Bulgaria 2015: Conceptual Smellscapes

July 21, 2015 Posted by Milena D

I’ll just start by saying my holiday in Bulgaria this time is greatly enriched by a new awareness of smell, and a more informed, dedicated attention to soundscapes. A more mature sensory ethnographic sensibility. @multisensorymel ’s point that smellscapes can be thought of as ‘conceptual’ has given me some food for thought. But for now, before I draw conclusions or ‘see’ patterns, I need to just list some smells and initial impressions before I forget them completely.

The first thing that struck me arriving at the Sofia airport was the heat and smell of bodies tightly packed in dense lineups at passport control. There isn’t much space for ‘personal space’ in this culture so I had to adapt – this time paying attention – to being in such close proximity of people. It’s not that people don’t wash or use deodorant. It’s just that it’s so hot, those things inevitably fail to mask human sweat and body odour. Antiperspirant commercials were made for the moderate western climate where air-conditioned spaces contain much of people’s daily movements and interactions. The second thing that struck me was the unbearable stench in the airport toilets. I realized, I think for the first time, that this is a problem of plumbing and not (just) of inadequate cleaning. There is something in the original infrastructure of sewage and water pipes that has corroded the inside of plumbing to the point where there is this heavy, sharp, stinging smell of urine/acid. The cold tile or marble floors are mostly clean, the ceramic toilet seats are new (I certainly remember what the old ones looked like) yet the smell is there. Much more faintly the same smell can be experienced in a variety of establishments including all the toilet rooms in private homes. Toilet rooms is precisely what people have and I do wonder if certain infrastructural decisions were made a long time ago on the assumption that bathrooms (i.e. shower rooms) are separate spaces altogether from toilet rooms. When I strain my memory I do remember the same acrid smell protruding through the heaps of cleaning product and air fresheners that we always had in our washroom. Definitely plumbing and insulation.

Stepping outside the airport, a pleasant surprise was the freshness of the air, the sense of open space, light, unpolluted atmosphere, which is ridiculous because it’s quite polluted there, and there certainly isn’t the same culture of ‘non-pollution’ that I’m used to thinking of in north america. Also, no humidity. I think that really helps with the way the air and the heat felt. Started noticing a lot of the sideawalks inside residential neighbourhoods are large slabs of stone and smaller pebble-stone octagons, with dry dirt powder in between, all crooked and torn up in places. Asphalt small roads are full of holes where water and other debris accumulate; both cars and pedestrians are used to the extra effort to physically navigate the difficult terrain.

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Another reason for the general air quality and smellscape / sensory atmosphere is the wide variety and general abundance of deciduous trees that not only clean but perfume the air with their flower buds and leaves (much smellier I think then their evergreen counterparts). It is not in fact uncommon to have tons of fruit trees all over town, including on small residential streets, left over from pre-communist times when houses had their own vegetable gardens, fruit trees and bushes. This makes the air, particularly in Varna, sweet and fragrant, yet fresh from the salty sea breeze. However, fruit fallen to the ground rots in the sun so there is also a prevailing spoiled fruit scent, soaked into the heated pavements. There is an overall ‘clean dusty’ smell if that makes sense. Because the sidewalk materials are so hard and non-porous, in the absence of frequent rain the earth in between tiles and stones dries and loses the smell of moist soil that I associate with Vancouver’s rainy climate.

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The air is further fragrant from the many sidewalk produce stands where warm scent of vegetables and ripe (but not overripe) fruit mix into a kind of soft, earthy, sweet aroma. If I were to draw this in colour, it would be rich, sand yellow, terracotta orange, with hues of light blue. Come to think of it, that’s how I would draw the entire smellscape of Varna, with the earthy fragrance of trees and the salty breeze of the sea air.

One last moment to share. I don’t know if it’s just been that long that I’ve been away, or just I haven’t been as aware of the smellscape of home, but when I made my usual pilgrimage to my childhood beach this year (“Officer’s beach, Akacii”) I had a moment, right here – I stopped to take a picture. It’s the bottom of the marine garden walkway before the stairs that descend down to the beach. It’s the moment where the general smell-ambience of green-leaf deciduous trees was pierced sharply but pleasantly by a fresh salty sunny smell of the Black sea below. It’s hard to explain – influx of memories that almost physically grabbed me, realization of how much different the salty water smell is from that I’ve come to experience on the Pacific northwest. It was an emotional high note, the smell felt like it pierced me right through the heart, and I stood, right here, weeping a little, trying not to look too odd. This was the moment of ‘coming back home’, wave of nostalgia just washing over me, surprising me with how much I miss this place.

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