Authors: Lucy Wadham
… Remember where we are,
In France, among a fickle wavering nation.
Henry VI Part I
I was nineteen the first time Laurent Lemoine asked me to marry him. We had met in London when I was seventeen, the Christmas before my parents moved to Australia. A year later, he went to Sydney on business and took them out for an expensive dinner. It was a strange, old-fangled move but it achieved the desired effect. My mother rang me in a state of high excitement.
‘He’s gorgeous and he’s definitely taken a shine to you!’
My father, who finds it difficult to resist a man who picks up the bill, was no harder to win over.
Laurent was my eldest sister Florence’s flatmate. One day a French psychoanalyst would suggest that marrying him had been a form of deferred incest. I assume she meant between Florence and me, Laurent acting as a kind of stand-in (though using criteria this loose makes my whole family either perpetrators or victims of incest).
Florence had moved to France years before to escape her four younger sisters, and it would not be long before two of them decided to follow her: my elder sister Irene and, a year later, myself. Florence had brought Laurent to London for an English Family Christmas and he had settled into
the sofa and played charades and watched our histrionics, interspersed, of course, with Quality British Television, as if he had been born to it. The sheer drama of my very female family had dazzled this brother of three, and his decision to marry me had, he later told me, been inextricably linked to his feeling of well-being that Christmas.
Laurent’s first proposal came half a year later, in the summer of 1984. I had come to the end of my first year at Oxford. The holidays had begun and I was signing on for unemployment benefit in London. My parents had moved to Sydney with our younger sister and precious only brother and I was still torn between a giddy sense of freedom and the vertigo of abandonment. In their absence I spent most holidays with my best friend, but she had recently become involved in an abusive relationship, which had turned me into a reluctant and unwelcome witness, so I was looking for a job and somewhere else to live until the autumn term began.
One evening, I went round to have dinner with two of my university friends. They were planning a train trip round Eastern Europe and their first stop would be Paris. They offered advice about places where I might find work. I knew that if the worst came to the worst, I could always go and live with my boyfriend in his parents’ house in Romford, but I was hoping to avoid this; our two-month-old relationship was already floundering and I was having escape fantasies. We had had a row three days before because he had caught me looking out of the window while we were having sex.
I spent the night with my two girlfriends, and the next morning, having nothing better to do, I went to Victoria Station with them to wave them off. At the time I hadn’t identified my pathological reluctance to be left behind and, unaware of my motives, while they were waiting for their train, I cashed in my dole cheque and bought a ticket to Paris. I thought I would go for a week to stay with Florence and then come back and find work.
The three of us took the ferry to Calais and then sat on what felt like a ludicrously modern train to Paris, newly upholstered in orange and brown and festooned with noisy French children playing cards. When we arrived at the Gare du Nord, the sun was setting and the streets were still warm from the heat of the day. As we emerged from the station, the smell of desiccated dog shit wafted up from the pavements and the dizzying miasma of human urine hung in every dark corner. A few years later this would be a thing of the past, not because people had stopped pissing in dark corners or because they picked up their dog’s excrement but because Jacques Chirac, the long-standing mayor of Paris, set up a proud drone army in fluorescent green overalls which daily sprayed the pavements with dirty water from the Seine, leaving a whole new olfactory imprint on the city.
My girlfriends caught the Metro to their youth hostel and I went in search of a call box. Florence was not in. I left a message on her answering machine, then I called the only other number I had in Paris, the number of Florence’s old flat. Laurent, of course, answered.
‘Hello, Laurent. It’s Lucy. Florence’s sister.’
‘Ah Luç-ie! How are you? Are you coming in Paris?’
(However good his English would become during our years together, he would always cling on to that quaint Gallicism: Welcome in Paris!)
in Paris. I’m trying to get in touch with Fly but she’s not answering her phone.’
‘It’s a long weekend. She’s probably out of town. Why don’t you come here? Where are you?’
Fifteen minutes later Laurent pulled up outside the Gare du Nord in his improbably small car, a navy-blue Fiat 500, leant across and opened the passenger door. I climbed in and he kissed me on both cheeks, or more accurately on each corner of my mouth. Then we sped off up into the cobbled streets of Montmartre to his flat.
The last time I had come to Paris, Laurent had taken me out to dinner, after cleverly informing my sister that he fancied me. We had sat in a cramped restaurant on the Ile de la Cité and he had spent most of the evening talking about his ex-girlfriend, Aurélie, who had just left him for somebody else. Laurent explained that out of the sack Aurélie had bored him but that in it, she was unsurpassable. I suppose that he was deliberately throwing down the sexual gauntlet but all this news did was terrify me, and cause lasting damage to my self-confidence. What he didn’t mention at the time was that his erotic infatuation with Aurélie had driven him to spend most nights hammering on the door of her new lover’s flat, just like a character
from one of the many
films that Laurent would later encourage me to watch as part of my instruction in French culture and consciousness.
While Laurent made me a plate of spaghetti with Gruyère, I tried Florence again. She was back home and eager to see me. I ate the spaghetti and accepted his offer of a lift across town.
Driving in Paris, even before I passed my test, has always been a pleasurable experience for me. I have never had a problem with yielding to traffic coming from the right. It’s just a matter of getting used to the possibility that at any moment a car might shoot out at you from the most insignificant side street, crash into you and then hold you responsible. This puzzling rule which has thwarted so many English motorists was, in fact, adopted by the International Automobile Convention in Paris in 1926, confirmed in Geneva in 1949 and then again in Vienna in 1968. Known in English as ‘nearside priority’, this diverting ritual, so deliciously contrary to common sense, is nowadays suited only to the Parisians. That evening Laurent’s own approach to this rule consisted of gaily tooting his horn at each intersection, like Noddy on speed. It was his way of warning everyone that he had no intention of conceding priority. The multitudes of reasonable roundabouts, which have since sprung up all over France, testify to the sad demise of this idiosyncratic driving rule.
The other distinctive feature of the Parisian motoring experience is of course the Place de l’Etoile, a huge roundabout with Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe in the middle,
involving thirteen avenues, each one holding right of way. The Etoile has been written of endlessly as a symbol of French chaos. There are in fact rules – rules that are redolent of the game ‘chicken’ – they’re just not the kinds of rules that come easily to Anglo-Saxon drivers.
Being a pedestrian in Paris is not as pleasurable as being a driver. It was some time before I learnt that zebra crossings were rather like Bosnia’s ‘safe zones’: places where, if you die, you may simply die with the knowledge that your killer was in the wrong. For years, both my sister Irene and I waged dangerous and fruitless personal campaigns to force drivers to let us cross, striking guilt into their hearts when they did not. Irene could be seen in her very smart, manicured suburb of Paris, standing on a pedestrian crossing and yelling out the most florid of English obscenities, learnt mostly from her youth in the stands of QPR. After many years, we both conceded that it was a pointless and shaming business. Pedestrians do not have the power in France; cars do. It’s as simple as that. Cross at a zebra crossing that is not served by a red light and the driver will probably call you a
(literally, a person who is poorly or infrequently shagged).
When I come to London I am so thrilled by the deference shown towards pedestrians that I find myself walking back and forth over zebra crossings, just for the joy of watching the car come to a halt and seeing that benign, closed-mouth smile, accompanied by the understated nod of magnanimity the English driver likes to give to the pedestrian.
It was Laurent who taught me how to drive. In his mother’s battered 2CV only two weeks after my arrival at the Gare du Nord. For in spite of all my resolutions, it only took him a week to get me into bed. Seven days after that drive across Paris, I had moved in with him for the summer, and seven days after that he had taken me to Normandy to meet his parents. There, his mother Madeleine, who had a reputation as a terrifying misogynist, welcomed me warmly. After Aurélie and her high-octane sexuality, I was an agreeable respite.
My first French family breakfast struck me as a peculiarly messy affair. There are never any plates at breakfast time in France, so the trick, in the absence of plates and with limited cutlery (there are no knives, just a spoon in the pot of jam for collective use), is to daub your toast in mid-air above the table. Then, even the most polished French person, including my future mother-in-law, will proceed to dunk the toast – butter, jam and all – into their bowl of hot chocolate. When, years later, I mustered the courage to ask her if this wasn’t a little ill-mannered, she looked up at me, chocolate seeping down her patrician chin.
‘Bien sûr que non! On peut tremper au petit déj.’
course not. You can dunk at breakfast time.
Although I was only nineteen, Laurent was thirty and ready to settle down. In September, before it was time to go back to Oxford, he took me on holiday to the Amalfi coast and proposed to me over a plate of
. I told him that I was too young and suggested that he ask
me again in five years’ time. Ten months later we were married and our first child was on the way.
The journey that began at Victoria Station more than twenty years ago has pulled me – often against my will – into the bosom of a culture so different from my own that even today, with four children born and raised in France, I still struggle against the embrace. When I moved to Paris to be with Laurent we made a pact that I would make an effort to adapt to life in Paris but if, after five years, I was still homesick we would move the family to London. That was more than twenty years ago, and although Laurent and I are no longer together, I am still here. What follows is an attempt, by reliving my perplexed discovery, rejection and ultimate acceptance of this country, to understand why that is.