I am led down a dark gray hallway to the closed door of a back room in the Lausanne Globus. C and I have just returned from our honeymoon; I'm feeling relaxed, confident, and saturated with vast quantities of terrifically unhealthy food. Having forsaken my two-month-long healthy diet for English puddings and escargot, I feel eager to find my way back to my clean-living self.
My guide knocks and then opens the door, revealing a long table inside with eight wide-brimmed wooden bowls, each filled with tepid water; a list of products, written in the form of a restaurant course menu, stands beside each artisan bowl. The lists are balanced on two clean, soft, unbleached cotton washcloths. There are glass jars of varying size collected into a few small groupings at the opposite ends of the table. Each of them showcases the same charcoal gray and ashen-colored labels, all printed with the same name: Aesop.
The first time I really saw an Aesop store, C and I were ambling down the wide stone walkways of Bern, Switzerland, in the shadows of the Zytglogge: Bern's ornate Romanesque clocktower first unveiled in 1191, featuring life-sized cuckoo clock pipers, a parade of dancing bears, and a bored-looking animatronic king willing the city bells to chime. It was the first time I'd ever seen the famous public drinking fountains of Switzerland; all centuries-old, chiseled stone statues of angels, creatures of myth or storied heroes of days long past, throwing down a watchful eye onto a large basin filled with crystal-clear water. I leaned over the lip of the pool, towards the cascade of water falling out of the spout in a thick steady stream. Icy cold, it reinvigorated the old capital for me as I rose up again, wiping my lips with my sleeve; gazing at the cobble streets, the white arches structuring to the long rows of shops running on either side of the street, both sloping downward toward the gurgling river surrounding the city; like the sunken moat of a grand castle.
On the road before us, just past the drinking fountain and to the right, was a storefront lit only with natural light, which bounded off the hard edges of the flat, sparkling white surfaces adorning the entirety of its small interior. The colorless palate, chosen to make the most of its location out of any direct streams of daylight, also served to highlight its products; all in similar, darkly-colored packaging, arranged in tight rows like the beads of an abacus.
We walked in, only staying for a moment the first time. But there was something about those clean lines and smooth surfaces; the decisions made consciously in the name of minimalist architecture; and the way the creams, the soaps and the lotions smelt like a pine forest floor or a high mountain stream, rather than a vase of dying flowers, which drew me back the following day.
Thereafter, I never forgot about the store, mostly due to our two-day stay in Bern being capped off with our surprise engagement, galvanizing each event that transpired with a special coating inside my mind. When we returned to Nashville, I soon learned that there would be an Aesop opening in Nashville early in the spring of the coming year; an unexpected occurrence considering the brand’s scarcity of store locations in the US. I eagerly anticipated its opening, and attended the launch party on a clear spring evening on Music Row, surrounded by people dressed in linens and wearing simple, deceptively expensive jewelry. When I made a decent income with my tuning business, the first place to which I returned to blow some extra spending money on lotions and potions was that little shop, built into the shell of a former Nashville factory building, utilizing scrap wood for its shelves, minimalistic architecture, and a small, specialized range of products with matching labels, striking when bathed in natural light.
I sit down at the table in front of my handcrafted wooden bowl filled with water, but not before bashing my knee on the edge of the tabletop, resulting in a jarring *BANG* that cuts through the room like a siren.
At first there are only timid murmurs exchanged between two different groups: two young-looking girls seated directly across from me, visibly uncomfortable with the formality of the event; and the visiting consultant, already donning a black headband that sweeps her dark bangs away from her eyes, who is speaking to the manager of the Globus Aesop in Lausanne. The manager stands beside the long table at attention, scanning the room, anticipating any requests. She has excellent skin and is not wearing a stitch of makeup from what I can tell, despite not partaking in the product demonstration. Beside me on the left is the only other attendee, a woman somewhere slightly above my own age with kinky blonde hair; a solid-colored, loosely fitting dress; and a demure countenance. She has tired eyes, but they are not from lack of sleep.
The instructor, after deciding that the tardy women set to arrive from Geneva will not in fact be attending after all, begins the session first in French, but then switches to English when it is determined to be a common language between the six of us.
We are asked to open the bottle of "Remove", an oil-based makeup remover, and splash a few drops into our hands before gently rubbing it over our faces. Having loved this particular brand of self-care for many years, I find this request completely welcome and even commonplace; but the young girls, however, start to giggle uncontrollably to themselves, much to the confusion of our standing handler.
“Is everything okay?” The manager says in a smoothed German accent.
They nod, and continue on as they are told, their nervous laughter somewhat ebbing. The woman on my left remains silent.
After splashing our faces with the lukewarm water in our bowls, we move onto cleansing; we are asked to choose between two face washes depending on our skin type. I reach for a creamy solution, one I also have sitting on my bathroom shelf at home. I lather the milky formula onto my face, unabashedly scrubbing it into all of the nooks and the crannies, commenting to the instructor on how this cleanser was definitely my favorite out of all that I’ve tried. The college girls look unsure; the manager tries to help them decide by asking them questions to determine their skin type.
“Well…I don’t know what kind of skin I have…I guess I have pimples sometimes,” the girl directly across from me says, as her friend continues to squint at the labels, nodding out of solidarity, but not in agreement. The woman on my left has already finished washing her face, having made her own silent decision. I look over and give her a thin smile, which she returns willingly.
I realize then that our small group is an ideal survey for the Aesop marketing team: The college girls are just coming out of their tumultuous teen skin explosion, ready to determine their personalized regimen, but are definitely inexperienced in making decisions about these things; I am a skincare fiend in my late 20’s, having so far tried most every product I have been able to afford (and others I have been able to sample), yet still eager to land on that most perfect combination of serums and creams. And then there is the as-yet silent woman seated to my left, who is somewhere in her 30’s; she has long since decided what she likes and what has worked for her over the past decade, needing no outside input to make her decisions.
I stop myself from asking any more questions about the different cleansers and exfoliators as we need to move on, but my excitement seems infectious in the room, as I can feel the bubble created there in the back annals of Globus begin to vibrate ever so slightly. With each stage of the demonstration, layers peel back from the facades of the various women to come to match my own bald face, an occurrence that doesn’t often work out well for me. Most of the time, people find my unintentionally direct, probing atmosphere far too abrasive. This morning, however, my first foray back into the public since returning from my honeymoon, has pulled together just the three perfect individuals willing to let down their guard, however slightly.
We are asked to reach for jars containing pale green mud, and wipe the masks across our faces in a thick, even layer. We do so readily, at this point not even acknowledging the silliness of the impromptu face mask party. Needing time for the treatments to set, we all stand and walk about freely, helping ourselves to juices, fresh berries, and a light, golden brioche from the bakery downstairs. While eating, careful not to rub our faces, we talk with one another, something I would not have expected to happen just 30 minutes prior.
The first college girl asks my name; I respond, then ask for hers. I am struck by the beauty and originality of her name.
“It’s Iranian,” she replies, but then she suddenly looks down, tethered to an embarrassing memory.
“Back home,” she says, “People would laugh, because my name literally translates to ‘flower face’ in Iranian.”
I honestly couldn’t understand why this would be something worth making fun of. But then again, kids are mean.
Her companion finally speaks, explaining that they both are in school to become pharmacists, and reside in the nearby village of Nyon. She confesses that she wasn’t too keen on getting up and attending this morning, but she remembered the birthday party that her friend had recently thrown for her cat. My eyebrows raise involuntarily.
“Oh yeah…” she smiles, leaning over to lightly nudge Flower Face’s left shoulder with her right. “She’s my cat’s godmother.”
The woman on my left and I strike up a conversation now, and as the clay hardens on each of our faces, she pays me an impossibly sweet compliment upon hearing I’m married.
“I can’t believe it, with your skin, I thought you were 22.” I nearly jump over to hug her.
“You’re a doll,” I reply. “We got married just this past Monday up at the courthouse.”
“That’s what I did!” She exclaims in an accent I find very hard to place.
She tells me her name is Sara, and that she indeed got married the very same way as I and C, downtown at l’Hôtel de Ville. Life brought her and her husband to Scotland, where they eventually divorced. She then found her way back here. I take this to be a recent development, going off nothing but my own intuition and the ennui set somewhere deep in her gaze.
Washing off the dried masks into our bowls, now refreshed with clean, warm water, feels like a gift. Drying my face off and applying a toner, patting it onto my skin like aftershave; I look at Sara, and at Flower Face, and her cat’s godmother, and I feel that something significant has transpired over the past hour and a half. Other than our current country of residence, and the process of systematically washing off the past month’s parade of stresses and then rehydrating them with the same fancy creams; we four attendees have little in common. All it takes to make new acquaintances, it seems, is a willingness to share and to accept those who are also willing to share.
I leave Globus that morning with a small sack of Aesop swag and a mountain of samples. I thank the Aesop representative and the store manager, and say goodbye to the other three women. To Sara, I wish her well, and she nods at me, as if to say “of course I will be”.
To the godmother, I say something about her being such a nice friend, and how awesome it is to share that with someone, especially when living in a new place.
And to Flower Face, I give her a hug, and she looks at me with a warmth and a happiness that strikes me even now, weeks later. Of all the things to call a girl, in my book, Flower Face has got to be one of the best.