Been There, Smelled That explores the aromas of places around the world. Travel writer Maggie Downs investigates some of the world’s most potent smells, looks at how odor cultivates a connection to place, and presents how humans engage with smells, from scents that have endured generations to the latest innovations in aroma-making.

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Around noon, my guide to the Westman Islands grabs a knotted rope and swings along the side of a cliff. Ebbi is a middle-aged man in a sweatshirt and jeans, a newsboy cap pulled low over his brow, and yet up on the cliffside he looks like an Olympic gymnast. Back and forth he goes, flying higher with each pendulum swing, until he’s close enough to reach a bird’s nest that’s nestled along a slender outcropping.

We’re on Heimaey, the only inhabited island in this archipelago, located about four miles off the southern coast of Iceland. This mix of cliff rappelling and rope swinging is called spranga, and Ebbi makes it look deceptively easy. While it’s a cherished local sport now, this was for generations how the people on Heimaey gathered seabird eggs for food.

Just then, a breeze sweeps in from the bustling harbor below, carrying with it the potent scent of the islanders’ other culinary cornerstone: fish. The odor hits me with gusto.

This place has long been Iceland’s most profitable and prolific fishing harbor. There are large freezing plants, where the big catches of herring, lobster, and capelin are processed. Smaller fisheries process other species, like haddock, cod, and pollock. And the fish that don’t go to the European markets—usually bony trash fish—are mashed into fish meal to catch more fish.

As a testament to this labor, the harbor is enveloped in an unmistakably aquatic aroma. The scent shifts a bit as the wind changes, dancing between the muddiness of the rich soil and the briny tang of the ocean, occasionally interlaced with ammonia. But the fishiness is a constant presence and reminder of the island’s connection to the surrounding waters.

I don’t mind it, but fish isn’t everyone’s scent of choice: “Nice, but the rotten fish smell drove us away!” said one TripAdvisor review of Heimaey.

So, what’s the Icelandic secret to living among fishy odors? Perhaps it’s because some residents have a unique superpower: they can’t smell fish.

In a fascinating 2020 study, researchers in Reykjavik delved into the olfactory abilities of more than 11,000 Icelanders. They discovered a genetic quirk that alters one’s perception of fishy scents. While this rare mutation affects only about 2 percent of Icelanders, it’s practically unheard of in African countries (0.2 percent) and is scantily present in other parts of Europe (0.8 percent). To those born with the genetic mutation, the fish smells transform into something more akin to a bouquet of roses.

This is kind of a big deal in a country where seafood takes the culinary spotlight. Take, for instance, the national dish, hákarl. Crafted from dried and fermented Greenland shark, it’s a unique delicacy with its distinctive flavor profile and pungent cheese aroma.

Then there’s Þorláksmessa, a celebration every December 23 to honor St. Thorlak, the nation’s patron saint. Amid the joyful hustle and bustle of the winter holidays, families gather to partake in putrefied skate, a fish that excretes uric acid through its skin. The fermented dish fills homes with odors reminiscent of pet urine.

When I tell Ebbi about the genetic mutation, he nods in agreement and says it resonates with his experience as a born and raised Heimaey resident.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if everyone with that mutation were all in this town,” he says. He recalls that when the first pizza restaurant came to the island, all the neighbors complained about the terrible stench. It was too much—the yeasty scent of dough, the sweet smack of the marinara, the oily smell of bubbling cheese.

This strikes me as an olfactory twist on the common stoned epiphany: Are the colors I see the same colors you see? How do I know that what smells good to me is a pleasant smell for everyone? Or vice versa? Maybe pizza smells like a dumpster. Maybe fish smells like roses.

Research is just beginning to reveal the depths of olfactory perception. Neuroscientist Dr. Joel Mainland of the Monell Chemical Senses Center offers the example of androstenone, a pheromone from boar testes. Some people smell the molecule as urine, some as sandalwood, and others don’t smell it at all.

Later, during that same trip to Iceland, I contracted COVID for the first time, and I was scared and alone. I’m aware that one of the symptoms of this variant is anosmia, the loss of smell, so I huff my Nivea soap maybe a hundred times a day as I quarantine in a remote hotel situated along the Ytri-Rangá River. Nivea has a spring floral scent I’ve always liked, but now every whiff is a comfort and a relief.

One night, I creep outside around 1 a.m., though the sky still looks mid-afternoon, thanks to the midnight sun. My hotel room door opens directly outside into an expanse of wildflowers and grasses leading down to the river. There’s nobody outside, nothing for miles. And this is what Iceland will always smell like for me: not fish, not pizza, but sweet air and mulchy soil, a verdant burst of wild thyme, shoving my face into marsh marigolds and breathing them in to remind myself I’m alive.