“I don’t like Paris,” the man on the riverboat muttered under his breath, “It’s beautiful - but it’s not for me.”
I turned the other way, as the boat slid along the Seine. The sun set and my rage rose. It took this man two days to pronounce his final judgement on something that had to survive countless wars and revolutions to become what it is. I wanted to stand up and shake him and ask him: “all this talk of beauty, but what do you know?”
I was overreacting. Sure, the beauty of Paris demands your attention and cannot be ignored. But the man on the boat had a right to an opinion. This was not about Paris anymore.
I flew to France on a whim, intending to stay for a couple of days. Life in London had gotten too heavy. Some days, it felt as if Jean-Pierre Jeunet was assigned to direct the movie of my recent past. Most things stopped making sense.
It must have something to do with everything that’s happened in the past year: I have accumulated so many failures that it has become impossible to even conjure a mental picture of them. But I carry them with me, in the shape of a collective vision, a graveyard of alternative futures that were stolen from me and others that I deliberately put to sleep. So much life and yet so much loss.
I chose to live the questions but the answer cut deep. What had happened? The common denominator of all these failures was me. Different accents and different words to express the same tired concepts. Men on boats, people in beds and faces behind screens: “You’re beautiful but you’re not for me.”
In places and in people, extremities can coexist. Order and dirt, power and fragility. The obscenities sketched on the Parisian walls were calling my name and urged me to pay attention to a version of harmony when the sublime becomes dependent on the perverse - and vice versa. The wounds of the past are prominently displayed and the anxieties of the future take centre stage.
Ideas and realities clash. Everything’s too real. Even when life feels like a movie but the music keeps playing well past the end credits and the rain keeps falling on the window pane and you finally realise that the glamourisation of sorrow only provides short-term relief and the labyrinth of self-delusion is not the place to get lost.
Some of us still believe in miracles, just not today. We look at ourselves through the eyes of our mothers and friends. Their second-hand love makes us think we’re the greatest (“They’ll hang us in the Louvre/Down the back/But who cares/Still the Louvre”). We’re left hanging, heavy. We are the painting in front of the bench. The ones that people in museums rest on while they wait to go and see the Van Gogh's and the Matisse's.
This is what it felt like to be a free man in Paris, with much to discover and no one’s future to decide. Not even my own. I was let loose. I felt no pressure to perform and conform.
It was a party for one and I gladly exercised a relaxed disrespect for my body. In restaurants, cafes and on the steps of Montmartre. The people in the street threw looks charged with lust and defiance. And so did I. Men and women. Young and old. I did not care. I sat in the front of the boat and waved at the strangers sitting on the bank, les garcons et les filles drinking Perriere and vin rouge.
The novelty of my desirability was no longer a liability. I wasn’t just consuming the beauty. I was responsible for it. Even when sitting late at night in the corner of a bar in the quartier latin. Piano man would sing for me, running his hands along the keys. I clapped with my hands and my feet. The words poured out of my mouth and into the room. Someone would brush their elbow against my arm, rest their knee next to mine. No words were exchanged and yet we were one.
A love language is something you make up as you go along. But you’ve got to stick with it. When I sat in the restaurants and stared at the empty seat ahead of me. I looked around and thought… this is not how I pictured my first time in Paris. But walking through the narrow streets, following the sound of the violins, I was reminded that there’s a Nino for each Amelie.
In ten days, I’ll be back in my London flat. Everything will look the same. But something has changed. Despite my best efforts, I’ll refuse to resist the call of desire. I will keep giving myself. Once again, someone on a boat or a bed or behind a screen will see the light and hear the music and look at a face and think: “It’s beautiful, but it’s not for me.”
And I intend to do nothing about it. I am done burning cities to the ground to build them from scratch. I refuse take off my skin and wear it inside out to please the wandering eyes of those who do not return my love. I’d sooner set on a mission to find them a new pair of eyes, just so they could see what I see. But I will not be responsible for their blindness – or their weakness. This time I’m the one saying it: I am beautiful – and I am not for you.