MILES FROM PA R IS By Ali Smith.
It was the spring of 1979. We were on a four-day-long school trip from Inverness High School to Paris – well, to what turned out to be a hostel 30 miles outside Paris. And four days was really two days, since it took a full day to get there on train, ferry, and bus from the Highlands of Scotland, and a full day to get back. Never mind – we were near Paris, we’d be in Paris for two of the days. Paris! The place our French assistant teacher came from, who’d taken a shine to me because she thought I was clever and had given me books she’d bought with her own money, a gift, because, as she said, she thought I’d get it. The Myth Of Sisyphus by Camus. Nausea by Sartre. (I hadn’t opened them yet, but I would, soon, as soon as I stopped being scared that I’d find out, if I did, that I wasn’t clever enough for them.) The city of all the coolest films I’d seen at our local theatre on Sunday nights when they did the films with the subtitles. The capital of chansons. I liked chansons a lot, and French jazz too, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you told many people in case they thought you were trying to be pretentious.
We unpacked our rucksacks on our beds. My schoolfriends were dressing themselves the way that was all the rage right then, like Olivia Newton-John in Grease – scraped-back ponytail hair, high-ballooning 1950s rock ’n’ roll skirts, bright bright pinks, yellows and whites, whiter-than-white bobby socks. These were clothes I’d never wear, partly because I’d look ridiculous in them, I knew, and partly because I was 16, I was shy, I wasn’t interested in clothes, I was reading Camus, okay, or would be soon, and anyway, the real fashionable thing was to be jaded about fashion. I’d packed my own rucksack with my Elvis Costello This Year’s Model tour T-shirt and, on impulse and without telling my mother, an old white work shirt of my father’s that had been folded on the top of the pile of washed and ironed clothes waiting to be put away upstairs.
The girls put on their Grease costumes; I put on mine: my jeans and my dad’s shirt. Its tail came down below the backs of my knees. One of my friends made a daisy-chain from the daisies in the lawn outside the hostel while we were waiting to get on the bus and gave it to me, and I put it on my head. Then the bus took us to the city.
The shirt felt great, hanging long and open, shoulders halfway down my arms. It flowed. I’d never get away with wearing this at home, in our home town, I knew. I’d never dare. But it was sunny, unbelievably warm in France, never like this in April where we lived, or if it was, it never lasted.
Later, on the final day of the trip, in the bus on the way back to the Highlands, I actually got given the teachers’ Award for Best Dressed Girl on the Trip. I’ve never known whether that was a joke or not. But who cares? For ever I’ve got the memory, me crossing a road in Paris, traffic on either side of me, a ring of flowers in my hair, the white shirt I shouldn’t have been wearing lit brighter by the sunlight of this other country, the breeze catching it like that’s what I had, wings.
Cotton shirt, Emporio Armani. Copper shirt studs, Alice Made This.