I have always been a seeker of the perfect scent. Problem is, I have a negative sensitivity to smells; some perfumes even give me an instant, splitting migraine. And I’m quite talented at spotting a smell a mile away, and oftentimes even identifying it correctly.
One year, I had gone to Nantucket with a boyfriend, and found The Perfume Bar. It’s a tiny little shop, lined floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall with essential oils in sniffable sample bottles. You could either pull something off the wall that appeals to you, or allow the owner-expert to smell your arm (I kid you not) and determine which scents were likely to work on your skin chemistry.
After sniffing, I swear, everything on the wall (around 100 bottles, from Amaryllis to Zinnia oil), I assented to being sniffed myself, and the owner went straight for the sample of Sunflower oil. Funny, I had gravitated toward that one. When I tried to alter the simple choice with a mixer – I was partial to bergamot or musk then – the owner assured me that simply sunflower was perfect for me. At $45 per quarter ounce, I was happy with the choice after all. It served me for years, and I finally gave away my sunflower essence when it no longer smelled right on me. I had happily gotten my money’s worth to be accurately self-expressed by a scent.
The day I went into Penhaligon’s in George Street, Edinburgh, after circling for days like a seagull, I was interested in something simple with grassy tones, like the French soap I had bought in Amsterdam named, “Marine”. Ah, Penhaligon’s…it was one of those places that wished to be the utmost discerning. I would not argue with that. How shiny was the cabinetry? How glistening the bottles? How lush the carpet? High gloss mahogany, dark as a tobacco stains, floor to ceiling. Clear bottles glistening like underwater diamonds in a shallow tropical lagoon. Carpet? Why, deep burgundy of course! And of such height of pile, I could have lost my barefoot toes, if it had been appropriate to whip my shoes off right then and there.
Now that I was no longer pregnant, I could breathe normal interiors and not be offended by the mere waft of second hand smoke on a jacket on the far corner coat rack. So I thought I might be up for making friends with a perfume shop again.
I was entirely wrong. The two youthful shopkeepers barely tolerated my questions, and, I could see, judged me for rejecting any scent, no matter how justified my sinuses. Yet, the young man of the pair was quite handsome, and so I sniffed around until I felt ill with the ubiquitous overtones of my three deal-breakers (rose, lavender and gardenia, all headache-inducers). These were alcohol-based perfumes based on essential oil, but not purely essential oils like the Perfume Bar. So the scents not only flitted around asserting background fictions of impossible gardening, but jettisoned into the nostrils aggressively.
In the world of luxury goods, alcohol heavy perfumes are whores by design. They travel at the speed of air particles to aggressively seduce your nose. They are supposed to please, and to conform to the proclivities of the individual who wears them. Yet, in a bit of a paradox I found that Penhaligon’s lived up to its true marketing sector: a conservative business geared to the conservative rich (or neauveau-riche) landowners, the kind who donns the confectionary garden-party hat or striped cravat for more than my month’s flat rental. The kind who does not stand for long close to others, and so no one minds a dollop of gardenia too much. Penhaligon’s may have been a high price escort to the rich and famous. But it sure put on a good show.
I am perhaps alone in my opinion of perfume. I’ve always felt a little snobbish about my taste in luxury goods. I scoff at the prices, knowing how inflated they invariably are, but I absolutely agree with quality make. Bespoke tailoring. French seams. Hand-blown glass. Hand painted dinnerware. Nothing fussy, though–I scoff at fussy. I picture myself as a Danish prince and a houseproud French maid all in one.
But where did I ever get the nerve to judge items, when I’ve never been someone who could afford them? Good taste isn’t exclusively for the rich, but somehow it seems out of spin for me to be as judgmental as I am, given that I grew up in the country, recycling aluminum foil. I could be happier by being more content with what I can afford. I’ve never had to live on dirt floors after all, so there should be some tier of manufacture that would satisfy my basic instincts and convey an attainable type of luxury.
Well. That’s as it may be in the interior of my apartments, but out in the shops and streets, I am a Grande Duchesse of style.
Until I walk into the seafaring store on Frederick Street. The boutique with the blue and white striped nautical shirts, beach bags, rope sandals, Jackie O sunglasses, and the monogrammed double-thick towels. The one where you prepare for your yacht cruise to Monaco. They know I am not buying, and no matter how I assert to myself and the shopkeeper that I have the good taste required, we are, neither of us, going to believe I have the dough. Not by looking at me. My sweater is ten years old. My amazing Amsterdam dress is still “affordable” (the great demeaning word of the upper price shopkeepers of the western world). The whole shop carries a sneer, until I leave it. Yet, I still believe one day I shall be able to easily live with any and all of these items in my actual house.
For now I tell myself it’s not practical to buy and haul these goods around the planet until I have that home in Normandy, where they–and I–belong. This is the fantasy I use to set a “you don’t know what money I have” defensive expression on my face. Seriously! This beautiful, brunette lady, only slightly older than I, could care less what I personally believe and feel. Only that I not steal a bottle of sea foam lotion as I browse with my pleather computer bag over one shoulder. Or that I don’t knock anything over, poor cow. “She,” I tell myself, “may be wearing the only quality cardigan and pencil skirt set she owns, and banks on the surety that no one will ever witness her wear it two days in a row.” I tell myself.
There were many such days as this in Edinburgh. It was suggested to me once that I spend more time in Glasgow, where the posh is more understated, and actual working people are living for actual livable integrity. Glasgow hasn’t been so spoiled by being the capital of moneyed Scotland for centuries. But Glasgow was Chicago, and I already lived there. Chicago’s nickname is the “Second City.” But I liked flirting finally with a “First City,” even if I couldn’t afford to buy her dinner and a hat. Despite the snooty shopkeepers, I liked pretending I was discerning and not disadvantaged. Maybe I and Penhaligon’s have more in common than at first sniff.