Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

25 June 2014

When travelling, I don’t want to listen to music on headphones. Instead, I want to take in the atmosphere and the vibe of the city I am visiting as much as I can without artificial, distracting sounds. I want to see and hear the city – and also smell it.

You don’t always even realise when you smell something. Only later do you discover that a smell is still able to bring back memories. When I visit bakeries, I get a feeling that’s familiar from my childhood. For a long time when travelling abroad I came across a smell in old buildings that reminded me of England. Only later did I realise the odour was actually nothing more romantic than that of mould.

In the middle of New York’s summer, there is no escape from the smells. Here they are an unavoidable part of the urban experience – and mostly not a pleasant one.

I just discovered that I happen to live in the smelliest part of New York. The smell landscape has actually proven to be so dominant that during my first days in the city I decided to change my morning walking route to the office – so that I avoid Chinatown and its outdoor stalls full of meat and fish.

Though New Yorkers mostly complain about smells, there is also a positive side to it. I can find the door to my gym even with my eyes closed by following the scent of menthol that is dominant at the location. More widely, smells can enforce the identity of different parts of cities. There is a part of Helsinki that’s famous for the distinctive smell coming from a nearby coffee roaster. In New York, expect to smell horses in Central Park and fish, meat and green herbs in Chinatown. In the French Quarter of New Orleans there is no escaping the smell that comes from kitchens busy preparing spicy jambalaya and gumbo.

We tend to be so worried about preserving urban environments, protecting the generations-long heritage of city planning that we see around us. What I’d like to see is more emphasis on the world of smells, too, be it by preserving the smell of fresh fish at Nordic food halls or the smell of cabbage in New York’s Chinatown.

Markus Hippi is a producer/presenter for Monocle 24, currently stationed in our New York bureau.

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