Italy smells like a very rich cake, a panettone—the country has a heavy atmosphere to her, the air is weighted with the centuries. The air is rich, thick, and sweet. This scent is combined with a museum atmosphere; as soon as you get off the plane you can smell the mustiness, the sweat that has soaked into Italian leather century upon century. You are deep in the dark museum, down a corridor, and you catch a suggestion from the café at the museum exit; they serve panettone there, you only have the suggestion in your nostrils now but soon you will wander down to the light—strong Italian light—and have a slice. I swear that you can cut Italian air with a knife, it is that thick.
You see, countries like Britain are not that old, not really—we are babies compared to the Italians, more like the Americans. We were in mud huts when the Romans had their baths and circuses; and this is why all Italy feels like a museum, a museum slow-baked under the sun for countless centuries. There are variations in each city, of course. Rome chokes you more, it has more exhaust in the air—and Venice is, of course, damp; everywhere you can smell the damp, the panettone has turned moist; not moist, slightly sodden.
The water vapour is a little astringent in the nostrils, and pervasive—as with death, there is no escape from the water in Venice. You might be above the water, technically, but the whole atmosphere is a mist: you breathe in stale water, and when you turn the radiator on in your room you create a miasma—a tropical environment in the Mediterranean. All Italy is a museum but Venice is a mausoleum; the waters of chaos break her down every day, and break you down too. Death and beauty go together, and Venice is beautiful precisely because she is so precarious—she could so easily be washed away, all it would take is a freak storm…
France, by contrast, has a very sharp smell to her—no, not cheesy. It is not that simple. France smells of benzine—she smells like petroleum. There is a tartness to France, a sharpness not present in Italy or Britain. In France you always feel like you are stranded in a motorway lay-by as car after car whizzes past you—France is slightly acrid, slightly urgent. She is not so old as Italy—few places are—and, like Britain, she is therefore more urgent. Italy has seen it all—every form of government, every religion, every philosophy.
France and Britain are barely adolescent and so still want to explore the possibilities. Italy is an old Bassett Hound with red eyes and a face softened with ample folds; he looks up from the terracotta floor at the puppies down the hall—France and Britain, Spaniel and Schnauzer pups—as they tumble over each other. The Italian hound slumps down, seen it before. The American baby, meanwhile, mewls in her crib—she is barely weaned.
Nobody sees with their noses. It is discounted as a way to know; but, as Heidegger observes, you can know with your nose—and you can know with your heart too, Guénon would say. If we awakened to all the ways there are to know a place, person, or thing we would find whole undiscovered continents right under our noses. Surely you have revelled in the surprise when you returned to your house after a week or two on holiday and smelled your own smell as you smell a stranger when you enter their home? Of course, it is most difficult to smell ourselves, much easier to smell other people—and similarly difficult to smell our own countries. This is why we need to leave our countries; and I swear I could be blindfolded and have my ears muffled and put on a plane to any country and know her by her scent.