The Smells of Spain

Since I have absolutely no desire to study or do anything remotely related to my classes, and since my last blog entry was entirely lacking in interesting information, I figure I might as well procrastinate in a productive way. I am currently sitting in the “biblioteca” that is located in my residence hall. There are a few books in this room, to be fair, but mostly it is a library in the sense that people go there to have some peace and quiet while they’re studying. People leave their stuff set up in this room so that they can leave and come back and their study materials will effectively save their places for them. I’ve seen materials sit in here for days without moving, which is a good system, except when more than the handful of people who have effectively set up camp wish to use the library’s services. There is no one here but me, but there are only one or two seats currently vacant. I suppose the early bird philosophy is the best to employ in this scenario–if you want a place, get their early and stay put.
Anyway, the title of this journal entry was inspired by an occurrence that took place this very morning as I was sitting in the library armed with my dictionary trying to hack my way through a few pages of notes about early Iberian women. There were a few other people in the library, but it was quiet and pleasant. Suddenly the door burst open (this door needs to be fixed because the door frame is slightly too small and poorly connected to the wall, so in order to get through it is necessary to make a great deal of noise. Ironic for a library. I was sitting with my back to the door but as soon as it opened the smell that wafted through the door frame would have been at home in a bar at closing time. The odor of what I can only assume to be an entire pack of cigarettes at least washed over me and completely distracted me from finding out the role of the early Iberian mother in society. I was disgusted and surprised because after five months of going out to bars, discos, sitting in cafés, next to people in class, walking the streets and generally living in Spanish society I have become accustomed to the general cloud of double filtered, nicotine and tar-ridden smog that passes for oxygen in this country. I’ve grown used to the smell of cigarette smoke, the second-hand inhalation of which I fully believe has taken at least a month off of my natural lifespan. I truly hate this and it is one of the few things that I must admit that I will be only too happy to leave behind when I leave. But I have grown used to it which is why it surprised me to notice it so strongly when this very stinky person entered the library.

I began to think about what other smells I have noticed here in Valencia that might be different from the smells at home. Now that I have been here a while, I may not remember many of them since I’ve gotten used to them all, but with the windows left open more and more these days to let in the breeze (although it is still disappointingly un-hot in Valencia) I have been exposed to new and interesting smells that remind me that there are always new things to be discovered. A few examples have come to mind and I will write them down here for the amusement of my wonderful readers.

One odor that I find it particularly necessary to avoid is the smell that comes from the sewage drains that sit conveniently by every crosswalk. The drains are small little squares in Valencia, in sharp contrast to the gaping grates that yawn at intervals along the curbs. When I was a kid I was always afraid to ride my bike over one of those things in case my tire got stuck and I fell inside for an almost certain encounter with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…or worse one of their grotesquely feature foes. Here in Valencia I never even notice the sewer grates…that is until I am waiting for the traffic light to change and slowly but surely the putrid smell of old dampness and rot greets my nose. I never learn to park myself a few feet away from them, I always manage to stand right on top. That’s another one I won’t miss…but I can’t help wondering what on earth can be down there that is responsible for that smell…although I am probably better off left in the dark on the specifics of that one.

On to more pleasant thoughts–one smell that I will miss greatly is the smell of orange blossoms. I haven’t seen any lately and I’m not even sure when orange season is but Valencia is absolutely full of orange trees. The smell lingers alluringly in the air around the trees and whenever I walk by I catch a whiff and then try to get closer to get a better smell, but the scent always seems to run away from me and blend in with the smellier city air. There are many flowers in this city besides orange blossoms and it has become my habit to take pictures of them and go out of my way on the sidewalks to smell their deliciousness. The greenery of Valencia is something that Mel found particularly attractive and I have to say that it wasn’t until she said something that I really started to appreciate what a green city we have here…in spite of the smog.

The smell of the ocean is never far away either since Valencia sits on the coast of the Mediterranean. The sea air always makes me feel clean and good. It’s the best place to go for a run for the simple reason that the air is so refreshing after you get there that it gives you energy for the run back. Valencia’s beaches are pretty much always nice and breezy, if not hosting ridiculous, sand-spraying gales, and there are always people flying kites. I want to fly a kite one of these days. I’ll get to work on that. Unfortunately on the way to the beach there are less pleasant smells. The rubbish that litters a little place I think of as a terrible pasture of garbage. The things that a 4H club could do with that litter-filled parking lot. It reeks. But it’s also a symptom of being an obviously less-affluent part of town. The street cleaners that are ever-vigilant where we live seem to have slacked off over in that area. Perhaps it is too big a job for them to take on, or perhaps they do their best, but the garbage accumulates too fast. Whatever the reason, in order to get to the clean sea air, you must first pass through the multi-colored odors of waste.

Finally, and probably most importantly, there are the food smells that waft through my recently opened windows. We live above what I can only suppose is a commercial paella manufacturer. It is not a restaurant and they don’t sell anything right out of the building, but there are always trucks and there is a sign on the side that says it’s a paella place, so I guess they make the paella and export it somewhere else. I actually have no idea and would very much like to find out, but I usually put it out of my mind. The wondering resumes when the smell of saffron rice and baking meat floats through my open window. Sometimes the smell bothers me, other times it makes me hungry. Sometimes I can’t even figure out what it is because I’m thinking about something else and it feels out of place so I wander around my room smelling things trying to find out the source of it and wondering if Chiara is making something in the kitchen. We cool a lot in my apartment so it goes without saying that there are many smells around us that we generate ourselves…from either the food or the left over food on the dishes waiting to be washed. That one is a gross one too. But then there are the food smells that greet me as I walk around the city. The art of the bread shop has not yet died in Valencia…nor in Spain as far as I can tell. So every block or so the smell of baking bread and honeyed pastries taunts me from an open door luring me in to try a warm roll or drool over the glistening sweets in the display. The smell of baking bread, probably the most potent food smell that exists, mingles often with the smell of sun-warmed fruit from the fruit and vegetable stands, the smell of alcohol from the local bars, the smell of coffee from the cafés and cafeterías that afford people their midmorning snack, and there tainting it all is the essence of cigarette smoke.

It’s unfortunate that cigarettes will be the smell by which I remember Spain, but I was very fortunate indeed to get an apartment full of people that don’t smoke. My room mate actually does smoke but as she is never around, I usually just spray the closet (where she stores a certain amount of clothing) every once in a while with lemon-scented air freshener and the scent is soon masked. However I think that it has been such a shock getting used to the pervasiveness of the smoke in Spain that has alerted me to the impact that smells can have on a place and the people who move there for the first time. Spain actually does have laws against smoking inside, but like so many laws in Spain, it is not enforced.

I might add more to this later if I think of anything else, but now I think I have procrastinated enough for the day. I spent the weekend completely submerged in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It’s a great read if anyone is interested and it takes place in Barcelona. It provided a welcome excuse to do something besides my school work this weekend, and it reintroduced me to the thrill of being completely addicted to a book that has no other purpose but to tell me a good story. How fast I get things done when I don’t have to write a paper about it afterward. I wish I could get my school work done half as fast. With that book recommendation, it’s time to return to the ancient Iberians. Once again everyone, thanks for reading.

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