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On a balmy afternoon in New Orleans, I walked the aisles of a gift shop to pass some time. Trinkets and tchotchkes were on every shelf, but my love of candles drew me their way. Mindlessly, I lifted each to my nose and breathed in before moving to another — until one gave me pause.
The scent was floral and musky. I couldn’t quite place it, but it reminded me of the strolls we had taken that week during our honeymoon, the smell of flowers in each yard harmonizing to cloak the city in its distinct magic.
I bought the candle and walked out of the shop to rejoin my husband. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d just sparked a new tradition — one that I would bring with me on travels around the world.
Whenever I visit a new city, I venture out to purchase a candle at the beginning of the trip. I look for scents that embody my newfound surroundings, and then I burn the candle at my hotel or lodging. As the days pass I begin to associate the scent with the city, and at the end of my stay, I pack the candle, bring it home and burn it again whenever I want to be transported back.
New Orleans, to me, smells like lychee flowers, copal and a walk through the Garden District. Paris smells like huckleberries, black musk and late nights in the 2nd Arrondissement. Los Angeles smells like eucalyptus. Chicago smells like sandalwood. Charleston, like figs.
It’s common knowledge that our sense of smell is strongly intertwined with our memories. Neuroscientists have conducted research to figure out exactly why, and the nitty gritty includes things like your olfactory bulb, amygdala and hippocampus, according to Scientific American. “Empirical evidence indicates that odor evoked memories are more emotional” and “associated with stronger feelings of being brought back in time,” one study found.
As a traveler, I think, that’s something to take advantage of.
Companies have capitalized on this science themselves. It’s now common for hotels to have signature scents, pumping perfume through lobbies and rooms and selling candles behind the front desk. The Gramercy Park Hotel ricocheted Le Labo’s Santal 26 to cult status in New York City and beyond. Homesick has built an entire brand around candles that smell like home. And luxury perfumery Diptyque is known to drop limited-edition “city collections,” with each candle usually only available in the corresponding city. Their Berlin flame combines acacia with linden tree and honey, while Tokyo boasts cypress, incense and ginger.
I’ve tried all the classic travel souvenirs. Shot glasses from various spring break destinations line my cupboards, while magnets from Seoul and Havana adorn my fridge. But once unpacked — if we’re really being honest here — the keepsakes rarely matter to us again.
Bringing home a sentimental scent is a souvenir that keeps on giving, long after the candle’s wick burns to the bottom. I now order that same candle from New Orleans every year for our anniversary, and with one spark I’ve traveled back in time. The fragrance notes of a candle wrap themselves around the memory of a trip.