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June 16, 2011

Scent of Travel

Poster

The announcement came that my flight is going to be delayed by another hour. I actually love airports and have many pleasant memories associated with them, other than those times when I was either being interrogated by Italian custom officials or being taken for a drug smuggler by their American counterparts. Yet, I love the rush of the crowd, anticipation of a new journey, bittersweet pangs of parting, slight fear of take off, and impatience to arrive. My maternal grandfather was the director of a factory that transformed fighter jets into passenger planes, and I grew up surrounded by airplane parts. The airplane is perhaps the first thing I recall from childhood. I remember floating dahlias from my grandmother's garden in one of the containers made from a jet fuel cell. The silvery sides reflected intense sunshine, while the inner sides were coated with green slime from the constant contact with water. I would bend over the canister bringing my face closer to the sweet smelling water until my grandmother would warn me that I might fall in and drown. Somehow that did not scare me at all. Instead, I was fascinated by the silver well that tapered towards the bottom.

One of my great grandmothers was part Roma, and I must have inherited my nomadic tendencies from her. I often feel that at moments of dissatisfaction I have a strong urge to get on a plane and leave. Somehow, things are very different midair.

As I hear flight boarding calls and as I watching people rushing past me on the way to their destinations, I think about scents and travel. I am not talking about duty-free stores, which are fascinating, especially when the layover is long and the book has been finished during the first leg of the trip. What I mean here is travel via scent, the ability of smells to change spatial and temporal dimensions as we understand them, to blast a memory out of "homogenous, empty time," to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase. The desire to move beyond the universe we know best and to experience life as lived by others is at the core of many human achievements, not the least of which is perfume. Art Deco (1920s-1930s) made the enchantment with far away places the focus of its creativity. François Coty’s trendsetting Chypre (1917) was purportedly inspired by the scents of herbs and shrubs found on Cyprus. A mythical place in India, the garden Shalimar, built by Shah Jahangir for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, led Jacques Guerlain to create Shalimar (1925), a fragrance evoking a garden where jasmine embraces bitter orange trees—or at least, to christen the perfume he created by this name, which in itself constructs specific images for those who wear it. Islands in the Pacific and spices nurtured by their soil are the transporting essence of Ernest Beaux’s Bois des Iles for Chanel (1926). On a less exploratory note, Jean Patou understood the desire for a short break from the routine. Hence came Vacances (1936), an opalescent lilac and mimosa combination that transports you to the Côte d’Azur, leaving one feeling surrounded by a cool sea breeze and mild sunshine.

Some perfumers especially relish travel, grounding their creations firmly in the places that inspire them. Serge Lutens and Chris Sheldrake’s creations are vignettes of Middle Eastern impressions—spice markets (Arabie), sweetmeat shops (Rahät Loukoum), wind blowing through the desert (Chergui), camel caravans (Muscs Koublaï Khän), chai-hana (Fumerie Turque). Certain scents are linked to particular countries. Thus, India smells of jasmine (Serge Lutens A La Nuit), nag champa (Caron Narcisse Noir), and basmati rice. Egypt is the place where lotus is a revered flower, thus this note appears in creations inspired by the Nile and its environs (Olivia Giacobetti’s Cinq Mondes Eau Égyptienne, Jean-Claude Ellena’s Un Jardin Sur Le Nil for Hermès). Japan’s scent impression is green tea and sakura blossom (Guerlain Cherry Blossom) as well as cedarwood (Iunx L’Eau Sento No. 2). Greece smells of figs and cypress (Diptyque Philosykos), while Spain is redolent of roses and tobacco (Molinard Habanita). With Comme des Garçons, an intrepid traveler selects Russia as the travel destination--and Zagorsk, no less--with a combination of iris and Eastern Orthodox church incense.

My own fragrant magic carpets include Guerlain Coriolan, which smells like the hot rocks and shrubs I remember from Malta. Annick Goutal Petite Chérie awakens a memory of eating peaches on the Black Sea beach, sticky juices dripping onto warm sand. Frédéric Malle En Passant is Kiev in the spring. JAR Parfums Jardenia is an unreliable navigator, first taking me to Sochi, a Russian coast city smelling of magnolia and caper buds and then suddenly transplanting me in the middle of Androuët, a cheese shop on rue Saint-Dominique in Paris.

I sit on an uncomfortable airport chair staring out of the window behind which planes are taking off one after another. From the darkness shot with the straight ribbons of lights on the runway I see my own reflection. There is a mélange of scents that is the most potent temporal transmission belt for me--hot asphalt streets of Kiev, sweltering under the intense June sunlight, tall chestnut trees with their large dusty leaves, sugar cookies prepared by a local bakery. I want to run as fast as possible up the dark stairwell and enter the warm familiar scent of our old apartment. There is no perfume made up of these smells, however in about 8 hours I will experience them in reality. Sometimes, the Latin saying is poignantly true—navigare necesse est, to sail is necessary.

The article was originally written on July 4, 2005.

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