The first person to grope my body in 2011 was a blonde with a ponytail. The fact that she was in uniform didn’t make the experience any sexier. I’d been selected for a random screening while passing through security at Montreal’s Trudeau airport on my way back to Paris. I declined to go through their newly-installed microwave oven, not out of modesty but because I object to being put through a scanner whose long-term effects on health are untested and unknown. So: enhanced pat-down. At least they didn’t make me pull out the little hand-labeled vial jostling against my Ventolin in my regulation Ziploc bag. I’d have ditched the asthma medication before I consigned those few drops to the bin overflowing with half-squeezed toothpaste tubes and tubs of peanut butter: in the throat-catching, scent-deadening Canadian cold, perfume has always been my Ventolin.
When I pace the icy sidewalks of Ottawa just to stretch my legs – from my parents’ apartment complex, there is nowhere to walk to that isn’t a neon-lit box selling the same things you can buy anywhere in North America – I tuck my nose in the collar of my fur coat, drenched in Encens Flamboyant or Avignon. I tend to take incense fragrances to Canada in winter, not because of their religious connotation (though baptized a Catholic, I only set foot in churches for the art) but because their dry, burnt quality is the mineral answer to the white nothingness of snow. I spray them on outside and only on my coat, since my father proclaimed long ago perfumes gave him headaches.
As usual, I’ve carried a Tupperware box full of samples during my Christmas holiday in the hope of writing a few reviews but my father isn’t feeling too well so I refrain from testing them: the cacophonous wafts of several blotters would filter from under my bedroom door. My little puffs of Avignon and Encens Flamboyant – so unlike “perfume” I’m hoping my dad won’t read them as such -- remain my only, tenuous links to the oldest scents of the Old World.
All through my stay, as I prattled on about the blog and the London course and the book, my mother kept asking me: “Why perfume? You always liked it, but there were many other things you were interested in you could have chosen to write about.”
I could have answered each tiny puff of beauty was my stand against the ever-more-standardized world of shopping malls and big-box stores where I’ve chosen not to live; the essences of flowers, spices and woods grown in warmer climes a protest against the four-month-long winters of my youth. I could have said that I was drenching myself in sweet scents for all the times she’s snuck a spritz of Sublime on a Kleenex and tucked it under her pillow, ever the daughter rebelling against the Law of the Father. I could have said perfume was the language of my chosen country; that in many ways it is my chosen country, invisible and borderless, and that this is the reason I need to learn its language.
I didn’t. Some things are best written, not said – and I know one person in Québec, my aunt Sylvia, named after the Schubert lied by my music-loving grandfather, who will be reading this, and who will understand. She speaks the language.