S is for the Smells and Sounds of France
The quintessential Australian smell is Eucalyptus. Whenever I go into the bush and inhale its fragrance, I recall a poem called ‘The Anzacs Incense’ by Denis Kevans, a Blue Mountains poet. When the Anzacs-Australian and New Zealand soldiers- left Australia to fight in France during the First World War, their wives, sweethearts, sisters and mothers, sent them parcels from home wrapped in gum (eucalypt) leaves
“Yes, we heard their voices murmur, as the streamers broke and flew,
“I’ll love you forever, and forever I’ll love you”,
A boarding house in Sydney, an old man sitting there,
The smoke of burning gumleaves drifting around him through the air,
“It’s my incense, mate” he tells me,” it comes from down the Coast,
The gumleaves of the forest, the ones I love the most.
”This incense was my wedding gift, it was our wild bouquet,
We breathed in deep the incense, before I sailed away,
A net of moonlight drifting across her face and hair,
And the incense of the gumleaves drifting around us, everywhere.
“She’d parcel up the gumleaves, and she’d post’em far away,
We sweated on the postie, and his parcel, on that day,
In silence we would gather, and breathe the incense in,
The incense of the gumleaves burning in our dixie tin.
“The acrid stink of battle in our incense sped away,
And scenes of home and loved ones, entered in, as bright as day,
And we heard their voices murmur, as the streamers broke and flew –
“I’ll wait for you forever, and forever I’ll love you”.
But here in France the smells are so different. Rich, fecund and sometimes foetid, is the only way I can describe them. In Paris there are the exquisite wafts of perfume from women who are so impeccably soignée, overlaid with the foetid smell of rubbish filled drains nearby. It’s a juxtaposition of the highest and lowest olfactory experience. In this my first experience of ‘Le paysage Français’ the French countryside, the smells are so totally different. Rich, fertile and heady with that potent tang of compost. It’s as though organisms of all kinds are in the process of birth and decomposition at the same time.
And while the Australian landscape is noted for its wild disorder, here the land is as much a construct of humans as of nature.
From city to country the sounds change. The melodic beauty of the Parisian accent merges and is sometimes overtaken by the polyglot of accents from all over the world. In the village, the air smells fresh as the twitter of little birds overtakes the silence which is interrupted on the hour by the bells of the nearby church.