Most girls in my class grew up wanting to be Miss World. It was the 80s and the pageant still had a glitzy allure. I set the bar a bit lower, hankering only after a job in the local Wimpy Bar because I liked the hats they wore. Emma Beddington had other ideas. She had just one ambition. Emma wanted to be French.
“I was a typical moody teenager who spent most of my time listening to The Smiths. Or at least I was until I discovered a copy of French Elle,” says the 41 year old. “Our French teacher mentioned she had ordered in copies of a magazine. No one else seemed very interested, but one afternoon I went into the rather austere library at Bootham School and my eyes were opened.
“My French wasn’t particularly good then, but I knew that this was completely different to Just 17 and the other magazines my friends read. French women still talked about make-up, fashion and sex, but on the next page would be some in depth political article. It was intellectual glamour and I was hopelessly sold. I was 17 and France became the worst crush I’d ever had.”
Unfortunately Emma lived in York and in the early 1990s the city didn’t have much call for Gauloises smoking intellectuals and the Fat Rascals they sold by the ton at Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms cafe fell someway short of Parisian patisseries. Undaunted, Emma, who chronicles her lifelong obsession with being French in her new memoir, There’ll Always Be A Paris, got her kicks where she could.
“I was first in the queue when York’s independent cinema showed a French art house film, I would search Brown’s department store for the make-up Elle recommended. Mostly I was disappointed, but there were genuine moments of elation on the odd occasion I found a blusher they had featured. And then there were Thursdays. That was the day the new edition arrived and I could be lost in its pages for hours.”
Even a slightly awkward pen pal exchange with a girl in French speaking Casablanca, organised by her parents through the pages of the Catholic Herald, did nothing to dim Emma’s obsession with what lay beyond The Channel.
In fact, an innocent fling with a Moroccan boy only further stoked the stokes the flames and before going to university Emma secured an eight-month placement working as a classroom assistant in Normandy.
“It wasn’t exactly Paris and reading Maupassant stories was really no preparation,” she says. “I was mostly ignored by the pupils I was supposed to be helping and my dreams of glamorous French dinner parties were shattered by the fact that I mainly lived on radishes and Hagen Daaz ice cream.”
This might not have quite been the France that Emma had devoured watching Gérard Depardieu films, but her stay in Normandy wasn’t entirely wasted. She returned home with one very valuable souvenir - a French boyfriend called Olivier. Dark and slightly brooding, not only did he listen to Serge Gainsbourg and have a bookshelf lined with volumes of Montaignes essays, but he also owned a motorbike.
“Hi mother wasn’t the whippet thin chain smoker that I imagined all French mothers to be and his dad was quiet, gentle and bearded, but I was in love and the motorbike was just an added bonus.”
The long-distance relationship continued while Emma was at Oxford University, where she took every French module available in her modern history degree and Olivier soon joined her permanently. The couple later moved to London and when their first child, Theo, was born, Emma temporarily forgot her Parisian dreams. However, when she was pregnant with her second son the family was hit by a tragedy which unexpectedly sent them heading to live in France.
“My mum was on holiday in Rome with friends when a mechanical walkway she was standing on collapsed. She was crushed to death. One minute she had been in my flat, wearing my dressing gown, fussing after Theo; the next she was gone. Around the same time Olivier feared he was going to be made redundant and came home one day to say there was an opportunity to move to Paris.
“Looking back, it was complete madness, but I just wanted to get away from my old life and I felt that somehow everything would be better in Paris.”
Shortly after giving birth, the family of four left London and moved into a typically French apartment block, one which came with a marble hallway, dark wooden stair well, creaking lift and a set of eccentric, elderly residents.
“It was awful. I’m not very good at conflict. When they complained about Theo’s fingerprints on the lift or the fact the pushchair was littering the foyer I should have stood up to them, but I didn’t. Instead I ran away and cried. I was failing very badly at being Parisian and I knew it.
“Really I just wanted to fit in, but nothing worked and at night, when our unpopularity was compounded by a crying baby, the only support I felt I had was via texts to an insomniac friend back in England. The days weren’t much better. All the other children in the playground near our apartment looked like they had escaped from a 19th century etching.”
Emma was 30 and having spent all her adult life believing she was a French woman trapped in an English body, biding her time until she could emerge ‘ice cool, uncompromising and unapologetic’, she was forced to face an unfortunate reality.
“It quickly became apparent that all that was hidden within me was a bottomless well of Britishness, stewing like tea in a WI urn. My children didn’t dress like French children, I didn’t dress like French women, I just didn’t fit in.”
Life in Paris spiraled downwards. Attempts to secure childcare and find a job proved stressful and after a year trying to make their French dream work, the family returned to London. The memoir, which was borne out of Emma’s blog of the same name, doesn’t flinch on the details whether it be the abortion she had in Paris or the subsequent breakdown she had back in England.
“I had never really thought of myself as much of a writer, but those had been a few turbulent years and getting my thoughts down in a blog helped clarify what we had all gone through. When people used to ask what I’d done during that year in Paris, I would glibly say that I spent it eating cakes, but there was so much more to it than that.”
Emma and Olivier are now living in Brussels where she works as a freelance writer and translator and where their two children grew up speaking French as their first language.
“Brussels is an easy place to live. We live in the suburbs and it feels like a our family home, but it doesn’t have the same romance as Paris. Would I want to give it another go? Absolutely. But maybe not until I am about 70. Even at that age I still reckon I’ll want to be French.”