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Wake Up and Smell Canada!

Tim Horton's Coffee Cups, Ottawa
Tim Horton’s Coffee Cups, Ottawa

The sense of smell, one of the most powerful of the five senses, can help evoke vivid memories. And you may not realize how important this basic biological experience is until your natural environment changes.

It’s only now, in hindsight and after moving to Canada, that I understand why so many foreign travelers complain that France is dirty. Indeed, the land of perfume and fancy cosmetics doesn’t always smells of eau de Chanel. You can often catch a whiff of urine in many public places, including subway stations, side streets and stairways. Dog poop isn’t just a hazard for pedestrians and stilettos—it smells like, well, shit.

One of the first things I noticed in Canada is that North Americans seem to be much more sensitive to smell than Europeans. For instance, many workplaces have adopted a “scent-free policy” for environmental sensitivity and health reasons—apparently, people reported scents were causing issues such as headaches, dizziness or skin irritation.

Sure, it’s hard to define “scent-free” or “fragrance -free” products—is deo okay? Is scented shampoo okay?—and you can’t ban all scented cosmetics or cleaning products. Yet, few people wear perfume here, and those who do don’t douse themselves in Cologne or nauseating heavy fragrances, such as Chanel #5. Across the Atlantic Ocean, French think their favourite perfume is a “signature”, and you can often smell people before you see them!

That said, Canada is the only country I know of where we had a the great maple syrup smell controversy. In 2013, Canada introduces polymer-based $5 and $20 bills. The new circulating money brought a series of complaints, from people who claimed the bills melt in the heat or stuck to one another and were hard to count. However, the biggest debate focused on their supposed aroma: some were convinced the bills gave off a scent that smelled of Canadian maple syrup!

The myth was debunked by the Bank of Canada’s communications department, that said it had not added any scent to the new bank notes. Honestly, to me, the bills just smell of… money.

But what does Canada smell like? These are the smells I associated with the country.

Coffee: Canadians seem to like coffee better than tea, and there are many independent and franchised coffee companies around, including the ubiquitous Tim Horton’s. And of course, people often take their java “to go”, and carry around these giant burning-hot cups as they commute, shop or browse. As a result, I can often smell coffee in the street—not freshly roasted beans but sugar and brewed coffee.

Junk food: Each major fast food chain has a very distinct smell… and not always the one they intended to in order to induce cravings. Tim Horton’s smells of burned sugar, while I find Subway has a vague bread-like sweet-and-sour odor. McDonald’s smells like a batch of fresh fries just came out of the fryer, and KFC stinks of oil.

Cold and dry air: Can dry air have a scent? Humid summer weather certainly does, and winter brings its own set of olfactory experiences. On a cold, crisp day, any scent your numb nose picks up feels stronger—gasoline, cigarette smoke, pine needles, cars warming up…—because there isn’t as much life outside as there is during the summer.

Grilling meat: As soon as the temperature goes up (for Canadians, after a long winter, it means from 10°C and up), people take their cooking skills outside of the kitchen and set up BBQs on their terraces and balconies. From 11 a.m. to late in the evening, all you can smell is burning charcoal and meat on the grill. Those who don’t feel like cooking can always grab a hot dog from a cart in the street and enjoy a similar smell.

Skunks: Even though we live in the city, in the summer, many wild creatures roam around, including rabbits, squirrels, beavers… and skunks. We rarely see skunks but we certainly smell the putrid defensive weapon they use!

Seasonal scents: Smart marketing specialists associated a smell and a taste with major holidays and seasons. For instance, fall is pumpkin spice galore and the sweet aroma takes over in bakeries and coffee shops. The Body Shop, the famous cosmetic company, introduces limited-edition seasonal scents every year, and Christmas is celebrated with “frosted cranberry”, “vanilla brulée” and “glazed apple”. Spring fragrances are usually very floral, Valentine’s Day and Easter are all about chocolate and Saint Patrick’s Day beer smell lingers in the street long after the empty glasses are collected.

Popcorn: The aroma of artificial butter (yes, there is such a thing) fills any movie theatre lobby. Popcorn is also sold as a snack in malls (!), and in microwavable paper bags at the supermarket—beware the annoying coworker who will burn popcorn in the kitchen microwave at the office!

What does you country smell of? What scents do you associate with Canada?

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