FROM STALINCRACK WITH LOVE

Credits

WORDS Nicolò Michielin
At that time, I spent most of my days reading the works of authors like Marx, Hegel, Schelling, Heidegger, Spinoza, Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and others. I was working on a theory on the genesis of capitalism, starting from the origin of property as an element through which man tries to transcend his body and time.

This theory was formulated based on the human desire to expand one’s self, a desire that is articulated in the action of the individual in three different ways. The first is biological – having children to carry on one’s legacy. The second is religious – hoping for life after death either on earth or in the afterlife. The third reason is based on the same principle: to extend one’s self to the outside world through the ownership, including intellectual ownership, of all tangible and intangible creations that can be attributed to the individual. Probably nothing that would have earned me an article in a top scientific journal. Such journals, rated by ANVUR as Class A, are highly prestigious, and most permanent fellows and researchers in our country would do anything to have their names featured there. It’s not just about prestige, but also about accumulating points ahead of the coveted public competition for the position of Full Professor. But, you know, academia is like politics, where blowjobs and favors still have their value. I find it interesting to navigate these issues, but when they transition into work duties, they may become overwhelming.

 

I have concerns about how we handle work in modern, post-industrial society. I also think there’s a problem with the Catholic principle that you can’t be with a person without falling into the perspective of cultural guilt, because of an imaginary bond to a previously met individual through seemingly random circumstances. I use the word seemingly because, and this is another topic I have begun to work on (without any success), I find it strange that man is able to give an explanation to everything he can understand, while he considers everything that is incomprehensible to him to be in the realm of chance or the divine. This simple notion had been bothering me lately. At the same time, I was working on the new sweater campaign with Carl. We worked closely for the past two weeks, literally day and night, developing a nice bond with each other, perhaps because we were similar in many ways. Monica, who was with us most of the time, used to tell us, “You guys are exactly the classic kids who sit at the back of the bus in high school. I can’t stand you anymore.” They had been wonderful and exhausting days. Carl told me about when he moved to Thailand. He was twenty-two when he went to visit a childhood friend, a guy he used to drink with in London pubs before Arsenal matches and who worked in TV productions. He ended up living in Bangkok after a year and a half in Sarajevo, where he had moved to try his hand at serious writing and to seek inspiration by sleeping on a mattress thrown on the floor with a copy of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra on the nightstand. It had not worked out because all art, as we know, has a certain sympathy for the abyss, and so he found himself fleeing the Balkans on a February morning when he bought a bus ticket that took him to Slovenia and then to Trieste, where he stayed at his relative’s house for another month.

 

Carl was supposed to be in Bangkok for only two weeks, but like all great stories, he met a girl and ended up staying and living on the other side of the world for almost three years. He loved his girlfriend and Thai food. “It’s the best after Italian. I have to teach you how to improve that precooked noodle crap you always eat. They add an egg and vegetables, it only takes a little to make them edible.” As we drank while sitting at bar tables in the immense humidity of late June Venice, he also told me about his relationship with alcohol. “My job used to involve a lot of drinking. Back when I started, or when I was in Thailand, for example, I had to get drunk to feel brave enough to go out and take pictures of people. Just imagine a kid going into the slums of Bangkok to photograph junkies and whores. I needed something to push me, you know? That’s why I now see alcohol as a longtime traveling companion.” As we laid belly up in the shade of a large tangerine tree, I tried to find a contact to buy MDMA to take to a party later that night. “If you want, I have capsules of hallucinogenic mushrooms I brought back from London,” Carlos said. The grass was soft, and a gentle breeze made our siesta very pleasant. He told me about the time he found himself drinking ya dong in the slums with shady guys, the same guys who later offered him crystal meth to smoke. The ya dong, or moonshine, he explained, is a drink made on the streets of Bangkok and favored by the working and peasant classes in Thailand. It is brewed from low-quality rice whiskey or lao khao and mixed with a variety of herbs. It’s not unusual for unwary tourists to end up returning home in a coffin because some even add snakes and scorpions to it. “It wasn’t a good experience, at the end,” he added. Once he got back home, he spent the entire night masturbating to the meth he had smoked on the side of a dusty road, sitting on a wooden crate with the shirtless thug who had offered it to him. Then we talked about religion, a ladyboy who gave a blowjob to a friend of his, Kant and Maradona, and the fact that his favorite song was Death on the Stairs. Carl was a real one as Smith would say, one of us. Soon after, I mentioned to him that I had to write a story for a magazine about love. “You know what I could do? I could ask a bunch of people what love means to them, and then the piece would write itself, and I would only have to throw in a little bullshit here and there,” I said. That would minimize any effort I would have to make. “So, Carl, let’s start with you, what is love to you?”

 

“A beer.”

 

“Come on, asshole, be serious!”

 

“I think it’s blood in the sense of family, that’s unconditional love. When I think of love, that is what I think of.”

 

In the morning, we had gone to Harry’s Bar with Arrigo Cipriani himself, and I had happened to observe what I would undoubtedly call a different kind of love. I had left the house early, around 8:30, I remember because I saw it when I picked up my cell phone to turn up the volume on a Venditti song. A lady in the street in front of my house smelled good, and I stood behind her while a bread delivery boy rested in a doorway, texting on his iPhone. Maybe he read the news or texted the girl he once loved, because there’s always a woman: a woman who saves you, a woman you can’t have, a woman who gets you lost when you’re going straight, or a woman you find yourself writing poetry for, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One of the local newspapers on the newsstand in Campo Santo Stefano, La Nuova Venezia, reported on the hiring at the FedEx plants outside the city and the acquisition of Electrolux by a foreign company.

 

It wasn’t even 9 a.m. when I arrived with Carl at Calle Vallaresso. The Bar, known by employees as such, was still closed. There were just three of us, along with some cooks. Arrigo had two bowls of pasta e fagioli brought in from the kitchen, he was very keen for us to taste them. “No one makes it better than us,” he said, and my God, it was good, the best I had ever had. When he asked what we wanted to drink, I said a Montgomery. Carl and I each had three drinks. Then I asked Mr. Cipriani, who is also a writer, if it’s true that Truman Capote called a Montgomery “Silver Bullet,” but he denied it or at least didn’t know. While he told us stories, he confirmed with the cook that the castraure, which are artichokes from St. Erasmus Island, were cooked correctly. If, after a whole life there, and especially after building an empire, a man still has this kind of devotion to his craft, it can only be a kind of love in its purest form. We walked out of Harry’s Bar dead drunk – and it was not even eleven in the morning – and we walked among sweaty tourists having a breakfast of orange juice and American coffee in the scorching heat. The heat rose from the pavement and covered everything like an opaque patina.

 

Before joining the others at the party at Eleonora’s house, we went to the opening of the new sports center. Monica and I waited for Carlos in Piazzale Roma to get a taxi. He was still on the steamer coming from Giudecca, where his aunt and uncle had an apartment in a beautiful residence overlooking the lagoon. Starting from the second half of November, there were mostly foreigners living there who stayed for the winter. I took the opportunity to ask Monica what love was to her. “Love is recognizing yourself. But it’s a hard question, I’ve been thinking about it my whole life,” she mused. Finally, Carl arrived and we took a taxi. He asked me if I had bought coffee, but I said no. He had already taken a mushroom capsule. “Three of these and you see heaven, old man,” he vaunted. By the time we finally arrived, everything was almost over, Enzo had already performed, and I apologized for being late. There were only a few reporters from the local newspaper, who had been glued to the bottle, and two or three members of the mayor’s office. “One of your colleagues squeezed my ass when they mistook me for you. Another one treated us like shit all night, do you see her? The one with the white top,” Enzo pointed out. “Yeah, she hates me, but I still don’t really understand why,” I replied. Carl stood on the terrace listening to music and enjoying his trip. I waited for Bianca, who was on a bus, and as soon as she arrived, we went to the bathroom to inaugurate the new facility – I liked the idea of being the first to do it, a small, insignificant victory, but one that meant something to me. As I emerged, I found Carl offering my new boss one of his pills. I deemed it wise to depart, not that I had an impressive status to maintain, but I did not wish to lose my job. There were no taxis, so Brando and Lucio picked us up in the car. While we waited, I took one of Carl’s capsules, leaning against a dumpster with Ryley. Carl did the same – he was on his third capsule – and according to his pronouncement a few hours earlier, he should start seeing heaven. I was nervous about taking it. Hallucinogens have always made me hesitant ever since a bad experience in my first year of high school with some Hawaiian plant seeds containing LSA that we dissolved in a bottle of Fanta.

 

When we got to the party, which was quite a nice party, I did a few lines with Carl in the garage of the house, on top of a broken refrigerator. He took all of his remaining pills by swallowing them, like a good Englishman, with gin. At one point, he was on another planet, completely out of his mind, and ended up collapsing on a table, giving himself a black eye. Carl, as everything suggested, was going to miss his plane to London the next day; I didn’t even go back to the island, I slept on Brando’s couch so that I could go to my parents’ house the next day to get my passport to go to Paris, since my identity card had expired and I had lost my driver’s license.

 

The next day, Carlos bought a new ticket to London and I took a flight that would leave for France after lunch. I’m afraid of flying, so I bought some whiskey in the duty free shop, two half-liter bottles of J&B. At the bar, I also took a can of Coca-Cola from the fridge, but I didn’t pay for it. I emptied half of it, refilled it with whiskey, and stood in the boarding line behind two Japanese people and a reporter from Corriere della Sera who was flying to Paris to cover the riots. We talked for a few minutes about this and that, and he told me he had to deliver the piece the next day. “I’ll write it tonight, the paper got me a room in a hotel in the 7th arrondissement.” I took big gulps, hoping to get drunk quickly before boarding. Not far away, in line for the flight to Madrid, were two girls with backpacks on their shoulders and cell phones in their hands; they were gorgeous. While I was waiting, I received a text message from Giovanna in Capri, it was a picture of the sparkling sea. I wrote to her, “What does love mean to you, Giovanna?” Her answer was literally: “That’s a bullshit question. The real question should be: Is it better to love or to be loved? But who do you want to be, the neo-romantic icon?” At first, I thought it was better to be loved, but a moment later, I reflected that being loved without loving in return can prove to be just as much a burden.

 

I finished the can before passport control and almost finished the entire bottle on the shuttle that transported us to the plane. When I got on the plane, I was finally drunk. My seat was 22B, the middle seat. A man was sitting next to me, reading the newspaper and jotting down notes on a leather notebook, maybe another news reporter. The seat beside the window was empty, and I wished it would stay that way. It would give me extra space to sit and admire the clouds when we flew. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Before long, a girl wearing jeans and Converse All Stars arrived and asked for permission to sit in that spot.

 

I assumed she was a model going to Paris for Haute Couture based on her demeanor. I started daydreaming about how nice it would be to give her even just a kiss. While gazing at the seat in front of me, she spoke to me. “You dropped this from your pocket” she said, handing me the empty J&B bottle she found. I felt embarrassed, but the alcohol helped. “Oh, sorry. Thank you. Don’t think I’m a bad person. I’m just afraid of flying,” I explained while finishing what was left in the bottle. “If you want to know, I have a really bad feeling about this flight,” she responded confidentially. I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not, but her smile made me forget that I would soon be ten kilometers above the ground. “Don’t you think it’s inappropriate to say something like that to someone who just told you he has a fear of flying? If I weren’t completely drunk, I’d be crying right now.”

 

“Do you want me to hold your hand?” she said, smiling. The girl wasn’t a model, but had lived in Milan and Singapore, and was studying at the Sorbonne. She reminded me to buckle my seatbelt before we took off. Shortly after, we were kissing. “I don’t even know your name,” she confessed. “Just like in the best movies,” I replied. We took a picture of ourselves with the phone. “Now my friends will believe me when I tell them this story,” I said. As soon as the flight attendants with the bar service came by, I got a drink and asked if she wanted one, too. “Why not?” she said. The guy beside me ordered a drink, too. I watched him for a moment: loose tie, sunglasses covering his sweaty face as he sipped whiskey on the rocks at two o’clock in the afternoon. He must have been a journalist, an old boozer from some Milanese newsroom.

 

The girl didn’t tell me much about herself, but I knew she loved Guns N’ Roses and wanted to go to South America and swim in the Atlantic one day. I also knew she spent Christmas at her mother’s place in Courchevel, that she had bought an old edition of Baudelaire in the stalls along the Seine, that she drank a large coffee, and that she had shared an apartment with a Croatian female stripper in Marseille one summer. We arrived in Orly and hailed a taxi to her house on a Champs side street. I knew neither her name nor her phone number. I wondered if we’d cross paths again. Maybe I’d see her again in five years at a brasserie in Montmartre, or sitting in a café in Mexico City, maybe I’d meet her gaze this fall in Milan, walking hand in hand with her boyfriend near Porta Venezia, or maybe I’d just see her only in my memories. I headed to Bigaignon to pick up an invitation to the Celine fashion show, which was two days away. Bigaignon is a gallery in the 4th arrondissement where Massimo is exhibiting, so I had my stuff sent there. Two lovely girls met me at the entrance and went to the back to get my package while I looked around for pictures of my friend. I stank of alcohol, and one of them looked at me the way she might have a homeless man. I checked my phone to see how far it was to the place on the Rive Gauche where I was supposed to be with Sara. It was the bookstore where she worked, she would be finished there in an hour and I didn’t mind walking the distance to clear my hangover.

 

I arrived in Rue du Cardinal Lemoine early, so I stopped at a corner bar. I ordered a Perrier vodka and opened the invitation box; inside was a card with the address of the fashion show and a silver kaleidoscope, which I gave to Sara when she arrived and joined me for a glass of wine. She was about to complete a master’s degree in Fashion Studies at Parsons University and doing an internship through the university; the owner of this bookstore was one of her professors. After finishing her studies, she wanted to earn a PhD and pursue an academic career in the same field as her mother, who taught at IUAV in Venice. Her father was also a university professor and once a student of a Nobel Prize winner in economics while working in New York. Sara lived in Stalingrad, the Parisian neighborhood around that metro station known as Stalincrack because most of Paris’s crack users were concentrated there. She was staying in an apartment that had belonged to her cousin while she was studying philology, which she had left now that she was a researcher, to move to a quieter area.

 

We took the metro at Jussieu for about twenty minutes and about fifteen stops. She offered me a piece of apple cake that her boss had brought to the office. “You have to eat something or you won’t make it through tonight, you’re too drunk,” she exclaimed. She was a smart and thoughtful girl with great lips. I swallowed the cake in two bites, while in the metro, tourists and businessmen getting off at Pont Neuf or Opéra took turns with immigrants, penniless painters and cleaning ladies at the end of their shifts. At the Gare de l’Est, some PSG hooligans got on, high on beer and holding cans of Stella. Sara lived a stone’s throw from the metro in a building sandwiched between an appliance store and a halal butcher shop, both with Arabic signs. A little further on, a man sold mangoes and bananas from a stand that was nothing more than two upside-down plywood boxes on which the fruit was placed. The door opened onto a beautiful courtyard where children’s toys were scattered here and there among the plants and tables where the tenants sat in the evening with a bottle of wine and some bread and cheese. An oasis of peace, where every now and then some crackheads, or crackeurs, as they called them, would sneak in to sleep, maybe one of those who had just finished on the streets and wanted nothing more than a few hours of that same peace. “A few days ago, there was a party here in the yard; they organize a lot of them. You eat, you drink, you hang out. It’s always nice in the summer. We chat with all the people who live here; I haven’t written anything there yet, but I’d like to,” Sara said. There were boxes of candles piled up on one of the landings, and there was a hole in the middle of her door where there should have been a lock.

 

Around eight o’clock, we decided to join Serge in Pigalle and walked the entire Boulevard de la Chapelle. The social ghettoization in France is no joke, certainly not like in Italy; on the streets, you do not hear a word of French being spoken. Individuals smoked crack in doorways and sold heroin on street corners. Every thirty meters or so, groups of people stood under overpasses talking or drinking beer. It wasn’t a happy scene, but the children on kick scooters kept things lively. They rode in circles like something out of a surrealist poem; it was just their usual way of playing. It reminded me of home, Mestre, Venice’s industrial forerunner and Italy’s heroin capital, a place with twice as many overdose deaths as Rome but forty times fewer inhabitants. In recent years, it has become a fiefdom for drug dealers and criminals, which has frustrated honest citizens and made it a frequent topic in national news and right-wing TV shows. Even in Stalingrad, Sara had occasionally crossed paths with journalists from newspapers such as Le Figaro, Vice, or France 24, who wanted to snoop around, ask questions, and then write their reports about drug use in the area, two-column headlines whose protagonists were these broken souls whose voices ended up joining the eternal trembling chorus of human frailty. What came out of this flood of news was nothing but a true picture of the complexity of life, of an existence marked by the eternal search for a way out of the labyrinth of temptations and sins that are our days. Fights among drunks and quarrels between junkies and drug dealers were the order of the day, and the residents could do nothing but vent their displeasure to the television microphones. A vox populi that lent itself perfectly to being quoted and used as a headline, thus making the fortune of every editor in the metropolitan area, as well as every opposition candidate seeking votes. Tabloids, politics and police. “In a capitalist society, it may be wrong to have laws that try to affect the supply of drugs while letting the demand flourish. One should act on the consumer to go and reduce the circulation of substances. All I can say for sure is that the human desire to soothe the perception of such an inescapably painful reality is atavistic, but at least for socially alienating drugs like crack, perhaps something should be tried in this regard,” Sara said, and I could not help but agree. “But they are not all junkies, many are just kids who have come from who knows where in the southern hemisphere and were suddenly thrown into a situation they probably never imagined. You didn’t see it, but at night in front of my house, under the subway overpass, hundreds of people sleep on mattresses,” she added.

 

While I was lost in thought, I noticed a playing card on the ground among the cigarette butts. How did it get there? Where were the riots that the news in Italy was talking about? How was Brando going to celebrate his birthday that night? And what was the girl I had kissed on the plane going to do? I puzzled over it as a wanderer dozed in front of a bistro, tired, because in the end, no party and no pain can last forever. Oh, victim of the world, street saint, find solace in your red wine. What do you pray to your God for in your opium dreams? What sins haunt you, begging for forgiveness? Four thousand doses and as many hearts, winter vespers. Soothe your torment of the French street, you who have as your home the sidewalks of France, where former Red Brigade members and the Spanish poets found refuge, where Carla Bruni sings sweetly, and where, my love, the star of Arthur Rimbaud shines brightly in the sky, shines synthetically in the tragedies of the punks, in the palaces and the suburbs, in the eyes of the last and in the paranoia of the morning, in Stalincrack and Pigalle, in the discos and in the courts. Forgive the children of men, accept the mercy of our Lord in the world of the internet, of floods and trials, of markets and rock stars, of sweat and tears, wait for us at the end of history with the wisdom of those who have suffered. Who knows how you ended up this way. Who knows if you dreamed of playing football as a child, or if you grew up fast, with no time to think about the world and its misfortunes, without the flair of revolutionary poets spouting words from the salons of Europe; everyone is good at being a thinker with a full belly, having ideals without getting their hands dirty. But we are nothing, just smoke in the eyes, Pernod and petitions, whores and haute couture, poor assholes at bar tables. My God, how stupid I felt, but who was I to think I could change things.

 

When we arrived in Pigalle, we went to a bar named Le Mansart for a drink. Besides Serge (who was holding a deck of cards) and his wife, there was the whole group of expats who were in Paris for one reason or another. There was Jane, who was here for a brief vacation; a filmmaker who looked like he had come straight out of Camden Town, a bleached-blond singer with a face tattoo, both of whom were friendly; Leo, who had settled in at his relatives’ cottage just outside the city limits, and had spent the afternoon shooting a girl band near Belleville; Uma’s friend from Asia, who wore silver boots and a dreamy little dress; and Bianca, who had recently landed at Charles De Gaulle on a two-hour delayed Air France flight and had a taxi drop her off at the bar with all her suitcases. Then there were Enzo, an Irish photographer friend of his, two guys from the Pigalle Country Club (PCC), one of whom was wearing a Jesus and Mary Chain shirt, and there was also Fingal, the frontman of a Parisian band that Serge had photographed for the1989 (and which had already broken up). And finally, there were two actresses at the table who had come directly from Rome, one of whom had lived with Sara in Milan for a year. They would be in Paris for about ten days, staying in a friend’s apartment on the hill near Rue Lepic. The brunette, Viola, liked Abel Ferrara and Chabrol, while the blonde, Isabella, liked Vanessa Paradis and Raymond Radiguet, a bohemian writer who had died of typhoid fever in his twenties and had written a novel about love at the time of the First World War. One of her favorite sentences from that book was: “To see her sleep brought me incomparable happiness.” “You have such a nostalgic vision of love; I just want someone to take care of me,” she admitted. My God, what sweet eyes this girl had. I wanted to hold her hand and walk all night, passing by the bright lights of Moulin Rouge, heading down the street and up to Montmartre. Maybe we could dine somewhere nice and then watch an old Monica Vitti film at the cinema. We would sit in the back rows of the theater, of course.

 

Instead, when we were all a little drunk, we called the drug dealer. In Paris, they refer to cocaine as Camille and MDMA as Marie Denise. The price is between seventy and a hundred euros a gram for the former, and around eighty for the latter (whereas, as I learned a few days later after talking to a crackeur, a dose of crack costs around six euros, at least in Stalingrad). I picked up my purchase while sipping on some J&B. The dealer, a guy who must have been about my age, was in a chatty mood, so I smoked a cigarette with him before going back to the bar. Although he was in every way what the criminal code would call a delinquent, he did not strike me as a drifter, much less a bad person. He was a university student and lived with his girlfriend. He had worked as a warehouse worker, a dishwasher and a waiter, he had also sold party newspapers and distributed leaflets outside the subway, but now he was earning his rent money this way. “What do you do instead?” He asked, so I told him briefly about the story I was writing. “I can only think of Elaine [his woman] when I think of love. Anyway, artificial intelligence is going to put you out of work soon, maybe it will put almost everyone out of work, but certainly writers will be the first. On the other hand, it may be that in these kinds of professions, the man behind the work, the life of the artist as it is commonly understood, will become more important. His or her existence may be the only variant capable of giving truth to art; perhaps it will become more important than the product emerging from the same everyday life. Life may one day be considered the true work of art, if it is not already.”

 

“What are you studying?”

 

“Modern Literature, I’m missing a handful of exams that I’ve been dragging around for I don’t know how long. I write too, you know? I sent a piece to i-D Magazine two weeks ago; I’m waiting for them to get back to me.”

 

“Well, you must have some stories to tell if you do this job.”

 

“That’s right, I write about that, about my life, about the people I meet; I don’t live on the street, but have come across some unique individuals. I also write about my girlfriend, my sister, who lives up north. That’s what I told you before, my life is the seal of authenticity of my stories.”

 

A Parisian woman I met outside the bathroom door downstairs, whom I didn’t like, asked me for a line and I offered it to her. At the table, they wondered what movies Heath Ledger would have made if he hadn’t died, and why the chairs in French cafes are arranged next to each other. “Because for them, Paris is more important, while for us, it’s looking into the eyes of the person in front of you,” someone theorized, while a fat man across the table smoked with extreme elegance. I wondered if time is ever really wasted, or if each second makes us who we are. I remembered the summer afternoons I had spent with Alvaro, drinking bottles of white wine and talking in Bahia, sitting on the grass burnt by the sun. Fingal, the Parisian singer, was telling me why his band, named after a French army motto from the Battle of the Bulge, had broken up. He was holding a pint of dark beer, streaks in his hair, and wearing a T-shirt with a raincoat over it. “Too bad, you guys were cool, you had that something,” I told him. Serge was taking pictures of his wife; I thought it was romantic. As I watched them, I accidentally burned my face with a cigarette, and the mark stayed with me for days. I asked them both what love meant to them. “Give me some tranquilizers and I can explain it to you calmly,” Serge said. “Never mind,” I replied and took a sip of wine.

 

Bianca and Sara went back to Stalingrad to drop off the luggage, while we went to the PCC, which was a short walk away and was our base of sorts when we were in Paris. A guy who was totally stoned offered Jane some coke. The bathroom at the PCC was full of signs and Jane was standing next to one that just said “beautiful.” The guy, who had glasses and long hair, was weird and kind, and his coke burned my nose. When I told him about it, he informed me that his cousin had cut it with a lot of amphetamine. The cousin was also a strange guy, I met him soon after, he was a movie buff, also totally high, and he started talking to me about Pasolini and Antonioni’s first movie in English, Blow Up, with Jane Birkin. I didn’t give a shit what he was telling me, but I found the whole situation interesting, since there was a certain decadent harmony to all these things.

 

Jane whispered in my ear that she enjoyed the DJ’s song, but none of us knew the song. Around two o’clock, I slipped into a taxi to meet Bianca and Sara at Le Carbone, where Marko, an okay guy Bianca was dating, the classic, Jean-Paul Belmondo tenebrious type, offered us some Blue Punisher. Before returning to Sara’s house, we sat together on a small wall, smoking a cigarette and watching the sunrise over the railroad tracks. On the way home, we walked through the streets of Stalingrad in the cool morning. The red Paris sunrise illuminated the burning remains of cars and garbage. We stopped for breakfast and also offered it to two crackeurs who begged from passersby, a hollow-faced Black man who spoke no English and came with us to the pâtisserie, and a foreigner sitting outside on a bench, who seemed to have long since lost interest in this world. He had kind eyes. He added four bags of sugar to his coffee. His name was Frank and he came from Los Angeles, where he had been watching the sun set on Mulholland Drive for fifteen years. After working at a Chrysler factory in Toledo, Lucas County for some time, he went to live in the outskirts of Paris with a woman he knew from college. But now, just under ten years later, he was in the heart of Stalincrack, wearing a dirty T-shirt and no shoes, begging for the bare minimum to survive. He had been in prison in France for robbery, just long enough to understand the prison language, and now he was getting by on some petty theft and begging. “I would like to work, but it’s impossible with this mess. It’s pure hell, and when you begin, you don’t realize how terrible it is. You might have heard about it or seen it on the street, but you can’t truly grasp the situation without experiencing it yourself. Otherwise, there would be no junkies,” he bemoaned. “What does love mean to you, Frank?” I asked him. “Man, I don’t even know what life is anymore. This is all it is now,” he replied, pointing to his blackened pipe. “I don’t even know what hope is anymore, I don’t know where the end is, now I see the image of what I used to be as just another person. Could you buy me another coffee?” I went in to buy it. The young women in aprons and white hats behind the counter seemed unperturbed by the junkies bivouacked outside, who came in with red eyes, sometimes foaming at the mouth, to beg for something from the customers. I was astonished because it was a nice place, a decent place for families, not a fourth-rate bar where you buy beer to keep up the methadone and where the owners turn a blind eye to a miscreant. When I got home, I saw a countless number of people sleeping under the overpass. Some had gotten up to pee, others were drinking wine with their legs crossed, but most just wanted to rest. One madman was delirious, and his voice was the only thing that could be heard between the buildings of the still sleeping city.

 

While the Sunday editorials and front pages of French national newspapers highlighted the riots in the capital (Le Figaro’s headline was “Police Faced with Barbarity of Violence” and Le Monde’s was “Government Faced with Rampant Looting”), the fashion world was focused on the cancellation of the Celine and Balenciaga shows. Whatever the substance of the debate, the dissonance between the violence in the streets and the death of a minor shot by the police may have led the creative directors of different brands to think that it would be inappropriate to stage a show while the city was in turmoil for various reasons, to the detriment of the fashion journalists who, like their colleagues in the news, had arrived in Paris for other reasons and were already thinking of catchy headlines for their articles.

 

We spent the day on the banks of the Seine, sitting on the ground and drinking wine, to which we added J&B from a nearby supermarket. Not far from us was a girl smoking a cigarette with a man. “I’d marry her right here, if I could,” I said to Sara and Bianca, pointing at her with my gaze, one of those things you say to make a point, but maybe if I could, I really would have. Instead, the girl left shortly after, leaving me with a vague feeling of sadness that disappeared after a few sips of whiskey.

 

There was also Vlad, who had moved to Paris a few months ago because he was tired of Milan, following in the footsteps of Serge who moved a few weeks prior. Serge packed up his stuff and hopped on the morning TGV to Gare de Lyon, donning jeans, a hat, and a cigarette in his mouth. He now resides in an apartment in the heart of Pigalle, just a few steps away from the PCC, which he considers his second home. “Paris still has that rock ’n’ roll and intellectual vibe that Milan had ten years ago, and that has now been replaced there by a kind of post-trap and hipness. Milan is all ketamine and Instagram now. I mean, even people who might be okay are mostly fucking influencers. There’s nothing romantic about it, and if you don’t get it, it’s because you’re in it up to your neck.” That sunset was eternal, the sun stayed in the sky until eleven in the evening. The river water turned silver when a homeless hippie cooked dinner in a tent he had pitched on the western tip of Île Saint-Louis, from where he enjoyed not only a wonderful view, but also what some might call freedom.

 

We went to Serpent à Plume when it got dark. It seemed like everyone who was supposed to be at Celine’s party was there. A guy from Corsica gave me two shots, smashed one of the glasses on the floor and licked my face. Then he disappeared; I didn’t see him again all night. Someone made a few lines under the arcades of the Place des Vosges. Fingal called us together, saying our names in broken Italian, he wanted us all to go to the apartment of a friend of his who lived nearby, but instead we went to the Silencio, where there was the after-party of a movie screening made by some New Yorkers Serge knew and for whom he had interviewed me for the1989. Vlad was taking pictures of the Editors’ lead singer, while a designer in jeans and a leather jacket offered me two hits, which I took right off the back of his hand. I asked him for another. I liked his personality, which was a mix of street thug and Columbia literature PhD student – in short, someone who, if he had come from the streets, would have felt the need to die young and high in some hotel room to preserve what was his talent. I smoked a cigarette with the PCC guys and spoked to a blond model named Sveva. She lived in Berlin but wanted to move to Paris, on the condition that she didn’t end up in a model house and that she could get her own place, or at the very most with her friend Katrina. She called her mother in Antwerp twice a week and could say pasta con il pomodoro in Italian because she had eaten a plate of it in Naples with a boy who played a sunburst Stratocaster on the street. She enjoyed listening to blues bands and Elmore James. Additionally, she appreciated Warhol paintings. Just to show off, I told her that Bob Colacello had the1989 link in his Instagram bio.

 

My night ended in Montmartre with Vlad, Viola, and Isabella. We waited for dawn on the steps of Sacré Coeur, amid dozens of rats feasting on the remains of tourists and a few ugly mugs hovering silently like shadows. As the summer haze cleared and the distant sirens blared, the vastness of Paris’s streets and boulevards opened before us, intersecting like verses of an urban poem; streets rabidly beaten by the worn soles of the masses and the weight of human vices, consumed in the crevices and hidden corners of the squares. What will become of this world gone mad? What will become of the rights won by the oppressed by marching on the capitals? What will become of this society, exhausted and tired, which sees lovers embracing each other as if everything were about to collapse, indebted to God for life itself, which comes as a gift impossible to repay?

 

I hadn’t bought a return ticket, but I thought I would go back to Italy on Monday. However, I ended up staying in Paris for the following two weeks, working in Stalincrack’s bars during the day, and spending my nights at the Pigalle Country Club. On that Monday, I attended my PhD seminar on Gramsci, with a bottle of J&B that I bought from the Indian-owned convenience store behind PCC while sitting on the canal’s banks. The price was always between seven and eight euros. Then, I spent the entire afternoon in bed until Vlad called and told me to meet him at Martin’s. I didn’t feel like going out, but what the hell, I was in Paris, so I put on my Levi’s and a sweatshirt. As I walked down Rue Vieille-du-Temple, just past Saint Gervais, I thought I was going to faint. I had to eat, I realized that over the past week, I had consumed only pommes frites and my face was scarred. After buying cigarettes at Le Progrès, I stopped at a Japanese restaurant and ordered soup and dumplings. It was hot as hell inside, and the smell of chashu permeated my clothes and mixed with the humidity, so I turned on a fan that was leaning against a chair by the wall.

 

When I got to Vlad’s, I wasn’t doing well at all – I was a mess. He was there with all his friends, half of them Russian and half Ukrainian. It was like an anti-war ad. In their opinion, the conflict ravaging the heart of Europe was about the palaces and governments, not the people; these guys were brothers, and they certainly didn’t blame each other for the faults of the powerful. They were practically all models, photographers, and artists, all blond with shoulder-length hair. Fedor wore eyeliner and Irina, in addition to modeling, was a lap dancer. They were having their drinks sitting at the bus stop. I was waiting to get a drink when I saw one of Bianca’s friends completely drunk on the other side of the bar. On my way out, I passed another journalist I knew, much older than me, a serious one, whose pen had produced investigations of a certain caliber, published in the New York Times. I briefly joined him at his table. He had written about Wagner’s mercenaries in the Crimea, and he had also been to Kosovo and Rwanda to interview Patriotic Front rebels amid burned-out truck bodies and torched suburbs. But, in addition to that, and to such high-minded pieces as the one I happened to read on the Bentiu refugee camp in southern Sudan or the Odebrecht scandal in South America, he had not shied away from covering such subjects as Vallettopoli or the use of speed among models during Milan Fashion Week in 2005. “Are you here for the riots, too?” I addressed him informally because he had asked me to when we met a few years earlier.

 

“Like everyone else, man.”

 

“And did you find them?”

 

“No, I’m always late, maybe I’ve lost my intuition, or maybe I’m just old.”

 

“Well, standing here drinking, you certainly won’t find it.”

 

“Like I said, maybe I’m just old. The per diem from the newspaper will all end up in pastis today.”

 

“Can I ask you a question? It may seem strange to you.”

 

“My boy, I have been in the midst of more wars than I care to remember, and there is nothing more strange and senseless than whole peoples fighting each other for the interests of some asshole behind the ridiculous mask of banners and ideals.”

 

“What is love to you?”

 

“What, did that little blonde I saw you sticking your tongue in her mouth break your heart?”

 

“You already know. Anyway, no, I’m gathering material.”

 

“For those interviews of yours? I’ve read some of them.”

 

“No, I’m writing an article. It would make my job a little easier, my friends never help me with such things, they say I steal enough from their lives already.”

 

“Well, love is the only thing whose memory isn’t sweet, because the moment you remember it means it’s already over,” he stated, putting out his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray in front of him.

 

He’d have gone on drinking and confessing all his secrets to anyone who happened to be around him in the bar’s outdoor area. Where were these riots? Police filled the streets, and journalists from newspapers halfway around the world crowded every corner, along with agency photographers, all lurking to speculate in words and pictures on what was going on in every respectable European blog, website, and television network; but not a shadow of the protesters, only their signs, the writings on the walls and the burned garbage.

 

I left the old man to his pastis and went back to Vlad, who was chatting with Andrij, a friend of his, already drunk and full of tattoos, who was a photographer and about whom Vlad had said, “He is the craziest of them all.” Suddenly, the girl I had seen on the banks of the Seine a few days prior arrived with one of Andrij’s friends. After a while, we introduced ourselves, she didn’t get my name and I didn’t get hers. Since she wore a biker jacket, I asked her if she had watched Sons of Anarchy. I mentioned my admiration for the Sonny Barger autographed book and Hunter Thompson’s work with Hell’s Angels in the San Francisco Bay and Monterey Peninsula, north of Big Sur. In return, she talked about Krishnamurti and a Sofia Coppola film. She looked stunning in denim shorts and Doc Martens. Her hair was curly and dark, and her lips resembled two peaches. Amina, the Berber muse of a desert poet, a vision in the Cairo souk, was the biggest and most beautiful star in the Middle Eastern sky, to which all men stretched out their hands in vain. Andrij suggested we all go to a Russian club in the Marais, and so we did. We smoked a joint in the smoking area, surrounded by all these beautiful girls, with a French pop song by Mylene Farmer, Libertine, playing in the background. Andrij and Vlad took pictures while I tried not to look at Amina, without success, and as soon as I met her eyes, I looked away. In these situations, when you like a person, it is hard to look the other way. Vlad turned to me and said, “Maybe we are dead and this is heaven.” The girls, used to being in front of the lens, posed for the two photographers in the red, smoke-filled room. I went to get a drink and Amina came with me. “Tell me something about yourself,” she began, as we leaned against the bar. “It makes more sense for you to ask me questions; if I had to tell you something, I would probably tell you things just to try to impress you,” I replied. We spoke for a while, and I answered her questions as honestly as I could, with a few reservations. She was intelligent and kind. She had a Physics degree and was pursuing her PhD while also modeling. I mean, instead of the terribly human nonsense I had been dealing with all my life, she was studying the way God, or whoever, had constructed the universe. Her taste in music was terrible, but I found it a tender thing.

 

At one point, Andrij came in and told me to follow him into the bathroom for a coffee, so I did. He was such a great guy that I couldn’t guess his age. He appeared as a character straight out of a Limonov book, an underground wrongdoer who, like others, had both aspirations and difficulties. “You don’t seem Italian, you could be Sergej from Basmannyj,” he said to me as he made a line. In his dilated pupils was all the nostalgia of a song he had heard on the radio in Moscow when he was a student, a gopniki. “When this damn war is over, I want to visit Siberia with Vlad. He said St. Petersburg is beautiful in the summer,” I said. Leaving the bathroom, we chose to go to La Perle. “We can’t not end up in that place, can we?” Vlad asked. We found the Saint Laurent guys there. Alicia said that love comes in many forms, as many as there are people on this planet. But, for her, true love means caring for one another, being kind to each other, and ultimately being truthful with each other. Instead, Nero said he was going to fuck a guy and said goodbye. There was also Adam, the bassist of Fingal’s now former band, who explained the reasons for their breakup to me. Fingal had avoided speaking about it. He was the son of a rock star, a polite young man with long hair and glasses that revealed good eyes. While I was chatting with him and his girlfriend, Jean, a filmmaker I had met in Venice, completely immortalized by the effects of gargantuan doses of alcohol, cocaine, and God knows what else, came up to the girl and tried to kiss her on the neck. I apologized on his behalf since he was completely out of control. Then, I gave him a glass of water to help him regain his senses before taking him to his friend Mike. Unfortunately, Mike did little to help him other than leave him to his own devices. This little fucking guy didn’t know how to calm down; he went after some guys sitting on benches across the street. Some tough guys who wanted to beat the shit out of him. I apologized to them, too. “Get this asshole out of here before we kill him!” they yelled in French. To keep up with this crazy son of a bitch, I had completely lost sight of Amina. I mean, he wasn’t even a friend of mine, he was someone I’d only seen once in my entire life, I didn’t even know his last name, but he seemed like a good guy and I understood the situation, so I somehow felt obliged to keep him out of trouble. The only thing I knew about him was that he played the piano, because on the one evening we spent together, I’d seen him fidgeting like crazy over the keys of a Steinway in a hotel bar, and he really had a knack for it: As far as I could tell, he was very talented.

 

Where had you gone, Amina? Were you already in the arms of a new Serge Gainsbourg? Had he kidnapped you to drink wine by the sea? To become the love of his songs and the tears of my words? I didn’t even have time to say goodbye, to look into your eyes before breakfast. I wanted to love you at least once in my life. But she hadn’t left; she was with the others at a table. They all agreed to end the night by going to a fashion designer’s house. He was a friendly and peaceful guy whose apartment was adorned with futuristic art and old books. Once we got there, I took a pill and sat on the couch because all the chairs were taken. The host was showing Amina his various works of art, and I was watching everything from afar. She came in and sat on the couch with an old book, flipping through the pages. It seemed to be a botany book or something, and she accidentally tore off the cover. “Now you’re in trouble; you’re lucky this guy is devouring you with his eyes,” I told her with a smile. “Give me the gum in your mouth,” she replied. She took it from my lips and used it to repair the damage. “There you go,” she exclaimed as she turned to me. Another nutter, I thought, and we laughed. After we sat there for a while, she asked me if I wanted to go over to her house, and I, needless to say, said okay.

 

When I woke up the next day, I looked at the ceiling for a moment, then got up, put on my jeans and left the room. On the table was still the bottle of Scotch we drank the night before while listening to Champagne Supernova, I looked at it and took a sip while looking at the books she had on the shelves. They were mostly physics books, and further down were Sartre, Guillaume Apollinaire, Gregory Corso, Molière, Homer, Voltaire, and Honoré de Balzac. I took a pen and wrote a few words in a book of poems in Arabic, making sure she was not coming out of the shower. Oh, Amina, summer’s dream, I wonder if you will ever read my eternal declaration of love; maybe you will see it this winter, coming back from a shoot with a student of William Klein, maybe on the subway coming home at night. Maybe, my love, you will never read it. I put down my pen, took another sip from the bottle, and waited for my belle. We went down for breakfast: We ordered two coffees noisette and two pains au chocolat, while outside it had begun to rain vaguely. The lady who served us the coffees said to me: “Your girl is really beautiful, hold on to her.” “Actually, she is not my girlfriend, but I agree with you, madame,” I replied. So the woman turned to Amina, who was smiling, and addressed the compliment directly to her, saying, “You are one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen. I often see you here at breakfast and I’ve always wanted to tell you that.” Amina blushed and thanked her, she had such a sweet voice, she spoke so softly that I could hardly hear her. My God, how beautiful you were Amina, who knows how many poor devils you have hurt with your beauty. The coffee was hot and we sipped it slowly. She wanted to show me the church she could see from her window. To get there, we walked by a library that I had visited ten years ago as a young boy with a few aspirations who randomly ended up in Paris. Time truly does fly by. I had thought those years would never end, but, in no time, you find yourself in a shambles of your life without even realizing how you got there.

 

The church was a stone’s throw away, the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. Amina told me the story of Sainte Geneviève as we walked, and when we entered the church, mass was still in progress. The gigantic pipe organ, as tall as a three-story building, played solemnly, creating an otherworldly atmosphere. How many men have kneeled down to pray to Christ in this church over the past five hundred years, and how many children have chased each other across the street there after the Sunday liturgy was over, men like us who would later gather around a table for Sunday lunch. I parted from Amina with a kiss as we sat on a bench, now well into the afternoon, and slipped into a taxi.

 

I took my headphones out of my pocket and listened to Champagne Supernova again. This song made me think of the color light blue, or blue, who knows why, and then of my first girlfriend. My God, what a beautiful woman you must have become, it has been a long time since you were in my thoughts, and to think that they used to be all about you, how strange life is. I wonder if you have children, if you had married a good, small-town man who deserved you more than I did, if you have a lemon tree in your garden. Who knows if I will ever see you again, like in Disco 2000. I paid the taxi driver, bought a flight back to Italy the next day, and went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to join Vlad. He took me to Area and we started drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in the back room where Michael Pitt got out his guitar and we all started singing Just My Imagination together. “What the fuck, The Dreamers was my favorite movie when I was a kid,” I told Vlad. Even there, they were questioning what love was, and Eva Green’s character had a line that said: “There is no such thing as love, only proofs of love.” We were all sweating, it was terribly hot in there, so I took off my jacket, rolled up my shirt sleeves and loosened my tie. I spilled the coke on the floor as I tried to lay out a few lines on the iPhone under the table. How tired I was, and what a beautiful day it had been.

 

The next day, I woke up early to get drunk before going to the airport. I finished the bottle of J&B in the Uber on my way to Orly, and when I showed up at the gate, the hostesses laughingly told me that the ticket I had was for the next day, so I headed back into town. That evening, we watched a movie at an Italian film festival on the banks of the Seine, then returned to Area, where I ate a plate of rice and meat while Vlad and Sara kissed outside the door. Vlad bought drinks for half the club, he was also leaving the next day, so to the cry of “This is our last night!” he got about ten people drunk on shots of vodka, including me. At that moment, however, he was clearly the drunkest of all. He told us about when he was a child, being carried on a sled through the frozen streets of Siberia, and how in Moscow bars they served cucumbers and buttered rye bread with vodka. This was just before a rapper or gangster threatened to smash his face in because he threw a beer glass in the air that unfortunately landed on him. Vlad apologized to him but he kept threatening us, so like good drunks, we yelled at him not to fuck with us. That same night I met Cristina, yet another model friend of Vlad’s, who took her cigarette out of her mouth to put it in mine, a Cuban angel with whom I ended up walking the French streets on my last night in Paris listening to Nothing to Be Done. I told her that song would probably make me think of her forever, I was totally sincere, and she smiled.

 

The night I came back (after a flight where I sat next to a lady from Lesotho who was reading the Bible under her breath), I went to Angela’s for dinner; we were out on the terrace when I asked her what love was. She said she couldn’t answer me, but she went inside and got a book by Simone de Beauvoir and read me a passage that said: “Why do you fall in love? Nothing could be more complex. Because it is winter, because it is summer, for excess of work or for too much free time; out of weakness, out of strength, out of need for security, out of love for danger; out of desperation, out of hope. Because someone doesn’t love you. Because someone loves you.” While she was reading, Massimo texted me to meet him for a drink after dinner not far from my house, he was with his latest flame, Diana. I was tired, but I like to drink with Massimo, no matter what, he almost always puts me in a good mood. Besides, you should never refuse a drink with a friend. When I arrived, together with them was Maria, a girl with auburn hair, a flowery dress, a nice smile and a great ass; she was the one who had introduced Diana to Massimo at the Golden Goose party. As we ordered drinks at the bar, Massimo told me that he was in love, that they were having great sex, and that he felt something. “I’ve heard those words before, but I’ll pretend to believe you,” I replied. In truth, I didn’t believe him at all, I thought she was just another hottie he was going to fuck for a month before it all went to shit. Diana was a Russian Jew, born in a village in Siberia not far from Vlad’s, transplanted to Tel Aviv and living in Miami (where she had met Maria), but splitting her time as a model between Paris and New York. I told her that I had just returned from France and was planning to go back for a few months in October. Maria said she liked French movies, French directors, French writers, but not Parisians, whom she found snobbish. I had had her in front of me for a few minutes, but I could understand her, in the sense that those who are conceptually and truly snobbish, the high rank, as Maria seemed to me to be, do not consider them, or at best treat them with condescension, and Paris is full of this kind of trans-social snob.

While we were engaged in this conversation, Massimo leaned over as if to ask Diana to marry him, but instead did nothing more than put his head under the blue silk dress she was wearing that evening, slip off her panties, and lick her pussy, the eternal source of the world, with St. Mark’s Basilica behind him and the rectory to his right. Then he stood up, kissed her and put her panties in his mouth after licking them thoroughly. Nothing different than usual, I thought, but I only had to study them a little longer to see that it was very different than usual: they were truly fucking in love. I stayed drinking with them, one drink, another and another, I stayed with them until 2:30 in the morning and my perception did not change, even Massimo, great artist and unrepentant whoremonger, the greatest among the photographers and perverts I had ever dealt with, was in love. I had seen him with dozens of women, and this was the first time I had seen him like this. All of this made me happy.

 

I took my leave of them, gave Massimo a hug, two kisses to his woman, whose jacket he had put over her shoulders because of a light breeze, and walked home with headphones in my ears. As I stood in the middle of the deserted square, a Pogues song, Dirty Old Town, came on, and I turned toward the Basilica. Its golden mosaics sparkled, my God how beautiful it was, there was love in this scene, too, as there was love in the song I was listening to, when Shane sings, “I kissed my girl by the factory wall.” And as I retraced my steps to walk home, I thought of Lucio, who had cooked lentils with sausage for his girlfriend that night, I thought of my parents, who had called to tell me they were going to a restaurant by the river that they hadn’t been to in thirty years, I thought of Brando, who had sent me a picture from Belgrade in the afternoon, with sunglasses and my sweater on, I thought of Angela, who had told me about her sister’s wedding, I thought of the girl I liked, I thought of Amina, I thought of Cristina, I thought of eternal loves and one-night stands, I thought of Paris, I even thought of Frank, the junkie from Stalincrack, poor desperate soul, and finally, I thought that love, in words, I cannot describe what it is, but when I see it, I recognize it.