I remember as a little girl, our house smelled…different. Incense wafted gently from the little prayer room in our basement through every room, enveloping the entire house in the scent of sandalwood (with a hint of roasted cumin coming from the kitchen).
My American school friends would come over to our suburban Chicago home, wrinkling their noses in displeasure at the unfamiliar smell. “What is THAT?” they would shriek. “What is what?” I would wonder, not smelling anything out of the ordinary. To me, it was just the smell of my surroundings. Of my family. Of my home.
As cliche as it might sound, scent has always had the power to transport me — more than books, films, photographs, or food. A whiff of a passing stranger can immediately bring me right back to a specific evening (with a specific person), or to a specific place I long to return to (or in some cases I long to forget).
The smell of burning leaves on a fall drive through upstate New York has me smacking my lips thinking I am at a roadside food stall in Mumbai, a street vendor grilling corn on the cob in front of me on an open coal fire. A trace of patchouli in a hand soap has me smiling, picturing an old college boyfriend’s dorm room, the heady scent figuring heavily into the oil blend he poured into a bodega candle (an act I found sophisticated back in the day). The grapefruit notes in a burning candle has me back in my 20s as a young lawyer living for weeks on end in a very fancy London hotel with very nice smelling linens due to a very generous client expense account.
My fondness for these kinds of memories has translated into a love of perfume. And as a result, I collect perfumes the way other people might collect shoes or purses. A library of perfumes to suit a library of memories.
I attempted to find a signature scent on a trip to Florence with my daughter last August with the talented nose at Aqua Flor, a charming Florentine perfumery. We went through over 80 single notes, ranking and eliminating elements one by one over the course of three Prosecco filled hours, resulting in a bottle of what I hoped would be my “signature scent”, blending together memories of Italian summers, Indian winters, and a hint of New York. I waited patiently for the various elements to combine and settle together over the next month, spraying it on my neck the minute my plane hit the tarmac in New York and delighted in the perfection we had achieved.
But a shameful confession if you will indulge me: I cheat on it often.
Some days I want a subtle floral note, like strings of white flowers worn in braids on Indian women at temples, but where the scent is only noticeable on me if someone comes in a little too close (or is my husband) and I dab a touch of In Fiore’s Baisers de Jasmin on my neck.
Others, I am nostalgic for a long early fall afternoon reading under a fig tree and liberally spray Rafalias Pharmacy’s (fig perfume I discovered in a little pharmacy on a Greek island holiday) throughout my hair. Still others, I simply want to be transported to my childhood home and reach for a modern interpretation of my childhood incense memories, Sana Jardin’s Sandalwood Temple. And if I ever want a dash of mystery to keep you guessing, I might layer on some of DS & Durga’s I Don’t Know What, but now I have told you my secret.