Freshly laundered hotel towels

The sense of smell is an amazing thing.  More than any other sense, a smell can instantly transport us to someplace else.

Cities have smells.  London smells like diesel fumes, from the second you step outside the airport and walk towards the taxi rank.  You know that you’re in Edinburgh from the hops that you can smell across the city, a byproduct of the local brewery.  And there’s a strong, ever-present medicinal smell of disinfectant that reminds me I’m Asia.

There are other smells that transport me, like the ubiquitous Tiger Balm that takes me back to massages on the beach in Phuket, or the burning charcoal of the street vendors on the streets of Bangkok.

Nancy Griffith once likened the smell of a Woolworth’s store to “popcorn and chewing gum rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-soled shoe.”  That’s a nicer description than I’d give of the Paris Metro, which smells like a combination of burning brakes and day-old urine.  Or Mumbai, where the stench, together with an unrelenting humidity, hits you like a wall the second you hit the jetway.

And so it was when I stepped out of my shower yesterday and grabbed a towel at my hotel.  It smelled like Bounce.  And instantly I was transported back to my childhood.  It was comforting and dislocating all at the same time.

Let me explain.  Using dryer sheets or fabric softener is uncommon in Europe, where most people hang their laundry out to dry.  So our towels at home don’t really have a strong smell, even when they’ve come straight out of the dryer.

And most hotels use industrial laundries to clean their linens.  So when you normally grab a towel in the hotel, it smells industrial, a faint smell of chemicals being ever-so-slightly detectable.  But nothing that you would remember.

So it was a real shock to grab a towel off the rail and smell the fabric softener.  It was strong, and floral – comforting, not industrial.  And it instantly made me feel at home – a different home, half-a-world away and twenty years removed.  A powerful thing, smell…

So what takes you someplace else?  Takes you back to a time or a place?  Cut grass?  Your father’s aftershave?  A lover’s perfume?  Gasoline?  Leave a comment below…