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Reoriented Through Smell (of noodle soup): senses that travel in-between

Butcher’s Tears, Amsterdam and Landal Landgoed ‘t Loo & Buitencentrum, Oldebroek , The Netherlands, 2018



I live in a place where there are no street names and some path-ways or roads do not exist yet, on Google Map. But when we want to go somewhere, even for the first time, we all know how to get there. I’m not too sure if it is a natural compass we have or instinct or intuition because even though we get lost, we always find the way.

I have one favorite noodle shop. The couple that own this shop have a very special decorating style. They are from Southern part of the country so they have old collections from their hometown; whisky bottles, wooden and leather shadow puppets, very old cutlery that is covered with bright red or blue paint, and hundreds of photos of famous actors and actress from 50 years ago. They also hang the whole roof inside with bunches of garlic. So, while eating noodles and having a big sip of the broth I always smell a mild scent of garlic mixing with the smell of those vintage collections. The soup itself is unforgettable. The sweetness of long boil bones with herbs stays with your tongue for minutes and that juicy pork which melts in your mouth without resistance. 

One of my friends from New York came to visit. I told her how amazing this place is and she wanted to go to there by herself. It became a challenging task for me to give her directions to the noodle shop. She asks “just tell me the name of the shop and I can ‘Google’ it.”. I hesitate “errrr…you won’t find it on ‘Google’…”, “then send me the address” “errr… there are no street names, no house numbers. It occurs to me that she finds it difficult to understand that this place is not where she can drop a tiny guy in google maps and have a view of everything in the area. I can only draw a doodle map, write down the shop’s name in Thai and suggest to her to ask around. I joke with her “just go ahead, then you sniff out the smell of the soup”. Unfortunately, her nose is not trained well enough to find the shop.

To remember where we are as a “starting point” requires knowledge that is gained through contact with others. I refer to the “starting point” as a position and not location. As Neil Smith and Cindi Katz state: “In geographical terms, ‘location’ fixes a point in space, usually by reference to some abstract co-ordinate system such as latitude and longitude,” while “‘Position’ by contrast, implies location vis-à-vis other locations and incorporate a sense of perspective on other places” (1993: 69; see also Cresswell 1996: 156). To find a position, one may rely on their experiences and memories and compare or incorporate those with new ones. We rely on memory to position ourselves, to be conscious of who we are. 

I stopped going to the noodle shop for a few months and when I returned, it had disappeared. I was so disappointed. I assumed that they had closed due to finances since this was becoming more and more common with the city growing and a rapid increase in the number of tourists, new investors from big cities have their eye on this area. Many local shops have to close down. Markets are being replaced by supermarkets. Then one day, I am walking down the street and suddenly I feel something, something very familiar. I don’t know exactly what it is but I decide to listen to it, so I just follow my feeling. I turn to a small street I have never been to.  Then I realized that it was a smell of a long-boiled broth with coriander and celery leaves and a bit of white pepper, and the mild smell of dry garlic. Before I realize, I find myself standing in front of a restaurant. It was the noodle shop I thought have been closed down.

In order to become oriented, one must first experience disorientation. (Sara Ahmed,2006) The recognition of one’s orientation will only become apparent when the concept has fail to be put into action and has become a subject to think about instead. When one is oriented, one might not recognize oneself as being so. On the other hand, when one is disoriented, orientation is something that feels out of reach. It’s in this mode that one might begin to wonder; What does it mean to be oriented? (Sara Ahmed) But perhaps “how” and “what” draws us toward the next positions or points is something to consider and think about.  What is functioning as “orientation device”? As orientation is something that always takes distance in consideration, this distance can perhaps be measured through sight and hearing. I have mentioned in the introduction that as senses of distance, sight and hearing become dominant without actual contact or knowledge. The knowledge that is generated by our senses that most strongly influences where we are self-lead. However, by placing a greater emphasis on smell, which has been underappreciated, I am attempting to orient myself from an alternative ‘starting point.’

I thought for short time that I just ‘knew’ but I realized that is was an accumulation of tiny clues and faded information that spoke to me. I went inside, sat at a table in the restaurant and waited for my food to come. Then I began to notice many new and unfamiliar smells in this location. I looked around but couldn’t find the source. I closed my eyes, then I figured there is a big tree right next to the shop; it’s call ต้นปีป (ton-peep), and it is flowering. A bunch of tiny white flowers had fallen on the roof and the ground. and it smelt really sweet but soft. So sweet that I felt like I could taste it. I realized then that this shop is not and will never be the same but the only thing that remains and traveled with the shop, that move the shop is the smell.


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