‘The object of our lives is to look at, listen to, touch, taste things. Without them, - these sticks, stones, feathers, shells, - there is no Deity.’
- Reginald Horace Blyth
There used to be a perfume store, 16 rue de Bellechasse. Timidly, delicately tucked amidst the lavish boutiques of the 7ème arrondissement. I walked past it three autumns ago, a three-autumn younger me. I have not been to Paris in a while; I wonder if it is still there.
‘There comes a time in your life when you decide who you want to be.’ The girl I was that rainy evening was searching for a number of things: un petit bistrot where friends were waiting to toast the last of this year’s Beaujolais nouveau, and perhaps a greater purpose for her life, this life, than she had found so far.
I was stopped by the faint smell of camellias trickling out of the store, bathing the sidewalk in front. It must have seeped through the keyhole, the slits above the hinges, the minute crack between the door and the floor. The smell of a garden, a seat in the shade, some place warm by the sea perhaps, on a mild summer day. A few steps away, the crowds and fumes were pouring out of the métro.
There are luxuries we are told we cannot afford if we are to survive in this world. There is no time or place for camellias in a purposeful life.
And yet there was. 16 rue de Bellechasse. To the left of the entrance of the building, to the right of the maroquinerie. A misleading address for a place so disengaged from worldly reality. I tried the old white door, was surprised it was open, hesitated an instant, then stepped inside. Into a world ‘wafting on a perfumed cloud a few inches above normal life.’
Music would have been superfluous in a place like this. Quiet reigned instead. Louis XV furniture, creamy white, thin threads of gold painted into the hand carved creases in the wood. A glass tabletop, a few glass shelves, on which ribbed crystal bottles were lined and topped with round, golden lids, thin gold ribbon ties knotted around the long and delicate necks.
The labels were handwritten. The names started off predictably: Le Chèvrefeuille, Le Jasmin, Rose Absolue, Neroli. La Violette, Ambre Sauvage, Vanille Charnelle, Vanille Exquise. Then the scents and words took an interesting turn. I read Eau du Ciel, Eau du Sud, Sables, Songes, Passion.
Into the bottles, the perfume organ had played symphonies. What could water from the sky smell like? Did it smell different in the South? What was the smell of sand, thought, passion? I reached for Ce soir ou Jamais.
Images and emotions spilled out of Pandora’s box; the perfume maker’s memory. The smell of faint rose, rich and sweet port wine, and the anticipation of a kiss, perhaps, at the end of the night.
I opened Un Matin d’Orage and a storm burst out, the smell of rain and wet earth, cold air on my nose through the wide open window, on a winter morning in bed. L’Ile au Thé. Heure Exquise. A million stars in Nuit Etoilée. Vent de Folie smelled racy, wild. Tenue de Soirée smelled like champagne.
Neither presence nor absence, the scents were possibilities. Ephemeral but for the impression they left, like all beautiful things. I had thought that I knew who I was and what I wanted of myself and my life. But in that perfume store, that December night, I reached for the shelves and allowed myself the uncomfortable luxury of changing my mind. I chose a bottle at random, Grand Amour, dabbed a few drops behind my ears, and went on to be an aimless sidewalk wanderer, a daydreamer, a smeller of scents for a night.
For years I thought that perfume store and the real world could not coexist; to survive in one meant to compromise the other. But I have grown three autumns since then. Since I found that place, 16 rue de Bellechasse, while I was searching for mine, I have found that scents and words, and the sun in my coffee, are anything but luxuries. That beauty is not selfish, and poetry not dissociation from the world, but a heightened, more hopeful way of surviving it: ‘Look among the garbage and the flowers, there are heroes in the seaweed.’
‘The sun shines, snow falls, mountains rise and valleys sink, night deepens and pales into day, but it is only very seldom that we attend to such things . . . When we are grasping the inexpressible meaning of these things, this is life, this is living.’
- Reginald Horace Blyth, Haiku,Volume II
There is purpose in places and days in which sadness and injustice are real, but also in places and moments of happiness, in the possibility of camellias in December, a storm in a bottle, the first ray of sunshine of the day.