Smells like globalisation


You may know the sensation. When you get off a plane in a foreign country, first of all you notice that the air smells different. It is heavy, humid, permeated with tropical fragrances; dry and crisp from mountain winds; moist and salty from a nearby sea, or thick and pungent with fumes from low-quality petrol. Inside the airport another combination of smells welcomes you - scents of foreign air fresheners in toilets, linoleums or paints, perfume with heavier or lighter notes depending on what people prefer in that country.

Those smells can stay in your memory forever. From my childhood I remember the smell of Bulgarian spices, American cars fuelled by Russian petrol in Cuba, cypress groves and lavender at the Croatian seaside, or the very specific smells of institutions in Britain - detergents, I guess.

Czechoslovakia used to have its own unique smells, too. Specific cooking odours from restaurants, typical supermarket smells, schools, railway stations and so on. Most women could use only a small range of fragrances; men had a basic choice of aftershave lotions and shaving creams. Few people used deodorants.

Inconspicuously, the air began to change gradually after the fall of communism, and not only because Soviet petrol was replaced by a Western variety. I first noticed outlandish smells in the centre of Prague in the early 1990's, when restaurants serving international cuisine started to sprout. Basil and oregano were the first smells - otherwise associated with seaside holidays - which broke the uniformity. At the same time, foreign tourists scented the cobble-stoned alleys in the historical centre with expensive perfume.

Overtime, old self-service shops filled with the odour of Czech bread and local fruit and vegetables gave way to modern supermarkets where the aromas of freshly baked French bread, fresh fish, seafood and exotic fruit drown everything else. Newly refurbished offices smell just like in Britain or France, and toilets in shopping malls smell of the same detergent as in the rest of the globalised world. Women and men wear French, Italian or American perfume, clothes shops smell of the same air-freshener as everywhere in Europe. If you were to stroll through Prague blindfolded, you wouldn't know where you were. You'd be bombarded with the smells of globalisation: the reek of beef tallow from McDonald's, grilled kebab from street stands, whiffs of incense from Indian gift shops and curry from Indian restaurants, MSG from Chinese takeaway joints, crisp French pastry from bakeries - and I could go on and on.

Outside big cities, the smells have remained almost the same, so whenever I feel nostalgic, I can always travel a few dozen kilometres into the country and inhale the smells of my childhood to my heart's content. However, travelling abroad has lost one of its appeals, at least in the moderate climate zone, as there is little to stimulate my sense of smell, and memories from foreign trips have become somewhat blander. But it may be only a question of time before shrewd businesspeople in tourism come up with trademark smells of individual countries and sell them bottled at the airports as souvenirs.