I once thought my wife was part greyhound.

“Do you smell that?” She’d ask me, pointing vaguely at some unseen presence. “It’s horrible. You really can’t smell it?” She’d insist, like someone having a nervous breakdown. Her borderline supernatural sense of smell has, in her mind, forever linked entire cities with odors and stenches: Florence (dog shit), London (urine and beer), Barcelona (sewage), Paris (car fires). My nose has never been strong enough to refute her (it may be for decorative purposes only), so I’ve often wondered if she was right. Could cities have a signature scent?

Rudyard Kilpling once said that, “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it,” but this was before the proliferation of the gas engine. Could you still come to understand something about a city or neighborhood by its smell? To find out, I walked around three Montreal neighborhoods (Mile End, Parc Extension and Little Italy) with Normand Cardella, a perfume enthusiast and author of the Perfume Chronicles blog.

Normand has been researching and reviewing perfumes for roughly 6 years, and he now lectures across Quebec on the history and evolution of perfume. It’s easy to see why he has a following: he speaks with the kind of passion that can make you feel like you’ve been wasting your life. It’s a passion that is infectious: we talked about perfume for 30 minutes, even though I barely understood a word he was saying.

Here’s what we found:

 

Little Italy

My grandfather once said that “Canada tastes like ice.”

Having come from Naples, which can make a jet engine seem quiet, he found life in his new home a bit lacking in sensory stimulation. Our family’s homes, therefore, were never boring. Loud and proud, they seemed to be dripping with odors, fumes, scents and smells, their kitchens buckling under the constant demand for aromatic home cooking. Normand and I (he also has an Italian background) were both hoping for that reassuring, childhood-recalling smell of tomato sauce. We were disappointed.

The first neighborhood scent wafted by us at the park on St-Zotique and St-Laurent. It had a vague, doughy, bread smell. “Where’s it coming from?” We asked, eyeing a pair of men on benches, as if the homeless were now baking rolls. We pressed on.

Despite healthy crowds, the restaurant scene on St-Laurent was disappointing, with little in the way of distinctive aromas. It’s possible, though, that we were being thrown off by the stench of idling cars stuck in traffic. I never realized just how much exhaust is in the air. It’s disgusting. Some relief can be found in the large flowerpots that dot St-Laurent boulevard, but these don’t generate enough of a scent to really make an impact. In fact, I’m not even sure we would have noticed them if we weren’t chasing down scents like a pair of hunting dogs. “Everyone talks about stopping to smell the roses, but who really does it?” Normand asked.

The perfume industry is populated by people trained to use their nose like a weapon. These experts are fittingly called “noses” (or “perfumers” officially). The very best are trained in Grasse, France, and their job is to develop perfume blends. Normand is well aware of this training, and he’s quick to put himself down. Still, within minutes, he picked up perfume from three passing women. It was impressive and a bit depressing: I didn’t notice a thing.

“What perfume does your wife wear?” he asked me.

“I have no idea,” I answered, highlighting my deficiencies. I can’t express how disappointed Normand seemed with that answer.

Equally unimpressed were the old Italian men on St-Laurent. Clearly, it’s not every day that two guys walk around Little Italy with a tape recorder, noses flaring in the air. We looked like snobby plain clothes detectives and were promptly met with suspicious stares. I guess some neighborhoods are just not into the idea of recording conversations.

“What is that smell that all spice shops have? Is it a mix of all the spices? Or does curry and cumin overpower everything?” Normand asked when we passed Anatol Spices. The owner had no idea. “I have no idea,” he said, looking at us like we we’d just put a cat on roller skates. Unfazed, Normand explained his distaste for cumin. “Ever notice how cumin smells like underarms?” He asked. I then stuck my nose in a box full of underarm (cumin), which stayed with me for the next few minutes. At perfume conventions, people use coffee beans to clean out their nose. I was tempted to ask Cafe Italia for a few beans, but I thought this would be pushing my luck with the old guys outside.

We turned on Dante street and encountered a strong burning wood scent. This, we thought, could mean two things: there is a masochist in Little Italy running a fireplace on warm, sunny days, or; we had just discovered a fire. No one else on the street, however, seemed worried about it. “Let’s keep walking,” I said.

We were hoping the more residential streets off Dante would offer something distinctive, something that could really sum up the neighborhood. Instead, we smelled a lot of paint and turpentine, scents that, coupled with the burning wood, would seem to indicate a large amount of renovation and condo construction.

“I think if you came back at 12 on a sunday, you’d get some more of those old cooking smells,” Normand said. He might have a point. It was 3:20 on a Saturday. Based on our experience, though, we’d have to say that the signature scent of Little Italy is rather abstract: it is the smell of gentrification.

 

Parc Extension

Normand told me a story about a perfume event that accidentally gave out blank smelling strips. People assumed the strips were perfumed, and they started talking about “olive notes,” “roses” and “sandalwood”. Expectation plays a role, in other words, and I’m not sure if the “spicy scent” I first picked up in Parc Ex was something I wanted to smell or something that was really there. Normand didn’t notice it, which means that I, if handed a blank smelling strip, would have probably said something like, “Wow, rose water!”

The first street we hit, Hutchison, featured a wide range of scents, with spiced meat, roast chicken, cologne, strawberries, cigarettes and a “general produce” smell wafting by in quick succession. Every storefront, in fact, provided a different odor and experience, making it much more interesting than Little Italy. However, there almost seemed like too much of a mix on a street that features a mosque, a hairdresser, an Asian pastry shop, a Lebanese restaurant, an Italian cafe, a pair of grocers and a costume store.

We also picked up a very strong vanilla scent. Initially, we thought this was an air freshener gone haywire, but then it turned up on the corner of a residential street. I had no idea where it was coming from, but Normand had a theory: “It’s probably perfume. Some are almost completely vanilla. Young girls love it,” he said. We then spent a few minutes looking for a vanilla-scented young girl. It was like tracking a fugitive baker.

Jean-Talon, meanwhile, was a total disappointment. Storefronts are too spread out for any real interesting scents to form, and the street, which can seem overcrowded from a car, feels very wide and car-centric when you’re sucking in exhaust.

The side streets did, however, offer a few general, undistinguishable cooking smells, which may be more prominent at a different time of day. But are there enough people cooking the same things for there to be a signature scent? It’s hard to say.

The other problem we faced was the wind, which carried away surefire stinkers, like the odor from a fish market. We didn’t get anything outside the door, but one step inside was like being hit in the face with a sea bass. Twice.

At dinner time on a better day, then, it’s quite possible that Parc Ex would be a foodie’s wet dream, with food scents popping up all over the place. On our day, though, it just sort of smelled like cars and a random mix of passing aromas.

Mile End

Jean Renoir once said, “Wilshire Boulevard…It has no smell to it.” LA at the time was a very white, protestant city that had yet to see large scale European immigration. This was the French director’s way of saying that it lacked character.

You can’t say that Mile End lacks character, so you wouldn’t expect it to be scent free. In fact, if you’ve soaked up enough of the area’s mythology, you’d expect it to smell like an old world market, where “one street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man,” as Mordicai Richler wrote in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.

Well, Mile End is no longer squalid and it doesn’t really smell of anything either.

Sure, Cheskie’s Bakery oozes sugary, baked goodness (If you have a sweet tooth, the scent that envelops this half block on Bernard can make you want to pitch a tent outside). But apart from that, there really isn’t much going on.

St-Viateur Bagel gave us a few fleeting sniffs of wood burning dough, but its namesake street offered very little else. Jeanne Mance and Bernard Street were even worse. “It’s too bad, but no one wants to work in a sweaty work shop anymore. With air conditioning, doors stay closed now,” Normand said. This is the only time I’ve ever heard anyone complain about an improvement in work place conditions. It’s also the only time I’d ever agree with it.

There were some fruit smells on and around Parc Avenue, but it’s just so wide, and again so car-centric that anything like a signature scent is just impossible.

Epilogue

I once worked near Molson Brewery, which infects everything around it with a stench that can only be described as the combination of Parmigiano cheese, unwashed feet and vomited beer. It’s a smell that’s very hard to forget. I didn’t think we’d encounter anything as foul as that, but I was sure we would find some something.

However, despite the poop smell that washed over the city last week, we really didn’t find anything in the way of a signature Montreal scent. Does that say something about this city? If Kilping’s theory holds, you could argue that these neighborhoods are at different stages of immigration and gentrification, and the difference (or lack) of smells reflects that, but I’m not comfortable with what that implies. I just think that the very idea of signature scents is an antiquated one (regardless of what my wife’s nose tells her), an idea wiped out by cars and urban planning.

“People in the perfume industry talk about signature scents being a part of biology,” Normand said at some point during our expedition, pausing to analyze a vague scent that drifted by and vanished. “As far as I’m concerned, though, that’s a lot of bullshit.”

 

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