I realise it is not ideal to report on olfactory memories five weeks after the event, but when you are endowed with a nose as rudimentary and prone to abrupt volte-faces as mine (or volte-nez, perhaps, since we are speaking of a single facial feature), it may make less difference than you might imagine. I still have the usual clutch of fragrance blotters (all smelling identically of "Eau de Card At The Bottom Of The Handbag"), which may serve as useful reminders of what I smelt, if not of what what I smelt smelt of.
So back in early December, on my outward journey to the States, I made a beeline for the duty free at Birmingham airport. It must be said though that my M.O. in duty frees has changed markedly since the early days of "sudden onset perfume mania", when I vividly remember spraying up to 10 perfumes on all available limb space in my febrile eagerness to try a whole clutch of things that were new or unfamiliar to me. Fast forward two years or so, and I might test just one scent on skin, if that. This is mainly because I have sampled the "back catalogue" of most designer houses now, and while I am open to trying the latest releases, it is on a much more selective basis than before. Just as doughnuts are "not worth the calories" in my book, by the same token I consider many designer scents with a high potential to disappoint not worth a slot on the precious runway of my forearm.
But one scent made the cut that day, Vivienne Westwood's Naughty Alice. I had more or less tuned out to the Vivienne Westwood range ever since an offputting trial of Boudoir in June 2008. In the notebook I kept at the time, documenting my early sniffing experiences, I described Boudoir as "a huge, peppery, spicy, sweet, pyrotechnic powderfest, that catches you offguard with a shocking blast of civet as you stand there open-mouthed, watching the fireworks." I gave it a dismissive two stars out of a possible five. But that was then, and my taste has changed so much in the past two and a half years that I decided to give Naughty Alice a prime site spritz, and am glad I did.
My first thought was that it reminded me of Flower By Kenzo Oriental, but without the robust woody base. My second thought was that Naughty Alice smelt exactly as I had hoped YSL Parisienne would smell, rather than the "disgruntled purple talc" it actually smells of. And it also reminded me slightly of a rosier and more biddable version of Balenciaga Paris, Parisienne's brainy and standoffish older sister. It was only when I got home a fortnight later, and scurried to the Interweb to locate note listings for the scents in question, that I realised there was a common theme of rose + violet + musk in the Kenzo, Parisienne and Naughty Alice - and violet and musk in Paris. I didn't detect the ylang ylang in Naughty Alice, but as a card-carrying "ylangoholic" I may have been reeled in by the fragrance equivalent of those high pitched whistles audible only to Alsatians and knots of disaffected teenagers loitering outside supermarkets.
Notes: Rose, Violet, Ylang Ylang, Powdery Notes, Musk, Oriental Notes
Following this fairly low key testing session at the airport, the next perfume event of note was just two days into the trip, when I hooked up with Katie Puckrik at a shopping mall north of San Diego on 8th December. I was in between appointments in the area, while Katie had come straight from recording two TV interviews on Fox San Diego on the subject of scents to wear to holiday parties or to give as gifts. It was plucky of her to agree to meet, I thought, for she knows I have been stalking her hairdo (with very mixed results) for some time now: with hindsight, my recent post on the subject here seems imbued with a certain dramatic irony...
So anyway, I arrived at the perfume counter in Nordstrom's - a failsafe rendez-vous spot, we figured! - with a few minutes to spare, time enough to recce the fixture and take a few photos. As soon as Katie arrived, we headed out into the brilliant sunshine. It was warm enough to sit outside at a pavement cafe, and the butternut squash soup we both ordered came positively bejewelled with dried cranberries as well as pumpkin seeds and little bits of nuts, a novel touch serving as yet another example of Californian fusion cuisine!
I sniffed the vestiges of the new FM Portrait of a Lady on Katie's pashmina and handed over a small decant of Floris Snow Rose for her to try later. For now though, Katie proceeded to sniff Belle D'Opium on my wrist and we puzzled over how "Belle Dope" could have lost the "significant incense and resinous mystery" I had enjoyed on first discovering it in Germany in September, and morphed into this juvenile, sub-Chinatown fruitchouli number we were undeniably smelling on my arm now. At the time, I concluded that Climate Change was at the bottom of this discrepancy, and that the incense note must only emerge in cold weather, but I have since worn Belle Dope in bitter conditions back home, and the resinous mystery continues to elude me...
I did wonder whether my respect for Katie's critical opinion could possibly have had some kind of effect on my nasal receptors, a bit like the time I ordered lime ice cream on holiday as a child and was given pistachio by mistake. To avoid waste or the embarrassment of sending the dish back, my father persuaded me that the ice cream was lime after all, and I ate it all up with relish, only to have him tell me afterwards that it had been pistachio all along, incorrigible Svengali-esque hoaxster that he was! Now I say "a bit like", because obviously Katie was not trying to pull the wool over my nose - the similarity lies in the fact that the perfume smelled as I believed it should smell, and probably does do to most people. Anyway, these are deep psychological waters, and we might need the combined skills of Luca Turin, David Blane and Paul McKenna to determine exactly what is going on here.
After lunch, we wandered in a happily aimless fashion around the mall, pausing in The Body Shop to sample Love Etc, a Dominique Ropion creation aimed at the teen market, along with Moroccan Rose, Neroli Jasmine and that old stalwart, White Musk! And I stepped for the very first time inside a branch of Bath & Body Works, but before the sales assistant could intercept us to give us her spiel about the special offers on scented candles, we had stepped outside again sharpish, as the sickly stench was overpowering. And soon, after browsing in a few more stores, and shooting the breeze on topics as diverse as the Hampton Inn hotel chain, windmills and my brother's eyebrows, it was time for us to go out separate ways.
And while I didn't get the hookah accord this time in Belle Dope - and have failed to register the merest wisp of incense ever since - there was something about the incongruously glorious weather (as Mr Bonkers shivered back home in temperatures of -10 C), and the parallel strangeness of meeting Katie in the middle of my working day, which combined to produce a feeling of pleasant discombobulation. The sort of pleasant discombobulation that usually comes from smoking - and smoking something a little less innocuous than tobacco at that...
Coming up in Parts 2 & 3: visits to Strange Invisible Perfumes, The Scent Bar and Ajne...
Photo of San Diego from foreclosurerepohomes.com, photo of Naughty Alice from echemist.co.uk, photos of Nordstrom, Westfield UTC mall and Katie Puckrik my own, photo of woman relaxing with a hookah from shoponline2011.com