Scooter exhaust is my madeleine


French writer Marcel Proust's madeleine snack dipped in tea sent him on the reverie of memory that became the seven volumes of In Search Of Lost Time. For a French writer, an unassuming cookie with scalloped edges. For me, hydrocarbon particles. 

I’m 20 years old, studying in Bogotá, Colombia, whose avenidas are choked with aging buses, taxis, and motorbikes, but I don’t care. Scooter exhaust is the smell of the thrill of living in a city of any size, of living outside the US for the first time. It’s the smell of aguardiente hangovers, the smell of 5000 meters of altitude. Of terror: narcotraficantes plant bombs on buses. Of love: I have violated the rules of study abroad - my girlfriend is American, from my program. It’s the smell of independence and lectures on Marxism and Spanish. 

Exhaust evokes many other places I traveled and lived, but it also smells like home. Inevitably there were American lawns that needed to be cut when I returned to my parents’ house, inevitably with coughing two-stroke engines. Cut grass and exhaust is my other madeleine. 

I didn’t realize how pollution could spark such memories until I was riding down Frankenstraat on my bike the other day. From the international portrayals of the Netherlands as a sort of sustainable transport utopia, you wouldn't think you’d encounter much exhaust here. But tourists and foreign journalists rarely seem to leave the Randstad and so never encounter the robust health of the combustion engine across the Netherlands. 

I wish that exhaust were a more distant memory, something old-fashioned and maybe even extinct that I’d have to explain to my kids, like record players and phones attached to walls. Some enterprising olfactory engineer will synthesize the smell of exhaust in small capsules of eau de hydrocarbons for those who need to remember. 

Michael Erard, data science funding specialist and grant writer at the Institute of Data Science.

Scooter exhaust is my madeleine
Michael Erard