I have been travelling abroad on business for over 20 years now: always driving, and always on my own. I might take a couple of paperbacks along for company, and on longer trips I have been known to sneak a small soft toy into my luggage: a rat called Maxim being the companion of choice because he is extremely slim and bendy, fitting snugly into the smallest interstices of your car, such as the ashtray or the cubby hole where I keep coins for the Dartford Tunnel.
On this trip, however, I had an uncharacteristically sociable time, thanks to several hook ups with perfumistas in Basel, Switzerland. Basel is a cosmopolitan city with a large expat community, and our mini-gathering of perfumistas from Basenotes represented no less of a melting pot, comprising:
1 x Welsh (Wordbird)
1 x Slovakian (Alicka61)
1 x Swiss (Potiron)
1 x Northern Irish and just visiting (me aka VM I hate civet!)
On Wednesday 24th March, following my two morning meetings, I took the tram back to the market square where the other three were already standing outside our meeting point, Brasserie Baselstab.
The Swiss perfumistas had had some prior contact with one another through the Internet - and I had myself done a swap with Alicka61 on MUA - but none of us had ever met before in person. To have got together with one fumehead in Switzerland would have been exciting enough - suddenly to be greeting three at once was almost emotional overload!
Introductions over, we sat at a table outside and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, only slightly marred by the waiter's signal failure to bring cold milk for my tea. He first brought boiling milk, which is as good as no milk in my view. I requested cold milk, but none was forthcoming. Shortly before we got up to go, the waiter informed me that they were in fact clean out of milk - fresh out of it, even. Or perhaps they were only out of discretionary supplies of the stuff that could be spared for cantankerous foreigners. Anyway, it didn't much matter, for by this point I had long since drunk my glass of tepid black tea.
But not even a serious beverage irregularity could dampen the ebullient mood of our party. We chatted away about our jobs and families, and our likes and dislikes on the fragrance front, pausing every so often to rummage in the pile of samples in the middle of the table. For shortly after we had sat down, Wordbird and Alicka61 had upended their handbags and encouraged us all to help ourselves to the resulting carded sample sprawl. It was like a leisurely version of supermarket sweep, or perhaps like a swinger's party - where (I believe) you toss your car keys into a bowl. On balance, going away with a clutch of new scents rather than someone else's husband probably offered less potential for emotional discombobulation.
All the more so in my case, because I scored a sample of Sonia Rykiel's Women Not For Men from Wordbird and promptly fell in love. A full bottle is currently on its way to me following a lucky break on Ebay. I may do a separate review of this dreamy comfort scent one day, but here are the notes to be going on with.
Pink Pepper, Violet, Date, Jasmine Petals, Solar Flowers, Bulgarian Rose, Black Pepper, Olibanum, Agarwood, Leather, Amber.
After lunch, we repaired to a high end perfumery, Hyazinth, and proceeded to stand chatting and sniffing in the perfume section for the best part of two hours, clearly displaying not even the merest hint of a purchase intention. To their credit, the sales assistants tholed the clogging up of their store by such time-wasting customers with dignified stoicism.
I was in such an excitable state in the store that I did not systematically note down all the lines carried, but Hyazinth had a most impressive selection, greater even than that of Les Senteurs, I would say. This list is by no means exhaustive, but I recall seeing The Different Company, By Kilian, Byredo, Parfumerie Generale, Heeley, Rance, Etro, Divine, Ulrich Lang, Mark Birley, Les Parfums de Rosine, Annick Goutal, Bois 1920, The Party, Bond No 9, Floris, Penhaligon's, Keiko Mecheri, Mark Buxton, Les Parfums d'Empire, Biehl Kunstwerke, Ineke, Parfums 06130, Balmain, and several ranges featuring the prefix Profum-!
I ended up trying the following (on a mixture of card and skin):
By Kilian Back to Black (strong and honeyed, but not as cloying as I had feared)
The Different Company Oriental Lounge (lightly spicy oriental reminiscent of Penhaligon's Malabar or the quiet vibe of Prada L'Eau Ambree overlaid with spice)
Ineke Field Notes from Paris (soft orangey number, that somehow smelt more foody orange than perfumey orange, but then I have been left deeply traumatised by my experiences with Boss Orange and Prada Infusion de Fleurs d'Oranger, so I may not be best placed to judge)
Il Profumo Musc Bleu (perfectly pleasant straight up musk)
Annick Goutal Ninfeo Mio (This scent was wafted under our noses on a fan, but not even such a delicate delivery system could mask its offputting astringence)
Rance Eau Royale (green foresty vibe, a bit like Miller Harris Fleurs de Bois)
Profumu Roma Ichnusa (don't rightly recall, but it was nasty)
Now that doesn't sound like a whole lot of testing given that we were in such a fabulously stocked temple to fragrance, but to be honest I felt a little awkward about running amok with the testers. I got the impression that the SAs would rather direct the customer's sampling experience rather than let us ransack the fixture...
Sadly, Potiron had to leave us to go back to work while we were still at Hyazinth, and finally, after our indecently long stay in the store, we moved on to a branch of Douglas, where we felt less overlooked, though even here we were periodically interrupted by SAs asking if we needed any assistance. This was a good branch of Douglas as far as I could tell, carrying some of the Serge Lutens range, which would be unheard of in Boots, if one were to take the nearest Douglas-equivalent.
I tried a few more things here, while staying just the right side of sensory overload:
Sisley Eau du Soir (classic old school chypre - with skank!)
Jil Sander 79 (classic old school chypre - without skank!)
Jil Sander Sun (strange sun cream number - it is to Ambre Solaire what Clinique Simply is to Johnson's Baby Lotion)
Prairie Life Threads (Silver, Platinum, Gold: didn't care for any of them, but Platinum seemed to be the least worst, and Gold was particularly gross in a Poisonesque kind of way)
Alexander McQueen Kingdom (not the groinfest I was eagerly anticipating - only the merest dusting of cumin to my nose)
Alliage (another green classic)
By 5.15pm, after a solid three hours of fixture scoping and sniffing, we were starting to feel a little jaded, so we wandered over to the Barfüsserplatz, where I jumped on a No 14 tram to Pratteln to pick up my car, while the others headed for the railway station.
It had been such an enjoyable afternoon that we agreed that we must do it all again sometime. Meanwhile, I managed to meet up with both Wordbird and Potiron again during my trip. I rendez-vous-ed with Wordbird on the shores of Lake Zurich the following Monday, where - after a token trip to the lilliputian branch of Manor (a local department store) - we headed for elevenses and some surreptitious at-table sampling at a picturesque cafe. Yet again there was a lamentable failure to bring milk with my tea - any kind of milk - but a small catering portion was finally secured after a bit of pointed staring and slightly less pointed pointing.
The next night I met Potiron back in Basel for dinner in an Italian restaurant and some more discreet at-table sampling. Thanks to her I discovered the woody delight which is Rance Laetitia Milliseme. Unlike the Rykiel, it is unlikely to turn up on Ebay any time soon, and after loitering without intent for hours there the previous week, I wasn't brazen enough to go back to Hyazinth and blag a sample...
All in all then, the Swiss leg was definitely the highlight of my trip, for I made new friends there - and new scent discoveries. And next time I am over, Maxim Rat may well be out of a job...