SCENT SEMANTICS 10: FAMILY

My grandmother and her Chanel N°5.

Even though I had chosen this month’s Scent Semantics word, I found it a challenge to write about it. Where to start? Where to begin? The path forward seemed unclear.

The obvious thing to do would be to write about my family. “She had so many bottles!” my grandfather said, pinching his fingers together to the size of the bottle of the pure perfume, the extrait, which was my grandmother’s preferred concentration of Chanel N°5. “No,” I covered his hands. “It’s okay,” I said. As much as it would have been nice to have my grandmother’s perfume to cherish, the thought of disturbing her drawers, with their contents organized by her hands, felt too traumatic.

Instead, I have her bottle of N°5 Eau de Cologne, which was conveniently sitting on top of a chest of drawers. Is it from the 80’s? The 90’s? It’s about two-thirds full. I never spray it or wear it and I never will (I have my own bottles of N° 5 to get through). It smells unmistakably like her though: soft hugs and generous laughs.

(Although the current versions of N°5 are unmistakably Chanel N°5, they don’t smell like what they used to. For those of you wondering what the now discontinued N°5 EdC smells like: imagine a scoop of lemon sherbet on a soft bed of white flowers, doused with ice-cold Champagne.)

My grandpa turned 99 this year, a fact that feels both monumental and underwhelming at the same time. I don’t think Grandpa ever thought that he would outlive my grandmother by so long. It’s been almost 20 years since her passing, but her presence remains everywhere. Her coats still hang in the closets, her clothes still sit folded in drawers. The house isn’t a time capsule though. Decay has already set in. I suppose that when the time comes, I will eventually find those bottles of N°5 as our family deconstructs his home to prepare the house for its eventual next life with a new family. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find a few places where mice have nested. I’m certain that we will also finally identify the source of other infestations that have plagued my Grandpa’s apartment these past few years. Until then, Grandpa is the guardian of my grandmother’s stuff.

So. Much. Stuff.

We all have too much stuff. As a New Yorker with an overstuffed apartment, I long to inhabit a void. Tabula rasa but make it real estate. At least my grandfather can take comfort that his family will “take care of things.” He knows that we will argue about who has to deal with the cabinets full of roach droppings before my uncle finally sucks it up and does it. He knows that we will carry garbage bag after garbage bag of moth-eaten things to the curb. He knows that we will debate who gets which family photos before someone in the younger generation (ie. me) ends the discussion by taking them, scanning them, and sending everyone a link to the new family photo album in the cloud that no one will use. I already know when I will cry the most: it won’t be at the funeral, it won’t be at the cemetery, it will be sitting on the floor of my grandparents’ home with dust sticking to my sweaty arms and face as my family sorts through what will stay and what will go, dismantling 100 years of existence.

Once, when Grandpa was in his spry early-90’s, he turned to me on the way to a doctor’s office and asked, “Who is going to take care of you???” “ROBOTS!!!” I remember shouting over traffic. Maybe he didn’t hear me, or maybe he did and just deemed my answer too ridiculous to acknowledge. It did make me wonder who was going to take care of me. The most logical answer for a childless person like myself is me.

I imagine myself in my dotage, maybe lucky enough to be with all my other childless friends in a large beach house in Mexico. I picture a charming place full of slip-resistant tile, handrails, and no stairs. A place to live out the last of your days once you’ve outlived your partners and your pets. Family, as we all know, does not always imply blood bonds. We don’t always have just one family either. Many of us have multiple ones which can be inherited or formed by our own choices.

Merriam-Webster gives the following as definitions for family:

  • [noun] the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children (also any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family)
  • [noun] spouse and children
  • [noun] a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head
  • [noun] a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation
  • [noun] the staff of a high official
  • [noun] a group of things related by common characteristics
  • [noun] a group of related plants or animals forming a category ranking above a genus and below an order and usually comprising several to many genera
  • [noun] a set of curves or surfaces whose equations differ only in parameters
  • [noun] a unit of a crime syndicate (such as the Mafia) operating within a geographical area
  • [adjective] of or relating to a family
  • [adjective] designed or suitable for both children and adults

In regards to perfume, we talk about fragrance families or classifications that group fragrances together based on shared notes and accords. But what about our fragrant families? Communities (mostly online) that coalesce around a shared passion for perfume? I’ve been fortunate to have met some of my closest friends through the fragrance community, which continues to grow and expand as new people connect with each other through and outside of social media. I’ve been a part of the “frag comm” for long enough to be able to identify “waves”: the first wave of ‘fume bloggers (Hello Typepad!), MakeupAlley message board folks, Facebook groups, the second wave of ‘fume bloggers (WordPress welcomes you!), the Youtubers (shoutout to the great Katie Puckrik, who did it first and better than anyone since), Twitter, then Instagram, then (briefly) Snapchat, and now TikTok, where the action seems livelier than ever. Sometimes, these spaces overlapped. It wasn’t unusual to interact with the same people on different platforms differently. Each one became an incubator for hundreds of fragrant families discussing fragrance families like unfolding patterns in a kaleidoscope.

Last summer, we did a Perfume Playdate on the fragrances that we felt would stand the test of time. If I remember correctly, the initial thought behind the conversation was to predict which perfumes currently on the market would become icons as big as Chanel N°5, Shalimar, and the like, in the future. Inevitably, the talk turned to what fragrances would we leave behind and which fragrances would people remember us by. It’s easier to identify one if you have a signature fragrance like my grandmother did. It’s much harder if you don’t.

“Daisy had … a lot of perfume,” I imagine Ari intoning at my funeral. As to what to spray on me prior to embalming or cremation, I think my friends would have difficulty reaching a consensus. “Something delicious,” Olya would say. “Something weird,” would probably be Josie’s response. “I have no idea,” would likely be the most common reply. But maybe that is okay to have everyone remember you in their own way.

As you know by now, Scent Semantics is a monthly perfume blogger collaboration curated by Portia Turbo to bring together six writers from around the world to meditate on a single word, and then write about a fragrance(s) they’ve chosen to represent it.

I’m running behind, as usual. So behind. I have several months’ worth of Scent Semantics to catch up on, but I promise it will be done. Sometimes life and family (ha! see what I did there?) take precedence over the fun stuff. In any case, looking forward to reading everyone else’s takes on this month’s word.

Please visit their blogs and subscribe to support (links in the navigation and below).

SCENT SEMANTICS 4: TASTE

It was not easy choosing a word for this month’s Scent Semantics. At first, I was stymied. Potato, I thought. Dinosaur. Orphan. I wanted a word that was challenging and rich with possibility, but all I could come up with were shallow words (coffee, minty) or unserious choices (unprintable).

Finally, I settled on taste. I was inspired by an exchange that I had with an acquaintance who asked me for a recommendation for a perfume. “Well, I don’t really know you that well,” I demurred. “It doesn’t matter!” they replied, “I trust your taste!”

Do you?!” I wondered as I looked around my apartment, my gaze falling on a pizza-shaped pillow, a framed autographed photo of Mr. T., and a perfume from Zara that smells just like canned peaches.

Anyone who knows me probably expected me to choose a food-related word for this collaborative project. Although taste cannot be divorced from its gustatory roots (ie. to have a specific flavor, to eat or drink in small quantities, to perceive/experience/enjoy by the sense of taste), I would like to also explore it through its other meanings: individual judgment, critical evaluation, discernment and appreciation of aesthetic qualities.

De gustibus non est disputandum!”

In matters of taste, there can be no disputes!

Or so I thought.

Then I fell off a metaphorical cliff into an abyss of relativism where everything was subjective and all arguments were rendered moot. You like what you like, and who can argue with that?

“Tastes good!” my Grandpa says, smacking his lips in enjoyment of something that makes me gag. Chicken feet, cartilage, fish heads? Sorry, Grandpa, hard no. I don’t hold this against him. I recognize that my squeamishness reveals more about where and how I grew up, versus where and how my Grandpa did. He has every right to like what he does, as do millions of others who share his affinity for the squidgy, soft, gelatinous, and rewarding bits. Part of me wishes that I could appreciate those foods too, but I can’t. I don’t like the taste, the texture, and also the work it takes to get a minuscule amount of chewy, fun stuff off a single chicken toe.

Whereas Grandpa gets a pass, others do not.

I admit it: I judge.

You judge too. Everyone does. We do it every day. Judgment doesn’t have to be mean, but it often is. “Mask-hole,” I think as I give the stink-eye to another unmasked subway rider who is flouting NYC’s mask mandate. “Ugh!” I complain to Joel when we get an invitation to join friends at another restaurant where the food is bad and overpriced. “Y2K Jessica Simpson wants that back now!” I bark at my friend who meets me at a café wearing a straw cowboy hat.

This gets us to what follows saying “to each, their own”: if everyone is entitled to their own taste, does that mean that we all have good taste?

‘Taste is relative’ is the excuse adopted by those eras that have bad taste.”
— Nicolás Gómez Dávila

No one will actually own up to having bad taste. I’m not talking about people who humbly admit that they have no taste. I mean those who think they have taste, but don’t and don’t know that they don’t. To have bad taste is, well … bad! It’s not nice to say someone has bad taste. Bad taste is synonymous with ignorance, being uneducated, being provincial.

But can good taste exist without its opposite?

For good taste to be good, it must be rare. Not everyone can have good taste, which is why a discussion of good taste can be so incendiary. In addition to being an expression of expert discernment, it is also elitist, snobby, socially and economically classist.

Someone has to have good taste! Or at least better taste. Otherwise, what would be the point of criticism and reviews? Where would fashion magazines be if their editors and contributors were not considered to be credible authorities on what looks good? Would there still be awards for the best movies, books, restaurants, etc. without the votes of so-called experts? Would entire art collections be devalued? What would be the use of curators if it didn’t matter what you curated?

For this meditation on taste, I have chosen three banana perfumes: Blackbird Y06-S, L’Artisan Parfumeur Bana Banana, and NARS Audacious.

Banana?! Yes, banana!

They might taste good, but bananas defy good taste! Bananas are vulgar. Their bright yellow color literally honks at your eyeballs. They’re a funny shape. (Yes, I went there!) I bet Anna Wintour has never “gone bananas”! Bananas are cheap. A single banana goes for almost pennies. Artificial banana-flavored food is tacky. Circus peanuts, anyone?

On a side note, if you want to know why banana-flavored things don’t actually taste like banana, do read the great story of the near extinction of the Gros Michel banana whose presence is gone, but whose flavor lives on as artificial banana flavoring (isoamyl acetate).

And is there any better representation of low-brow comedy than the classic pratfall of slipping on a banana peel?

Low-brow comedy is easy to understand. It is meant to appeal to the widest audience and is often physical and scatological. It is slapstick: humor contingent on surprise, boisterous jokes, physical contortions, pulled faces, and buffoonery. It is the laughter that follows a pie in the face or wiping out on discarded scraps.

High-brow comedy, on the other hand, is intellectual, ironic, absurd, and potentially obscure. High-brow humor is not funny to everyone. Like high art, you either get it, or you don’t. If you do get it, your membership in the exclusive club of thinking women and men is assured. If you don’t get it, you can take your place with the other plebs down below.

To understand bad taste, one must have very good taste.”
— John Waters

For all its popular appeal, low-brow humor can also be deployed to devastatingly effect to subvert, to overthrow, the bring down those who think they’re above the masses. The snooty businessman is just like the rest of us when he slips on a banana peel and falls.

Banana perfumes are subversive too. At first, they seem like olfactory gags. Laffy Taffy, but make it perfume. On second sniff, they are all much more than that. They are not for everyone. The audiences for these perfumes are either true fragrance connoisseurs or 4-year-olds. Apart from perfume sets for children, banana perfumes could only be categorized as true niche.

Take Blackbird’s Y06-S, which opens on the skin with the smell of an overheated VCR.* Slowly, the charged notes of warm electronics step aside to make way for a pile of underripe bananas and indolic jasmine. Kashina turned me onto this fragrance, which was her enthusiastic response to my wish for a perfume that smelled like animatronic monkeys in trees. It smells like that, but it also smells more urban — like the most fabulous dumpster in Bangkok. Imagine the olfactory glory of discarded green bananas, trashed garlands of jasmine whose white petals are quickly turning orange, and plastic-sheathed wires tumbled together in a giant receptacle. When I smelled this for the first time, I laughed out loud. This is the Warhol of banana perfumes.

L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Bana Banana is the most perfect banana of the three. A gorgeous, bright yellow, unblemished fruit served on the whitest cloud of musk. It is a banana hologram, so unreal that it is practically surreal. Despite that, it still feels accessible. I know this banana. I’ve thrown it countless times into my backpack before running out the door to school. I’ve peeled off its stickers and stuck them to notebook covers and cafeteria walls. I’ve pulled apart its sticky bunches in supermarkets and tossed it carelessly into shopping carts. I’ve blended it into smoothies, sliced it onto crêpes, and arranged it on top of peanut butter. It is the Sistine Chapel ceiling of banana perfumes, both profane and divine.

With its sleek dark bottle and minimalist presentation, no one would ever suspect that NARS Audacious smells like bananas. I assure you that it does! Banana is not listed as one of its given notes, but that is what makes this tropical floral fragrance feel the most subversive. What is more audacious than a banana perfume trying to fool you? NARS Audacious does not smell yellow, green, or even brown. The scent is more like the steamy whisper of a peeled, chalky banana in a Balinese spa, It smells luxurious, glamorous, expensive. But it’s still a banana!

As you know by now, Scent Semantics is a monthly perfume blogger collaboration curated by Portia Turbo to bring together six writers from around the world to meditate on a single word, and then write about a fragrance(s) they’ve chosen to represent it.

I can’t wait to read everyone else’s takes on taste this month. Please visit their blogs and subscribe to support (links in the navigation and below).

* I hyperlinked VCR because some of my students have told me that they have never seen one before.

OMEN- MANOS GERAKINIS

Omen by Manos Gerakinis is described as a fruity, spicy, ambery fragrance inspired by Delphi, the mythological home of the greatest oracle of the Ancient Western World.

Delphi is a strange place.

When I was last there, there was torrential rain every day which, when cleared, left waist-high fog to wade through like some kind of special FX layer cake.

Eerie indeed.

But it’s true that Omen doesn’t remind my of the islands that are so synonymous with the Greece of travel brochures. However, it reminds me *more* of hot and blindingly bright Athens, where the few trees push scrubbily and persistently through crumbling pavement, both modern and ancient.

Omen may not feel omen-like to me, but it does smell “ominous.” I can easily imagine myself in nearly deserted Plaka, sipping on an icy frappe on a sidewalk patio as cats with patchy fur mewl in shaded corners. Or seated for a movie in one of Athen’s many outdoor cinemas, the trailers cueing up as the sun sinks behind the Acropolis. Multi-colored liquors at Bretto’s, forest green, blue raspberry, bubblegum pink, followed by greasy gyros on drunken stagger back to the hotel.

Is Omen a comforting scent? Yes and no. No, in that it’s disquieting in the way that news images of wildfires are (speaking of which, consider a donation to the Hellenic Red Cross, whose work to help those affected by last year’s terrible fires was incredible). Yes, in that it simmers with a familiar bitter citrus opening and more traditional balsamic notes that feel like liquid protection. Does Omen read more masculine? Yes, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from giving it a sniff and a try on your skin, even if the list of official notes (Saffron, Apple, Bay Leaf, Jasmine, Bucchu, Fir Balsam, Leather, Amber, Oud, Ambergris, Tonka Bean, and Musk) are not typically your thing.

Omen is original and radically different from anything that I have smelled or worn in a long time, which is thrilling. Full disclosure: A big thank you to Manos Gerakinis for the travel spray that they offered up in a Ça Fleure Bon draw. I never win these things, so it was a lovely surprise that the fragrance that Despina Veneti reviewed became mine. 🙏

The perfumer behind Omen is Miguel Matos.

I’m currently in the process of archiving past reviews that have appeared on other platforms. This review first appeared on my Instagram on August 21, 2021.