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Last Updated: Sunday, 3 August, 2003, 12:09 GMT 13:09 UK
The rich smells of Paris

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC correspondent in Paris

Paris skyline
The smells of Paris can be ferociously intense

If I shut my eyes and breathe in deeply, I would know exactly which city I was in.

West Berlin, where I lived for many years, is the smell of lime trees in spring and horse-chestnuts in autumn, filling the tree-lined avenues.

London is exhaust fumes from black cabs and double-decker buses.

Moscow and East Berlin were hard to tell apart - cheap adulterated petrol outdoors and, indoors, corridors sponged with dirty mops dipped in pungent cleaning fluid.

But Paris?

Paris I am still trying to work out, to imprint the smells of my new home on my memory.

Just right

I knew I had found the right flat in the old cobbled streets of the Marais the minute I walked in.

In the morning on the westward cycle to work, the bakery is replaced by the distinctive early morning smell of Paris - the workmen sluicing the pavements clean of the night before
It was not just the light streaming in over the grey slate rooftops, or even the muffled laughter from the cafes below.

It smelt just right - a faint hint of polished wooden floors and fresh white paint, mixed up with cafe creme from downstairs.

When I moved here it was June - the hottest month so far - and the smells of Paris seemed ferociously intense to nostrils accustomed to polluted Moscow summers, where petrol was the defining note.

Collecting my pushbike from the cellar to cycle to work, I had to hold my breath.

Every decent Paris flat has a room or cave, to store dustbins and bicycles.

An unexpected mix

That first day the rubbish collectors, like all good public servants, were on strike - and a week's worth of rotting vegetables, cigarette ends and damp newspapers filled the windowless room.

Notre Dame Cathedral on the river Seine in Paris
In summer the scent of lilies and palms wafts across the River Seine
Pushing open the door I gulped in the fresh air - but it proved an unexpected mix of dog mess on the pavement, and the distinct smell of human urine, all brought to a full bouquet by the morning heat.

I was loath to apportion blame for the latter - but on every doorstep in my street lives a different tramp.

The one who has been there longest is the elderly man who lives in a box on the pavement next door.

His wooden home is the size of a small ice-cream stand and at night his feet poke out at the end.

During the day, he sits and feeds the pigeons, whose droppings add to the smell-scape outside my door.

Sense of history

Perhaps these smells are not so surprising. This is, after all, the Marais, or swamp - land reclaimed in the 17th Century as Paris expanded eastwards.

As the sun blazes down, you can smell the trickling sweat of a hot Paris morning, mingled with smoke from Gauloises dangled from immaculately manicured fingers
It was craftsmen and artisans who built the honey-coloured stone buildings that still stand solidly today, giving off a dank whiff of centuries of livelihoods and lives played out in the shaded alleyways.

Those same trades people bequeathed a wealth of other smells too - the sheer deliciousness of the boulangerie downstairs, whose rising yeast and croissants wake me up hungry every morning as they drift in through the window.

Sometimes at night, a more recent arrival intrudes - an aroma of cardamom and curry from the Indian restaurant opposite drifting up six floors, the Marais' newest immigrants.

But in the morning on the westward cycle to work, the bakery is replaced by the distinctive early morning smell of Paris - the workmen sluicing the pavements clean of the night before.

Paris style

This warm August, when the traffic is light, a wonderful scent of cut lilies and palms wafts across the River Seine as I cycle past the flower market.

Sometimes I make a forbidden detour through the Tuileries - away from the river and into the smell of summer leaves and fresh grass - though heaven forbid anyone should be allowed to lie on it.

Much like the people, the parks in Paris are mainly for smart public display.

The traffic lights on Place de la Concorde always seem to be on red.

And that is when you can smell Parisians on their way to work.

They wear more perfume and aftershave than Londoners, or indeed Muscovites do, and they are smarter, too.

It is kitten heels and matching handbags for the women, dark suits and white shirts for the men, even in the heat.

Scent of money

And as the sun blazes down, you can smell the trickling sweat of a hot Paris morning, mingled with smoke from Gauloises dangled from immaculately manicured fingers.

If I shut my eyes, I know that, imprinted on my memory, I will always have the smells of Paris
Then up a narrow street next to the Champs-Elysees and finally, to the BBC on the rue du Faubourg St-Honore - a street where the scent of money oozes from the upmarket boutiques.

The BBC building rather spoils it all, a concrete monstrosity in the midst of elegance.

The distinctive smell of the lobby greets me every day; a whisper of old lady's cologne and a hint of mop on marble floor.

Then up a dank staircase and into the bureau - with its own patina of a thousand yellowed newspaper cuttings and yesterday's coffee grinds in the bins.

Sights and sounds

Cycling home at night, the smells are richer still, fermented by the day's sunshine.

The meaty odour of sizzling thick steaks emerges from hundreds of pavement brasseries, until the classic French cuisine of the eighth and first arrondissements gives way to the foreign smells of the fourth, where oriental spices mingle with couscous and kebabs as I near the Marais.

I know that when the time comes to leave this city in a few years, I may forget some of the sights and sounds.

But if I shut my eyes, I know that, imprinted on my memory, I will always have the smells of Paris.


SEE ALSO:
In pictures: Beach comes to Paris
21 Jul 03  |  In Pictures
Paris woos US tourists
04 Jul 03  |  Europe
Eiffel Tower glitters over Paris
21 Jun 03  |  Europe


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