Sometime last winter around the holidays during the epic four hour train ride from Podrecany back home to Bratislava, an elderly woman entered our enclosed six-seat cabin in Levice and asked if she could sit in the only available seat, which happened to be right next to me. I nodded yes, she sat down, but as soon as she unzipped her thick, down winter coat, a putrid, ungodly stench permeated the cabin and pummeled my nose. I looked across at Terezia, who crinkled her nose as she exchanged my glance with a knowing roll of her eyes.
A mild bit of BO this was not. Think of the most full blown, hasn't-showered-in-two-weeks, Berkeley, crusty gutter-punk armpit stench you could ever possibly imagine, and then multiply it by 10. I am not exaggerating - this woman's odor was a nauseating death-cloud of olfactory pestilence. And from Levice, we still had about two hours to go.
This was not an isolated incident. Here in Slovakia, I've encountered too many instances to count of BO powerful enough to trigger my gag reflexes. When I was a kid I always used to hear people joke about the French reeking of BO on the metro in Paris. But when I finally spent three weeks there a few years ago, I didn't smell a thing the entire time. Neither have I ever come across any particularly memorable odors on any of my trips to Italy.
Yet in Slovakia you'd be hard pressed to find a tram or bus without at least one person whose toxic stench fans out in a 5 foot radius.
But here's the thing I've noticed: in my experience, about 90% of the time, the body odor comes from people aged roughly 45 and up. Rarely does the stench emanate from people who are younger. In fact, if you're on the tram and surrounded by people in their 20s and 30s, you're more likely to encounter pungent clouds of cloying perfume and cologne. But if an older person gets on there's a bit more of a chance that he or she will come accompanied by an stench pungent enough to make the hardiest of plants wilt, and for which the perfumes and colognes of the younger generations are no match.
So, why is this? Terezia says that back in the days of communism it was normal for people to take about one bath per week. Back then, baths were seen as somewhat of a luxury, especially in small towns and villages, much like where she grew up, and it wasn't uncommon for people to stink as a result. Besides, hot water in many panelaks tended to be erratic, and who wants to subject themselves to a freezing cold shower? Simply put - during communism, BO was socially acceptable, or at least an unavoidable part of life.
This could explain why older people today who spent a significant portion of their lives under communism tend to be the sources of the offending odor, and why younger people who spent more of their adult lives in the post-communist world, after western goods and values flooded the landscape, are far less likely to smell.
Furthermore, pensions in Slovakia are criminally meager. It's not uncommon for retired people to have to live on as little as 300 euros per month. That means that buying deodorant (which costs about the same as it does in the US) is understandably not a high priority, while keeping one's water bill down by not showering every day, is.
So why do I care? Have I been conditioned by a society that says BO is bad? Maybe to some degree? Compared to most of the world, one can rightly argue that America has a freakish obsession with never smelling bad. Frankly, I can tolerate BO in light doses, unlike some people, and I can admire at least on principle how some people shun deodorant as a symbol of a decadent society that has completely lost touch with nature. BO is the natural human scent, after all (although showering regularly, even without ever using deodorant, does keep the BO in check).
I mean, I grew up around hippies, and everyone knows that hippies tend to be aloof about BO, if not enthusiastic. I've never considered myself a deodorant nazi, and I think it's good to not use anti-perspirants that clog your pores with evil chemicals. Sure, I use deodorant, but I absolutely refuse to wear anything scented. I hate men's cologne with a passion, and I go out of my way to buy deodorant, soaps, and hair products that say "unscented" on the packaging. The point is, while I'm normally not a source of any offending body odor, and while I'm not a fan of the smell, I don't go out of my way to make myself smell unnatural or cover anything up.
Ultimately, I suspect that much like the way some people secretly kind of like the smell of their own farts, other people kind of secretly revel in the stench of their own body odor. And we all know how unpleasant it is to be subjected to someone else's flatulence! I think the same can apply to BO.
So, what do you think? Did this woman on the train cross the line? Was it rude of her to subject everyone else in the cabin to her deathly odor? I'm inclined to say yes, if only because I've sat near plenty of other people on trains or trams here who at worst had detectable yet much milder BO, and it didn't phase me, or none at all. However, if we were in a much poorer country where all generations smelled strongly of BO, I suppose I'd have to say no.
Either way, it's interesting to live in a country where people aren't as uptight about the way they smell. On the other hand, some people really do smell awful!