Thursday, June 21, 2012


Pretty soon, it will be “OlfactaRama’s” fourth birthday. 

When I started, I didn’t think anybody would ever read it. I was a newbie and wrote as one, and made mistakes, and learned some things, and became part of a great community. Nobody can be a newbie for four years, though. So for the last couple, I’ve just been an enthusiast.

When I started the blog, I was obsessed. It seemed as though I just couldn’t learn enough about the subject. I devoted a significant part of each day to reading all the other perfume blogs I could find, and the fora, and the books. My perfume collection grew and grew, as I learned how to buy fragrance the smart way, how to identify a bargain, win an auction, how to do splits and swaps and decants. Ultimately I had to get a new cabinet as the collection outgrew a smaller one, then dresser-top space, then all of the above plus shoe boxes and drawers. That cabinet is full now.

All obsessions end. 

“OlfactaRama” is what I guess I’d call a personal experience blog. That’s why I’ve always written it first-person. It’s not informational — God knows there are several perfume blogs who do that better than I ever could — although there is information in it. It’s not a perfume review site, although I’ve done them. It’s not p.r. or stealth marketing. I’ve never made a cent from it, although I have received a few books and a few handfuls of samples and some truly mind-blowing gifts from readers. It’s not about trends —I could hardly care less. I guess it’s been a way of communicating with the like-minded, and exploring something I love. I’ve made some great pals, too, and plan to keep them.

But I look back at my roughly 275 posts, and even I can see that the level of enthusiasm in them has waned. It’s not because perfumes are less interesting than they used to be (although many are). There are enough niche perfumers and artisans and vintage finds and the occasional interesting mainstream release to keep a perfume reviewer going indefinitely. It’s not because there are more perfume bloggers than ever before (although there are). It’s that I’ve said what I want to say, and I feel like keeping on just for the sake of keeping on would be, well, jumping the shark.

I’m not going to disappear from the perfume blogosphere, though. I’ll be around, commenting and contributing to fora and so on. 

So, to all of you who have read me and commented and entered my drawings and sent me samples and decants and even bottles — thank you so much! I’ll always be astounded by the generosity of the perfume community.

For four years now, I’ve made and kept a weekly deadline. I think not having the pressure of that deadline will free me to keep playing around with my oils and absolutes, trying perfumes that interest me, and especially to keep delving into the general olfactory and sensory world. I’m keeping the domain name, for that reason. The “Rama” part of “OlfactaRama” is a take on “Cinerama” — the early wide-view movie projection system.

 I see from my stats that many readers are subscribers now, so don’t take me off your feeds — I’ll use the name to write about a more general aesthetic: smell, taste, books, art, life. 

Photo by Pat Hall Borow.

The photo is of my empty Un Jardin Sur Le Nil (Hermes; perfumer: Jean-Claude Ellena) bottle. It was the first full bottle I bought online after becoming a fragrance blogger. I finished it a couple of months ago.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Language Help: iTranslate

I’m terrible at French. I murder it. Just about every unfortunate French person who has ever heard my lame attempts to speak the language visibly winces.

I think this is because my “other” language is Spanish, although it’s disappearing now that I don’t hear it every day. Spanish was taught the old way in my high school, not by conversation but by drills; written word to speech, over and over and over (and over). The result is that, when confronted with a written French word, I can’t pronounce it. My mind returns to the Spanish vowel and consonant sounds and stays there.  A true source of shame when trying to talk about perfumes by name, so many of which are French!

Recently, Perfume Shrine featured an article about the website Frag Name of the Day featuring an interview with its author, Bela. I’ve been a fan of that site for quite a while now. But since I got an iPhone a few months ago, I’ve discovered a translating app that seems pretty amazing, especially for quick, one-sentence things like “Where is the ladies room” and “Will you take less for that?” as well as complicated perfume names.

There are quite a few of these translating apps, and I haven’t tried many, but the one I’m playing with now is  “iTranslate Voice,” by Sonico GmbH. You speak into it — a word, phrase, or sentence in your own language after selecting the appropriate icon, and that of the language in which you want to hear the phrase spoken (currently 31 languages). Voila, out it comes, perfectly pronounced, with both lines of text in written form too! (There’s also a keyboard, but I haven’t tried it.) 

This is one of those apps that makes me feel like I really am living in The Future. I’m sure it has limitations. They all do. I hear that quite a few people have given up on Siri — my iPhone is a hand-me-down 3G and I don’t have it— but give ‘em time. 

In the meantime, I can think of many uses for this!

Not affiliated, honest.

I ordered this from the iTunes store. Current price is $1.99. Apparently it’s available for Android also.

Illustration from Engadget ( courtesy of Google Images.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review: "The Lower River" by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has been a favorite writer of mine for a long time. I didn’t realize until I started writing about fragrance that he is more aware of the olfactory sense than any other writer I know. I’ve featured his smell-centered prose before. This quote comes from his new novel, The Lower River

The main character, Ellis Hock, is an American businessman who once served in the Peace Corps. As his life at home begins to unravel, he returns to his old African village, thinking he’ll be able to regain the sense of purpose he had there as a younger man. Theroux describes Hock's arrival in the nearest large town:

“The air was dense and hot, woven of many odors, and just a whiff brought it all back. He was walking down Hanover to Henderson, to the corner of Laws, to the bookshop, where he’d caught a glimpse of the sign Office Supplies. The countryside, so close, penetrated the town. You could not see the bush from the main street, but you could smell it: the wood smoke floated past the shops and seeped into the brick and stucco, the peculiar hum of scorched eucalyptus, the dustiness of dead leaves, the fields chopped apart by rusty mattocks to release the sharpness of bruised roots and red earth, all of it stinking ripeness and decay; and on every sidewalk the sweetish feet smell of the people, the sourness of their rags.”

Theroux, who was a Peace Corp volunteer in a similar time and place in his youth, writes with stinging authority. This modern sub-Saharan Africa is ravaged by AIDS and well-meaning relief organizations whose celebrity benefactors finance food drops from helicopters, humiliating the native people, who must scramble after it like animals. Much has gone wrong, and Hock’s idealism fades to a helpless passivity in the midst of it.

I found this book hard to read and equally hard to stop reading.  It’s new, and has already caused some controversy. Some have compared it to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For my purposes here, this — and all Theroux’s writing — is unusual in that it emphasizes the sense of smell, thereby giving the prose real immediacy and power. 

The Lower River is available in all the usual places. The ISBN is 978-00547074650-0.

The illustration is taken from the books’s cover art, designed by Melissa Lotfy.