Real Talk

On The Smell Of An Unfamiliar Place

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of stepping out of an airplane in a new place. Perhaps the first thing you do, after shuffling around with your bags and making your way down the jet bridge, is take a deep inhale. To me, that first breath of air is like candy, with the sweetness and flavor of an unfamiliar place. It’s a whiff of freedom. A sniff of triumph. Moreover, it’s the very first exposure we get to a strange new destination, and it can say a lot.

Naturally, the odor of a place is one of the first things I notice when I land. Some places, like the Philippines, smell earthy and humid. Others, like Iceland, have arid and crisp air. Some destinations have hints of jet fuel, or smog, or machinery in the air. Others smell faintly of the Duty Free Dior perfume that was just marked down yesterday. In my very meditative first breath in a new place, I stop to think about what those scents can tell me. Is there a metro nearby? Is there a lot of fresh air? Is this a congested place, or one with a little more breathing room?

As travelers, we often talk about our adventures in terms of sights and feelings. Sometimes we even talk about tastes and sounds. But what about talking about our travels, for once, in scents?

A Sniff Down Memory Lane

As humans, our olfactory senses are those most directly connected to memory. Much like getting a whiff of Grandma’s house, smells can conjure memories of places and times, often topped with pangs of nostalgia. For me, certain smells are what give me a strong sense of deja vu in particular places, or from particular people.

We don’t often choose to remember our trips in scents. Sadly, there’s no “Smellstagram” or “Scentbook” for us to share our olfactory experiences. However, we can use our sense of smell to guide us on new and unique experiences, and commit those to memory. For example, following my nose has led me to some of the most amazing meals of my life, whether in fancy restaurants with beautiful plates or in hole in the wall restaurants with spectacular flavors. Now, when I go to similar restaurants in the United States, they remind me of my travel experiences near and far.

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Scents as Storytellers

Scents surface memories, of course, but even more importantly, they can tell stories. There’s a reason why many people wear a certain perfume as an extension of our own personalities and preferences, or that we smell a glass of wine before we taste it.

Thinking back to my last birthday, a few of my friends met me in London and took me to a place called Brick Lane. I’d never heard of it before, but since they both seemed really excited to go there, I happily obliged. We made our way from some of London’s tall skyscrapers, through city streets that smelled of London drizzle, taxi exhaust, and the cologne of passers-by.

I smelled Brick Lane before I saw it. In the dark streets of London, the number of suited businesspeople with their large umbrellas began to wane, as we headed toward a dimly-lit street. A block or two away, the smells of curries and spices swirled through the air, activating my curiosity for this unique place. I imagined the street to have rows of bustling curry shops, international food stores, and convenience shops.

Unsurprisingly, that’s almost exactly what it looked like.

Colorful signs lined the streets and, as far as the eye could see, there were curry houses and restaurants, with liquor stores and small mom-and-pop grocery shops speckled throughout. We chose a small curry restaurant with a red decor, drying off from the drizzle with some delicious small plates and BYOB beer, catching up on our lives as if no time had passed.

Of course, the whole experience was what made my birthday special, but the memory of the somewhat pungent and unique scent of Brick Lane is one of the things that stuck with me the most. Whenever I tell this story, the focus is always about how my trusted friends led me to a strange place, guided by the smell of curries wafting through the air.

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Experiencing the World Through Smell

So, what’s the point? For one thing, following your nose can be an intriguing way to travel. Next time you’re in a place, think about what your can learn from the smells around you. What does the air tell you?

Even more importantly, smells are something we can’t physically document and share online. Our experiences with smells are an aspect of travel that lives on solely in our memories. They’re a non-pretentious, introspective way to see the world. No stupid ball gowns and floppy hats necessary.

And, with that, perhaps even the smokiest, mustiest scents can help us mentally catalogue and remember our most special experiences around the world. So, next time you’re in a new or unfamiliar place…breathe a little. Stop and smell the roses. Let your nostrils be your guide, and you may find some really strange and unique adventures (or eats!) along the way.

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Have you ever followed your nose to an interesting experience while traveling? What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Kay is a full-time media professional located in Washington DC who takes every spare day of time to travel the world. In the last year alone, she's visited over 10 different countries and taken a dozen short trips in between. You can typically find her wandering the streets of a city, taking ridiculous self portraits, or hiking a mountain somewhere. Connect with Kay: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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