How to find a seat on a crowded train

Cheese – smelly, ugly, and decomposing by the second – is highly sought after in my family. There is nothing like a wrinkled lump of chèvre or a round of stinky reblochon to complete a meal.

And it can be doubly useful on a crowded train. Standing room only? Just flap that cheese wrapper and the pungent odor will vacate a seat or two – and sometimes a whole compartment.

Our reaction to smell tends to be as much a cultural phenomenon as a physical one.

In Burma, for instance, a common greeting is, "Give me a smell," according to a new book by Gabrielle Glaser. "The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty, and Survival" takes an intriguing sniff around the history, science, and sociology of how we relate to smells (see review page 17).

In hygiene-fixated America, she points out, bodily smells are best erased or kept firmly under wraps. And in our largely sanitized, city-dwelling existence with few natural smells to stimulate us, a huge industry has helpfully grown to fill the gap.

Pine-scented air fresheners, garden-fresh deodorizers, citrus candles, apple-scented shampoo, and a thousand perfumes all soothe our odor-anxious sensibilities.

The French, of course, have been liberally dabbing perfume for centuries – and without the thought of countering their smelly cheese. A few years back, a survey by Le Figaro found only 47 percent of Frenchmen bathed every day. As the Times (London) concluded at the time: "It's true, the French really are the smelliest in Europe."

But perhaps a nation that doesn't shy from a whiff of ripe reblochon is just culturally attuned to appreciate things naturelles.

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