Why I Love France

| May 17, 2011 | Comments (3)

Why do I love France? The simple answer: because it is so French.

 In 2011 with globalization swirling about us, I thought I would no longer be able to say that. But it is still very true. From the way French women drape their scarves – yards of  diaphanous textile  wrapped, hanging, flowing about their shoulders, arranged  to expose napes of neck and strands of hair that leave one raging with desire – to uniquely french concepts that dictate how the country is governed – “amenagement du territoire”  is untranslatable but sort of means “regional equalization” so that rich and poor pockets are brought more into balance, France remains a civilized island in an otherwise crude world.

But before I dive into Paris, let me back track to “Perfume-mania” where my trip really started.

Before my recent visit to France, a dear friend who also happens to be a great beauty and a long-time resident of Paris, asked me to bring her an American perfume  called CHARLIE that is no longer found in  shops. Since New York City has everything, I was not deterred by the rarity of the item I was commissioned to deliver and I eventually found tucked into  a side street in midtown Manhattan a shop called Perfume-mania, a kind of perfume museum that carried, out-dated scents no longer produced or even heard of.

There, I found to my amazement, bottles with slightly peeling labels called TABU, TABAC and WHITE SHOULDERS. And there were tester bottles from which  sprays could be sampled ! I soon found myself in clouds of cologne that brought back memories.

I spritzed a bit of TABU on my wrist and thought of my Mother. It was a perfume she favored when she went out in the evening back in the 1940s. Kind of  heavy, a definitely seductive odor, TABU had that “come and get me” scent that went perfectly with my Mother who wore arm-length evening gloves decorated with big-jewel rings on several fingers. Once from a distance at a party I saw – and smelled – her in a TABU moment holding  a martini glass in her gloved hand. Before  she took a sip of her cocktail, she looked at the bevy of men surrounding her and said something outrageous like “Bottoms up ! ” or “Here’s mud in your eye ! ” How could I have known at that very moment, how unhappy and sad she was, being beautiful and outrageous in a desperate attempt to get my Father’s wandering attention. Even the power of a cloud of come-hither cologne proved  futile in her attempt to draw from a diminished bag of  once  mesmerizing tricks.

When I saw the bottle of TABAC on the shelf my heart stopped. It was the same white flask I had been given 45 years ago in Saigon, Vietnam by the woman who was to become my fiance but never my wife. Lots of water under the bridge since then. Somehow the odor was less pungent, less intense, but 45 years is a long time and my olfactory senses are not what they were when I was 26 ! Like my love for Sophie, TABAC was sweet but faded.

Sitting like a saucey minx on the shelf next  to TABAC was WHITE SHOULDERS. It was worn by a 15 year-old redhead named Jackie who was my big crush when I was a high school sophomore. The smell of WHITE SHOULDERS  was soft, pale, yielding flesh. In the days when premarital sex was seldom consumated, it was the  fragrance that  led teenaged boys to frequent self-abuse.

My perfumed journey came to an end when I encountered CHARLIE at the end of the ” has been” shelf. The clerk behind the counter helpfully extended an open bottle of coffee beans in my direction saying a sniff would clear my nose and allow it new life to breath another series of “eau – de – whatever.” She added that after exposure to four different perfumes, overload set in dis-allowing the human snout from distinguishing what was being smelled. Sort of like mixing many colors on a palette and getting a tone that resembled khaki mud.

I took a deep whiff of the coffee beans before approaching CHARLIE.  The caffeine clearance was indeed effective. It allowed me to experience a scent I had never liked even when I first smelled it on my beautiful friend 40 years earlier. That renewed revulsion gave me the perverse pleasure of feeling young again. I bought it, raced home, packed my bag and flew off to Paris.

My first days in the City of Light were given over to nostalgia. I walked the quais of Ile Saint Louis and Ile de la Cite, I roamed the Latin Quarter and ended up, as always, at Shakespeare and Company, that idiosyncratic bookshop started by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, the home-away-from- home of Hemingway, Joyce and other members of the Lost Generation. Climbing the rickety stairs to the store’s top floor, I found a young Chinese at the ancient upright piano, almost buried in piles of dusty, old  books, banging out a Mozart sonata.  Notre Dame loomed through the woozy glass of the  old garret  window, a  purple blur at twilight.

Later I wandered back to my favorite restaurant, La Brasserie de l’Ile near the passerelle where Saint Louis meets Ile de la Cite. I remembered  Bastille Day,14 July 1964, in the tiny park crowded with chestnut trees where I danced till dawn with a band of french friends who put me, staggering, on a plane to New York. What would my life have been like  if I had stayed in France and not gone back to the States? The road not taken always beckons and leaves one breathless and wondering.

Inside the Brasserie which was almost deserted,   I ordered my usual choucroute plate and sipped a reisling, remembering wintry evenings when it was cozy and warm and the windows were frosted and the air was thick with Gaulois smoke and James Jones was sitting in the far corner of the restaurant, un-noticed, scribbling away in his notebook.

Alas, the choucroute was greasy and the “facilities” were……I no longer had the leg muscles needed to use a traditional french squat toilette, so leaving my plate half-eaten, I waddled, uncomfortably full and un-relieved, out of  what had once been my favorite restaurant. Things change…or do WE change?

My gift of Charlie was not well-received by my old friend. She said something about the weather or her skin, I can’t remember exactly what, but that the perfume  no longer smelled the same to her and didn’t suit her, and that I shouldn’t have bothered bringing it.

Not believing her, I opened the bottle and sprayed some of the scent on my wrist. I sniffed and smelled nothing. I sprayed again and still could hardly experience any odor.

Was the Charlie old or was it me who had aged?

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Comments (3)

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  1. Gary Presley says:

    What? No Chanel No. 5? That was my mother’s favorite.

  2. Tuesday Rose says:

    France has never really been my cup of tea, but French perfumes have. Your article reminds me of my fascination for Chanel#5 in my late 20s. For me, the perfume was truly special because of its perfect blend of sophistication and femininity. However, with new fragrances popping up like mushrooms, I abandoned Chanel and went after unique and popular brands. Just imagine to my surprise when, among my unwrapped gifts, I recently discovered Chanel Five’s updated version called ‘Sensual Elixir’ and tried it on. Never did I realize that such vintage ‘parfum’ (debuted in 1921) could be transformed into a mesmerizing sensation. A redolence of this wonderful perfume brought back many nostalgic memories of my happiest last for years in the land of pagodas which I left for good thirty years ago. Je n’abandonnerai jamais le numero cinq!

    Tuesday Rose

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