‘Problème est masculin; solution est féminine,’ says Brigitte, the adored French teacher at the British embassy in Paris. Good way to remember your ‘les’ and ‘las’. If only it were true. Theresa May has not — yet — solved Brexit. Angela Merkel has not resolved the migrant crisis. Anne Hidalgo, the city’s mayor, has not flushed out its rats. If she fails at re-election, it will be on pest control and tent cities. A sign on the Square du Temple gates asks picnickers to leave no croissant crumbs behind. It attracts the rats. Below, in black marker: ‘Et les Algériens?’ Not nice. But tempers run high in hot summers.
The morning after the World Cup final an email went around the embassy. Regrettably, no newspapers would be delivered that day. The nearest kiosk had been burnt down the night before. Tear gas on Sunday night; triumphant Tricolore flypast on Monday. ‘Did you enjoy it?’ I asked my Foreign and Commonwealth Office fiancé Andy, who had drawn France in the work sweepstakes. ‘Up to a point,’ he said. ‘But it’s not my party.’ Trente ans de douleur.
The Algerian Uber driver who took me home from Saint-Sulpice after the England/Sweden match in those dizzy days when football was coming chez nous, was tickled to have une Anglaise in the back of his cab. He wanted my expert take. ‘Arry Kane? Formidable! Dele Alli? Génial! Garess Soussgate? J’adore son gilet! Chelsea. Arsenal.’ Lesse-cesse-terre. Will we still export football after Brexit? Don’t let the turnstiles slam shut. Europe needs Tottenham more than we need Paris Saint-Germain. As we neared the Marais, he asked which club I supported. Queens Park Rangers. ‘Ah, oui,’ he said. A note of sympathy now. ‘Je les connais.’ He caught my eye in the rearview mirror: dommage.
Andy is here as a directeur du SIN — the government’s Science Innovation Network, which promotes collaboration (féminine) between British and European scientists (mostly, inevitably, masculin). Table plans for diplomatic dinners are tricky. Too few French lady scientists to go round. The food at least is easy. The French, intolerant of everything else, tolerate gluten, dairy and sugar in all their spun, glazed and caramelised glory. At Chantilly I ordered the tarte tatin sans crème. The maître d’ looked stricken. ‘Mais madam… ici… c’est… Chantilly.’ He had a point; I had the cream. My favourite dessert is the île flottante. An island of soft meringue floating entire and whole and perfect in a sea of crème Anglaise.
‘There is no such thing,’ says Andy firmly, ‘as a “lady scientist.” The word you are looking for is: “scientist”.’ I also had my knuckles rapped for telling visiting friends we were to be married by a lady vicar. Forgive me, sisterhood, for I have sinned. Our closest church in Paris is Saint-Denys-du-Saint-Sacrement. Delacroix’s ‘Pietà’ in the chapel to your right. On Sunday mornings they do two sittings. Babes in arms, the halt, the lame, local scouts, cubs, guides and brownies. Standing room only at the back. A Jewish friend of Jeremiah-ish outlook talks of a birthrate ‘arms-race’ between French Catholics and Muslims. ‘The Catholics,’ he says, ‘will lose.’
If you must be ill, do it in Catholic Italy. A friend spent six weeks in hospital in Milan this year. Each morning, before medical rounds, a nun came to her bed with a blessing. A waiter brought breakfast and the lunch menu. Antipasto. Primo piatto. Secondo. Dolce. Only then did the doctor come. Faith, food, body — in that order. Far from home, it was a comfort.
There are SINners in Milan, Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, Dublin, Brussels and the Hague. After a conference at the Dutch mission, I met Andy in Amsterdam. In the Botanic Gardens café a gentleman in his seventies joined our table. His name was Norbert. He wanted to understand Brexit. How could we be so stupid? How could we let racists and xenophobes decide our future? Noticing I had gone quiet, he asked: ‘Have I offended you?’ Andy, diplomatic even on his day off, made peace. Now, I think not of Remainers and Leavers, but of Norberts and Nigels.
Marianne has had a makeover. No longer bare-breasted on the barricades, she is now a #MeToo millennial. Unveiling a 15-metre-high mural painted by street artist Yseult Digan, President Macron called her ‘Marianne l’engagée’ — the politically committed. La belle clicktaviste. I notice that she remains pretty, pouty and fair. Woke, but still chic.
Vigipirate is the French government’s counter-terrorism programme: vigilance et protection des installations contre les risques d’attentats terroriste à l’explosif. Boys with bum-fluff moustaches and assault rifles guard the Louvre and Notre Dame. There stand the vigilant pirates, I think as I go for my gothic fix. On strike days, protestors march down Beaumarchais. (Manifestation, révolution: féminines.) Riot police proceed in step but out of sight down the Turenne. Our street runs between the two boulevards. Watching the gendarmes stamp six abreast past shops selling bow ties and bikinis gives a sense of an invading army. The marches end at Bastille with whistles and Coca-Cola. Among the more hashtaggable placards, one older man held a simple message: ‘Je ne suis pas content.’
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