March 2, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Something in the air

By |2018-03-21T19:00:41+01:00May 25th, 2014|"Notebook"|
For decades steamers alone crossed the Pacific Ocean.

bout a month ago, I landed at the Delhi airport late at night. As I stepped out of the anonymous nowhere-land that is that city’s modern international airport, a thrilling wave of heat broke across me. It was the promise of new adventure and with it the memory of previous trips, or perhaps — since this was India — of previous lives.

I love arriving in a new place at night. In the darkness, scent and sound prevail. They delay the full pleasure of arrival until the next morning, when night’s curtain rises on a new stage and a new scene.

India is the pinnacle of nocturnal arrival. Its mix of body-odor, burning dung, garbage and jasmine hint at a journey even before you see the mass of humanity pressed up to the arrivals exit or ride along roads teeming with a midnight melee of people and animals and lined with tea carts that glow like lanterns.

We tend to connect travel with images — whether Canaletto’s painted views for wealthy 18th-century travelers or Instagram. In fact, sight is actually the weakest travel sense. Scent and sound are the sensory Concordes that whisk us back to another land or time. Nothing else so firmly pinpoints a single place.

You know you’ve arrived in Honolulu’s open-air airport because you can smell frangipani and coconut even while collecting your bags, as if the trade winds of Polynesia were too impatient to let travelers reach the street before offering a welcoming embrace. In Boston, sea air and the occasional foghorn dirges bring a taste of the New England to Logan Airport’s windy concourse.

The thrill of arrival isn’t limited to airports, though the contrast between generic facelessness and local specificity heightens the effect. The scent of Europe usually means trains — especially overnight trains. Train arrivals, like train travel itself, are slower and everything about them more gradual. Arrival begins before you even leave your compartment, when the porter takes your breakfast order and collects your passport for the midnight border crossing. When you reach your destination the next morning, you can savor it from a cozy berth hidden by the window-blind. Outside, passengers shuffle by, coffee cups clink in a café and the scents of diesel, coffee and breakfast pastry announce you’re on the Continent.

I first noticed arrival sensations closer to home. Every year, my family drove from Michigan through Wisconsin to our North Woods vacation spot. The smells of pine and lake-water grew with each more northern town —Wausau, Stevens Point, Eagle River. When at destination’s end we finally tumbled out of our overstuffed and hot station wagon, the fresh northern air reminded us both of past vacations and the promises of the one at hand.

Sometimes just transportation is enough. Before jet-ways and concourses, aircraft fumes, humming propellers and the sun-warmed tarmac worked magic before take off. You walked from terminal to plane. On arrival, instead of meeting your destination at street level, the light and climate of a new place flooded through the aircraft bulkhead, along with the sound of feet shuffling down aluminum stairs.

As for trains, which my family loved, going on Colorado ski vacations often meant taking the California Zephyr, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The sleeping cars, dining car and club car were the same ones that movie stars took in the 1940s, before “red-eye” flights. I remember the carpets, with their design of stylized plumes, and the sleek Art Deco interiors of etched glass stainless steel. All the interiors were redolent of cigarettes and bourbon, of wool suits and leather luggage, which is how I imagined the scents of Hollywood glamour.

Ships are scent-worlds all their own. My father pointed this out to me during a trip in the 1970s. As we leaned on the fantail railing of a liner crossing the Pacific, the wake wove a lace veil over the ocean’s deep blue mantle. Along with a crewman enjoying a cigarette break, we watched the sun drop precipitously behind the equatorial horizon. Dad said all ships — whether steamers or warships — smelled like the one we were on; wet rope, cooking, salty air. So had “his ship.”

If I ever smell a ship again, I’ll remember that moment and his words. What was my father remembering? Maybe a sunset on a Pacific crossing as he sailed off to fight the Japanese, growing farther and farther from a home that slipped beyond the darkening horizon.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."