Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Still In India...
All this talk of Arctic winds makes me feel like sticking to the Indian theme I started yesterday.
Visiting the perfume shops on Muhammed Ali Road is probably similar to what it was like to step inside a British perfumery circa 1960. For a start, there are counters behind which the customer must not set foot. UK shops have almost completely lost the notion of a counter: the strategy is now to allow each potential buyer direct access to whatever he or she wishes to touch. Or perhaps the change was partly sparked by British employees' increasing - and misguided - loathing of being in a position of servitude: if you take the counters away, SAs don't feel their customers are superior to them. Personally, I've always thought that giving someone your time and knowledge has the potential to be a fairly noble activity, but I guess many employees working in the gloriously class-obsessed context of the UK don't see the situation quite like I do. Still, I digress.
Muhammed Ali Road perfumeries most certainly feature counters, as well as rows of oversized, 80s-inspired, comfortable chairs and an endless supply of small bottles of mineral water to fight the effects of the monsoon heat. Lining the walls are floor-to-ceiling glass cabinets inside which are displayed the star attractions: the perfumes themselves. Most of them are stored in heavy, whisky decanter-style crystal bottles which catch and reflect the lights beaming down from the ceiling.
After you're greeted and asked to take a seat, the first question that's aimed at you is, "What type of perfume do you like?"
You're generally expected to give one of three possible answers: European, Indian or Arabic. The latter are almost always the heaviest concoctions: dark, resinous liquids that reek of oud and powerful, diffusive floral notes. The so-called Indian perfumes are perhaps a touch lighter, opting for friendlier, cleaner ingredients. The European ones are probably aimed squarely at the tourist market. Essentially clones of familiar names like Cool Water, Eternity and J'Adore, they're all worth trying for a laugh, but the majority resemble their namesakes only for about two minutes.
When you point at a particular scent you'd like to try, it's lifted off its shelf and brought over to where you're sitting. The sales assistant twists and pulls the stopper, allowing any excess drops to fall back into the bottle. He then hands the crystal bauble to you and steps back. After a few moments, you smile as a familiar line reaches your ears: "It's better if you try it on your skin."
"You're absolutely right," you say, "but I think I'd better just smell it like this first."
And then, before you know it, you find you've spent ages trying perfume after perfume and enjoying a lengthy conversation with the assistant, who turns out to be the owner's grandson and is learning the trade, so that he can take over the business one day. You don't feel for one moment as though you're being pressured into buying a single item, which is why you invariably decide to ask for a small bottle of something. With an iron-steady hand, the assistant - who now feels much more like a guide or a host - pours your selection from the massive whisky decanter into a small, daintily decorated flacon which then gets tucked away inside a velvet box. You shake his hand, take one last sniff of the incredible sandalwood-infused incense he waves in your direction and you step back into the crowds.
The next time I walk into a John Lewis or Debenhams and get attacked by the pointy end of a blotter, I think I'll just close my eyes for a moment and remember all of the above.