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).

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.

SCENT SEMANTICS 1: BRAVE

Scent Semantics is a new 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 they’ve chosen that best represents it.

Semantics (from Ancient Greek: σημαντικός sēmantikós, “significant”)[a][1] is the study of meaning, reference, or truth. The term can be used to refer to subfields of several distinct disciplines, including philosophy, linguistics and computer science.”

This month, Portia has asked us to apply the word BRAVE to a single scent.

When I first saw this month’s word, my initial thought was that I have not felt particularly BRAVE for the past year and a half. 

If anything, I have felt the opposite of brave: I have felt SCARED.

Scared and anxious for my family, friends, colleagues, and students. Scared for the future in the face of a seemingly endless pandemic, extreme weather due to climate change, increasing misinformation, distrust of institutions and experts, and entrenched political polarization. Resigned to possibly never feeling truly relaxed on a plane, in a train, or in an automobile ever again. Saddened by the possibility that hugs will always be cautious and kisses on the cheek will continue to feel unsafe.

But the more I considered it, the more I realized that there have been BRAVE moments. Not big acts of bravery like saving a trapped child from a ravine (don’t ask me why that example came to my mind first), but a myriad of little ones. These micro-acts of bravery included going grocery shopping in those early days of the pandemic when the world was shut down, locked up, and under quarantine. Ordering in to support my favorite restaurants when we weren’t sure how the virus was spread and contactless delivery seemed frightening to both deliverer and deliveree. Shivering six-feet apart from a friend on a park bench before vaccines were widely available.

It’s funny to think of how different the world is now. 

I’m back on campus for the first time in 2.5 semesters. Is it still strange? Yes. Not only does every masked face remind me of that, but also every sweaty, reduced breath through my K-95 mask (especially during long lectures). To be honest, sometimes I have to duck into an empty classroom just so I can take my mask off for a few precious minutes and exhale.

In those moments, especially right after I peel my mask off my face, I can really perceive the fragrance that I am wearing. K-95 masks blessedly filter out virus particles, but they also filter and muffle scent molecules too. Not all, but enough that when I remove mine, it’s like smelling in full color again.

My BRAVE fragrance for this month is Ormonde Jayne’s Montabaco — which has been my go-to teaching scent of the Fall 2021 semester. Sometimes I think about Montabaco as not being my tobacco fragrance since the French language teacher in me considers Linda Pilkington to be the actual owner of the possessive adjective “mon.” That being said, I’ve come to think of the “tabaco” less like “my” version of tobacco, and more like MY protector: strong enough to wear like a suit of armor, but soft enough to soothe and comfort. Montabaco is also a study in contrasts: dark and light, shadow and shine. All of which encapsulates how I’m feeling right now: more hopeful but not completely at ease.

I can’t wait to read my new crew’s individual takes on BRAVE. Please visit their blogs and subscribe to support (links in menu and below).