Letters from Paris: The Columns

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By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French

The Croft Magazine // Since September, Xander Brett has been our correspondent in Paris, sharing life as a student. Here, we collate his short columns for Epigram Travel.

27th October, 2020

There’s a lack of Asians and Americans, but life goes on under the cover of masks… the bistros fill, the baguettes are baked. Later than planned, the Tour de France goes on too: an annual voyage to check-up on the provinces. At 6pm on 20th September, the peloton circles the Arc de Triomphe. There’s a screech of incoming jets and a tricoloure is swiped above us. Cheers of ‘Vive la France’ rise up. In half an hour, delegates gather to sing La Marseillaise, to drink champagne, and to toast the end of this magnificent journey. From Nice, they wound through the Pyrenees, up the Alps and along the Massif Central. Now, on the Champs Élysées, we watch their laps of honour.

I have little interest in cycling. I’d never heard of  Tadej Pogačar. But watching the helicopter shots of chateaux and mountains on television, and standing now at the heart of France, as the tour ends, the patriotism is moving. The Tour de France is a chance for regions to show themselves. Bastille Day is uniting. But it is, quite rightly, centred only on Paris. The Tour de France is a travelling Bastille Day.

10th November, 2020

Creativity thrives in a structured framework. Perhaps that’s why Paris is an artistic powerhouse. Rodin, Klein and Picasso. All revolutionary artists. All Parisian. They followed the dress codes and social norms of this city, turning that world on its head only in private. Routine is why the new 9pm to 6am curfew hasn’t hit the French too hard. With two-hour lunch breaks and rigid mealtimes, France is dependent on its national schedule. They even have two hours reserved to see their mistresses: the infamous cinq à sept.

Though I don’t yet need the cinq à sept, routine is what makes life in Paris so relaxing. Without it, Paris would become a city like London or New York. Living on the Île Saint-Louis, habits become even more noticeable. Just under my window, I chat to the waitress who knows my Sunday order. In the boulangerie and the tabac, they have my bread and paper ready each morning. Paris is two cities. To visit for the weekend, you’re living a parallel, tourist’s life. To visit for a month or more is to become – however temporarily – a resident. I may never be Parisian, but with time to practice, I can at least try.

A flypast at the Arc de Triomphe | Epigram / Xander Brett

24th November, 2020

Once again, Europe is shutting down. England announced its second confinement a few days after France, which came into effect on 30th October. I left Paris and flew north to Sweden, a bastion of normality, before arriving home in Cambridgeshire. After three days locked-in, I was one of the last to be ‘airlifted’ out. This meant, of course, that I had little time under the restrictions. It was not enough to properly experience French lockdown culture, but it gave a sense of what life was like in April.

Every evening at 8pm, a trumpeter called neighbours to their windows. Below us, the streets were dark and barren. To use them, you required an official document. Confinement is the only way to stop France’s hospitals being overwhelmed, something we were told they’re dangerously close to. During the summer, life returned to normal. Now, infections have shot up, but the mortality rate is not as high. Nevertheless, with hundreds dying each day, France will return in part to the old nightmare. As in the UK, this virus shows no signs of remitting. We’re in for a cold Christmas on both sides of the Channel.

8th December, 2020

It’s now been over a week since I left France for Christmas. With my family and dogs, it’s nice to back home, but I can’t help feeling the slight absence of Paris. I’ve handed over cooking responsibility, uninspired by the dull ingredients of ‘Hello Fresh’, and as each Sunday rolls by, I think of the steak under my window, cooked for me each week by a chef who knew just how I like it. It seems my premature departure came at both the right and wrong time. I’d just got to know everybody, and to make friends with the shopkeepers and neighbours. I reached the top of the mountain, so to speak, and became a temporary resident. At the same time, I never had time to enjoy that life properly. I wonder if the tabac owner still expects me to return...

We Brits are fortunate. We can pick so many delights from our travels straight from our own supermarket shelves. Into the trolley goes Aperol from Italy, saucisson from France and a good ham from Spain. Europe is at our fingertips. Perhaps I should use that to my advantage. It’s time to recreate the Île Saint-Louis in Castle Camps.

Shopping in the Marais | Epigram / Xander Brett

23rd February, 2021

As I was whisked from Gare du Nord to the Île Saint-Louis yesterday afternoon, there’s a definite sense that life has come back to Paris. The shops are open, people are out on the streets. The only sign that over the Channel a lockdown confines us: the chairs on bar tables and a 6pm curfew emptying the streets. France’s reaction to the third wave has been to seal the borders, living in relative freedom within a bubble. I was ‘airlifted’ out of the UK just in time, filling out endless paperwork and completing PCR tests and visas. All were stamped and I passed through without difficulty. Eating lunch as I passed through the Channel Tunnel, I had the impression of being in a sealed train crossing the Iron Curtain.

Having perfected my routine before the second lockdown, moving back into my apartment has been straightforward. Tomorrow I’ll return to university. I’ve already done the rounds, greeting the island characters I last saw in November. This afternoon, before the curfew, I’ll walk up to the Arc de Triomphe. Later this evening, the chef from the restaurant below will bring up my dinner. Life is different to last term, but it’s by no means over.

3rd March, 2021

When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced they’re expecting a second child, my blood ran cold. I’m delighted for them, but the hysteria of a pregnancy alone sent Télématin into spirals. No doubt Paris Match will be plastered this weekend with endless photos of Meghan and Harry, thankfully exiled to Los Angeles, not Paris like the previous lot. In 1789, the French were given a choice. In fact, they were offered the same choice in 1830. Would they like a monarchy? Both times, they rolled out the guillotine and said ‘no’.

There are two things Britain does better, according to France: music and royalty. Our Queen is adored, and she plays to their fascination by charming them in impeccable French. But France is also obsessed with members we’ve never heard of. Speaking to Adam Sage last week, the Times’ Paris Correspondent, I was told of the countless British journalists invited onto French television to discuss a royal birth, only to discover everyone else knows much more than they do. He gets calls for comments before he knows the baby was born. Adam can’t escape, but I certainly hope to be of Paris by the time it arrives.

Goodbye from Paris | Epigram / Xander Brett

15th March, 2021

Every few months in the UK, there’s a nervous press release: radio stations get their listening figures. As we head to school and work, the nation is kept entertained by a multitude of competing presenters. But, while Brits switch on the radio, we in France switch on the television. It seems a terrible habit the French have televisions in their kitchens, but it means Télématin can come through to the breakfast table. Télématin (on France 2, France’s premier public channel) is apparently under threat. But, after thirty years, it remains the nation’s primary morning show. This is no Good Morning Britain (there’s no Piers Morgan for a start), it’s televised magazine: informative, precise and impeccably produced.

French television is smart, but its success means radio falters. Radio France has a current affairs channel (France Inter), a local network (France Bleu), a classical music channel (France Musique), and my pre-set: a pretentious arts and philosophy channel (France Culture). On Sundays, however, I tune into a cool alternative of modern jazz (Fip). It’s incredibly relaxing, but is, and as far as I can tell, staffed by just one woman… either she pre-records her links, or she pulls the longest shifts in broadcasting.

15th April, 2021

“The thing about France,” says Hugh Schofield over coffee, “is that Brits are either overly dismissive or overly infatuated by it. It’s the job of the journalist to be dispassionate.” I fell in love with France aged five, and I love it just as much today. My life in Paris showed me it’s still the nation of good wine, classic literature and fine romance. But France’s endless bureaucracy ceased to be quaint… Paris, it turns out, isn’t the capital of style, and the French are infuriatingly law abiding.

I said in my first letter, I hoped my stereotypes of France would be challenged. Well, they certainly have been. Challenging them during a global pandemic, with the absence of tourists, was an easier process. Our two nations have a long history. 1066 may be almost a thousand years ago, but we still have much in common. France is European, and the Channel divides us, but it’s worth remembering how much the French admire us… and how much we (however secretly) admire them too. Over the past months, I hope I’ve managed to report France dispassionately. I’m no longer overly infatuated by it. But living in Paris remains a dream come true.

Featured Image : Epigram


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