The Scent of Paris
Particular scents can evoke memories of times, people or places that have long remained dormant, allowing you to relive unforgettable moments in the Proustian sense. When I moved to France, I decided that since a fresh chapter in my life was beginning, I should choose a new French perfume to accompany it. My hope was that, over the years to come, I’d always associate its scent with my Parisian life. But selecting a new perfume when you’re in one of the world’s scent meccas is a challenge. Should I err on the side of the truly Parisian Chanel No. 5? Or perhaps evoke a touch of the French Riviera with Lubin’s Gin Fizz, which was created specially for Grace Kelly? Then there were the perfume houses of Fragonard, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Hermès, Robert Piguet and many others to consider, all with menageries of exquisitely bottled scents, just waiting to attach themselves to my memories of Paris …
After a long olfactory exploration, I finally settled on Olène, a fresh, floral fragrance from Diptyque – rather fitting since the parfumier’s beginnings lie in the quartier of Saint-Germain, which wasn’t far from my Paris apartment. It was a chilly spring evening when, having applied a final spritz of my new scent, I headed out towards the Odéon métro. The moon smiled knowingly from behind the elegant rooftop silhouettes of the sixth arrondissement, casting its gleam across the steps of the Odéon-Théâtre. A city filled with perpetually rosy cheeks was a sign that summer was still a while away. But although the evening air was brisk, it wasn’t unpleasant, and was made all the more cosy by the full moon’s cheerful presence.
My footsteps echoed down rue Racine as I trailed my fingers absent-mindedly along the cold, hard stone of a building. I saw the silhouette of a young man walking towards me, the glow of the street light catching the strands of his tangled curls. I noticed the tactile texture of his tweed coat when we passed each other on the narrow footpath, even as I fumbled to find my métro ticket. When I rounded the corner onto rue Monsieur le Prince, the ticket fluttered from my pocket. Stopping to retrieve it, I heard the cadence of rapid footsteps on the path behind me.
Having been subject to the wiles of more than one unseemly character on the streets of Paris, my first instinct was to keep walking – quickly. But as I turned to a male voice calling “Excusez-moi! Mademoiselle!”, I quickly recognised the man who I’d passed moments before, running breathlessly towards me. Checking to see that there was no one behind me who he could be pursuing, I did a mental inventory of my possessions, thinking perhaps I’d dropped more than a métro ticket. Thankfully, all was intact.
Puzzled, I stopped and turned. “I’m very sorry to bother you,” he said in rapid French, “but I must ask – what perfume you are wearing?” I paused, momentarily thrown by the fact that someone has chased me down the street to ask such a question. I stammered my response, telling him the name. “Well,” he smiled, “it’s a very beautiful scent.” I mustered a thank you and, as I turned to leave, he grabbed my hand, smiled and twirled me around in a little pirouette. “Bonne soirée,” he grinned, then turned and walked off into the night.
It was a beguiling yet quintessentially Parisian moment, and a perfumed memory certainly worth keeping.
A version of this piece was originally published as part of my column ‘My Life in Paris’ in the August-September 2013 issue of France Today.