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The Scent of a Geek

Posted by Sunday on Nov 19, 2008 at 6:17 pm in Daily Space, Weird Science

Fair warning: this is a bit of a lady-post.

It’s standard cocktail party factoid that smell triggers memory better than any other sense, but the intensity with which these memories are tripped is utterly fascinating to me.  For me I experience a potent and discordant sense of elsewhere when I wear a perfume – the smell of where I first wore it.  It is a disorienting feeling that loses it’s punch as the minutes tick by, like deja-vu but lingering and weirder.

I’m a perfume whore, something that occurred after another strange event.  At age 17 I was hospitalized for my disease, a period during which I was crammed as full of antibiotics and corticosteroids as I could be without defying saturation physics. When I came out the other side of that adventure I had a supernatural sense of smell.   And strangely, not only did unpleasant smells give me as much pleasure as pleasant ones, but I didn’t seem capable of overloading my olfactory sense.  People around me warned me that I was wearing far too much perfume and I took to applying profound amounts at home, in private, and would shower it all off before I needed to be in public.

My greed for perfume soon waned in its intensity as my nose returned to its average-sensing self, but for one expensive and slightly (at the time) embarrassing point: I had gained a need for good perfume.  Fancy perfume.  I could smell the difference, even if not in such rich proportion as before.

This led to a series of flings.  I can’t be a monogamous perfume wearer.  There would be no signature “Sunday” bottle always on my dresser.  Was it day or night?  What season?  What is my emotional state?  I could construct massive flow-charts of how I decide what to wear but I don’t have a piece of paper big enough.

Also: the memory.  Here’s just a brief example.

  • Gucci “Rush”.  Smells like turning 21.  I can’t wear it anymore, it gives me an instant hang-over and makes me wonder who I made out with last night.  Triggers strong visual memory of being on a dance floor.
  • Givenchy “L’Interdit”.  Smells like a happy, intermediate time of my mid 20′s.  I wore it a lot one winter, so much so that several of my scarves now smell of it permanently.  Created for Audrey Hepburn, this is the fragrance I have worn most consistently for the last 5 years.  Also: a lot of people claim the new L’Interdit (which was reformulated in 2003) is worse than the old one, but those people are dumb.
  • CB I Hate Perfume “Violet Empire”.  Smells like Cincinnati and winter.  Despite having a lame name, CB I Hate Perfume makes interesting fragrances.  Violet-based perfumes can be really old-fashioned and sugary-sweet, but this one is dark, dank and strange.  Like me! Anyway, wearing this smells like moving across country and experiencing sub-zero temperature for the first time, “Violet Empire” actually smells like freezing to me.
  • No brand carnation.  Smells like New Zealand.   I bought this cheap, generic carnation perfume to take with me to New Zealand because I bravely limited myself to a single fragrance for my trip, and I wanted something I could lose and not fret over.  I wore it every day of my stay there, and wearing it now makes me literally dizzy at first while I try and remember where I am currently, physically standing.  To a lesser extent Carmex lip balm has the same effect since I used it regularly while there.
  • Bvlgari “Red Tea” (“Thé Rouge”).  Smells like adulthood. Hard to explain, but really strong.  I have two place-specific memories that hit me when I wear this (one standing in Seattle in the rain, another while in a store in Olympia) with a kind of bittersweet overtone.  Started wearing this around the time I decided to move away from Washington state.
  • No brand linden.  Smells like Italy.  I wore a linden solid-perfume while in Italy (it might have been L’Occitane, but I honestly can’t recall – so much for the memory association) and it still smells like old cafes, museums and gelaterias to me.  Happy, but not intoxicating.
  • Queen Helene “Mint Julep” deodorant.   Smells like childhood.   I don’t wear this but my dad did when I was little and when I see it in stores I like to take a big whiff.

Of course there are bad memories, too:

  • Some popular men’s cologne.  Smells like an ex-boyfriend.  I still occasionally get whiffs of this unknown but reasonably popular fragrance and it makes my skin crawl.
  • Archibald Sisters “Uppercut”.  Smells like fury.  Worn by a housemate that robbed us (and others) and then split town.  Archibald Sisters is a little boutique shop in Olympia, Washington, that mixes a few of their own scents of which “Uppercut” is one.  I guess it’s a take on some other popular men’s fragrance, because I smell something very similar every once and a while and I become instantly enraged, hateful and disgusted.  I have to calm down and tell myself that the douchebag isn’t in my general proximity.

Anyway, there you have it.  Smells.  Memories.  Discuss.

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November 19th, 2008 | Daily Space, Weird Science

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