As soon as I arrive in Paris my olfactory senses kick into action. I know I am surrounded by old European culture. It’s a fragrance distinct to Paris, just as so many other cities have their own unique scent. They say that smell is the sense with the strongest powers of producing nostalgia. The ability to reignite our memories.
Having been here once before, a whiff of Parisian perfume immediately brings home the fact that I am again in Paris.
Perhaps one of the most well-known scents associated with Paris and indeed France is the celebrated Chanel No. 5. Paris is well renowned for its connection to the creation of beautiful perfumes, many modelled on the scent of flowers.
But Coco Chanel felt that women should not smell like flowers, but like women.
So Chanel No. 5 combines jasmine and musk with new fragrance chemicals called aldehydes that create a clean freshly laundered smell.
Then there is that freshly baked smell of French bread wafting tantalisingly from the boulangeries, and the assault of cheeses, seafood, exotic fruits, fois gras and a jumble of other French creations.
The smell of freshly baked baguettes is nutty, slightly tangy, and faintly sour. I am told there are 143 different smells of bread alone.
That smell… that smell… makes me hungry and eager to rip off hunks of warm baguette and fill my mouth with an oxymoronic mouthful of crisp yet chewy French bread.
Paris is a city of opposites; one can catch a whiff of perspiring humanity on the metro at rush hour, as easily as a subtle note of elegant fragrance as one passes yet another chic Parisian ‘belle dame’.
I am also reminded of what my sensory memory has chosen to reject. Coming from New Zealand where smoking inside is banned, and even smoking outside in certain areas or near children is frowned upon, it is almost shocking how many people smoke here. Whew, they are everywhere.
In 2007 they banned smoking in a public place in Paris, but there was such a stink by people that they relaxed and allowed it again. Parisians literally smoke everywhere, and drop their butts on a whim, littering the ground with still smouldering Malboros, Gauloises and Gitaines.
It seems the cigarette is the French’s favourite accessory, and they still smoke inside restaurants while eating. The smoke may create a hazy ‘old glamour’ atmosphere from afar, but is harsh and choking in reality.
Old churches and cathedrals smell ancient by their very age. It’s a cool, austere atmosphere that is perhaps no smell at all but seems just as tangible as if it were.
There is a sense of dustiness and age. Of immense cold stone, beeswax candles and a hint of burnt incense.
The Parisian Markets; Les Puces de Saint-Ouen the most famous flea market in Paris known to everyone as Les Puces (the fleas). Seven hectares full of antiques, bric a brac, books and clothing envelope you in a hug smelling of leather, musty tomes, fresh crepes, and vintage haute couture. (right next to cheap polyester knock offs of course).
A hit of all this, inhaled solidly for a few hours, knocks the senses, and leaves you exhausted and quite ready to head back to the apartment for a deep breath out, calm reflection on the day, and a glass of red wine, with yet another fragrance.
Yes, the smells of Paris are imprinted on my memory, good and bad I love them all, until next time…