Hiding the Patchouli

Hiding The Patchouli. It almost sounds like some dirty party game, doesn’t it?

(but it’s not).

My daughter and her husband are planning on coming for a visit with the baby, weather permitting, so I am making a point of remembering to Hide The Patchouli.  Prior to their arrival, I always make a careful sweep of the bathroom and gather up any soaps, bath gels or lotions that contain this scent. Then I stash it all on the top shelf of the closet until they leave. Not that I wear it a lot, but I make a point of not wearing patchouli oil during the period they are here.  The reason I do this is because the Son-In-Law abhors the smell of patchouli.  I want him to be comfortable during their visit.  I think this is a respectful thing to do.  

The scent of patchouli often seems to evoke passionate reactions in people, in either direction.  Some individuals hate it so much that when they get a whiff, there is a knee-jerk moment of intense revulsion and it is all they can do to control their natural flight response.  Others manage to wear it with an exotic tastefulness.  And then there are those patchouli-lovers who seem to think everybody else must like it as much as they do.  They drench themselves in copious amounts and invade the air space with it, so that you are forced to inhale it as part of the basic act of breathing. Their presence can overpower anything else that is happening to the point of an unpleasant distraction. The force of their aroma can easily drive someone out of a room.  Actually, this does not just go for patchouli, but for any perfume whose overindulgence rudely assaults the senses, although patchouli has a distinct place at the top of this list.

I am sure many of you have at one time or another experienced it.  Ever gone to the movies, secured a great seat and then had some stinker sit nearby?  You have to endure it for the entire film or give up your seat to get away from it. Or in the restaurant, someone has the perfume on so thick you can taste it instead of your food?

There was once a woman who worked in our office who wore “Hugo” so heavily that her arrival immediately induced migraine headaches in her coworkers.  Repeated, almost blatant hints to tone it down went obliviously unheeded.  She was the nicest woman, but she just wasn’t taking the cues that her “Hugo” was a real show-stopper. It was a very delicate situation, trying to get her to moderate without hurting her feelings.  She never did catch on – or if she did, she didn’t care –  and when she moved on to other employment we all inhaled a deep breath of fresh air…….. literally.  She wasn’t the only one – we have had a few guys in the office that appear sheep-dipped in their after-shave.  It is a fact that the management team where I work has actually not hired otherwise good candidates if they showed up at their interview with no discretion regarding their cologne habits.  A perfume OD at an job interview can easily destroy the prospect of getting the position (a little employment hint there, in case anyone happens to be looking for work at the moment).

In my own timeline, the first introduction to patchouli oil happened around the era of the original Woodstock Festival.  I sometimes tend to put on the rose-colored glasses when I think of those times, idealizing that magical mystical renaissance of groundbreaking music and political changes, although in all honesty it was filled with plenty of difficult situations and not all of it was as amazing and wonderful as many idealize it.   I can still see the black lights, head shops, peasant blouses and paisley bedspreads of my early teens though, and that is what I initially associated that scent with – a coming of age – lying on the floor of my bedroom, which was decorated with Richard Avedon Beatle posters and peacock feathers in dusty wine bottles, burning incense and listening to The Doors and Jimi Hendrix while my parents yelled up the stairs “What is that smell?”

For the most part, it was a good connection. That was, until encountering Christine, Christine, Patchouli Queen.  Queenie sat directly in front of me for (thankfully, only one) high school class and she single-handedly ruined my relationship with patchouli for years.  When I think of her, a line from a Paul Simon song comes to mind – Roly-poly little bat-faced girl.  Vampire in coloring, with Keith Richards eye-liner and a hard, emotionless face, it would be an understatment to say she reeked of patchouli oil.  It was nauseating.  Sitting behind her in class could set off your gag reflex – like being trapped in a room filled with urethane fumes, her patchouli enveloped you in toxic clouds.  You could smell Queenie coming down the hall a full three minutes before she would appear through the crowd.  You could smell where Queenie had been long after the bell had rung.  Her patchouli could not be savored or appreciated due to the sheer force of its volume.  Add the fact that she was not particularly friendly (and appeared not especially clean either), and you can imagine how my patchouli association took a negative turn.

It has been my observation that patchouli oil is not often worn in professional work settings – I don’t associate it as very professional scent.  I believe the more corporate the work setting, the less apt you are to find people wearing patchouli.  It is also well known that patchouli oil is viewed as sort of a Left-wing scent.  It has a Lefty reputation and is often found in heavily Left–frequented venues…the parking lot scene at Grateful Dead shows, college dorms, ethnic gift and apparel stores, and even attached to the clothing of an occasional social worker.  Correct me if I am wrong, but of all the patchouli-wearing people I have come across, I have noticed a marked deficit of Republican patchouli wearers.  It appears that the farther to the Right that you politically lean, the less apt you are to wear patchouli.  Has anyone else noticed this? I wonder if anyone has done a study. 

Of note, the first time I ever knowingly detected patchouli on a Republican was in the office where I worked, which was a multifaceted surprise. A Workplace-Republican-Patchouli triumvirate seemed like such a total anomaly.  What’s more, the woman who wore it happened to wear it tastefully and in moderation, actually providing the impetus for me to re-explore the use of patchouli and transcend the damage that stinkin’ Queenie had done. I never thought I would, but I got back on the patchouli bus.

Not all patchouli oils are the same. There is such a thing as bad patchouli oil (and really bad patchouli oil) and there is the quality stuff.  I would never wear it to any sort of business meeting or within close quarters or confined spaces , but I have a few different patchoulis that I like to occasionally use lightly, in the right setting, and I have grown to appreciate it.  Sometimes I mix it with sandalwood if I am feeling especially exotic. But not when my Son-In-Law comes to stay.

My SIL is a police officer.  I have wondered if all police officers dislike the smell of patchouli. I could be totally wrong about this, but I tend to imagine that police and patchouli are not much of a combo.  Perhaps it’s the association with hippies, or that it is has been known to accompany the smell of marijuana (ie. those Dead show parking lots).  Perhaps a whiff of patchouli has been a historic highway sign leading up to an imminent bust.  Or, maybe, well…maybe my SIL just doesn’t like it.  Having been there for a while myself, I can relate.  My daughter who is married to him says she is not fond of it either, although she does not display quite the same aversion.  In any case, when they come to visit, I dutifully make an effort to remove the offending substance. Olfactory associations are incredibly powerful.  I want their visit to be comfortable and not filled with negative connections. I don’t want him to end up relating his mental image  of “The Mother-In-Law”, which is historically a tenuous position at best, with his aversion to the scent of patchouli.

Unfortunately, the peace I have made with patchouli was threatened by an event that flashbacked to the days of Queenie.  When my daughter became engaged, the family got together and took the happy couple out for a dinner celebration.  A very special member of the extended family had just become involved in a new relationship, so in a gesture of inclusion and welcoming friendship, I invited the new girlfriend to join us.

The dilemma became apparent almost immediately. You could smell  it in the rush of air that came through the open door before they had even gotten into restaurant  – she stank of patchouli.  When I say stank, I mean serious stench.   It was so overwhelming that it masked everything else in the room.  You were literally unable to taste your food.  It was so intrusive that it distracted from conversation.  It was so noxious that it made your eyes and lungs burn.  It was so totally overpowering that it was an embarrassment. The sheer intensity of it threatened to ruin the meals of every other paying customer who happened to be dining in that small bistro.  That is how heavy her eau was.  Eau My God.  I kept expecting the management to ask us to remove the source of irritation from the premises.  I felt very badly, knowing how my future SIL hated that smell, and I admit I was upset at the manner of the imposition, especially on this special evening, even though I had to rationally acknowledge that she clearly did not realize the situation she had created and was unaware of the olfactory faux pas she had made.

But I have to wonder about scent ODers..….How could someone not know?  Do people not realize how obnoxious the Perfume Drench can be?  What is the concept?  Does anyone honestly think this makes them seem attractive? Is this supposed to be sexy? Am I missing something here? Could it perhaps be an attempt to cover up some shameful body odor?  Is it a cop-out on a bath?  Has their sense of smell been damaged?  Do they have a permanent sinus condition? Or is it more like the heavy garlic eater who is not aware of their own sweat and breath? I truly cannot fathom the purpose of Too Much Perfume.  In this arena, more is never better.  It is rude.

We politely bit our tongues, wiped our running noses, ate our meals and said nothing – at least not until afterwards.  That is the hardest part about things like this. If you are a good friend, or at the very least an honest person, shouldn’t you at least make an effort to tactfully say something? But if you say something and the person becomes offended or hurt, regardless of your how much tact you may use, then what?  Your good intentions end up causing alienation instead.  Conversely, is it fair to yourself (let alone anybody else) to have to endure such a toxic assault?  It was a dilemma that has had no resolution.  Personally, I would want to know and be spared any future embarrassment….. and I would hope those close to me would do that…….but that’s me.  Social relations are sometimes so tricky to navigate, aren’t they?

Following that uncomfortable event, I developed an aversion to patchouli all over again, and unconsciously I guess I took another serious patchouli vacation.  But it eventually found its way back into use by way of a wonderful blended bath soap.  I have actually discovered I really like the faint trace of it that remains on the Significant Other when he comes out of the shower.  In moderation, it has its positives.

But this week, I will respectfully hide all things patchouli as I look forward to my family coming home.

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2 Responses to Hiding the Patchouli

  1. annieb says:

    Ah yes – the patchouli in a restaurant – been there – and it is seriously gross. I found myself making extremely loud comments, just because I was so angry my dinner was ruined. The offending one was a teenager – a contemporary of one of my sons – who was out to dinner with his parents. Perhaps the parents had no sense of smell? Or did he smell so awful BEFORE he put it on that it was an infinitely better option? It did prove to be a good lesson for my son – he finally understood what I had been telling him for a long time – one drop goes a very long way.


  2. daughter #1 says:

    Know what else stinks? Literally? When a perfume-offender holds the baby and leaves the stench on his little head.

    With one particular person I now preempt this from happening if I know we will see her by putting a hat on him! Or at least I did when he was teeny. Now it amounts to having to wash his hair almost immediately after, less he smell like stinks old lady perfume all day.


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