Turin on a rainy day. Everything is gray. As I step out of the grand, old-world train station, the city looks exactly as I'd imagined it: A cross between, say, Detroit, Dayton, and Duluth. Formerly regal, then industrial—Turin was home to Fiat and Olivetti and Martini-Rossi—it's now your basic overcrowded, swarming European city. You don't go there unless you have to, and until now I've never had to. But I'm a guest of the Turin Book Fair, so I'm here, counting the days, the hours. This city is nothing more than a stately nineteenth-century invention with endless arcade galleries, perfectly built squares trying to mimic Berlin and Paris. I've come with attitude and prejudice, and I know it. Two days and I'm out of here.
I have a few hours before heading out to the book fair. With nothing to do this afternoon, I might as well take a walk around the hotel's neighborhood. Down the street I come face-to-face with my first square, its heroic statue thrust right in the middle, as well as the usual boutiques interspersed along each of its sides. Then comes another square, the Piazza Bodoni, with its own equestrian statue and its own boutiques. Finally, on one of its flanks, I spot a shop with a huge sign: Olfattorio, the Olfactory. I have no idea what they're selling. It looks like a place where old bottles go to die. Or the world's oldest sanctuary of scent.
Inside, a salesgirl comes over and greets me and, before I have time to make a U-turn, asks if I want to smell anything. I give a polite shrug. She asks me which aftershave I use. I tell her. Then, as if by happenstance, she asks what scents I like. Leathery? Spicy? Floral? To show my thorough indifference to perfume, I deny them all. Which would I like to smell? Not wanting to sound totally ill-tempered, I throw out the first word that comes to mind: bergamot. I've been hearing about bergamot recently but have no idea what bergamot smells like, much less what a bergamot is.
The girl right away picks out a flask, takes a three-inch cone made of thick paper, writes the name of the scent on it, and then sprays some of the contents of the flask into the cone. She places the cone in a stemmed holder and hands me what now looks like an imitation wineglass. "We use these because cones preserve all three layers of perfume." She asks me to sit on a stool by the counter, the Bar-à-Parfums. The scent, which I keep sniffing and re-sniffing, is citrus but with a rich nuance of spices and wood. It's made by a French firm called the Different Company, she says. I keep sniffing; sniffing is a true pleasure. This is the best thing I've ever smelled in my life. I try to affect indifference...................................... ....