For Adam Olenn, romantic memories of drinking in Paris are overshadowed by the specter of alcoholism.
As the early evening sun slanted to gold, I sat on a bench overlooking the glassy, feather-flecked water of the Bois du Boulogne, a Central Park-like idyll on the west edge of Paris. Elderly Parisians strolled the paths. Swans and ducks slid across the water. The knuckles of my index finger were hot from the cigarette leaking smoke into my squinting, stinging eyes, and my palm was cold, clutching a can of Genessee cream ale. In Paris. I was sixteen years old.
I am the son of a lawyer, and familiar with the fungible gap between what is legal and what is right. In France, I could smoke and drink like Hemingway, legal as you please. But I’m not French, and it felt transgressive, bold. After all, I am also the son of one of the founders of The Great American Smokeout, and a grandson to a trio alcoholics and one stalwart old pillar who picked up the slack.
Mazyar, the boy from my host family, enjoyed watching the American rube pretend to enjoy the tastes of tobacco and alcohol. I’m sure it was a howl. But the pretending didn’t last.
While I’ve never become a truly chronic smoker, alcohol-free nights were and are a rarity. A beer at dinner, an aperitif after the kids are in bed (perhaps two? Why not?). It’s responsible, picaresque, all in moderation. Except sometimes when it isn’t. But even on a standard-issue Tuesday I can feel specters lurking at the edges of the room–my grandparents, one cousin, great-uncles … all hobbled like wrecked racehorses because they couldn’t hold the reins. It scares me.
To the casual observer, I simply live well, joyful and expansive. That’s not inaccurate, but there’s more to the story. When I opened that first Genny in the Parisian suburbs, it was as though the hiss of the can was the exhalation of some long-forgotten box buried with the bones in Les Catacombes, releasing a hungry ghost that floats around me, sliding between the cracks of my good time, whispering, “Don’t slip. I’m waiting.”
Read more: Where the F— Do I Surrender?
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