Chasing the Dragon in Paris
In January, in Paris, I got a pair of black leather lace-up shoes from a second-hand store that weighs your choices and charges by the kilo. The left shoe was sprinkled lightly with mould and the right’s sole was peeling slightly away, but in the shop mirror they looked sleek and well-sculpted, and outside, on the footpaths, there was a nice formal clap beneath me when I walked.
I didn’t mind the sound, though I wasn’t entirely suited to it.
My diary from this trip, taken through the first six weeks of 2019, is littered with notes on how the people in Europe were decorating themselves. Lots of trussed up dandies and sportswear connoisseurs. Young Brits, tinting themselves tandoori; and middle-aged Brits, tinting themselves tandoori. And chunky platform sneakers, the types you’d ignore in a Kmart aisle in the 90s, squeaking through every subway station in every city. And those little half-beanies called homme bonnets. And round little James Joyce spectacles, everywhere. Whether a sporty type or a formal type, everyone seems to want at least a little bit of a bookish edge.
I only got the black leather lace-up shoes because of the hat. The hat was spare. Shapely. Comfortable. Nike, so potentially made with the hands of an overworked child, but this was a concern that I managed to tug back and back as my place in the queue edged closer and closer to the counter, a handful of Euros in my fist.
The hat was on before I left the store, and I glanced with practiced, faux modesty a couple of times in the mirror before floating out into the river of shoppers in Le Marais.
Outside of these monocultural shopping precincts, Paris is as beautiful as they say it is. I wasn’t sure why I was surprised. I arrived on New Year’s Eve, on the last day of 2018, incapable of walking at the same pace as my partner. I was all agog. She’d been in Paris for months already, and had become more accustomed to the sandstone grandeur and the twisting cobblestone streets; the broad boulevards and vaulting cathedrals.
By the second day I’d put my camera away. The little Android did nothing justice. I decided I wouldn’t take photos of anything I could otherwise find on Google images. It was the writing that was important, I thought, and every morning I’d start by carefully transferring, while editing, the previous day’s notes from an exercise book into a Word document on my laptop.
Funny that now, with distance, I prefer to trawl back through the pages of scrawl rather than open up the file. The raw data is more attractive; the half sentences and ideas scribbled over, the dates and the time I’d begin each morning, the little lists of chores.
This afternoon my reflection caught me in the window of the Pompidou centre.
Flipping back through pages of scrawl, I’m stopped by cringey little sentences like this one. It didn’t make the cut for the word document.
‘This afternoon my reflection caught me in the window of the Pompidou centre. I was looking, suddenly, at a character I didn’t feel like.’
This entry carries on for a bit, wondering in a clumsy though sincere way what kind of message the clothes and accessories that I was wearing were telling about me. It was the heavy jacket with the heavy hood. Black Revlite sneakers and the sagging, no longer slim-fit jeans. But then, finally, it was the Nike hat, which had slid on top of the pile to complete a mannikin of the Parisian crim. Parisian crims look like British crims, both of whom dress pretty similarly to your winter-season’s Aussie crim. I looked dodgy as fuck, but did not feel so dodgy.
I’ve never been a fashionable fella. But I have, I think, maintained my own vague principle to never complete a ‘look’. By this I mean that I will never sign up and go head to toe in a catalogue outfit, whether it’s something conceived in a boardroom, or more gradually ordained by the streets.
I think fashion should be regarded as a minor pleasure. Viewed as suspiciously as any of the other dragons people chase through life, and throw their money at as fast as the seasons change, in expectation it might add something to their sense of wellbeing. Since my cynical teenage years, I’ve thought of fashion as the shallowest and most obfuscating of the arts. But then, some people simply claim that they are just trying to make the world more pleasant to look at. And others suggest that our clothes transmit messages about our character, interests, levels of seriousness; and that this all does some of the lifting that conversation might otherwise. In this sense, decoration is a kind of language too, signalling, at the very least, accessibility between strangers.
You’ll notice, if you ever dress up like a Parisian drug peddler, the consciousness of your image reflected back by those signalling similar things. Nodded at by pairs of sleepless eyes; or glared down until you look away in a challenge of primitive competition. People approach with flickers of familiarity, touches of comradery, illicit offers.
A day or two of this self-consciousness confirmed many things: my suspicions and my judgements, but above all, my complicity in this image-making business.
I scurried back to the shops, searching for an item that would alleviate, tip the scales back, signal something different to strangers I couldn’t talk to; and I got down on the ground in a couple of these dusty stores and dug through loafers and high heels before I found what I was looking for: these leather school shoe looking things. A bookish edge. And a bit of a rort too, at 32 euros, but I took them up to the counter eagerly and paid monsieur and wore them out of the store the way I would’ve done when I was young and chuffed.
We did a lot of walking that winter, and I walked those things to death. Up and down the Seine I wore my own impression over the landscape of the previous owner’s feet. By Brussels I’d broken them into my shape. The grooves felt familiar. But London left the left toe peeling, and Bristol picked at the right. In Edinburgh my socks were damp and just as cold as the cobblestones, and in Glasgow I bound the shoes up in a plastic bag and buried them at the bottom of my bag, hauling out the Revlite sneakers all over again.
The dragon, having rounded a bend in the road ahead, was now waving the saggy slim fit jeans in view. They too were saying things about me that I didn’t feel was fair, and that was something worth reckoning with.