In the winter of 2017, I put my entire life into storage, packed everything I could carry into an overweight suitcase, and hit the road for a year-long journey around the world. In what can only be described as a whirlwind, I visited 18 countries, ate things that I’d never thought of trying before (looking at you, poisonous blowfish), and packed a lifetime’s worth of beauty treatments into a very short period of time.
Now, 17 months later and settled back into my old life in New York City, the whole thing feels like a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sort of dream. (If I didn’t have so many Instagram pictures, I’d swear that none of it was real.) But, I’ve noticed that whenever I smell something familiar, I’m immediately transported to somewhere a million miles from home.
Last summer, on a trip to Italy with my mom, I finished off every meal — including breakfast — with a scoop of lemon sorbet. Capri, where we were staying, is known for its surplus of lemons, and it’s not uncommon to walk or dine or hang out with a lemon tree overhead, and the scent permeates every nook and cranny of the island. When I first spritzed myself Dolce and Gabbana’s newest fragrance, Light Blue Italian Zest, I immediately turned to the stranger next to me and blurted, “This smells like Italy!” Never mind that I was actually in Los Angeles.
I’ve been vaguely aware of the fact that scent is the sense most closely linked to memory, but I’d never realized just how true it is until I returned from my travels. Every morning, when I rub argan oil into my strands, I’m suddenly back in a small textiles shop in Dubai, where a woman gave me a lesson on how to properly apply it. The smell of condensed milk pulls me to my favorite coffee shop in Vietnam where I drank cà phê sữa đá every morning; and green tea, to the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine in Japan, where I tasted matcha ice cream for the first time.
“[I think ] scent and memory are bonded psychoanalytically, which creates a subconscious awareness of how we interpret a smell accordingly,” explains perfume expert Christopher Chong, creative director of Amouage, when asked why my brain goes 6,000 miles away every time I put smoothing serum in my hair. “I think it has to do with encounters.”
Considering the original Light Blue was the first fragrance I ever owned (fun fact: I wore it to my Bat Mitzvah), this shift in scent association felt like a complete 180 in my brain. Instead of being reminded of getting ready for middle school dances while blasting music, I was reminded of Capri.
Apparently, I later learned, that is the whole point. “They manage to really make the fragrance smell like Italy,” model Bianca Balti, who served as the face of the original Light Blue Fragrance (you’d probably recognize her from the images of she and fellow model David Gandy jumping off of a boat into the Blue Lagoon), told me at the launch party for the scent. “I don’t know exactly which corner in Capri, but it really smells like Italy. It takes you back.”
The combination of Sicilian cedar, granny smith apples and, yes, lemon, made it impossible not to think of the five days my mom and I spent dipping in the Mediterranean and gorging ourselves on pizza, pasta, and gelato.
“Scent and travel form an association,” says Christopher. “For instance we see a lot of citrus fruits in Italy and we automatically form the connection. I think each place we visit has a unique scent that leaves a memorable imprint on our minds.”
Truth be told, I really, really miss traveling, and often wish that I was back in Dubai/Peru/Italy instead of just smelling something that reminds me of being there. Seeing my suitcase sitting empty at the bottom of my tiny closet, where it’s been planted for two months straight, breaks my heart a little bit. But until I can get up and go again, it’s nice to know that I can still (sort of) travel the world with a single spritz of a perfume bottle.