Monday, August 31, 2009

Better Laugh Than Cry

I wanted today to be the day that I welcome you all back to the scented adventures of Fragrance Bouquet with stories about the scent of salty air in Mykonos and the exotic, mysterious trails of spice that weave through Istanbul. However this day has been so rough, I find myself sitting here, my feathers just a tad too ruffled to be able to complete the article I’ve been lovingly crafting, bringing to life all the colors, images and scents of my beautiful holiday. What to do? Well maybe I can make you laugh a little instead, by writing about this awful day I’ve had.

Today’s the beginning of another academic year, my third and final bachelor year in fact. Coming back fresh from one of the most fabulous summers anyone could ask for last week, I was confronted with a sea of emails, among which a particularly disturbing one from the university, informing me that I have not participated in enough experiments (read: I’ve not played guinea pig to enough research projects as a participant) to warrant access to certain third year courses, or rather my actual bachelor’s thesis in particular. Now, I knew I was a little slack, I mean, I hate taking part in experiments, half of which I can see-through instantly due to the field of study I am in and the other half of which are just either devastatingly unpleasant, tedious or aggravating. However, I have taken part in quite a good number of them. According to the email however, I had zero credits gained from experiments. Zero. Accessing my account on Experimetrix (the website that helps you find experiments to participate in and logs your credits) showed the same mocking result: Zero credits. Brilliant. I’ve been fervently looking for credit-rich experiments to participate in all weekend, but unfortunately, just about anything that gives more than 3 credits involves undergoing a magnetic tomography scan, also known as an fMRI. Now I know the levels of radiation exposure are low… but I just don’t want to do it! Radiation is radiation. The practical little voice of logic in my head keeps reminding me it’s only just about as harmful as a few plane trips back and forth.. But hell, I really can’t bring myself to do it. It just freaks me out! I don’t want my head sitting inside an enormous magnet for two-and-a-half hours! Ugh! So I settled for making a couple of appointments for some experiments involving EEG testing only, despite not really feeling that hot about the idea of slightly moist electrodes attached to my skull either! Still not enough credits, so I’ll just have to find some el-cheapo (credit-wise) experiments to fill in the gaps in between as well. What I mean with some of course, is many. I started out today.

Experiment number one, on day one of the academic year. I made my way through the throng of googly-eyed, lost-looking freshmen all the way down to the bowels of the building to the basement, feeling desolate, wondering if I will manage to amass enough credits in time to start my bachelor’s project during the month of September. I was shown to a tiny booth, about the size of a public loo stall. The door closed firmly behind the experimenter and I was left alone with a computer for the next 20 minutes. The next excruciating 20 minutes. Pi Ka Po Ko Pi Da Ne, flashed the screen. Try to find the rule. Be Di Po Tu Mi Tu De. De Mi Tu De Ki To De. Find the rule, you’ll be tested next. To Te Mu To… etc. Press Space to Start the Test. Ko Te Tu Do True or False? What??? True. Correct! Errr… Okay… Mu Tu Ge De To Ko. True or False? Shit. True. Incorrect! Shit, shit, shit! It kept going on for 20 minutes, Ko Te Mu To Ki Ti Do, trying to teach me some weird rule I couldn’t figure out and then testing me to see if I’d learned it. I’ve never felt more stupid in my entire life. I’ve aced Multi-Variate Data-Analysis statistics exams but could not figure out Ko Te Mu To-Whatever. Finally I let my body do the work, clicking whatever came to mind after I noticed that when I did not try to consciously focus my hand somehow knew which button to press, true or false. Okay, so as crazy as it sounds instinct worked. Twenty minutes were up. Just as I was wiping the sweat off my brow a form came up asking me to tell them which rules I learned! What?! Feeling stupid again I made something up…but couldn’t resist writing that I felt that my hand knew what to press and in the end I just followed my instinct. So be it. I came out of the booth flustered. The experimenter asked me how I found it and I recited the same story to her. Apparently delighted, she informed me that that’s exactly what they are trying to prove, that is that they are working on a theory of Implicit Learning and that the brain can apparently learn things before it can actually consciously name them. She gave me one measly credit and I went back upstairs feeling all wobbly, trying to regain some sort of confidence in my intellect.

Climbing the stairs, a warm hand brushes on my arm: “How are you Divina?” Ah, classmate. We have a five minute chat before I realize she is not who I thought she was. She realizes too. I blush all the way to my hairline, but she seems equally embarrassed and actually tries to apologize for me. Upstairs, looking for the Social Psychology secretary to make an appointment with a professor, I find myself barked out of the room by an offended looking woman. I back out and look at the sign: Prof. E. a Doctor and senior researcher. Great. I skulk into the secretary’s office next door and almost burst into tears as I finalize the details for the appointment. I make my way to the study advisor’s office to ask for an appointment and I somehow manage to catch him in a particularly foul mood. “What do you want?” he asks me impatiently not even inviting me in. “I’d like to drop in tomorrow during your student walk-in hours if possible?” I trill. “What is this about?” The man is practically shouting and I don’t even know what I am mumbling, still at the door, for it takes about three more What-is-this-abouts before I can actually manage a coherent answer. I’ve no idea why he’s shouting at me and my stress is mounting. Finally the whole story comes out, not enough experiment credits, need to start the bachelor’s thesis now cause the second semester will be too full of heavy classes, need advice. He seems just as impatient. For crying out loud, this man is supposed to be an advisor, there to help, why is he glowering at me like the Cerberus guarding Hades? What is your name?“ And what is your student number?” I know my student number, but have trouble reciting it in Dutch. Or English for that matter. My brain has stubbornly learned the 7 digits in Greek. “Do you have a pen?” I ask him with a terrified rictus smile frozen on my face. I know what I am about to say sounds ridiculous, but I can’t stop myself. “You see, I know it in Greek in my head, it’s strange -haha- but, but, I need to write it down.” He coldly ignores me, his back turned. I am left there reciting the stupid number in my head in Greek. Finally I manage, slowly and one by one to translate each number. “Ten o’ clock tomorrow morning. Can you do that?” he challenges me loudly with wild eyes, as though I might actually reply that no, that’s impossibly early. “Of course, see you tomorrow”. Phew.

As I am about to finally walk out of the building I spot a friendly face on the couches across from the cafeteria. He spots me too and we greet each other with smiles and hugs, happy to see each other after a long summer. I finally take a few minutes to unload, telling him about my ‘social blunders’, forgetting who the classmate was, walking into Dr. E’s office by mistake when I was intending to go to the secretary… We laugh a little, me still embarrassed, blushing a little again. “Sooo” I start, changing the subject to what I think is a lighter subject: “Are you going to so-and-so’s party on Friday?” “Wow” he replies. “You really are full of social blunders today. I wasn’t invited.”

Ok so maybe it’s more cry than laugh. But at least writing it down helped. I don’t feel so awful any more. Writing it here helps me let it go. Tomorrow is another day. And on Wednesday I’ll tell you all about the scents of exotic Istanbul and her perfumes. That definitely makes me smile.

Image: via Flickr, photographer: gotplaid?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Winners Eau Divine by Divine

Dear readers, I hope you will enjoy the article below on the Sniffapalooza London visit to Al Qurashi. If you find any glaring mistakes forgive me - it's HOT here in Greece!

Now on to the winners of the Eau Divine samples: Martin, Bettina and Double.Bound congratulations! I will send you your packets and extra goodies after the 23rd of August, when I am back! I used the randomizer list service as always, but since I do not have photoshop on this computer, I can't provide an image - sorry about that. Please email me your addresses.

Sniffapalooza in London : Visiting Al Qurashi

Still buzzing from the lovely presentation at Roja Dove’s Haute Parfumerie and the thrill of our exclusive purchases, we moved across the street on Brompton Road and entered a very different world of perfumes indeed. Al Qurashi was founded by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, perfumer to Saudi kings and queens. Today the company is still family-owned and the tradition set by Abdul Samad Al Qurashi is continued by specially chosen blenders who continue his vision. Considering my recent experience at the Arabian Oud Shop in Paris was a minefield of both sensory and social insults, I’ll admit to entering Al Qurashi with some trepidation, my spirits only buoyed by Roja Dove’s earlier promise that we were going to love it. In fact, my reservations dropped the moment we stepped in the shop, seeing as unlike the Arabian Oud Shop, my nose-hairs were not singed upon entrance and the staff was delightfully welcoming and warm.
Gathered round a glass top table, we followed presentations on aoudh oils and got to experience the different grades of maturity as we appreciatively explored 1 year old, 3 year old, 8 year old, 15 year old, 30, 80 year old and finally, the majestic 100 year old aoudh oil. During the presentation, Roja Dove popped in from across the street, and once we had finished smelling the oils, he proceeded to give us yet another beautiful presentation on aoudh itself as well as Arabian perfume customs. I already knew a good bit about Aoudh and how it is produced from fungus-infected wood, but was mesmerized to find out exactly how labor intensive the process is, fully explaining the cost of this marvelous ingredient. From a large deep bowl on the table filled with aoudh wood, Roja produced a sufficiently large chip and showed us little holes and abrasions on it, ranging from the minute to the slightly larger, some of them deep and incredibly narrow. He then explained that every chip is worked by hand with extreme precision, for every little bit of healthy wood has to be removed so as to not compromise the quality of the prospective aoudh oil. The narrow little holes and small abrasions are the marks left on the wood after the healthy bits have been removed. My mind struggled excitedly with the realization that each and every bit of that wood was handled by someone whose eyes are so expertly accustomed to not only spot the tiny healthy bits and how deep they vein into the wood, but also someone who is both patient and skilled enough to be able to remove them! It seemed impossible, but there it was… Mr. Dove then went on to explain how when the oil is extracted, it is not poured in containers by machinery, but by hand. And by that I do not mean hand-poured. No, the artisan will gently place his palm on the surface of the oil and will then gently rub off the oil that was picked up on the mouth of the container, letting it drip in. Again and again and again. Hundreds, thousands of times, until the container is filled. My mind was once again filled with wonderment for this age old traditional process, the patience of all the artisans involved and a silly little voice which wondered whether the oil was not contaminated by flakes of skin from the hand. A question I decided to ignore, because frankly, I do not care. Mr. Dove then proceeded to demonstrate how one can be perfumed with the smoke of aoudh, using a tall silver pot-like instrument with burning aoudh chips in its core. He explained that this is placed under the clothing and that the perfuming is completed once the smoke starts coming out of the collar. Finally, we discussed the differences between western and Arabian perfumery and how western (mostly French) perfumery actually ended up influencing Arabian perfumery. Roja explained to us that Arabian men and women used to (and still in fact prefer) to create their own perfumes by way of layering different oils on skin to create their own unique sillage. The concept of a ready-made blend was foreign to them up until the latter half of the 20th century when they were exposed to French perfumery. At that point, Arabian perfumers began experimenting more with complex blends in order to create perfumes that smelled similar to popular western classics, yet were closer to the Arabian sensibilities. Before leaving, Roja was kind enough to demonstrate how Arabian men and women layer oils on their skin, by tapping an oil on their skin, blotting and blending with the fabric of their flowing garments and then continuing with the next oil and then the next, until the desired effect is achieved. Beautiful and extremely exciting, to learn about a culture in which perfume is so interweaved in daily life that everyone dares to blend their own perfume!

We then followed a presentation on rose perfumes. We were first presented First Grade and Second Grade Rose. The first grade is the premium, the one from the first processing of the fresh petals, while the second one is derived from the already used petals, processed for a second time. You can guess which one is more precious and expensive! They were both beautiful, but the difference was stunning. We were then passed several different varieties: Swiss Rose, Taif Rose, Instanbuli rose, May Rose, Bulgarian, as well as several different blends of rose with oudh and other, non-disclosed ingredients, referred to secretively as 'exotic flowers', a term even the lady giving the presentation had to giggle about. I am not a pure rose kind of girl at all, but to my surprise, I found one that mystified and excited me. Eastern Rose (a variety which I unfortunately cannot recal which city it stems from), was a marvel that managed to seduce even me. This is a pure rose oil that actually smells fruity and sublimely feminine. I would be happy to wear this on its own, as it simply needs no further ornamentation.

As the official presentations ended and most of our group started to wander in the shop, sniffing the various blends and deciding what to buy to bring back home, I requested that Diane give one last presentation to us, a presentation of musks, for those that were interested. She happily complied, and brought another group of large beautiful jars to the table for those of us remaining, still transfixed by all the beauty we had encountered. Beautiful natural vegetable musks were presented to us, others pungent while others soft and innocent. They were all vegetable musks, some pure, while others blended with oudh and/or flowers. There's still a story lurking in here, but well, that's a story for another day. I promised you an article on natural musks soon. I haven't forgotten. It will be coming after my vacation, along with stories of many more perfumes, the promise of which always lingers in my mind...

With kind thanks to Karim, who gave his permission to include the images used in this article. (