Saturday, November 18, 2006


The summer after the summer that ... gets back from interrailing, accidentally overdoses and dies, I win an interrail ticket in a competition funded by the parents of another dead child, in memory of their son. My winning entry is a clutch of really quite terrible poems about - well, not much. I am 17 and a right pain in the arse, in ways that are not fully explained by hormones or bereavement. Me and a friend of mine bicker our way around Europe, doctoring the handwritten dates on our tickets so the trip lasts an extra two weeks, and ending up penniless and food poisoned in a sleazy hotel in Paris, where every night a man knocks on the door next to ours and pleads over and over, in a reedy old man's voice, "Philippe, où sont mes lunettes?"

Nearly eight years later I visit Paris again, with a group of Swedish architecture students in search of inspiration. We walk around the city for hours taking pictures of alarmingly modern buildings. The walls of the Arab Institute are made up of steel apertures which contract and expand with the light; the new National Library is four skyscrapers facing a spruce forest sunk into the central well of the building. The architects crouch and take pictures, and one of them explains that the trees were flown in from Norway. "If they'd been planted here, they'd grow straight up towards the light," she says, and in fact the trees are leaning every way but up, shored up with wires strung from one fragile trunk to the next.

A friend from university is living in Paris with his French girlfriend. A friend of theirs is visiting from Berlin, on tour with her new band. When we arrive at the venue - "the least Parisian bar in Paris", says my friend - it's already packed with ecstatic fans who know all the words. I'm tired, I've been walking around all day, my feet hurt, and I've decided I hate what I'm wearing - a second-hand dress I sewed together badly when it split in the middle. People push and sway around me, singing, transported. There's a girl in the band wearing boxing gear, skinny jeans and a very severe, peroxided fringe. A good haircut is the secret to a truly successful life; I've never had a good haircut. The lead singer starts to tear up his clothes and throws the long black and white ribbons that once were his jacket into the crowd - lines of fabric snake over our heads, a network passed hand to hand. I can't bring myself to reach up and take hold. The girl with the fringe looks out at us all, suddenly human, unable to conceal her happiness.


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