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The Nose Remembers

This smells familiar...

Walking home from the grocery store yesterday, in the soft spring air of a 70-degree day, I was waiting to cross a street when a large truck drove by and enveloped me in a puff of diesel exhaust. But I didn’t gasp or wretch; I smiled. Yes, I’m one of Those People who like the smell of diesel. Why? Because my first memories of that pungent odor are from trips to the airport. In some obscure corner of my brain, diesel equals travel.

We travel with all of our senses. Our olfactory cells are particularly good travel documentarians; they store away information even when we’re not aware of it. I didn’t consciously decide to memorize what the air gushing out of Paris Metro vents smells like, but now I could pick out its distinctive eau de public transportation anywhere (it’s an odd mix of heat and exhaust).

It’s difficult to literally remember a smell if you’re not in the presence of its source (I can’t conjure up the smell of the Paris Metro right now, for instance); but as soon as your sensitive nose is presented with a smell it’s met before, the memory will come rushing back. Olfactory memories are strong; and notably, they trigger other memories, of events, places, even emotions, often quite vividly.

The whiff of diesel I got yesterday didn’t just make me think of airports; it conjured up driving through crowded Istanbul streets in a hot taxi. The smell of rain in summer evokes a particularly rainy Paris trip. The sweet scent of blooming trees transports me to my spring in Geneva. Wood smoke reminds me of the wood-burning fireplace in my hotel room in northern Ecuador. The smell of strong espresso takes me back to just about every European café where I’ve ordered a cappuccino.

The beautiful thing about smell memories is that they’re always with you, and they can strike at any time. You don’t need to be at home looking through your photo albums to be gifted with a sudden, unexpected reminder of your travels.

As you soak up the sights, sounds, and tastes of a place, don’t neglect your sense of smell: Stop and take a deep breath from time to time. Your nose will remember.

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