Champagne, sweaty feet and Badedas shower gel. That's what the Munich dressing room of the Dutch football team smelled like in 1988, following their 2-0 victory over the Soviet Union in the UEFA Euros final. That’s according to 'scent historian’ Dr. Caro Verbeek, who shared some trade secrets of her unusual profession with Ryan Tubridy on Thursday, over the phone from Amsterdam.
Dr. Verbeek’s interest in the aromas of the past began in the world of art history and expanded from there. She says smells deserve to be considered as part of history, because they form part of our heritage and identity: from everyday life, to war and religious ceremonies.
Dr. Caro spends here time researching historical smells and re-create them if possible, in order to enrich our understanding of the past, as she explains:
"We can retrieve these scents and also study how people experienced these scents. There are different ways. Of course you can look at texts, at sources, at recipes for certain medicines, or perfume. But you can also, and this is only for the past century, you can talk to ‘nose witnesses’: people who have smelled things that are not here any more, for example people who have experienced the war."
Dr. Verbeek has worked with The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to add smells to people’s enjoyment of the artwork on display there. In the case of certain paintings, visitors to the gallery are supplied tiny scraps of paper or liquid vials imbued with the smells of the scene in the painting they are looking at; so they can sniff as they go.
Dr. Caro says adding smells completely changes how people respond to art: "People feel much more immersed. They feel as if they are part of a painting instead of just looking at a painting."
Smells can have a powerful effect on the imagination, Dr. Caro says; even to the point of making some people swear they can see horses moving in a painting, when they are given access to horsey smells to accompany their viewing. Dr. Verbeek says people stay rooted to the spot, when art is matched with aroma:
"In general, people look at paintings a few seconds. If you bring a smell, they look minutes, because they want to see how the smell and the painting are connected."
One of Dr. Verbeek’s most intriguing tasks has been re-creating the aromas of aforementioned Dutch dressing room during the UEFA Euro 1988 final – yes, the same competition in which the Republic of Ireland beat England in Stuggart, in case anyone’s forgotten.
Her 'nose witness' for the occasion was Dutch left back Adri van Tiggelen, who filled her in from memory on the myriad aromas of the post-match locker room that made up the smell of victory. But as Dr. Verbeek was told, as the story goes, the most pungent smell was wafting around the dressing room of the opposing team:
"An interesting fact is that Hans van Breukelen the goalkeeper, he is said to – before the game – to have left an ‘olfactory souvenir’ in the locker room of the other team."
Ryan asked the scent historian to spell out what exactly she meant by ‘olofactory souvenir’? To help him understand, Dr. Verbeek dropped the euphemism and went straight for the Anglo-Saxon: "Well, he took a s**t in the dressing room of the Russians."
Having expanded his vocabulary, Ryan went on to explore some of the therapeutic uses of smells with Dr. Caro, including a fascinating discussion on the long term effects of Covid-19 on the sense of smell of some patients and one of the therapies being trialed to help people recover their old sense of smell, following Covid-related changes.
Scent historian Dr. Caro Verbeek’s full interview with Ryan includes fascinating details on reconstructing the smells of war, in particular the Battle of Waterloo, the unique smell of anxiety and using smell to conjure precious buried memories.
A listen back is highly recommended and you can do that by going here.