by Benjamin Percy
I remember wonder.
There was a time when a Stephen King novel could make me lie awake in the dark, fearing the branch tapping at the window or the shadows clustering in the corner. There was a time when I would stand, breathless and dizzy with joy, before a Christmas tree weighed down with ornaments and skirted with presents. There was a time when hearing a Guns N’ Roses song on the radio would jack me up with the same flood of adrenaline as carving my way through fresh powder on Mt. Bachelor. But that time is over. Not all at once, but gradually, my nerves dulled. Feeling flat-lined.
I read somewhere that your pleasure centers and chemical floodgates are at their height when you’re a teenager. That’s why french fries taste so exquisitely salty and crushes are so poisonously soaked with heart-bruised longing. The music you listened to when you were 16 will be your favorite music for the rest of your life, because that extreme sensation it gave you—sugared with endorphins—imprinted itself on your brain like a flower fossilized into sandstone.
In response, I’ve sought out higher highs, trying to spike my system. I’ve hang-glided. I’ve launched myself out of planes with a parachute. I’ve climbed one of the tallest trees in the country, a Douglas fir outside of Eugene, Oregon, and slept in a hammock dangling hundreds of feet off the ground. I’ve paddled class-five rapids and I’ve climbed sea cliffs and I’ve kayaked through a pod of killer whales and I’ve camped in the backcountry with grizzlies.
I’ve tried more. And more works. But more doesn’t last. You can’t live in a constant state of more. Maybe I am thinking more about this because I recently turned 40? Probably. Definitely.
Some people worry about losing their hair. I worry about frying my nerve endings. I can imagine myself—gray-bearded and skin-spotted and bent-boned, a frown permanently cutting my face, curled up in a hospital bed while nurses prod me with needles and offer me spoons of nutrient-rich goop and fit hearing aids into my ears and ask, “Can you feel that? Can you taste that? Can you hear that?” The answer will be no. Because by then I will be numb all the way down to the marrow.
It has seemed that way at least. A dark inevitability.
like the story of St. Julian. He was hunting in the woods when he came upon a stag. He notched an arrow and took aim, but before he released the taut bowstring, the stag turned to study him. Julian saw wisdom in its eyes and lowered his aim. The stag spoke to him and offered a sinister prophecy before bounding away. He, Julian, would be responsible for his parents’ death.
Because Julian loved them, he tried to escape this fate by moving far away. But his parents were bereft and sought him out over many miles and many years, wondering why he had abandoned them. When they finally located his home, they were old and weary and sick. They knocked on the door and a woman answered. Julian’s new wife. She hurried the elderly couple to bed and told them to rest and then ran off to town for a doctor. While she was gone, Julian came home and found two people asleep in his bed. He jumped to the conclusion that his wife was sleeping with another man. In a blind rage, he yanked his sword from its scabbard and stabbed them both to death, fulfilling the stag’s prophecy.
You can find a representation of his story on Rue Galande in the Latin Quarter of Paris, where a stone carving is hidden away—mortared onto a building about 10 feet above the cobbled street, just around the corner from his namesake cathedral, Saint Julien-le-Pauvre.
I might have spent five minutes there, tipping back my head to study the carving, and during that time more than 100 people rushed past me, studying their feet or their phones. A waiter at a nearby café eventually wandered over and asked me what I was looking at. When I told him, he squinted his eyes and smiled and said, “I never noticed before.”
And maybe I wouldn’t have either if it was my own back yard. But there is something about travel that makes everything light up. And there is something about Paris, in particular, that makes every street feel to me a little like Rue Galande—alive with tiny, delightful curiosities.
Consider Rue Maître Albert, where I lived with my family. Really it is little more than an alley, just off the left bank of the Seine. But at one end of the road, a building is decorated with graffiti art by Banksy—and at the other end sits a corner shop that sells only music boxes. Across from our apartment was a bookshop stacked with ancient leather-bound and metal-clasped volumes that the owner would let me gently hold and admire, the yellow pages like cloth whispering between my fingers.
I love my home—in the wooded hamlet of Northfield, Minnesota—but some combination of work and age and routine had lately made me feel rutted and numb there. I would drive back and forth to town without any awareness, the route committed to muscle memory. I would eat meals without tasting them, sometimes shoving cold cuts into my mouth over the sink when in a hurry. Everything was blurry because I was looking ahead instead of paying attention to the moment. So when the opportunity to live in Paris for a summer presented itself, I said yes. Because I needed something to change.
What happened there had little to do with any notable tourist attraction—the Eiffel Tower or Louvre or Arc de Triomphe or whatever you can find on a postcard—and everything to do with the small details that I delighted in daily. A gargoyle menacing from a cathedral. A glass of pastis clouding over white when I dropped an ice cube into it. Students at the Sorbonne approaching the statue of Montaigne, the father of the essay, and rubbing his foot for good luck so many times that it is polished to a brass glow. A dozen pigeons roosting on a street lamp crowned with guano. A piss-stinking stairwell with stone steps bowed in the middle from centuries of use. A carpet made out of a giraffe and beetles pinned to boards and birds frozen in flight in the upstairs studio of Deyrolle Taxidermy. A fat bag of cherries at the Place Maubert Market that stained my fingertips red. Knowing the baker well enough at the boulangerie that I was handed the baguette de tradition without having to ask. The bouquiniste along the Seine devoted entirely to comics. The Algerians taking to the streets with flags wrapped like capes around their shoulders to celebrate their win in the African Cup. The walls weeping with moisture when I listened to a jazz quartet in the basement of Le Caveau de la Huchette. A three-hour dinner at Chez René during which every forkful of escargot and boeuf bourguignon and chocolate mousse made my whole body hum.
I could go on. Because Paris is sensory overload. The ultimate synesthesia that forces you to slow down and savor every detail, to become a flaneur who seeks out marvels and indulgence. Not just meal by meal, or block by block, but epoch by epoch, when you consider the larger conversation that’s been taking place there for centuries among painters and writers and musicians and chefs. By living there for an extended period, instead of merely touring through in a rush, I couldn’t help but feel plugged into that current, all of my circuit boards lit up, my system rewired.
When you wander through enough Parisian museums, you hear the word “Renaissance” a lot. A word that implies rebirth, revival. Can I say that I feel the same without sounding corny? Probably not. But I do know that I’ve managed to defy the inevitability I feared—and rediscovered something I missed desperately. My capacity for awe.
I’m stateside now, more than 4,000 miles away from Paris. On a normal morning, I would splash my mug full of coffee and sit down at my desk and immediately begin to crank away at emails. Today I took an espresso out on the porch and listened to the breeze hushing through the leaves and watched the sun pour greenly through the branches of an ash like stained glass. I identified three birdcalls and watched a coyote dash across the yard.
It wasn’t the same as strolling through Saint Germaine des Préz, but it was some version of the same. My heart is a steamer trunk, and I’ve packed Paris home with me.
Award-winning writer BENJAMIN PERCY is the author of four novels and his third book of short stories, Suicide Woods, was published in October. He also writes for Marvel Comics and for the audio drama “Wolverine.” Ben was Visiting Writer in Residence at Wabash in Spring 2014, and his first A Man’s Life essay, “Going Wild,” appeared in WM Fall 2014.