The city I live in does not smell how I remembered.
I thought, surely, all cities must really smell like Chicago, of humid rot and car exhaust. I thought it foolish to conceive of an urban home that smelled kinder, not fouler, after the first spring rain. In my absence, I must have idealized Milwaukee to smell of swift lake breezes and sun-warmed grass. It could not be as good as my memory.
Alas, my memory was, in fact, too nostalgic. Milwaukee in summer often smells lakeish, verdant, and wonderful, but more than occasionally, something in the water goes awry, and the whole lakefront is treated to an olfactory melange of washed-up alewives, scorched seagull shit, and fetid fumes from the Milorganite plant. Biking along the Kinnickinnic River to work seemed quaint and romantic until I remembered—oh, jeez—its water smells ripe on a hot day.
All that to say, despite the true magic of Wisconsin summers, the real fun thing about winter in Milwaukee is that it’s too damn cold to smell anything. You walk outside and the first thing your nose notices isn’t a whiff of anything—it’s that, ope, all your snot froze upon contact with the winter air, so you’d better scooch into your car right quick and get that heater going before the frostbite kicks in.
Of course, the ultimate downside to ice-trapped outdoor smells is that the inside smells are now inescapable, because getting some fresh air is no longer a livable option, lest you wish to invite the arctic tundra inside. Accidentally overcooked your broccoli with dinner, or decided to opt for fresh-minced garlic in your pasta sauce? Have fun smelling your kitchen for the next two weeks. Left your leftover Culver’s bags sit in the trash can for too long? TFB, you and your misfortuned roommate will be treated to the aroma of your greasy, half-eaten Scoopie Meal until March rolls around and you can finally crack a window, why don’t ya?
I had all but given up on existing in a sweet-smelling world for the foreseeable future, but then, I remembered something miraculous: a contraption that provides both cozy ambiance and relief from malodorous domiciles, without need of opening the window for a taste of the polar vortex. Yes, this marvelous doo-hickey was capable of resolving all of my scent-related woes, and operates with the mere strike of a match, or—if you’re from Wisconsin—a flick of a cheapo Bic lighter from 7-11.
Enter scented candles, stage left.
Yes, scented candles: bear with me. While I’d previously thought candles silly and frivolous, I’ve now come to believe that a Wisconsin winter without candles is a tragic, bleak winter indeed. Aesthetics notwithstanding, candles freshen a room faster and more gently than Febreze, and leave a house smelling lived-in, but in a good way. Granted, candles cannot and should not atone for blatant neglect of basic home upkeep, but for the occasional odors of human life, I’ve settled on wax and wicks and I’m never going back.
I’m never going back, that is, until spring peeks her fickle head around the corner, and I can finally pry the window open and invite the only-sometimes-lovely-smelling-but-always-sort-of-fresh Wisconsin air back inside, and then my home will smell like home again.
Caitlin Gent (’15) graduated with a writing major. She lives in Milwaukee and works in fundraising & development. When she’s not working, Caitlin is usually walking with a friend or singing in the kitchen. She likes to wax poetic about Wisconsin to anyone who will listen.