I spent a week in Lisbon, Portugal, over Thanksgiving week. (Highly recommended, by the way–Lisbon is beautiful, laid-back, delicious, and affordable.) While I was there I thought about and tried to pay attention to the way that smells affect our experiences and memories. In an article about museum curators going through boxes of Andy Warhol’s stuff (I can’t remember what publication this was, so no link), I read that the artist used to consciously use perfume as a marker of experiences–he would wear a scent for a limited amount of time and then never again, so that that fragrance would be forever associated with that period in his life.
I tried to do this in Lisbon. When I arrived, I noted that the city had the particular smell peculiar to old European cities, which I suppose comes from old buildings and maybe even air that has been breathed and re-breathed by billions of people living in close proximity over the last thousand years or so. I only notice it upon arrival, and then it goes unnoticed. It sits at the mouth of the Tagus River, which looks like the ocean, but it’s not salty–so no saltwater tang to the air.
There was a perfume shop I made a point of visiting, Perfumaria Alceste. It’s a tiny, dim little shop in the middle of the historical area, run by a frumpy older lady with beauty-salon hair who speaks English but is otherwise spectactularly uninterested in sales or customer service. The perfumes are all in glass bottles with handwritten labels and stoppered with cork. I stood there and sniffed for several minutes while she just stared into space. I asked if she ever mixed perfumes for people, and she said she did. When I indicated that I might need some help with that, she just shrugged. I ended up buying a tiny bottle of something called “incenso,” which I find fades within about an hour after I put it on. But it might be interesting to mix it with other things.
At the Mercado de Ribeira, an indoor market with food stalls and shops, I tested out Claus Porto perfumes, which you can get in the U.S., so I didn’t buy any. But all day, I repeatedly sniffed my hand where I’d tested out the one I liked best, to imprint it on my memories of the day. I didn’t even note the name of the cologne, so if I ever smell it again, it will hopefully be a pleasant surprise and bring a rush of memories.
When I’m visiting a large city, I like to visit gardens. Spain had some of the best-smelling gardens I have ever experienced, so I was hoping that Lisbon’s municipal botanic garden would be similar. However, it was more focused on plants and less on flowers (plus it was November, so not much was in bloom). I did get a whiff of some plant or shrub as I was walking around the paths, though, that was hauntingly familiar. I never did pin down what the scent was or what plant it was from–another mystery, perhaps to be solved on a return visit.