The soul of beings is their scent.”
—Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, “Le Parfum: Histoire D’un Meurtrier”
Scents trigger emotions, and the memories that go with them. They also define a place, a person, a mood, among many other things. Numerous studies, peer-reviewed and otherwise, have been written about scents. One of the more recent studies I came across is a journal article written by Charles Spence (2021) on “The scent of attraction and the smell of success: crossmodal influences on person perception.” In it, he wrote, “… a variety of olfactory stimuli, from ambient malodours through to fine fragrances, and even a range of chemosensory body odours can influence everything from a perceiver’s judgments of another person’s attractiveness, age, affect, health/disease status, and even elements of their personality.”
The temptation to contemplate on my olfactory abilities was triggered by a recent TV interview of an entrepreneur who is attempting to bottle the scents of the Philippine islands in her products—which in turn reminded me of scenes from a disturbingly erotic film I saw years ago, “Le Parfum: Histoire D’un Meurtrier” (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer). Our sense of smell has indeed defined so many of the events, things, places, and people we hold dear. Filipinos, I believe, are one of the most, if not the most, scent-conscious people in the world, and arguably one of the biggest markets for perfumes and perfume-based products. Statista.com reports that in 2021 alone, the revenue from the fragrance business is around $746.3 million and is expected to grow by 1.47 percent in the next year. It is tempting to assume that Filipinos contribute a huge amount to this lucrative business.
For those of us who have had the good fortune of crossing time zones, you can easily tell, when traveling in a foreign land, whether the person seated next to you is a Filipino or not just by the scent they are wearing. You can even, with intensive training, use your olfactory sense to quietly, without their knowing it, examine your seatmate’s psychographic and even their demographic profile. I have also begun to realize that if one is mindful enough, one can notice the gradual shift of aromas from the moment you leave home to the time you are welcomed by the odors of your destination. We do not even have to travel far; we just need to walk around our neighborhood to discover the explosion of its myriad scents. Our own home and the people, things, and spirits that populate it can sometimes also be overpowering and influence our moods, the thoughts we entertain, and the decisions we make.
When I was working and living in Hanoi, Vietnam, right after it reopened its doors in 1995, I distinctly remember the feeling of a different kind of sensory invasion, as if I was traveling back in time. It was an aroma so distinct from the citrus-floral-petrol-cooking oil-porkchop fragrance I was used to back home. There were calming scents from herbs and spices, the hypnotic aroma of dark-roasted coffee, and in the hot summer months, the air was perfumed by the lotus blooms mingling in with natural body odors, informing you that temperatures were on the rise. Toward the autumn and winter months, the more pungent summer odors were muted to welcome the fragrance of autumn blooms, the fresh scents emitted by centuries-old trees and freshly cut flowers on stands, and bicycles that lined the boulevards with bundles of rose blooms perfuming the air.
This is the romantic interpretation of the scents of Hanoi for those who fell in love with her. It is different altogether for those who had to suffer the torment of war that happened not so long ago.
Hanoi’s roses always reminded me of the time when my maiden aunt was still alive. She used to tend a small garden of roses in our home—my parents’ house—where I and my brothers were born and grew up in.
The house is now over 60 years old and my aunt and her roses have long been gone, except for one small bush that was left in a corner. The fragrance of the rose blooms continue to linger in my head, because I would like them to. The scent reminds me of a loving, caring, yet strong woman; intelligent, yet modest. As the proprietor of her own small business, she also had a say in the affairs of the home, ensuring that things were always well-organized.
We were not afraid of the discipline she instilled, because in a way it was her means of protecting us. The best part is that my four brothers and I have been fortunate beneficiaries of her generosity. Despite her petite frame, we looked up to her as someone who was powerful but in a benevolent sort of way. That is why whenever I see that rare rose blossom, I stop to take in its heady scent and allow my aunt’s memory to remind me that things will be all right.
I hope this time next year, Malacañang will be abloom with roses.
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Ramoncito O. Mandia works at the office of media and international affairs of Marinduque State College.
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