Saturday, 19 May 2012

In The Sillage Of The Titanic: A Bonkers Sniffathon With Donna From Belfast

As some readers already know, one of my party tricks is to speak German in a Belfast accent. Another is to speak French in a Belfast accent. I can also twiddle my thumbs in opposite directions and have an uncanny knack for remembering the birthdays of people I only met once, up to 40 years ago - a knack which, I might tell you, has been seriously undermined lately by Facebook's notification system.

And the reason I can speak in a Belfast accent - also in English! - is because I am in fact from the city, whose more famous offspring include footballer George Best, singer Van Morrison and a certain ill-fated ship. I lived in Belfast till I was 23, which - for an all-too brief moment - equated to half my life. That fraction has now dropped back to c43% and sadly continues to fall.

Last week I was delighted to be heading back to "Norn Iron" (as we locals call it) for a long weekend, in which I visited old friends and favourite haunts, and also fitted in a work meeting - well, more of a networking meeting really - but the word "networking" has "work" in it at least, which I take as an encouraging sign.

As soon as I got in from the airport last Saturday, I dumped my bags at my hotel and headed out (we Ulster folk do a lot of "heading", I should point out, with and without attendant prepositions) on a blind sniffing date with Donna255 of Basenotes. Since starting Bonkers, I haven't been on the Basenotes forum for an embarassingly long time - well, in fairness the site has been down a lot lately due to a sustained onslaught by hackers - but back in the day I used to make the forum part of my daily routine, and it was there that I "met" Donna, and entered into an email exchange about our common roots.

And now here we were, sitting in a branch of Caffè Nero in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast, exchanging sample bags and nattering away 19 to the dozen - or possibly 23, as we were both pretty excited! - about our respective descents into perfumistadom, and how Belfast has changed beyond recognition since I left in 1982. I learnt one particularly curious and inexplicable nugget of information about the city, namely that it boasts not one but three Molton Brown outlets - two stand-alone, and one concession. Now why would that be?

Having fortified ourselves with cake and biscuits for the sniffing session to come, and after a quick scope of the lean perfume pickings in T K Maxx, Donna and I headed over (there we go again) to House of Fraser. Built after my time, the store is in the Victoria Square shopping centre (also new to me), prompting a constant stream of exclamations on my part like: "Oh look, that's where there used to be a stationer's / school outfitter's / C & A / Arnott's...OR (insert name of several other notable and long defunct department stores).

The other thing that made me go "Ooh!" and "Aah!" at regular intervals on our wanderings was catching a whiff of Donna's SOTD, Annick Goutal's Myrrhe Ardente. This is a scent that was not really on my radar, along with its three stablemates in the Orientalistes collection, Ambre Fétiche, Musc Nomade and Encens Flamboyant. Now although Donna and I have a fair bit of crossover - we both love iris scents, for example - Donna's taste in general leans more to the darker, woodier, spicier, fruitier, incense-ier and animalic-ier side than mine, for she can handle the dank gloom of Etro Messe de Minuit and the spicy Rumtopf that is Serge Lutens Arabie with equal aplomb. Moreover SL Tubéreuse Criminelle holds no fear for her, nor does the most forbidding green chypre.

So the fact that Donna was wearing Myrrhe Ardente did not surprise me, but I didn't think for a minute that I would be so taken with the scent myself - or of Donna wearing it, shall we say, for I can't be sure it would have smelt as nice on me!

In House of Fraser we had a quick and rather dismissive sniff of the new Plum Blossom fragrance from Jo Malone. I am sorry to say it, but one or two of the recent releases from this line have reminded me rather of those Herbal Essence shampoos - ie big abstract, airy numbers - and Plum Blossom was no exception.

No...the highlight of our visit to House of Fraser has to be talking to Donna's friend Jackie, one of the most highly qualified and knowledgeable sales assistants you could wish to meet, who scored an impressive mark in her Fragrance Foundation exams - more impressive even than Donna remembered, until Jackie teasingly put her right on the exact percentage! : - ) Oh, and one of the most generous too, for she offered us a bag of samples completely unprompted.

And I was struck by the fact that in common with most Ulster people - and in stark contrast to many sales assistants at perfume counters - Jackie was super chatty and friendly. In my four day stay in the province, I lost count of the number of times someone went out of their way to be helpful: a clerk in the Post Office offering to take my rubbish off me, a barman giving me a Pepsi for free because it was slightly warm, a shop assistant giving me a £3 bag of crisps for 99p because they had run out of the 99p bags, a hotel receptionist asking if I wanted "a wee receipt with that" and proffering tips on places to eat.

Pause for two seconds in the middle of the street to consult the complimentary map the hotel had pressed upon me, and someone would always come over to ask if you were lost or needed help with directions. Complete strangers said "Hello" as I made my woozy way back to my hotel on Saturday at kebab-o-clock in the morning, and there wasn't the slightest air of menace about the streets even at that late hour. Oh, and let's not forget the man in the bar on Saturday night who told my friend he was really really in love with me. He was additionally really really drunk, it must be said, but I couldn't help but smile... : - )

But back to Donna and me and our episodic afternoon. In truth, we did more talking than sniffing looking back, but there was no harm in that! I did have a "wee" whiff of Prada Infusion d'Iris Intense (which smelt just as the name suggests!), and the Eau Provocateur version of L'Agent (weaker, yet not all that recognisable).

Then, after a "wee" detour to The Titanic memorial garden - a new addition to the grounds of the City Hall - we headed across to Space NK, where Donna drew my attention to the store's own perfume release, In Peace, a floral woody musk we thought was in the style of Cashmere Mist (Donna) / Sensuous Nude (me).

Notes: pimento, freesia, mimosa, suede, white musk, sandalwood and tonka bean.

A percentage of the proceeds of In Peace goes to fund the work of Women for Women International, an organization that helps women survivors of war to rebuild their lives, so that is all very commendable. Next up, I sampled the new 34 Boulevard Germain from Diptyque.

Notes: blackcurrant, fig leaves, pink pepper, citrus, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, rose, geranium, iris, tuberose, violet, woods, and balsamic notes.

The latest Diptyque scent was distinctly spicy, but in a soft and subtle way, and the sales assistants (Caroline and Tracey, as I have since learnt) said it was "flying out the door". I would have liked a sample, but with regret the girls explained that they didn't have any. In fact I will remember the charming duo of SAs at Space NK most of all for their copious apologies: they didn't have Nars Babe Lip Gloss, for example, and were sorry about that, and were also quite contrite for failing to stock Shu Uemura brow pencils - I had been thinking of swapping my softer pencil for the hard one that can be carved into a paddle.

Then out of nowhere, I had the idea to explore a make up category that is under-represented in my collection, namely blusher. Without hesitation, Donna and the raven-haired Tracey had between them picked out a Nars blush called Orgasm, and before I knew it Donna was applying it to the apples of my cheeks with a sample brush placed within handy reach for just such impromptu makeovers. Orgasm did noticeably brighten up my cheeks whilst managing not to deposit an excess of age-inappropriate glitter, and in a trice Donna had jokingly called for Tracey to "get me an Orgasm" - as in a pristine product from her drawer, of course.

Well, put like that, it was tough to refuse, and I have since learnt that this is an iconic product beloved of make-up artists and consumers alike. That said, not everyone is a fan of its integral glitter, though NARS likes to position this as "accents of golden shimmer". The idea of glitter certainly troubled me, but I have to say that the actual execution of this blusher on skin is subtle, and the overall effect more of a healthy gleam on my yellow-toned skin. may not have totally lived up to its name, but I wore Orgasm out on the night the chap in the bar fell in love with me, while the friend I was with described me as "blooming"...

So after our warm reception at Space NK, we headed back to another cafe close to where we had started the afternoon for another drink and a final natter, before going our separate ways at around 5 o'clock. I really enjoyed meeting Donna ("it was a quare geg"), and it was also interesting to see my home town at last through perfumista eyes. And most of all I basked in the friendliness of the people. Yes, unlike the era when I lived there at the height of The Troubles, Belfast is a city where today - with or without the help of a pop of cheek colour - a person can truly bloom...

All photos my own


Carol said...

what a delightful read!! Thanks so much Bonks - and btw, I hear really good things about Orgasm - the blush I mean! ;) I think I need to go to Sephora and get some stat!

Vanessa said...

Hi Bloody Frida,

Thank you - glad you enjoyed it! Is "stat" another word for "accents of golden shimmer" by any chance? : - )

Undina said...

Vanessa, as always, I laughed reading your trip report - thank you!

I really like Orgasm (Hmm... Should I clarify that I'm talking about the blush?). I've been using this shade for the last 2 years, I think and will buy the next case once it's gone.

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

Thanks! And how interesting to hear you are another contented Orgasm owner! : - ). I just remembered Dionne as liking this one too. A small cohort of fetchingly flushed fumeheads is emerging!

Hazel said...

As it so happens, I have just scored a sample of Diptyque's 34 - on the back of buying a bottle of L'Ombre dans l'eau in Printemps in Paris on Friday. Happy to pass it on if you'd like it.

Vanessa said...

Hi Hazel,

Why that would be super - thanks for the offer!

And congrats on your new bottle - L'Ombre dans L'Eau gets a lot of love in perfume land.

Suzanne said...

Sounds like this was a wonderful return to your hometown, Vanessa, especially as the people you came across were so warm and generous. Glad to hear that you were on the receiving end of love and an Orgasm too.;-)

It was also fun to "meet" Donna, too, whose taste in perfume sounds like it matches my own. (An Arabie lover, yeah!) In fact, your post now has me curious to sample Myrrhe Ardente, since you say it smelled so good on her and I love it's stablemates, as you call them -- Ambre Fetiche and Encens Flamboyant.

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Yes, it was the warmest of welcomes and I felt right at home again. D'you know, it hadn't occurred to me but you are quite right - I was the lucky recipient of love *and* an Orgasm, hehe!

Yes, like you, Donna is more adventurous than me in her scent tastes, and the great spin-off of that was being the lucky recipient (again!) of a bag of samples that were very much up my street, but would quite possibly be a bit tame for you two.

It was great to meet Donna in person, and I would like to stay in touch - and indeed go back to the province more often in future!

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Just realised that there's a triplet stablemate - Musc Nomade! Have added it back into the body of the post. : - )

Anonymous said...

Hello Vanessa,

Great to see a post from you in Belfast, and lovely to see you record the genuine good-natured friendliness of folks there. (Incidentally, I'm relieved that you too recall long-gone places that *used* to be when you revisit an old haunt; makes me feel better about doing it too!)

I'm rather liking Donna's taste in fragrance. More to track down and test here!

cheerio, Anna in Edinburgh

Cheryl Quimby said...

A great read! (and plus 1 for the Nars Orgasm blush. I'm on my 3rd compact, I think). :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Anna,

Always delighted to hear from you!

There were so many little instances of kindness from the locals over there - more than I could do justice to in the post. I don't think where I live is especially friendly, and the contrast was most striking.

Yes, Donna has interesting taste all right - we do have more crossover than I perhaps suggested, but she definitely "goes more boldly" than me!

Vanessa said...

Hi Cheryl,

Hurrah - another blush buddy. Between you, me, Undina and Dionne (if you can be "between" four people?) I sense we are now well and truly in the realms of Multiple Orgasms.

; - )

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful read! I'm glad you had such a great time in your hometown.
So you discovered Orgasm, huh?
I'm not sure whether you wore it on Thursday (which is testament for the glitter not being apparent), but you did look lovely and blooming is a perfect word for it.

lovethescents said...

After all that, I would have expected more of your readers to ensure an Orgasm of their own, but it's still early days ;-)

Vanessa said...

Hi Olfactoria,

Thanks your appreciative comment and for saying I looked blooming - the run to the tube may have contributed to the flushed look, I suspect. And certainly not the Orgasm, hehe, as I believe I was wearing a L'Oreal blush in Rosewood on the day! : - )

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

LOL! I must say that when it comes to an Orgasm I have been pleasantly surprised by how many Bonkers readers are "sisters doing it for themselves"! Why, Cheryl is on her third already... ; - )

odonata9 said...

Great post! My mother recently remarried and her new hubby is from Belfast, and boy he likes to let everyone know! And now I understand his email address now too - it is norniron@.... Never thought to ask what it mean! Sounds like a great city - my mom visited with him last yer and the pictures were beautiful.

Vanessa said...

Hi odonata9,

How interesting about your new stepfather being from Norn Iron - glad I could shed light on that puzzling descriptor for the province!

In terms of letting people know about your origins, I guess I have been rather restrained in that regard, as this is possibly the first mention of Belfast in over 300 posts, hehe! : - ) But hey, it is a great city, so its natives want to spread the word, not least because it was under a cloud for so long during The Troubles. The place is really jumping now, like Manchester or Liverpool. I'd say it also has a bit of the feel of Mid-Western cities in the US like Toledo or Cleveland. : - )