By Chantal-Hélène Wagner
One of the most powerful olfactive memories I have retained from the past is how on a fine day in New York City as my husband and I were walking down a street, we saw coming towards us a man who looked decidedly exotic. The street was virtually empty save for the three of us. We were going to sail past each others like urbanites do, probably never to meet again even though NYC favors eternal returns thanks to is logical, grid-like map.
I could already tell however from afar that we were looking at each other with some focused curiosity, I and the man - I couldn't speak for my husband whom I saw from the corner of my eye - or more subtly than that even, with some amount of awareness or attentiveness. Expecting to just walk past him after having satisfied our need for mutual visual evaluations, I was surprised when he suddently slowed down and stopped calmy in front of us. Being friendly types and oblivious to potential NYC dangers, we stopped short too...
We could have never guessed what he was going to say next. But yes, he simply uttered the following words "Do you mind if I smell your hat?", or maybe it was closer to a "Would you give me permission to smell your hat?". Then he waited for my answer. Just like that, out of the blue, blue sky and in broad day light.
I had a flashback. As a student, I was once ran after on a Paris street by a man promising to hire me as a Thierry Mugler model, provided I let him brush my hair. Yuck, Yuck and triple Yuck. I managed to escape the enterprising and gesticulating fetishist trailing me with his rapid Parisian step, seemingly agitating an invisible hairbrush, his hands trying to grab if only a lock of my hair. I darted back home to the safety of my building. Only in Paris.
But this time it was different. This person did not make me feel uncomfortable. I was also wearing a showy hat I had purchased in Outer Mongolia; I have a weakness for hats. This one had caught my eye with its mustard-y yellow and gold silk brocade trimmed with colorful ribbons and lining of warm russet fox fur (I suspect someone somewhere wants to spray a can of paint at me right now). I had been told it was a hunter's hat. You wore it like a bonnet, tying the straps under your chin into a bow. It looked medievalish. I am all for balanced eccenticity. I loved the hat.
After a moment of hesitation during which I quickly and unconsciously almost eyed him, weighed him, appraised him for possible weird neuroses in a fraction of a second, I estimated he was not a threat, all of this informed by my acquaintance with Mongolian culture where people can be extremely natural. I mean you have no idea how natural they can be.
There is also in the steppes region a culture of the vast expanses where when you meet and even though you are strangers, you are united by the land and its immensity and challenges. It felt like we had bumped into each other in such a setting. Hello stranger and fellow human being. I decided to untie my fox fur bonnet without even asking why, and handed it to him watching him closely.
He took it, brought it to his face and smelled it deeply and intensely, closing his eyes. He did that not once but twice, prolonging his olfactory sensations as if he were drinking in the scents, satiating his thirst for something. After that, he handed it back to me and said with a tone of gratitude "Thank you, it reminds me of my country".
It is one of the most beautiful memories I have kept which reveals the raw power of smells. When I think about it, it almost makes me choke with emotion when I imagine what this man was feeling for a moment or two as he felt homesick for a land which is so different from the skyline of New York City.
Mongolia is, I have to say, one of the most beautiful countries on earth -- so pristine, wild and awe-inspiring it is.
There was nothing more to be said after this exchange. Perhaps I replied "You're welcome" although I'm not so sure now, as the encounter was almost silent to leave full room for the intensity of emotions, smelling and mutual human taking-in of an unexpected encounter.
Understanding now of his nostalgia, I took back my fox fur hat which I newly viewed as an extension of the Mongolian land, once brushed by its winds, its fur made lustrous and fragrant thanks to the unique alchemy of its earth, it being filled with familiar, affective visions. Grateful too, similing, I tied it back under my chin and we parted ways, the man continuing his journey with an ambling, calm gait.
Mongolian Man by Charles Meacham - National Geographic