Each place in the world has its own perfume. A bouquet of different notes, drifting around in the air. Sometimes, those notes will change completely from on step to the next, but they will always be distinctive of that very place.
Everyone has felt this particular kind of nostalgia. The first time I realized it was when I returned to Istanbul in 2008, after not having traveled there in a while. I had known the city since I was a baby and had been there many times.
But when I first got out of the car in Eminönü, it struck me: that conglomerate of smells from the salty Bosphorus, grilled fish, smog, and spices. Memories of the city hit me – suddenly and forcefully.
Until recently, I would not have known how to describe the smells of Germany. I had smelt them for most of my life, and I guess I just took them for granted, my “baseline” for all olfactics. Dogs will zig-zag around an odour trail with their noses, rather than just following the exact line. I read somewhere that they need to take quick breaks from inhaling the scent, or else they will lose the track. Your nose, or rather your brain, gets used to smells very quickly. It will just block them out. That’s what happens, maybe, to the odours of your home.
So when I returned to German for the first time after four months in Kenya, one of the things that surprised me was the way everything smelt. I had to reacquaint myself with my home country, even with its air.
I noticed that, more often than not, Germany smells like laundry detergent, fabric softener, cleaning agent. It is a country of sweet, artificial fragrances of cleanliness. Obvious exceptions are places like the Oberbaumbrücke with its pungent scent of piss, or the whole of Neukölln’s omnipresent whiff of dog shit.
In Nairobi, the underlying note is either one of rain or of dust, depending on the season. At the moment, you can detect a hint of red earth and petrichor every morning. Most places smell ever so faintly of garbage and pollution.
Walking around, you will sniff out blossoming jasmine and stinging brake fluid. There will be freshly cut grass, hacked by men with machete-like tools, as well as slightly gross meat reek coming out of butcheries.
Nairobi is sweaty people on a matatu, their clothes actually smelling worse than them. It is street vendors selling eggs and sausages. It is wood and garbage burning by the side of the road. But it’s also the heavy, musky colognes of the businessmen populating the malls and office towers of Westlands.
If you kidnapped and blindfolded me and dropped me anywhere in Nairobi, Berlin, or Istanbul, I could tell you where I am. I guarantee it. Not that I’d want you to. Just saying. Please don’t kidnap me.
What does it smell like where you are?