Giant sunflowers filled the field, their yellow faces turned down to hide against the glare of the sun that dominated the cornflower blue sky. The next field over was filled with golden hay, freshly harvested and rolled into enormous, round bales that dotted the landscape for several miles. Small grapes hung from trees in another field, while the distant landscape was a gentle, rolling wave of green hills adorned with tall, ancient cypresses, elegantly pruned into long columns and standing proudly like Roman centurions guarding the land.
This was Coriano‘s “Agriturismo” commune, the countryside about 15 to 20 minutes outside the busy seaside resort of Rimini on Italy’s central coast. As I stared at the view from my taxi window, I thought of how the scene had been repeated from the trains I’d just taken from Rome and from Bologna. Well, minus the enormous fields of sunflowers that would have made Van Gogh utterly ecstatic. Italy was in full bloom, its countryside lush and slowly getting ready for harvesting. It made me all the more eager to get to my destination, to harvest my own crops of an olfactory nature, and to begin the perfume course that I’d journeyed so far to take.
There was only one small problem. The Rimini taxi driver was lost. Hopelessly lost, in fact, and no amount of urging to call the Germano Reale’s phone number to ask for directions seemed to make the slightest impression on him. Granted, I wasn’t exactly speaking his language; my Italian is extremely limited, and Pidgin Italian mixed with French, Spanish, English, and some vestige of highschool Latin seemed to be like annoying white noise to him. We stopped at a hairdresser, at a car dealership, and seemingly every other place in Coriano, as he slowly hefted himself out of the driver’s seat and leisurely walked to the entrance to ask for help. I kept a nervous eye on the meter, tried to thrust the piece of paper with the address and phone number at him, but it was useless.
Up and down, around and around we went, passing those lovely fields of sunflowers in one direction, then the other, circling roundabouts, somehow going back to the town, passing a Carabinieri or police station (which he quickly avoided and drove past), returning to the winding roads that went by the fields, and occasionally yelling with excitement when we saw a small sign with the name “Germano Reale Agriturismo.” The signs seemed to have little actual effect in guiding us; we did quite a tour of the town and commune of Coriano, all accompanied by fiery Italian swearing, especially at other drivers. You’d think the gentleman would know the area since Rimini wasn’t technically all that far away, but four other classmates had similar situations with the taxis they took from the train station, too.
I was beginning to despair when, finally, an explosion of utterances burst forth from the front seat and, this time, they seemed to be happy in nature. We were suddenly turning right into a short, leafy driveway, going through some gates, and finally stopping. My driver turned from the front seat, gave me a thumbs-up sign in the universal language of success or happiness, and got out to get my suitcase. I looked at my watch. It was 5:15 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, and I’d left my house in America on Monday morning at 8 a.m. my time. It had taken me two planes to get to the Rome airport, then two trains to get to Rimini, and then this comedic taxi ride through the countryside.
Most of it had gone much better than I had anticipated. Most of it. Since I know a number of you are interested in taking AbdesSalaam’s perfume course for yourselves, I’ll describe what it was like for several of us to get to Coriano because some of you will, inevitably, at some point or another, be dealing either with something similar or with the Italian train system.
One of my biggest worries before I’d left was that my flight to Rome would be late and that Rome’s Customs, Immigrations, and baggage pick-up would take so long that I’d miss my special train from the airport, despite having given myself a 3 hour window. Thankfully, Italians do not subject you to the merciless grilling and insane lines that you go through in America. Once I arrived in Rome’s FCO, we did queue up for Immigration, but it only took about 10 minutes, and I was essentially waved through with barely a look at my passport. There was no Customs check whatsoever! Those with “nothing to declare” just ambled through to the Exit. Even the fact that Rome now has a special Terminal (Terminal 5) where they’ve exiled the American and Israeli flights didn’t complicate things. There’d been a fast shuttle that brought us to the main place for Immigration and Baggage Pick-up, Terminal 3 or C, the same terminal where the train depot was, in fact. Finding the latter was easy with the clearly laid-out signs. Lugging my suitcase around was less so, particularly as elevators weren’t always easy to locate and stairs were a bit of a hassle, but that was my own fault since I don’t travel lightly when I’m away for 3 weeks.
A few years ago, Rome instituted a new service at its FCO airport, enabling you to take one of Trenitalia’s speed trains straight to the major cities. You didn’t have to take the Leonardo train shuttle to the madhouse that is Rome’s Termini station in town and then take a train from there; you could just go directly from the airport on their second-fastest bullet train, the silver Frecciargento. There were only 2 issues. First, the trains only left twice a day, so if you missed the morning one, you’d have to do the tiring Rome/ Termini thing unless you waited 5 hours for the afternoon one from the airport. Second, most roads to Rimini, metaphorically speaking, lead through Bologna — and I’m not a fan of the Bologna train station at all. It may not be the crowded bedlam that is Rome’s Termini, but it’s chaotic on a smaller scale. (And both my trains from there were hugely delayed.)
Mussolini once vowed that he would get all the trains in Italy to run on time and, later, falsely bragged that he had been successful in doing so. It was a myth, and train delays seem to be a part of life in Italy, as they probably are everywhere. One thing I noticed, though, is that the length of the delays accrued as the day went on, minutes tacked on here and there every hour. I arrived in Bologna around 2:15 in the afternoon, and my slow, white, multiple-stop InterRegionale train to Rimini was meant to leave at 2:42. After hauling my suitcase down and then back up the various long flights of stairs to get to my platform, I learnt my train was delayed by 20 minutes. Then 25, then 32, then 40. I waited on the platform in the blistering, humid heat, dressed in black clothes suited for airplane travel, began to drip sweat, and swore under my breath.
I wondered how my classmates were faring on their trips. Thanks to the WhatsApp I mentioned in Part I, I knew everyone else was taking a very different approach to getting to Coriano. Four of them had arrived in Italy a few days before the start of the class. Again, thanks to our talks on WhatsApp, two people had joined up to take a train from Florence, where they had each stayed for a few days. One person, Manuel, my future perfume course partner and now a dear friend, had gone to Venice where he’d subsequently rented a car. He was driving to a smaller station than Bologna, one recommended by AbdesSalaam on WhatsApp, to meet Jackie, who’d been in Rome for a day or two and was taking a train from there. They would drive together to Coriano, missing the nerve-wracking hilarity that is the taxi ride from Rimini. A fifth classmate was flying from Vancouver without any prior stop in Italy. As we later learnt, she had the worst trip of all, missing her connection in Frankfurt by mere minutes and, I think, all subsequent connections as well. She arrived at Coriano late at night, after travelling something like 35 hours in total. Our sixth classmate, Salman, was a lucky dog who got ribbed mercilessly and with envy for having the smoothest trip of all: he simply took an uneventful flight direct from Luxembourg to Rimini, period. Of course, his taxi driver got lost on the way to the Germano Reale in Coriano, too, but that ended up feeling like a standard, fun part of the journey, at least when viewed after the fact.
I knew little of this when I finally arrived at the Germano Reale. I’d had no free WiFi options during my trip, and I’ve had enough bad experiences in the past with AT&T’s practically criminal international roaming rates to avoid ever using their network if I can help it. All I knew was that I’d made it — finally! — and that the charming, rustic hotel looked wonderfully peaceful.
A long, cobbled road led from the gates past a car park to two medium-sized, rustic, Mediterranean-style buildings. Both were painted a Tuscan yellow, had dark shutters, and a small, tiled flight of stairs leading to the second floor rooms. Before each of them was a small outdoor arrangement of chairs, a comfy sofa stacked with cushions, and a table. Near the sofa, piles of novels and magazines in different languages filled a large wicker basket on the ground.
Opposite was a long stretch of garden, divided by a walkway, with a row of brightly coloured pink and red flowers on one side, and massive bushes of grey lavender on the other. (Yes, the lavender of my childhood nightmares, albeit in significantly milder form than anything in Provence.) Tall cypress trees grew all around, though they were a different variety than the thin, narrow, typical cypress centurions found throughout Tuscany. A gazebo with a ping-pong table was nestled behind the flowering bushes, near with a hammock, a slide, and toys for children. There were more butterflies around than I’d seen back home in a long time, while bees buzzed over both the roses and a tall, climbing, flowering vine whose unknown green fruit resembled olives. The whole bucolic scene seemed to speak of happy, lazy days in the sun.
The dark yellow building closest to the gates was the main one. Its terracotta tiles and sofa area adjoined onto the front office or reception, as well as doors that led into an air-conditioned dining area. An outdoor terrace lay beyond that.
As my taxi driver carried my suitcase to the building, a dark-haired, young woman in uniform came out, smiling broadly and with warmth. Her name was Valeria, one of the two ladies who helped us throughout our stay, and she was a marvel. She was sweet and incredibly friendly, always with a ready smile, and a great baker who made many of our breakfast treats from scratch. Almost fluent in English, she worked tirelessly to ensure we each had everything we needed, from my endless pleas for ice (and air-conditioning at Siberian levels of 16 or 18 Celsius), to putting aside fresh lemon peel curls for Manuel’s habit of breakfast infusions, to suggestions on where to go out for dinner, and even helping with the booking of our departing train tickets. She basically adopted our motley group, as did “Manu,” or Manuelle, the afternoon hostess who was equally wonderful. Then, there was the handsome Gabriele with whom we talked about American TV shows and teased for wearing Acqua di Gio. Finally, there was the effervescent, utterly exuberant, happy ball of energy called Marco, who owned the place, and whose booming voice would burst upon us when we least expected it. (I have never met such an energetic person in my entire life. Ever!) He was helped by his sweet mother (who makes the best lentil, orzo soup) and his father, because the Germano Reale is quite a family operation and a labour of love.
But we had an extra-special bond with Valeria who was sweet enough to be almost in tears when she saw us for the last time, as were some of us in return. I took a photo of her and Gabriele on the last day and apologise to both of them (and to you) that it’s so terribly blurry. In the relentless glare of the sun, I literally couldn’t see anything on my blackened cellphone screen to know what the shot was like, and didn’t realise until it was too late just how bad it was.
Valeria greeted me that first day, and instantly made me feel right at home. She insisted on lugging my suitcase up to my second floor “Rosa” room, though she did inquire if I had packed a small child in there. She grinned at my clearly frazzled state (I’d been travelling for roughly 30 hours at this point), and at my desperate entreaty to have the air-conditioning be as cold as possible, instead of the standard 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) that many Italians seemed accustomed to. When she suggested a way to keep it on non-stop — despite the energy-saving, card-in-the-slot thing that all Italian hotels have adopted — so that I would be as comfortable as possible during my stay, I almost kissed her.
After taking an icy shower and changing into cooler, clean clothes, I opened WhatsApp to see the status of my classmates, and learnt that Manuel, Salman, and Jackie had already arrived at the Germano Reale. Two of them were sitting on the patio, while the other had gone for a swim. They told me to join them.
This was it… the class was slowly starting and becoming real. I admit to a moment of trepidation before going downstairs, because one never knows what it’s really going to be like meeting strangers with whom you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time, and there is only so much you can learn from text interactions on a phone. I walked through the cool shadows of the restaurant and bar area, and pushed open the doors to find a lovely terrace filled with parasol-covered tables, lined on one side by a hedge and overlooking a sloping hill with sun-dappled trees, a tennis court, and a view of the town of Coriano in the distance. There, waiting for me with a warm, welcoming smile were two men, Manuel and Salman, sipping on cold white wine or bottled water, with small plates of olives and hors d’oeuvres in front of them. Jackie soon joined us, fresh from a dip in the pool.
Meeting my new classmates was a bit awkward at first, but the ice was broken within minutes with tales of our travel misadventures. We each shared some fiasco we’d encountered, except for Salman who’d breezily got on a direct, easy flight from Luxembourg to Rimini, much to our envious disbelief and future teasing. We’d flown from all over to attend the class, though we were primarily based in North America. Again, Salman was the exception, choosing to delay a new job and move to Kiev by a week in order to learn from AbdesSalaam, after failing to get a spot in the quickly filled June seminar.
In fact, Salman had met AbdesSalaam earlier that day, and toured the small building where our classes would be held. It was located mere feet away from the hotel’s second building of rooms, and was apparently already filled with tables, perfume organs, and bottles of AbdesSalaam’s perfumes. We learnt that AbdesSalaam would be coming over later that evening to welcome us in person once everyone arrived, and to take us to dinner. That news led to much excited chatter; the others clearly seemed to share my nervous anticipation at how this long-anticipated class was rapidly becoming real and concrete. Wanting things to start as soon as possible, we all simultaneously whipped out our phones to get on WhatsApp to find out where our last three classmates were. Chagrined to find no news at all, we did what all sane people would do: we ordered more drinks. (And olives. The olives were fabulous. I’m not an olive addict but, good Lord, the taste of those ones!)
The sun was still shining brightly at 7 o’clock when AbdesSalaam arrived. I was nervous when I met him, but was instantly put at my ease. It was the eyes, you see. They smile at you with such enormous warmth, you can’t imagine. Beautifully lined with kohl in the Arabic style, framed by a thick row of sooty lashes that any woman would envy and give her left arm for, they light upon you with paternal kindness and a definite twinkle. In The New York Times profile on AbdesSalaam, the journalist described him as “a Saracen Willy Wonka.” I think that is very true, but it is merely the tip of the iceberg. There is something incredibly charismatic and powerful about AbdesSalaam’s presence, something almost elfishly magical that is far more good wizard than Willy Wonka.
There is an innate “wise man” aura that emanates from him and that always feels real, never artificial or planned. It’s not due to his appearance, even though AbdesSalaam does have a devil-may-care indifference at the extremely striking figure he presents in his flowing, beautifully hand-embroidered robes that always stayed cool, crisp, and clean (no matter the heat or how much the rest of us were sweating).
No, in large part, it stems from his humility, one that is absolutely, 100% genuine. In the introductory preface to my interview with AbdesSalaam a while back, “Alchemy, Spirituality, Love & Memory,” I wrote:
to me, and in my mind, he is above all else, first and foremost, a gentleman — and I mean that in every sense of that word. He is a very gentle, extremely courteous man, one whose vast knowledge is imbued with an old-world, Eastern mysticism and spirituality, as well as enormous humility and modesty. His words may seem simple on the surface, but they are usually laced with layers of meaning that often make me think deeply long after I’ve read them.
I wrote those words after a few years of email correspondence with Salaam, but they are a thousand times more apt once you meet him. This is a man who is humble to his core, incredibly modest (to the point that I think my words here will mortify him), always self-effacing, and filled with enormous gentleness.
While I knew some of that before I met him, what I didn’t know and quickly saw was AbdesSalaam’s enormous warmth and paternal kindness. He takes a genuine, very sincere interest in every part of his students’ lives, listening to them intently, those smiling eyes changing to demonstrate his serious attention and his laser focus upon you. Then, the eyes change again, returning to a sparkling, almost mischievous twinkle that is frequently accompanied by a giggle at some joke or another. That giggle, my word, that giggle… it is wonderful beyond words! His whole body shakes with it. It is utterly infectious, and you cannot help but break into a smile or laugh, especially at how this otherwise serious, reserved, gentle man seems to love a silly pun. (One of his favorites was to call Acupuncture “Happypuncture.”)
Those expressive eyes are truly a window into AbdesSalaam’s character. They were filled with sadness one day in class at the plight of the endangered Tonkin deer that has been hunted almost to extinction for its musk gland, then with a momentary spark of anger and mourning. (AbdesSalaam is vociferously against the use of deer musk in perfumery for ethical and animal cruelty reasons, and only uses those animalics that do not come from the harsh, abusive treatment of animals. He won’t even eat lobster that has been killed by being placed alive in boiling water because of the cruelty involved, cruelty which goes against his religious beliefs.)
Those expressive eyes were filled with kindly amusement and affection that first night when our two classmates coming from Florence, Zenobie and Matthew, burst onto the scene like a cannon ball with loud, flustered apologies for their delayed train and the inevitable taxi mishaps from Rimini through Coriano. As we congregated in the area outside the hotel’s reception area, he looked at each of us with a happy smile, clearly delighted that we were there.
But when Manuel joined us after a quick trip to his room, AbdesSalaam took a sniff of the air around him, and those expressive eyes quickly filled with horror. “White musk!!!!!” he announced in disgust. Manuel sheepishly confessed to having applied a few spritzes of Byredo‘s Gypsy Water, a Swedish niche scent known for its crisp, citrusy, aromatic freshness. AbdesSalaam took a few more sniffs of the air, and clearly decided that the synthetic molecules circulating around him were an affront to nature and that there was no time like the present to educate his students. He reached into a large, hidden pocket within his flowing robes, and whipped out a foot-long leather cord, knotted and studded across its length with numerous small glass vials of essences. In a way, it was like a perfumer’s version of rosary beads.
Those kohl-rimmed eyes were now intent as AbdesSalaam went about like a man on a mission, dabbing each of us with a mysterious ointment on the top of our hand. He stood back with a small smile at the corner of his mouth, and waited for our reaction. I took a sniff. Rose. But this was no ordinary rose. Dark, rich, deep, and intense waves of red radiated from my skin, fruity in the most wonderful and natural way, but with a surprising undertone of woodiness. As they sniffed their own hands, both Jackie and Manuel gasped out loud, stunned by this hit to the senses.
“Bulgarian Damascena Rose Absolute,” said AbdesSalaam, clearly enjoying the look on all our faces. “Lemony,” said one person, “sweet and fruity” said another. At my “Woody” comment, AbdesSalaam whipped out his cord, opened another vial, and placed a drop on the top of my other hand. It was creamy, milky, a little spicy, a hair green, and, yes, definitely woody as well. “Sandalwood,” said Salaam, as he went about dabbing drops from various vials on his leather cord onto the others.
Time was rapidly passing, the sun was starting to set, my stomach was growling, and AbdesSalaam’s eagle eye was quick to see the small signs of restlessness. There was still no sign or word from our final, seventh classmate, “M.” I think it was at this point or a short while later that Salman tried to call her on WhatsApp, but “M” failed to arrive for another few hours yet after going through the longest, most exhausting trip of all. The enormous Frankfurt airport is often a tricky thing if you have a small window of time to make a connecting flight, so if you sign up for AbdesSalaam’s class and fly via that hub, give yourself plenty of time.
Always keenly aware of the state of his students, AbdesSalaam decided we should eat, and rounded up his young ducklings. He drove half of them in his own car, while the rest went in Manuel’s rented SUV. We went to a small pizza place in Coriano called Mister G’s which made delicious thin-crusted pizza with a wonderful burnt edge and fresh toppings. AbdesSalaam waited as we got settled, then left, promising to return at the end of the meal to drive half the group back to the Germano Reale. I was too hungry to take photos of the food that night, but I found a small image on Trip Advisor to share with you. Frankly, I think the pizzas we had looked far better than the one in the photo. They also looked much bigger in size. Mine was a huge thing with mushroom, sausage, and a nicely charred crust. It was delicious. Eventually, AbdesSalaam arrived to let us know that poor “M” had finally landed at the hotel and to shepherd us back to the hotel. Class would begin the next day at 9.
I should probably end this post here, but it would be thematically more consistent with my goal of giving you a sense of the feel, atmosphere, and life during those six days if I shared photos of the wonderful food we ate and some of the restaurants we went to. At the very least, it would enable me to keep my promise to several of you to post a lot of food photos from my trip. And we had some very good food in Coriano, far better than I had in Rome. According to AbdesSalaam, Coriano is known for its food, and I’m not surprised. It was lovely everywhere, adding to the happy vibe in the evenings when we finally got to unwind after our heads had been blown with information and sensory, olfactive overload.
Sometimes, we sat on the Germano Reale’s terrace, eating delivered pizza and drinking artisanal, indie Italian beer as we watched the sunset.
Twice, we went to a restaurant called La Greppia where Jackie ordered black truffle ravioli, the best that I’d had in a long time. Salman’s brown butter and sage ravioli was nice, too, but I was a little underwhelmed by both the gnocchi with ragu and the tagliatelle with wild boar, a local and Tuscan speciality. Zenobie had steak which I thought was tough and simply okay. On the plus side, the Sangiovese wine that Manuel ordered was so robust and intense, I could smell it in its decanter from a foot away. For dessert, we had a delicious Creme Catalan (a softer, creamier sort of creme brulée) and either Lemoncello over ice-cream or a shot of vodka over Lemoncello ice-cream. I can’t recall which it was, but it made Matthew, Jackie, and Manuel very happy. Here are a few shots of the place and some of its pasta:
Another time, we went to a fancier place called Osteria del Sapori, where we unwound over cocktails or Islay single-malt scotch in a private gazebo and ordered seafood.
There, we got suckered into accidentally ordering a long, multi-course meal better suited for 20 people. I’m not kidding, the waiter definitely took advantage of our lack of Italian fluency. I started to give up taking photos after the 5th dish, and I think that was only the 2nd course. By the time the 3rd course ended, we were all satiated and ready to leave. To my bewilderment, they brought out fresh plates, leaving me to wonder if Manuel had ordered dessert. Moments later, I was bemused to see more seafood platters arriving.
By the time the chap brought out what must have been the 7th course, I thought it was a joke. My jaw was agape when he arrived carrying a long silver platter that was almost too big to fit on the table, followed by another waiter who carried a second one! My jaw hit the ground when more waiters quickly arrived bearing small bowls of salad, plates of grilled vegetables, and additional bread. This couldn’t be! What was happening??!! It had to be a joke, right? Each and every one of us was stunned, most silent in shock, a few giving a nervous laugh. I didn’t know where to look, because food was practically spilling out from every square inch in sight, leaving me no room for my plate which was now on my lap! After making some space for it (how I do not know!), the waiter left, but not before saying something like, “Good luck,” with a knowing smirk and a strange tone of voice. We looked at each other, and knew that we’d been had.
There was so, so, SO much food that night that I was too overwhelmed to take a lot of photos, though I simply had to take out my camera to capture those two, final, insane, silver platters. I actually had to stand on my chair in order to fit them both into one shot. So, here is a little of that unforgettably over-the-top dinner:
After the culinary blitzkrieg, the waiter had the audacity to ask if we wanted dessert and coffee. Manuel glared at him, and said, “NO!!!” through clenched teeth. I won’t discuss the bill, only that it was obviously very high. So, if you take the course and go for dinner to the Osteria del Sapori, my advice is not to listen to the waiter’s rapid-fire suggestions and not to nod at the idea of bringing out “a few, small, mixed platters to share,” unless you are absolutely, 100% fluent in Italian and know everything he is uttering.
They often say that the best memories are formed when things go either wonderfully right or very wrong — even if it takes some time to be able to laugh at the latter. We started laughing at our experiences from that night almost immediately when we tried to save time on making two trips to get home by squashing all seven people into Manuel’s small SUV, an SUV meant for five people at most. I volunteered to go into the tiny trunk, even though Manuel scoffed at the idea. There was plenty of room, though, so Salman joined me, his long legs up almost around his ears. No-one could quite believe it when they managed to close the trunk door on us, or believe that we both fit in without much discomfort, but we did. I thought it was absolutely hilarious and laughed like a loon all the way back to the Germano Reale, Salman joining me with an occasional fit of the giggles.
My long tale is now drawing to a close, but its point was to give you a good idea of what it was like for us in Italy, from getting to Coriano to the atmosphere and part of our life once we were there and, of course, what it was like to meet the man who had brought us all together. If you decide to take the course, those things will all remain roughly the same in feel or mood, even if the small details of what you do during the actual classes end up being a little different. AbdesSalaam believes in letting each class flow naturally and fluidly from individual and group interests, as well as group dynamics, “to let the events of the world direct the course, taking every occasion as an opportunity to teach real perfumery. Trusting fully that everything will come in its right time at the right place.”
Next time, in Part III, “Learning How to Smell”….
[Update: Now posted are Part IV where I talk about how to blend and make perfumes, while Part V is about the language of perfume and the secret messages sent by its archetypes, as well as olfactory marketing and bespoke perfumery. Part VI covers the animalics and what they smelt like. Part VII concludes the series with a look at perfume psycho-aromatherapy, distillation, final thoughts, and information on the next classes.]
Postscript: My thanks to my classmates who gave their consent for use of their personal names and images. For more information on the Germano Reale, here is their website.