By Liam Power
Smell, that most powerful fifth sense, I took for granted. That was until I contracted COVID-19, not once but twice, and lost it each time. Mine was gradually restored after about two weeks. Spare a thought for those who suffer ‘Long’ COVID and had to wait for months for restoration, if at all.
The full loss of smell – anosmia – impacts upon us in a very personal way. The appreciation of nature would be very dull, food bland, shopping experiences mundane, and without this vital filter, we’d be exposed to dangers. It helps us to discriminate taste, in judging distance, and location.
The sense of smell evokes strong memories and emotions, recreating vivid images of time and place. They may be pleasant or unpleasant. We build this memory bank through years of personal experiences through travel and different occupations.
Just imagine missing the smell of new-mown grass, the various fragrance of flowers, the soft warm scent from a baby after bathing, the unique earthy scent of turf, lavender floor polish, Brasso, and the whiff of rural life, by way of slurry or silage.
I’m often transported back to relive childhood memories. My mother’s cooking; that satisfying smell of her brown soda bread, fresh from the oven, or leading up to Christmas, her steaming plum pudding on the boil. My father shoeing a horse; that singeing fume, when that red hot horseshoe was placed on the paired hoof.
Clearly reimagined, was that sulphuric fume from my cap-gun, after pulling the trigger. When some hens ‘laid-out’, nesting in hedges. Break a rotten egg, the release of hydrogen sulfide gives off a rancid stench.
I can still visualise the priest in the church with the Thurible suspended from chains, in which the incense burned, and the fragrant puffs of smoke with each gentle swing, diffused through to the congregation.
Smells are associated with places visited. I think of the lure of roasting coffee beans passing Dublin’s Bewley’s café, or in contrast, the Liffey ‘smell’. Cinemas and popcorn are synonymous.
Visit any seaside town; that whiff from the fish and chips, and vinegar to boot, tempts the customers to drool while they queue outside. In contrast, passing some local takeaway, or ‘greasy spoon’, the unpleasant smell of burning cooking oil, long passed its replacement date. Go to a fish market, or a fishing port, the atmosphere is saturated by that strong ‘fishy’ smell, particularly overpowering on a sunny day. Locals tolerate it, while for visitors, it’s a real turnoff.
With food, our nose – rather than taste – may be the first cue in detecting whether processed cooked meats are tainted, milk soured, or ‘fresh’ chicken, not so. Cheeses may present different challenges, because of cultural acceptance. Many of the blue, moldy types can have an ‘off’ smell. One of the smelliest cheeses, a brand from Germany ‘Limberger’ is genuinely regarded as ‘stinky’, even vile, yet can be fine to eat.
Take the area of sports. Pre and post-match dressing rooms conjure up an array of foul smells, here anosmia might be an advantage! Foot odour alone can be obnoxious. Add to that from my experience of old; the fumes of ‘Deep Heat’ or Sloan’s lineament, whoa! it would nearly stop one’s breath.
Shops are strategically designed to make one linger. Close to the entrance, the bakery section has an instant irresistible appeal. Likewise, Pharmacy’s cosmetic counters with essential oils or aromatic candles. On entering a restaurant, without sight of the menu: you can tell there’s curry, roast, garlic, or the Irish fry, wafting from the kitchen.
Odours, can also be the ‘Canary in the Mine’ when detecting dangers. From my experience, I found overly browned, or dare I say burned toast can go undetected. Likewise, without constant supervision, should milk boil over, the lasting burned on the hotplate. And those constant warnings of gas leaks from Gas Networks Ireland, the actions required, hence the need for a Carbon Monoxide Alarm.
The barometers I used to gauge the gradual return of smell were pungent ones: Dettol, Aftershave, and Vanilla Essence.
While the words smell or odour, may be embarrassing in themselves, they have a huge role around human relationships and the need for personal hygiene. It has propelled the deodorant and talc industry to be the world’s largest.
It’s hard to imagine life without the appreciation of smell and how it triggers memories in such a vivid manner. Each person will have their own individual nostalgic memory bank, of likes and dislikes.