hair and if you hug someone wearing a ton of perfume it rubs off on you. Ugh.

Unfortunately, I am also allergic to strong smelling things (especially perfumes).

I've had to tell people that I am allergic to their perfume or air freshener, etc. There is just no way to say that without being insulting, no matter how nice you try to be. Some people get it and are very nice, some people just don't get it.

I always feel bad having to say something, but I'd rather be truthful than to have to hug someone wearing a whole bottle of perfume and then be sick for the rest of the day (which has happened to me before).

BTW, my husband now notices smells much more than he used to. I think he just ignored them before. Now he can tell when we need to leave a store or restaurant before I even say anything.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Our local sports barn uses a lilac air freshener in their weight room, given the fact that there are no windows and people get up to some serious sweating there. Whenever I've gone, I've had to call them an hour ahead of time to beg them to unplug it -- no kidding. I almost gagged the first time I worked out there and they had it on. If you haven't already been, consider yourself forewarned!

I HATE the way certain detergents smell and find myself flinching at friends' houses: how do you tell people that their clothes make you feel ill? It's impossible. I am impressed that you still have a sense of smell, given that you smoke! You must not smoke that much: I've got pack-a-day friends you could empty a bottle of cologne on and they'd never be the wiser.

sruble -- Thank you for visiting my blog.

I think molecules actually come off the stinky substance in question and enter your nose -- honest! -- though I wish I could express that more scientifically. It makes you feel a little leery, doesn't it? I've been on trains and subways with people in the summer and carried off some of their molecules, I'm sure of it. I just hope I haven't returned the favor...

You're right that there is no way to tell people that you don't like the smell of their perfume, and I've gone for the allergic comment too, even if it is a bit of a fib. My disgust amounts to an allergy, I tell myself. We have friends who aren't keen on the smell of garlic and I know that they must find visiting us a trial: I try not to cook garlic when they visit.

Carole said...

I have a fairly good sense of smell but my sister's is so good that she is miserable. She often has to leave a public building because the smell of peoples' heads make her ill. She went to the doctor for this and was treated as though she needed to go to an asylum so now doesn't talk about it. I always make sure I have freshlly washed hair around her but still she has problems.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Your poor sister! I feel like putting a scarf around my head, though: I've been growing my hair long (for charity, believe it or not -- I will blog on this some day) and as it is now well past my waist, washing it has become a real pain, so I've taken to doing this only once a week. Your sister would probably keel right over if she sat next to me.