One Thousand Scents

Thursday, May 27, 2010

May Peut-Etre

In retrospect, having had a couple of days to recover from the trauma, I'm not quite so angry at Paris. Here are some other things that made the day a misery, most of which were not the city's fault:

1) I realize now that I was on the cusp of getting a cold, which has now two days later settled in with a vengeance. (It doesn't affect my sense of smell, though.) A cold while I'm on vacation: great.

2) It was allergy season, and I forgot to take my Reactine, aka cetirizine hydrochloride, which works beautifully where no other medication will, so I was sneezing and sniffling the whole day.

3) The pharmacist from whom I tried to buy some cetirizine hydrochloride either didn't know that loratadine and cetirizine hydrochloride are not the same thing, or thought that the one was as good as the other, but she kept trying to sell me loratadine, and I wasn't having any of it. Oh, and Reactine apparently isn't available in France without a prescription.

4) Look, I really hate to say this, but the fact is that Paris is dirty compared to other large cities I've been in. Way way back in 1981, when I was in Europe for the first time, I noticed that the London subway system, in which you must present your ticket at the end of your journey, was exceptionally clean, whereas the Paris subway system, in which your ticket is essentially garbage once you've gone through the gate, was a mess, with blizzards of spent tickets everywhere. I don't know if this speaks to some essential difference between the English and the French (people are kind of messy anywhere in the world, I think), but it was noticeable then, and it's noticeable now.

Anyway. Back to Serge Lutens.

I should have tried speaking French with the lovely Sandrine, because I can do basic shopping in that language and I can certainly talk about perfume, but the second she said "La Myrrhe", I knew I couldn't do it. I can't possibly get that first vowel exactly right the way she did and roll that doubled r so precisely.

Once I had made my choice of Fumerie Turque and Fourreau Noir, Sandrine went to a couple of cabinets and extracted the boxes, and then opened a drawer and began pulling out little square folders. These are the Petits Livres de Parfums, booklets that contain solid perfumes in the form of four little discs of soft wax. There are five of them. Sandrine took out one of each along with a card explaining what they were, wrapped the bundle in a rectangle of black tissue, sealed it with a tiny sticker, and tucked it into a white envelope which she also sealed. Then she began digging for samples for me, which proved to be a bit of challenge--either she kept naming things I already owned or had tried, or she didn't have the things I hadn't tried, for which she apologized profusely (and unnecessarily). I wound up with three; you would probably do better for yourself if you just took whatever was offered.

The whole visit was marvellous, even the sweet torture of narrowing down all my options to just one or two, and if you are ever in Paris, you absolutely must experience it for yourself, whatever damage it causes your bank account.

Then we started walking towards the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe on a course I had marked out, which of course was a colossal mistake, given the heat. We were both in increasingly bad moods, directed towards not one another (much) but the general situation in which we found ourselves--hot, miserable, and trapped until our train home at 9:13 p.m., which seemed infinitely far away.

It was more or less at the lowest point that we found ourselves at the edge of the Tuileries, which is stunningly wide and tree-lined and wonderfully cluttered with chairs in which the hot and weary traveller can sit and rest for a while, which is just what we did.

And then we opened the little boxes of macarons, which are not the stolid coconut-and-sugar paperweights we get in North America, but little pastel-hued almond biscuits sandwiched together with a flavoured filling. We had bought some at the Galeries Lafayette from a store called Jean-Paul Hevin, a chocolatier and, evidently, macaronnier.

When I opened the box and put my nose to it--because, of course, I put my nose to nearly everything, for better or worse--I was thrilled by what is easily one of the five best things I have ever smelled; rich yet delicate, a little bouquet of fruit and pastry and vanilla notes. If you could put it in a bottle you'd make a fortune.

The macarons themselves were everything I'd ever heard and more. The biscuits have a thin sugary crust which cracks apart like a dainty eggshell to reveal a tender, airy cake perfumed with almond. And the fillings! Fig-and-chocolate paste, like a date square the angels would bake. Ganache made with Earl Grey Tea. Grapefruit, for heaven's sake!

Do you want to know what they taste like? They taste like happiness. And for a little while, despite the heat and the smoke and the grunge, I was honestly happy.

Coming up: other, lesser macarons.

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