x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

From perfume to socks, scents make us who we are

Perfume hunting sprees rarely turn out to be successful. That isn't to say that we don't encounter some wonderful fragrances in our daily lives.

In 2006, a pair of scientists, Richard Axel and Linda Brown Buck, received a Nobel Prize for their work on noses and how the human brain never really forgets a smell in our lifetime once it's reached our nostrils. Given to pondering rather random questions about life at odd times, I've been thinking about what an important role smells play in teenagers' lives. It's not a subject we stop to reflect on, but only because they're so ingrained in our existence - it'd be difficult to get through a day without the delicious aromas and reeks and stenches that continuously assault our nasal passages throughout. I've already been consumed by a sense of loss, now that carrying fish, dead or alive, has been banned on the Dubai Metro, and the friendly pong on an otherwise sterile train has disappeared.

Every morning, getting into the school bus is a seemingly simple act fraught with dangers. Filled to the brim with teenagers who've just smothered on deodorant, it's seething with fragrances. The bus being a closed, air-conditioned compartment, there's no outlet for them either. We're an adrenalin-charged species with a bounciness to match Tigger's, and don't do anything half-heartedly. We don't just spray some deo on. We bathe in the stuff. Early on in the morning, when they've just been squirted on, they blast out at you like stifling, geranium-flavoured, olfactory missiles that make your eyes water. Your nostrils quiver. Your nose tickles. And the next thing you know, the person nearest to you has become the unfortunate recipient of the full force of an almighty sneeze.

It's the same story in the changing rooms, where, after sports, you get the whole netball or football team spraying valiantly to mask match-induced body odours. Only it doesn't mask it, but adds pleasant undertones of sweat to the geranium notes. Absolutely delightful. Chemistry lessons, meanwhile, all too frequently require us to conjure up some hydrogen sulphide, charmingly reminiscent of a combination of rotten eggs and something unprintable in a family newspaper. Concentrated ammonia, if inhaled directly, can make you pass out, although not without giving you the sensation of having had two pencils jammed up your nostrils first.

Shopping for perfumes, though, you'd think should be an agreeable experience. Over and over again, I am awed by how much more invigorated you feel after the simple act of reluctantly handing over a large proportion of your meagre pocket money to a sour, impeccably lipsticked shop assistant in an overpriced store, in exchange for a microscopic bottle with a purple bow on it - this was a number called Trésor Midnight Rose - that cost so much that you never wear it, "saving it up for later", until it begins to evaporate away. It's the high you get, having recklessly squandered your month's savings, that makes the whole experience so enjoyable.

This time, we were in Dubai Mall, savouring the unmistakable scent of fresh recycled air, coffee shops and socks (courtesy of the skaters in the ice rink). It was the smell of a place filled with endless stores with clothes to be tried on and bought, make-up testers to be sampled and sour shop assistants to be won over. Every now and then, you'd catch a whiff of exotic Arabian oud from an incense burner outside a store, riding on an air current, giving malls in the UAE a uniqueness and sense of individuality that you won't find elsewhere in the world.

Perfume-hunting sprees, however, rarely turn out to be very successful: before you've even asked for help, you've had six different liquids eagerly spewed on your arm. Scarlet-tipped fingers threateningly brandish one of those paper samplers they spritz perfume on under your nose, and you end up so overwhelmed that you scurry away. Such trips inadvertently leave you smelling like the atmosphere in Dubai Duty Free - a hodgepodge mixture of different eau de toilettes being splodged out in every direction.

That isn't to say that we don't encounter some wonderful fragrances in our daily lives. Walking across the canteen, when they've just been baking some of our school's famous cheese breads, makes you want to pause and gaze at it longingly until the ringing of a bell reminds you you're late for a lesson. The sixth form common room is chock full of squashy sofas that, being made mostly of fabric, have an unfortunate habit of retaining human smells. However, it also hosts a microwave that hungry students often pop some buttered popcorn into, wafting warm, hearty scents all around the block. It's a smell I'll remember long after I'm through with school and fondly recounting stories of the past to my grandchildren, because smells make us who we are - and that's nothing to sniff at.

• Lavanya Malhotra is a 16-year-old student in Dubai

artslife@thenational.ae

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