“We believe, with Rudyard Kipling, that smells are surer than sounds or sights to make the heartstrings crack.” ~ Charles Weiss, 1959 interview on CBS’s To Tell the Truth.
My friend Taffy and I used to fantasize about ‘smellavison’ when we were young – wouldn’t it be great if we could smell all the things we were watching on that small flickering box? Actually, I fantasized about television, period, because we didn’t have one, but Taffy was nice enough to let me come over and watch with her pretty frequently.
Well ha, ha! It turns out that we weren’t the only ones with such an idea. 1959’s Battle of the Smellies pitted Mike Todd, Jr.’s film ‘The Scent of Mystery’ against Walter Reade, Jr.’s ‘Behind the Great Wall.’ The former featured Hans Laube’s technique, called ‘Smell-O-Vision,’ of releasing scents from tubes connected to the movie theatre seats. The projectionist could control the timing and release of the various aromas.
‘Behind the Great Wall’ used Charles Wesiss’s process, called AromaRama, to broadcast smells through the theatre’s air conditioning system.
Both systems had drawbacks, and these were the only two films released with scent dispersal systems. Later efforts included the use of scratch-and-sniff cards to add the sense of smell to film. (You can learn more about this movie history and some of the amusing problems it encountered, in this article.)
What does this have to do with Rapallo? Only that so many times as I ride my scooter from San Maurizio into town I wish that I could record the scents for this blog. Invariably the first smell is something delicious that Rosa is cooking up at the Trattoria across the street – rabbit stew? roasted veal? Rarely it is a very unpleasant smell: stoccafisso (which I’m sure smells divine to people who like stoccafisso, of which I am not one. We have a friend, a stock-fish lover, who declares it smells like a baby’s breath. I beg to differ. Fortunately it is a seasonal dish, served only in the cold winter months).
Farther along the road our old neighbors have fired up the wood stove which still provides their heat and their means of cooking. The smell of a late-fall woodfire is enough to make me want to go right home and curl up with a good book and a cup of tea. Farther down someone else is burning a brush pile. This smells slightly different that the wood fire, more punky, no doubt because a lot of what’s burning is green. When we first moved here there was a lot of plastic burning, but I’m happy to report that there is very little of that any more. That is a truly distressing aroma – you can feel your cells dividing in misery.
One of our neighbors hasn’t harvested his grapes yet; they hang, deep purple and slightly withered, from the wires running between rustic wooden posts. The smell of over-ripe grapes is sweet with an almost, but not quite, overlay of decay. It’s no wonder I can hear the hum of bees over the scooter’s engine (well, not really – but I can sure see the bees) – they love the sugar produced by grapes beginning to ferment on the vine.
About half way down the hill there’s a house with a superb garden. I’ve never seen the whole thing, but what’s visible from, and hanging over, the road is gorgeous. Flowers, figs, fruit trees – there is always something in bloom at that house, and as often as not I pick up a sweet floral scent, sometimes lavender, sometimes lemon, sometimes something unidentifiable. It lifts the heart.
Via Betti, the famous Via Betti – about as wide as a U.S. single-lane road, it is the Rapallo end of the road we live on, and it serves as a major access road over the mountain to the valley on the other side. Traffic adventures are a daily occurrence, but it is something one gets used to. Something I will never get used to or take for granted is the gorgeous smell of baking bread that wafts over the street from Panificio Schenone Giorgio. Warm and yeasty, it makes me instantly starving.
Now in the heart of Rapallo I take a left and continue along the river towards the Castello. Ah yes, the waste treatment plant. That smells like old wet newspapers that have sat overlong in a cellar. It’s not a garbagey smell, but it’s definitely nothing you would confuse with the smells from the bakery. Then on to the sea with all its inherent smells: a little salty, a little fishy, a little like a fresh breeze. Our part of the Mediterranean does not have the astringent salt smell I associate with the Atlantic off New England, but if your eyes were closed you would still know you were next to the sea.
And that is why I wish this blog could be brought to you with smellavision. The scents of Liguria are as evocative as the sights and sounds, and yet they cannot be shared in the same way. Maybe someday they will, though – according to a Scientific American article in 2011, scientists have developed a programmable odor-emitting device capable of reproducing 10,000 scents. How I would love to program this short article to give you the smells that define where we live. And I’d be interested to hear what are the smells that say ‘home’ to you.