Special guest writer Lauren Ernt, contributor to A Woman’s Paris™
For a native Minnesotan like myself, the month of February is best associated with cabin fever and an irrepressible urge to seek out new experiences. Travel is a sure remedy, one of which I took full advantage while working as an English teacher in France. During a mid-February excursion to Marseille, in a perfect example of the serendipity of travel, I stumbled upon La Licorne.
La Licorne is a storefront soap factory in the heart of Marseille, situated on the poplar-lined Cours Julien. The proprietors claim it is one of the last authentic manufacturers of the famous savon de Marseille, a soap renowned for its purity and restorative properties.
None of this was apparent when I first passed by. The storefront opened up onto the street with a wide awning and stacked wooden crates. It seemed run-down at first, as though the wind gusting through le Cours Julien could have picked up the whole operation and flung it into the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Always the curious traveler, I decided to pop in for a quick peek.
Bars of all shapes and sizes nestled in the crates, labeled lavande, miel, olive, rose, verveine. The air smelled clean and vaguely sweet, a surprise when compared to the aggressively perfumed cosmetics and body care stores I was used to in the U.S. The colors were soft greens and blues, pinks and yellows. I picked up one rounded bar and admired its hard, waxy surface and compact heft.
Meanwhile, other tourists had gathered around a store employee. She waved me over to join the group. “I’ll be giving a factory tour,” she said. “Would you like to see how we make the soap?”
A long-time user of soap and related products (my mother, I’m sure, would be relieved to read this), I had never before taken an interest in how it was made. All I knew was that the end products arrived on the store shelf in a plastic bottle or wrapper. Still, in the spirit of overcoming my February funk I tagged along.
What had seemed to be a cramped retail space opened up into a spacious workshop filled with antique machinery and stray soap flakes. Our guide demonstrated each step of the process, from preparing the olive oil base — each bar supposedly contains 72% olive oil — to adding the scents to filling the cast-iron molds, all with the utmost care. She explained the history of soap production in Marseille and how over the years mass producers had overtaken the city’s traditional savonneries.
After the tour, I wandered back to the shop and sniffed the soap with new appreciation. I thought about my plasticky body wash at home, with its gooey suds, engineered cocoa butter scent, and incomprehensibly long list of ingredients. And I decided to try something new.
I settled on a light green bar, a combination of lavender, olive oil, and honey. Clutching my purchase in a brown paper bag, I realized sheepishly that I had never before been this excited to do something as mundane as try a bar of soap. There I was, looking forward to taking a shower.
The experience did not disappoint. Silky suds filled my shower with a sweet-earthy-tart smell. There were no scratchy shower puffs of suspect cleanliness. (Don’t you ever wonder about what might be growing at the center of a shower puff?) No more half-empty bottles cluttering my shower. Just an immediate, intimate, tactile experience.
After returning to the U.S., I’ve continued to seek out unique soaps. Co-ops, boutique-y shops, and even grocery stores carry a surprising selection; it’s fun to try new kinds. Even some widely distributed national brands (read: probably not produced in small artisanal batches) offer hefty blocks of smooth, dense soap, reminiscent of those at La Licorne.
To say that anyone can approximate a vacation in France just by using bar soap might be a stretch. The same goes for exclusively using artisanal products. For me, though, the combination of both actually does the trick. Using this soap has become an unexpected ritual where I slow down and recall that afternoon of wandering, taking my time, and letting myself be surprised. To engage in that sort of experience is such a satisfying part of travel. Just think: What would happen if we made time for that every day?
A long-time Francophile, Lauren Ernt completed her undergraduate degree in Montréal, Canada, and worked as an English language teaching assistant in Annecy, France. She currently lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (She bathes regularly.)
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris™ blog, French Impressions: an interview with Master Perfumer Isabelle Burdel, Salon Privé, Cannes, France. Isabelle has offered her rare expertise, making the very complex and marvelous alchemy of perfumes available to private individuals.
Or, French indulgence: a perfume of one’s own, about my experience in the atelier of Master Perfumer Isabelle Burdel, Salon Privé, Cannes, France.
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Text copyright ©2012 Lauren Ernt
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