“If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, live in Geneva rather than in Paris,” jokes Lauren. Lauren’s Olivier moved from London – where they had met – to Geneva for work. After a year and a half of living apart, she followed him. Lauren doesn’t divulge whether the dry-cleaners were shouty but running the washing machine after work or putting out the recycling on Sundays would enrage les Genevois. In her memoir, Geneva comes across as frustratingly plain and dull. She too notices the high standards of Paris but relishes them: “I view them as a highly motivational tool. I like that about Paris, it keeps you on your toes,” she says. “Paris has a pronounced sense of place. Paris’ ‘Paris-ness’ is very concentrated, it’s a very distinct culture whose codes and manners and traditions have been built up over a long period of time.”
Emma has made peace with Paris; “I hugely enjoy it as a tourist. I don’t seek to belong there and that makes the relationship easier,” she says. She is at ease in Brussels, living there for the last 12 years. “In Brussels, for a lot of people, French is a second language and a language of communication, whereas in France, it’s the language of Montesquieu,” she says. “Brussels has given me back that confidence.” Although fluent, Lauren is yet to feel completely comfortable speaking French with French people. She admits that french French is “the frenchiest French” because of the “strong sense of attachment. It’s not incidental that the French government does a lot to preserve it,” she adds.
Through L’Académie Française, France tries to rid French of encroaching anglicismes. It is to be commended, but has such lengths to keep French pure made it unattainable and hostile? For World Francophonie Day (which took place on 20 March), President Macron nominated the Franco-Moroccan author Leïla Slimani as his personal representative. In a recent radio interview, she argued that France should not have the monopoly on French. “We must acknowledge that the French spoken across the francophone world is influenced by many other languages. We have to defend this and stop living in a French that is arrogant, exclusive and wants to stay completely pure.”
Being an Anglophone-Francophile writer myself, but living in English and married to an Austrian named Georg, it was fascinating to listen to Lauren and Emma’s relationships with French. Lauren appears to be in the throes of a passionate love affair whereas after some rockiness, Emma is settled in her relationship. As for me, French is an unrequited love. I am, however, optimistic about Slimani’s vision of French being shaken up by other languages. Then maybe French and I might get along. Or maybe franglais would simply be the hipster cousin, rather than Kim Jong-un.