"Desert island soap" by Luca Turin
The contents of our luggage say a lot about our skill in the art of living. A thorough customs inspection should not, for example, reveal signs of anxiety: ventilated war-photographer vests with too many pockets, toiletry bags filled with antibiotics. As usual, elegance consists in remaining oneself while being ready for anything. Fitzroy Maclean, the real-life James Bond who died a few years ago, always carried with him on his travels a tube of anchovy paste. He explained that in his experience one could always locate some alcohol and a crust of bread: his tube made it a party. This sort of discernment has much to do with small luxuries: too luxurious and they cease to be fun, too small and they cease to be rare. When it comes to perfume, the choices of the faraway traveller are few. Carrying proper bottles is foolish. They will break when the bag is thrown from the airplane hold, and look ridiculous in a shabby hotel. Decanting the fragrance into plastic sprays is messy. Using a cheap perfumed deodorant sends the wrong message. No, the solution is much simpler: all the great perfume houses make soaps.
In domestic use, they are part of a "line", as sad as excessive colour coordination. On the road, they turn out to be surprisingly good company. Like other modestly priced pleasures such as fat paperbacks and short taxi rides, soaps can make one feel irrationally happy. Soap is the very stuff of progress, responsible for more saved lives than penicillin. It is also a wonder of early nanotechnology: no visible moving parts, just teeming billions of clever molecules that broker a peace between the dirt on your hands and the rust-coloured water that comes out of the tap. Luxury soaps come in neat plastic shells that shut tightly when you decide to move on. Which one is best? If it exists, buy the soap version of whatever you’re wearing.
My favorite was Guerlain’s Mitsouko., Composed in 1919 by Jacques Guerlain in reply to Coty’s earlier (and now extinct) Chypre, the fragrance shimmered with the muted glow of candied fruit, a Tiffany lamp made scent. When experienced in a faraway place, it would touch you like a Brahms concert heard on BBC shortwave. Guerlain’s new MBA-powered owners “rationalised” the range when they took over, and out went the soaps. Modernising Guerlain is like rewriting La Bohème to take into account medical progress since Puccini. It didn’t work, and the soaps will be back in time for next year’s travels. Mitsouko is the true desert island soap, about as much of the “long nineteenth century” as anyone can carry without running into excess baggage.