SCENT SEMANTICS 9: CORNUCOPIA

I, like many who share this strange passion, basically live in a perfume shop decorated by hoarders. Perfume boxes are stacked Jenga-like on any flat surface, including the floor. Drawers overflow with samples, decants, and other fragrance ephemera and effluvia. Efforts to stay organized fail when another bottle gets added to the collection — already too much perfume for any one person to ever use in a lifetime.

Just like I will eat almost anything, I will wear almost anything as long as it is “good” and done with “heart.” My collection is a reflection of that: a smorgasbord of scent. I’m regularly stymied by sales assistants who ask me, “What do you like?” as if I only have three bottles and they all smell the same. “Everything,” I usually sigh and then move on since a collection like mine is not always conceivable to an SA accustomed to helping someone who can keep all of their perfumes on one bathroom tray.

(Side note: if you keep your poor fragrances in the bathroom where temperatures and humidity vary wildly, we cannot be friends.)

When I think about a “cornucopia,” a horn of plenty overflowing with pumpkin spice and everything nice, comes to mind. It’s American Thanksgiving with its crazy riot of savory and sweet flavors. It’s Rabelaisian excess made in the USA. Gargantua with a cowboy hat, seated behind a table groaning with heaps of meat flavored with sugar, spices, honey, fruits, vinegar, and topped with industrial marshmallows.

That’s basically my collection in a nutshell (or a goat’s horn to follow the analogy).

The wild thing is (as if an overgrown collection like mine is not already wild), despite having so much choice, I often struggle to choose a fragrance to wear. Lately, I have noticed that I walk out the door without wearing anything besides clothes and shoes. Partly this is because I know that, living in New York, I will inevitably come across perfumes throughout my day to spray and test out, but mostly it’s because I’m overwhelmed.

Or at least I thought I was until I was separated from my collection.

I recently returned from Paris, where I spent three weeks teaching and one week vacationing. Leaving New York was hectic. First of all, final grades for all my spring classes needed to be calculated and submitted before departure (a herculean task at the end of every term, but this spring, faculty only had four days to grade hundreds of pages, watch hours of video presentations, and fill out rubric after rubric). Then there was a leak from the apartment above mine which showered all the clothes in my closet with waste water, leaving me with nothing to wear in Paris except for whatever was in the laundry hamper. I finished packing minutes before getting in a cab to go to the airport, realizing as I was locking up that I had not packed any perfume. As I had no time to sit and contemplate what to bring, I just ran back inside and grabbed the first thing on my desk: a sample of BDK Crème de Cuir.

It’s fine,” I thought to myself as I settled into my airline seat, mentally inventorying the contents of my checked luggage to figure out if I had forgotten anything else, “I’m heading to Paris. Surely I will pick up something!

Then it didn’t happen. From the minute we landed to the date of our departure, each day was supercharged. Mornings were spent doing cultural activities “on-site.” Afternoons were spent cramming a semester’s worth of material into three short weeks. Evenings were dedicated to planning the next day’s trip/lesson and grading. The first weekend I spent doing laundry and buying clothes since I didn’t have much with me to wear. The second weekend was spent booking tickets and making reservations. The third weekend, grading and preparing for the students’ departure. The number of perfume shops I made it to? One.

And my sample of Crème de Cuir? Busted sprayer. I managed to crush out a glorious dab of fragrance before giving up in frustration.

But that doesn’t mean that I was completely without perfume. At the end of our first week, I met up with Emmanuelle Varron, one of my Perfume Playdate partners-in-crime, in person for the first time. Glamorous angel that she is, she left me with a fine collection of samples and decants of fragrances that I had not smelled before. The cornucopia was back! Endless choice was literally at my fingertips once more.

And yet …

Again, I felt overwhelmed. My days were busy enough as it was without another “serious,” “complex” scent competing for my limited attention. I wanted to smell good, but I also wanted to not think about my fragrance too much. Part of me also felt that it was somewhat disrespectful to wear something considered to be a masterpiece, only to run to the dry cleaners before they closed. Although part of me felt like I should try something different every day because I could again, I ended up reaching for the same fragrance day after day until I drained it.

Parisian Musk by Matière Première is the antithesis of a cornucopia. Built around Peruvian ambrette seed, it’s a straightforward, classy, clean musk fragrance that is easy to like and easy to wear. It is unobtrusive and unobjectionable, but that doesn’t mean that it is boring. Ambrette seed’s musky facets are amplified by Ambrettolide Suprême, a relatively new synthetic musk that no longer relies on insects for its manufacture like regular old isoambrettolide does. The primary raw material’s woody facets are attenuated with Virginian Cedar, which helps to snap the fragrance into focus by adding a crisp elegance that wears like a freshly laundered and starched shirt. Ambroxan pulls these two poles together, giving a rounded depth to the composition and adding a slightly saline element reminiscent of salty skin. The final product is polished with the scent of unripe figs, as if you ran your fingers over their powdery bloom, releasing a scent that is twiggy, green, and somewhat milky.

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 catching up on several months of Scent Semantics words, so these posts are out of order. I do encourage you to go back and read everyone else’s takes on this previous months!

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

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).

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