We all have our own ways of coping with bad days, I guess.
Some might phone a friend or family member to let off steam. Others might head to the bar to tipple away their workday worries, or splurge on dinner out at a favorite sushi joint.
You can find me in the perfume store.
No, not the headache-inducing ether of Perfumania (yech) or even Sephora. I'm talking about the little-known creators of luxury fragrance: Tiny scent artisans like Le Labo, Atelier Cologne, and Frederic Malle own my heart. Moderately bad days call for a fragrance-sniffing foray and maybe a sample or two from their small stores in New York, but the really awful, terrible, no-good variety of day often results in a full-bottle purchase, squeezing my already-tight budget even further.
This innocent, albeit costly, attachment to things that smell good isn't the only way senses rule my world. If we were to go shopping together, you'd notice that I finger the fabrics of the clothes before even looking at them: It's always touch first, look later. And if you peek inside my purse, you're likely to find a little bottle of truffle oil stashed away -- just in case some lackluster fries need emergency resuscitation.
Maybe you'd describe this behavior as hedonism. I actually don't know what to call it because the word I once would have used to describe my love of smell and taste and things that feel good on the skin is now mostly associated with sex: Sensual.
The synonyms for sensual are pathetically incongruous with the world I've just described: X-rated. Animal. Animalistic. Arousing. Bodily. Carnal. Debauched. Exciting. Fleshly. Hedonic. Hot. Lascivious. Lecherous. Lewd. Libidinous. Licentious. Lustful. Rough. Sensuous. Sexual. Sexy. Steamy. Stimulating. Unchaste. Unspiritual. Voluptuous.
Since when did a word I associate with the finer things in life -- with femininity, sophistication, and finding stuff that makes you happier to be alive -- start hanging out in the red light district?
I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with sex. I'm an avid (if selective) consumer of that, too. I just think it's different. It's a related desire, but it's not the same.
Grammar fiends will tell you that my annoyance with sensual's apparent identity crisis is a bit misguided. It's true: the technical word for aesthetic pleasure of the non-sexual kind is sensuous (which, you'll notice, is a synonym listed above). Sensual was imbued with more lewd connotations hundreds of years ago, so Milton created sensuous to serve as a more chaste form of the word.
I appreciate Milton's effort, but much like the Academie Francaise hasn't succeeded in getting the French to call an email a "couriel," sensuous never really caught on the way it should have. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a person outside academia or the Modern Language Association who could explain the difference off the top of her head. Which means that if I try to explain my sensuous after-work activities to a friend, I sound more like I have a penchant for erotic massage than hibiscus shampoo.
Maybe it's the abundance of nonfiction extolling the power of the "Divine Feminine" I've been reading, but I can't help thinking that letting sensuality become synonymous with sex says something sad about our culture -- and the way we view sense-triggered emotion. Why can't we have a simple word that describes physical passions beyond the sexual? Does that mean we think those passions aren't important?
I'm not saying that sensuality shouldn't encompass sexual desire -- of all the physical thrills, sex certainly is one of the most profound. But there are so many other sensual pleasures -- the taste of that first sip of wine, the sensation of shedding your work stilettos for a pair of slippers, the first whiff of flowers at the cusp of spring -- that could never be described as lecherous, lewd, lascivious, and so on.
There are plenty of other terms out there to signify unadulterated carnal desire, sexual for starters. So why can't we reclaim sensuality for what it originally meant in Latin: "endowed with feeling"?
Unless the fine nuance between sensual and sensuous becomes recognized by more than just the word purists among us -- unlikely, I realize -- I'll continue to be a sensualist. And when, after a particularly bad day, I descend the glass stairs at Barney's and gaze contentedly at the glass trays of fragrance displayed in front of me, I'll just smile at the bemused saleswoman across the counter.
"I'm sorry. I really love this stuff," I'll say awkwardly, wishing there was a simple word to convey much more.
SLIDESHOW: My Sensual Pursuits
Atelier Cologne's tiny Elizabeth Street shop is home to some truly unique perfumes and home fragrances. You'll smell the store a block away -- they burn a single candle outside, and the scent lingers in the street. I don't like traditional vanilla fragrances on my skin, but I love Vanilla Insensee -- it's a true vanilla, without the cloying sweetness that repels me. Also try the Orange Sanguine and Bois Blonds, which both smell equally (but differently) wonderful on both men and women.
When I spotted this stunning silk robe at my favorite lingerie store, I fell completely and totally in love. I held off on buying it thanks to the price tag ... and was totally crestfallen when it sold out. Thankfully, I found a similar (though not quite as gorgeous) Natori robe at a sample sale for about 1/3 of the price.
Mouthwash? Sensual? Yup ... I love the old-school bottle of Botot so much that I've kept refilling it with my bright green Listerine months after the original formula ran out.
Some of my fondest sensual pleasures live more in memory than real-time. Case in point: Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf de Pape. I stumbled across it two years ago at the tail-end of a massive wine tasting -- a careless vender left several opened bottles on the table, and my drinking companion and I joyously proceeded to finish it all off. At around $140 a bottle, it's way out of my price range -- but it's also the best Chateauneuf I've ever tasted.
Frederic Malle makes fragrances that seem almost otherworldly in their nuance, and his candle collection is no exception. Jurassic Flower, is a strange creature: it combines the headiness of citrus with more traditional floral notes effortlessly. I've wished more than once that Jurassic Flower came in fragrance form -- I'm pretty sure it'd be my holy grail.
Foodie types will tell you that truffle oil as a trend is well past its prime, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. Sprinkled on everything from scrambled eggs to cauliflower, truffle oil adds an umami-filled note of deliciousness to every lackluster food it touches.
All of the flavors Dry Soda offers are fantastic, but my absolute favorite is lavender -- partially for its originality on the market, but mostly for its delicate, relaxing, refreshing flavor. (Also, it's wonderful mixed into a little cocktail with Saint Germain and vodka).
This is my newest love. Serge Lutens makes an entire line of really amazing fragrances, but Chergui is on a totally different level. As a girl who loves straightforward florals, I never thought I'd fall for this musky blend of tobacco, honey, amber and hay notes -- but there it is. It's the perfume equivalent of your perfectly warm winter sweater.
Who doesn't love the smell of fresh gardenias? When they're in season, I like to beg flower shops to give me a single stem -- just one adds intoxicating fragrance to my entire room.
It doesn't look like much, but Haute Hippie's mermaid skirt is a thing of glory. Made of gorgeous form-fitting silk, it's insanely comfortable, breathable, and very flattering.
Le Labo is, by far, my favorite perfume shop to visit in NYC. The perfumers custom-make make each of their fragrances by hand, and are always more than willing to 'talk shop' about their scents. It doesn't hurt that the fragrances they do have here are beyond interesting; the number on each bottle denotes how many notes are in each fragrance, and each is hand-blended on site when you go to purchase.
Cashmere. Underwear. Yes, these do exist, and yes, they're just as wonderful as they sound. And at $45 a pair, these actually aren't a horribly expensive purchase if you wear them more like lounge shorts than actual underwear.
If you're into interesting-tasting chocolates, Taza is one to try. Marketed as 'stone ground' chocolate, these little discs have tiny grains in them, adding a grittiness to the flavor that feels oddly authentic.
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