Twenty-five years ago today, I was alone in a hotel on an industrial estate in Hannover. I was feeling upset and disorientated, having just been thrown out of a meeting. This was the first of only two occasions in my career where this has happened to me - the other is detailed here - and the only time it has occurred before the meeting had even started. I was working on a market strategy study (aka 'spying' mission), and had shown up for my appointment with the second biggest manufacturer in Germany of a type of industrial fastener. Unfortunately, the respondent took one look at my business card - which had a distinctive owl motif on it - and promptly showed me the door. It seems that only the week before, my boss had 'broken down the door' of the company's French office, and interviewed a Product Manager there. Evidently this chap had been rather too forthcoming with information about his sales, market share etc, and news had got back to the sister company in Germany that these owl people were bad news. Thus it was that a quarter of an hour later, I was back in my cramped hotel room staring bleakly out of the window and wondering whether I might have bitten off more than I could chew with my rather unorthodox career choice.
I could see the motorway from my window, and as the day wore on, I remember noticing a lot of cars streaming west - hundreds and hundreds of them, almost all of them Trabants, a budget East German make famously - but quite falsely - reputed to be constructed out of cardboard. A good deal of the vehicle was fashioned out of Duroplast, a hard plastic akin to Bakelite and made from recycled materials, so environmentally you could say that the 'Trabby' was in fact ahead of its time. Well...if you disregard its smoky exhaust and high levels of pollution, that is. So yes, there were Trabants pouring along the A2 as far as the eye could see. My first thought was whether it might be some kind of a rally - like those conventions of Morris Minor or Mini owners, say - but on the face of it it seemed unlikely that so many East Germans would be able to attend such an event in the West. Plus there were an awful lot of them. By teatime, I had switched on the news, and the momentous, epoch-making penny finally dropped. Okay, so I may have 'run into a wall' in terms of my project, but any lingering sense of personal failure or disappointment was banished by this extraordinary news of the jubilant dismantling of a far, far greater barrier. And so I sat on my bed, mesmerised for hours by the unfolding TV coverage, till sleep overcame me.
|A Trabant on a pole near Neurueppin|
Over the years that followed, my work took me back many times to Germany, both the West and 'Former East', as it was known for a transitional time. People also talked about the 'alte und neue Bundeslaender' ('old and new federal provinces'), which was another way of drawing the distinction between the two. For a while after reunification there were still many tell-tale signs that you were crossing into the East: for even in the absence of an actual border, many of the old control towers still stood broodingly where the frontier used to be - eg on the A2 near Helmstedt. The countryside also looked subtly different to my eye - farm buildings tended to be more ramshackle and dour, and everywhere in the East there were more cobblestones.
But gradually, gradually, as investment poured into the 'neue Bundeslaender' as surely as the Trabants had poured out that fateful day, the two landscapes and their people knitted themselves back together - differences were slowly blurred, to the point one day of being almost imperceptible. Shiny new shopping centres and industrial parks sprung up; the whole country seemed lighter and brighter and more affluent. As I write, I am wearing a favourite pair of trousers bought in Schwerin, a town with a fairytale palace on an island in a lake. Post-reunification, I had a lot more opportunity to visit the whole of the country, and especially liked the fact that on days which would be a public holiday in the West - Fronleichnam, I'm looking at you! - companies in some provinces of the East were still open for business. Why, you could even pop into a council building and do a bit of photocopying (for a small fee), which felt almost decadent. ;)
So to mark this great occasion of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I decided to feature a perfume from the large collection of perfume house biehl. parfumkunstwerke, the brainchild of Berlin-based Thorsten Biehl. The word 'Kunstwerke' means 'art works' in German, and Biehl also speaks of 'Art in a flacon' and his 'Olfactory Gallery'. He has engaged the services of six perfumers - three 'Young Savages' and three 'Modern Classics' - who were encouraged to go forth and follow their creative muse, free from the usual commercial restraints of 'market research, marketing or maximising profits'. (No really, the lack of market research is completely fine by me....!)
Now I am only familiar with the 'Young Savages' sub-group - Jeffrey Dame of Hypoluxe kindly sent me a set of all eight scents...ooh, about a year ago now - the Bonkers wheels grind very slowly, as you see. There are three each by Geza Schoen and Mark Buxton, and two by Patricia Choux, who are respectively tagged as 'rebellious', 'provocative' and 'unconventional'. The perfumes are identified only by the initials of their creator plus a two digit numeral - eg mb03, gs01, ps02 etc. As Biehl explains: 'My focus is always on the artist and work behind it.' Such a purist approach has admirable motives I am sure, yet speaking as a punter I can't help feeling a little shortchanged by the pedestrian monotony of the nomenclature. For I like the name of a perfume to conjure up a little ambience - either through its literal meaning, wider connotations or the sheer euphony of the word(s). As for the whole 'perfume as fine art' debate, famously championed by Chandler Burr in his Art of Scent project, I am at best ambivalent on this point. But neither of those aspects of the biehl. parfumkunstwerke concept detracted from my enjoyment of mb03, the standout scent to my nose in the Young Savages collection.
Plus it seems fitting on such a day to pick a scent by one of the 'more German' perfumers in Thorsten Biehl's stable. Well, Mark Buxton was born in Derby to an English father and German mother, but moved to Germany with his parents at the age of eight, later training as a perfumer at fragrance company Haarmann & Reimer (now Symrise) in Holzminden. To complicate matters further, for the past 20 years or more, Buxton has been based in Paris, and when fellow blogger Sabine of Iridescents (a full-blown German!) met him at a perfume event in London, they quickly lapsed into English after initially striking up conversation in German. For the purposes of this post, however, I declare Mark Buxton to be 'quite German enough'.
And so to the perfume itself. True to Buxton's 'provocative' moniker, mb03 lacks a head note, and cuts straight to the chase of the 'radiant spicy elements' in the heart of the composition.
Heart notes: Roman chamomile, pink pepper, elemi
Base notes: cistus, kashmir wood, styrax, ambergris, musk, incense, sandalwood, patchouli
As it happens, Katie Puckrik is another fan of mb03, explaining in one of her penpal exchanges with Dan Rolleri:
'Yes, I own and love mb03, and find it completely necessary. I suppose it's my "summer Avignon".'
The Avignon Katie references is Bertrand Duchaufour's exploration of Catholicism in Comme des Garcons' Series 3 Incense collection. I have to say I find mb03 'completely necessary' too, and agree that it is lighter and more accessible than Avignon. Avignon for novitiates, if you will. As ever, I can't truthfully distinguish any individual notes in the composition: my nose never gets past the soft curtain of frankincense. But no matter - mb03 is meditative and calming, reassuring the wearer that a bad day at work is just a bad day. It makes me think of cupolas on various Berlin buildings - not all of them churches, mind, and not all of the churches Catholic.
|Berlin Cathedral ~ Source: Wikipedia|
Yet at the same time the slight pricking sensation of the incense reminds me of the tingle of mizzling rain falling on paving stones (some of them cobbled!), and on my face; of dank cold days spent killing time on industrial estates, with not even the garishly lit but warm haven of a McDonalds for shelter. Mb03 is grey days and wet roads, windscreen wipers at full pelt and cold that gets in your bones. But there's a hotel with a hot shower at the end of the murkily unspooling Landstrasse, followed by a flinty glass of Grauburgunder with my favourite dish of Zanderfilet and Salzkartoffeln.
Yes, after all this time - and many more meetings that took their course in a completely normal way ;) - Germany feels like a second home. And I for one am happy that it finally became reunited with its other half. Or rather that - to be mathematically correct about it - it became 25% bigger* on this day 25 years ago...
* in population terms