Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Tirana Holds The Air

Albanians don't say that something smells. They use the phrase "Mban ere...," - "It holds the air of ...." Apt. The air indeed holds the essence of an odor. It holds the key to memories and it takes only one whiff of a familiar odor to bring back vivid recollection of people, places, and emotions. Sometimes, though, the air holds too much.

Yesterday Tirana sweltered under 35 degrees and oppressive humidity. It's been weeks since the last rain and consistently warm. Not hot in the way that July often is, but warm enough. The lack of rain leaves the dust hanging in the air along with all the smoke and smells of the city. It wraps around your head and dulls your senses. No distinct odors to trigger a memory or impress itself forever in your cortex. Just a fog. A haze. The air holds everything in general and nothing specific. Last night, it changed.

The passage of a cold front with light rain and a drop of 15 degrees swept the air clean. All the soot, smog, and smoke was stripped away leaving this mornings air clear and cool. Like a blank slate, a virgin canvas awaiting the artist. This morning Tirana did indeed "hold the air." Held each smell aloft uncluttered, making me focus on exactly what the smell was and triggering memories.

Tirana held the air of flowers. Even now in the height of summer you catch the scent of blooms. Delicate. Faint. Calling to mind the olfactory orgy of spring with the linden trees in full flower. Remember? How that smell overwhelmed every other scent with the promise of beauty and life. Forget the trash and diesel smoke. Drink deep of the peaceful, hopeful lindens.

Tirana held the air of charcoal smoke from the small kiosk serving qofte. The roasting meat laden with oregano and salt sends up an tendril of "come hither" aroma which can make all but the most committed vegetarian sacrifice their cholesterol count. How many sunny afternoons have passed in the company of family, Birra Korca, and these tasty little meatballs? Sitting beside Grandma, learning the language. Learning the history. Getting the best gossip.

Tirana still held the air of diesel exhaust. Not like the oppressive cloud of yesterday, but something different. An industrial taste like oil and effort. A reminder of the work being done and a warning of the work still to be done. It's the price the city pays for progress - the motive force behind change. A pungent reminder of sitting behind the big machines for hours near Gjirokaster cursing their pollution and inconvenience one year and then marvelling at the wide, smooth road a year later. Like the dinosaurs it sprang from, the smell of diesel hints of it's own impending extinction.

Other smells don't prompt memories, just questions:

Why does the sidewalk in front of the Italian Ambassador's residence alway smell like an open sewer? Do they not notice it every day?

What makes that bakery smell so much better than the others? Is it wood-fired? A special recipe? Or just years of daily baking layering the aroma into the the very fiber of the building?

Oh, yes. Tirana holds the air. On mornings like today she holds it right there in front of you.

1 comment:

traveler one said...

Oh my. You've written a fantastic post today!! I'm sitting here in awe of your words about the smells of the city. I once wrote a paper about smell and memory and it's fascinated me ever since. I think I'm one of those people who are sensitive to the air and your piece has entered my brain this morning and I can 'smell' Tirana here in rural Nova Scotia!

Keep writing- you have such a gift!