Friday, November 1, 2013

Perfume, Poland And The Past - Scented Memories On All Saints' Day


"Sometimes, this is not easy," she says. "You know, after a long day at work, when you're far away from home and nobody has much time for you, the last thing that you want to do is take yourself back inside the past." She shrugs. "But it's worth it."

Maryla's gaze wavers for a moment. Then she blinks a few times and smiles. "It's always worth it."

Today she and several of her female friends from south Hampshire's growing Polish community will be marking All Saints' Day. Had they still been living in Poland, they would have had the day off work - the 1st of November is a national holiday - and they would almost certainly have spent it visiting the graves of loved ones. They would have lit candles and placed fresh flowers in vases. And as the evening sky darkened, their faces would have been lit by the tiny flames reflecting off the granite tombstones.

"Even though I live in the UK, I'm still expected to acknowledge this day in some way," Maryla says, chuckling. "I can't be in Poland, but I tell my sister back home to buy candles from me for everybody. And I light a few candles in my apartment. It's not the same as being in Poznań with my family. But it's better than nothing, right?"

Three years ago, Maryla - a psychology graduate in her thirties - thought of another way to make her situation "better than nothing". After a chance encounter with a fellow Pole living in Hampshire, she set up what is effectively a perfume discussion club.

"It was actually quite unbelievable. I remember I was in TK Maxx, not paying attention to anybody, and then I suddenly realised that somebody walked past me wearing Opium. I was also wearing Opium on that day. I used to wear Opium a lot. But it's not a perfume you smell so much on other people nowadays, so I noticed it immediately, and I was interested to see who was wearing it. I saw this woman with a man, and I heard her speaking to him, so I knew straight away she was Polish. And then, without even realising what I was doing, I just said to her, 'Oh my God, you're wearing Opium!'

Her outburst led to a thirty-minute conversation in which the women discussed not just their love of perfume, but also the personal reasons for the importance of certain fragrances to them.

"I was completely shocked. I had no idea that other people could feel the same way about perfume. I liked wearing Opium because it was my grandmother's favourite. It always made me feel closer to her, and she was important to me, because she brought me up after my mother died when I was very young. And Joanna, the woman I met that day, wore Opium because it reminded her of spending Christmas in her godmother's house near Kraków."

Joanna nods in agreement. "It was such a lucky meeting," she says. "I was feeling a bit depressed at that time. I had been in England for more than four years and my life had not really gone how I had planned it. But when Maryla and I had the idea for the club, it made it easier for us to connect with our roots, and that somehow made it easier for us to look towards our future with more optimism."

When Joanna first left her hometown of Gdynia with a view to putting her business qualifications to good use in Britain, she thought finding employment would be a fairly easy task. "Don't get me wrong," she says, "I'm glad to be here. I decided I want to make a life here, and I'm sticking to that decision. But sometimes...," her blue eyes cloud over as she searches her mind for the right words. "Sometimes, you are reminded that this place is not where you come from. You are reminded that your past has a totally different geography. And that's when it's helpful to make connections with other people who are in the same position as you."

A typical club meeting is a fairly informal affair. It takes place once every six weeks or so. Seven or eight women gather in an apartment, spray perfumes onto tissue paper - "Or blotters we've taken from John Lewis!" Maryla claims - and then allow themselves to be transported by the power of memory. An evening's olfactory exploration might take in modern creations such as Angel and Gucci's Rush, or older fare, like Diorella and Vol De Nuit.

The conversations sparked by these fragrances vary. A few revolve around the subject of Poland pre-1990: queuing for five hours to buy toilet paper; waiting for years for western movies to travel across the Iron Curtain; overhearing parents talking about joining rallies and demonstrations. Others are centred on simple, family-related anecdotes. Some touch on the realities of living within a different culture. All stem from perfume, in one way or another.

"What you have to remember," says Joanna, " is that proper perfume was really precious in Poland. Nowadays, you can buy whatever you want there. There are niche perfume shops in Warsaw selling all sorts of brands I've never heard of. But in the past, in Communist days, French perfumes were really, really rare. Outside Warsaw or the bigger cities, you just couldn't find them. And even in those places, they were available only in the 'hard currency shops', which most people couldn't go to. So if somebody was somehow able to get a bottle of a Dior or a Chanel, it was quite something. And these things were worn only for special occasions, which is why our memories of them are usually so emotional and powerful."

In 2013, All Saints' Day falls on a Friday, which means that, strictly speaking, both women ought to be at work. "But I'm definitely taking the day off," Maryla says, smiling. "For my whole life, the 1st of November has been a holiday for me, and I'm not going to change that now. What's that expression? I'm going to pull a sickie!"

Although it's been running for a few years, this is the first time the club is getting together on All Saints'. "Not so long ago," Maryla explains, "I managed to go to Paris for two days and so I finally had a chance to see the Serge Lutens boutique. Of course, I tried the exclusive perfumes. And one of them," her voice catches and she clears her throat, "had such a strong effect on me. It was De Profundis, one of the newer ones. It's supposed to have a chrysanthemum note at the top. I guess maybe it's not a 100% accurate chrysanthemum, but something in the perfume, something about its sadness, just took me back to being a little girl, visiting my mother's grave with my grandmother." She takes a deep breath. "And so I knew I had to buy the perfume, even though I couldn't afford it. And I knew we had to have a club meeting on November 1st, so I could share it with everybody."

"That's why we created the club," Joanna says. "Yes, it gives us a chance to meet friends and forget our worries for one evening. But it also lets us remember things we'll never have again. It lets us make connections with all our different histories. And the thing that makes it all possible is perfume."

[At their request, Maryla's and Joanna's real names have been changed.]

Persolaise

10 comments:

  1. Greetings from Poland! I don't understand why people living abroad miss this country so much. It's a terrible place, unless you like narrow-mindedness, misogynists and Catholic Church. I don't understand the point with All Saints' Day either, but I'm atheist and there's a lot of things I don't understand. But I've visited the graves, as mu Mum's bodyguard, because it's a Pickpockets' Day. And yes, we have very good niche perfumeries, so "there is a light that never goes out".
    And I really like Your blog! (Thank You.)
    Zuzanna.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Zuzanna, thanks very much indeed. I guess everyone experiences different places in different ways, right? And maybe the women don't miss Poland all the time. Maybe, every now and then, they just miss a few connections with their past.

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  2. Lovely article Persolaise. Fascinating and different. Also interesting how powerfully emotive perfume can be!

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    Replies
    1. Michael, thanks very much for stopping by and for your kind words. Yes, I found the topic fascinating too. I couldn't resist writing about it.

      Delete
  3. Greetings from Poland! I really don't understand why Poles living abroad miss this country so much. It's a terrible place, unless you like narrowmindedness, misogynists and Catholic Church. And I don't understand the point with All Saints' Day, but I'm atheist, so there's a loooot of things I don't understand. But I've visited the graves, as my Mum's bodyguard, because it's a Pickpockets' Day, too.
    And yes, we have very nice niche perfumeries, so "there is a light that never goes out".
    And I like Your blog. (Thank You!)
    Zuzanna.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Greetings from Poland! I really don't understand why Poles living abroad miss this country so much. It's a terrible place, unless you like narrowmindedness, misogynists and Catholic Church. And I don't understand the point with All Saints' Day, but I'm atheist, so there's a loooot of things I don't understand. But I've visited the graves, as my Mom's bodyguard, because it's a Pickpockets' Day, too.
    And yes, we have very nice niche perfumeries, so "there is a light that never goes out".
    And I like Your blog. (Thank You!)
    Zuzanna.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is slightly different from what you usually write, but it's such a lovely piece. It's really great to hear that people are getting together because of perfume, especially when they're in a place where they are far away from family and friends. Having lived in the UK for close to 3 years now, I'm very grateful for the friends I've made in the perfume community here, whom I get to meet from time to time, because it's at times like that where I get to be with someone else who's just as crazy or obsessed as I am about perfume. It helps also that I'm connected to perfume friends back home in Singapore via Facebook groups and Whatsapp chats; it sometimes feels when we are having our lengthy discussions as though I can smell what they describe across hundreds of thousands of miles!

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    Replies
    1. Vagabond, thanks for your comment. And yes, it's amazing how powerfully perfume can bring us together... even if, as you write, we're not all in the same geographic space smelling the same scents.

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  6. I loved this article. I am from a eastern European country and have been living in the U.S. for most of my life now. We never got any perfumes at all and even chocolates were so very rare that I enjoy buying a nice box now and then and pretending that it is scarce. But most of all, I wish to have a perfume club where I can share my passion with others. Especially if we can share some cultural history as well. But I don't have friends that are from my country, and the people I associate are either Mexican or Iranian. Though I feel comfortable in those cultures, I do not share the precious moments these women have been able to share.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anon, thanks for stopping by. I guess the blogosphere is one big perfume club for all of us, right? There are certainly lots of forums out there on which we can share our passions. That said, I concede that face-to-face encounters offer the sorts of pleasures you could never get from an online chat.

      Delete

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