By Lauren Ernt

Savon de Marseille, by Barbara Redmond

Barbara Redmond

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?

Lauren Ernt, a long-time Francophile, completed her undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montréal in order to gain first-hand experience living in a Francophone environment. After graduating, she traveled to Annecy, France and worked as an English language teaching assistant. She now works as a publishing assistant. Her interests include reading, writing, language, music, movies, cycling, horseback riding, cooking, eating, and traveling, just to name a few.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Beauty Confessions from a Globe-trotting Parisienne. Parisienne Bénédicte Mahé shares a French woman’s approach to beauty and makeup; and how the relationship Americans have with beauty is very different from that of the French. Including her list of Beauty Resources in Paris and a vocabulary of French to English translations. (French)

Paris Makeover: coming home blond, by Barbara Redmond who declares, “Never question a Frenchwoman,” and succumbed to the transformation of coming home blond. Barbara describes it all: the haute-coiffure, the pharamacie, and her new “French look!” Including Barbara’s favorite book on spas, salons and beauty boutiques in Paris, and her personal directory of hair and makeup salons in Paris. Not to miss is her vocabulary of French to English words so “nothing” gets lost in translation!

French women do get wrinkles, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the super French myth of the coquettish French nymph—her “je ne sais quoi”—in her ballerina shoes, hair effortlessly tied in a messy chignon blowing in the wind, large sunglasses over her naked, no make-up, nevertheless beautiful eyes, and she then continues to define how we are all measured by it.

Scarves à la Françoise: The lingua Franca for stylish women, by Barbara Redmond who shares her experience trying on scarves and tying them at the home of her French friend in Lyon. Arriving at the famous silk manufacture in Lyon, André Claude Canova, Barbara and her friend gently tapped on the window even though the shop was closed.  The shop girl let them and they all enjoyed hours of playfully draping, twisting and knotting scarves and shawls. An experience spurred by the ubiquitous nature of women and scarves: our common language.

 French Indulgence: A perfume of one’s own, by Barbara Redmond who writes about her experience in the atelier (workshop) of Master Perfumer Isabelle Burdel, Salon Privé, Cannes, France. Isabelle, a “nose,” creates a marvelous alchemy of perfumes of rare and natural essences made-to-measure for each customer. How did Isabelle guess Barbara’s choice from the selection of Paris macarons offered (as a test, no doubt), when she arrived at the atelier? Pistache. Powdery-dry and musty smells of the Greek islands’ arid winds and briny taste of the sea…

Text copyright ©2012 Lauren Ernt. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.