Our final day in San Francisco—a Monday in which the Undina household went back to work and Mark and I headed into the city on our own—was spent walking around the Ferry Building marketplace, where we eyed a basket of fresh morels at the mushroom seller, had a prosciutto sandwich at the Boccalone stand, and watched the ships roll in and out again, Otis Redding-style, as we sat on the dock of the bay. Undina had described some of the delicacies of this place the day before we parted company with her (the truffle salt that the mushroom stand carries, the chocolates and macarons of a certain patiserie, and the Blue Bottle Coffee purveyor currently enjoying 'it'-status in San Francisco). Just a few more of the things she loves.
On our third day, Undina and her vSO headed off to work, and Mark and I made our way into the heart of San Francisco by train. Finding one’s way in a new-to-you setting can be fun, especially in a touristy city like San Francisco, where we bumped up against another young woman attempting to do the same and ended up taking a “blind leading the blind” train and bus ride with her to Pier 39 (Fisherman’s Wharf), where we did all of the touristy things on offer there: walking the boardwalk and ducking into its many shops, watching the sea lions, studying Alcatraz from the pier, and having lunch at Pier Market Seafood Restaurant. I was bound and determined to ride a cable car, so we spent the rest of our day trying to chase one down (we would arrive at a place where we should have been able to board, only to be told that the car was down). Finally, we went back to Fisherman’s Wharf and bought tickets at the “turn-around” (it is a neat trick to see the way the cable car is manually spun around so that it can head back into the downtown of San Francisco) and waited an hour in a long queue, made longer by cold, gust-driven rain (our only day of bad weather) to take our turn. Was it worth it? For me, I loved seeing the scenery on Nob Hill, the gorgeous hotels and the Victorian homes abutted up against one another on San Francisco’s steep streets. It did sort of lack in the thrill factor, though, as I always had the idea from the Rice-a-Roni commercials of my childhood that these cars traveled faster than what they did. Still, my husband and I enjoyed singing the Rice-a-Roni theme song as we rode the packed car to Union Square.
Until this trip, I’d never met Undina in person, but now having done so, I feel like I actually knew her quite well beforehand; that the person I imagined her to be from her blog, her comments at other people’s blogs and her emails, was pretty much on target. This isn’t due to a highly intuitive discernment on my part, but simply due to the fact that Undina is not anyone who will ever be lost in translation, or at least not in the translation that occurs between how one presents themselves on a page and how they appear in real life. So, if I tell you that the first thing she did when we met, when she picked us up at our hotel to take us on a two-day trip to Sonoma, was to extend both a welcoming handshake and a questioning reproach for our not wearing warm jackets (as she’d sagely advised us via a text message), anyone who is a regular reader of her blog will understand that greeting. And if I tell you that once we began conversing in the car on all manner of subject, Undina exuded a warmth that made her seem kittenish in the way of a sexy librarian—glowingly engaged, curious and inquisitive, intellectual and humorous, all of these things registering on her beautiful face—then her readers will recognize that part of her too. In person, as on the page, Undina is direct, confident, interested in ideas, generous to the point of being motherly, charming and utterly charmed by life, and someone who won’t waste her time or yours by playing games—unless they are real games, the kind of brain teasers she sometimes features on her blog that make you smarter. (She's also very private, which is why there won't be any photos of her featured here, per her wishes.)
Before meeting me in person, Undina knew one of my California fantasies was to have a picnic in wine country, similar to the one in the film Sideways, so that’s the first thing we did.
Journey to the Heart of Things: Sonoma, San Francisco and Undina
Credits: the first three photos from top of page (of the California coat, a vineyard in Sonoma, and my husband Mark and I standing in front of a heart in downtown San Francisco) were snapped by Undina, as well as the one of Rusty on the fridge; the other photos are my own.
†Lyrics from the Jessie Baylin song “Hurry Hurry” (from her 2012 album "Little Spark"), written by Jessie Baylin and Thad Cockrell and copyright: Razor & Tie Direct LLC.
Each day after that, we went into San Francisco and I quite loved it—exploring China Town and going to a tea tasting; eating at a garlic restaurant called The Stinking Rose (which Mark has longed to visit since he first learned of it in the early ‘90s and where we had garlic ice cream that was incredibly delicious); and going on a perfume-sniffing excursion with Undina at several of the upscale department stores at Union Square: Barneys, Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Undina’s sweet mister kindly drove us in that day and patiently perused the men’s department while Undina, Mark and I chatted up the sales assistants and sniffed our way through various lines. Even though I’ve already smelled most of the Frederic Malle line and own bottles or decants of probably half a dozen Malle fragrances, still there were some I’d never tried, and our Barneys SA was so enthusiastic, it was a pleasure to discuss those perfumes with him (and to wind up with samples of the Malles I don’t own). I had never smelled Arquiste Anima Dulcis before, and both Mark and I swooned for it, so we bought it—and proving that even perfumistas who are often in sync with each other can also hold polar opposite opinions, Undina didn’t swoon (to put it mildly) and instead put in an encouraging word for Malle’s Musc Ravageur, which was also a temptation. In the end, we walked out with only one bottle, but I’m glad we bought it at Barneys (here's a shout out to our SA, Nilson Fernandes, who was outstanding in every regard). Another shout-out goes to the By Kilian sales associate at Saks—Miguel Rivas—who made us samples on the spot of a couple things we were considering. I’m probably the only perfume lover who has a thing for By Kilian’s Forbidden Games (which Mark says smells like peach “jelly bellies” on me, but I think it’s gorgeous and much finer than that)—and I’m similarly smitten with In the City of Sin from the same line, which is also quite fruity and which Undina gave me a sample of, so I can compare the two at home.
If there have been times when I’ve thought my perfume interest has been carried to its conclusion, when I go on a trip to meet a perfume-blogging friend, I fall utterly and completely under its spell again. I’m not sure how much that has to do with perfume, itself, as it does with being in the company of people who share this interest and who charge me up because they feel both like “home” to me and like a shiny new galaxy. Meeting Undina and her vSO—not to mention her blog-famous cat Rusty—made me aware of just how much I’ve gained from being a part of the online perfume community. Being a tourist in any beautiful city is a privilege, but being there with friends who delight in showing you their corner of the world takes that experience to a new level: it marries a sense of wonder with a sense of intimacy, creating a deeper bond. Mark and I visited Undina’s home twice before our final day in San Francisco—the first time to watch a movie and the second time to have dinner (a delicious steak-and-salad dinner they made for us and a couple of their friends)—and there are memories from those visits that might seem too ordinary and small to mention, but which I’ll never forget. For one, hearing Undina say, “You come with me,” as she led me to her carefully stowed perfume collection and then, after we seemingly forgot about the men and the movie awaiting us downstairs, looking up to see her vSO emerge with a semi-worried look, telling us, “This could take hours.” Or watching Rusty as he obeyed Undina’s commands to sit, lie down, and jump up (in order to get his kitty treat) ... and then seeing him in imperious mode, assuming his high perch on top of the refrigerator to observe her while she was cooking the steaks.
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I’m in your city and you’re nowhere near me
I’m surrounded by the words you told me
Things you love . . . things you love
I’m in the middle of your favorite grocery
I’m walking down the street you showed me
Things you love . . . things you love
-- Lyrics from the Jessie Baylin song “Hurry Hurry” †
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May 6, 2014:
After our drive across the Golden Gate bridge, we headed into the hilly country of Sonoma, one of the most beautiful places on earth in late April (probably the rest of the year too, but Undina and her vSO confirmed that April and May is when the landscape is at its greenest and at the height of its flower blooming—and indeed, Sonoma was extremely lush in both regards). Leafy, well-maintained vines meandered their way up and down hills, bougainvillea spilled over trellises in the towns we passed, and roses of many colors, with blooms the size of ice-cream bowls, were at every winery we visited—and often they were fragrant, with variations of scent that led us to flit about them like bees, comparing their nectarous perfumes. But before any rose sniffing or wine tasting commenced, our first stop was the hillside terrace of Paradise Ridge Winery, where Undina spread an array of gourmet foodstuffs on one of its patio tables: cheeses, a loaf of rustic whole-grain bread, ham and other cured meats, assorted olives, tomatoes of the like I’ve never seen before (I’ll call them heirloom cherry tomatoes, not knowing if that’s accurate), a choice of teas in fine-cloth teabags, and a bar of dark chocolate studded with cherries and nuts (if memory serves). Not only did everything taste great, but Undina had included the kind of serving-item niceties that made the meal look good too: grape-themed napkins and a pretty cutting board for the cheese ... a few pretty accessories that made the meal feel festive without going over the top. Her picnic was the perfect complement to Paradise Ridge’s venue: this particular winery is both rustic and artsy, with a sculpture garden and an indoor/outdoor tasting bar on its hip estate.
I won’t talk specifically about the wineries we went to, but there were several we visited each day: it was a lovely sort of mosey. We were happy to learn that it wouldn’t be bad etiquette (or even unusual) for Mark and I to do a “shared” tasting, which is like splitting a meal—basically sharing a glass of the four to six wines that are poured, usually for a fee of ten to twenty dollars. I learned to distinguish peppery notes (a feature of a number of pinot noirs we sampled); citrus and mineral notes (not surprisingly, these are more prominent in the white wines—the refreshing eau-de-colognes of the wine world); and, least surprisingly, the sundry fruit notes that emerge from the fermentation of grapes, as if grapes were telling the story of the plant world, a breathy saga of its secrets and affairs. “This is why the world loves wine and not grape juice,” I thought to myself. Wine is full of intrigue, much like perfume is.
In Sonoma, we not only went to wineries but had dinner at one of Undina’s favorite “small plates” restaurants in the quaint yet chic town of Healdsburg, then stayed overnight at a bed-and-breakfast in a huge country house with a Paris-themed décor, homemade chocolate truffles on tap, and a “petite dejeuner” of crepes stuffed with caramelized apples and savory ham. Proving we were giving our noses, as well as our palates, a workout (and proving that Undina and I are often in sync with what we smell), I have to relate this anecdote: At one of the wineries we visited, my husband Mark found a rose with an unusual aroma. I was off somewhere else when he found it, so Undina assessed it first and said she thought its uniqueness stemmed from a lemon “top note” in its scent profile. After which they called to me to come smell it, not saying anything. “Wow, this is like a pink grapefruit of a rose!” I remarked, and when Undina smiled, I knew we had hit upon a similar description. (We had a smug look on our faces that could be interpreted as “Perfumistas of the World, unite!”)
Even though the above lyrics belong to a quiet love song by Jessie Baylin, they are the lines that keep filtering through my mind ever since I returned from a trip to San Francisco, a city where I’d never been before and where I went not only to vacation with my husband but to meet my perfume-blogging friend Undina. Those familiar with her blog know that Undina and her vSO (her “very Significant Other,” as she refers to him) are natives of Eastern Europe, but for the past seventeen years San Francisco has been their home and it clearly suits them. Undina loves its weather—its smoky-topaz combination of fog and sunlight that makes for comfortably warm days and cool nights; she loves its little restaurants and shops, its grand department stores, its street art and street musicians (who, on more than one occasion when I visited, put a boogie-woogie in Undina’s step), and its diverse cultures. She loves its wine country to the north, where she and her vSO have made it a point to immerse themselves in the culture, learning about the grapes and the effect of soil, weather and other environmental factors (such as forest fires) on the wine, and she loves the artisanal food industries that have sprung up in this same area (its orchards devoted to Gravenstein apples, with their high-maintenance needs; its producers of earthy and creamy cheeses).