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Stinky like a dead cat: the smell of freedom in Paris

Thursday, 26 January 2017 Written by // Matt Levine Categories // Social Media, Gay Men, Mental Health, International , Travel, Living with HIV, Opinion Pieces, Matt Levine

Travel notes on his first vacation in a decade: Our San Francisco writer Matt Levine was a free man in Paris and he brought some of that back home with him.

Stinky like a dead cat: the smell of freedom in Paris

A month after my return from Paris a tangy, acrid smell hung over my apartment. A cross between a dead cat and dirty socks, it smelled vaguely familiar, mysterious. Opening the refrigerator, the aromatic culprit was exposed. Cheese, raw cheese, goat, sheep, cow brought home from my vacation.

I’m an art fag, been one forever. But this 55-year old Gustave Courbet loving, Cezanne worshipper had never experienced the magic of Paris except for one day while changing trains in 1979. Like a show tune queen watching Funny Girl for the first time I was mesmerized. I fell in love.

Fell in love with the museums and the streets, the cafes, the markets, the bread and the cheese, and the jazz, oh the jazz. The city left me stunned. It was a different kind of trip, though I didn’t realize this was a pilgrimage, a turning point, until after I got home.

This was my first vacation in a decade. I got lucky, swapped my apartment for one there. Three weeks in the Marais, close to everything. Art, food, jazz, cafes, and everything gay – sex clubs to dance bars, to bathhouses – just a few blocks away.

Amid each day of getting lost on glorious walks, seeing paintings that I’d loved for decades, exploring old cathedrals and cobbled streets, slowly, imperceptibly at first, I saw something I had never seen before. What I didn’t know, what I didn’t see, was now clear. I was living to work. And I decided then that things would never be the same again.

Snap, Crackle, Pop

Two weeks later, early January, the cheese is gone. The smell went too. But the spirit of my Paris inspired awakening remained fresh. My New Year’s ritual, dropping acid with a friend, to revive the spirits and clean out the attic. never happened. Yet the absence of this psychotropic reset wasn’t missed.

It was probably the resonance of Paris but I like to think my peace of mind was due to a psycho-kinetic muscle memory, flashbacks of a gentle kind. Breathing deep. Staring at the ceiling. Decoding constellations sparkling in my mind, then, the winding down. A bonfire crackling in my brain, that without thought or effort incinerates, eliminates, evaporates the nasty shit that echoes in my soul. The stuff I tell myself so often – why bother, it won’t work, you’re a loser – that I forget its even there.

After tripping I write things down, what I witnessed and discovered; things to remember that the hectic day to day of life makes one forget.

Paris was like that, though calmer. The trip expanded, a cobblestoned journey exposing the fucked up chorus littering my brain, feeding my worries and my fears. Paris exposed them to the light, burned them to the ground leaving me with freedom to write more, work less, flirt, laugh and give up the stress of doing things right.  

Paris unearthed the things that make me tick. The things that make me stop. The things that make me smile Sure, I still worry.  I wonder if I’ll ever get “it” right..  But my trip to Paris was a tipping point, a chance to embrace once and for all my life outside the box.  

Like any revelations these were hazy, then buffeted by doubts. What was real? What would last? Yeah, right, until I understood this fork in the road was the grace of self-knowledge, the wisdom served up with age.

If my life was a movie, then I’m this character everybody likes (played by Paul Rudd of course, or maybe Viggo Mortensen) who year after year after year keeps on getting stopped, despondent, tripped up, left out. Viewers can see these obstacles are more mental than real, that despite actual challenges, self-doubt is the engine causing all the noise and chaos in his brain. The endless echoes are my own creation.

Yet as the movie ends, there emerges a new beginning. He finally sees what we knew all along. That its no surprise a guy who drove a taxicab in Manhattan after graduating cum laude from a college where most of his friends went to work for Wall Street (that’s me) is driving a pedicab thirty years later?

Once this was a symbol of his incompetence. But as the movie ends our character sees his struggles to create, his frustrations, as something to be proud of. Those stories incomplete, those projects never finished are more like stars in the sky, ripples in the pond, breathing in the dark.

Maybe it’s the acid. Maybe it’s Paris. Maybe it’s just the grace of age but the guy we’ve been rooting for has finally got it figured out. At least as much as anyone can.

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