I took my very first flight on an airplane in college when I went on a mission trip to rural Mexico. While I don’t remember many details of that trip—the inside jokes that were once so funny—I do remember some basic etiquette instructions we were given before leaving, tactless mouth-breathers that we were.
First, they told us not to criticize or complain about the customs we observed in rural Mexico. If you absolutely must comment, they said, practice this neutral phrase: “That’s different.”
The second piece of advice was never to comment on smells. While I’m pretty sure there was more preparation than this, these are the bits of advice that stick with me years later. Now I must apologize to those chaperones for breaking the second rule of Flight Club: some smells demand comment.
After the long flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv and bus ride to Bethlehem, I had an urge to text my friend Julie back in Illinois, to tell her about the vivid array of smells to be smelled. Julie and I both have a highly sensitive sense of smell. While I guess this could be seen as a gift—to sniff out gas leaks or bombs maybe?—more often it makes the world feel like sensory assault. I did not text Julie, only because I wasn’t familiar enough with the data plan on my phone. Plus, nobody wants a message that says, “Wish you were here—smelling what I’m smelling.”
From landing to arriving at the hotel, there were many smells that made me say, “That’s different.” Smoke that resembles neither tobacco nor marijuana hanging in the air, spicy body odor emanating from strange soaps and perfumes and possibly a lack of deodorant, herbs that I can’t quite place, the faint effluvia of a city lacking the infrastructure for regular trash management.
Of all the senses, I wonder, is smell the most vulnerable? You might say, “I can never un-see this!” but you can close your eyes or look away. Or you can plug your ears. Thankfully, most of us don’t have to touch or taste anything we don’t want to touch or taste. But the nose is different since it’s also for breathing.
When my nose picks up a less-than-desirable scent, it reminds me of how the poet William Carlos Williams depicted his sense of smell as insatiable: “Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed / nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?”
In this poem, Williams goes on to describe his impulse to inhale the decaying smells of springtime past its prime, all “souring flowers” and “festering pulp.” He playfully scolds his nose for enjoying even unlovely smells, sidestepping the ineffable quality that discerns fragrance from odor. What a weird poem. He can’t help that his nose is just so . . . nosy.
Traveling reminds me that the distinction between welcome and offensive smells is somewhat subjective and also varies among cultures. Here’s a brief list of smells on the trip:
Bus exhaust, since modern pilgrims travel by charter buses to see the sights.
A teenage boy cloaked in the pungent ethers of cologne. Is this the universal olfactory mating call?
The sweet, we-aim-to-please hospitality of a Palestinian-owned coffee shop, breeding aromas of acrid coffee beans and sweet syrups, cigarette smoke and body odor. A good and pleasant thing, believe it or not.
Public restrooms, a constant reminder that we heavenward pilgrims are bodies, after all.
A burst of bright citrus as I peel an orange from the hotel’s buffet.
The smell of incense wafting toward the ceiling of the Church of the Nativity, presided over by stern-faced priests.
An eerie absence of odor at the shallow edges of the Dead Sea.
As I take in some unwelcome smell, Williams’ poem resonates in my nasal passages: “Must you taste everything? / Must you know everything?”
Yeah, I suppose. It’s the upside and downside of having a nose.
After our thirteen-hour return flight to Philadelphia, while waiting for hundreds of passengers seated ahead of us to deplane, a couple blocking the aisle complained: “I must get off this plane. These people smell.” The woman spoke in heavily accented English for our benefit. How thoughtful.
It’s true, the plane smelled like the mentholated wing of a quarantine hospital, all cough drops and bad breath, but it was impolite to say so. Second rule of Flight Club.
Even so, I hope that our odor continues to emanate, not as ugly Americans or smelly tourists or crazy religious pilgrims, but as followers of Jesus whose aroma provokes:
“We are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” 2 Cor. 2:15-16.
I much prefer the aroma of life to the odor of death, and I want my spiritual fragrance to be pleasant. When we emanate the aroma of Jesus’ love, those with noses cannot remain ambivalent. Others will be compelled to say, “That’s different.”
In the little town of Bethlehem I crawl into my hotel bed and inhale the faint fragrance of the sheets. The smell is sweet yet tart, miles from Downy fabric softener, oddly like an Easter basket of jellybeans. I take another whiff and try to place the scent in my catalog of smells, but it eludes me. As I drift beneath the pleasant undertow of sleep my nose says, That’s different.
And that’s the point.