Photos: Franziska Taffelt
1. The Blind Tasting | L for men by Clive Christian
We confronted Bettina Köster with a mystery perfume in a neutral, opaque vaporizer. Only afterwards did we reveal the name of the scent. Follow Bettina on her journey into scent …
In my garden …
Eucalyptus trees! There are some in my driveway. I live in Paestum, just south of the Amalfi Coast. In antiquity, Paestum was part of Magna Graecia and went under the name Poseidonia, but then the Romans arrived and renamed it. It’s there one finds three of the best-preserved Doric temples outside of Greece, dating from 600 BC. The one I see on a regular basis is the temple to Athena — it’s just opposite my ATM. The other two are dedicated to Zeus and Poseidon. Eucalyptus trees grow all around them, too. The temple to Zeus is impressive, especially when the sunset turns its columns red, pink and purple — or rather, every second of its columns, since the temple was consciously built as a symbol of duality.
Blue comes to mind too: this smells like sky blue — summertime blue! Like the air around Paestum. This perfume is in any case better suited to natural surroundings than to the big city. I associate vegetation with it, the pungent odors that follow a summer downpour.
Outside Positano there’s a hotel with a wonderful scented garden. It’s called I San Pietro di Positano. Many plants there begin to give off scent only in the evening: the trumpet flowers, for example, or the jasmine. That inspired me to plant some wonderful scented species in my garden too: roses, a large jasmine shrub and osmanthus. But the osmanthus drives me nuts: one whiff and you’re as greedy as hell; you want more of it, but there’s no more to be had. It’s not like a rose, which gives off scent continually. It comes in waves. But that taught me something, actually: not to be greedy but just to enjoy a thing while it lasts.
There’s something tangy about this perfume that I find quite masculine. Yet it really wouldn’t suit a very young man — more a guy around 70 years old. He might well live in New York or, even better, in Zurich. That’s a stomping ground for elegant gentlemen of the “I possess nothing in the world but my cashmere coat and checkbook” sort: a businessman perhaps, the owner of an old kontor, who trades in precious goods from the Orient, for instance, in silk. And who treats his business partners in Hong Kong and Singapore to Swiss delicacies, such as fine chocolate and those delicious Luxemburgerli macaroons.
The perfume possibly reminds him of distant lands, for he once travelled widely. But in the meantime he has retired and now goes more often to concerts and exhibitions. And since he is no longer obliged to travel, he is free to set his own agenda. He has neither a wife nor children so he takes off on pleasure trips with a lady companion, a Zurich widow with whom he has an amicable — yet purely platonic — relationship. He has sold his business and set up a foundation in support of young artists. Zurich is one of my favorite cities, by the way: it’s cosmopolitan, the food is excellent and downtown, in summer, one can simply leap into the lake.
2. The Interview
What is Bettina Köster’s earliest scent memory? What is the significance of fragrance in her life? Which are her personal Top 3 perfumes? Find the answers below!
Play, dammit! Play!
Helder Suffenplan: Do you recall scents from your childhood?
Bettina Köster: In our rural region of eastern Westphalia every household kept animals — and we had two pigs. The first door off the hallway led to the toilet and the second to the pigsty. And so I recall the spicy smell of a dung heap very well. And the smell of roses likewise, they grew all around the house. I was born in June, the month of roses, which is why I especially love those blossomss.
HS: Later you moved to Berlin to study art. What odors do you recall from that period of your life?
BK: The stale smell of coal and cabbage soup mixed with cigarette smoke, which pervaded apartment building stairwells. And when driving through East Germany to reach West Berlin, the toilets along the transit route had a particular smell. It must have been the detergent they used. One occasionally still gets a whiff of it today, in East Berlin.
HS: Did anyone at all wear perfume in Berlin back then, in the late 70s, early 80s?
BK: Not many people did. In fact, quite a few of them didn’t even wash on a regular basis [laughs]. But I always had a bottle of perfume with me at the time: Must de Cartier.
HS: And it was through art that you ended up making music. Somehow, for you, the arts were one big package.
BK: Yes, we took a decidedly conceptual approach. The Bauhaus was a great inspiration. We wanted to forge a connection in our work with the Weimar Republic, that vital era before the Nazis destroyed civilization; and thus we tried, in a sense, to mentally skip the Third Reich. And the other great source of inspiration was of course Berlin itself: a city shrouded in darkness and mostly kaput …
HS: Then in 1982 you visited New York and ended up staying for over twenty years. What struck you first about the city?
BK: That was actually in 1979, the first US concert of our band Mania D., the predecessor to Malaria. We did a gig at Tier 3, an absolutely in club. Anyone who was anyone in the music scene was at that concert. And the concert was a disaster! I had an excruciatingly impacted wisdom tooth and couldn’t play my sax properly. Anna Domino, our keyboard player, had such stage-fright that she just stood there, completely paralyzed. At some point, Karin Luner stopped playing her drums, jumped up from behind her drum kit, and stared to throttle Anna from behind, hissing at her: “Play, dammit! Play!” Then in the break, Karin herself hid in the broom closet [laughs]!
HS: So, doubtless the very opposite of what you had all dreamed the evening would be?
BK: Absolutely! But Thurston Moore, who later founded Sonic Youth, was apparently over the moon about the concert, totally enthused, and said: “If they can get away with THAT on stage then I can do that, too!” For us, the entire concert was a huge embarrassment but the New Yorkers just loved it.
HS: That old chestnut: the gap between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Were the scenes in NY and Berlin very different at the time?
BK: On that trip I couldn’t fail to notice that New Yorkers smelled real good and looked way less grungy than we Berliners. I went there in a pair of jeans and running shoes. Which was a huge mistake of course, so the first thing I did was to get me a whole new look. I also found everyone, even the punks, incredibly polite.
HS: Perhaps they were polite only to you, what with your new look and all …
BK: Perhaps. We did all look pretty hot [laughs]!
HS: How did New York City smell back then?
In summer even grandiose New York smells pretty rough. I once gave up smoking but then August arrived and with it the stink of trash, the stink of people— it was just awful! And I thought to myself, this is completely unbearable — and started smoking again. Because of course, smokers have a less acute sense of smell.
HS: So you went back to cigarettes for olfactory reasons?
BK: Exactly [laughs]. Actually, I still smoke, even though I now live in Italy — it’s a vexatious subject.
HS: How did you end up in Italy?
BK: After a concert in Salerno, the promoters put me up in a place in the nearby hills, the Palazzo Fortunato: a twelfth-century house with fantastic murals and a grand entrance. It was rented out by the floor and I asked on a whim, whether anything was vacant. They said, yes, the little carriage house in the yard. And I thought: that’s simply perfect. But at some point I found it too cold and too bothersome and so I moved — to Paestum. The climate there is wonderful. The black Mozzarella buffalo evidently think so too, for the best Mozzarella comes from there.
HS: How does the region smell?
BK: In my garden, as I’ve said, I have eucalyptus, jasmine, osmanthus, roses and bergamot. I also have a large mimosa bush. That’s the first to blossom each spring, and it gives off a very delicate and pervasive scent.
HS: Do you like to wear perfumes that derived from those plants?
BK: I’ve often visited Pompeii, where you can buy perfume that is allegedly made according to ancient formulas. They explained to me how it’s done and I now make my own bergamot oil. I also once made perfume from orange zest, since I love Eau d’Orange Verte from Hermès.
HS: How is that done?
BK: You soak the zest in oil for forty days. I’m fascinated by all that kind of stuff. I even used to distill my own eau de vie!
HS: Isn’t that rather dangerous?
BK: Absolutely. Once, in Berlin, I tried to make eau de vie from about 600 kilograms of prunes when suddenly, one barrel after another exploded. — What a raucous! And I had only just repainted my apartment [laughs]!
HS: How did that smell?
BK: Of rotted, fermented prunes — they froth a lot too.
HS: What is the loveliest scent of all you can imagine?
BK: The osmanthus in my garden! You never know exactly where it comes from, but all of a sudden, there it is — and you can think nothing but: Mmmmmh!
HS: Thank you!