Frisson cannot be properly translated. A translated version becomes bulky, rather unwieldy, and absolutely not the same thing. A version of the word is not the word itself, and although the meaning remains for the most part intact, it does not convey the same message.
I think my first adult encounter with frisson was in Zurich. By “adult” I am referring to my level of cognizance – not just of my surroundings – but the precise adjective applicable to the event as a whole. Of all places to experience frisson (especially for the first time), pale white Kloten would never occur to anyone. Aside from being unbelievably boring, the uneventfulness of the place appears almost sadistic on their part, as if the entire town conspired against all tourists, taking bets on when one will scrape their eyes out with a rusty nail. Nothingness, however, can be magical.
The sudden rush of frisson is precisely most acute when unexpected: would it have even been identifiable had I been searching for it? I felt it in my cheeks. If frisson was a thing I could hold in my hand, it would have seared my palm. But as it creeped into me, I recognized it for what it was. I can’t say it was beautiful, not because it wasn’t, but frisson cannot take on such simple description.
“Frisson” is “frisson,” and nothing else. While that was the first time I experienced it that I can remember, and I am sure I would have remembered, it was not an isolated incident, in that it has come to me several more times since. Once it made its appearance, it kept coming back, and I began collecting bits of it like I would articles of clothing – a chemise from one occasion, a pashmina scarf from another event, a pencil skirt from I can’t remember when, etc. Yet despite series of incidents to build an entire armoire, each piece held a different and special value, independent of the others, but all parts of frisson. Precisely why you cannot try to translate it.
Kloten in winter is vanilla, and not simply because of its general ennuyeux (the very antithesis of frisson!), but in the most literal sense, its slight valleys and lakes are covered in snow and ice, reminiscent of a winter wonderland, except, no, not really. And I think that that is exactly what produced the sensation of frisson within me. To shiver is the tremble, but to do so as an effect of something. It was indeed cold outside, but the trembling induced by frisson would rival the effects of temperatures in Antarctica. It wasn’t a trembling, or a shivering, but rather a tremor deep inside, indicated by nothing more than my flushed cheeks.
What I was about to do was probably in and of itself cause for frisson, but the feeling came from an absolute immersion of sensations, inexplicable, sublime, primarily concentrated on the visual – a tormented image of nature, unadulterated beauty. The activity combined with my sensory surroundings produced a quality of frisson unforgettable, and impossibly unmistakable for anything other than what it was. Frisson cannot be properly translated.
I wandered around, almost aimlessly, and settled for a small coffee shop that was nearly deserted where I had several cappuccinos and probably smoked just as many cigarettes; at that time indoor smoking was fine, especially in just about every part of Europe. This coffee shop had no windows, and I was beginning to think I was more than likely at a bar that just happened to serve coffee this time of day, and I remember feeling disappointed that I could not sip my warm coffee while staring out at the angry weather. You might be inclined to view my desire for tortured skies on par with my reasoning for going to the beach predominantly in the winter on the grayest days. Have you ever tried it?
I remember sitting in the coffee shop (bar?) for what seemed like all day, but was probably more like an hour, looking around, staring into nothingness, wishing I had brought a book. I thought about what my mother would say. Actually, I thought about what she wouldn’t say (her non verbal communication was always the strongest). I could already discern her disapproval oddly mixed in with delight. Almost as if she knew what would happen before I did – an imagined anticipation – of which I was not yet aware.
As it unfolded I made decisions with almost haphazard ambition. I didn’t want to be derailed for multiple reasons, all more or less concerned with losing momentum, or perhaps courage, or maybe simply afraid of a moment’s reprieve where I could reflect on what was happening and attempt to insert reason into an otherwise irrational endeavor. The early stages were too chaotic for frisson – a concept that requires a certain amount of introspection which was here altogether lacking – and if there was a predominant sentiment, it was recklessness.
My gaze moved between the table, the wall, and my nails in an almost circular motion, occasionally interjected with other adjacent objects. In between endless fidgeting I took swallows of coffee, each sip getting a little cooler until the cup emptied and I would order another. An unidentifiable song was playing in the background, nearly drowned out by the coffee grinder that sounded like it was in need of a break.
I remember remembering my grandfather giving me coffee beans to play with while he ground the rest up into what looked like dark brown confectioner’s sugar. The scents inside the coffee shop were identical to ones from my childhood memory.
Maybe I shouldn’t.
It wouldn’t be until I left the coffee shop, much later, that cognizance would take place, and the ensuing frisson.
I recall the rest of the day, and maybe that is what Edith Piaf meant when she sang “non, je ne regrette rien.”