I’ve been an Englishman in Paris for 20 years. Here’s what I’ve learned.
I was 32 years old when I got the email that brought me to France. By then the course of my life looked pretty much circumscribed. Like many English people I spoke no foreign languages, and there was little to indicate that I would one day live abroad, apart from a taste for subtitled films, croissants and novels in translation.
Weekday mornings I took the Tube to my mildly enjoyable job at an advertising trade magazine, picking up a copy of The Times to read along the way. At weekends I ate pub lunches and ambled in the park and spent hours buried in the Sunday papers, just like everyone else. True, I travelled quite a bit — but nobody asked me to stay.
Then it came, out of the blue. A mail from somebody called François. I wish I’d kept it — but no. Still, the essence of it was: “We’re launching an English-language magazine in Paris and we’re looking for an editor. Your name has come up. Interested?”
Long story short, I moved to Paris.
I arrived on the day before my birthday, so the date is easy to remember. Today, the day I’m writing this post, marks my 20th year here. And I can tell you, it’s gone by in a flash. Yet so much has happened: love, marriage, a son, changes of address and changes of fortune.
But that’s not why you’re here. What you want to know is: how does living abroad for so long change you as a person?
In essence, I think, you keep the best of your homeland and jettison the rest. And you’re also free to adopt the most appealing aspects of your new home and pretty much ignore everything else.
Let’s start with England. I kept the sense of humour — that was a given. I also retain an old-fashioned sense of courtesy. I’m chatty yet respectful with waiters, taxi drivers, store security guards, shop assistants…everyone, in fact. My (French) wife often remarks on how polite I am on public transport — not a very Parisian characteristic. My colleagues tell me I’m “a gentleman”. But this comes with a wariness of causing offence that can prevent me from speaking my mind — something my wife feels is tantamount to hypocrisy. “Is that your real answer?” she’ll say, after asking my opinion. “Or your English answer?”
I kept a whole roster of English-language films and books and poems that remain dear to me. And I still don’t mind the rain.
I lost my patriotism. I was never xenophobic, but learning another language has definitely made me more open. I recall stating quite often that London was the greatest city in the world, but I’ve revised that opinion. We all know where the “Britain is best” attitude led. Living in France has enabled me to understand the cultural jigsaw puzzle of Europe and see Britain’s place in it. When that piece went missing, I was appalled.
Yet at the same time, I wasn’t entirely surprised. There is a yobbish, jingoistic subculture in the UK that has always scared and disgusted me. Those groups of drunken young men stumbling around town on Saturday nights. I was delighted to leave them behind. Along with football. “Soccer”, if you prefer. The first conversational gambit of almost every British male. No, I don’t support a team. No, I didn’t see the match. And no, I’m really not interested in talking about it.
Food, now that’s interesting. It doesn’t take a French person long to get onto the subject — and I’ve become like them. I can hold my own on the wine front, too. In fact I’ve become addicted to bistros and brasseries, and a basket of bread with every meal.
But there’s also a particular sort of family meal here. It’s long and garrulous, with many courses and lots of debate, some of it heated. After my first dinner with my now-wife’s family, I asked her in amazement: “Do you always speak to your parents like that?”
Living in France has taught me a different way of being a family member. Be close. Be present. Show affection. We have dinner with Géraldine’s parents every Saturday — something I would never have imagined doing with my own parents, still less my partner’s.
Joie de vivre, actually
I’ve developed a different relationship to work and money. Back in London, people worked hard. They arrived at work early, they grafted, their lunch was often a sandwich at their desk. I respected them for that. Living in London is expensive, and you have to earn your keep. You can always de-stress in the pub at night.
In Paris it’s different. It irritated me at first. In my neighbourhood I’d try to go to the bank and the dry cleaner at lunchtime — and they were shut. The sandwiches on sale in supermarkets and even boulangeries were surprisingly bland: there’s only so much ham and cheese you can eat. The restaurants and the café terraces, on the other hand, were packed. What was it with these people? Didn’t they have work to do?
Yes, they did. But they also had lives to live. Friends to see. Small pleasures to enjoy. In general — and I’ve just checked this with my wife — French people are suspicious of the rich and bemused by workaholics. They are not lazy. But they don’t put work and money at the centre of their lives. One day, I got that. So instead of complaining, I decided to try their approach. The next day I was sitting on a café terrace at lunchtime, eating fillet of salmon with ratatouille and sipping a glass of rosé. I returned to work happy and motivated. I’m sorry, but the French have totally won lunchtime.
Emotionally, as well, I’ve become a little more French. I’m less afraid to show sadness, or anger — or even, indeed, fear. I’m no longer convinced that a stiff upper lip is the best expression to adopt.
I’ve also come to understand the concept of loyalty, which felt somewhat abstract back home. French people don’t have the easy familiarity of Americans, or the chirpy amiability of Brits, but once they decide that you’re a friend, they’re in it for life. Restaurants here work in a similar way, oddly enough. You know that waiter you considered aloof and cold? Go back the next night. Then the night after that. He’ll soon warm up. There are restaurants in Paris where I’m practically welcomed with open arms. Because I showed loyalty.
Paris, of course, is all about style. My wife thinks my personal style comes from England, as it leans heavily into tweed jackets or blazers, shirts with cufflinks and well-polished brogues. But the truth is that being an Englishman in Paris has accentuated that style. Paris gave me the urge to dress up — England gave me the building blocks. Plus in summer I love a stripy mariner’s T-shirt, which is totally français.
Talking of birthdays, there’s one thing I do that my wife tells me is very English. I send cards. Birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s…you name it. I take pride in selecting the prettiest ones. But they’re not so easy to find here, so I stock up when I’m in London.
Perhaps, in the end, that’s why I chose to settle in Paris. Culturally, it’s very different to the UK. But it’s also only a two and a half hours away by Eurostar. I really can have the best of both worlds.