What is a scentscape? According to a much frequented online dictionary, it is an 'olfactory environment' — defined by the various scents in said environment.
'Various' is the keyword here since, no matter how hard one might wish, no scent can be experienced in isolation. Take perfume — perhaps the clearest example of our attempts to control the scentscapes of our own bodies. Yours may contain patchouli — intoxicating, musky and earthy, a little scratchy — and remind you of your mother's favourite suede coat, hanging on her white gloss-painted hall bannister. A morning spritz might take you straight to her dressing table — all dark 70s teak and smooth, indented handles. But it cannot escape its surroundings — your patchouli will come complemented by a faint whiff of the fabric conditioner of today's white T-shirt (complete with creamy sandalwood phthalates), that ferny shampoo you tried the day before, maybe also the slightest hint of onions your partner fried for dinner or is that just hanging in the air this morning?
You put on a beige linen blazer (slouchy but smart, a little soft in the elbows, it's perfect on this unusually warm spring day) — its lapel has lifted not one but several outings' worth of previously worn perfumes, all different. The jacket has a juice all of its own, layered with the olfactive patina of time, and your patchouli is now just one in a constantly evolving palette.
All of this is in your own home where, according to many accounts, it's hard to smell anything at all, thanks to its familiarity.
Perhaps smells exist in isolation only in our memories — the two, of course, are intrinsically entwined. The amygdala, where we process sensory information, is situated right next to the hippocampus, the area where we store episodic memories. While spatiotemporal information is integrated in a region referred to as the anterior olfactory nucleus. It is these facts that render Proust's madeleine so endlessly poignant, that buttery, shell-shaped cake that, with one sniff, took him immediately to his aunt's "old grey house upon the street, […] and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine." In one single inhalation, Proust was transported through multiple times and spaces.
Imagine a nightclub — Le Carrousel cabaret club on rue Pierre Fontaine in Paris' neon-lit Pigalle neighbourhood. Here a cocktail of scents, new and old, muddle and morph as you move through its crowded rooms. Near the dance floor is a symphony of sweats (these can also be found leaning across you at the bar). The damp locker-room notes of a clingy wet T-shirt, the sulphuric sourness of onions and base notes of salty warmth radiating from cramped bodies. Then there's the baked-in stale sweat of nights gone by, woven into the very fabric of the carpet, the velvet of the bar stools. Pheromones fill the air, too: many of which are undetectable but serve to further charge the interactive energies of the room.
Then nicotine. The cooked scent of a seasoned smoker who crosses you on the way to the bathroom — it's almost visible like a languorous cloud around the hair (note the specific clash here of that with the lurid green of pine-scented disinfectant, flamboyant rose perfume and the clean milkiness of cheap thin hand cream she's massaging into her hands as she leaves). Then there's the fresh acrid tang of a newly lit cigarette, its channel of smoke wafting in on cool air down the stairs from the front door.
Other nightclubbing notes include the happy spritz of freshly squeezed lime, the metallic zing of vodka on ice, the electric hum of static from the sound system and the purple lighting. The musk of your lover's warm neck combines with their cologne — sporty, spicy, a spritz of bergamot, the depth of tonka and oakmoss, a sniff of which can transport you to an instant where time and space are collapsed — where all the characters and rooms of that night meld into one.
Cut to: bed the next morning. Another personal scentscape where the crisp sparkle of laundered sheets meets the soft warmth of skin, the film of a greasy McDonald's breakfast and the sickly sourness of sleeping bodies, so far undisturbed by the opening of a window.
If it were Tracey Emin's My Bed, cigarette smoke — both old and new — would linger here, too: knitted in with the tangled bedding, spicy ash dotted across the royal blue rug beside the divan's trunk. Strewn packets of unsmoked Marlboro Golds have a cigarette scent all of their own: raisin, manure and dried hay.
Our habitual natures become written into our environments through scent — a damp towel left crumpled at the foot of the bed in a rush, a vanilla candle planted on the bedside during a spring clean, the rubber-scented slime on the inside of a Durex wrapper, the mustiness of coffee-ringed newspapers pored over a few Sundays ago that linger still.
In our minds, scents conjure distinct moments, loved ones, and eras — but they are rarely experienced so distinctly; rather, they are notes in a cacophony of sounds, made more delicious playing off one another within a scentscape. It is the abstract ways in which they are sorted, so close to that hippocampus, that renders them so powerful.
For perfumers, delicious scents can be enhanced by less traditionally pretty-sounding ingredients (musks, mosses, resins, saps) — it is this contrast that makes them so dear to us. The creamy white jasmine on the breeze at Ancona ferry port, for instance, marries happily with the sun-baked tarmac, warm petrol fumes and the oily aroma of deep-fried doughnuts. It is thanks to this urbane backdrop that the sacred flower smelt so especially good that bright morning I disembarked, and why I wear it still.