simple pleasures: 5 posts

Why Enjoying Scent is Important

“Is there any point in wearing perfume these days?” asked one of my readers, arguing that in our socially distant reality, perfume is becoming an irrelevant accessory. My first thought was that since we wear perfume for ourselves, being alone or in a crowd doesn’t change the pleasure it gives us. (I also wanted to point out that right now is the best time to wear perfume, since fewer people might complain about it.) Yet, the question had another layer to it, and it was about the order of priorities. How important is the enjoyment of scents now when we face a crisis?

First, let me separate perfume as a luxury product from the idea of enjoying scents. Anyone can spend a moment of their day smelling something beautiful–blooming flowers, a cup of coffee, their baby’s hair, and doing so consciously is what makes these pleasures more intense. The reason I started recording videos teaching smelling techniques is because paying more attention to our sense of smell is vital for our physical and mental health. A large fraction of our genetic makeup is devoted to olfaction. Our sense of smell is neither “primitive” nor “dispensable.” As anyone suffering from anosmia, the loss of the sense of smell, can testify, food and intimacy become bland when the scent component is gone.

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In the Defense of Guilt-free Pleasure

I often receive letters from women explaining that they feel guilty about their interest in perfume, because it’s “too indulgent” or “unnecessary.” It’s a luxury and we can live without it. Or so the argument goes. Except that it doesn’t make sense. Perfume is not a fundamental need for human life, but you could say the same for music, art, fashion, sports, restaurants or millions of other things that are not strictly necessary for survival but essential for a happy life. There is no reason to deprive yourself of something that gives you pleasure, and giving in to it shouldn’t be associated with guilt.

great great grandmother-300museum-perfume

Scent is one of the simplest and most rewarding of enjoyments. By stimulating the sense of smell, you fantasize about another time and place, uncover a whole universe of new sensations and add splashes of color to the most ordinary day. Something as ubiquitous as a trip to the grocery store can become a fun experience as you smell the earthy tang of carrots or the pungent sharpness of onions piled in the vegetable section.  New research has revealed that the sense of smell is even more intricate than previously thought, and that smelling is one of the best exercises for the brain.

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Things That Makes One’s Heart Beat Faster

I would love to have shared a cup of tea with Sei Shonagon, a 11th century Japanese court lady and author of The Pillow Book. What a character she must have been! It is rare that a personage removed by so many centuries feels so modern, but I can just imagine her doling out choice comments and sharing some court gossip. Of course, I would be worried that this aesthete might find either my conversation too dull or my attire too plain, since her diary is evidence enough of her strong opinions.

cherry blossoms-350

Besides anecdotes about court life, The Pillow Book is full of poetic vignettes and observations. It’s a world where the first snowfall can be cause for celebration and where lovers send each other incense perfumed letters. Sei Shonagon’s rapier-sharp wit and appetite for life shine through her compilation of stories. That she is not all charm and sweet manners makes her even more fascinating.

The Pillow Book was written during a particularly trying period of Sei Shonagon’s life. Emperor Ichijo had recently taken on another consort, sidelining the writer’s patron, Empress Teishi, to a secondary role. Incidentally, the biggest rival to Sei Shonagon’s literary skill served the new Empress Shoshi. It was Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the first modern novel, The Tale of Genji. With the declining fortunes of Empress Teishi, Sei Shonagon’s future was likewise troubling, and she probably found solace in writing.

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Rose and Vanilla Almond Oil Treatment For Lustrous Skin

The first thing that I found interesting about Brussels was not its Manneken Pis mascot (chalk it up to the uniquely Bruxellois sense of fun) and not even the common sight of beer drinking at 8am (chalk it up to the grey weather). It was the dense concentration of beauty and hair salons. Every street, whether elegant or run down, has several of them, ranging from omnipresent franchises like Olivier Dachkin to tiny hole in the wall places that look like someone’s living room. Judging by the perfectly coiffed and perfumed grandmothers, age has no bearing on the desire to be beautiful.

The women in my family take their beauty rituals seriously, but spas and luxury salon treatments rarely tempt them. Ask my mom or my grandmother about their tips for silky hair or luminous skin, and you will get a lecture, along with handwritten recipes. My great grandmother left behind several thick notebooks filled with beauty and health advice. Nothing can inspire me to take better care of myself than leafing through the yellowing pages that smell of vanilla and sawdust and wondering if as a young woman, my great grandmother really made hair masks of egg yolks and cognac and rubbed her hands with cucumber juice, as she advises in her delicate, loopy handwriting. The recipe I follow most often is a simple almond oil treatment. The note next to it says, “will make your skin as lustrous as mother of pearl,” and it was all the incentive I needed to go to the store and buy a bottle.

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5 Simple Summer Pleasures

One evening my husband and I strolled through the Beguinage in Leuven, a university town in the Flemish part of Belgium. Beguinages (or begijnhofs as they are called in Dutch) were medieval lay sisterhoods in which women led lives of piety and charity without taking permanent vows. At best, the Catholic church had an ambivalent attitude towards the beguines. Women weren’t supposed to have this much freedom or to exist independently from male control. The sisterhoods were prosecuted and labeled as heretics, but despite all of this they maintained their order. Belgium had the highest number of beguinages in the world, and about 30 remain today (albeit non-functioning). If the desire to live free from men counts, then the beguines might very well represent the earliest form of the women’s movement.

Although today Leuven’s Beguinage is a UNESCO heritage site housing university students and faculty, there is an aura of serenity pervading its narrow streets. The setting sun tints the grey cobblestones a rich gold and plays on the still water in the canals. The swallows paint delicate arabesques over the sky, making me strain my neck as I admire their graceful spins. The red geraniums spilling out of the window boxes give off their dusty metallic scent, and each tiny streets ends in a small secret garden awash in roses and privet. The beguines may have vanished, but their oasis of quiet beauty remains. Continue reading →

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