The smell of home

Chinese soup spoon with fish designReading about the salmon in my last post I learnt that apparently salmon are guided in their return migration by the smell of the stream where they were born, and that is how they know how to get home in order to spawn. The sign in Vancouver’s Stanley Park (written by the city’s aquarium) asks, ‘Is there a particular scent that reminds you of home?’ Smell can be an overlooked sense as many people will focus on what they can see, feel, hear and even taste more than they might think about what they can smell. I am fairly confident that I would not be able to navigate very far by following my nose but it is definitely an important part of feeling at home.

When I moved into a new home recently it took weeks for it to stop smelling and not because the previous occupants were especially pungent. To me, the house no longer smells but of course that’s not true. Instead it smells of my home and I cannot smell it, unless we’ve cooked something particularly fragrant the night before. These are the smells of home we do not notice because our nose is used to them, at least when they are constantly around us.

There are smells, though, that waft fleetingly under our noses and trigger strong memories of home, usually when we are distant from the place they relate to. These might be childhood homes or smells associated with a neighbourhood, garden, or favourite foods. Christmassy smells are often thought to be homely because they are tied to a particular time involving family and food invariably coming together in homes.

Moving home brings new smells and means that older, now distant ones, take on greater significance. One of the smells that most affects me at the moment is the damp, humid smell of buses when it rains in London. It is far from being the kind of romantic smell typical of nostalgic poetry, but it makes me think I am instead being transported through Singapore, where I lived for a few years and enjoyed a childhood freedom as a result of the great public transport network. Home and its smells can be many and varied, depending on individual preferences, experiences and life paths. Humans do not use this in the way that salmon do but it is an important part of how we experience and understand our homes, if not how we find them.

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