The Nose That Knows - NIGHT 4: SCENT - Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter

Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)


Chapter 29. The Nose That Knows

And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto thee sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And thou shalt make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: And thou shalt beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation.

Exodus 30: 34-36, King James Bible

The last time I remember a fragrance ravishing my senses had nothing to do with women. On a hot night in Los Angeles, visiting an old apartment house near the beach at Santa Monica, I walked into the courtyard, to be engulfed in the perfume of Cestrum nocturnum—night-blooming jasmine, also called Lady of the Night. Banks of it loomed out of the darkness on both sides. A fountain a few yards away, tiled in orange and brown, crawled with thousands of ladybugs. They tumbled and struggled in a frenzy. Nothing living could resist this stifling blitzkrieg of scent.

Such an epiphany was rare, since I have the olfactory equivalent of a tin ear. My nostrils had practically to touch the surface of wine before I got even a whiff of bouquet, and if Marie-Dominique asked my opinion of her new perfume, her hair had to be tickling my nose before I smelled anything.

I could tell the difference between perfume and no perfume, but not much more. When a woman held out the wrist on which she’d just dabbed something and asked, “What do you think of this?” I wasn’t so stupid as to say, “Don’t ask me. I can’t smell a thing.” A selection of evasions existed, and I became adept at their use. “Mmmm … interesting. Is it French?” worked most of the time. If it looked too expensive, I’d also had some success with “It’s lovely—but is it you?”

If I liked anything about perfume on women, it was the idea of it: the element of calculation it implied. Men generally want to be accepted for what they are, women for what they’ve become. Men don’t enjoy dressing up. Especially we dislike wearing ties or cufflinks or fragrances bought by loved ones. Each woman, on the other hand, is an individual work of art, a creation, intended to exhibit her skill at presentation. Speaking for myself, but I think also for many men, I find the most attractive element of female beauty its artificiality. And to that, perfume is crucial. In celebrating gardens, Louis Aragon, the most sexually ambivalent of the surrealists (his taste for white leather trousers rather gave him away), compared them to women and, in doing so, coined some phrases that, to me, apply equally to feminine beauty. In particular, he captured the appeal of a woman meticulously dressed, perfumed, and posed to impress.

Your very contours, your artless abandon, the gentle curves of your rises and hollows, the soft murmur of your streams, all make you the feminine element of the human spirit, often silly and wayward, but always pure intoxication, pure illusion.

A few years ago, I visited the headquarters of Fragonard in Grasse, on the Côte d’Azur. One enters the building from the street and then, since it’s built on a cliff, descends level by level, past its offices, its museum, its workshop, to the lowest, which houses a shop the very air of which seems to have been entirely replaced by perfume.

As the vendeuses let me sniff the various essences and fragrances I’d promised to buy for my wife and daughter, I could only think of the fortunate husbands and lovers to whom these women went home. Drenched in perfume day after day, how did they smell? Of what did they taste? Women who wish to make themselves particularly alluring to their lovers drink quantities of tea perfumed with orange or jasmine. If they consume enough—a full pot, according to the best advice—the scent manifests itself in their … um, juices. Was it the same with these girls? Did the fragrances they sold penetrate into their very cells? If I hadn’t been due in Antibes the next day on a film shoot, I would happily have devoted a few days to finding out.

Intellectually, I knew how Paris should smell: anise, absinthe, roasting chestnuts, coffee, all mixed with the rival perfumes worn by women in the street. In practice, I smelled almost nothing. Occasionally, the tang of burning charcoal catches my nose as I pass Giovanni at his longtime pitch outside Deux Magots. I sometimes smell burning sugar from a crêperie if the cook is, just at that moment, smearing the pancake with honey or Nutella or if a maker of barbe à papa was spinning colored sugar into what we called fairy floss as kids. Otherwise, I might as well have my head in a sack.

In planning a smell walk, I accordingly recruited an expert. Kate has turned her finely tuned sense of smell into an area of expertise. Sniffing out rare odors with the precision of a truffle hound, she traps them on absorbent paper for incorporation into “smell maps” that delineate a city not in geographical highs and lows but as overlapping zones of plant, animal, and chemical scents.

As a blind person exists in a world of touch and sound, Kate swims in a world of smells. In person agile and lean—as a hobby she runs marathons—she evokes both a forest animal and the dogs that hunt them. She’ll freeze “on point” as her nose traps a transient thread of smell.

“Ah! Get that? Roses …”

Her nose swings like a compass needle to point at a bush of yellow Desprez à Fleurs Jaunes in a tiny garden across the street.

“And … pizza?”

Swiveling back, she nails the overweight citizen of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, ambling past us, munching on a slice of quattro stagioni (“hold the anchovies”).

Montmartre seemed a good place to start. Calculating that it would be easier to begin at the highest point of the butte that dominates Paris to the north and work our way down, we arranged to meet on Place du Tertre.

Regarded as the village green of Montmartre, this gently sloping cobbled square with a few stoically enduring trees is drenched in history. When Baron Haussmann modernized central Paris, demolishing most of its slums, many of the dispossessed migrated up here, finding shelter under any available roof. Mills, workshops, and sheds became homes. With no municipal money for proper roads, goat tracks and even staircases were transformed into streets.

Montmartre became a popular weekend hangout for slummers. Being outside the city walls, it levied no tax on alcohol, and the police were either too indifferent or too scared to crack down on street crime, prostitution, abortionists, drug dealing, and cabarets presenting the sort of songs and dances never heard or seen on the grands boulevards.

In 1871, the end of the Prussian siege, the fall of Emperor Napoleon III and the defeat of the French army left Paris briefly ungoverned. Into the power vacuum rushed the citizens of this, the most rebellious of its districts, who gathered on Place du Tertre to declare the city a socialist enclave, the Commune. To back it up, they had a hundred cannon, purchased from their own pockets when it looked like the Prussians would invade the city rather than just besieging it.

The Commune introduced votes for women, pensions for widows and orphans, free education, separation of church and state, the suspension of usurious debt, enlightened working conditions, and staff takeovers of failing businesses. Opera and drama were performed free and the royal art galleries opened to the public for the first time. Delirious with freedom and the spring, the Montmartrois danced in the streets and sang a song written a decade before, “Les Temps des Cerises”—The Time of Cherries.

When we sing of the time of cherries

Even nightingales will be gay, and mocking blackbirds

Go wild in celebration

The cherries about which they sang weren’t the plump variety from Spain that flood French markets each summer in a tide of lipstick red. Bigarreau Napoléon cherries are heart-shaped rather than round. Yellow-pink, they bruise easily. Their flesh is more tart than the sugary Spanish fruit, and their season shorter. When the Bigarreau make their appearance in the markets in July, it’s a signal of more than a change in seasons. For a few weeks, Parisians are reminded that their city was once considered worth fighting, even dying, for.

The first troops sent to put down the rebellion mostly came from Paris, many even from Montmartre. They refused to fire on their own people but shot their commanders instead. After two generals had been killed by their own men, the army withdrew. Wiser heads within the Commune knew that, like the cherries, the uprising could not last. Fresh troops brought in from the south had no loyalty to Paris. As Communard factions bickered, traitors admitted the army through the gypsum mines under the hilltop where the cathedral of Sacré-Coeur would eventually stand. Tens of thousands of Communards were slaughtered or deported to New Caledonia, and the last verses of Les Temps des Cerises became a lament.

It is short, the time of cherries

Coral-pink fruit one picks in dreams

I will always love the time of the cherries.

It’s a time I keep in my heart—

An open wound.

Although Place du Tertre seemed a good place to start our smell walk, Kate and her friend Kevin, who’s come over from London to watch her at work, flinched, as I did, from the mob filling the square.

In 1898, André Citroën, determined to prove his cars could go anywhere, drove one up winding rue Lepic and triumphantly parked here. It would be the last time anyone drove or parked easily in Montmartre. Today, a combination of one-way systems and massive tourism has made the streets impassable to any vehicle less flexible than the toylike train that trundles tourists around the butte, towed like children in an amusement park.

Traditionally, it was at the restaurant Mère Catherine at 6 Place du Tertre that Russian Cossacks in March 1814, flooding into Paris after the defeat of Napoleon, demanded to be served bystro!—quickly—and created an enduring term for a café. They’d be pleased to see that the row of postcard sellers and fast-food stalls that used to occupy the center of the place had become a cluster of sit-down restaurants, above which a few surviving trees poked their heads like drowning giraffes. The alley between where the center restaurants ended and those fringing the square began was cruised by predatory street artists who, if you let them catch your eye, homed on you with sketch pad and pastels, hungry to imprison you on paper.

As a miasma of hot oil, burned sugar, and sweating flesh threatened to drown Kate’s sense of smell, we retreated down rue Lamarck to the frontage of Sacré-Coeur. Though tourists had colonized the tumble of steps below the cathedral, the evening breeze swept the air clean and clear, showing the valley of Paris at its best. This view never disappoints.


Sacré-Coeur by Raymond Thiollière

One can’t say the same about Sacré-Coeur, one of Paris’s most familiar sights but among the least visited. Once one has toiled up here by métro, funicular, and on foot, it seems a waste of the effort to simply visit a church, particularly one as odd as this one, perched on the hilltop like a cluster of button mushrooms or a particularly unflattering hat.

The pale bulbous domes evoke nothing ecclesiastical. A 1920s caricature depicted them as penises squirting indiscriminately over the city—which, given Montmartre’s scandalous history, is closer to poetic truth. The artist of that image was Raymond Thiollière, one of the talented soreheads who traditionally flock to Montmartre. He worked in woodcuts, a particularly unforgiving technique. The artist uses a chisel to gouge shallow lines into a block of wood, then inks the surface and prints off a copy. Some artists soften its almost brutal graphic style by using colored inks and finer tools, but Thiollière didn’t bother. Even his gentler images, such as a view of Place du Tertre in the 1920s, an empty square inhabited by a few ambling locals, convey an air of despair, while most verge on madness. He died in 1929, in the same anonymity in which he’d lived. The single website to take notice of his work comments: “As far as we can discover, this artist wrote nothing, gave no lectures nor interviews of importance, nor has any correspondence been published. This page awaits any information.” None has been forthcoming.

Looking up at the dusty gray façade of Sacré-Coeur, Kate asked, “Should we go inside?”

“If you like,” I said. “Perhaps we’ll find the odor of sanctity.”

Does virtue smell better than sin? The nuns and priests around whom I was raised were as prone as any sinners to body odor and the furtive fart. Certain saints, even after death, were supposed to give off a perfume, usually compared to violets.

It was less common among the living, though the British playwright Alan Bennett sometimes caught a whiff of what appeared to be a heavenly odor. In one case, a waiter at an outdoor restaurant in Rome, it turned out to be particularly powerful aftershave, but when Bennett detected it while visiting the country home of Alec Guinness, he was convinced he’d found in that mild, courteous, and modest actor the true scent of holiness—until, walking by a grove of balsam poplars, he realized it was their buds that gave off the delicious fragrance, a scent so intense that the Bible celebrates it as the balm of Gilead. It may even have been the myrrh, which, with gold and frankincense, the three wise men brought as gifts to the infant Jesus.

Sadly, Sacré-Coeur held no balm of Gilead. The one overpowering smell was paraffin wax. In every alcove, before every statue, and at both entry and exit doors, banks of candles blazed. Two Euros bought a tiny candle in a metal cup that burned for about fifteen minutes. For ten, you could have a red or yellow glass tumbler filled with enough wax for an hour. I half expected to see the image of Jesus on the inside of the glass, with the information that, for a small additional sum, you could take the glass home as a souvenir, but Sacré-Coeur drew the line at that degree of commercialization—at least for now.

I was tempted to light a candle for the lost innocence of this ancient tradition. “It reminds me of childhood birthday cakes,” Kate said. We both knew she was looking for a bright side in the pervasive commercial gloom. During my Catholic boyhood, each church had only one bank of candles, payment was optional, and the air was perfumed with that distinctive merging of heat and honey that signifies burning beeswax—the closest approximation, to me anyway, of the true odor of sanctity. Back then, the church had insisted that ecclesiastical materials be as close to nature as possible. Not only was beeswax natural; it yielded a pure golden light and that pleasant scent. American author Helen Mackay, writing about Paris under German occupation, articulated a formula for the fragrance I’d hoped to find: “the smell that so belongs to old French houses, of beeswax and musk and secrets.” But paraffin burned slower and cost less, so beeswax candles went the way of meatless Fridays and the Latin mass.

As we were ready to leave the cathedral, an idea struck me. While no scent would cling to stone, the wood screening the entrance and exit might, over a century, have soaked up some odors. Putting our noses to the dark oak, we sniffed for a distinctive signature. Did the faintest trace linger of the incense burned here in decades of high masses, the floral arrangements of a thousand funerals? Then Kate nudged me. A large security man was eyeing us. We escaped into the twilight and the more familiar though less saintly smells of sweat and sore feet.