"Caravelle" By Luca Turin
Recently, while perusing an oddly melancholy book titled "Classic Early Airliners 1958-1979," full of slightly faded, bluish photographs of long-scrapped aircraft parked in front of long-demolished airport terminals, my eye fell on one particular Air France Caravelle, F-BHRV. It was named "Provence," first flew in 1960 and was melted down in 1980. I distinctly remember taking that very aircraft several times, climbing up the forward air-stair, reading the name in a blood-red, clumsily streamlined engineer’s typeface, hearing the stewardess saying, "Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur," in that uniquely French timbre that has the festive, slightly indecent euphoria of wine gurgling out of a bottle. And I remember the smell of Air France airliners, a simple cologne, but dignified, perhaps with a touch of lavender or chypre in the background.
What the voice and the cologne told you, as you passed the threshold of the small forward door, was that although the ground you had just left might be a distant land, you were now in France, as if the aircraft were an inviolate embassy carrying French air wherever it went. I imagine one could still locate in retirement, phone, and cause to be called in from the garden those who can answer questions about the odd triangular shape of the Caravelle’s windows. I’m pretty sure a Balmain archivist could locate the drawings of the powder-blue uniforms. And of course the fill-your-glass voice still exists, though the French have since added a voiced "e" at the end of bonjour. But I doubt very much anyone at Air France could help you find out what that cologne was. Thus go smells, transiently trapped air, forever essential, forever unnoticed.
My mother told me that one night fifty years ago in Egypt, by the kindness of an archaeologist friend, she witnessed the removal of stone slabs covering an area of pristine sand in which the footsteps of a priest had been imprinted three thousand years earlier. The team frantically took photographs under the floodlights until the gentle night breeze erased the dance. Some people have tried to retrieve from ancient pots the sounds and voices that were around when they were turned, recorded by air pressure on the potter’s hands as on a wax cylinder. When I see a diver’s watch on someone’s wrist, I wonder about the trapped Swiss or Japanese air it imprisons, and what it would smell of if we were small enough to find out.