As you know from previous posts, I have always been something of a makeup junkie, yet looking at my relatively small collection of perfume (one of my favourites from it is in the photo above), I was struck by the importance fragrances have had throughout my life. My mother, first of all. Always made up and smelling of Guerlain’s Mitsouko for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, my father would go on business trips and golfing holidays, calling us every day before finally returning, usually late at night, with a toy or a CD for me, a bottle of Mitsouko for my mother and so many stories to tell. I can never smell it without recalling the anticipation of our reunions. Some are still in her wardrobe from that time, unopened in pristine boxes. Perhaps they never will be.
On family holidays, we generally took the ferry to France or Spain and to kill time, my mother and I would wander on deck until we were thoroughly windswept and chilled to bone by the cold sea air and then make our way to the duty free shop to test out all the fragrances. My mother never really deviated from her signature scent but I recall one year she bought Guerlain’s Champs Élysées and Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps, perhaps for the rather glamourous bottles as much as the lovely scents. My father was never one for fragrance, except for a bottle of Old Spice he picked up somewhere. As a teenager I found it impossibly strong, blending as it did with the extra strong peppermints he constantly consumed but I have a special fondness for it now, particularly compared to the rather dull range of aftershaves on offer.
Then there was my paternal grandmother. Despite having a fondness for Gordon’s gin and smoking all her life which helped her reach the age of 101, she never smelled of cigarettes, only of Max Factor Cream Puff which was kept in her brown leather handbag along with a frosted lipstick, and Yardley’s lavender. As absurd as it sounds, neither of these products really suit me, yet I couldn’t imagine being without them in my home simply because their scent can make me feel close to her again just by opening them.
Strangely, I cannot be sure of my own first perfume. Perhaps it was Revlon Charlie Red or Blue, spritzed with my teenage friends as we wandered through department stores on a Saturday afternoon. Or maybe Clinique Aromatics Elixir which I seemed to get all the time in a bonus time free gift but which I felt too intimidated to wear to high school. In any case, my first proper fragrance purchase was Cerruti 1881, bought after identifying it as the one worn by Louisa, my neighbour in the German class. She wore skin tight trousers, low-cut tops, rather orange foundation and had long, flowing hair and a boyfriend named Ben who drove a sports car. By copying her scent, I felt sure I could transform myself from an extremely shy and gawky teenager with awful dress sense and spots into something elegant and cool. It didn’t work and smelling it today, I find it too floral and soapy but somehow the sight of the round pink bottle on display still makes me smile, even if it is often marked down to half price.
The most comic experience related to scent occurred in Berlin several years ago when a former work colleague, let’s just call him J., asked if he could stay with me. At the time I was sharing a flat with a very loud Brazilian woman and her son in Charlottenburg and only had the one room. But I couldn’t refuse and offered him either a small sofa (he was about 6ft.) or the floor. Unfortunately, what I had not taken account of was the fact that he smelled quite strongly of sweat and to disguise this, sprayed copious amounts of YSL Jazz constantly so that in just a few hours, my room, hair, clothes and in fact, the whole apartment reeked of it too. I would probably not mention it, were it not for the fact that he then preceded to flood the bathroom without noticing afterwards and complained loudly about how uncomfortable everything was. The final straw came when he deleted files on my computer without my permission in order to speed it up, then tried to seduce me in the middle of the night and I decided to throw him out. So he departed angrily, leaving just the lasting traces of his personal scent, but not before stealing a couple of my Thomas Bernhard novels in exchange for a Henry James, his favourite writer. “What happened to your Prince Charming?” my flatmate’s boyfriend asked. “He turned into a frog”, I replied. If you are reading this and have a fondness for YSL Jazz, I won’t hold it against you, although I hope the man of my dreams wears something else.