When I first arrived in the city ten years ago, it wasn’t long before I was christened with lemon cologne. Limon kolonyasi. Turks use the stuff all the time, not unlike how Arabs use oud or the way . It almost has the feeling of communion, except they sprinkle it on your hands.
When you get your haircut, the barber finishes off by rubbing it into your freshly trimmed hair, as if adding a final touch. It does feel nice, I might add. A slight burning sting that makes you feel new and shiny on your way out into the street. In restaurants, the garcon brings either wet wipes or a bottle of the lemon cologne at the end of the meal so that you can wash your hands. And in every Turkish home, you’ll see a bottle of the gold-colored liquid sitting somewhere in the living or dining room.
I’m one of those who, over the years, casually noted the omnipresence of lemon cologne, respecting its role as protector of all things fresh, polite and sanitary in Turkish society. But more recently, it has become something more than that, a protector of life itself.
Ever since the first coronavirus case was reported here in early March, we don’t go anywhere without it. We leave the apartment, donning our masks and stuffing a couple of paper towels into our jackets to handle doors. Lastly, we grab the spray bottles of lemon cologne, like a soldier shouldering his rifle before departing for battle. The minute we exit the supermarket or bakkal, we stop, whip out the spray bottles and give our hands good strong blasts of citrusy bombs.
To be honest, I’ve never been particularly fond of lemon cologne. It was OK at the barber shop. I am one of those who enjoys the whole haircut experience, so when the barber rubs the stuff in my head, I was always like, sure why not? But when people offered the bottle to me casually, in social situations, it always felt excessive. I can think of a million other scents that I’d prefer to be drenched in, something cool and clean, blue or emerald-colored, like the smell of pine needles or the sea on a cloudy day. If the fragrance has to be fruit, surely a tangerine or plum offer more subtle aromas? The smell of rain is nice. Why not bottle that?
The point is, over the years I have tolerated lemon cologne as part of the culture – just as I generally accept tea when it is offered (tea is the national drink here). Even the barber insists on you having a cup of tea before he lets you leave his establishment, and won’t hear of you refusing. I have nothing against tea, mind; it’s just that I am and always will be a coffee man.
But imagine if tomorrow, tea was found to possess an agent that could kill the coronavirus? People, including myself, would start drinking gallons of the stuff. In Boston, they’d give tea parties a new name. While the coffee shops would remain shuttered, the tea cafes would be bustling and thriving. “Get your daily dose here! A dozen flavors!” the signs would shout.
Indeed, over the past couple months, sales of lemon cologne have skyrocketed. And its usage has become nearly mandatory. I went to the optik to get some new contact lenses, and the assistant whipped out a bottle in time to make sure my hands were disinfected before entering my PIN number on the debit machine. The covered lady at the supermarket went further, bathing the numbers on the machine itself in the glorious liquid. The smell of it has filtered into your reality sense, as integrated as the feeling of a mask covering your face. Your sense of smell adjusts to it just as your breathing adjusts to the mask.
In fact, just the other day, when I returned from the supermarket, having walked through the deserted streets of the neighborhood, I reached in my pocket to give my hands a spray. What’s this? I realized I’d grabbed a bottle of baby oil by mistake. I didn’t panic or anything, but I was more than mildly annoyed with myself. I felt caught out, a bit exposed. At the apartment, I quickly showered, took out the bottle of baby oil and gave it a reassuring rub down with the lemon cologne.
That’s when I thought about it: lemon cologne. My wife had just bought two new bottles on sale. They were faithfully standing post near the TV. Oh hell. Who’d have thought that this humble bottle of spray would become such an important part of our everyday lives? Who’d have thought we’d ever use so much of the stuff? That it would become like a magic potion, protecting us from the spectre of the virus floating out there in the unknown world?
I know, reader. Captain Obvious strikes again. Might as well write an ode to soap (“It keeps us clean! Where would our assholes be without it?”) ,or a paean to water (“Oh water! Thou life-giving beverage!”). I could write a whole collection of poems praising the simple things, in gold-bound volumes, and store them in my bomb shelter.
No, have to say I never thought I’d write a story about cologne. But life is long and full of unexpected turns. And I figured I owed something to the damn cologne, since we have always had a somewhat stand-offish relationship. So I thought it only just to devote a few words:
Dear Lemon Cologne (Or Limon Kolonyasi, if you prefer your Turkish name),
I know we have had an on-and (mostly)- off, relationship over the years. But in light of your recent duties, I want to thank you.You are OK in my book. My wife thanks you, my son thanks you, for your brave, steadfast service.
But as soon as this pandemic ends, may we never see each other ever again in this world or the next! You and your friend, the mask. OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh, considering the affectionate disinfectant you have become. But I hope we will be seeing a lot less of each other. We can go back to being the way we were before? Why don’t we agree to just each other at the barber shop? We can even have tea. Wouldn’t that be nice? You won’t have to feel so necessary and I for one would feel a lot more comfortable.
Who knows? Maybe some day, many ages and ages hence, I will come across a bottle of you, and feel a burst of sentiment, of nostalgia (“Wait, what is that I smell? Lemon cologne? Oh, friends! This takes me back to the golden spring of ’20, to the halcyon days of lockdown, to the Roaring Pandemic!”). Or maybe not.
Yours in Good Health,
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.