It is hard to write about perfumes when you are in Paris. First of all, there are too many things to get busy about and secondly, if your mind starts craving certain scents, the craving can so rapidly be satisfied that you can hardly call it a craving and certainly not a longing. In sum, not much to write about. Back in the States, I start forgetting about that sense of satiety and plenty, perfume-wise, that you experience in Paris. I start imagining perfumes, rather than living them and therefore it comes more naturally to me that I should wish to write about them. Scents to me cannot be dissociated from certain places, streets, atmospheres; they add that extra dimension of mystery and imagining of forgotten universes to the present world. So, perfume almost stands to me as a mere excuse, a means of making time stand still and recreating lost spaces.
Certain streets; I gaze absent-mindedly through the window, abstracting from my surroundings, almost forgetting about the very boisterous courtyard outside. In my memory, I go back to la rue Saint André des Arts, la rue de l'Ancienne Comédie and I recreate with great pleasure the impressions of a certain day that smelled of vanilla and patchouli. The scent is Vanille, from Des Filles à La Vanille. There is a boutique there on the corner of the rue de l'Ancienne Comédie and another one on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. "Vanille" just goes well with the neighborhood, I don't know why. I am not the only one to appreciate it, both bottles of "Vanille" at both locations are almost empty. They have been sprayed away by anonymous and familiar hands, women most probably, sharing similar tastes. Passers-by on boulevard Saint Germain are invited to sample three bottles of perfume from Des Filles à La Vanille, sitting on a stand situated on its threshold, half-way standing between the boutique and the street. The "mouillettes" (paper strips) are lovely and fancy, all gold-lettered and rather full of flourishes; I wish I had taken a close-up photo of some of them. They are fanning out in their glass cups. So much inconspicuous attention given to details. Why? It's so ephemeral. I suppose a taste for luxury, a good supplier, and some idea of what civilization means.
Women here like heavier, earthy scents and men do as well. You smell them and they make you think of the depth of history and experience. Of some sort of roots and at the same time, it's evocative of their skins, of the dry warmth of unknown bodies. People are not shying away from their corporeality but emphasizing it. How courageous of them. I am at ease sporting heavily sensual perfumes in Paris, but I think of the trip back home to Massachusetts and this compels me to buy a parallel set of perfumes, lighter, more proper, ones that won't run the risk of being judged offensive. I think more of the risk of invading someone's private space and less of the pleasure of scenting the air, on the street, for strangers to be appreciative of and intrigued by.
This morning in Cambridge, I nevertheless put on Vanille and yes, someone did turn suddenly toward me and looked a bit surprised, an unusually strong scent wafting toward him? I almost did not buy Vanille, the patchouli had such an explosive force at first that I had to take a step back away from the spray in utter shock and olfactory revulsion. Berk, berk, berk! Yet, soon enough the beautiful, rich vanilla took over, appearing deeper and more interesting thanks to the patchouli, softened further by the almond note. It's certainly not typical of what you smell on the streets of Cambridge and Boston. But what then is typical of a Cantabrigian and Bostonian smell? I don't know. I think of a medley of scents escaping through the doors of a The Body Shop, sweet and nice. My husband just mutters now that he hates the smell of The Body Shop, although he is one that pays no attention to scents, he confirms to me that there is such a typical smell imprinting that corner of that street. I think of iodine, of the scent of the sea that sometimes runs through the streets with the wind and reminds you that there is a coast. What else? Maybe Happy by Clinique, because of the many young students who live in Harvard Square? Did I really smell this that often or am I just imagining it? Well, I do remember spying a bottle of Happy that sat almost empty on the Clinique counter at the Coop. I should pay more attention next time and follow the scent trails.
Photos by Mimi Froufrou