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scent story by Florian

The rue du Faubourg Saint Denis is a commercial street, not only because it supports lots of storefronts but also because its character is determined by loose but unmistakable clots of similar kinds of stores. From the Gare de l’Est to the Grands Boulevards it’s all fruits and vegetables, or Pakistani restaurants or hair product wholesalers, with offshoots into the passages whose mustiness has never been penetrated by modern notions like merchandising.

It’s a historic commercial street, not only because it has probably played host to these kinds of businesses for a very long time, and to people who don’t seem to belong in modern France (like the produce men hocking wares in rhymes that were ancient when Proust wrote about them), but because some of the merchandise itself, with the exception of the beautiful produce, seems to have been neglected for far too long, long enough to collect dust and leach pigment. I was recently walking down this street when I had a kind of experience that sometimes happens on commercial streets, when two strong but antagonistic smells hit you back-to-back so that as soon as you’ve smelled the second you can never imagine enjoying the first.

In this case, it was a butcher shop, rabbits and foul and collections of terrine laid out, and more especially dozens of golden chickens spinning not quite in unison on three or four rows of spits inside a glowing glass case set out on the sidewalk, with pans of Noirmoutier potatoes below them absorbing a hot rain of chicken drippings. And guess what was the second? A poissonnerie, all ice and oysters and chilly white filets, with palm fronds and kelp stalks expertly tucked into the bins, marking the extreme brininess of the air above the slippery sidewalk with chlorophyll. Walking by the boucherie, it might take a second to become fully enveloped in the aroma produced by the rotisserie chickens, the salted skins neither too fatty nor too thin but crisping into a even brown armor, no ingredients involved most likely beyond the alchemy of chicken, salt and heat, but when the aroma hits it’s enough to make someone who’s just had lunch into a Dickens ragamuffin or some loose dog, hardly even noticing they’ve stopped to watch the chickens spin and hear the drippings hit and sizzle, not even really wishing for one to take home but just pausing to be awash in winter joy. But that is exactly when the smell of fish interrupts, dispelling the sidewalk hearth and luring you into cold within coldness, past Finisterre to the ocean, as the hearth, despite its charm, loses its power to claim you. The smell of seafood is revolting unless completely accepted, and so arresting in those circumstances that it pushes the smell of meat immediately out of mind.

It would take a very strong olfactory mind to head off the onset of fish and cling to the aura of meat. And the fish shop was so pretty, trimmed as I said in various foliages of dark green, that it was all the easier to let the merry boucherie slip away. The blobs of coquille and oyster flesh jiggled like bits of Ice Queen, tokens of a cold and enigmatic, pristine and lonely person. On the one hand, I can never pass fish shops without thinking of the fishermen, deliverers, shopkeepers, all the people who live in the frozen yet pungent world of seafood, spending a lot of chilly early mornings wet, even spending weeks at sea on crummy, cramped fishing boats. On the other hand, seafood never seems as convivial as rotisserie chicken. At best, some of these firm white filets suggest a sedate dinner at home with a distinguished young dinner partner and a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé. But these odd shapes and quiescent forms, decorative in their lightness and variety, also suggest to me the lonely passion of the collector, driven by his mania for these not-quite-alive, not-quite-dead gems to live in an Ice Palace all by himself.

This moment on the rue Faubourg Saint Denis brought to mind another experience of extreme, contrasting sidewalk odors, this time on Telegraph Street in Berkeley. This is a street for which I have no fondness, not only because it serves as the epicenter of a bygone and by now morally compromised counter-culture, including aging Berkeley folk whose defining life experiences may have occurred as long as 40 years ago and young dreadlocked street people who copy the hippies’ style without their convictions; but also because it served as my route home every evening from campus to the 1R bus, often in the course of trying to rouse myself from a kind of bored daze after a seminar or reflecting on how long I would likely have to wait for the bus and how much work there was left to do when I got home. Places that have witnessed your routines for years and never oblige so much as a flicker of nostalgia should be avoided. And the smells I have in mind were equally ungracious, both separately and, naturally, in their dissonance.

There is a pastry shop which sells donuts, M&M cookies, chocolate croissants, eclairs and other rough sweets just after Moe’s, and it exhales a warm, buttery breath. It seems to be venting its sweetness on you. It is the aroma of “baked goodness”, strangely identical everywhere, and, even when, while walking to the bus alone, it raised the specter of home for me, I was never fooled into buying something. In any case, its mellow doughy aroma gives way on Telegraph Street to the sharp aroma of essential oils, a small Indian or maybe Sri Lankan shop with lots of bottles in the windows, letting off an indefinable mix of patchouli and maybe oregano . . . that completely displaces the aroma of the bakery just before. As with boucherie and poissonnerie the dissonance is absolute, but here the transition entails a queasy lurch from the one to the other. The swift succession fascinates, but neither smell would be as noteworthy without its odd complement. And although the sharp and spiced essential oils store overwhelms the seemingly much mellower bubble gum-brown butter bakery, I feel quite sure that, in reverse, the warm, pervasive bakery aroma cloud would succeed in simply blotting out the pungency of the exotic oils.

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