It’s been more than a year since I did one of my monthly “grab bag” posts, inspired by the “Currently” series of posts that my friend, The Non-Blonde, does summarizing various personal things in her life from books, music, television shows, cooking, to other things. I don’t know why I stopped doing mine, but the hot, lazy days of summer and the long 4th of July holiday weekend in the U.S. seem like a good time to start again. There may not be a lot of interesting newspaper articles on the state of the fragrance industry for me to share with you as I did before, and all of it is a departure from my usual focus so it may not bear any interest for some of you but, sometimes, one just wants to hang out with friends (as so many of you have become), relax, and chat.
As some of you know, perfume actually ranks rather low on my list of passions and I’m far more interested in things like history, German shepherds, gastronomy, photography, or even television, for that matter. So, I’ll tell you what’s interested or amused me over the last six months, and then I hope you will then tell me your news.
General Perfume Industry News: Almost 2 and a half years after Estée Lauder began taking over niche perfume brands, L’Oreal, suddenly woke up and realised its rival was onto something. Or, more to the point, it realised that it was actually supposed to care about perfume, even if it was the mere pretense thereof, and that there was a trend that had passed it buy. “Better late than never,” it yawned. So, it took over Atelier Cologne. Yes, L’Oreal has suddenly realised niche perfumery is not just a thing, but a profitable one as well. (At least until they run the brand into the ground and ruin it, but that’s another issue.) Last month, they bought Elizabeth Arden as well, which might have been their version of a salvage, bargain-bin investment since the company hadn’t been doing well at all over the last 2 years. But it was the Atelier purchase that I found telling.
First, I should say that I, personally, I don’t classify Atelier Cologne as a real niche brand at all, and it’s not solely because its fragrances are sold in Sephora. It’s because its style of perfumery is largely mainstream in aesthetic, and hardly akin to something like Amouage, Tauer, Bogue, LM Parfums, Roja Dove, or so many others.
An actual, genuine niche brand would not fit or benefit L’Oreal’s portfolio and market segment, in my opinion, whereas something like Atelier is sufficiently mainstream in style that L’Oreal can buy it in an attempt to catch up with its rival, Estee Lauder. Plus, this way, L’Oreal can pretend to itself that it actually cares about olfaction or fragrances alongside all its mascaras, foundations, and lipsticks when the reality, in my opinion, is quite different. To me, L’Oreal is the Anti-Christ of the big perfume conglomerates, a parasitic vulture who will suck the lifeblood, creativity, distinctiveness, luxuriousness, and/or quality out of every brand it infects in order to squeeze the maximum amount of profits. They make LVMH’s treatment of Guerlain look like that of St. Francis of Assisi. Yes, I’m bitter, yes, I’m biased, and no, I will never, ever forgive L’Oreal for what they did to my beloved Yves Saint Laurent. But the point is, L’Oreal has suddenly woken up, and the “game is afoot,” to quote Sherlock Holmes. Just watch them scramble to take over more quasi-“niche” houses in the months and years ahead, and watch the perfume landscape change even more as a result.
New NYC Perfume Destination: Arabian Oud is coming to America! It will be opening a flagship store in Times Square in New York City in July. My thanks to Guy Henninger for alerting me to the news which was confirmed by Ahmed Chowdhury of Arabian Oud London.
History & Literature: The New York Times had a fascinating piece recently entitled “How J.R.R. Tolkien Found Mordor on the Western Front.” In it, Joseph Loconte argues that “Tolkien’s supreme literary achievement, ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ owes a great deal to his experience at the Somme,” that ghastly, useless 1916 WWI battle that was a scene of pure carnage. I think the author makes a compelling, powerful point:
The descriptions of battle scenes in “The Lord of the Rings” seem lifted from the grim memories of the trenches: the relentless artillery bombardment, the whiff of mustard gas, the bodies of dead soldiers discovered in craters of mud. In the Siege of Gondor, hateful orcs are “digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring,” while others maneuver “great engines for the casting of missiles.”
On the path to Mordor, stronghold of Sauron, the Dark Lord, the air is “filled with a bitter reek that caught their breath and parched their mouths.” Tolkien later acknowledged that the Dead Marshes, with their pools of muck and floating corpses, “owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.”
Historical Curiosities & Cool Stuff: Facial reconstructions can be an iffy thing when historical evidence is scant, like when the subject was beheaded, her skull never found, and most portraits destroyed. That’s the case for poor Anne Boleyn, but there is a cool new reconstruction from two rare sketches and paintings left of her. If you don’t take it as “truth,” it’s fun to look at, particularly when the reconstruction resembles (as so many have noted) GOT’s Melisandre.
What made me sit up, though, was something partially related that I also saw on The Vintage News (a very cool Facebook site, by the way): the secret of Elizabeth I‘s ruby and ivory ring that she always wore. Upon her death in 1603, it was discovered that the ring opened to reveal two incredibly detailed, painted portraits inside, the Queen and her beheaded mother, Anne Boleyn. It’s touching that someone as fierce and independent as Elizabeth never forgot her mother (who she grew up without) and that she wanted Anne by her side every day, even if only visually. Supposedly, Elizabeth never told anyone what was inside the ring, which isn’t surprising given the nasty smear campaign against poor Anne after her death. More significantly, though, if you look carefully at Anne’s portrait, you’ll see that she is not shown with the raven black hair that is our modern image of her but with strawberry blond hair, just like Elizabeth.
The last thing from The Vintage News relates to Ancient Egypt, and it simply makes me laugh: a pair of Egyptian orange knitted socks, circa 240 AD, now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Just look at the toes on those things! I grin each time I see them. The reactions of commentators in the thread are particularly fun because, as so many noted, it seems the ancient Egyptians were actually two-toed sloths, aliens, or early fashion devotees of the unfortunate modern trend of wearing socks with sandals. Clearly, our toes have evolved a long way since then, not to mention our knitting skills.
Television: As regular readers know, I’m a television junkie and it’s the only effective way of shutting off my whirling mind if I want to get over my insomnia. Over the last 8 months, old favourites like Game of Thrones, The Americans, Vikings, Downton Abbey, Grantchester, Band of Brothers, and even a complete re-watching of my beloved Star Trek: DS9 have kept me entranced, but my greatest obsession over the last 9 months has been an award-winning French series called Un Village Français, shown in America on MHZ Choice. It’s the searing, brutal indictment of the French (and everyone else) during the Nazi Occupation of a fictional French village from 1940 all the way through to the Liberation and the establishment of “order” under the new Gaullist Republic. Absolutely no-one comes out smelling of roses in this often discomforting, tense look at daily life under extremely difficult and ethically challenging circumstances, not the Resistance (at first), the Communists, the collaborating villagers, the Vichy bureaucrats, the Germans, or even some of the Americans in their brief, passing role much later on. At best, people are shown as human, torn, passive watchers, petty, or incompetent. At worst… well, let’s say there is a reason the French tried to sweep things like the Vel d’Hiv horror under the carpet for decades and decades.
Un Village Français is not violently graphic, but it can be raw in a deeply emotional, visceral way. I watched two of the 1942-based episodes regarding the Jewish round-up through my fingers while struggling to contain my nausea, even though there wasn’t a camp or torture scene in sight. I truly did NOT want to watch the episodes and felt as though I had to force myself not to be an emotional coward. It’s odd; somehow, neither Schindler’s List nor Sophie’s Choice made me feel quite so… well, nauseous. Plus, I thought I’d be a bit more immune given that my academic background years and years ago concerned totalitarian regimes and the Nazis, focusing on the SS above all.
But those two or three French Village episodes were incredibly tough to watch, perhaps for the same reason that the show has power as a whole: it’s a microcosm and slice of life that focuses on the small things to say a whole hell of lot. And it doesn’t shy away from showing how every day, common, small people can engage in the mundaneness or the “banality of evil,” to quote Hannah Arendt — sometimes without even realising.
What is so brilliant, so unusual, and so nuanced about the series is that shows moral or ethical decline as an inch by inch progression on the scale, until you’re suddenly knee-deep in awful territory before you realise it or without having meant to do anything quite so horrifying. Few people are pure evil, but the war definitely permitted many people to feel free to demonstrate their underlying ugliness and deeply held feelings, while others took advantage of the circumstances to pursue their own agenda — no matter who got hurt. Then, there are the morally weak and inept who looked the other way, the idiotic sheep in various socio-political groups, and the rare handful who simply love power for its own sake and had a sadistic streak. As The New York Times put it in an article on the show: “Some of the most well-meaning people collaborate — faute de mieux — and some of the bravest resisters are downright unpleasant.” By the time you get to the rare handful people whose actions truly might be described as “evil”… well, it’s a compelling, historically accurate portrayal of the entire spectrum. I found it so engrossing, I couldn’t stop watching.
The other thing that makes Un Village Français stand out so much to me is that it exposes with unflinching candour and bluntness a part of history that some segments of French society spent decades trying to shove under the carpet. To be clear, it’s the older sectors, and I’m not judging because every country has its own dirty laundry or scars to deal with. But I grew up partially in France and for all my love of the country, I think the French have been tight-lipped about the true nature of the occupation and what some people did, not really dealing with it like other countries or candidly until the 1990s when there were a few trials and a presidential apology. It’s still mostly taboo, in my opinion. Look at how few people speak or know about Coco Chanel today. Or, as I mentioned earlier, the Vel d’Hiv horror that was only one of a wide-scale French round-up, under German orders, of French Jews, leading to French internment and transit camps on the way to Auschwitz. It’s not widely known or commonly discussed at all. (If you want to read a powerful, haunting, and disturbing historical novel on these matters, I recommend Sarah’s Key by Tatiana Rosnay which demonstrates very effectively why some people preferred to sweep what happened back in both Vichy and Nazi-occupied France under the rug.)
That’s what makes Un Village Français really stand out to me. No-one is spared from its searing indictments or honest portrayals, not even that most sacred of holy French cows, the Resistance. I thought the series’ 1940-41 years showed the Communists in a particularly bad light as petty, ideological, party sheep with little foresight or acumen. It was only later when the non-ideological partisans, the Maquis, drove things that the Resistance truly became the heroic thing that it is perceived today.
If you’re interested in watching Un Village Français and are not in France where it is a monumental hit (and still filming), you have a few options. You can buy it on Amazon. If you’re in America like me, there is also MHZ Choice which is a streaming service like Netflix online. There is a free 30-day trial period where you can watch everything. After that, it’s $7.99 a month. They have about 50-60 European series with new things added each month. There is a massive emphasis on Scandinavian Crime Noir and detective shows (the original Wallender, Beck, Hamilton), but also series in other genres or from other countries, like Italy, Germany, France (Spiral, Blood on the Vine, Maigret, etc.) Austria, or the Netherlands. And everything is subtitled in English. I absolutely love MHZ.
It’s where I fell hard for Inspector Montalbano which is set in the sunny, ancient towns of Sicily and which has the oddest comfort factor for me. Not one thing about it is intellectual or edgy, but it’s fun and has a touch of comedy in its tales of a grumpy, macho, but extremely charming and kind Italian inspector with his own internal code, and no patience for the Mafia or the petty bureaucrats who get in his way. While beautiful women are always after him, his major love is for seafood and Italian cuisine. Woe betide you if you interrupt him while he eats, or if you’re unkind to small children and animals.
MHZ is also where I watched Norway’s riveting The Heavy Water War (also known as “The Saboteurs“) about the Nazi attempts to develop a nuclear bomb under Werner Heisenberg, and the daring British SOE-Norwegian commando raid that sought to destroy the one factory that produced the heavy water (deuterium oxide) necessary for such a bomb. Although it was later discovered that the Nazi nuclear program was far less developed than people had thought, there was a genuine panic at the time that Hitler would get the bomb first, so one small factory perched on a snowy Norwegian ravine seemed to hold the key to the entire war. (The same events were the focus of the famous old film, “The Heroes of Telemark,” starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris.) The Heavy Water War is an excellent, tense, suspenseful, 6-episode show that I highly recommend.
Another interesting MHZ series comes from Germany and looks at life under Stasi-controlled East Germany in the 1980s. It’s called The Weissensee Saga. There is a highly annoying Romeo/Juliet thing going on, but what I found interesting was the way they showed the reach of the 1980s Stasi and the sheer extent of the informant state that they created via blackmail, coercion, or torture. Ooof. (Interestingly, a good number of the actors who played in the show were originally East German and had lived under the regime.) As you will see in a Guardian article on the show, a lot of people say that the series is the first to accurately portray what life was like back then.
To watch all these shows, I use a Roku device plugged into my television, but you can also watch on a tablet or streaming over a laptop. I’m afraid MHZ is limited to the U.S. for now but, if you live here, I highly, highly recommend signing up if you love European dramas or are looking for something different to watch. If you’re outside the U.S., most of these shows are available for purchase on Amazon.
Hairy German News: My Teutonic Overlord has had an endless series of small health issues over the last 6 months, including a few flare-ups of his perianal fistulas which can be a dangerous, life-threatening condition if not gotten under rapid control. Luckily, we’ve managed that, but it’s been frustrating because everything seems triggered by some sort of allergy or another, and it never bloody ends! Not even the super-expensive, new “wonder drug” called Apoquel has been the answer. He had two awful attacks of the fistulas under it, complete with bleeding, oozing, pus-filled lesions, and other things whose details I’ll spare you. All this despite $400-$600 of medications each month, depending on what is going on. (Yes, it eats into the budget for full bottles of perfume, but I’d spend far more than that without hesitation to make my fluffy redhead healthy and happy.) For now, a combination cocktail which includes a big dose of steroids is doing the trick and he’s doing better, lounging by my side as I type and no doubt dreaming happily of how to torment the poor UPS man (whom he despises and who is terrified of him in turn).
Sources of Joy: For some reason, 2016 feels more difficult, stressful, or turbulent than most years. Terrorism, mass shootings, bombings, Brexit, the more divisive-than-usual American election… it’s emotionally and mentally exhausting sometimes, so I’ve been turning more than ever to small things that bring a moment’s escape, joy, or smile. Like, for example, German Shepherd photos. The way many of you look at cat ones or memes, I look at the GSD/Alsatian equivalent. And I want these two puppies so BADLY!! But my extremely possessive Imperial Overlord would never tolerate it. He doesn’t even like it when I talk on the phone to someone! So, he’d never accept my paying attention to new hairy children. Still, just look at them! So floofy, so fluffy, so adorable! And I love how GSDs transform from fat little balls of sweetness into the epitome of commanding, regal elegance:
When I’m not an abject, worshipful slave at the paws of The Holy German Emperors, I turn elsewhere for solace from the latest miserable news. One thing that has made me laugh out loud for more than 10 years now is the brilliant Tom Jones Sex Bomb routine by Olympic Gold medalist, Evgeni Plushenko, from the All-Stars Exhibition portion of the 2005 or 2006 World Championships. I think it’s absolutely hilarious, especially as it continues, building up and up. Showmanship and comedy par excellence. I defy you to watch the whole video and not smile even once.
So, that’s an accumulated listing of random stuff that caught my attention over the last 6-9 months. I’d love to hear about your recent obsessions, new loves, book or television discoveries, sources of joy, furry children, culinary delights, or anything else. I’ve been a bit wiped out lately, so I may lack the energy to respond to everything, but I’ll be eagerly reading anything that you’d like to share. And, to those of you in the States, happy 4th of July! I hope it’s been a wonderful holiday weekend.