Day 10 – memory and scent ~ Remembering Paris

Last week, I bought a candle that promised to smell of Paris. The nice lady in the store was a little miffed when I wondered aloud if it would it smell like cigarettes and diesel smoke? The sharp metallic tang of the Metro? The damp of the streets after being flooded with water, but still with a hint of urine and dog shit? If I am being kind, my new candle would smell of the roses in the Luxembourg gardens? The herbs in the Jardin des Plantes? The jasmine climbing the fence near our apartment, the only green thing in that side street near the Gare de l’Est?

There are so many smells of Paris; the smoky incense and candle smoke in Notre Dame, furniture polish and books in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, if silence had a scent it would smell like this. Or what about the fresh bread at 5am, the buttery heaviness of the pastries, the fish market, reminiscent of the sea rather than fishiness, the seduction of a chocolate shop, the crepes with their lemon and sugar along the rue Mouffetard, rotisserie chickens, the strawberries that you smell before you see them.

In Spring, Printemps, the air, still cold, carries a promise of warmer days to come. Perhaps it’s the new shoots on the trees, the grass pushing itself up through the frigid ground. Take your picnic blanket if you want to sit on the ground. L’été, Summer, it’s all dust and sunshine, {and the ever present diesel fumes from tourist buses.} What does dust smell like? And sunshine? Where I live, I would say Summer smells of coconut oil, barbeques, and salty air, but the smell that reminds me of Paris in the Summer is the day’s dust settling as the afternoon thunderstorm rumbles through. We camped once, with our English caravan, in the Bois de Boulogne, and those summer afternoons reminded me of home and made me fearful of the structural integrity of our van. The campsite had its own smells; some more pleasant than others. The Bois de Boulogne is wonderful in the day time, playgrounds, and a children’s zoo, cafes and walking tracks, but the green space that lies on the western edge of the city takes on a whole new image at night that is decidedly not family friendly.

The scent of Paris changes with the season but the colours change too, the light changes. The Summer light can be blinding for some, for Northern people who don’t get to see blue skies very often. For Australians and no doubt those from other Southern places of wide open views, the almost sweat-free Paris Summer is something to rejoice. Sweat-free if you come from a place, like I do, that’s humid for 6 months of the year. Perhaps it’s something you would only notice if you’re accustomed to tropical weather

Autumn, l’automne, the leaves falling {and rotting} in the street, a trap for new players, don’t ride your bike over them. Dampness, if it has a scent, and for me, oil paint. Autumn is the time for FIAC, the international art show with shows and open studios all over the city. October also evokes the paper-smell of Shakespeare and Co bookshop, the onion soup from the café across the road, the not-unpleasant beery smell of the Irish pub on the quai.

Winter, hiver, has the smell of wood smoke, usually around the Ile St Louis where people still have fireplaces. Everywhere else just has the vaguely-methane smell of gas. {My favourite French movie, Un Coeur en Hiver, is all brooding and chic, heartbreak and cigarettes. Sublime.} Paris in winter smells of hot chocolate, pizza, crispy French fries in a twist of paper, mayonnaise dolloped on top, eaten while navigating the packed night-time streets of Pigalle and Montmartre, and chestnuts, cooked over an open fire in a shopping cart on the pavement outside Galeries Lafayette.

I am sure if I asked those unfortunate to be homeless in Paris, what they smell is the same as me, but the cold is a novelty for me, until I finally drag myself back to my Airbnb near the Eiffel Tower. I carry spare change to give to the little Roma children standing with their parents outside the palaces of consumerism.

Is it a little mean of me to say Paris smells of truck fumes and Gauloises? France still allows cigarette companies to advertise, even in magazines marketed to teenagers. Cigarette smoking is not permitted in museums bien sûr, quelle horreur, but last time I was there I noticed that a lot of restaurants, cinemas and clubs had banned it too, or at least begun to frown upon it. {I was fed up, by the end of my three-week stint, of smoke being blown in my face.}

Paris is a big, grown-up city, full of people and cars {and trucks} and it’s going to have unpleasantness of garbage bins waiting on the kerb, along with the heady perfumes of the flower shops on every second street corner. The French invented perfume {didn’t they?} or at least perfected them to cover the aromas coming up from the unpaved streets and the polluted river that was more than once in history choked with rotting bodies.

And I complain about all the keys in the river!


  1. Rusty Flueckiger

    Would love to hqve seen her face when you said that about the candle, but love the description of Paris – the good and bad. As i have never ridden over wer autumn leaves – i am guessing you are warning as they would be a bit like an oil slick, very slippy?

    Sent from my iPhone


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