A look beyond old photographs

A scent in the air?

Smells are transient. You catch a whiff of something and it's gone. Yet our sense of smell is powerful, and certain scents evoke the past in ways photographs cannot.

That's why it is hard to reconstruct the feeling of old East Berlin, before the Wall came down, because the scents in the air have changed. What's missing? Most of all, old East Berliners will tell you, the smoke and fog created by coal burning stoves. Even after the Wall came down, these (in)famous stoves kept the hearth fires burning, bringing heat to dilapidated, century old buildings. The very air of East Berlin was filled with the scent of burning coal. Now, of course, these have mostly gone, though if you wander off the main roads in winter you can still catch a whiff.

The other thing missing is the distinctive odor emitted by the engines of the old East German cars, especially the often maligned yet much loved Trabants. The smell is nearly identical to that put out by scooters in Italian cities, very distinctive. You can still catch a whiff when the "Trabis" taking tourists around pass you in the road.

It might not be pleasant in this age of clean fuel, but those are the scents of history…

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