Bulgaria 2015: Conceptual smell/landscapes

August 10, 2015 Posted by Milena D

This is mostly just a continuation of my previous posts around the same topics – some additional smells, reflections on the built environment and landscape. Again, in order of discovery, some of the smells that have come through more clearly and that I recall from my youth are: cat feces and rotten food. Both are barely present now – it used to be that construction sites would leave piles of sand and other construction materials lying around for really long periods of time. Since the ground is far too hard and dusty, and green spaces overgrown with weeds and gnarly, prickly bushes, hoards of neighbourhood stray cats would go to the toilet in those piles of sand. I mean, cats love it, it’s lots of soft ground to turn and bury their poop. I used to associate piles of sand with the faint yet pungent smell of cat feces buried in it, and actually for a very long time I didn’t understand that sand didn’t have to smell this way. Incidentally those piles of sand was also where us kids played in. I had a friend who was quite keen on cars and we used to take our little toy model cars and build whole cities, roads and highways into the sand for our cars. Finding and removing cat poo was a normal part of the process. There is still a lot of construction but it tends to go a bit quicker and perhaps materials have changed too because I am not seeing piles of gravel, sand or other construction materials around. Which is why catching this familiar waft a few days ago was a jolt to the memory. Not that I’m bemoaning the loss of eau de catpoo.

IMG_8135IMG_8134Rotting garbage is another typical summer smell and it is once again tied to infrastructure. Garbage bins used to be these big rusted metal containers open at the top (or maybe they had flaps but no one closed them) where you’d fling your bag of garb into. When they quickly filled up (in large due to no opportunity of composting in the city) with watermelon and cantaloupe remains the bins will overflow onto the ground and start running down the street, the juices baking and decomposing in the hot sun. I remember going out on the street and barely being able to breathe in the air, it was so pungent with rotting fruit; actually organic bits rotting next to non-organic waste. And that was before the time of plastic wrappers and plastic bags. Today, the amount of open waste is greatly decreased with the introduction of self-compacting garbage bins with sliding tops. They are elevated off the ground and there are more of them in general. Plus in many neighbourhoods the city has introduced a closed-lid set of three plastic bins for garbage, plastic and paper recycling. I have to also wonder to what degree any food bits lying around are quickly consumed by urban scavengers – the many stray dogs and cats, and the ever-watchful large city birds.

What has increased in the last years is the amount of cars parked all over sidewalks, green zones and generally sideways on the streets. As a result car exhaust is felt tangibly in the air, and sidewalk tiles are broken and ripped out. Thinking about this, I’d say it is only due to the presence of many and large deciduous trees who constantly clean and rejuvenate the air that the atmosphere isn’t more polluted and exhaust and gasoline are not felt as sharply in the smellscape as they ought to. In the interest of completing the picture, like any other urban smellscape of a developing country, particularly one that gets quite hot in the summer, human body odour is a big part of the experience of being in close proximity to others. Being in close proximity is of course necessitated by other typical actions e.g. being on the bus or standing in line for something (a.n. standing in line is a particular cultural action with its own history and complex socio-cultural-political reasons). This article actually, Modern Desires in Urban Nigeria, does a great job of touching on some of the core issues around civic development, (emergent) class structure and social consciousness through a sensory perspective, taking body odour as a unit of analysis. There is indeed a generational as well as a cultural divide between those who have access to bathing regularly and those who use or overuse deodorants. Growing up I remember the explosion of aerosol sprays that young people will carry in their purses and keep reapplying throughout the heavy heat of the day. Same young people consumed now Western media and attempted to dress in an attractive ‘sexually provocative’ way (and I mean, boys and girls). This, juxtaposed to smelling the sweaty b.o. of older people on the bus and in closed spaces, overdressed in thicker layers, the undertones being the musk of unwashed bodies.

Similarly to the article, I’d point out that electricity is really expensive (still) in Bulgaria so heating a water tank was no small deal, as I well recall throughout my childhood. And another thing – you pay for water consumption – as in, you pay for the water you use, so it’s not really an option for someone less financially fortunate to even bathe in cold water regularly. Of course there is also cultural habit that separates different classes, particularly urban – rural people. The less you bathe the less you can smell yourself, the more you bathe the more you can smell others too (my own theory, but possibly, a fact). It is also possible that people’s bodies adjust in the heat to not sweat as much – I noticed, having lived in the moderate climate of British Columbia, where summer temperatures reach the heights of 25C, I am affronted by existing in humid 33C, something I don’t recall being that much of an issue before. With all that, if I were to draw a trajectory of the last twenty years strictly in terms of the presence of body odour in public places, there is a marked improvement in the overall ‘urbanization’ of the culture and much improved material situation (despite everyone’s complains) reflected in the much reduced (compared to 15-20 years ago) levels of b.o. in public space.

IMG_8038One last anecdote about smell I want to leave behind is embodied by this picture. I took it when a friend led us into an older apartment building in his home town, Silistra. I remember the smell well as the one in my own apartment building, where I grew up. For some reason I associate it with the visual appearance of these older mail boxes, possibly because spending time in that smellscape was necessitated by checking for mail. I have no idea if the wood of the boxes itself contributes to the smell but in any case, the smell is this shady, as in cool to the feel, air of concrete, stone-masonry, mold?. It’s and always has been to me both pleasant and unpleasant. It’s not a nice smell objectively, it’s slightly rotten or off, but not organic. At the same time I associate coming from the sweltering heat outside into this cool, cold-smelling shady place, the entry hallway of the building, to find comfort from the heat, going up the stairs two at a time. And now, of course part of the pleasant-ness of the smell is in the memories it brings up.

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