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I fled London for Paris in 2001. I was getting too old for my rented shared slum above an off-licence in Marylebone, and faced the great London question: do I borrow a fortune to buy a grotty little flat and devote my life to paying off the mortgage?
Then a cousin mentioned that his apartment in Paris had cost about £30,000. I felt the glimmerings of an idea. “But that was in 1998,” he cautioned. “Now you’d pay double.” The euro was then roughly on a par with the Zimbabwean dollar, so I got straight on the Eurostar and bought a flat in a cute Haussmannian building near the Bastille for £60,000.
Many of my new neighbours had no visible means of support and seemed just to hang around all day. Paris back then offered a luxury even better than money: not having to think about money. I’ve lived there ever since.
However, you do grow tired of a city that is perfect yet gloomy, rude and alien. Most nights, just before falling asleep, partly to reassure ourselves that we won’t spend our entire lives in Paris, my wife and I have a ritual conversation that goes: “Where could we move to?” We spent some of the summer in London, trying to answer the question: which of these cities is better suited to human habitation?
I’ve never seen London look better. It has finally recovered from the smog and the wartime bombs and the postwar architecture that filled the bombsites. After Paris, you’re dazzled by the colours. The bright red of London’s buses and postboxes is the perfect shade for the grey climate. And whereas Paris’s white buildings subtly rebound the sunlight, in London all colours clash: red-brown bricks, green trees, the flowers in the gardens. (In Paris, only multimillionaires have gardens.) The overall effect is of a psychedelic 1970s album cover.
Adding to the colour mix, in London you can wear purple. You can even dye your hair purple, and then jog down your local high street. To the Paris-trained eye, half the London population looks like punks or bag ladies. The codes of etiquette that constrain all human action in Paris don’t seem to exist here.
I quickly adapted. Only my very Parisian seven-year-old daughter maintained standards. One morning, as I was about to take her out, she scanned me critically and said: “You’re not dressed.” She was wrong. In fact I looked adorable in my sneakers, shorts and Barcelona football shirt.
In today’s London there is no dominant culture tut-tutting as you break all the codes. A German friend who used to live here diagnosed that in this crazy mix of civilisations, only one rule of social interaction applied: basic politeness. True, the Somali community centre down the road from our London address was recently burnt down by halfwits, but otherwise Londoners do seem better behaved than Parisians. Perhaps the gardens keep people here sane. Whereas the dominant mood in central Paris is exasperation, in central London it’s exhaustion.
The money stress for Londoners has only worsened since I left in 2001, a combination of ever-rising house prices and economic crisis. In the neighbourhood where we stayed, houses cost £1m yet the most popular local retailer was a 99p store. Some things were even cheaper. A handwritten ad in the local newsagent’s window promised: “Free Massage! European lady new to area looking for customers. All new customers get 30 minute sexy massage for free!”
I visited one overstrained London couple for whom the mortgage was almost like the fifth person in their house. No wonder so many London conversations regress to house prices and schools. But that drains everyone’s mental energy. As John Lanchester wrote in Whoops!, the most frightening words in the English language aren’t “I had a very interesting dream last night” (Oscar Wilde’s candidate). They are, “Did you hear how much they got for that house down the road?”
I can’t resist the topic either. One day my wife and I went on a pretend London house-hunt. In my old manor of Marylebone we found our dream home. It cost £3.8m. That’s when we fell in love with Paris all over again. True, with apartment prices there having approximately trebled since 2000, Parisians now have to think about money too. But the French taboo on talking about it does improve conversation.
Luckily, it’s no longer necessary to choose between Paris and London. They have never been so close. Indeed, viewed from Shanghai or San Francisco, they are virtually in the same place (except if you are a foreigner who needs two different visas to visit them). Now that the Eurostar journey takes just two hours 15 minutes, I often drop my kids off at school in Paris, and later that morning have coffee with someone in London. I get most of London’s joys without the pain. The wonderful new London is better visited than lived in.