Wednesday, December 1, 2010
I came across a bottle of “eau de toilette” the other day while cleaning out my bathroom cupboard. It was very dusty, and after wiping the dust off, I opened it, and to my surprise it still had retained its perfume, sweet and heavy. On the label is written Fragonard, Grasse, France, and I realized it came from another era, before my children were born, which means at least 47 years ago, when Mimi and I spent a few days at Madame Dorro’s pension just outside Grasse. In fact this dates back to 1961 when we spent a summer in Europe. At that time Grasse was a small town the center of the French perfume industry, and Fragonard one of the main factories for producing perfume. Grasse, high in the Maritime Alps of Provence was a small, picturesque town, surrounded by purple fields of lavender. This was the main crop of the area and you can imagine how it smelt in the summer just before the harvest. Today it still is the center of the perfume industry, but a lot of the fields have been encroached by housing and shopping malls.
I had just finished my undergraduate studies at Cornell, and we had saved enough money to go on a European vacation. I don’t know how we did it, but before leaving Israel we had planned on a vacation to Italy and France. So we decided now was the time for this, before going out to California and Stanford. However instead of Italy and France we first went to Scotland to visit my parents, and also my brother who was born after I left home, and was now a small boy of about 10. I had never seen him before. This would be 1961. While in Glasgow, we met my Uncle David and his wife Lily. They were an unusual pair. Wee David as he was known was my father’s brother. Although my father was one of 10 children, not one seemed to look like the other. David was the smallest, and since so many David’s married into the family he was called Wee David. His wife was likewise known as Wee Lily to distinguish her from Lilly from Falkirk, or Abe’s Lilly, both sisters-in laws to my father. This is what happens in Jewish families where everyone is called after a deceased, and the same names keep on occurring. Both were quite diminutive, about 5 feet tall. Wee Lily and Wee David were an interesting couple. Lily was considered an outsider since she did not have a Glasgow accent. She came from South of the border and spoke “ posh”. They were also the “ intellectuals “ of the family different from everyone else since they went abroad for the holidays, or went to nudist camps, and to boot were vegetarians, quite rare in those days. They were also wealthier than most of the others since David was in the furrier business and sold fur coats of his own design in his own store. This was when it was acceptable to sell furs, and it did not interfere idealistically with their life style.
One purpose of the visit was to introduce Mimi to the family, and in doing the rounds we visited David and Lily in their house in Orchard Park, a wealthier suburb of Glasgow. We hit it off immediately and they told us of this wonderful place in S. France, a small pension run by a Russian family, which was completely natural, and only served vegetarian food. Since MImi at that time was also a vegetarian the idea of spending a few days at this pension fell on ready ears. We had planned on going to France and Italy, and since we did not have definite plans this fitted in.
Mimi had been a vegetarian when I met her, out of principle, and continued to be one for many years. I would order meat at restaurants, but at home we were completely vegetarian. Since Mimi was a good cook it did not bother me too much. We took the boat to the Hook of Holland after spending some time in London with my Aunt Betty. We stayed a few days in Amsterdam at a student youth hostel, and did the same in Paris. We then took the train down to Grasse. The pension was an old typical French farmhouse set in pretty grounds. The accommodation was quite Spartan, beds in whitewashed rooms, with the bare minimum furniture and commode in the room. The wall had a large crucifix above the bed. Since this was summer we ate outside on large picnic tables shared by the other guests. All of these were French, mostly middle aged, and mostly feminine. They all looked a little worse for wear, long hair, and baggy clothes. I suppose in another era they would have been called hippies (although old ones). We sat beside two women who explained to us in a mixture of English and French their beliefs in Yin and Yang. We did not understand French and they did not understand English. Meals amused us since it was “pass the dish please,” thank you for passing the dish” and so on. In French of course, This was also the first time either of us had eaten artichokes, which grew readily in the area and were the main fare. Do you eat it with a knife and fork? What do you do with the hard leaves? Is it polite to scrape the flesh with your teeth? This was a quandary. We closely watched the other guests and followed suite. We somehow conversed with Madame Dorro and her husband, who were white Russians, had escaped from the Russian revolution God know when and had lived in France many years. The atmosphere was subdued and quiet and the countryside beckoned for long walks, past fields of jasmine and lavender. It was a great vacation and although the food and company were peculiar we enjoyed it. The others probably thought we were a honeymoon couple.
We visited the Fragonard factory, one of the oldest in France, and the Fragonard Museum. This was called after an 18th century painter, Fragonard. Actually his paintings fit with the area, scenes of idyllic pastoral countryside beautifully dressed women and powdered men. The perfume industry actually was fairly recent, the Fragonard factory being started in 1926. At that time, 1961, it was unusual for men to wear perfume, and I bought this Eau de Toilette with the idea of using it as an after-shave. Here is this dusty bottle, still three-quarters full, still retaining it strong smell almost 50 years later. It is still too strong and sweet. Should I begin using it now, or wait for it to be sprinkled on my grave? Or perhaps I should give it to my granddaughter as a present with this story attached. What do you think ?.