The three most memorable aspects of my meeting with Denyse were firstly her silver sunglasses, a perfect match for her now luxuriantly long ('fifty shades of grey') hair. Then there was the surprise fact that she is acquainted with the widow of Alain Robbe-Grillet, an avant-garde French author I studied at university, and thirdly - and most tantalisingly - she had just come back from a press junket the day before, held in a marquee on a rocky promontory in the wilds of Brittany. The company's in-house perfumer had regaled them with nuggets about his portfolio of materials, while the assembled guests enjoyed a delicious lunch against an idyllic backdrop of waves lapping the shore and glinting in the sunlight. Her evocative description of the scene made me want to visit the area again, and retest all those Breton coast-inspired scents such as Miller Harris Fleurs de Sel and the Lostmarc'h range. It also brought back happy memories of childhood bucket and spade holidays in other parts of The Celtic Fringe such as Cornwall and SW Ireland...
After our chat, Denyse was off to visit the Guerlain factory on one of their rare opening days, while I dived on the Metro and made my way to the apartment Undina (of Undina's Looking Glass) and her vSO had booked for their stay, which had been cut short by a day owing to the air traffic controllers' strike. We had agreed that I would meet them there, to help out with any translation issues during the handover with their landlady.
A near-miss transaction with a possible impostor
Unfortunately, Undina and her vSO were held up in traffic on the way down from the airport in a taxi - I say unfortunately, not because I was in any hurry myself, but because it was clear that the landlady was keen to get the payment for the apartment and shoot off. Reading between the lines and observing the elaborate care with which she made up her face right there in front of me, I think she had a hot date to go to, which could explain some of her agitation. I figured that realistically The Undinas could be another half an hour or so, so I tried to stall the landlady by asking her to show me where everything was kept and how every last appliance worked in great detail - TV, washing machine, dishwasher, several coffee machines of varying degrees of sophistication. 'Be most particular about pre-piercing the little plastic container of coffee before insertion.'
|Bears a passing resemblance to the designated piercing utensil for the coffee dose thingy|
We also discussed bin and cleaning routines and the fact that the enticing terrace was sadly not weight-bearing; we pored over maps of the local area, and the landlady indicated the best restaurants, the nearest pharmacy, bank and the best bus stops for the most scenic rides. A good five minutes were killed leafing through the visitors' book together and reading past guest comments. I volunteered to translate a few of the English ones to gain a bit more time. Ever the market researcher, I quizzed the lady about the relative breakdown of her client base, the average numbers of guests per rental and seasonal patterns. She told me about one single woman who came for a month at a time, and a party of five Italians for whom she rustled up an additional roll-out bed. Then I told her about my hotel, and we discussed the prevailing room rates in that part of Paris versus the rental sector.
|Source: Wikimedia Commons via Jebulon|
Readers, I did my level best to stall this lady, but it looked like it wasn't going to be for long enough, for after about twenty minutes or so she abruptly interjected: 'Look, I really must be away by 2pm latest, and I need my money. Have you got the money, or can you go to a cash point and give it me if they don't show up in time, and have them pay you back later?' So I thought for a moment: 'Was I be prepared to hand over a substantial sum of money in cash to a lady I don't know on behalf of two friends I have never met?' And the answer was: 'Of course I would!', but as things worked out, the Undinas' taxi drew up just in the nick of time, the lady got paid, scarpered, and all was well.
Well, we assumed all was well, though Undina's vSO sowed a seed of doubt after the landlady's departure. 'Hold on, didn't she tell you on the phone that she was about 60? That woman was never 60! She looked a lot younger.' 'Do you suppose she might have had work done?' I inquired helpfully. Undina's vSO puzzled over this for a moment and replied, with a wry grin: 'I am still not convinced she is the right woman. D'you realise we may just have gone and paid a big wedge of money to an impostor?'
Lunch - tasty, if somewhat lost in translation
Ever the optimists, we dismissed this thought from our minds and Undina and her vSO set about freshening themselves up and Undina also did a spot of ironing, which in hindsight was another topic I could have used to delay the landlady's departure. 'Where is the ironing board kept? Is it a steam iron? Any special water you have to use with that? Would you mind talking me through the settings? Is there an instruction book with it perhaps? And do you have a little tea cloth type-thing for delicate garments?'
Undina and her vSO were understandably hungry from their journey, so our first port of call was a bistro on the nearby square. Here, on my advice, Undina's vSO ordered 'cassolette', which I had momentarily confused with 'cassoulet', a hearty stew featuring meat and haricot beans. Undina's vSO quickly detected the complete absence of either, but got sportingly stuck into what turned out to be a mega-cheesy potato gratin dish.
One day, two closed perfume shops and three pairs of shoes
Fortified by our meal, the three of us spent the next few hours walking around the city, loosely following an itinerary I had devised earlier. The first stop was L'Arc de Triomphe, cunningly chosen for its iconic tourist value and proximity to the Guerlain HQ at No 68, Champs Elysées. Imagine our dismay to find that Guerlain happened to be closed that day, a Friday! Perhaps all the staff had gone to the factory with Denyse? Seems as plausible a theory as any, but what utter and undivided cheek! Our disappointment was only slightly assuaged by the sight of a spectacular bee bottle hoarding just to the left of the main entrance.
|Pictures of bottles are no substitute for the real thing|
By the time we had legged it to the Place de la Concorde my feet were killing me, and I gladly succumbed to my second pair of shoes, carried with me for just such an emergency. These flat leather pumps were a little tight to be honest, but they pinched in different places at least compared to the high heels they had replaced. And in footwear as in life, a change is as good as a rest.
We strolled along the linden-lined rue de Rivoli, talking about the lindens in Undina's native Ukraine, dived up to the Place de Vendôme and then back down to the niche mecca that is Jovoy in the rue de Castiglione, mindful that they shut at 7pm. I guess we must have had about half an hour browsing in there - by a happy chance there was a selection of seating for non-perfumista spouses, but Undina's vSO ended up engaging in a bit of sampling himself, all-round good egg that he was. Undina and I worked our way round most of the store in a systematic fashion, with my comrade-at-nose occasionally having to bring me to heel as my natural instinct was to drift off and start exploring things that caught my eye anywhere in the store, much like an overexcited magpie.
I can't tell you exactly what we sniffed but I did retain some favourite blotters, chief amongst which were Ramon Monegal's Ambra di Luna (the highlight of the whole trip, no less - review by The Non-Blonde here), along with two to which Undina drew my attention, namely Xerjoff Fatal Charme and Kind of Blue from their 'Join The Club' range. There are no available notes for either of those, but they are powdery orientals at a guess? Undina may be able to help us out here. Then I do remember being pleasantly surprised by The Vagabond Prince's Enchanted Forest, despite my difficult relationship with blackcurrant. Aedes de Venustas on the other hand proved to be too tart, despite my easy relationship with rhubarb.
So we hopped on a tube to St Paul, and I showed my companions the Marais district they nearly stayed in, including the elegant colonnades of the Place des Vosges. We shared a bottle of wine at a pavement cafe by the statue of the Bastille (thanks, guys!), before heading back to our respective bases for the briefest of pitstops before dinner (and in my case, a change into pair of shoes No 3).
It was late by this time, but the restaurant I had lined up didn't bat an eyelid when I made a booking for 10.15pm. We rolled out of there at about midnight, armed with a dessert doggy bag, which we shared over a cup of tea at the Undinas' apartment. Finally, it was time to say our goodbyes, which speaking for myself was quite a wrench. For despite only having known Undina and her vSO in person for about 12 hours give or take, I had already developed a fierce affection for the pair of them, and very much hope our paths will cross again. I'll have the cash ready this time, just in case...;-)
And what of Rusty? Well, apparently he had a live-in carer while his owners were away, as befits a puss with America's Top Feline Model status. I imagine he might have enjoyed Paris too - there are a lot of sewer rats and any amount of cafes for practising his poses.
Check out Undina's account of her Paris stopover, including a cute shot of Rusty inspecting her holiday perfume bottle!
PS The results of the 'Bonkers at 3.6' prize draw will be coming up next!