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Thom Barker: Civilization stinks: Or how I spent my summer vacation

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Contributed

Civilization stinks.

I mean that in the literal sense.

As soon as I got outside the airport in Ottawa, the air assaulted my vomeronasal organ with the omnipresent odour of motor vehicle exhaust mingled with faint notes of garbage and the collective melange of a million human bodies.

In Toronto, I had the dubious pleasure of riding the subway, at rush hour no less, packed shoulder-to-shoulder into a metal box with the equivalent of the entire population of the town in which I now live.

My nose, or rather my brain, was overwhelmed with the sharp mixture of scent: a hundred flavours of body odour, along with the personal products intended to mask it; stale tobacco smoke; coffee breath; lingering lunch selections of curry, barbecue sauce, blue cheese; and, of course, farts (there’s always one in every crowd).

I quickly got used to it, of course, for which I can thank sensory adaptation. Although perhaps not fully understood, the prevailing theory is we are initially hyper-sensitive to new smells (or those revisited after an extended hiatus), but once identified as non-threatening, our “olfactory sensory neurons also adapt to the repetitive odorant stimuli by reducing their rate of firing,” according to the website “Therefore we perceive the smell to be fading, allowing us to adapt to our environment and perceive new smells.”


As a side note, it appears the process only applies to imminent perceived threat, otherwise we would not become inured to, for example, vehicle exhaust, which has proven long-term carcinogenic risks.

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Sensory adaptation also applies to noise. Did I mention the cacophony of civilization that pounded my ear drums for the first couple of days, but quickly became an almost imperceptible hum?

In fact, I know people for whom the constant thrum punctuated by sirens and bells and crashes, is comforting. It is the rhythm of the life to which we become accustomed.

Civilization stinks, it’s true, and noisy, but I love it just the same. I grew up in big cities, devoured all they had to offer, cuisine, culture, sports.

On this trip, I hit all my favourite culinary highlights, Lebanese, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Italian and Montreal-style bagels.

I took in a cricket match on the grounds of the Governor-General’s residence where people have been playing cricket since 1872. The place exudes history.

I attended a Blue Jays game at the Sky Dome, which was a bit of a dud, a pitcher’s duel (not the exciting kind) through the 12th inning before the home team choked in the top of the 13th. But just being in the ball park on a clear, warm evening with old friends having a hot dog and a bag of peanuts singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with 25,000 of my new closest pals, made it well worth the price of admission. And now I can at least say I saw Aaron Judge hit a home run early in what is sure to be an illustrious major league career.

I also perused a wonderful special exhibit at the exquisite National Gallery of impressionist paintings and, while I was at it, visited all my old favourites in the permanent collection.
Most importantly, I got to hang out with my family, particularly my parents.

It was a wonderful vacation. But as great as it was to visit, it was really nice to get home, to breathe in the untainted air, to be engulfed by the silence.

It was not that long ago I could not have lived out here on the edge of the world, but when I went on vacation, I would usually try to get away from civilization to the wilderness.

Now, it appears, the table has turned, I live in the wilderness and get away to civilization.

I can’t see myself going back, at least not permanently or in the short to medium term.

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