Bottling the Scents of Your City

The other day I was walking through New York’s Chinatown, and I realized that I kept smelling a strange melange of scents: rotting vegetable peels, run offs from fish mongers, linden blossoms and salty sea air. It hardly sounds like a perfume to dab on your wrists, but those are the scents of my city. Also, I can’t forget the exhaust fumes, metallic dust, hot asphalt, freshly baked bread, and wet grass in Central Park.

What about the place where you live? If you were to bottle the scents of your town, what would they include?

Wishing everyone a great Memorial Day weekend!

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65 Comments

  • Martyn: I, too, can list salty sea air among the scents of Brighton, my nearest city. But added to that would be sun lotion (both the creamy kind and the oily, bergamot-fragranced kind), patchouli from the alt.fashion outlets in the Lanes at the back of the town, and fried onions from the hot dog stands in the centre and by the pier.

    And then every so often someone with huge olfactory good taste leaves their sillage on the breeze to restore my faith in humanity. May 26, 2012 at 9:30am Reply

    • Victoria: I like smelling perfume on other people (except for an extreme dose of aftershave on my fellow commuters), but most of the time I smell the hair products. They’re strong enough to compete with perfume!

      What a great scented portrait of Brighton! May 26, 2012 at 11:03am Reply

      • Martyn: Victoria said “What a great scented portrait of Brighton!”

        Have you been to Brighton, Victoria?

        It really does take all sorts of scents, doesn’t it? – the good and the bad (noisome’s “human” smells are just as evocative) – to describe a city’s true personality; and bad smells don’t necessarily make a bad place. May 29, 2012 at 5:56am Reply

        • Victoria: Very briefly, Martyn. I agree with you, it’s the mixture that makes a place interesting. I like a comment about the smell of sewage in New Orleans’s Latin Quarter and how it gives the place a special, “only there” aura. Right now, I opened the window and I can smell the chalky dusty of the construction site, mock orange bushes, cigarette smoke and coffee. Definitely not pretty in parts, but overall the smell is very good! May 29, 2012 at 8:10am Reply

  • Elizabeth: I grew up in a very suburban section of Staten Island, where the smells include fresh-cut grass, roses, lake water, pizza, and Angel perfume. Staten Island women are fanatically devoted to Angel! May 26, 2012 at 9:46am Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t believe that I haven’t visited the Staten Island in all of my time here. I really have to explore the area much better! May 26, 2012 at 11:01am Reply

      • Elizabeth: If you do visit Staten Island, you should definitely see the Botanical Gardens and Chinese Scholar’s Garden at Snug Harbor, a former community for retired sailors that has been turned into a cultural center. The buildings are lovely examples of Greek Revival architecture. Staten Island is so much more than the brash, loud Italian-American stereotypes featured on TV! May 26, 2012 at 11:22am Reply

        • Victoria: I think that my own view of the Staten Island was largely based on those stereotypes, and I look forward to discovering another side of it. Thanks for the inspiration, Elizabeth! May 26, 2012 at 12:48pm Reply

        • Meg: So true about Snug Harbor! I lived on SI for a while (my mother’s family always has and always will!) and I used to love taking the bus from Port Richmond to the cultural center. Such a haven! May 26, 2012 at 1:24pm Reply

          • Sara: I used live on SI and I just loved reading all of these comments. A nice flashback to the days of my youth. Thanks, Meg and Elizabeth. 🙂 The cultural center was a true haven. May 26, 2012 at 3:10pm Reply

  • Jacqulyn Baham: In southeast Louisiana numerous flowering shrubs and trees are perfuming the air–mimosa, magnolia, gardenia, honeysuckle,etc. mixed in abundance with the spices used boiling crawfish and crabs. It smells like paradise! May 26, 2012 at 11:15am Reply

    • Victoria: How I envy your bounty! I was stopped in my tracks by the heady scent of gardenias in the florists’ windows the other day. I bought a little one and pinned it to my jacket and walked around with it–the best perfume. 🙂 May 26, 2012 at 12:31pm Reply

  • noisome: Call me crazy but I love the smell of the French Quarter in New Orleans. No where else in America has that err…”human” smell that only comes with archaic plumbing systems. In the daytime, it’s a mix of this and fresh rainwater, as everyone is watering their hanging plants. Strange combo I know, but somehow comforting.

    I also love the smell of downtown Chicago; it’s all artificial smells of metal, oil, gas, along with a myriad of stone and marble, and cold faint perfumes.

    I grew up in mostly small midwestern towns, which of course smell very similar, depending on the season. Grass, burning leaves, snow. May 26, 2012 at 11:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I know exactly what you mean! The plumbing system smell is something I associate the French Quarter in New Orleans too, and while NYC can smell pretty “human” as well, it isn’t the same.

      It’s strange how such bad smells actually might seem appealing in the right context. Or if not exactly pleasant, then familiar and expected. May 26, 2012 at 12:47pm Reply

    • Nancyg: Noisome: I love the way downtown Chicago smells – all the things you mentioned plus the aroma from Blommers Chocolate Factory and sometimes in the winter the impending snow… May 26, 2012 at 2:24pm Reply

      • Victoria: I remember this smell perfectly! It was powdery, sweet and smoky. May 27, 2012 at 12:43am Reply

  • Anne: I am from the south of France (St Tropez), and work on Pampelonne beach, and May to me smell like sea, drying sea weed, monoi, cuban cigare, sunned out sand, fumes of motor yachts coming to the beach and this wonderful undefinable scent of lightness and careless. kisses May 26, 2012 at 11:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Sounds so good, Anne! I’ve never been to St Tropez, but my idea of it is based on the various famous films from the 1960s. I bet it has changed a lot, of course. May 26, 2012 at 12:50pm Reply

      • Anne: It has changed a lot, but it still has the same “je ne sais quoi” and aura to it. I love its buzz in the summer and the fact that in the winter in regains its status of fisherman village with all its traditions and history… (and a little bit of Chanel, Hermes and Dior…..). May 26, 2012 at 1:02pm Reply

        • Victoria: I felt a bit this way in Nice, where I visited in November. It still had the patina of a glitzy and glamorous city in certain parts, but the old town was surprisingly quaint and serene. May 26, 2012 at 1:11pm Reply

  • Domestic Goblin: It would be interesting to create and smell a perfume of these places. 🙂 May 26, 2012 at 12:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree. Wouldn’t it be fun! 🙂 May 26, 2012 at 12:50pm Reply

  • maggiecat: I agree with those who posted about the delightful scents of Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular. Dallas has a variety of blooming plants in the spring, but as summer nears, the scents in the air relate more to heat and dust. But after a rainstorm – it’s glorious then, the scent of the freshened air sharpened by the contrast with the dry, dusty notes from before. There’s something to enjoy no matter where you find yourself living! May 26, 2012 at 1:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: I lived in the South for a few years, and I distinctly remember the first time I took a long walk through Chapel Hill on a humid, hot summer day. The air smelled rich and heady, tropical with its mix of damp leaves, crushed wild grapes and magnolia blossoms. And a hint of decay! It was so memorable, I remember perfectly that day. By the time I arrived to my destination, my shirt was sticking to my body and everybody was laughing at me for being crazy enough to walk during the hottest part of the day. I loved the falls and winters in NC though, minus an occasional hurricane. May 26, 2012 at 1:14pm Reply

  • Peggy: My little city would smell like locust and honeysuckle flowers, water and caves, barbecue smoke and damp leaves–I am in Tennessee. May 26, 2012 at 1:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s the perfume I would wear! 🙂 Smoky honeysuckle sounds fantastic. May 26, 2012 at 1:14pm Reply

  • Meg: My homeplace in South Jersey smells of pitch pines, salt air, blueberry shrub fruit & foliage, the woodburning brick ovens of all the nearby pizzerias, and honeysuckle flowers. 🙂 May 26, 2012 at 1:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: That yeasty-toasty smell of the brick oven pizzerias never fails to make me hungry, and as I read your description, I kept imagining a perfume like Feu d’Issey with its toasty and herbal notes. May 27, 2012 at 12:50am Reply

  • yomi: For starters bottling the scent of ibadan, Nigeria – where I live would be a major exercise because it is just so big! ( The largest city in sub – saharan africa!)

    So I’ll start instead with my neighbourhood. At the moment( the rainy season). Green leaves , wet grass and damp undergrowth. With a wet mist accord, and the scent of night opening tropical flowers like sambac jasmine ( grows very luxuriously here), queen of the night and snake plant blossom mingling with wet earth!

    The humidity in the rainy season is high – so wet notes I guess will predominate.

    Nice concept ,Victoria – bottling city scents. Well done. May 26, 2012 at 1:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for taking us on a walk through your neighborhood, Yomi! No wonder that jasmine and tuberose perfumes wear so well in hot and humid weather (at least, I find it so). May 27, 2012 at 12:48am Reply

  • Emma: I just spent two weeks in the beautiful Rue de Turenne of Le Marais in Paris. Waxy parisian staircases and wooden floors but also old mossy walls were the most pleasurable smells I encountered. If you ever smelled Cire Trudon Carmelite, this is it!

    Back in Forest Hills Queens NY, it’s hot and humid today, my sense of smell seems amplified but everything smells slightly off. May 26, 2012 at 1:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: I love Carmelite, Emma, so your description sounds great.

      Hot and humid is right. Today feels like sauna, but when I went outside a hour ago, everything smelled so strongly of honeysuckle, I could almost taste the perfume. May 27, 2012 at 12:46am Reply

  • Ann C.: Freshly mowed grass, lilac and other florals, moss, a hint of pine, earth. There’s nothing like Maine in the late spring and summer. May 26, 2012 at 1:50pm Reply

    • Victoria: New England springs are my favorites! So many different perfumes, and every day brings something new. May 27, 2012 at 12:44am Reply

  • Mj: High 90’s are predicted in Chicago for Memorial Day. Right now a stong south wind brings soot and dust from the south side neighborhoods. Walking down Madison the buttery, sweet smell of Garret’s tempets me to buy a bag of cheese and carmel corn mix. Around the corner on State the subway belches its cool, dank sooty breath. Of course ther is diesel exhaust from the 151 bus as well as car exhaust from yellow cabs. Further up State Street fine frangrance escapes from Macy’s perfume department adds to the mix as a shopper exits the revolving door.
    Love the city. May 26, 2012 at 2:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: So good to see more Chicago natives! Reading your comment made me homesick. May 27, 2012 at 12:43am Reply

  • iodine: I often imagine to make Bertrand Duchaufour- who else?!- compose a perfume inspired by Milan in autumn: it would feature a smoky roasted chestnuts note, a metallic, humid and cold one to recall fog and a touch of saffron to enlighten everything…
    I had a short walk this afternoon and the streets around my house smelled of jasmine flowers, subtle hints of magnolia and… pizza! May 26, 2012 at 3:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Sounds so good. Roasted chestnuts have such a rich, sweet perfume, a hint of walnut, a hint of rum soaked raisins… May 27, 2012 at 12:42am Reply

  • Allison: Here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I’d include the scent of lilacs, privet, and black locust as well as the smell of old books when I browse the used bookstores (there aren’t as many as there used to be, unfortunately!). There’s also a strong scent of greasy burgers from Bartley’s Burger Cottage, and tobacco further down the same street from a shop selling pipe tobacco. And depending on wind direction, I can get a whiff of sea air. May 26, 2012 at 3:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Allison, please sign me up for a bottle of Eau de Cambridge. Your description is so tempting! May 27, 2012 at 12:41am Reply

  • Sofia: I have lived in many many places, but somehow this made me think of when I was living in Seville, Spain. If I had to bottle the sent from there, it would contain oranges, jasmine (so lovely) and unfortunately.. horse poo! There were horse carts everywhere for the tourists! I’m currently living in Barcelona, it smells of the sea and tapas 🙂 But out of all the places I’ve lived, I would bottle the scent of when I lived in Borneo near the tropical rainforest, it smelt so beautifully green of all the tropical plants. May 26, 2012 at 4:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: Wish I could go to Seville, Sofia! Anyplace that smells of oranges and jasmine must be wonderful. 🙂 I’ve visited Barcelona last year and fell in love with it. The food was so good, I ate about 5 meals a day. Since I returned, my favorite lunch has been a tomato toast, Pa amb tomàquet, drizzled liberally with olive oil. Now, I could wear that as a perfume. May 27, 2012 at 12:40am Reply

  • Olfacta: In Atlanta where I live there are many barbecue places, ranging from “shacks” to large restaurants, and all fan the smell of the pit — hickory smoke, roasting meat and the smoky marinades and sauces used in the cooking — out into the street. Everybody gardens, even in the city most people have a least a balcony garden, so there is pine bark and pine “straw” and dirt. And right now the gardenias are in bloom, big tree-like shrubs that smell like heaven. May 27, 2012 at 8:33am Reply

    • Victoria: This does sound heavenly and perfect for a bottled perfume. I regret not exploring the barbecue much more when I lived in the South, I always loved the smell–smoke, vinegar, spices, molasses… May 27, 2012 at 10:52am Reply

  • Kurt: The smell of tabacco from Phillip Morris, the sweet and earthy smell of the sugarfactory topped with the smell of fresh cut grass from the big lawn at the beginning of the public park. May 27, 2012 at 10:54am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s so interesting to read all of these comments and to realize how differently our hometowns smell. Each has something unusual and distinctive about it. Trying to imagine the scent of your town. Sounds like Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille. 🙂 May 27, 2012 at 12:44pm Reply

  • solanace: I live in a very industrial spot of Sao Paulo, Brazil. It smells of the dead river and pollution, but when I’m home (which fortunately is far enough from this river so many of us are commited to save) I can only smell the jasmine sambac, lemon and orange tress, the roses and honeysucke. I also smell the neihghbour’s mangoes and passion fruits, and on weekends there is always a barbecue somewhere close (usually here). The city pretty much stinks, though, and it is pretty hard to convince the ordinary citzen of the importance of green areas close to the river because they are only worried about traffic and the absurd amount of time they spend in their cars every day. What a shame. Our city should smell so good. May 27, 2012 at 4:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: A, I completely understand what you mean. What I just don’t get about NYC is the tendency of businesses to dump garbage on the curbs and leave it there in big powering piles. It eventually gets picked up. And the filthy subways! So, yes, this city doesn’t always smell good. The parts of New Jersey, a neighboring state, with all of its chemical plants are also pretty bad in this respect. May 27, 2012 at 5:18pm Reply

  • MB: In Venice, CA, I the towering eucalyptus tree on one side of my house and a sprawling California oak in the front doesn’t allow a lot of sunlight so have surrounded myself w/ lush ferns. We’re at least ten degrees cooler than the rest of LA so early evening there’s a lot of woodsmoke from firepits, the scent of lavendar and rosemary and of course delicious salty sea air. There is also more than a whiff of marijuana smoke drifting over the jasmine-covered fence from my neighbor’s house. May 27, 2012 at 4:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: LOL! So, how do the marijuana and jasmine mix? Worthy of being considered by Fresh in their Cannabis series? Cannabis Jasmin sounds good. 🙂 May 27, 2012 at 5:23pm Reply

  • Mille Fleurs: Tennessee is all about honeysuckle and fresh cut grass, made lush and thick by the humid Tennessee air. May 28, 2012 at 8:32am Reply

    • Victoria: I love the smell of honeysuckle, and to me, it’s associated with the humid Southern winters. I would love to visit Tennessee one day. May 28, 2012 at 4:23pm Reply

  • ewewhojane: Northern Vermont would smell of hay, the wonderful forests full of moss, ferns, decaying leaves, flowers and an undercurrent of manure from dairy farms, and not forgetting the aroma of maple sugaring season which is a combo of smoke and sweet sap, almost caramelike but very earthy. May 28, 2012 at 11:16am Reply

    • Victoria: That sounds wonderful–hay, caramel, moss… The beginning of a great perfume. 🙂 May 28, 2012 at 4:46pm Reply

  • Anna Minis: Amsterdam: benzine, sweating tourists, lilacs in the gardens, pizza. May 28, 2012 at 1:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: That must be an interesting mix. 🙂 May 28, 2012 at 4:55pm Reply

  • Heidi: Oslo: very good black coffee, fir trees, salt water, cinnamon buns. May 29, 2012 at 10:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve never been to Oslo, but for some reason, I’ve also associated it with cinnamon buns. I’m glad that your comment has confirmed my romantic view of your city. 🙂 May 29, 2012 at 11:42am Reply

  • Anna Minis: Hallo Victoria! I am new on your beautiful blog. Being an ardent perfume lover, but not a professional one, I am delighted to learn so much from your excellent reviews. I have lots of perfumes, stored in a little room on the north, curtains ever closed, heating always off, in the rather cold climate of Amsterdam. btw- I left comments on NoirEpices and Layering perfumes, but on second thought I suppose you don;t have time to read old stuff. Please excuse me for my English: it is not my best language. Kind regards, Anna May 30, 2012 at 3:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: Anna, thank you very much and welcome (and my compliments on your English!) I’ve read your comments. I try to respond to the comments on the old articles, but it isn’t always consistent as I balance writing new content and responding to the current articles. But I tried your great suggestion of layering Hiris and L’Heure Bleue, and it worked so well with the new version of L’Heure Bleue that I wanted to let you know right away. Thank you! May 30, 2012 at 3:29pm Reply

  • Ariadne: Forever sealed in the bottle that is my childhood memory is the incredibly sweet smell of the water in the Salmon River in Connecticut, which is wedged in an ancient gorge capturing the scent of hemlocks, moss, and decaying leaves. June 1, 2012 at 5:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: This makes me feel homesick, even though I’ve never been there, but the description is so vivid and evocative. June 8, 2012 at 4:36pm Reply

  • Emily: My childhood in Hong Kong smells like this: White plumeria in the schoolyard which my blue-uniformed primary schoolmates called the ‘egg flower’ because of its opaque white petals and yolky yellow center. The association still makes me smile to this day. Rainy streets during typhoon season; it’s a wonderful compost-y smell not unlike NY’s Chinatown. Sunscreen and salty seawater during summers in Repulse Bay. I don’t know what’s in suncreen but the smell upon contacting skin gives me such pleasure. It also reminds me of my youthful years in Southern California. And then combine all of the above with ‘Hong Kong waffles’; my sweet-toothed soulmates, it is really the best thing ever. Think of a bite-sized crispy and chewy custard that’s warm and light. Heavenly. Goodness how I enjoyed posting and sharing these memories! June 8, 2012 at 4:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much for sharing, Emily. I was obsessed with Hong Kong at one point and read and watching everything about it I could get my hands on. So, reading this comment tonight made me smile. I’m going to add these scents to my mental image of the place. June 8, 2012 at 4:38pm Reply

  • Robin: So happy to be directed to this older post from today’s post. I grew up in the San Francisco area; (now live in coastal New England). The aromas as one traveled from the East Bay into the City are some of my strongest memories of home – specifically the eucalyptus, oak, bay, and sun-heated grasses of the Berkeley hills (augmented by cherry blossoms in spring) changing to fresh (only faintly) briny air over the bay bridge, sometimes cooled by the slight metallic of fog, and the fantastic smell of roasting coffee from the Hills Bros factory that used to be just under the end of the bridge. Those would be my starters for a Scent of San Francisco. There are neighborhoods that have distinct aromas as well; garlic in the North End (overwhelming); Chinatown wonderfully diverse; and Fisherman’s Wharf with the briny fish + diesel + steaming cooking tanks + occasionally a waft from Ghirardelli of roasting chocolate. It’s hard to stop! July 7, 2012 at 10:27am Reply

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