For course #7, a waiter wheeled out a cart with a mountain of ice cream from the Carpigiani machine we had all visited many hours before. The cart was loaded with chocolate sauce, chocolate balls, rum balls, Zabaglione, Grand Marnier, Chartreuse and Borsci. Venturelli ordered his gelato with a splash of chartreuse. When he was finished, he asked for a second bowl, this one topped with Grand Marnier. After emptying the second bowl, he suddenly disappeared from the table and stayed away for ten minutes, perhaps on a relaxing walk. When he returned, he asked for a third bowl of ice cream – this one without any embellishment.

The last bottle of perfume went around the table. This one, called Avatar, mimicked the experience of entering a gelateria. It was the most disturbing of the three lunchtime scents. The first spritz smelled of cold marble, polished glass, and wiped surfaces. Ten minutes later it smelled like gelato: cream, egg yolk, white sugar. Later that evening, long after lunch was over, I sniffed my left wrist and almost screamed. The cold marble and sweetened cream were gone. In its place came a smell that didn’t exist before, that seemed to arise out of nothing. It smelled like freshly baked ice cream cones. What kind of magic was that?

Not really magic if you’re a chemist. Smells are made up of molecules of different sizes, weights and complexity. Some odor molecules are detectable by humans, but in order for us to smell them, they must evaporate from their habitat – a ripe nectarine, a gym bag – and physically enter the nose. Because the smelling molecules that make up a perfume have different shapes and weights, they escape at different speeds and fly into the nose. Some rush there immediately; others stubbornly refuse to leave until hours have passed.

When perfumers – or the promotional materials that accompany a perfume – talk about top notes, middle notes (or heart notes), and base notes, this is what they mean. The molecules that evaporate the fastest are the first to reach your nose and also the first to disappear completely. The top notes are fleeting. If you buy a fragrance based on top notes, you’ll be forever trying to write a check that the chemistry can’t cash. After the reserved top notes come the stronger heart notes, which evaporate more slowly. The base notes last the longest, sometimes across multiple showers. If you know the rate at which each layer evaporates, you can program a scent like software.

The Teatro Regio The opera house is 194 years old and stands in the middle of Parma. Our tour guide, Marina, explained to the group that there were still families in the area who owned private theater boxes as descendants of the original investors. “These private rooms have been used for secret meetings, er, matters in the past,” Marina said. “Today, as far as we know, they are only used for a small aperitivo before a performance.” The lobby was once heated by steam rising through grates in the floor. Marie Louise, the Duchess of Parma and Napoleon Bonaparte’s second wife, may have hand-picked prisoners to operate the steam heater in order to gain her freedom. “It’s a rumor, but there’s no documentation,” Marina said.

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