Lots of people have epiphanies associated with specific sounds or songs. I have mine through smells. I am not thinking about those smells that set people off on a starry-eyed, and awfully generic, wistful remembrance complete with a sigh and a nod, such as: ‘Aaaaah, the smell of fresh snow’, or ‘Oooooh the smell of the ocean...’. No, no, I am talking of very specific smells capable to conjure up very clear, individual, specific memories. Mine always entail toiletries and often hotels or cities and I love how unpredictable their existence and power are, as some smells are potent reminders of certain places, but are not my favourite smells, and others are perfect ways to make me feel emotional on tap.
Take the verbena soap by L’Occitane. I don’t really like verbena, as it is tangy and sharp and very fresh and lemony, but when I used to live at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin, that’s what was there and every single time I smell that soap, I am transposed to my then bathroom, a marble room larger than my current bedroom with a deep deep bath and a separate glass shower cubicle.
It’s amazing because my time in Dublin really is a bit of a blur; I was working myself into the ground, getting up at 6.30 am and finishing my days past midnight, often falling asleep with Blackwood Farm, which I had to read for my PhD, on my lap. I couldn’t tell you what the weather was like and I don’t remember the names of half of the people I worked with, but stick a verbena soap under my nose, and I can describe my room and my bathroom down to the most minute fittings, carpet and light-bulbs included. Isn’t it amazing?
Ambra Di Venezia, a body moisturizer that I bought at Takashimaya in New York, is the smell that I associate with the city itself. It’s not bagels or pretzels, though they prickle my memory too, but a mouth-watering blend of amber and spices that comes in a cobalt jar with a black lid and a yellow label that brings up the Big Apple at its most vivid, as if I were watching a montage in a Wes Anderson movie. If I close my eyes and concentrate hard, I can recreate the smell in my mind as my mouth begins to water. It is that good. Then I feel a stab of longing so sharp and so very real that veiled tears start rising.
Thierry Mugler’s Angel, which happens to be what I wear, always transposes me back to Manchester Airport in 1996, when I first sniffed it and bought it. It’s an enduring love affair that has only once come under the fire of the wandering nose, when I came across Tom Ford’s Black Orchid and for a moment I thought that, perhaps, I was secretly harbouring a desire for change. I was not.
Molton Brown’s Seamoss means London (and the now sadly defunct Parkes Hotel, I should tell you), while Space NK’s Compelling bath oil flies me right back to Chicago. I have just finished my last Compelling and I was rather upset to learn that Space NK has now discontinued this blend. I have saved a few drops at the bottom of a very tiny plastic bottle and will hang onto it tooth and nail.
As the potent scent of spices and tuberose used to raise above the warm water, I was not really standing under my shower in my tiny white bathroom; no, I was soaked to my neck in the low bath at The Drake, one afternoon at six o’clock, my face plastered with one inch worth of moisturiser, a much needed respite from the -20C outside I should add, and my glassy gaze glued to the multi-faced glass light fitting above. I should really write to Space NK and suggest they re-introduce Compelling to their ranges even though they needn’t even call it that if they want a change. In fact, I call it Chicago. Who would have thought they could fit so much in such a small bottle?