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This will be a personal post about a recent experience and how it connected to some thoughts I have been carrying around for a while.

I recently attended the funeral of a friend. Although I have had some losses and arranged funerals myself, this one was quite different. It was my first friend funeral, someone my own age, in the same life phase, someone who is a part of groups of people that up to now have had no empty seats.

This added a dimension to the experience. The sadness was accompanied by a feeling of reflection, not only reflection as in thinking, but really reflection. Looking at yourself in the mirror of someone’s absence. Being reminded of transience, of all the clichés about one’s own mortality. But not only that, also an intense wave of gratitude over having a functioning body, legs that run and lungs that expand to embrace a new breath of air. And the very valuable occasion to run an inner check-up. Am I on track? Am I moving in a direction aligned with my compass? What about this unique person that I will never ever again have a coffee and exchange ideas with is it that I will remember the most? What has she inspired in me – and how can I cherish that in the best possible way? Where will I find the reminders?

You know of course where I am going here. We know that our brains are created in a way that links our memories, feelings and scents to each other in an unavoidable way. We have stored memories and associations linked to scents. Smelling something takes us back in a second to something we felt, saw, experienced a long time ago in a second and turns the past into the present. We know this and the map is drawn in literature as well as in research. Smells are used in therapy to unlock traumatic memories so they can be treated. I have been carrying and idea around to spend some time working with elderly people and smells to help them reconnect with memories of things that created their identity. From what I can see, there is much much much to be done with the pro-active use of smells though. We can create memories and olfactive tools that support them. This means that not only can we support a person going through severe health challenges by providing them with scents that will connect them to positive memories and feelings – even create a sense of presence of people who can’t be there with them. (Yes, I do believe there is something supportive for a very ill parent to have a garment that smells of their child with them close for example). But, also, and here comes the sadder part – we cannot keep a person alive just with smells, but if we do lose someone – we can use smells to help ourselves stay close to the memories of them and to revoke the feelings of happy moments shared together. There are many children who have lost a parent and are not able to “find” them emotionally. Many lovers who would find something special in the smell of a person that is no longer there. My point is, knowing as much as we do about the connection between feelings, memories and smells – we can use that knowledge more pro-actively.

I will associate losing my friend with the amazing romantic flower decorations at the funeral she designed herself. In fact I will also think of her when I see, smell or eat green apples because she chose to have that song played at the end of the service, But I will also remember her when I eat chocolate and chili ice cream from a particular tiny Italian ice cream and coffee place here in Stockholm where we met one day to exchange some ideas. And these aromas will remind me of the value of welcoming people’s ideas and lifting them higher. Because that is what I associate with her more than anything else.

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To me unconditional love smells of chicken soup. Because that’s the first smell that I felt every time I got out of a car in front of my grandmother’s house as a child. Airport, car, open window, chicken soup, warm embrace. My brain will never question this logic. Just like the aromas in Korean food are synonymous with all the lessons I learned in my first serious relationship about what true intellectual partnership and respect is.

How can you remind people in your life of how much you care and of who you are? Which odors, smells, fragrances, scents carry your values? Which ones can you create new memories with together with people you love?

Skärmavbild 2014-02-03 kl. 12.51.13 PM

Green apple photo http://www.pinterest.com/pin/170996117074465553/

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Cuban artist Reynier Leyva Novo‘s work has attracted international attention, for example at the Venice Biennale 2011. Northern Swedish city Umeå is perhaps not what an international art crowd would expect to be a venue this artist would choose, but it is not so surprising when you take a closer look at ambitious Bildmuseet which now presents the artist’s first solo exhibition outside of Cuba.

With a great interest in the history of his country, Reynier Leyva Novo explores, questions and stages different versions of Cuba’s past. He focuses in particular on the period around the liberation from Spain in 1898. His art invites the onlooker to reevaluate Cuba’s history and our interpretations of it. One of his pieces, The scent of war (Los olores de la guerra), consists of a number of perfumes named after generals and the places where they led their troops.

Reynier Leyva Novo’s is one of the artists who understands the power of scent and the fascinating synergy between our sense of smell and our memories. But he adds a dimension to this, by working with the scents power to create a new image also. ‘The scent of war’ consists of three fragrances that the artist has developed. The fragrances help the audience to create their own inner images and stories around a historical event, in this case the three generals that died in battle. Each general has a fragrance named after him. The fragrance is exposed together with a poetic text.

I like a lot about this idea. However I am somewhat confused by the fact that the fragrances cannot actually be smelled by the visitor to the exhibition. What is then the point of having created a fragrance? Is it the idea of a smell that is the point? The ability of our mind to create that by itself? Why then have fragrances? And if they have been made, why not the people smell them?
I need to find Reynier Leyva Novo and ask him! To be continued…
About the artist
Reynier Leyva Novo (born 1983) lives and works in Havanna. He has participated in several exhibitions in Cuba as well as at the Venice Biennale (2011), the MARTE (Museum of Contemporary art) San Salvador, El Salvador (2011), the Liverpool biennial, UK (2010); A gentil carioca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (2008).

Speaking of scents and their power to let us travel in time… If you, like I, live in the northern hemisphere you’re probably also starting to notice the temperature falling and the days getting shorter. My vacation was more than a month ago and the tan is long gone. I use any possible way to keep the feeling of summer with me, because there are still sunny days sometimes – even if one is in the office!

This is what I do, scent-wise to hold on to the summer feeling for a few more days. Nothing advanced. But it works for me so it might work for you too!

– I drink a lot of infusions made from fresh summer herbs. I love a cup of tea and a blanket in the autumn but the earl grey also gives me a november feeling. So my summer version is to use fresh rosemary or verbena leaves and some honey or cocoa sugar. Not only does it taste great, the smell is fresh and uplifting. But try to find fresh ones, you need the right-now-ness, dried will be like “remembering”.

Lemon Verbena

– When I travel I almost always bring a perfume home because it will remind me of that journey and of that summer. Using this fragrance gives you just enough of that still-away-feeling. If you didn’t get a new perfume this summer then maybe you used one more than others. Wearing that will bring some of the summer moments closer.

– The summery perfumes… There are a few safe classics that inevitably sing olfactory arias about sand and sandals to your brain… Neroli di Portofino and Bronze Goddess are two of the most well-known. For a more discrete effect I like to use what is left of sun screen lotions from the summer. Somehow there always seems to be an amount enough for 2-3 weeks more left. Using these lotions as moisturizer (which post-summer office-schocked skin really needs!) gives a soft scent of summer that stays close to the skin.  Be careful however when you wear summer/vacation scents at work since that is also the feeling that you will send out to people around you – so don’t smell like a day on the beach for important work meetings! It is not a very authoritative or reliable signal. Use your nice medium sillage elegant fragrances for those days. But for more off-stage days, evenings and weekends – indulge in summer scents for a few more weeks!

Scents and memories are lovers that never part. We can be interested in perfumes or not, enjoy or even notice the smells in a kitchen or not – but we can never free ourselves from the psychological effects of scent impressions. Which is such a good reason to embrace that and really indulge in our own private scent stories, adding olfactory details to important experiences etc. This summer I wrote about weddings and scents, how a symbolic scent will add sensual pleasure to such an occasion but also help you return emotionally to it in the future. I know I am not the only one with olfactory childhood memories, like in my case for example this and this one… we all have them, some good and some bad – so if you are a parent think about how you can give your child future treasures in the form of scents that will bring back precious memories to their adult self. If you want some ideas or suggestions on this, you’re welcome to contact me. I remember when Swedish newspaper DN featured an article about my blog this spring I received a letter from a woman asking how I thought she could help her daughter develop her scent awareness and what they could do together, like olfactory adventures. I loved that e-mail.

Scent and memories are like the air and the wind, and they clothe the bond between the present and the past of the senses like few other impressions can. Maybe even erase it. The mind reacts to the scent of an absent person’s sweater or scarf to a large extent in the same way that it would if the person was there. For someone like me who has an ambiguous feeling towards time as a concept, this is fascinating.

Two weeks ago I was going through my storage. I have a Dad-box. My father died six years ago, exactly six years ago. On the 16th of September, it was a Saturday that year. He died in an accident. Suddenly he was gone. I have lost other people that I loved, like my grandparents, but then their things and worlds also disappeared, much more than in my father’s case. I thought it was extremely bizarre and painful the way he was suddenly so very gone but all the things and scents and smells – that I had never previously even been aware of – were left with me. The food in the fridge, the oceans of books, his car, his cigarettes, the laundry that I had to take out of the washing machine. Everywhere that smell of a person who is just not there. At that time it just made me sad, or maybe it made me tired because of the conflict between presence and absence that it created in my senses, and tired and sad were synonymous feelings. For the next years those smells disappeared. And then now, cleaning the storage, finding the Dad-box, I discovered to my great surprise – because I don’t remember doing this – that I had kept my father’s perfume bottle. Seems only natural now, since my life is so much about scents, but then…I don’t remember that I thought about keeping it. I am happy that I did.

That it is even possible for a scent to give you the feeling of someone’s presence or of a moment from your past is…, I know the scientific explanations and the logic, but it just is magical. Extra-ordinary. It is not exactly the presence of that person, because they are not present, the dead are gone. It is not that moment back because it is over. It is more like something in your soul gets a little “now”-place to dance in for a moment. Like you are given the opportunity to open a little box, look at it, reconnect with something that is not as close as it used to be, activate a part of yourself that is connected to it – and then get back to business. Scents give us access to feelings. To our own different inner and outer worlds.

I have infinite amounts of scent memories from my childhood that are linked to Poland and my grand mother. From the smell of chicken broth when she opened her window as she saw us arriving by car from the airport – to the Lancôme powder in her handbag. My Poland is a Poland with so many olfactory codes and sentimental signs that go through my nose straight to my soul.

This summer I am spending some time in Sopot and the surrounding area. A place where my mother spent childhood summers and where I have been as a child as well. And so many scents… The fish restaurants by the sea, the corn, the grilled little cheeses “Oscypek” that you can buy as street finger food – and my favorite smell… Gofry. A kind of waffle that you can buy every ten steps, you get them with cream or ice cream, berries, chocolate what have you… I don’t eat them but the smell of them that covers the entire coast in a soft vanilla embrace… It’s divine. And then there is the pop corn smell by the beautiful outdoor cinema at the pier, the fruits, the homemade soups and pierogi, and the perfumes that leave a trail after all the dressed up people at night.

Oh, and today… the most amazing one. Driving to Krokowa there was this scent outside in the infinite woods. So poetic and so gentle. Sand, sea and warm pine trees. It smelled of innocence, eternity and fairytale.

My beloved Poland. How much you offer all senses.

Growing up, she would make me smell everything – newspapers, flowers, the earth and grass. It was a general training to make me aware of what was around me, rather than to learn specific notes.”

Just recently I wrote this post on scents and memory. I am deeply fascinated by the power of scents to create and recreate feelings, to enhance our perception and to guide us into the future as well as into the past. It is striking how many perfumers are children of perfumers, we should all learn from that. The awareness of scents and smells is something that we learn when we are children. The confidence to trust and cherish our senses is one of the most important things we can give a child. The encouragement to discover life and the world with all kinds of curiosity.

Yesterday I read Mandy Aftel’s story about her mother’s mink and Joy. Today I found this story from Camille Goutal, daughter of Annick Goutal.

Scents affect us in many ways. One is that they give us pleasure. (Or the opposite if we are unlucky). Another is that they connect directly with our memory and imagination. Who would we be without our memory and imagination?

This post will be without pictures, deliberately. You will get your own pictures in your head when reading it and it is important that it is just like that.

When I moved to Amsterdam to study communication I had the fortune to make many Italian friends in the student house where I stayed. After I had introduced myself to one of them he started to recite a poem. (If you are Italian, or from a Latin culture or maybe just from anywhere south of the Baltic Sea this might sound normal to you. To me, raised in Sweden, this was magic). The poem was ’A Silvia’ by Giacomo Leopardi. Naturally I became Leopardi’s biggest fan that very second and bought a book with his poems within a week. For years I had an inner image of this poet as a tall charismatic sensual passionate Man of Art & Words. And then one day I started researching and found out that this ardent heart belonged to a man who had a very short, very isolated and very non-carnal life due to illness. He was not attractive, and in lifelong physical and emotional pain. He was also alone. Much of the time physically, most of the time emotionally it seems. Not only in a romantic sense, also in his family and in an existential sense.

Yet this man created the most tender, sublime, dynamic and powerful poems that you can imagine. About life and what being human is about, yes. But also about women, desire, the dance of heart and the reflection of one soul in another. What is reality? The inside or the outside?

In an earlier post I wrote about Polge comparing poetry and perfume, that perfume is like a kind of language. It is something that communicates. Naturally, the creation of perfume is much like the creation of poetry. But I would like to highlight one particular power that they share – poetry and perfume both have this almost undefinable ability to create The Other. The feeling, experience, world or phenomenon that does not yet exist or that is not here. A creation for the senses that they do not yet know about, or cannot anticipate. I think what I am trying to say, put in a very simple way – the power of sensual experience to take us on journeys… somewhere. And this somewhere can be back, future or away. The somewhere can be known or unknown until we get there. Art can do this, also music. Take you somewhere.

Proust referred to involuntary memory. That does not mean necessarily “unwanted” but rather that it is not deliberately created by your intellect. The term is described here, but you will probably experience it the best if you read Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ where you will find the episode with the madeleines. You can find an excerpt with this part of the book if you google, for example here.

We should not undermine the power of scents. Not only as an aesthetic, as an attribute, but as something that affects our brain. Scents have a fascinating capacity to activate memories and feelings and can be used in therapy to activate the brain. Scents can give you real physical pain when you find a sweater that still bears the smell of a lost person. Scents can create collision between the past and the present. Scents can awaken desire to have something or someone that is not at all in that zone of your life yet. Scents can make you feel more comfortable in one country than in another. Scents help us choose our partners and teach our children that we are theirs and they ours. (Speaking of which, I have been reading about pheromones lately and there is so much that I want to tell you that I just do not know where to start.)

Try to activate the scents of your life and relationships. The lilies at your wedding. The summer clothes drying in the sun. The first snow. Swimming in the sea at night. Hair damp from summer rain. Freshly baked bread. Airports. A new piece of writing on a sheet warm from the printer. Your favorite ingredient. Your friends home. Coffee. The way your city smells when you take your first step outside in the morning. Think about what smells there are in different places and situations that are significant to you. See if there is some way for you to make them concrete and possible to re-create. Add olfactory memories to your relationship – maybe there is a particular fragranced candle or flower or spice that you can return to on anniversarys and important days just to evoke that special feeling. Give your child fragrance memories because he or she will remember them forever. Buy spices on your travels or find the plants that grow in the destination your fantasies like to return to. Also it is not unusual that perfume houses have fragrances inspired by specific places, just look at Byredo and Chanel. But it is of course not sure that their memories are the same as yours.

The attentive returning reader of this blog might now be thinking that I am contradicting myself. Because I have said many times that we should search for the fragrances that reflect who we are and avoid trying to create something else with superimposed olfactory characteristics. True. But I am not saying that you should wear a fragrance that smells of Buenos Aires, Cape Town or Tokyo but not of you. You want a scent of a geographical place that probably reminded you of a place in yourself. This  is precious, and personal. Your memories are parts of your inner you. Some memories, and some parts of ourselves, we prefer to let rest un-activated, but some we want closer. Scents can help you with that.