Coffee and incense

“It was like Serbia”, I told my friend. And it was. I talked about how things went slower than what I am used to in western Europe and how open and welcoming the people were. It was indeed very similar to what I experienced on the Balkans, “plus the scent of coffee and incense in the air”. I said it with a smile but there was truth to it. The smell of buna and etan, coffee and incense, is something that brings back memories of my fieldwork in Hawassa, Ethiopia. I noticed that smell and sound is a factor that in a way defines the cityscape even more than architecture and urban planning. I was there to do research on religion and ethnicity. But on the back of my notebook, I listed some overall impressions of the city and its atmosphere.

Smells and long term memory are closely related, yet when we talk about our experience in a foreign country or city, we rarely mention smells. Maybe it is so present that we don’t pay attention to it anymore. Or we simply forgot how to talk about smell. When we talk about scent, our vocabulary seems not to be suited for describing it accurately. Our vocabulary is shaped by the topics we talk about and – at least English and German language – still need to develop that aspect when it comes to describing smells effectively.

There is a niche for that though. Marketing and anthropology already work together in that field. But research on senses are conducted mainly on visuals (“bias against sight”, Arantes 2014: 27) and – looking at the perfume industry – mostly concerned with creating positive smells or avoiding bad ones instead of understanding the nature of smell in itself (Moeran 2017).

Maybe I will one day put together these fieldnotes, enriched with some ethnographic inputs i got from people better versed in urban anthropology than I am. Maybe this will be of some use and lead to some kind of conclusion.

One day…



    • Arantes, Lydia Maria (2014): “Kulturanthropologie und Wahrnehmung. Zur Sinnlichkeit in Feld und Forschung”. In: Arantes, Lydia Maria and Elisa Rieger (eds.): Ethnographien der Sinne. Wahrnehmung und Methode in empirisch-kulturwissenschaftlichen Forschungen. Bielefeld: Transcript, 23-38.
    • El Helou, Maria A. (2018):  Urban smellscape. The pheromones of a city and the sense of place. (
    • Moeran, Brian (2007): Marketing scents and the anthropology of smell. Social Anthropology 15 (2): 153-168.
    • Quercia, Daniele (2016): The emotional and chromatic layers of urban smell. (
    • Quercia, Daniele, Rossano Schifanella, Luca Maria Aiello, and Kate McLean  (2015): Smelly maps. The digital life of urban smellscapes.  (

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