“Better lucky than smart,” Beverly said. I certainly felt lucky. I’d only met her in person the day before, yet here I was, glass of rosé in hand, seated on her terrace in the south of France, the lights of Valbonne in the valley below mirroring the stars.
Almost nine years ago, a friend and I stopped into an estate sale, and I came away with a four dollar bottle of Lucien Lelong Indiscret parfum (the story and a mini-review are here). A few years later, a stranger — Beverly — wrote to me saying that her mother had worn Indiscret, and would I send her a sample? Her mother had died when Beverly was only 18, more than fifty years earlier. I sent her the bottle.
Beverly and I corresponded a bit over the next few years, and she invited me to visit her and her husband at their second home where the Riviera borders Provence. Finally, this summer, I took the train from Paris to Cannes,1 where I stood in front of the train station in the broiling sun, staring at a row of taxis, trusting fate hadn’t led me to a dead end.
“Angela!” I heard behind me and turned to see a plush blonde smiling and waving. She looked made to wear gardenia. “I knew I’d recognize you somehow.”
I spent the next four nights with her, exploring the Côte d’Azur by day and dining in the town square — or, once, tucking into fritto misto with my feet in the sand, gazing at the mammoth yachts on the Mediterranean.
We talked a lot, in the car, at lunch, and late on the terrace. Beverly has a keen eye for beauty and astute observations of human nature. “Use things, love people,” she said as she took delicately handmade plates from the buffet. “Not the other way around.” A good motto to apply to fragrance.
One of our day trips was to the Musée International de la Parfumerie in Grasse. Grasse spills over a hill, and nearly every street seems to contain a few hairpin curves, but the views are worthy of To Catch a Thief. After outwitting the GPS, which seemed programmed to kill us, and sardining the Toyota into a parking garage, we made our way to the museum.
The Musée International de la Parfumerie (not to be confused with the Fragonard perfume museum just down the hill) straddles a 19th-century townhouse and a new building, with a courtyard between them. The ground floor gives an overview of perfumery today — and showcases Jean Carles’s perfume organ, possibly where he composed Indiscret — and individual floors explore perfume culture, including hygiene, history, and technology, chronologically, from the Renaissance on. In one of the courtyards is a garden of scented plants, including patchouli, jasmine and cardamom.
I was ready to move into the floor dedicated to the 20th century, just so I could study each perfume bottle along the timeline and dream of the dresses and drawing rooms into which each perfume launched. The final floor was for a temporary exhibition on Eau de Cologne. (My final burst of happiness came from finding a copy of Nez magazine in the gift shop with an article I’d written. My name in the International Museum of Perfumery! I was so proud, even if it was just the gift shop.) Perfume lovers, if you’re within a hundred miles of the museum, you’ve got to visit it.
I’m home now, and this summer’s vacation feels like a glamorous movie I once saw. I know those three weeks will continue to cook in me and hopefully inspire me to take more risks, meet new people, and see the possibilities in life. As Beverly reminded me one night on the terrace, “Life is what you make of it.”
1. Writing this never gets old.