Thursday, 8 October 2009

Blogtoberfest Day 8: My nose doesn't work

I think at some point in my youth, maybe even my childhood, I started to figure out that something wasn't quite right with my nose.

Already, I had a complicated relationship with my nose. I thought it was too snub. Too upturned. Too pig like. It must have been true because sometimes at school, boys would make 'oink oink' sounds when I passed by. Stupid pug nose. I hated it. I thought everyone could see up it when I was a kid and it was a source of great shame. Ironically, a boy who liked me in Year 7 told other kids he thought I had a nice nose. He said other nice things but that's the bit i remember twenty odd years later. My nose. He liked my nose. Why?

How strange then that something so upturned, so open to the world, should actually not function the way a nose ought to. Smelling seemed a bit mysterious. I looked at other people smelling things and wondered if smelling stuff was something I was yet to learn to do. I don't remember having that thought, but I know I did. Recently, when I was reading about an absence of a sense of smell, I learned that many people with this condition spend their childhood wondering if they just haven't learned to smell yet.

In late high school I worked in a pharmacy, the kind that also sold gifts, like perfume. Many times men came in to buy hurried gifts for their wives or girlfriends and they would hand me a pretty bottle or two and say, 'Does this smell nice? Should I get this one or that one for her?' Not wanting to appear ignorant, I usually made a charade of sniffing and picked the one with the nicest bottle or the most interesting name or label. How many women out there had nasty perfume as gifts because I couldn't tell one from the other?

In 1994, I had a boyfriend who loved food and smells. I faked the whole smell thing for as long as I could but one day, we sat in his car in the rain, overlooking Lake Burley-Griffin with a big pile of fish and chips balanced between us. The conversation was an important one.

Him: God I love the smell of fish and chips on a rainy day.
Me: Yep.
Him: Don't you love it? Isn't it just the best smell?
Me: I don't really know.
Him: How can you not know?
Me: I just don't. I don't think I can tell what it smells like.
Him: Are you serious? What do you mean?

And so on. Shortly after that, he as good as marched me to the GP where I got a referral to an ear, nose and throat specialist. I went to that appointment alone and a nice specialist poked and prodded, sprayed and dug around and he concluded, from that, that there was something wrong but he couldn't tell what. I was probably born that way, he said. Or maybe I had a bump on the head as a baby or perhaps I got a bad cold as a baby and the olfactory nerves were messed up.

In other words, he had no idea. He said I'd never be a wine taster. Gee, thanks.

I've often thought of getting a follow up view on my nose but from all I've read, if you have what I have, Congenital Anosmia, there's not a lot to be done. People who lose their sense of smell can sometimes get it back, but people who were most likely born this way cannot.

Many, many times I've been asked how come I appear to love food and wine so much if I can't smell. I'm lucky. I can taste. I don't know why this is. Not everyone with Anosmia, congenital or otherwise, can taste. Some people are so unfortunate that they couldn't tell the difference between chocolate and curry, between sweet and sour, salty or spicy. I sometimes think I over compensate a bit with food and I've had to learn over the years that if something I've cooked tastes over seasoned to me, then it's probably way overdone for a regular, smelling person.

As for wine, it's true, I'll never be a wine taster professionally, but I sure as hell know what I like. I will never be able to talk about the bouquet, the hint of blueberry or peppercorn in a bottle of shiraz, but I know when something tastes funny, or tastes good. But that's about it. I am probably missing out on lots of good experience, but what I don't know, I don't miss, right?

But there are things I do honestly long to be able to smell. That new baby smell everyone talks about, or freshly cut grass, the scent of rain coming in, or bread in the oven. I want to know why my sister loves the smell of jasmine so much or what it's like to walk in the door at night and find Sean filling the house with the smell of sense-assaulting curry.

These are things I'll never know. Same with that woolly, earthy, sheepy smell that knitters and spinners rave about. That's lost on me too.

Then again, I can't smell rotten eggs, dog farts or bad food in the fridge. This can be a disadvantage, as you might imagine. I can't tell if milk is off until it goes lumpy. I found that out the hard way.

I figure that if I had to be minus one of the five senses, this is the one to lose. I can still work, I can still drive, music is my lifeblood and my eyes are just fine. My sense of smell is not vital to my survival as it might have been had I lived a couple of thousand years ago. My life is probably a little poorer for the gap this creates, but it's not seriously disadvantaged. I get by.

I've got Sean, and friends who feel confident about doing so, to describe to me when my curiosity is aroused about how something smells. Try some time, if you're curious, to describe what something smells like. What does cut grass smell like? I reckon it must be very hard to describe.