One of the most important changes in my life during the past year was having to communicate in French. I started learning French when I was eight, in a private elementary school and I continued studying it until I was about fifteen if I remember well. I was taught French using a method that at the time seemed absurd to me but don’t take my word for it because I found the entire school system absurd and boring anyway. This method involved learning by heart and repeating stories that where narrated in an old tape recorder while a book with drawings served as a tool to help us memorize. That was it… For the entire two first years of learning French. Then on the third year we started seeing letters and writing words for the first time (Nikos my friend correct me if I am wrong, but that’s how I remember things). Although this method seems a bit radical I realise on hindsight that it was effective. French were etched deep down inside that part of the brain that handles language skills. The last time I used French was in 1993 when I studied in a Paris University for one semester. That was it. I can tell you that I do not find it a particularly beautiful language. I also find French culture a bit stiff and overdressed, French literature a bit loquacious, too many adjectives… As for the way it sounds, call me crazy but my favourite languages are Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch and Hebrew.
My history with English is quite different. I started studying English around ten I think, and I was even taught English at high school although my handling of this language generally exceeded the level at which it was being taught to me. And I have Greek TV to thank for as all those 80’s soap operas and series were regularly shown in Greece in their original versions, subtitled. Yes, I grew up on Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, Dynasty and Duke’s of Hazzard. I survived it though and I am living proof that even the shittiest TV series is a better language tutor than reading the book. Although I do not think that my English is perfect, I feel comfortable enough expressing myself in this language, I don’t have to think about it.
The transition to French is not an easy one, the biggest problem being the similarities with English, not the differences. There are many words which have a common root in the two languages and although it may come easy to use them interchangeably, one should resist. For example, the word opportunité exists but it translates to timeliness. not opportunity. The right translation is occasion which also exists in English with a slightly different meaning. You can look up an entire long list of words that can trick you into saying something you do not mean when you use their French versions here, I should strongly advise you however not to go out looking for things without préservatifs in a French speaking country: you will not be looking for wholesome food but rather for unprotected sex. Another very interesting peculiarity is the very strict code of conduct when it comes to starting a word with a capital letter. In French you simply have to resist the urge. Only names of people and places start with a capital letter and the Oxford Dictionaries rule that says you should use a capital letter in every word of a title of a book, or film or an institution does not apply. If you have wondered why Serge Lutens perfumes have those words written in lower case, like Ambre sultan, Gris clair, Sa majesté la rose, it is not because uncle Serge wants to play with hidden meanings and codes. The reason is because capitalising all words in a sentence or title is a big faux pas in French (en français, with a lower case f in French). Even days of the week and months do not deserve a capital letter.
One of those French words that I find hard to translate in English is joli. It doesn’t mean beautiful, beau/ belle is the adjective for this. It doesn’t mean pretty or nice either though. It stands somewhere between the two, not committing to a full blown enthusiasm like using beautiful would imply, but acknowledging an undisputed elegance, self-assuredness and attractiveness. To me the quintessential “jolie dame” is French actress Sophie Marceau, on the left. Although she is not strikingly beautiful, she is without a doubt the embodiment of French beauty and chic in an earthy, approachable and intelligent way. And I found the embodiment of joli parfum going through some samples I ordered from L’Atelier Bohème, a label I had not heard of before. Rhizomes is the perfume. I stumbled upon Rhizomes browsing for scents featuring vetiver and iris. I am always looking for this perfect scent that will combine those two notes, the yin and yang of earth’s perfume treasures. The overt rootiness of vetiver with the covert one of iris, possibly with a hint of suede, oh yes that would make me really happy! Vetiver Oriental (or should I write Vétiver oriental?) came close but it is a bit too dressy to be IT! Rhizomes however is a very close match to what I have in mind. It took my breath away from first sniff. Crystelle Darchicourt, L’Atelier Bohème perfumer, created this with a very ambitious brief: an homage to vetiver, an essential oil whose nuances of development never cease to surprise. A root in the heart of the most beautiful perfumes. The vetiver blend is accompanied by the spiciest and most gourmand roots, ginger and licorice, then it is lightly powdered by iris with its perplexing sillage. Rhizomes is defined by top notes of spicy and lively ginger, heart notes of soft and powdery iris and base notes of multifaceted vetiver and liquorice. A daring and comfortable scent (translated from the French version of the site by me, although an English page for this exists)
As you can see, Rhizomes is a conceptual perfume. It relies heavily on perfume ingredients that are kept hidden in the ground, roots and rhizomes that vibrate in those low frequencies of nature. What comes out of the sample vial can only be described as warm velvet. Ginger can be a deal breaker for me in scents and dishes alike, and I don’t get a lot of it here but I can tell you it’s there. The licorice is every bit as natural as in Black Vines, without any hint of candy, just hot, spicy root. Tiny hints of violet offer this necessary French je ne sais quoi, used in the same way it is used in Maître Parfumeur et Gantier perfumes. It creates a sweet reference to another time, a sort of innocent nostalgia, and it confirms to me that violet flower is one of my favourite floral notes. Even when I cannot isolate it, it draws me in a very soothing place. Who knows, maybe some day I will remember why. The big player in Rhizomes is iris for me. It reminds me a lot of the qualities of Iris Silver Mist, it is rooty, cool and spicy at the same time. Crystelle Darchicourt creates an iris that is more wearable than Iris Silver Mist by adding spices. The coldness of the carrots and marble are gone but essentially I can smell the same kind of iris, warmed up and made human. I haven’t talked about the role vetiver plays yet because it is a very intriguing one. It lends a smokiness to the composition but never actually tries to steal the performance. It is warm, grey, restrained and beautiful and if it isn’t one of your favourite notes, don’t worry, it won’t ruin Rhizomes for you. Rhizomes remains one of the most beautiful iris perfumes I have ever smelt and is full bottle worthy.
Official notes: Ginger, Grapefruit, Lemon, Iris, rose, violette, Vetiver, Liquorice, Muscs
Notes from my nose: Licorice root, Spices, Violet, Iris, Vetiver
My other choices from the L’Atelier Bohème catalogue were Kaféïne and Immortelle, that was easy… I love these notes. Immortelle is not what you would expect. No curry notes and maple syrup here. If I have to draw a parallel in order to help someone decide if they want to try this, El Attarine is the closest an immortelle scent can get to the Atelier Bohème version of this. Darchicourt’s inspiration was goddess Hera and her companion, the peacock. What I get is a warm, leathery and sweet incense, which is very strange because it is not included in the official note listing. pomegranate and amber are though. I imagine that Darchicourt managed to light a different facet of immortelle and I can certainly see similarities with an elichryssum extract I have smelt for educational purposes. There is a slight medicinal aspect to it but nothing too weird or discouraging. Immortelle remains a beautiful oriental fragrance, approachable and restrained.
Official notes: Mandarin, Bergamot, Light florals, Pomegranate, Amber accord, Immortelle
Notes from my nose: Incense tears, Leather
Kaféïne is a coffee based fragrance and I am always weary when I approach one of those. I take my coffee without sugar and when sampling coffee scents I very often face a Starbuck’s version of coffee rather than the real thing. Kaféïne is not a photorealistic attempt at a coffee scent and I would not expect it to be, but it isn’t a coffee gourmand either. It has a persistent opening of orange citruses, bergamot mostly, and an oriental increment that incorporates the coffee note without letting it exposed. There is a vague greenness in the composition that I believe comes from the citruses and overall it is a sweet, invigorating fragrance with an earthy undercurrent, owed to the coffee note.
Official notes: Coffee, Cardamom, Bergamot, Tea, Cedar, Sandalwood, Caramel, Tonka beans
Notes from my nose: Bergamot, Orange, Coffee, Green hues, Tonka beans
The three perfumes I chose to sample from L’Atelier Bohème have this indescribable french quality, they are jolis. They are not here to perplex with hidden nuances, they have come to us to make our lives prettier, more beautiful. They are elegant and sophisticated in a way that seems to become more rare. They are not simple but they prefer to keep their complications to themselves. After all life is short and we need pretty things.
Disclosure: samples were purchased by me. L’Atelier Bohème has a very attractive sampling program where you can purchase a generous sample for 1 euro, multiple samples can be bought. Exclamation point artwork by René Gruau