I love citrus. In fact, if I were a fruit, I would probably be a lemon (before Facebook inexplicably shut down my account on the day of my birthday last year, my FB alter ego, to stop my students from looking me up, was Lemon Peel). While I love all vegetables and fruit without exception, lemons, oranges and grapefruit are at the top of the pile for me somehow, so rich in truth clarity and sharpness: I always love how the citric acidity tears through your system and the sheer life force in those oil pores present in the fruit’s skin burst open from their untouched membranes and releases pure, unadulterated essence. Where most essential oils have to be dragged unwillingly from their giver – boiled, distilled, or drowned in hexane – the citrus oils are all libidinous, at the height of their potencies and waiting to burst forth: you just have to give them a squeeze.
Despite all of this and my large consumption of citrus fruit – particularly all the delectably tart, Japanese varieties such as the iyokan, whose thick, oiled skin is a veritable perfumed bonanza of citric power so strong you can fill an entire room with it when you open one- rarely am I satisfied in fact with a citrus perfume. It’s like with tea and coffee. I am ultimately more of a coffee drinker – I drink tons of it – but am not that fussy about where it comes from, from truck stop to fast food to gourmet (though it must always be real coffee, never instant, which somehow feels like poison). But I can drink it in cups, mugs, paper cups, anything, in the same way that I am fairly easy perfume-wise when it comes to anything ambery, coconutty, almondy – even if it is not one hundred per cent perfect I will probably wear it at least once or twice as I basically like that kind of smell. With tea, though, I am extremely selective. Phobic, almost. Probably traumatized by too many bad cases of ‘builder’s tea’ in the UK – luke-warm, malty, over-milked ‘English Breakfast’ muck served in stained mugs – even a hint of those foul gustatory memories makes me heave and as a result, like some high falutin duchess, I will only drink ‘English’ tea out of bone china cups and done my way: piping hot, either Earl Grey, or Darjeeling, or if it’s Ceylon or Assam, with the perfect addition of cardamon and nutmeg (delicious, actually, the way we drink it every morning). The cheery English clarion call ‘You want a cuppa tea?’ actually fills me with dread.
From an olfactory point of view it is the same with citrus perfumes. I am unbearably fussy. They never get it right. They are either too musky – I don’t like the classical citrus template in the familiar mode of 411 or Guerlain Eau Du Coq or Eau De Cologne Imperiale at all (I certainly don’t need any rosemary or neroli in it, nor any powder or Tonkin musc), too herbal – Eau De Guerlain, Eau d’hadrian -or else they contain too many harsh, synthetic modern wood notes either (almost impossible, now, to evade). Bergamot is one of the, if not the most exquisite essential oil(s) existing in our fragrant universe, and it is an oil I love both in perfumery – think of how it floats haughtily and beautifully above in Shalimar parfum – and as an essential oil for its healing properties – if you ever get a cold sore or a sore throat, this oil is simply the best (my body and bergamot are naturally in sync). Plus, unlike the revolting, gasoline-and-dill-pickle smell of tea tree oil, which is effective but whose scent I can’t abide, bergamot smells beautiful, and refreshing, into the bargain. Rarely, however, is it done justice in a competently rendered, bergamot namesake perfume.
New York based Atelier Cologne has really made a name for itself with its citrus perfumes over the past few years, and Bergamote Soleil is the latest addition to the ever expanding line. While I was unimpressed with the recent Cedrat Enivrant (too ninetiesy sport spritz), Pomelo Paradis (too synthetic boiled sweet – too ‘yellow’), Grand Neroli (initial impression: fantabulously citric symphonia – later, boring) and Orange Sanguine (nearly there! adorable beginning, really like it, not so fussed about the musk note later that reminds me of Etat Libre d’Orange’s horrifying Secretions Magnifiques), Bergamote Soleil has perhaps the most deliriously enjoyable beginning section of any Atelier Cologne citrus perfume so far – quite immediate and appealing (though I am yet to sample Mandarine Glaciale, which also sounds quite nice: in a review I wrote last year or so, if you remember I was also going crazy about Tom Ford’s Mandarino d’Amalfi though even that, ultimately, failed my stringent and unforgiving skin tests as it faded to its unenlivening, standardised baseline).
Bergamote Soleil almost gets there for me, in its charming and positively smile inducing head notes. Yum, we are talking a fresh, citric green (cardamom and jasmine) revivifying spray that would be positively delightful on a sun-filled morning in late July. Although it doesn’t smell especially like bergamot as such – more like lime and lemon and other things – The Different Company’s Bergamote is a more classically bergamot citrus cologne, for example, as is Ermenegilda Zegna’s fresh, but rather po-faced, zipped up Italian Bergamot – this zinging, cheerful perfume has that uplifting, citrus bouquet fantasia aspect I have always really enjoyed in such pleasing perfumes as Caron Eau Fraiche (probably the closest I have ever come to finding a perfect combination of mandarin, orange, grapefruit, lemon, bergamot and lime – like a multi-faceted floral bouquet, its ultimate identity becomes something new as the citrus essences fuse) or even reminding me slightly of the lime-focalized beauty of the modest, but beautifully crisp, Sport De Paco Rabanne, one of the best citrus blends for men ever created. Bergamote De Soleil has that similar carefree, summer sensation, when you just splash on your citrus cologne and forget all your worries because the sunshine is literally blasting them back into the shadows: it is this that I love about summertime – never do I feel more alive, yet drowsy and happily in the moment, unlike in Autumn, when the doubt and the melancholy begin to creep back in, and life is revealed again in all its ultimate sadness.
“They drove all night long taking turns… The minivan was the same one they had when they first met. He spotted it instantly, driving along the line of bergamot trees leading up to the villa. The table was already set for lunch. He wasn’t surprised to see them. It was as if they had always been together. This moment was a blessing and a reminder of so many treasured years.”
This quotation is written on the back of the bottle of Bergamote Soleil and I like this idea: a romantic vignette, a small story, that you can reflect upon as you pick up your bottle of scent – the memories of summers past, and treasured places (and what a glorious idea, an avenue of bergamot trees – this imaginary picnic must have taken place in Lombardy or Calabria) and spray.
It was also a sweet, nostalgic romanticism that suited, perfectly, the film I was watching as I analyzed this perfume last night – Ricki And The Flash, the latest work by Jonathan Demme (most famously the director of the Talking Heads’ live concert film Stop Making Sense and the horrifying serial killer classic Silence Of The Lambs, but more recently of more heartfelt, humanist dramas such as Rachel At The Wedding, which, with its in depth and convincing analysis of friction filled family dynamics I rather enjoyed). Centred on characters being plunged back (comically) into their past and starring a hugely enjoyable Meryl Streep, both the perfume and the film were ideal ways for me to relax, expand my soul, and fully properly enjoy the first day of my spring holidays.
The day before, Monday, the last day of term, was exhausting. One of those days that you somehow have to just get through. It was freezing cold, pelting it down with rain and sleet, and I had to attend graduation parties at three different schools 50 km or more away from each other; the rainwater seeping into my shoes and socks soggily as I traipsed my way back between three different cities, drenched and cold and back and forth congratulating students and smiling benevolently (but genuinely – some of them did very well this year and I became quite close to a few of them), but at the final school, the main headquarters, I was then required to perform – me in front of a hundred Japanese people – the usual scenario – as I did my well practiced slow, ballad version of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way (effective) and a non-rehearsed (not even once) with-the-head-of-English-on-lead guitar atrocious performance of David Bowie’s Star Man (mortifying). I felt like such a fool, and I was so glad to get home to bed afterwards, much later that night when it was finally all over, as the rain continued to pour down, and I dropped like a shivering dead weight onto my waiting bedroom pillow.
Yesterday morning when I woke up though it was glorious. Beautiful, sunny weather, clear skies, much warmer. The Japanese spring, rather like this post, is all over the place – even more so these last few years – and there is, I’m sure, some ancient, cliched idiom or other about how this constantly changing weather mirrors a ‘woman’s mood’ or something typically derogatory, but it really is, at the moment, vastly changeable and unpredictable. The previous Monday the temperature had gone up into the seventies – as hot as an English August in July – and then the next day plunged back into winter. The magnolia and plum trees are all out but their flowers are getting blown away or touched by the cold; the much heralded cherry blossom will soon be on its way, though, already budding, and you can feel the country’s growing excitement on its behalf (which will never wane: the Japanese love love love their sakura to the death).
Yurakucho, though still in the very centre of Tokyo, has a fair share of flowering trees itself and this was where I spent the afternoon and evening yesterday – a perfect place for entertainment, and an area that we often enjoy going up to to eat (god the food you can eat in Japan is good, particularly Chinese, exquisite), go to one of the bars along the rail tracks, or to see a film in the number of cinemas that are dotted around the district. Near Ginza and Hibiya, the whole area is a total pleasure centre, basically , both aesthetically pleasing, futuristic and traditionally Japanese, and packed with places to enthusiastically spend your hard earned money in. Hankyu department store is the probably the next best place for perfume after Isetan, Shinjuku and Beauty And Youth in Shibuya, so it’s always a nifty place to just pop into for a spray before you go on to your next destination – in this case, as is often the way with me, the cinema. Although I couldn’t find any films that I was desperate to see when I read through the Japan Times earlier in the morning, there were still three potential films I was partly interested in: The Martian, The Lobster, or Ricki And The Flash.
With the wonderfully sunny weather, though, and all the flowers coming out on the trees, my mood was really up and after the coldness I had felt, both literally and emotionally, the day before, plodding about soddenly in my Mr Chapman teacher guise wishing the day would end, I knew, instinctively, I needed warmth. Ridley Scott’s The Martian is probably solid entertainment but I wasn’t in the mood for ‘effects’; The Lobster is some grim, Greek dystopian nightmare about failed human relationships that I just couldn’t face at that particular moment, and so with some scented Soleil spritzed quite happily on the back of my hand, I went, instead, to the Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho film to watch something bright and sunny.
A family drama centered around a ‘failed, ageing rock singer’ (though I would say she was more just a woman with integrity who just refuses to compromise her dream even if it means abandoning her family), Rick And The Flash chronicles the family drama of a character named Ricki (Meryl Streep), a penniless singer who sings with her backing band The Flash in rock bars in downtown L.A with her boyfriend the lead guitarist (played by real life rock musician Rick Springfield), and who is called back to her family in New York State when her daughter attempts to kill herself following the break up of her marriage. A typical, and I suppose, predictable, ‘fish out of water’ type of scenario ensues in the comic screen play by Diablo Cody as the ‘alternative’ Ricki (all leather trousers, heavy make up and wild hairdos) fights with the more upright, acrimonious, and uptight, well to do and resentful members of her former family, held together by her rather prim ex-husband (Kevin Kline) and second wife back in his gated, suburban mansion in Indianapolis.
As the critic for the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote in his review of the film, the entire confection is more like Easy Listening than Rock N’ Roll, and it is true that the threads of the story were perhaps too easily tied up at the end in standard, feel good fashion and that some of the peripheral characters were rather fuzzily drawn, but who cares: I thought Meryl was fantastic – one of her more believable castings I would say, funny, sexy and unselfconscious; and yes, the liberal, humanistic, everyone-of-all-races-and-sexual-persuasions-and-social-groups dancing together at the smile and cry ending may have been a little idealistic and fantastical, but in these dangerously fascistic and highly divisive times (tell me that Donald Trump isn’t going to be the next president), who is complaining. For one night, at least, I was happy to try and believe that such unity between people is possible, that ‘love can conquer all’, etc etc, and I sat there at the front of the cinema completely in my element, alternately tearing up, laughing out loud, and beaming ear to ear. I loved it.
I have to say, though, that the perfume, still there on the back of my hand in tandem at this point, wasn’t working quite as well. There are times when a rubbish film will just fade into the background as a delicious perfume takes over the concentration instead. But much as the sunny beginning of Bergamote Soleil had appealed to my sensibilities in the beginning, in its short, initial stages, as usual with Atelier Cologne fragrances, the ending, for me personally, was drab and uninspiring. ‘Slovenian moss’ and ‘white amber’ or whatever it may, allegedly contain yes,but in reality this accord is just a lingering, and tedious smudge of nondescriptness. The Cedrat Envirant on my left hand had long become annoying in its standard masculine prescriptiveness, but at least it had some discernible character in its finale, unlike the Bergamote. It was not a bad smell exactly, just far too uninspiring to part with money for : the disappointing and yawning chasm between the gorgeously brightening initial notes and the boredom of the drydown would prove just too much of an ultimate irritation for me every single time I sprayed it on (do you think that I am being too picky, dear reader? Can one be too picky when it comes to putting something on your skin? It’s just that I consider the base accord in a perfume, ultimately, to be by far the most important. It’s the part that you have to live with. The part that remains on your clothes. Don’t you?)
The citruses I like best personally all work from top through to bottom: either the green orange- leaf dignity of Hermes Eau D’Orange Verte with its delicate, delicate base note of patchouli, or else the convincingly well made sunny brightness of Miller Harris’ Citron Citron and its sturdy but deftly done note of vetiver. Or else, ideally, I like it to just smell, somehow (using the perfumer’s magic box of tricks) continuously, continually of citrus (as that is the point, isn’t it, ultimately). Of the classical Guerlain colognes, only Eau De Fleurs De Cedrat really manages this feat as it lays off the musk, just leaving a faint whisper of orange, while the more contemporary Cologne du 69 brilliantly manages to drift down from heavenly citrus notes to a feathered and meringue like vanillic eiderdown. I personally like a more attenuated, yet continual aura of lemon or orange or bergamot throughout the duration of a ‘citrus’ perfume on my skin if it is at all humanly possible, rather than just a drab and annoyingly persistent musk accord – a briefly enjoyable dose of short-lived sunlight, lovely and fresh – that then ends, to your chagrin, most disappointingly, as it disappears completely away from view, like the sunshine draining away in September, in a – for want of a better word – flash.