My mother has just rung the bell of my paternal grandparents’ apartment in Barcelona when she spots a smudge of chocolate on my chin. She whips a handkerchief out of her purse, spits on it, and rubs frantically at the spot. As the peculiar smell of her saliva drying on my skin starts to fade, the door opens and my tiny black-clad grandmother, tottering in her high heels, ushers us into the apartment. She gives me a kiss, and I feel the soft, almost invisible down on her cheek, and smell her special smell: toasted almonds. Why my city grandmother should smell of toasted almonds doesn”t make sense to me, because it is my country grandmother, my mother\’s mother, who cracks and toasts the almonds from her trees and sends them to us by train in the fall, to eat along with the raisins that she dries in her attic.
Barcelona smells of diesel, with its citrusy undertones. The fish market smells of fish and wet floors. My parents\’ bedroom smells of the abominable camphor and menthol salve that my mother rubs on my chest when I suffer one of my endless colds, and of the lavender eau de cologne that she applies to my temples to relieve my frequent stomach upsets.
But I am never sick in the summer. We spend it on my maternal grandparents\’ farm, which provides an a three-month olfactory orgy. Guided by my nose, I sniff and snuffle my way from house, to yard, to stable, to fields. There is the hot, dry smell of the chicken coop, and the moister, lower notes of the pig house. There is the metallic smell of the dust on the roads when it begins to rain, and the rancid smell of the sheep as they are driven home from pasture in the late afternoon.
My mother and her sisters are forever passing judgment on smells–disgusting! (of the manure pile); delicious! (of the sun-warmed melons from my grandfather\’s garden). Unlike them, I am an impartial observer of odors, treating them simply as data points to help me navigate the world. The only smell I despise is the acrid stench of the Flit that my grandmother sprays in the dining room to kill flies before each meal.
I am strongly attuned to the individual smells of the grownups in my family. The American devotion to deodorant and daily showers has not yet penetrated European culture, and everybody past puberty possesses copious underarm hair. This gives each of my relatives a signature bouquet that is as much a part of their persona as the shape of their nose or the alignment of their teeth. I do not find it unpleasant.
My olfactory connoisseurship reaches new heights one day when I come across my aunt folding a stack of laundered undershirts belonging to my father, my grandfather, and my uncle. They are all white and sleeveless, identical but for a red initial sewn inside the neckline. Showing off, I tell my aunt that, if I close my eyes, I can tell which shirt belongs to whom by its smell.
\”But the shirts just came off the clothesline,\” she says. \”They don\’t have any smell.\” I assure her that they do. \”Go ahead, then\” she laughs, and hands me a shirt. I squeeze my eyes shut, sniff, and identify the shirt as belonging to my grandfather.
\”That was just coincidence,\” she says. \”Smell this one.\” I correctly attribute the second shirt to my uncle. The game goes on until we run out of undershirts. My aunt goes to find my mother. \”Your daughter,\” she says, \”is part hunting dog.\”
Other than the undershirt game that I play with my aunt, I keep my olfactory adventures to myself, and ask no questions, especially about one smell that I find puzzling. When I raise my arms to embrace my mother around her waist, and press my face against her belly, I sometimes perceive an odor that reminds me of the smell of fresh sardines, and whose source will remain a mystery for the rest of my childhood.