A Friendship That Makes Scents
My oldest friend, Kathy, and I are standing in the middle of a field of flowers just outside Grasse, France.
A tiny Algerian woman who goes by the name Jeanne de Fleur is holding a basket overflowing with the fragrant white petals, and she invites us to come in closer for a sniff. When I try to touch the blossoms, which I imagine to be velvety soft, she snatches the basket away. "They bruise easily!" she scolds. I apologize and then wander over to take a whiff of some tuberoses dozing on top of their tall stalks.
The morning field trip to the flower farm is part of a weeklong perfume-making clinic offered through the Grasse Institute of Perfumery, which has trained the best noses in the business. Truth is, it would have been easy enough to convince most of my friends to visit the south of France, but they would have wanted to eat and shop—not spend hours mixing vetiver and lavender to concoct the perfect eau de parfum. There was only one friend who'd think that going to school would be fun, and that friend was Kathy.
Our friendship was cemented 30 years ago the day we met in film school. We discovered that we were both Francophiles; our first "date" was a François Truffaut movie marathon, after which we became BFFs before Paris Hilton was even born. Yet when it comes to perfume, we're opposites: While I've been wedded to Aromatics Elixir since college, she's had trysts with dozens of scents, from Giorgio to Charlie. Kathy's love affair with fragrance, combined with my Coco Chanel obsession (I'm writing a book about the legend behind that magical potion No. 5), made us ideal candidates for perfume school.
We arrive at the Grasse bus station on a Sunday afternoon. The medieval town is perched on a single hill, with roads that wind toward the summit like stripes on a barber pole. In fact, I chose our hotel, the Mandarina, specifically because it claimed to have the best views of the surrounding Alpes-Maritimes. What I neglected to note is that the hotel is a half-mile vertical hike from the center of town. Kathy, who always takes matters into her own hands, marches into the tourist office. Returning triumphant, she says, "A cab will be here in about ten minutes."
An hour later, the taxi driver shows up. When we point to the hill, he sputters, "I drove all the way from Nice to drive you five hundred meters?"
The Mandarina's big selling point is as terrific as advertised. From our private balcony, we have a view of ancient towns whose terra-cotta-tiled roofs seem to stretch to the Mediterranean. That night, we leave the terrace doors open, letting the sound of the breeze rustling through the olive trees lull us to sleep.
In the morning, we hoof it the mile downhill to the institute, housed in a 20th-century Provençal estate painted pale gold and accented with blue shutters. I can smell the place—a scent that's reminiscent of a Saks perfume counter—from a block away. We're the first ones to arrive, and like high-school kids, Kathy and I conjecture about who will be in class with us. "Middle-aged divorcées from Dallas with too much time on their hands," I suggest. "French twenty-somethings who had to decide between culinary and perfume school," Kathy says. We're both wrong.