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Over the last year in lockdown, smell and nostalgia are more connected than ever

From cigarettes in the smoking area to hand sanitiser in the supermarket, Eilidh Akilade looks at how scents, both pre and post pandemic, are the strongest memory triggers right now.

10 Apr 2021

Illustration by Tessie-Orange Turner

Our sense of smell doesn’t really do long distance; experiencing a scent usually demands a closeness to that aroma. But now that we’ve been engaging with the outside world from within a two-metre bubble, catching a whiff of someone’s takeaway, BO or Dior means we’re too close to them. And closeness is all too risky in this pandemic. 

Our old lives were punctuated with scent-stained experiences. We would spend our crammed morning commute, smelling all too much of another person. We had sex – smells of another person’s skin, their bedsheets, their pleasure. We existed in spaces other than our own homes, in spaces that didn’t smell solely of ourselves, whether that was sweaty clubs, bleach-scented hairdressers, or restaurants, the air heavy with the smell of white wine and fresh bread. Nowadays, we’ve become accustomed to past-fresh cotton face masks and tequila-smelling hand sanitiser. It is a significantly less glamorous lifestyle. Smell is one of our strongest memory triggers and it has us all up in our nostalgia and the past year is no exception to that. 

During the first lockdown, Ayah, 23, had to leave her masters studies in Manchester to return home to Birmingham. She now misses the smell of her university – a smell and a place that she never really got to say goodbye to. But this university smell comes back in its own funny ways. “I went to the dentist during lockdown and he was using something I could smell really strongly,” she says. “I realised it was the gloves that he was wearing – they basically smelled like the labs at university because we used to wear the same kind.” 

In a time without travel, scent is also bringing back memories of countries she used to visit – Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Qatar. For Ayah, these places have a scent: “It’s like oil mixed with sand.” Simply walking past a petrol station brings her back to these family holidays. 

“When lockdown eases, and I go back to offices, I’ll probably miss the smell of my pets.” 

Ayah, 23

But there’s also a sense of a future smelly nostalgia. Ayah is spending the pandemic working from home, accompanied by her new pets – a parakeet and a bearded dragon. “When lockdown eases, and I go back to offices, I’ll probably miss the smell of my pets.” 

It’s not unusual for our work-life to carry a smell – a few years back, Chantelle, 21, worked at a perfume counter. “Before I worked there I didn’t have a strong knowledge of perfumes – I didn’t know the difference between a perfume and an eau de toilette.” Now, Chantelle – Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Black Opium’ pressed into her wrists – is a self-professed perfume snob. But lockdown has changed her relationship with it. “I know my perfume is probably going old at this point so [I’m wearing it] less in lockdown,” she says. “I don’t use perfume daily, definitely not if I’m just going to the shops, but if I’m going to meet a friend, I’m like, ‘Well this is as good as it’s going to get so I might as well use it.’”

Now, she’s a student and the scents she misses are reflective of that lifestyle. “It’s 3am, and you’re in a smoking shelter, and it’s just like,” she searches for the words, “second-hand smoke and alcohol and it’s freezing – I think that’s the smell I miss the most.” Chantelle calls it “the smell of a night out”. Such smells are the smells of a collective youth – one that is shared with friends and filled with mistakes, all captured on the camera roll at the end of the night. 

This longing for those unpleasant yet present smells is shared by 27-year-old Rachel. “There is this tree from where I’m from in Ohio – it smells disgusting and it blooms in the spring. In normal years, when I go home to visit, it’s like the smell of my hometown. Of course, I haven’t gotten to smell it in a few years now – so I really miss that stinky tree.” 

“One thing I miss is the smell of him. That’s something I really associate with him pre-lockdown”

Tooba, 20

Scent plays an emotional role in Rachel’s life: “Most of my memories have a smell to me.” As a big food lover, they reckon the smell of their go-to pandemic dishes will trigger the “memory of this year – [for the] rest of my life”. This made it all the more tricky when, in October, they had Covid and lost their sense of smell and taste as a result. It took Rachel a couple of months to get back into “the swing of creating food, rather than just making something to eat”. Luckily, their smell and taste more or less came back just in time for their wedding at the end of October. 

Rachel’s partner plays a huge part in their “smell cinematic universe” – and in a surprisingly odd way. “Living with a man is a very smelly experience,” they say, deadpan. “Normally, when you’re out in the world and you’re experiencing thousands and thousands of smells a day, you don’t really notice it, but when you’re home and you’re only experiencing a handful of the same smells, it becomes really obvious.” 

For Tooba, 20, her lockdown relationship with scent likewise intersects with her love life. In her last year of sixth form, Tooba fell in love – hard: “He ended up being my first love, my first everything.” But falling in love with someone, strangely, also means falling in love with their aroma. And so, the removal of scent leaves its mark. “Throughout lockdown, we didn’t get to see each other for months at a time – then we broke up in November. One thing I miss is the smell of him. That’s something I really associate with him pre-lockdown.” Their relationship “drastically changed” and “a big part of that was his smell. It made me feel very safe.”

“Second-hand smoke and alcohol and it’s freezing – I think that’s the smell I miss the most”

Chantelle, 20

But lockdown odours have also brought Tooba closer to others in her life – particularly to her mum. Growing up, her mum used egg yolk oil on her hair – “the stench, it was disgusting, eye-wateringly disgusting.” As Tooba grew older, her mum stopped doing her hair; that smell of egg yolk oil – and its associated hair tugging – drifted out of her life. But lockdown changed that when her mum admitted to missing their shared hair ritual. “I cracked out the egg oil – that egg smell, it was like… when it hit my eyes,” she squeals. “It was kind of a new thing in lockdown, like a new start of our relationship – it’s still a painful smell, it’s a horrible smell – but now I associate it with that.” 

Even in memory, scents seem to play a shifting role. Tooba’s first year university room – “the depression cave” – was filled with an orange-scented air freshener. A year later, she’s still using it – in a different room and a different state of mind. “It’s lost its meaning over lockdown,” she says. “Its smell signifies that I’m a different person, but I can still use the same scent.” 

We’ve had no choice but to change how we smell: there’s not much else to do. We’ll find ourselves smelling hand sanitiser in a couple of years and remembering exactly that. There will be a time where we no longer miss smelling another person’s sweat or the particular clinical stench of a doctor’s office. For now, this is what our nostalgia smells like. This longing, this refusal to forget our past lives, will hopefully, eventually, make that return smell even sweeter.