Thursday, November 14, 2013

Abishag

Abishag by Ayala Moriel
Abishag, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
Can perfume change your life? And if it does - how?

I can only tell my story, and re-telling it so many years after is a strange way to see how much happened to me since then.

Once upon a time, I was a teenage girl in 11th grade, facing my upcoming mandatory military service and searching for a meaningful and non-violent way to spend those 18 months. I was interviewed for a program in which I would be serving by working with the Archeology Authorities as a tour guide, educator and help with digging in archeological sites around Israel. Practically the whole country is one big archeological site...

My interview with the Archeological Authorities took place in the Museum of Israel in Jerusalem. A wonderful museum that has both ancient artifacts from the never ending archeological digs around the country; as well as contemporary Israeli art, and temporary exhibits of the finest classical and contemporary paintings and sculpture collections that won't embarrass the Louvre and MOMA.
The museums' most cherished collection though is the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are exhibited in a dark cellar beneath a peculiarly shaped architectural sculptures of black-and-white - which I later returned to study as part of the program I was accepted into.

However, on the very day of my interview, there was an exhibit about the cosmetics of ancient times. Flasks of roman glass for treatment oils and fragrant yet primitive perfumes of the time were exhibited alongside jewelry pieces, and little pots for cosmetic unguents were displayed next to tiny metal vessels and wants for kohl.

I wandered the exhibit with Orna, a girl I met at the interviewers' waiting room. Even though we were complete strangers, we became instant BFF and were able to talk about the most intimate stuff that we'd probably never talk to our mothers about, maybe not even our best friends. Weird stuff that only teenagers that only just met would talk about, I suppose. Including that very weird boy that I was head-over-heels in love with, and didn't know what to do about that, because for all I could tell we were "just friends".

We talked and talked and looked at the art and antiques, and suddenly found ourselves in the Muesum's gift shop, where a little vial of perfume caught my eye. I was never quite smitten with perfume, they all smelled very grown-up and foreign to me. And I never worn any, except for a strange camphoreous bottle my aunt gave me and which smelled like an old geisha's perfume (she thought it was eucalyptus oil, but I dabbed it like perfume all through highschool), and a solid perfume pot my grandmother brought me from Greece (filled with imitation AnaisAnais perfume, which smelled better than the original...). I opened the vial and it was intense, strange, and compelling. Not like any "perfumey" perfume I've ever smelled on overdressed ladies in weddings and Bar Mitzvahs... This was something else. It was peculiar. It was revolting yet hauntingly beautiful to my very untrained nose. It reminded me of a certain black bug that flocked the lamps in our village home in the summertime - insect pheromone that smelled like green apple but in a very non-edible, grotesque way. I was not sure I was going to like this perfume, but something about it called me...

Orna was surprisingly encouraging: "Try some on! You have to see how it interacts with your skin". How did a 17 year old girl from Yavne know so much about perfume?! I was not sure I wanted to know... We kept our museum tour, and now I was losing myself in a primitive masks exhibit. The African masks cast a spell on me... And surrounded by the fumes of Abishag, the whole experience was nothing short of mystical. Staring at the masks, and looking through their slanted empty eyes, a portal to another dimension of consciousness....  I was in another place and another time altogether. And I remember exactly what she said: "You're afraid to wear it because that will make you a woman". So I bought that perfume. Not so much because I wanted to be a woman. I probably would have much rather-ed not having to bother with girly puberty, training bras and all the other icky stuff and just play with my four brothers. But it's not like I had a choice in the matter. So I might as well move along with this growing up thing, because by now I already did look like a grown-up woman for 3 years now.

It was through this perfume that I discovered who I was - my skin, my identity, my femininity, my hidden dreams... It gave me the courage to tell that boy that I love him. Although I've never tried to recreate Abishag (and probably never will) - I won't deny that this "Biblical Bouquet" had a profound influence on my aesthetics. Not every 17 years old girl (and especially not in the 90's) would be drawn to a bombshell oriental (which is what Abishag is). And it has influenced my early creations especially, as well as my enthusiastic exploration of vintage Chypres and orientals and turn of the century formulas; as well as researching the fragrances of antiquity and exploring in depth what can be done with these resinous and spicy treasures - frankincense, myrrh, labdanum, galbanum, nard and oudh (one such exploration is fully expressed in my Song of Songs). 

And grow up I did, and fast. I was mature for my age in many ways, and being in the pre-army course, away from home, on some remote field-school on Mt. Giloh sucked. I missed my high-school sweetheart, which was just a clueless genius musician kid who wanted to play grown ups. He proposed to me on that mountain when he came to visit me - and although I did try to talk him out of it, I made the very silly decision to skip the army, move to Tel Aviv, work and go to university and be a grown-up. And we did get married about a year or so later. It was the greatest mistake I have ever made in my life, by the way. Not because I missed the archeological army service (this was only the second year of this program, and all the girls who participated ended up moving to other army roles, because the program was very problematic). It was a mistake because it's really a bad idea to get merge your life with someone else's before you have the slightest clue who you are - and even more so when your husband is even worse-off than you in that area. But in that vial of perfume, which I have worn all throughout my 11th and 12th grade (and till my 2nd miniature bottle ran out - by which time the perfume was discontinued) - lay the clues to many of the poignant emotions of coming of age: first love, discovery of one's own sense of self, and the hidden seed of potential - all the things you might have become if you chose to go by the rules of what most Israeli 18-year-olds do or don't.

For years I was wondering what it would mean to me to meet it again. I've had a special alert set up for it for many years so I can find it (hopefully) on the internet. I knew it won't be the same to meet it again. Would it be like meeting an old lover - stirring some distant memories, but just not feeling the love anymore? Would I be embarrassed about how could I have ever dated such a loser (or worn such a trashy perfume, to refine my analogy)?

Abishag arrived in my mailbox only 2 weeks ago. And although I can only speak from my very personal view of it, tinged only slightly by my current profession - I can tell you that this little vial is a treasure to me. Not because it is some kind of a perfume masterpiece (it really isn't). But because of what it means to me, and it being the key to a lot of information about myself, that only I can access when I smell it.

Its top notes diminished significantly - so the green apple bug pheromone is quite tame now. It's not as similar to the opening of Private Collection as I remember it (I got a hit of the same note when I first smelled that one). The oily, unwashed-scalp aldehyde C-13 is peeking out less subtley than it did when it was fresh. But underneath it is all the resinous musky goodness that I always loved so much about it. And yes, the dry down is just like Parfum Sacre! I guess my olfactory memory is quite reliable - because the similarities and connections I drew to other perfumes I've "met" along my professional (and personal) journey and quest were accurate.

At the same time, it does not surprise me that only very few people are searching for it (and most of them end up talking to me, because I have mentioned it in several interviews and on my blog). I would not say that you have to smell it. I'm only sharing with you the insights and thoughts of a lady re-uniting with he coming-of-age perfume, which just so happened to be a very obscure, limited edition one that can't be found anywhere (it took me 15 years to find this little vial). But you can definitely find a very similar and far easier to find beauty in Parfum Sacre (if you love the spice and musk) or Private Collection (if you want a more green experience of what the top notes used to be). And if you layer them on top of each other, it comes pretty close. And if you want to be even closer (and pay even less) - get a bottle of Softcare baby soapless soap body wash - it's boils down to pretty much the same scent and I've been religiously using it for years exactly for that reason.

So no, don't go searching for it because it would take you many years to find and by then it will be even more "off" than it is now. This was MY quest, because of all the things it meant to me. You should find your own holly grail to look for, your own story, your own dream.

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1 Comments:

At November 20, 2013 2:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am looking for the perfume called "Blue Diamond," by Steffen Arctander, which was for sale in Mr. Arctander's store in Las Vegas, Modern Perfume Creations, in 1979

 

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