SCENT SEMANTICS 5: NOSTALGIA

In my late teens and early twenties, I read many things that I understood, but didn’t really understand. How could I have? At that point in my life, everyone I loved was still alive and I had grown up not knowing any suffering at all. I imagine my eyes back then, passing over words like water over stones. Pathos was not completely lost on me, but the stories I read did not always resonate as they should have,

For example, I read Virgil’s Aeneid in college. No, I take that back. I skimmed Virgil’s Aeneid in college. (What can I say? It was the last work we had to read that semester, and I struggling to get through all my final papers and projects.) If I had to summarize it like an asshole, it would be this: duty-bound Aeneas, leaving the ruins of Troy on his way to a new homeland (Rome), makes a pit-stop in Carthage. There, he has an affair with Queen Dido, and leaves her a year later to fulfill his destiny. Consumed with despair following Aeneas’ departure, poor Dido sacrifices herself on a funeral pyre. Aeneas reaches Italy and marries Lavinia. Fin.

As you may have guessed, it was not my favorite work from my undergraduate years.

Fast-forward to one of the first classes that I had to teach in graduate school. It was Western Civilization and The Aeneid was on the syllabus. “UGH,” I remember thinking. The only thing that I could relate to at the time was Aeneas’ duty because I was duty-bound to teach this thing to my students. I hope I did a passable job.

Fast-forward a few more years. I found out that I was assigned to teach The Aeneid again! Dutifully, I picked up the text to re-read it. I just wanted to get over it as quickly as possible. But then something wholly unexpected happened. Reading it was a completely different experience. Maybe because by that point in my life, I knew what it was like to have my heart broken into a million pieces, to watch someone I loved leave me, and to have zero control over any of it. By the time I turned the page to Dido’s end, I was disconsolate. Not a cute tear or two either, but full-blown ugly crying. “What happened?!” my grandfather asked. He must have heard me and rushed into the room to find me weeping into my book. Blubbering, I waved my highlighted paperback at him. I don’t remember if he said anything back. I only recall that he closed the door gently behind him.

As I wiped my tears and blew my nose, I began to wonder about all the other great works of literature that I had slogged through. What else had I read and only superficially understood? What would it be like to re-read them today, tomorrow, in a year, in two years, in twenty or more?

How would I react to those texts at my grandfather’s age, after many more years of experience to inform my readings? If I re-read The Aeneid in my seventies or eighties, would I cry again? My grandfather turned 98 last year. 98! Universe willing, he will be 99 this year. Sometimes I wonder what he thinks about all of us, his family, fretting and fussing about this and that all the time.

“Youth,” I imagine him thinking, “Is so dramatic!”

There are some works that I adored when I was younger, but I never want to read them again because I want to preserve my naive impressions like museum pieces, precious and behind glass.

And then there are others I do want to revisit. I have a list and I am slowly working my way through it.

It’s been a humbling experience to re-read these books. Because I still own most of them, it has sometimes been an embarrassing one too. Before turning each page, I feel a mini-pang of anxiety. I know what is waiting for me: highlighted words and passages, notes and scribbles in the margins, and underlined or circled words.

Sometimes I agree with younger me’s annotations, but most of the time I don’t. “Why did I highlight THAT?!” is a frequent question to myself. “Well, that was flat-out wrong” has been another common thought, as has been “Um … did I even read this?!?

Clearly not!

Which brings me back to our Scent Semantics word: nostalgia.

The first time I really thought about the meaning of “nostalgia,” I was in graduate school. I will sheepishly, but honestly admit that although I understood the word, I did not understand it at the same time.

Back then, I was the teaching assistant for an undergraduate honors program, which culminated in a trip to Prague over Spring Break. The professor leading the program was Czech and the students were assigned works of Czech literature to read and discuss. We read Kafka and Kundera, possibly others as well. My memory is a little hazy — probably from all the Czech wine I drank (Czech wine is excellent, by the way).

Anyway, ever since Undina revealed this month’s word, that program and Kundera’s Ignorance have been on my mind.

For those who haven’t read the novel, ostensibly, it is the story of Irene and Josef, two Czech émigrés who meet again by chance in a Paris airport on the way back to their native land after 20 years away.

But really, it’s a meditation on return and its impossibility.

The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering.’ So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return […] In that etymological light nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there.”

— Milan Kundera, Ignorance

The first chapter (which you can read here if you are interested) ends with a reference to Odysseus, who Kundera calls “the greatest adventurer of all time” and also “the greatest nostalgic.” For those unfamiliar with Odysseus’ story, his 10-year journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War is documented in the Odyssey, another Western Canon icon — and a great one too.

I will refrain from saying more about Ignorance as I haven’t gotten around to re-reading it, but thinking about the word nostalgia has made me, well, nostalgic!

Graduate school was a time in my life when I was not promiscuous with perfume. I was a signature scent-kind of woman who would drain an entire bottle before buying another (usually the same one). This was partly because my tastes wildly exceeded my student budget and I could only afford one bottle at a time, but also because I would become so singularly enamored with a fragrance that I didn’t want to smell anything else.

This is my last bottle of the great Sophia Grosjman‘s Outrageous! for Frédéric Malle. When it launched in 2007, it was only available at Barneys and only on the 5th floor, the original Co-Op floor. As a concept, Barneys Co-Op was where you could find “lower-priced” up-and-coming, edgier designers and more casual clothing. Periodically, I would go to Barneys to look at the beautiful clothes that I couldn’t afford, try on cool things that I also couldn’t afford, or eat a chopped chicken salad at Fred’s, which I could afford … barely.

At the time, Outrageous was the least expensive Malle you could buy ($110 for 100ml). It had no fancy display and the tester was generally plunked on top of the cash wrap, probably to entice customers to make it a last-minute addition to the rest of their purchases, but also to stop people from stealing it.

Outrageous! was relaunched as a Limited Edition in 2017, before finally joining the permanent Éditions de Parfums collection as Outrageous (no exclamation mark). Of its creation, Malle said that he “wanted an androgynous, super sexy scent, something like a good pair of jeans.” Its initial exclusivity to Barneys, specifically Barneys Co-Op, made sense because the Co-Op floor was known for its denim bar, a giant wall full of designer jeans stacked in floor-to-ceiling cubby holes.

When I smelled it for the first time, it was like nothing that I had ever smelled before. Imagine biting into the crunchiest, juiciest, green apple while sipping on an icy caipirinha in a New York City laundromat on a sunny day. That’s the closest I can get to describing it. The fragrance is a jarring clash of photorealistic and synthetic-smelling notes. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

How does it smell now? To be honest, I don’t know. Just like I don’t want to revisit books I loved when I was younger because I don’t want to spoil their memory, I’m not sure if I want to smell Outrageous today. Even its current name, without Barneys’ signature exclamation mark, is too painful to look at. There are still a few milliliters left in my bottle, but I refuse to spray them. The fragrance has likely turned and I prefer to keep the dregs literally as bottled memories.

As for Barneys, you can’t go back there. First, the Co-Op concept was retired. Then Barneys slowly became a retail dinosaur: over-priced and out-of-date. Once known for its cheeky originality and sass, the store slogged humorlessly on until it was finally put out of its misery in 2019. Even though I stopped shopping at Barneys years before it closed its doors for good, I did go the week before its last day of business to pay my respects. The store felt so familiar, and yet it was not the same. The physical shell of the store was still there, but its spirit had long gone.

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 nostalgia, which was actually the word for March. (Forgive me, dearest crew! I’ve been so overwhelmed this spring).

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