My word, I do like the French! That’s up there with things I thought I’d never say, like ‘Just the one, please.’ But after spending three days in Paris two weeks after the Islamist massacre, I have become their biggest fan. Yes, I’m fully aware that the Parisiennes aren’t the French –— but the pedants among you will please overlook the sweeping generalisation.
I thought it was important, having read that France had already lost €2 million worth of business due to a wave of cancellations, to show support. When I read that Parisiennes were trending the hashtag ‘#ToutsAuBistrot’, it was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, we arrived on the first day of the climate conference, and the motorways were closed. Never mind; the trains were free, and it felt thrillingly cosmopolitan to just rush through the barriers. All was fine until a group of black and Arabic youngsters got on; the looks they received from the commuters could have cooled down an Ibizan foam party. Ever keen to do my bit for inter-faith relations, I wriggled a little closer to the young North African man sitting next to me and received a lovely smile. I thought I was being Ban Ki-moon, but it’s likely that I was mistaken for a sozzled middle-aged slapper up for a bit of fun.
It took quite a while to find our hotel, and at this time we assumed that the Parisiennes were still their same old snooty selves. The police and the taxi drivers did that famous thing where they pretend not to understand when you talk French to them: they all gave my husband the same blank look until he wrote it down, at which point they all went ‘Ah! Rue — d’Anjou!’ exactly the way he’d said it in the first place. We were excited when we finally found the Buddha-Bar Hotel, though — all red, black and darkness, with an atmosphere of filthy deeds done at an extortionate price.
My husband was both appalled and amused by the space-age lavatory and its saucy pre-warmed seat. To recover, we went, as the hashtag instructs, to the bar. I’ve been to a few bars in my life, but this was one of the loveliest ever; a sort of dark fairytale, as if the gingerbread house from ‘Hansel and Gretel’ had been repurposed as a Shanghai opium den.
In the morning we walk along by a deserted Seine — Paris seems empty except for us and the Chinese tourists, who are made of stern stuff. Around ten we start bar-crawling in earnest and it was quite freaky at first for an English accent to be greeted with a shocked smile and a painstaking ‘Cheers!’ instead of a sneer. The gargantuan measures, the bottles given where a couple of glasses were bought, the waiter who called out as we left ‘We love you very much for coming!’ Yes, there are a few pleasingly multi-hued paratroopers in the street, but then I am a seasoned Israel-tripper who feels happy rather than disturbed by the sight of a democratic state defending the streets where its citizens live free lives. At noon we stop at La Cour De Rome –— a visibly touristy joint, except that we are the only visible tourists there. We eat onion soup and Roquefort and drink red wine and listen to everyone talking French around us, gesturing, shrugging, and obviously just out for their lunch hour. Clichés have never seemed so liberating.
On the last morning of our stay, I ask two Facebook friends to lunch at the Buddha Bar. Aidan is an excellent biker and blogger (www.castacoldi.wordpress.com) while Anne-Elisabeth is exactly how one expects a beautiful, brilliant Parisienne journaliste of a certain age (mine) to look. Yesterday, although an atheist, Aidan had knelt in the Sacré-Coeur cathedral and said a prayer for the souls of the murdered; after we left, he met a Texan lady who has lived in Paris for 30 years. Aidan wrote later: ‘She said something which hit home — “The blood dries quickly on the streets.” It wasn’t cruel or callous, but defiant.’
Anne-Elisabeth tells me we have history; 30 years ago I wrote about how I loathed the French, and she wrote a reply. I tell her I’ve changed my mind, and start drooling about how wonderful the French are — starting with the long queue at passport control, where all the children were well-behaved, most of them quietly reading books, like lovely little adults. If that queue had included English kids, I tut, it would have been bedlam. She rolls her eyes in a very elegant French way: ‘O, Ju-lee! Not too much the other way, eh?’
I left Paris the way I like to leave a holiday — with a light wallet and an enlarged liver. But this time also with a new feeling of affection and respect for our old enemy and eternal ally. ‘Here’s one the Boche won’t drink!’ was a toast we’d been taught. Here’s one Daesh won’t conquer, I thought, looking out of the aeroplane window as the sunset turned the sky into a Tricolor.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.