Sunday, 10 September 2017

MoOD Indigo at Tour et Taxis, Brussels - aka the 'No Toiletries Tour' (though not by design!)

I have just come back from a whirlwind week in Brussels, helping a local designer friend (whom I shall call 'M' for now) to man - or 'wo-man', should that be? - her stand at the well-known trade fair for surface pattern designs called Indigo. It is held in a magnificent former warehouse by the canal in the heart of Brussels, sharing the space with another (strangely semi-capitalised) exhibition called MoOD, which showcases suppliers of upholstery fabrics, window textiles and wall coverings. It was nothing like my normal work (more on that anon), and as with the band tours could best be summed up as 'gruelling fun', as well as being a fascinating insight into an industry of which I was only dimly aware. For designers are the silent, largely unacknowledged creatives behind the patterns on our wallpapers, bedding and cushion covers, shower curtains and tableware, and much more besides. In the UK, my friend's designs have ended up on products sold by Harrods, IKEA, and numerous other household names. She has customers in every continent though, so there is just an outside chance that wherever you are reading this, you may have one of her patterns on an item in your home without knowing... ;)

Tour et Taxis, Brussels

Oh, and I haven't forgotten Part 3 of my Civette & Unicorn post(!), but I wanted to write about the Belgian trip while it is fresh in my mind, plus I haven't had a chance to properly reacquaint myself with the perfumes from their range. It will be up soon though.

The venue gave good girder!

The No Toiletries shocker

So back to the trip. My first role was as driver - of my friend's car - which I had given a little test spin a few days earlier, so it wouldn't be too alien at 5.45am last Monday morning. Though the time certainly was. I am not a morning person at the best of times, and stupid o'clock starts agree with me even less. Not least because they bring out the stupid in me. Sure enough, fifteen minutes into the journey I realised I had forgotten - not just a single item like some hair product or other (see this example of one of my regular dishevelling putty crises), but ALL my toiletries. As in ALL. A whole bulging bag full. This is an omission that reaches new heights of egregiousness, and is all the more surprising considering that I call myself a seasoned traveller. I immediately knew how the mistake had come about: I had put everything to be packed on the bed...except the sponge bag, which I set down on the chest of drawers, such that it totally escaped the insufficiently broad scope of my 'idiot check' on leaving the house. Luckily I had remembered to pack my medication and some make up, but the wash bag also included my foundation, which is, after all, 'fundamental'.

I'd specially bought more travel pots!

And there's me thinking I was so prepared. I had packed a fire extinguisher and Hi-Viz jacket, mustered the Werthers Originals and not one but two Thermos flasks, as well as paying the Dart Charge online in advance, following a lucky tip off that they had removed the toll booths since I was last down that way.

There was no time to go back, so I had the four and a half hour journey to Dover to come to terms psychologically with my loss, and to plan out a capsule set of toiletries to be purchased in Brussels whenever I got the chance. My friend kindly offered to share whatever she could, so I was able to cadge 'all hair types' shampoo off her, say, but her CC cream was sadly too dark. Ironically, M had forgotten her own toothbrush, and I had looked out a new spare one for her from my stocks before we set off. Well, it would have been most churlish of me to have taken it back again(!), even unused, so on the list it went.

The robdog phone charge that wasn't

The next incident on the journey out was a text from Vodafone, warning me that I had already incurred an £18 charge while on the ferry to Dunkirk. I assumed it was for ringing my elderly friend for all of one minute, but the charge turned out to be not so much for the call as my 'passive' / background usage of data (3MB @ £6 per 1MB!) just by having my phone on in the first place. For I was in the 'Maritime Zone', with its eye-watering associated costs - and not, as I naively assumed, in either England or France, where roaming charges have been abolished.

On my return to the UK I complained to Vodafone, and got talking to a nice man in Egypt, who agreed that the charge was disproportionate. The call handler offered to knock off £15 as a gesture of goodwill, before adding that the refund hadn't in fact been sanctioned by the so-called 'Leakage Team', who oversee the amount and frequency of waived charges to customers. If he can't persuade them otherwise, he could get the sack. 'I don't care if they fire me over this', he said, 'as it is a matter of principle'. And on that note, he wished me a nice evening and ended his shift.

Source: Wikimedia Commons (by Raimond Spekking)

My staple gun initiation

We arrived in Brussels at about 5pm, and immediately set about unloading all the big design folders (industrial-style trolleys were involved!), and customising the stand. The basic frame was in place, but it was up to us to decorate the walls and organise the tables and chairs, lay out table cloths etc, which had the dual function of making the stand look more homely, while providing a large cubbyhole underneath for stashing stationery, coats and other belongings. My friend had created some trompe l'oeil wall paper hangings featuring a selection of her designs from different collections, and in no time I was standing on the tables being shown how to use a staple gun. (At the end of the show, there was a similar induction into removing staples using any sturdy yet pointy object that comes to hand - in the event, my penknife.) I can't speak for myself, but between the staple removal and all manner of impromptu food-related usages, my penknife definitely earnt its keep over the course of the week.

'If it's Monday - or any day this week - it must be Belgium.'

Our rum Airbnb

The next task was to find and check into our Airbnb, which I had picked out and recommended to M, and for which I take full responsibility... For starters, I wasn't unduly put off by the strict house rules - PLEASE THREAT EVERYTHING WITH RESPECT' - or the fact that it looked a tad blokey (lots of black faux leather and bedding). And in its favour the flat claimed to sleep five people, so I figured that the two of us would be rattling around the place like peas in a tin. Well, what can I say? The five people would have to know one another very, very well, and be most economical with their personal space. There was a double bed and a sofa bed, which might just about have slept two in supremely confined discomfort. Then M suddenly spied the camp bed for Person 5, whose sizeable footprint made it a non-starter for deployment on the floor, but whose separate camping mattress - when used as a 'topper' - instantly transformed the brutal and unyielding squares that passed for sofa cushions, and I was perfectly comfy all week on that cunning combination.

What else? There was no bathroom door. Or rather there was, but it was not attached to anything, such that when my friend went to slide it across, it promptly fell on top of her. Then the toilet cistern took about 20 minutes to fill up - it was off the living room, just beyond my feet when I was lying on the sofa, while the kitchenette was just beyond my head. Both in their different ways were jolly handy for what I could perhaps loosely term 'water in the night'.

Every evening we heard loud music emanating from another flat - or probably several, unless the occupants in question had very catholic taste. And the communal hall smelt of drains. Then there was no bath mat or tea towels (the bloke thing again), BUT the water was nice and hot, the price was right, there was complimentary frozen milk in the somewhat temperamental fridge - and the welcome and most unexpected touch of an iron - and ironing board! How many times have I been abroad and attempted to iron on the floor, on a towel - or even on my own knee. (Please don't try this, though it did at least greatly expand my German vocabulary for burn creams.) Moreover, M and I have both travelled enough to take the vicissitudes of accommodation completely in our stride, and were able to appreciate the funny side. And in my own case, the bonus blog fodder side...;)

The slow, cumulative toiletry hunt

After settling in, M and I sallied forth in search of food and late night toiletry vendors, but everywhere was already closed in our part of town. So that night I pinched some floss from my friend, smeared my teeth with a bit of her toothpaste to give myself the illusion of that freshly brushed feeling(!), splashed my face with water, and borrowed a blob of her day moisturiser to use as night cream (it was sufficiently rich to have crossover potential). But as you can imagine, I was still hankering after some products of my own, so the next morning on the way to the show we kept our eyes peeled for a drugstore, or a supermarket with a 'personal care' section. Thus it was that by the end of the day I had managed to score a pack of three toothbrushes (safety in numbers!), some more toothpaste for us both, and antiperspirant. By Day 3 I had added a Nivea day cream that seemed fairly close to my own, and by Day 4 I had gone back and swapped it for the actual one I use that I know doesn't provoke my eczema. (I carried on using M's meanwhile.) This was also the day that I finally tracked down something benign and tried and tested to remove makeup, namely sweet almond oil. While on Day 5 I finally identified a budget dupe of my Clarins Skin Illusion foundation, but as this was the end of the week it hardly seemed worth buying a bottle at 15 euros. Instead I pinched a bit from the tester in the shop and whacked it on my chin, the zone of most concern. (It was quite a week for pinching things, as you can see!)

Survival kit - five items by Friday!

My toiletry 'cold turkey takeaway'

Now I realise I have juxtaposed the word 'turkey' with 'takeaway' - in the sense of 'learning point' rather than anything to do with fast food, so I hope it doesn't cause confusion. Yes, I have to say that although I was appalled and dismayed to discover the absence of my toiletries - which included the following items, over and above what I was able to buy on the fly or cadge off M: eye cream, night cream, serum, an extra type of day cream and a tinted moisturiser, hydrocortisone cream for flare ups, Te-Pe floss sticks, antiperspirant, razors, contact lenses, painkillers, bandage, scissors, tweezers, 4Head headache remedy, soap and foundation - the minimalist approach I was forced to adopt in a week when I had more face-to-face contact with industry people than I do in a typical year taught me a valuable life lesson: people will accept you with a blotchy chin and slightly straggly eyebrows, that's if they even notice. For as my mother used to say, meaning it in the best possible way: 'Who's looking at you?' Wise words indeed.

My forgotten stash!

Sure, I had some makeup I could use, but in the end I applied it very sparingly, since for most of the week I did not have the wherewithal to take it off. I have now had the results of my allergy tests you see (a post on that may well follow at some point), and the vast majority of cleansing products in the stores to which I had access had this particular ingredient in them, which I now know I must avoid. So I ended up going pretty barefaced, as well as caring for my skin in the most rudimentary fashion!

And yet I had a great time, sold some designs, and nobody squealed at the sight of me or ran away in horror. In truth, over the past year, since my bad 'do' with eyelid contact dermatitis, I have been wearing a lot less makeup as a rule, but then I am at home most of the time, and work mainly on the phone when I work at all. By contrast this trip involved contact with people all day it was still an emotional challenge on top of the mental one of the new, unfamiliar work.

The design folders spend their week against a wall

The job proper: 'showing', 'pulling', and selling

So on to the job proper, in case anyone is curious. This exhibition attracts people from all walks of the industry, but principally the all-important buyers at manufacturers of wall coverings and home textiles ('converters' as they are known in the trade), who may spend several days on the trot shopping for new designs for their companies' product ranges. They could often be identified by the drawstring bags slung over one shoulder, in which they would put their pattern roll purchases. Now there were 87 other studios exhibiting(!), so the first part of the job entailed attracting would-be customers to your stand - no easy task, given the option anxiety inherent in such events. Certain buyers were very focused and business-like, and made a beeline for the studios on their hit list, which is great if you are on it, and which you can't do much about if you are not. But most people - including some of those with a hit list - were open to spontaneous cruising of stands, pausing when a design on display caught their eye, or when you got their attention some other way... M had amused me with her explanation that she doesn't do a 'hard sell', but rather a 'hard welcome', the precise execution of which is really down to your own personal MO, and will also inevitably vary by customer.

I'd say my finest example of  a 'hard - and cheeky! - welcome' was attracting a French buyer of wallpaper (who happened to look at me as he was passing the stand), with a broad smile and the opening line: 'Do you still have room in your bag?' ;) He ended up buying a leaf design, despite the fact that I wrongly - and repeatedly - referred to the motif as 'lupins'.

Having got the buyer to approach your stand, the next task is to invite them to a presentation of whichever collections best match their brief or general interests. This is known as 'showing', for reasons you may readily infer, but there is more of a knack to it than might appear. For you have to transfer each design in a collection (which are placed upside down to facilitate the buyer's view) from right to left - not too fast, and not too slow. There should be no fat finger fails as you prise up the corners, and an elegant arm action is preferred. If the client likes a particular design, they will ask you to 'pull' it, which basically means setting it to one side for later consideration.

As a complete newbie, I was obviously not able to talk the talk in technical terms as someone with a design background could - I have yet to discover what a half drop is, for example, and am still shaky on 'repeats' and different types of digital file. But I can now tell my geo 3Ds from my trailing florals, and my novelty tropicals (with or without monkeys, though to be fair they are easy to spot) from my metal or marble effects. A good memory is essential, as much of the job rides on being able to quickly put your hand on any design that could be a match for what the buyer is looking for. Though even I failed to find 'turnable artichokes', or indeed artichokes of any description.

The stand by night!

When you have shown people as much as you think could possibly appeal, you spread the pulled designs out on the table and wait for them to hopefully pick one or more to buy! In this game it isn't a case of 'selling' in the sense of persuading someone to like something, as you might with a perfume - you know, flattering the customer and saying how much a particular scent suited them. Such glib techniques wouldn't wash at all with design professionals. For these buyers have a particular idea in mind, and are merely waiting until they see it.  As I mentioned, the trick lies in identifying - and physically finding - the very thing they are after. And that, in a nutshell, was the job. Well, there were also some clerical aspects to it, plus tea making and launching regular speculative forays on the free pastry stand. Though as with the fair as a whole - the keenest buyers came even before it was open!! - it was very much the case of the early (or adjacent) bird catching the worm.

Time to go home...

Then before I knew it, it was the end of the last day. We had to undecorate the stand, which felt as sad as taking the Christmas tree down, and load the car. On the advice of a local, we made a sharp exit to avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic, and drove straight back to Stafford that night. I kept myself awake with Werthers Originals and a fair bit of cheek pinching after Warwick (I told you there was a lot of pinching!), and - to Truffle's great surprise - we made it back to my house by 2am.

As I unpacked, I realised that I still seemed to have a number of Mary's belongings: a denim jacket, a bar of Fry's Chocolate Cream, a rubber, a Road Atlas of the UK, and - most intriguingly - a red onion.

Taking stock

In summary, the week at Indigo was an adventure and a half. I acquired new skills, made friends amongst the other exhibitors, got to know Mary better, and just as importantly, learnt that I could be endlessly people-facing without the physical and moral support of my usual armoury of skincare products.  And that it would be okay - on the stand, at the after show party, anywhere. This was a revelation to me, no question.

And since arriving home, I have already been invited to join the stand team at the much larger exhibition in Frankfurt next January, where I would be one of two, or even three helpers. I had better get googling 'half drop', then...;)

A strangely fitting display spotted at the after show party

PS In case anyone is interested to know what perfumes we wore on the stand, M was in Jo Malone Orange Blossom the whole week, while in my shocked state I forgot to put any on the first day(!), then wore Mona di Orio Tubereuse (Holland being only up the road) twice, and a scent from the Civette & Unicorn range (still to be revealed!) on another day. At least I didn't forget to bring perfume with me - that would be as sorry as it would be a worrying day.

(By the end of the week, even the Brussels metro was getting in the zone with this design from its Geo Linear collection.)

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Another Post Office, another perfume bottle, and a Truffle turf wars update

'You've got work again, you say?' is nearly two weeks since I posted. This is due to a last minute trip to Ireland on family business, swiftly followed by a rush work project, of which I am still in the throes. A work project?!! I know, it's been a while. Luckily, as with riding a bike, I don't appear to have forgotten how to work. And it feels good to be earning again at last, even for a week or so. And meanwhile there is still the outstanding Part 3 of my Civette & Unicorn post to come, but I have only just caught up with all the samples I was interested to try again - for L was bringing a couple home from France with her in the car. So the upshot of my retesting may have to wait till after I go to Belgium next week(!). Also work of a kind, though nothing I have done before...

So by way of an amuse-gueule, so to speak, I have a couple of updates: one about my latest experience of posting a perfume bottle, and the other about the status in Truffle's turf wars with her nemesis, Tootsie.

Yes, I posted a single bottle of an Yves Rocher scent to a friend in Belfast. It was donated to me by a vegan friend who couldn't use it, and is now on its way to someone whose bottle of this very scent is about to run out! Inside the package it was in its original box (tick!), almost full, as I had only test sprayed it a couple of times (not quite tick!), but crucially not sealed in a cellophane outer wrapper. I did wonder about investing in one of those cellophane wrapping machines to give my used bottles a semblance of newness - I see Marden Edwards do one, for example - though there is a conspicuous lack of price information on the website, which doesn't bode well.

So with fingers firmly crossed, I took the bottle to the main post office in town, a branch I associate with officious and draconian lines of questioning about parcels. However, unlike the local post office I eventually sent my eBay sale bottle from, I knew they would have the all-important hazardous goods label I needed. So I went up to the counter with an assured gait and determined set of the chin (or such was my hope), and announced: 'I've got a parcel to go second class please. And it will need an ID8000 label as it is a bottle of perfume.'

Source: Amazon

What is significant about this statement, apart from the fact that I used the technical name for the label, demonstrating to the counter clerk a certain degree of 'insider' knowledge about postal regulations, was that my tone was very much like that of Richard E Grant in Withnail and I, when he demands:

"We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here and we want them now!"

And it certainly did the trick. The normally quizzing clerk merely asked the value of the bottle and whether I wanted to send it recorded. Result!

Source: Amazon


Then Truffle...well, I may have mentioned that owing to Tootsie's ongoing aggressive incursions, and associated malodorous vandalism, I bit the bullet and bought one of those whizzy electronic cat flaps that only recognise the microchip of a designated ie resident cat.

It took a few weeks before the joiner who did my bathroom - and who is a bit of a general handyman on the side - was free to come and fit it, and it has taken me a few more to train Truffle in its use! She was very wary initially of the whole construction - it probably had a completely alien new plastic smell. She would sit looking through it with an appalled expression on her face as if to say: 'I didn't ask for a new door - what is this contraption that has suddenly appeared?'

It took several days before I could coax her to go through it, when holding the flap fully aloft (having first disabled the electronic function as being much too 'advanced' for now). Then I caved in further and held the flap permanently open with a piece of string tied to the door handle, and Truffle got used to using it as an open thoroughfare, and impregnating it with her scent till it became familiar. Unfortunately, it was even more of an invitation to Tootsie during this phase, and as a result we had quite a few spraying incidents in the corridor leading to the back door.

I decided it was time to take Truffle's training to the next level...I lowered the flap, so it looked shut, but was in fact open both ways like the old one - and still in manual, deactivated mode. Only this flap was more solidly shut, with a brush fringe at the bottom making a perfect seal. The old one was light and flimsy: it used to blow idly in the wind, and Truffle could easily flip it up with a practised flick of her claw. This flap is immune to flicking or prising, and can only be moved by a full head butting action. Truffle had never executed such a manoeuvre in her life, and in vain did I lie down on the floor and attempt to demonstrate - first with my head, though it was rather too big for the dimensions involved - and secondly with my fist. Sadly, I don't think cats get 'demonstrations'.

Eventually she got the idea, through sheer desperation I imagine, coupled with trial and error. What was amusing though was that she didn't want me to know she had figured it out and would still sit in front of the flap for minutes at a time, looking nonplussed, if she sensed I was nearby. Then as soon as I withdrew, I would hear the clunk of the flap as she nipped out unobserved.

But unfortunately, Tootsie could work the flap in manual mode too. Head butting is a particular speciality of his, like Venus Williams' twohanded backhand or Joe Frazier's left hook. So I quickly realised that Truffle had to step up and learn how to use the flap in electronic mode as a matter of urgency, though that involved an extra layer of complication.

The idea is that as she entered the tunnel to the flap, it would read her microchip and a little catch holding the flap shut would depress, setting it momentarily to manual / 'free opening' mode, before popping back up once she was safely the other side. I had read that cats sometimes find the sound of the catch release disturbing, assuming they can position themselves correctly to have their chip read in the first place. ;)

And before the flap is set for this 'normal' operation, first it has to register the chip of the cat in question, which it does in so-called 'learn' mode.

As the manual explains:

"When testing the SureFlap Microchip Cat Flap, your cat will need to push its head against the flap from the tunnel side of the unit, or pass all the way through the flap. There is a sensor that detects the cat's presence in the tunnel that needs to be triggered and no amount of waving your cat in front of the flap will have an effect."

Ha! I think we may have initially tried a bit of waving, and 'stuffing of cat shoulders in aperture', for which the attached cat did not care at all.

Truffle jumps for joy having figured out the flap!

But in the end, I am pleased to report that Truffle has managed to pass through in both directions and activate the catch to let her - and only her - pass. Although I don't wish to anthropomorphise her, for she is only a cat after all, a mother who had just completed toilet training with her toddler couldn't be more proud. Well, not so much proud even, as mightily relieved that the days of coming down to a urine-soaked doors and walls in and around the kitchen and utility are hopefully over...

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Le Civette & Unicorn, Collonges-La-Rouge: another holiday in the Limousin - Part 2

I so wanted to call this post 'Le Civette, L'Unicorn, et Le (Scent) Wardrobe', but that would have interfered with the integrity of the company name for starters, while the pun is tenuous at best in any case. Where is the witch, I hear you ask? Civet cats and lions may be considered loosely related, and unicorns are in fact mentioned in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - and The Last Battle - but they are resolutely absent from those books' titles.

I would also like to have conveyed just how astonished and delighted I was to stumble across this artisanal perfumery - one of only a handful such enterprises in Europe where the perfumer lives on site, creating and making fragrances from start to finish - in the small commune of Collonges-La-Rouge.  This fairytale village is about a hour's drive from my friend L's house - 45 minutes if her navigator had spotted the turn off for Toulouse first time round - and draws visitors on account of its quaint cobbled streets and the deep red sandstone of its buildings. Think Caldy Hill on The Wirral. Er...that is perhaps a rather obscure analogy, but it may mean something to someone!

Caldy Hill: 'Does this house look red to you?'

And when I say touristy, the many gift shops in Collonges-La-Rouge mainly sold what ex-Mr Bonkers would have referred to generically as 'high quality tat'. L bought a charming little bib for a baby that was about to be born to her next door neighbour, and I would have bought a bar of brown soap(!) - which some of my Facebook friends may recall as being a bit of a holy grail quest of mine - had it not cost 5 euros, and not been quite small enough either. I also found a surprise purveyor of scented discs that looked just like guest soaps - some of which were even brown - but which turned out to be pebbles impregnated with fragrance. And you can't wash yourself in those. (Their potential as pumice stones also seemed moot.)

So yes, reverting to the title for a moment, that is a rather lame effort by my standards, but any more would have constituted an unseemly mouthful. To make up for its uncharacteristic terseness, I will be as fulsome as possible in the body of the post about how excited I was to chance upon this scented gem in a surprise twist of serendipity. Stepping into the perfumery's dark and inviting interior - offering shade from the near 30C heat outside - my eye was immediately drawn to two prominent displays of their in-house range of perfumes. Speaking of gems, the shop also sold crystals and incense - and probably soap! - and knick-knacks and ethnic bits and bobs that I must admit to barely clocking, so intent was I on systematically sampling the Civette & Unicorn's perfumes.

I soon got chatting to a young sales assistant - it took all of ten seconds for us to realise we were both English, and promptly drop the old 'when in Rome' routine. She gave us both a quick run down of the range, and I came clean about being a blogger, in the act of asking permission to take photos of the fragrance fixtures and store generally. The SA said she would see if someone could come out and talk to me at more length about the brand. She wasn't hopeful that the perfumer himself would emerge, as he was known for being a bit of a recluse, but soon returned with his wife instead. Then to my surprise her husband joined her after a few minutes, and for the next hour(?) - I lost all track of time! - we were off, shooting the breeze about the industry (including the swapping of mischievous anecdotes over which I shall draw a veil ;) ), hearing about the inspiration behind the scents and their creative ethos, as well as details of the company's supply chain, and the care it takes to invest in sustainable / Fairtrade-type ingredients from round the world.

Before going any further, I should point out that the perfumer behind the Civette & Unicorn range prefers to go incognito. I shall call him 'P', because he was erroneously referred to by a name beginning with 'P' in a feature in a local newspaper. Note that his first name does not begin with 'P', but it will serve us nicely here. I can reveal that he and his wife (whose actual name begins with 'L', but whom I shall dub 'M' to distinguish her from my friend) are both English, and hail from near Bath. P mentioned a son, who has just finished at Bristol University, walking its corridors some 80 years after my father. Trust me, he doesn't look old enough.

Oh, and I should also tip you the wink that P is a Naturally Big - and not Always consistent - Capitaliser. I have reduced almost all of these to lower case, as I initially found them Ever so slightly Distracting, but have left one or two in because they are also Quite Endearing. ;)

"I really want the products to speak for themselves and not let myself get in the way. I dislike the fake celebrity culture that is prevalent in current society and now creeping into branding Perfumers and even Scientists (apparently). My place is out in Nature, gathering some wild plants for a small alembic distillation, which happens from time to time, and more in the future."

Source: Wikimedia Commons (grassrootsgroundswell)

A key point to note about the Civette & Unicorn line is its extensive use of essential oils:

"I'd estimate twice the amount of naturals by type used than the bigger companies would use...and they are mixed with Organic plant-derived alcohol, some filtered water, chilled and filtered - all at the EDT level."

"To sum up, I have my feet in both worlds: I appreciate the energetics and what naturals can bring, but there is also a place for traditional perfumery, albeit with a little bit of Unicorn magic added, and I try and bring that to both of those fragrant disciplines**."

Another noteworthy point is the affordability of the range, which starts at just 21.60 euros for 100ml of the men's fragrance 19500, (named after the postcode of Corrèze), while the most expensive scent and latest release, Lune de Turenne, is 58 euros. Not that that in any sense marks a progression, I don't suppose. No, I imagine the prices reflect the particular mix of ingredients - and in the case of 19500, an overriding wish to keep the product as affordable as possible for the local market, where the wages of a farm labourer (the typical local punter) are around 13-14,000 euros. The model in this promotional photo is in fact a waiter known to P. But notwithstanding its keen pricing, there are 35 natural oils in 19500! Or was it 32? A lot, anyway.

"I have always believed in making prices fair rather than going for the maximum price point based on how much hype and USPs you can tag around it. I like to remember the saying: 'a good deal is when buyer and seller are both happy'."

I was also curious to learn about P's past career. He has worked in the essential oil trade for 25 years - at different levels - from supplying some of the 'big manufacturers' to selling into the retail trade. When he was just 19 he landed a job in Cairo with an Egyptian manufacturer of essential oils and absolutes, herbs and spices, which served as an important grounding in the nuts and bolts of the fragrance business. (Please ignore any apparent reference to ground nuts.)

P's love of fragrance can in fact be traced back to his boyhood:

"I first created a fragrance at 8, when pipettes were glass with Black Rubber ends you swapped over, and I was allowed into a perfumer's laboratory alone on occasional Saturdays to sniff all the bottles and jars (Grenouille-style), and replicate the amber/chypre soap smell I loved from family holidays in the Balearics. As a teenager I contemplated training as a perfumer, but didn't want to get lost in a big company. Thatcherism was high and so I took another direction for a while until the trade called me back."

Source: Wikimedia Commons 

I also wanted to know how the shop came by its name.

"I had imagined a small shop in Collonges-La-Rouge for a few years, when the time was right. Being descended from a London family I always admired the name and logo of the 18th century shop 'Ye Olde Civette Cat', in the same way William Blake pulls me more than other Poets. That name has been used by a blogger, I believe, and when exploring names with my wife last year it just popped in, or revealed itself...The unicorn represents that touch of magic for the brand, and hopefully is needed back in perfumery, as much of it is just too commercial. I hope I can bring a touch of Alchemy back with the use of lots of natural and other things....It was the Alchemists gave the name of 'essential' to the oils from plants, the Quinta Essentia component - think 5th Element (not the film with Bruce Willis) but the Philosopher's Stone, no less!"

I had to google Quinta Essentia, and as well as its core meaning of 'Fifth Essence' or element, came up with this impressive superyacht.

Source: Wikimedia Commons (Tony Hisgett)

Hmm, it just struck me that the French word for 'unicorn' is 'licorne', so the name is a mix of French and English - like P and M and their adopted home, indeed - was that perhaps by design?

Going back to the notion of ingredient sourcing, here is the entertaining background to P's source of vetiver, used in Vetyver Coeur. It would be even more entertaining if I were to disclose every amusing detail...!

"Did I mention the Vetyver Coeur fragrance is the First Vetiver fragrance in the world to use Malawian vetiver? I was personally involved in quite a few visits there with smuggling in glass alembic equipment (import taxes are so high), and digging and distilling root stock from many different villages until the best one was found. It turned out the local village farmer was [....mischievous anecdote...], so some of his vetiver rootstock was purchased not by money, but with giving him Corrugated Iron Sheets for his roof, which is a big statement that you have made it. Forget that White Range Rover, personal plate and Tinted Glass, an iron roof is enough out there. The project is to supplement the income of smallholders, ethically harvest (part harvest), and importantly reduce soil erosion and the dependency on tobacco companies who pay less than peanuts for tobacco."

Which begs the question how much people might pay for peanuts? I interviewed a peanut farmer once - about his tractor lubricant, admittedly, rather than crop remuneration. Hold on, it might have been almonds (or even raisins), but the same principle applies.

I also couldn't help but notice a framed photo of Prince Charles on the wall, so of course I had to winkle out the story behind that.

"Prince Charles I met as a Photographer (and trustee of a UK-based African charity) in Sierra Leone, as the Charity I gave my time to had sponsored an organic vegetable garden at a High School there 5 years previously - it had been kept alive in a self-sufficient way by the teachers, supplementing the kids' diet - so important in Africa - hence me giving my time to this charity. Prince Charles was visiting the school (everything smelt of cheap fresh paint - it's probably the same wherever he goes!), and the organic garden (which also had some animals in it) was of interest to him. Charles was relaxed at that point, as he was away from the pack of press photographers that reminded me of the Hyena puppets used in Spitting Image years ago, and he could be himself albeit for a moment, gazing with a pig."

P was a captivating raconteur, and it didn't get much better than this tale of royalty and livestock in perfect harmony. ;)

Now in all our animated chat I had all but forgotten that it was L's birthday, and had been letting this fascinating fragrant find ride rough shod over her festivities! At one point she thoughtfully offered to go away and have a bit more of a wander round the village and come back again. On her return, P and I wrapped up our discussion, as it would have been seriously bad manners to have hijacked any more of L's special day.

And I think that is probably enough for this post. Part 3 will cover the scents themselves, my own favourites from the line, the special 'fig rubbing test'(!), and L's visceral reaction to one perfume in particular....

PS Long term readers may remember that this wasn't in fact the first time I wandered into a shop and chanced upon a perfumer...see this account of how I bumped into Zsolt Zólyomi in Hungary.

**Editor's note - P is also working on a ('long overdue') range of perfumes made entirely from essential oils, absolutes and resins, hence his foot in both creative camps.

Post-prandial photo in the shady garden of a creperie.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Sun, sage, salamanders and Sisley: another holiday in the Limousin - Part 1

I have just come back from my French trip - to cool temperatures, overcast skies, and fitful rain. I sallied forth yesterday to buy croissants and whole milk in a bid to recreate the holiday experience, but nice as the croissants were, they couldn't cut the mustard - or rather the homemade vat of confiture with which my friend L presented me on the first morning of my stay.  I guess a sense of anticlimax is inevitable after such a lotus-eating idyll, which is pretty much what it was, give or take the lotus-eating. And you may be surprised to learn that there was a big fat, astonishing perfume episode bang in the middle of the trip, which warrants its own post in Part 2, while all the other scented aspects of my visit - of which there was a surprising smattering - will be covered 'en passant' in this post. Quite literally, indeed, for in a general chat about perfume, L's neighbour C happened to remark that she liked the smell of lilac, so I commended 'En Passant' to her in passing.

Jam today, jam tomorrow, jam for the foreseeable future

So here goes with the main part of the 'travelogue with fragrant accents'...

On the day of departure, I had to get up very early, and managed to squirt tinted moisturiser all down my clean T-shirt before 6.15am. It's that Paula's Choice Resist Super-Light Daily Wrinkle Defense cream (sic). I would add that it is 'super-prone to geyser-esque eruptions' at the merest flick of a lid, and urge extreme caution when using it.

Manchester airport was absolutely heaving...the sort of crowds where you'd stand up to peer at the departure board for two seconds, only to turn round and find someone in your seat. Also worthy of mention is how the airport - or certainly Terminal 1 - has a disorientatingly elastic sense of time. The gate was due to open 'in 5 minutes' for what must have been all of half an hour. As my plane was also delayed, I had ample time to browse in the Duty Free, but only took a moment to respray my scent of the journey, Hermes Eau des Merveilles, and tuned out to everything else, including the gigantic Toblerone ingots, which were three for a tenner, and should really have been reclassified as an offensive weapon on the joint grounds of weight and pointiness. I am pleased to report that my knitting needles were not construed as an offensive weapon on this trip. I decided not to attempt to hide them, but rather waved them ostentatiously at security staff. I think the added verisimilitude of my mentioning I was hoping to knit an entire flannel whilst on holiday might have swung things in my favour.

When we eventually landed, the disembarcation at Limoges was slow and torturous, and it took an hour to get through passport control and pick up my hand luggage, which had had to go in the hold. There were 189 people (the capacity of a Boeing 737, as I now know) crowded into an area the size of a convenience store. When I was finally disgorged into the Arrivals hall, I exclaimed to my friend: 'Sorry, it was chaos back there...complete and utter carnage...bedlam...mayhem...a shambles...disarray...did I say "pandemonium"? It was also pandemonium.'

Small child with Lancaster bomber - or rather the A400M

As we walked towards the car park pay station, I noticed that L had surprisingly strong sillage of a perfume I couldn't quite place. It occurred to me that if it was a favourite scent, she might have become anosmic to it and started to apply more and more in a bid to smell it on herself. Later, I tentatively inquired what the perfume was: it turned out not to be one of L's staples, but the remains of a bottle of Issey Miyake that was a cast off from a friend, and which she was trying to finish up, as she wasn't sure she cared for it all that much. Well, I was glad to learn that, and it immediately explained the sillage issue. Issey Miyake may be the 'poster child' for the inoffensive and supposedly anti-perfume trend of the 90s, but it has a monster melon note - a 'monster melon that has freshly exited a shower cubicle', as I am sure I have said somewhere on the blog, but don't ask me where.

On arrival in my friend's village, her ceramicist friend S, with whom we made the excursion to the Bernaudaud Foundation the previous year, popped round with some flowers from her garden for my bedroom. She herself left a discreet trail of La Vie est Belle, which continues to be her signature scent, while the bouquet itself included several sprigs of sage. These had a fabulously pungent aroma - unlike anything I had ever smelt in a Schwartz jar, which is pretty much my acquaintance with the herb up to this point. Oh, also in Paxo Sage & Onion stuffing mix, obviously.

We met up with S and her husband for al fresco coffee the next morning, and I kept stopping in my tracks as I caught whiffs of sage in different spots in their garden. So if walnuts were the plant leitmotiv of last year's holiday in the Limousin, sage was shaping up to be the vegetal theme this time round!

Later that morning, after sponging the jam stains I had incurred at breakfast on both trouser legs - silly spillages were to be another theme of the holiday - L invited me to join her in clearing out her fireplace, something she had omitted to do in the two years she has owned the house. Game for anything, I followed her upstairs to the sitting room and we carefully lowered the glass door protecting the grate to reveal...drum roll!...a carved metal salamander!

Well, we weren't initially sure it was a salamander, but a question on Facebook quickly elicited the confirmation we were after. I also learnt from a post on the blog 'Writing the Renaissance' that these mythical beasts were a common embellishment on the fireplaces of royal palaces, no less, while the chateau at Chambord has over 800 different kinds of salamander carved into the ceiling of the main hall.

And it gets better...!

"Salamanders appear not only on buildings, but on many royal possessions. Salamanders were tooled into the leather covers of books bound for the royal library. A perfume-burner designed by Raphael for the king had salamanders and fleurs-de-lis on the lid."

Thrilled by this discovery in her humble townhouse, L pressed me into service with a brush and a pot of linseed oil. I would never have guessed I'd be spending the start of my holiday oiling a salamander, but there again, I never expected to find a well-appointed table tennis station in my hostess's barn.

In the afternoon we went shopping in the village's bijou and compact Carrefour. It may even be called Carrefour Compact, come to that. And speaking of melons, to lighten L's basketload of shopping, I offered to carry a melon in one hand and a bottle of rose wine in the other, and sneaked in a few bicep curls with them on the way home. We ate in the garden that night (as we did every night we were 'in'!), and I managed to drop courgette carpaccio, which turns out to be 'a thing', really - a thing dripping in oil unfortunately - on my newly swabbed trousers.

We completely forgot to have a game!

The next day I had a major crisis on finding I was unable to access my flight booking for the return leg - I thought it wise to download my boarding pass well in advance of my return, you see. Ryanair seemed to have no record of it under the reference code I was given. I ended up spending an hour locked in a live chat session with a Ryanair customer services representative while he endeavoured to get to the bottom of the puzzle. It turns out that I did have a booking, but it was under CW6I7C, not CW617C. And yes, I had to look twice, especially as the 'I' of my booking print out didn't have a serif on the top and bottom of the 'I'. My eye read the booking number like a car registration, where it is customary to have a block of letters, then a few numbers, then maybe a letter again. You would never find a letter smack in the middle of the numerals. I realised afterwards that the only place that would ever happen is in one of those gobbledy-gook passwords that comes with your broadband. And now, Ryanair booking be warned!

Crisis over, we ventured forth into the Dordogne, after a picnic in a field, during which I managed to spill L's beer, followed later by my own tea in a cafe in Brantome (insert your own circumflex). I had visited Brantome in 1996 with Mr Bonkers, and in the intervening years it has become a lot busier and more trippery. However, I was pleased to spot that 'mushroom omelette' was still the (somewhat surprising) special on the menu of the riverside restaurant where we had eaten on that holiday. L and I decided that while Brantome was chocolate box picturesque, compared to the peace and quiet of her own village, where the stillness is only broken by the cooing of turtledoves, the chirrup of crickets, and the skitter of a lizard in the undergrowth, the Dordogne was too hectic by far - not to mention awash in those multiple view-type postcards - some with kittens! (Cue group shudder.)

The toilet of the cafe where I spilt my tea was noteworthy, mind, for this big bottle of cologne. It is only by Schwarzkopf (Henkel), a brand I associate with haircare products rather than fine fragrance, but I had a sniff as you do, and was amazed at the more than passing resemblance to Guerlain Sous le Vent. A drugstore cologne that is clearly punching above its price bracket.

That night we ate out with friends of L at a local produce market in a nearby village. The idea was to buy food and drink from the stalls that lined the square - well, more of a rectangle, really - then take your meal and eat it at the long trestle tables placed in the centre. The women in our party all had trout and chips. It never ceases to amuse me that VAT in French means 'vidé avec tête' - 'gutted with head'.

The following day was L's birthday, and I was up betimes on a quest to hunt and gather breakfast ingredients, after first changing my T-shirt due to yet another tinted moisturiser incident. First stop was the boulangerie. I asked the boulanger for his 'most medieval' bread, as L had mentioned that she liked one that was made according to a 'centuries old' recipe. He looked a little askance initially, but after scoping the fixtures with  professional care, settled on a rye cob. I got a couple of croissants with that, and though I quite forgot to ask for 'epitome-shaped' ones, he instinctively knew to proffer his most perfectly puffed up and crescent-shaped specimens, so that was a bit of luck. The fruit tarts had not yet been put out on display, but the boulanger helpfully went out back and fetched them for me, and with that I had the 'morning goods' side of things covered. Next up was Carrefour, to procure the wherewithal to make Bucks Fizz. Cue more weight training on the way back with two bottles of sparkling wine. And because of my wish to retire to the area myself one day, I couldn't help but home in on any little old ladies sitting outside particularly photogenic houses along the route, and surreptitiously try to gauge their likely life expectancy.

L was very pleased with my choice of loaf, which she declared to be 'commensurate with my great age'. I will leave the account of the rest of L's birthday till Part 2, as it was on that day that the big unexpected perfume episode occurred! In my excitement, I may have slightly hijacked her festivities in the process, but she was most gracious about it, certainly.

Does this bread look ancient to you?

Then the day after L's birthday we made an excursion to the hilltop town of Turenne, which boasted a fine selection of échaugettes, complete with inverted walnut whip terminations (see below). The steep ascent to the castle proved excellent for the calves and challenging for the lungs, and we were not sorry it was cooler that day. On the way down, we both made impulse purchases of mugs - two in my case! - even though my kitchen cupboards are already bulging with a 40-strong collection. But sometimes impulse purchases just have to be made, and the one I managed to bring with me on the plane has been in constant use.

That night, there was a street fair in L's village, and we joined some friends and neighbours of hers, including the aforementioned lover of lilac, C. I quizzed C about her taste in perfume, being totally floored by what she was wearing on the night (I am invariably floored by what anyone is wearing, to be fair). It turns out C is pretty much a Sisley loyalist, wearing the new Izia in summer - which I had never smelt before - and Eau du Soir in winter. We discussed our respective stances on Eau de Sisley 1, 2 and 3 (neither of us were big fans), and lamented the ubiquity of certain scents that shall remain nameless, but which may contain 'Mademoiselle' in the name.

There is a parfumerie in L's village, would you believe, that doubles up as an ironmonger's and a toy shop - of course it does. Or it did, rather. Today there is a only a rather forlorn collie in the window, who may or may not be officially guarding the deserted premises.

I also introduced L to Songes edp on the holiday, and we both wore it on her birthday! L's daughter is a fan of Chance, and L had asked me months back to suggest additional scents her daughter might like that had some crossover with it, though I hadn't managed to give the question any thought until the other day. So I have now belatedly given L samples to pass on to her daughter of AG Grand Amour (hyacinth floral), Chanel La Pausa (all about the iris), and Prada Candy - simply because I introduced another Chance lover to that one and she thought it was the bee's knees. ;) And I am very partial to it myself too. So we will see...

Coming up in Part 2 - the extraordinary perfume related episode! I do hope I am not overselling this, haha.