Paris is one of those 24/7 cities where everything is crazy all the time—or at least that’s been my experience. But then, I do tend to find myself in rather extraordinary circumstances. Carl Jung once said that “life is crazy and meaningful at once”. I believe him, and more than occasionally the crazy has brought me to the meaningful.
For example—the night I met a man with no face.
The year was 2007, and I was a senior-year college student visiting Paris on what the administrative ladies from my school office called a “women and wine contract”. Over the course of my “studies” in Paris, I enjoyed a good number of wild and illuminating experiences, but few stand out as much as the one in question, in which I briefly befriended a Turkish man whose ears and lips had been cut off.
The evening started out like most, standing fellow travelers to a slew of Irish coffees that were consumed with the hopes of dashing away the tides of wine that had been sipped and guzzled over the course of the day. Our international entourage knew we would be staying out late, we always did, and we (often wrongly) clung to the desperate hope that a combination of Jameson and coffee would serve as some sort of reset button, allowing us to replenish the energies that had been sapped by wine, rich food, the intense June sun, and more wine. You know—culture. It’s exhausting. Did I mention all the wine?
Flash-forward about six hours and we’re in this old theater near Oberkampf that had been converted into a dance club. I have no recollection of what occurred during the interim hours and probably never will. Forget about them—I have.
Anyways, we were at the theater and we were tired. At this point our posse had boiled down to just me, Tommy from Toronto, and a couple of German girls we had met somewhere along the way. The girls wanted to go down to the main floor of the theater and dance, but I would have nothing to do with it, electing instead to head up to the balcony and park myself on a sagging couch that was sitting next to a keg of beer, thereby ensuring that my cup would continue to runneth over.
While my comrades danced I passed the time by chatting with random people from here, there, and everywhere, holding conversations that would fluctuate between Spanish, French, and English all within a single sentence. There were a lot of hand gestures and sound effects involved.
At some point I was talking to a girl when over her shoulder I clapped eyes on a man from which they would not unclap. There was something about him that was peculiar. I couldn’t tell what it was at first.
His smile was too big. All teeth. And there was something about the way he drank his beer, tilting his head back and kind of pouring it into his mouth rather than holding the rim of the cup to his lips. Then it hit me—he didn’t have any lips at all.
Right then I realized that I was staring, but as I turned away he noticed my gaze. He smiled (the smile got even bigger) and nodded, and I returned his nod and turned back to my conversation, imagining that he must have some sort of birth defect and oh how terrible it must be for him. That was the last I thought I’d think about it.
As the night wore on my companions found me and cajoled me into dancing. After shaking a leg or two, I begged off saying I was tired and returned to the balcony.
This time almost all the seats were taken, all except one—a bar stool right next to the man with the too-big grin. For a moment I considered heading back to my friends on the dance floor, then told myself that I was being an idiot, that I was tired, and who cared if the guy had no lips? I joined him at the bar.
He immediately introduced himself as Salim, and asked where I was from. I explained the circumstances that brought me to Paris, and he asked what I thought of the city. I told him that I didn’t ever want to leave, and a grin stretched across his face like a spandex Halloween skeleton costume across a fat man’s belly.
“That is what I said when I first came here as well,” he said. “And you know what? I never did.”
He tilted his head back and poured beer into his mouth. I asked where he was from.
“Turkey. I used to be a prison guard there. That’s where I got this.” He gestured at his face. “It was my ticket to Paris.”
I told him that I didn’t understand, and he told me this story:
He’d been a guard at a prison in a rural part of Turkey for several years when he found out that a few of the inmates were planning on murdering one of their fellow convicts. So he informed the warden, the plotters were punished, and he forgot about it.
A few months later, he was jumped by four men in a deserted part of the prison. Three held him down while another used a knife to cut off his lips and ears. (At this he lifted up his hair, revealing the gnarled stumps where his ears had been.) They said that he had heard evil and spoken evil, and that the next time he ratted them out they would cut out his eyes so that he wouldn’t be able to see any evil.
Later the prison surgeon did what he could, which wasn’t much, and after he recovered Salim left his job with a lifelong worker’s comp pension.
So he traveled, spending the next several years bouncing from place to place, growing used to stares and relearning how to eat and drink. Eventually he ended up in Paris.
“I knew right away that this was the place for me. I have been here for six years now, and I love it. My pension is enough that I don’t have to work very often, just whenever I want a little extra pocket money. I visit the museums, I go to the parks, I dance at the clubs.” His eyes were all aglitter, his grin a’grinning. He gestured at his face. “When this happened to me, I was upset for a long time. I did not understand why this would happen. I had done the right thing, the moral thing, and I was punished. But now I know that it was not a punishment, but a special gift. That with a reward for doing something good, there often comes a sacrifice. I had to sacrifice my face for Paris and for financial freedom. And you know what? It was worth it. Some people say that I am crazy, but I tell them, no, I am happy.”
Suffice to say, Salim’s story left me at a loss for words.
There are a number of lessons that can be drawn out of his tale, but for the moment let’s focus on one:
Regardless of whether we consider ourselves “good” or “bad”, life is going to deal out cards both great and terrible. How we react when things go bad—horribly so, even—depends on our ability to recognize the light through the darkness. It depends on whether or not we have the strength to take two half-empty glasses and combine them to make one that is full. Or on our ability to take bad clichés and wring some authentic meaning out of them.
In the end, it’s about learning not to ask “why me”, but to instead accept everything that happens to us as a bump in the road on our way to great things. And if you can learn to recognize the beautify that rides on the back of the terrible, you’ll realize that misery and disaster are never far from joy and celebration.
In fact, without the one, you’d never have the other.