(Not) smelling fishy

How Covid got me by the nose

By: Lola Bessa

It is movie-night and my flatmates and I are watching an Hungarian art house movie called  ‘Werckmeister Harmonies’. It takes place in an old village with a big square. We see market stalls full of shiny fish. I never liked the salty and penetrating smell of fish, but now I can barely smell anything at all, I even long for a fishy stench.

Like many others, I lost my ability to smell or taste due to Covid. For me, it was like a Christmas morning gift. As I opened up the fridge to grab the bites we bought for brunch, I realised: I don’t smell anything. The fridge was stacked with French cheeses, Blue Stilton and Camembert. But they were odourless now. I panicked. I stuck my head so far into the fridge that I almost touched the back with my nose. But it was all in vain. No smell, no taste. Nothing.

After you’ve lost it, you realise that smelling food is a privilege. Everything has a smell. Even the wooden table you’re sitting at. It probably smells musky. If it’s plastic, it probably smells chemical. Suddenly it’s like you’re living a 2D life, instead of 4D. Besides, I am the daughter of a chef. From a young age, I have been trained to distinguish smells and flavours. I could distinguish the smallest addition of a certain herb in a rich sauce. I say used to, because although my ability to smell has returned slowly; it is still far from what it was.

Each Friday, my roommate Mete de Graaf and I prepare a candle-lit dinner. In February, as I was cutting onion for our Indian curry, I realised that I could smell the onion. The pungent, sulphurous smell of the onion entered my nose – and it smelled great. I wanted to take the onion and hug it and thank it for bringing me back to my senses. When the pan with curry was simmering on the stove it felt like my brain started to colorize the inside of my nose again. It was a great feeling. But then, as we finished dinner and I blew out the candles, I started to feel nauseous. The candles somehow smelled very chemical, even worse than chemical. I suddenly felt like I was in my first trimester of pregnancy. I felt like throwing up. Something I had never experienced, but I knew for sure that it would feel like this.

And that is my life right now: I am in my first trimester of regaining my smell. All the food I smell is fragrant and it all tastes okay, but some smells like petrol or a scrub that smells like roses make me want to throw up. It’s a big daily surprise show to find out which smell will piss me off today. It is also quite random when a smell pisses me off. I sometimes walk on a farmers market and suddenly can’t stand the smell of a certain food stall. Or I buy a certain kind of food only to find out that I don’t enjoy the taste or smell anymore. There’s one good thing about it: I don’t have to stick my nose in the fridge again to try and smell anything. I now need to learn to turn off my sense of smell.