The story of my life, as told by my nose

Back from four weeks' holiday in England, I open my bulging suitcase and inhale. It's my mother's house again. I can smell it still, half a world away in Southern Africa.

This particular smell is the fabric softener she uses, the one she's stuck to since we were little.

It's an apple-y smell, faint and flowery. Immediately I'm taken back to her house, my old bedroom, and the flat English countryside in which I grew up.

Now I think about it, my life so far can be mapped out in smells.

Mum's house is a hotchpotch of odors, most of them nice ones. Her living room smells of potpourri and there's a faint breath of beefy dog biscuits in the workshop.

There is also, however, the garlic of her cupboards. My parents consume copious amounts of "odorless garlic," convinced it will help ward off the midges when they walk around the lake at the bottom of the lane in the evening.

The smell of Mum's kitchen cupboard is living proof that there is no such thing as odorless garlic, but she's having none of it. She thinks we should try it to repel the mosquitoes that plague us here in Zimbabwe from November to May.

Grandma Chambers's bungalow was another pleasantly pungent place. Her smell was the sugary dry scent of Christmas cake icing. There was always Christmas cake at Grandma's house, even in July. Grandma maintained it got better with age.

It was the first thing my two sisters and I were handed when we arrived, hot and tired after a three-hour car journey: hunks of rock-hard white-going-yellow icing and weak orange squash (a fruit drink) to dunk it in.

Then there are the odors of the four years I spent at university, living in dark oak-paneled college digs and later, in a student house where fellow boarders were trainee teachers and once, a German flute scholar.

University was the fusty smell of the library, with its labyrinth of metal shelves and the brooding calm of the reading room. And it was the smell of broccoli.

I can't catch a whiff of broccoli steam now without being transported to scruffy student kitchens with piles of unwashed saucepans, the sort my Mum - on her twice-a-term visits - walked into warily, a scouring pad and disinfectant at the ready.

I lived on pasta shells and broccoli for two years (baked potatoes for a third year and packet soup and chocolate for a fourth). Sniffing back, the broccoli years must have been the worst for my long-suffering kitchenmates, who, to their credit, never complained.

Maybe because the disintegrating carrots in the fridge were theirs.

Now I know I just needed to put out a saucer of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), a cheap and natural odor-eater, to keep all of us happy. But domestic details were below me then, buried as I was in the courtly love tales of medieval France. (I've been married for 2-1/2 years, and Mum has only just dared buy me "400 Handy Household Hints.")

Chapter 3 of my life is Paris. Paris, to me, will forever be the painty smell of a new-to-me apartment, fresh in the late afternoon after the stuffiness of the summer Métro.

The Métro wasn't just oily fumes though: it was perfume and spicy aftershave, especially in the morning rush hour when freshly dressed commuters struggled to find a banquette.

Those smells were somehow so elegant after England.

Paris is the Land of Lancôme, after all. Even the bread corner in the local Monoprix supermarket was subtly scented.

Other scents also conjure up Paris to me - the honeyed wafts floating out of the Tunisian patisserie down the road in Montmartre. I loved the dripping wheels of golden batter, but my favorite sweets were the green, white, and pink striped marzipan slices.

Then there was the clean eucalyptus smell of the Turkish baths on rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, and the wonderful airless feeling you got after soaking and scrubbing in those marbled rooms for a couple of hours after work.

And Zimbabwe, the chapter I'm on now? Zimbabwe is a feast of scents: the heady perfume of the white jasmine bush outside my cottage at dusk, the sweet parsnip smell of the grass after a deluge, the faint whiff of creosote on weather-beaten wooden fences.

On the busy streets, it's the unfamiliar heavier scent of locally manufactured deodorants with exotic names like Sadie and Pearl.

It's the tangy smell of overripe bananas, loaded on a pushcart on central Harare's First Street. The vendor has felt-tipped a rough piece of corrugated cardboard with the price: 50 dollars. Zimbabwe dollars, that is, or about 5 cents US.

Zimbabwe is the woody smell of steaming Rooibos, an herbal drink grown in the forested east of the country. It's the vaseline smell of Cobra floor polish. I'd never used wax floor polish before I came to Zimbabwe. But here we have no carpets.

There's something delicious about going barefoot on cool stone floors when it's hot outside. But if you're going to go shoeless, then white floor polish is better than red, I've found. Otherwise you get unshiftable henna-type patterns on the soles of your feet.

Rocking back on my heels as I unpack my suitcase, sorting out his and hers piles of carefully washed clothing, I reflect: It's not that my life so far has been smelly.

Just nicely fragrant.

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