The Sweet Smell of Poverty

I love trains. Inside and out they reveal so much about a place and its people.

The train from Rome to Naples is hot and crowded, a far cry from the air conditioned comfort of our journeys north. Before we even start moving, scents of life begin wafting through the carriage. Italy is suddenly more interesting (and a little smellier). As the train idles a man makes his way through the carriage leaving notes written in English on the window sill of each seat.

He leaves the flowery scent of expensive eau de cologne in his wake, so I am surprised to read his note and learn that he cannot find work and needs money to feed his three children. I dig around in my bag for change.

Then it occurs to me that this beggar might be playing us tourists for fools. How many people on the poverty line can afford expensive eau de cologne?

When he passes through the carriage the second time, I look away like everyone else. Only the pleasure centres of my brain register his existence as the sweet scent of jasmine cuts through the train’s assorted odours.

An hour later the open windows have brought a breeze and the drift of acacia blossom to clear my mind. I recall a recent visit to a perfume shop where I pretended to browse the shelves with the intention to buy.

I sprayed the tester of Chanel No. 5 liberally on my wrists, neck, the full length of my scarf. I wanted this sweet smell to override all other smells that were being harboured in my clothes and skin. I hoped it would last for days, I prayed it would last for weeks, I fantasised it would impregnate my back pack. Alas, hope, prayer and fantasy are no substitute for a real bottle of perfume. After a day the magic had worn off.

On the train, it occurs to me that the beggar may have entered a parfumerie and used a tester. So perhaps he does deserve a little loose change for his hungry children. I’m beginning to realise that a clear conscience in Italy is no more than the price of an espresso.

Published in The Australian, June 30, 2012