Notebook

My life in Paris as a Diplomatic Wag

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

28 April 2018

9:00 AM

The French President says he wants to rule as a Jupiter — but he doesn’t look like a Jupiter to me. Not the bearded beefcake painted by Rubens in the Louvre, anyway. Macron’s more a clean-shaven Mercury, messenger god and patron deity of the financial services industry. So far the message has been: ‘En Marche!’ Forwards! But forwards where? ‘Macron est nul,’ says the graffiti at Porte Maillot.

Imiss London’s parks. Parisians tell me where not to walk. The Bois de Boulogne? Pick-up joint. The Seine? Rats. I have been taking the Métro to Château de Vincennes to walk in the woods. There’s a migrant camp pitched along one avenue. I never see a soul, only the hummocky hoods of tents under the trees.

I am living in Paris in the unofficial role of Diplomatic Wag. Though since I am neither wife nor girlfriend, but fiancée, or, in best Franglais, la vielle balle et chaîne, I have been searching for a new acronym. Foho (Foreign Office Hanger On)? Andy is a ‘Directeur de SIN’, a demonic job description out of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. SIN is the government’s Science and Innovation Network, promoting collaboration between international scientists. There is goodwill in laboratories on both sides of the Channel to go on working together post-You-Know-What.

Brexit is pronounced to rhyme with Brigitte, as in Bardot. Parisians ask if you’re American or English and when you say English they bring up Brexitte. What do you think of it, I ask. ‘C’est à vous,’ shrug the butchers, the bakers, the buckwheat-crêpe-makers. It’s your decision. When I have the same conversation with curators, press officers, gallerists, they say: ‘C’est comme un suicide.’ Which suggests that the small shopkeeper and l’homme de van blanc are admirably of one mind in Calais and in Kent.


The embassy sent a copy of Carousel, the diplomatic service families association magazine. The obituaries make me ashamed of my homesickness. My return journey is only five hours. Anna Dorman followed her husband to Cyprus, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Romania, South Africa and Vanuatu. Angela Isolde Bowler cut the cucumber sandwiches in Bahrain, Calcutta, Khartoum, Budapest and Mbabane. Jean Maitland gave birth to her first child in Iraq. She strapped baby Colin to a mule for an expedition to Kurdistan’s mountains.

‘Tel est mon père,’ comes up on the language-learning app Duolingo. ‘Such is my father.’ Among more everyday shopping/eating/sporting expressions it stands out. Perhaps it is a sentiment shared by many exiles making a new life: home is not easy, parents don’t understand, fathers are not modern men. Tel est mon père. The most learned language on Duolingo worldwide is English. The most learned language in Sweden is… Swedish. The first thing you do as a young man arriving in a strange country — and plenty have arrived in Sweden — is download the app. Tap twice to assimilate.

The embassy celebrates the Queen’s birthday with a garden party. I have been practising my small talk. ‘Voulez-vous encore un Ferrero Rocher, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur?’ Or, in the spirit of promoting British brands abroad: ‘Voulez-vous un Orange du Thierry?’ I spread Marmite on my croissants. Sacrilege? I like the hit of buttery sweet and bitter.

‘Gardez la ligne!’ warned a taxi driver. English women who move to France get fat: too much temptation, too many macarons. Gardez your own business, I fumed from the back seat. My confidence took a further knock when I mugged for photographs to promote my book The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite. ‘The last time I was here,’ mused the photographer as we walked to the Place des Vosges, ‘I was with Charlotte Rampling.’

Stuck in traffic on a day of strikes and demonstrations, I decided to walk. I paid the cab fare, opened the door, and… CRUNK. A motorcyclist weaving at speed through the cars took the door off its hinges. He was angry; I was shaken. No one was hurt. I have since learned the ‘Dutch Reach’ coined in the bicycling Netherlands. Always open a car door with your far hand. It forces you to look behind. ‘Faites attention, madame!’ shouted a bystander. Good advice.

At the Pompidou’s Dérain exhibition, Andy observed that André wasn’t up there with Picasso and Matisse: ‘Championship, not Premier League.’ He, a lifelong Queens Park Rangers supporter, should know. I’ve been thinking about this excellent formula. William Hogarth: Premier League; Francis Hayman and Arthur Devis: Championship. Manet’s ‘Olympia’: Premier League; Cabanel’s ‘The Birth of Venus’: Championship. St Pancras: Premier League; Gare du Nord: kick-about in a wet field.

‘I want my time with you,’ says the Tracey Emin illumination at St Pancras. I want my trains on time. On a day of SNCF strikes, it took three hours to get through passport control. Commuters dread les grèves; the teenagers at our local lycée barricade the schoolgates in solidarity. They sit on old mattresses and drink Lipton iced tea from cans. May marks the 50th anniversary of 1968. Our lot haven’t chucked a single cobblestone. Flocons de neige.

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