Monday, February 1, 2010

More Smells

On Saturday, we visited Grasse, France’s perfume city high in the hills above Cannes. We didn’t really mean to end up there, but we took a few wrong turns and found ourselves headed that way. Grasse has long been on our list of places to visit, so why not today? We always like to pretend to be spontaneous, despite our serious deficits in the whimsy department, so when we found ourselves with a spare day, and Grasse directly in our sights, we drove up the mountainside to check it out.

It was yet another picturesque mountain town at its core, but like some of the larger towns, ringed with forgettable, regrettable commercial development. We passed a bedraggled looking beauty school, a “Mr. Pizza,” and several dingy laundromats, wondering how this icky sprawl mapped onto the land that Julia Child described so lovingly in her memoir, My Life in France. There was a promising-looking set of old buildings far up on the hillside, but also a lot of crap separating them from us.

We zigzagged up the hill, muscling aside the quotidian, searching out our daily dose of French charm. When we were in striking distance, we sprung into our usual mode for exploration: we parked too far away, then walked the rest of the way into town, arguing over how to use the map on the iphone, everybody expressing their contradictory desires. One of us wanted to explore uphill, one wanted to sit on a bench downhill, one wanted candy, and the other wanted a bathroom. We were near our goal, but splintered apart in our desires.

The only thing we all wanted was lunch, so we started with that. We climbed as high as we could, and happened onto a café located directly next to the International Museum of Perfume. We took a quick look at the menu, were seated at a four top inside, and all exhaled with relief.

We spent the rest of the afternoon inhaling. We inhaled our lunch, as usual – first literally, breathing in the perfume of our house white, and distinctly flavored salads. Then figuratively, eating it all down with great enthusiasm. I had a melty piece of goat cheese on a round of toast sitting on a salad sprinkled with pine nuts and sprouts. Bill and Grace had tartines with sundried tomatoes and deep green pesto, and Abigail had a croque-monsieur. The girls ordered their usual French dessert – powerfully flavored tiny boulles, made with fresh raspberries, with white chocolate, and with vanilla beans.

Afterwards, we walked up stone steps to the International Museum of Perfumerie for some more smells. The first room we entered was our favorite. Just as we opened the door into the darkened room, we were instantly surrounded by a powerful smell of juniper, as natural and unmistakeable as if we were on our own lane in Aups. Giant screens covered two walls of the room, and big beanbag chairs were lumped in the opposite corner.

We settled into the seats in the dark, and watched the images slowly shift with music. After a few minutes, the scent started to shift from pine to a sharp, heavy musky scent. The screen turned into a dancing red, and then -- as the smell shifted again to the smell of cedar, then burning cedar, there on the screen was the image of a wood fire.

We made a game of being the first to notice a new smell, and trying to name it before the cues on the screen made it obvious what we were sniffing. The smells were all winter scents, swinging in and out of that first strong note of juniper. We melted further and further into the bean bags, grateful to be the only family in the museum that particular afternoon who wanted to spend an hour lying on the floor and breathing together.

Next was a glassed-in conservatory, where the museum grew plants from which common scents are distilled. There was patchouli, vanilla, and jasmine. In an outdoor section, open to the air but protected from the wind were provençal plants -- different kinds of lavender and a rose bush climbing up the wall.

The rest of the museum taught us about the use of makeup and scent since the Egyptians, and methods of distilling scent from natural and chemical substances from antiquity to the present day. The museum’s collection of perfume bottles was pretty remarkable, and on display were flacons from the beautiful to the very strange (including one bottle that sprinkled scent out of a little boy’s penis, and another in the shape of a gold-toned army tank.)

Near the exit was a series of scents you could pull out from little pots and smell in isolation. They represented the major notes of perfumes – from musky to floral to spicy. Our task, as dutiful museum-goers, was to do our best to name each one before looking at the explanatory cards that would tell us what we had smelled. I could get as far as “well, that’s sort of spicy,” say with a scent like cinnamon, but as soon as I looked at the card, of course it could be nothing but. Musk smelled to all of us like manure, somehow, and even after we smelled all the other scents, from jasmine to rose to citrus, that was the one that lingered.

We learned there in the museum that smell is our oldest sense, in terms of evolution, but either in spite of or because of that fact, it’s hard to link it up with language. Inhale a scent with just one other sense cue (a color, a shape, a texture or a taste) and it’s instantly recognizable – as coconut, or jasmine, or lime, or garbage. But without any other cue – without a label or any indication of what you’ve just breathed in – it’s astonishingly difficult to name one, even the ones we smell the most. When deprived of the clues we needed to name a scent, our associations became richer, but hazy, and hard to pin down. A forest, we might think, or floor wax, or apple pie. But as soon as we flipped up the card to learn the name, suddenly the smell lost all of its mystery and became something obvious.

There is no way I could ever recall the name of the perfumes that sat in bottles on my grandmother’s night table (although I’m fairly certain the yellow lotion was Clinique.) But I am certain that if I happened to smell it again, I would know instantly and certainly it was hers.

Instead of knowing scents through language and conscious memory, we feel them – we remember them with the lizard parts of our brains, deep down inside. The smell of my grandparents’ house, deep in their rugs and the papers and furniture that has made its way to my house. The smell of cedar in the chapel at summer camp. Lilacs on Father's Day in Galway, and Mother's Day in Brooklyn.

To that cache of memories from my youth, this year has added more that will stay with me forever. The fire burning each night on the hearth in our living room. The musty smell of the 1970's British version of Monopoly we play at night together. Klorane Chamomile shampoo lingering in the girls' wet hair after a bath.

1 comment:

  1. Hi mom! I think it would be a great idea if at the beginning of one of your posts you could explain about Haiti and allowance and ask your readers and fans to pitch in!