I always knew this would be a tricky one to write. It’s hard to know where to begin. So for want of a better idea:
Many years ago…
Although a big reader, I think I’ve always loved books (as objects) at least as much as their content. Seeing printed text in another language was even more exciting.
Learning French at school (my first experience of a foreign language) was frustratingly difficult. But I had a series of great teachers and soon I was buying French books with the intention to one day be able to decode them.
I visited my penpal (yes, I’m that old..) in her village outside Valence, south of Lyon. Her father had a well stocked wine cellar and her mother lavished food on me. (In particular, I remember a leg of lamb she put on to cook at lunch to eat at dinner and the rich gratin dauphinoise).
In my final year at school, we went to Wimereux, Nord-Pas-de Calais, and worked in a summer school. Wimereux is a beautiful town on the coast where the locals approached us in the street to find out what we were doing there. Led by our francophile teacher, we cooked French food and drank red wine and played badminton in the garden in the sun. It was perfectly relaxed and unpretentiously civilised. And I was left wanting more.
Still knowing very little about France beyond a little Voltaire and Camus, some colourful films with Audrey Tautou and Marion Cotillard, and the M Hulot films, I moved to Paris for my Erasmus. I rented a small studio on the 7th floor of an Haussmann building in the 8ème arrondissement with views of (the tip of) the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe (by leaning dangerously far out the window) and (standing on a chair to see out the roof-window) the Sacré Cœur.
I met a beautiful girl of Lebanese heritage (in my experience, Lebanon has a knack for churning out gorgeous women) and we fell in love. There couldn’t be a better city to fall in love in. It was a young, playful, exciting romance.
We were very happy for a long time.
We travelled together on her tour des concours (a round trip of the grandes écoles for the entrance exams). Together, we saw Bordeaux, Reims, Rouen and Lille. She went on to study in the latter and I visited the city often after returning to Bristol.
With distance, things grew strained. I wasn’t always my best and in different cities we grew in different directions. But I’ll always remember my libanaise with affection.
She was meant to be une vraie demoiselle parisienne, but was born in the banlieux, with an Arabic name and a touch of caillera to her. Her French was eloquent and could be laden with slang. I learned my French from her. I spoke her French.
After we broke up, I found it hard speaking French. The words I used, I learned from her. The rhythm was hers. My mistakes were ones she had laughed at. The language reminded me of her.
I had also spent a long time imagining I would move back to France and suddenly, I didn’t know where to go. I took a trip by way of Angers, Tours, Strasbourg and Lyon and ended up in Spain. After a year there, I tried hard to find a job in the country that had meant so much to me for so long. In the end, feeling rejected, I settled in London.
While living in Granada, there was an American girl who wanted me to take her to Paris. She was charming and feisty. But Paris is too dear to me and I hesitated a moment too long. Instead, I next returned only this year with my Irish friend and an Andaluz. We watched France in the six nations.
While we were there, I served as designated translator. But where once I thought and dreamed in French, I now found it clumsy on my tongue. More often than not, Spanish words snuck in with the French.
For many years, France was my European dream. (The bank account I keep open ‘just in case’ attests to that). Now, I think it will remain a pleasant memory. I find my tastes are changing and France, like Britain, risks shrinking from the world. And there is much to love elsewhere. Still, first loves are hard to shake.