I Can Smell a Horse!

In Buster Keaton’s final movie, ”A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” there is a scene where the young hero, an utter fool, who is in love with an aging courtesan, must acquire the key ingredient for a love potion: a cup of mare’s sweat. After watching the film at Kino Tapiola, we discussed among ourselves how the sweat of a mare might smell. Apparently, it must smell really foul because the young man faints while attempting to scrape a cupful of sweat from the spirited mare’s flank.

A screenshot from the movie ”A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1966)

We had a real-life confirmation of this later in the spring when a couple of horseback riding girls boarded the bus directly from the stables, still in their riding gear. Everyone on board wrinkled their noses, many pinched their nostrils shut with their thumb and forefinger, and one passenger got off at the next stop gasping for air. Mare’s sweat certainly smells extremely bad…

A riding gal on a horse
Photo: Jaakko Pikkarainen, Nurmeksen museo, colorized

Human sense of smell is not very impressive compared to, let’s say, a dog’s nose that can analyze the whole spectrum accurately. However, scent-related memories can be quite powerful. Some people are what you might call ”super-smellers,” and unfortunately, I belong to that group.

Famu and fafa, father’s mom and pa, at their home in the early 1960s.
Photo: Robert Ramberg’s home archives

Many events from my childhood float into my mind, stored in the basement of my brain, until a certain smell opens the door to my consciousness. The smell of homemade macaroni casserole takes me back to my grandparents’ shady apartment in the early 60s, where I got to eat the best macaroni dish in the world. A certain xylitol gum beloved by my grandchildren has the exact same scent as the sugarcoated Jenkki chewing gum that I used to enjoy and, as a result, damaged my teeth towards the end of the same decade. This scent still carries that delightful contradiction: chewing xylitol gum keeps the twins’ teeth in great condition. The smell of two-stroke engines, on the other hand, transports me to my uncle’s place on Halkosuo Road. His first cars were East-German-made IFA and Wartburg.

It smells the same as the sugarcoated chewing gum of my childhood.

In the 70s, the scents of summertime Helsinki were potent. As an assistant to the Suomen Väri paint store van driver, we roamed around the city in a Volkswagen van. The overpowering smell of certain neighborhoods was so strong that even with my eyes closed, I could tell where we were: mills, bakeries, coffee roasteries, tobacco factories, markets, and, of course, the proximity to the sea; they all left a deep imprint in my memory. Second-hand record stores had a musty smell, and in those days, tobacco too: my favorite record store, Tunneli’s Record and Tobacco, as its name suggests, but others as well. Apparently, a significant number of LP records found their way to be sold by smokers. The covers of some recently purchased second hand LP records I have had to air out for several weeks in an attic closet and change the inner sleeve to a less nicotine-yellowed one. Someone out there still smokes at home while listening to records to this day.

Borgström tobacco factory adding it’s aroma to the spectrum of smells in Helsinki.
Photo: H. Havas, Helsingin kaupunginmuseo, colorized

The indoor swimming pool smells of chlorine and movie theater popcorn. These are obvious cases. The antiseptic smells of the dentist and the clinical atmosphere of the health center cause unpleasant sensations. The good feelings come from the smell of the smoke from a wood-burning sauna and the fresh aroma of a birch whisk exuding purity. Of course, there are places that don’t really smell like anything. Does the church smell like holy bread? Well, no.

The odorless Tapiola church…
Photo: Teuvo Kanerva, KAMU Espoon kaupunginmuseo

Grocery stores smell or stink, depending on whether I am shopping at Mäntyviita’s Elanto bread store or in the meat and fish section. Tapiola’s Heikintori is a true symphony of smells. The first floor is taken over by Grilli Ribis with its greasy fumes and RAL-market offering a mixture of different unpackaged products. On the second level, there are milder aromas; whatever comes off leather and rubber shoes, clothes, and the like. Wager-Musiikki smells good: vinyl records and wooden instrument materials. But this memory may be distorted by the writer’s own preferences… On the third floor, there is Inkeri Harri’s hair salon. Anyone who lived in the 60s knows how generously sprayed hairspray and the hair colors and other hairdressing products of that era smell. Everyone passing by should realize that the lady has been to Harri’s.

Heikintori department store in shabby condition in 2023.
Photo: Robert Ramberg’s home archives

As a teenager, after turning 18, I sometimes made reckless purchases from the Alko liquor store. Rom Cassis will never be forgotten. When you got properly drunk on it and then felt sick, the obnoxiously sweet smell of that poison was hard to tolerate in the glass of the friend sitting next to you. It was necessary to move a bit further away. And the drink didn’t have to be heavily flavored for problems to arise.

And the winner is…
Photo: Alko

I will always remember my friend Cassu’s desperate struggle with Italian white wine, Soave, before going to the disco. The wine won, and Cassu stayed on the couch to recover. There were also other so-called red cap drinks, or strong ”wines,” that were crossed off the shopping list once the real wines started to taste decent. And then there was the general teenage preference for everything sweet… Nowadays, the youth don’t traditionally know what it’s like to quickly drink half a bottle of herbal liqueur or Creme de Menthe and then cough and gag for an hour behind the bushes. No one wanted a second round. Effective self-control from stronger drinks to milder ones, the Alko saleslady would say.

The horror drink… Even the bottle looks sickening.
Photo: Antiq.fi

Before I got to do relatively odorless indoor work, like handling papers in the university administration, a specific odor plagued many summer jobs. There were a lot of smells associated with construction work: adhesives, solvents, and paints. On Friday afternoons, there was one that stood out above the rest: sneaking sips of warm vodka in the locker room. The book storage of Valistus, a book and school supplies seller, was dusty but had a mild scent. However, even books can have an odor. One batch of WSOY’s English language textbooks frankly smelled like vomit. Those boxes were not preferable to open after lunch break. As a cleaning worker at Servi Systems, it was somehow appropriate to deal with odors. In all honesty, it must be admitted that Rank Xerox’s copy machine workshop and storage spaces didn’t smell like much. However, there was one area that had to be taken care of before the general lunchtime: the men’s restrooms. This realization came very soon, right at the beginning of the first week of work.

Puke’s book…
Photo: WSOY

In elementary school, during the middle of our third year, a new student, Tauno, joined our class. Tauno came from poor – or indifferent – circumstances. The opportunity to go to sauna only once a week and rarely changed clothes manifested itself at the end of the week in such a strong pungent smell of dirt that even the teacher avoided the row of desks where the boy sat. Tauno disappeared from the picture when the new school year began. He was so divergent, a sad character among the hygiene-raised children in Tapiola, that no one dared to even bully him. I felt pity even then.

Aarnivalkea elementary school
Photo: unknown photographer, KAMU Espoon kaupunginmuseo, Asuntosäätiö, colorized

Bodily odors were not a common occurrence in secondary school. One peculiar case happened in the lower grades. A friend was otherwise without any particular characteristic smell, but when he pulled his well-worn denim jacket from the coat rack, others retreated from nearby. The jacket smelled of cat pee. On test days, the classroom probably smelled of cold sweat, and a year or two later, that smell of sweat was partially covered by deodorant sprayed under the armpit. Some of the students didn’t even go to shower after a sweaty gym lesson, even though it can’t be said that they weren’t explicitly instructed. Puberty did all sorts of other strange things… The situation was corrected finally by high school.

Tapiola co-educational
Photo: unknown photographer, KAMU Espoon kaupunginmuseo, Asuntosäätiö

The teachers did not get by completely dry armpits either. Perhaps it was somehow in style that a biology teacher smelled slightly of sweat and guinea pig food. The other, male biologist, fittingly got the nickname Antiperspirant-Antti – dinner plate-sized sweat stains under his arms. A middle-aged Swedish teacher had a legendary strong smell of sweat, which was most likely caused by hormonal changes caused by menopause. The teacher was a workout buddy of my mother, so I secretly inquired from my mother if she knew about the case. The response was a multi-interpretable grimace. One after another, mean nicknames rained down. In honor of the woman, it must be said that she was a good and fair teacher who did not let such a trivial matter interfere with her pedagogical goals.

Even though a resident may not notice it, every home has its own particular smell, like a fingerprint of the apartment. Most often, this aroma is so mild that it is noticeable upon entering only. Then it evaporates, which is due to the human’s poor nose. A dog could tell a lot of interesting things about the room – if only it could speak. I didn’t need the precision of a dog’s snout when I opened the basement door of Järvenpää Rural College’s principal’s residence we rented: mold, wood rotting fungi, and whatever microbes created a unique stench. Even the firewood stored in the basement smelled unpleasant. 

Mold sweet mold…
Photo: Robert Ramberg’s home archives

My wife’s parents’ three-story single-family home, built in the mid-70s, had a very strong and clothing-sticking characteristic smell. All clothes had to be either properly aired or washed immediately upon our return home. There was no other way to get rid of the ”grandad’s house smell”. Based on our experience at that Rural College, we were absolutely sure that the house was riddled with mold. When the house finally changed owner after winding stages, it was renovated from floor to ceiling: nothing was found. Aging and sickening, my wife’s father apparently also fell into the grip of ancraophobia. He hated drafts and cold so much that he didn’t let the house be ventilated even in the summer heat, but shuffled around in his thick woolen socks and orange fleece jacket, closing every single ventilation window.

Grandad’s house smelled…
Photo: Robert Ramberg’s home archives

Student life in the 70s smelled of cigarettes, as did working life in the 80s. When I went to see my chain-smoking boss, there was no need to explain where I had been. Gradually, smoking naturally decreased as the dangers of puffing became generally accepted, a scientific fact. Even though, the best stories were heard in the students’ smoking booth. Before a thorough renovation of the house, the smells of the Porthania student restaurant affected my sensitive nose, especially on days when Cheesy Ivor was on offer. Just don’t ask what that is.

They’re serving Cheesy Ivor! Run away! Photo: Robert Ramberg’s home archives

In the early 80s, I frequently visited American literature lecturer Tim Andrews’ island in Pellinki, Porvoo. Having traveled from my summer job in Mankkaa to Timsö (literally: Tim’s Island), first by bicycle, then by three buses and finally by taxi boat for nearly three hours, a hot sauna, a dip in the cool Gulf of Finland, and cold beers were just what I needed.

Hoisting the rebel flag on Timsö in 1980. Photo: Robert Ramberg’s home archives

Tim and I sit alone on the sauna porch. The rest of the crew, who arrived well before me, have already gone to the main building to prepare dinner, drying their hair. We wave to a passing taxi boat, which returns from taking a group of tourists to one of the outermost destinations in the Porvoo archipelago. Tim asks if I want another beer. I don’t even get a chance to answer affirmatively before he goes into the sauna house, rummages around the cabinets and picks a couple of bottles from a bucket filled with cold seawater, which serves as a refrigerator. We clink the bottoms of the bottles together: ”Cheers!” I take a pleasurable, long sip of cold beer.

All I need is hot sauna and a couple of cold beers!
Photo: Robert Ramberg’s home archives

The taxi boat’s mid-engine puttering fades away. Peace descends on early June in Pellinki. I furrow my brow, scrunch up my nose, and exclaim without giving much thought: ”I can smell a horse!” Tim says nothing, but when I look at him, I see that he’s having a hard time not laughing. “It’s my new aftershave. You’re right, it does have a horsey fragrance.” Both of us burst into hysterical laughter. Who would have transported their horse to the outer archipelago…

Well, if you like a horsey fragrance… Photo: Twitter


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