Paris Tips: A Scents and Sensitivity Day Tour
By Theadora Brack
Weather got you down? Heck, we’ve all been there. During the colder months in Paris, here’s how I conquer the blues and get back on track because “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise,” says my friend Victor Hugo. So get your mojo rising. Come hither.
Step 1: Let it shine
Pamper yourself. Just do it. There are certain hazy shades of winter in the City of Light that can wreck a gal’s complexion. So where do I go for some beauty SOS? Like the locals, I usually head to my trusted neighborhood pharmacist, and she’s never let my visage or mains down. Is there a beauty glitch or hiccup that can’t be fixed at the pharmacy? I don’t think so.
Dial back the clock
Each time I enter a French pharmacy, the squeaky clean, powdered scent of the soap transports me back to my grandmother’s row house in Baltimore, giving me a strong Proustian dose of solidarity with both past and present.
From floor to ceiling, the pharmacy shelves are typically stocked with a wide array of affordable and exquisitely packaged, plant-based soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, crèmes, and cosmetics.
Secrets of the Inner Sanctum
After years of sleuthing in my pals’ salles de bains, I can honestly report that a healthy number of classic French produits de beauté are represented at the pharmacies. Grab the ball point pen.
Keep your eyes peeled for family favorites like the blemish-fighting Payot Pâte Grise (1947), the soothing Embryolisse Lait Crème Concentrée (1950), and bars of Rogé Cavaillès Surgras Savon (1924).
You’ll also find the ahead of curve Ella Baché Crème Tomate (1936), boxes of Roger & Gallet Savon Rond (1879), and the golden beauty Carita Fluide de Beauté N° 14 (1956)—just to name a few!
Tip: Pharmacies are easily recognizable by their flashing green cross signs, dressed in neon and super cool LED. In each neighborhood at least one remains open through the night (and any closed pharmacy will post a sign directing you to the nearest one that’s open).
Also, French pharmacists are licensed to diagnose and treat minor illnesses without doctors’ prescriptions. Look for the conseils pharmaciens sign outside on the shop’s window.
Step 2: Pump it up
Clipping Oscar Wilde yet again: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” So why stop the dance now? Meet me at Sephora. Located on the Champs-Élysées, it’s one of my favorite spots in the city to get beautified in a pinch.
A French superstar since 1969, it still flaunts a “backstage on opening night” vibe. Outfitted with a dramatic ramp, a red carpet, mirrors, and flattering lighting, the shop is a cross between a gigantic supermarket and a snazzy playground, with testers available for every product sold.
Follow your nose
Dig a scent? Ask for a free sample. They’ll happily prepare a one for you. Also, check out Bourjois. Difficult to find outside of France, they’ve been pushing their signature little round pots of “joy” since 1863. For the love of drama, even 19th century diva Sarah Bernhardt was a die-hard fan.
Also in the ‘hood
Still in the mood for love? Don’t miss the Institute de Guerlain, located next door at #68 Champs-Élysées. Recently the century-old flagship was treated to a supreme makeover by dream team duo designer Andrée Putman and architect Maxime d’Angeac.
Looking ‘S Marvelous once again, the spa boutique is now dressed to the nines in murals, mirrors, portraits, and painted furniture, along with plump leather chairs, mustard-colored velvet, and 350,000 teeny tiny golden tiles. From top to bottom, it’s a showstopper of Napoleonic proportions.
Tip: Don’t be shy about testing the waters. Again, this is your chance to try fragrances that are difficult to find outside of France. But where to start? Flummoxed by all the choices? To help out, here are a few of my favorite Guerlain scents, along with the devotees who sprayed them.
Jicky (1889) was created the same year the Eiffel Tower was built, and not only seduced Brigitte Bardot, Colette, and Sarah Bernhardt, but also Proust, Roger Moore, Peter Sellers, and Sean Connery, who was surely both shaken and stirred.
L’Heure Bleue (1912) wooed both Catherine Deneuve and Wallis Simpson, who smartly paired it with Guerlain’s other classic, Mitsouko.
Mitsouko (1919) was created in celebration of the end of WWI. Jean Harlow, Ingrid Bergman, Claudette Corbert, Charlie Chaplin, Anaïs Nin and Serge Diaghilev all took to its bold intensity.
In fact, according to the rumor mill of the day, Jean Harlow’s husband, Paul Bern (MGM producer), sprayed himself with her Mitsouko just before committing suicide, only two months after their wedding. Now that’s lingering power.
Vol de Nuit (1933) was created as a tribute to Air France and flyer Antoine de Saint-Exupery (author of “The Little Prince”). Aviators around the globe, along with Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn, all found the scent of “Night Flight” heads above others. Its bottle even evokes an airplane propeller, captain.
Step 3: Raise your glass
Now, with our sacs of powder puffs and magic potions, let’s head for the hills of Montmartre, and wind it back at the Chez Ammad at Hotel Clermont at 18 Rue Véron. Though located just a few blocks from the bustling Place Abbesses, you’ll spot nary a tourist in sight. And the beer is cheap.
Seductively adorned with a zinc bar, murals, and beveled mirrors, the joint once tempted the likes of Brassaï, Henry Valentine Miller, and Edith Piaf! (Edith actually stayed at the Clermont in the early thirties, while performing on the streets of Pigalle.)
So let’s clank a few cocktails with sea merchants, tangled lovers, off-duty velvet-clad cabaret performers, artists, poets, and gypsy musicians, each with a cache of tales. Salut. La vie en rose!
Again, as Henry Miller used to shout, “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware: joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware!”
Ga-ga for more tales about classic French perfumes? Visit Lanier Smith’s Scents Memory. He meshes fragrances with the silver screen like no other. He’s a poet. And I am hooked.