I’m sat drinking a Turkish coffee in the Arab quarter. I fly home tonight, but today is a chance for reflection. It’s hot and humid, as it has been everyday. There’s a faint scent of cardamon, a dusky kind of smell from the carpet shop next door and some kind of sweet aroma that i can’t identify. It’s one of the main things i notice in Asia: the smells are different!
My familiar smells from home are replaced with unfamiliar and, in some cases, quite unpleasant ones. It takes time to tune in and as i wander between Chinatown, the Indian Quarter and Arab street, i’m more aware of them than usual. There are lots of clues that you are in a new location: the tiles differ on the floor outside the shops, the good on offer are different, the way the streets are lit (with Little India lit up ready for Diwali).
Smells are evocative, closely associated with memory. I felt very hot yesterday and bought a can of coke: as i opened it and drank, the sweet smell that i inhaled suddenly took me back to when i was about fourteen, shifting fence panels around to prepare for a county show. It had been hot then and we’d drunk coke to stay cool. I hadn’t thought about it for years, but the smell took me straight back (unless it was the sound of the ring pull opening along with the heat?). In any event, it was a powerful and immediate association.
Opposite me is a tiny, dark, wood lined shop. Sifr Aromatics. I ventured in earlier, expecting a violent assault on the senses, but no: it certainly had a strong smell, but subtle, refined, musky, dark, deep. On the left wall were a few shelves with glass bottles: some new, many antique perfume ones, some handmade, upwards of a thousand dollars. On the right were hand labelled bottles, arranges around a table, where the young man in charge was at work, carefully decanting and mixing. On a short shelf above him were a dozen reference books.
He was quiet, studious, if i’m honest, slightly otherworldly. Younger than me certainly, but distant, concentrating hard. I have always sat between art and science, comfortable with facts, comfortable to imagine what may be, but how he spoke this particular language was beyond me.
A million miles from the world of Old Spice, there was a subtlety to this art that eluded me.
I’ve been writing recently about music and learning, looking at whether there is a language of music and, if so, how we speak and use it. Indeed, i’m interested in how we learn using more than just spoken and written words. It’s not a particularly academic piece of research (although i am exploring the neurological basis of music and language), but it’s made me think more widely about how we communicate, how we tell stories.
Through this week i will look at some of the other storytelling languages: dance, illustration, touch.
For today, i’m just relaxing in the fragrances of Arab street, savouring my coffee. In a few hours i’ll be in an airport, air conditioned, then on a plane with it’s sterile, dry air. The smells, sounds and sights here will be just a memory, but maybe one i’ve partly captured in this story, adding to me memories as i learn.