An excerpt from We'll Always Have Paris, and how seeking a life of je ne sais quoi left writer Emma Beddington more clueless than ever.

A Gallic effort

paris

At 16, Emma Beddington already knew what she wanted to be when she grew up: French. At her school library in York, she pored over Elle magazine, much impressed by the fact that it was equally interested in books, men, films, éclairs, politics, and underwear. At the local arthouse cinema, she watched any number of French films, mostly starring the charismatic Gérard Depardieu. In her gap year, she worked at a Normandy school where she smoked Gauloises and fell in love with a Frenchman called Olivier. 

Rather to her surprise, their relationship continued after she returned to Britain—and if it was occasionally tempestuous, well, she knew from all those French films that that’s how love is. After graduation, the couple lived together in London for six years, during which time they had two children, Theo and Louis. But then the chance finally came to realise her dream of moving to Paris.

The reality, it’s fair to say, was somewhat disappointing. The concierge of their apartment block took a stern line on her children touching the buttons in the lift. The neighbours banged on their floors, ceilings and walls whenever her baby cried. The local shopkeepers appeared to be in a state of constant fury at such outrages as trying to pay by credit card. After a year, Emma retired defeated with her family to friendly old London.

Through all of this and beyond (the family eventually end up in Brussels), Emma writes with a level of honesty that doesn’t always make her likeable, but that does sharply capture the mixed British feelings about our annoyingly cool—and sometimes just annoying—neighbours. We join her here during that Parisian year…

 

The excerpt

We'll always have paris
Buy We'll Always Have Paris for £11.99

The park entrance is marked with a slate-topped rotunda and vast black and gilt gates, and beyond the gates is classic Parisian park territory, dusty gravel paths and neat flowerbeds, the lawns mined with sternly worded notices about what is and is not acceptable. There are two children’s playgrounds, a sandpit, a string of fat ponies who walk slowly up and down the central ally bearing tiny children, a carousel, a pond full of overfed Barbary
ducks and a kiosk that sells sweets and balloons and crêpes. It is a wonderland of delights and we go almost every day. Within a couple of weeks, I loathe the place with the heat of a thousand suns. When I find out it was used for mass executions in the repression of the Paris Commune revolt in 1870, I just nod, with a complete absence of surprise.

 

 

"I have two tiny children and it’s the playground, for God’s sake, not a catwalk show."

 

 

It is a warm spring, but there is no warmth, either literal or figurative, in the playground, which catches the wind and makes me anxious. We don’t fit in. I thought Theo’s yellow oilcloth Petit Bateau coat was perfectly Parisian, but all the children here look like they have escaped from a 19th-century etching: they are exquisitely dressed in Bonpoint poplin and tweed and none of them is coated in drool or breakfast. Their games are quite neat and orderly: they go the right way up the slide, then slide down, then do it again, and they make neatly levelled sand pies. Theo is anarchic and fanciful and he tries to talk to them in English: none of this wins him any playground points and he ends up alone and frustrated most of the time. I have the advantage over him in speaking French, but I am wearing Gap jeans, an old winter coat and trainers. I don’t even know where my make- up is: did it even make it through the move? It’s not as if I need it.

I have two tiny children and it’s the playground, for God’s sake, not a catwalk show, but Paris is worse than Leeds for dressing up, it turns out. Everyone has their face on, shoes are shiny, the West African nannies are draped in immaculate outsized fake Louis Vuitton and Chanel shawls and no one, not even the grandparents in green Loden coats reading Le Nouvel Observateur, ever talks to me. The only consolation is that they do not talk to each other either. Usually my only interactions are in negotiating the return and fair distribution of toys, which all the other adults ignore entirely. Once, though, a grandmother snatches back a spade Theo has picked up from the sandpit and slaps him smartly across the wrist. 

‘It’s not his. He needs to learn,’ she says to me as I turn open-mouthed to try and remonstrate. Words fail me: what I really want to say to her—touch my child again and I’ll report you to the police, you hag—only comes hours later.

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