Les Voisins

France and the United Kingdom share ties stretching back hundreds of years.
Today, millions of British and French travel between the two countries
to work, to explore, and, sometimes, to stay.
These are their stories.

A “coup de foudre,” a yearning for new pastures, or simply a desire to discover another culture - there are a thousand different reasons to cross the Channel. For a summer or a lifetime, hundreds of thousands of French and British people have made the choice to live between two cultures. We’re here to tell the stories of those who speak Frenglish, those who wake up on one side of the Channel and go to bed on the other, those who treat the Tunnel like a subway, and many, many more.

“A country that has over 1000 cheeses is clearly passionate about food.” And yet it wasn’t the cheeses that attracted Alexander Forbes to Paris. In fact, it was love that brought this British chef to the City of Lights, where he now works for French catering company Nomad. “I had a “coup de foudre”, as we say in French, with a French girl who was learning English in the UK.” At 20 he dropped everything and “jumped onto the next Eurostar” to follow her back to Paris, driven by love and impulse.

Eighteen years later, as we watch him hop down the steps of Montmartre with his Franco-British 6 year old daughter on his shoulders, it seems as though Alex always belonged to this city. He knows most of the vendors on his street — his épicier even lets Alex use his shop as a makeshift studio for our interview.

When you ask Alex whether he feels French, he pauses and smiles proudly, “I am a Montmartrois.” And for further proof that he belongs in this pocket of the 18th, with its paved streets and hidden cemetery, you’ve only got to take a jog up the steps to find him at the Club de Pétanque, a traditional game of boules (heavy balls). Alex starts a game with a group of white-haired men and women – the old guard of the “Montmartrois” – while we watch.

The relationship between the French and the British, the “Frogs” and the “Rosbifs”, has not always been this affectionate, and who better placed to know this than a chef? “We have a bad reputation for food so my main motivation here is showing that we, Brits, can cook,” Alex declares, before adding with a laugh, “although as long as we have le rock’n’roll, le football and le rugby, we’re good!”

He pauses as we stop in front of his local bakery, “coming out of your apartment and smelling freshly baked bread is one of the nicest parts of living here.” As we continue down the road, walking towards the park so his daughter Olivia can play before heading to an afternoon birthday party, Alex tries to speak to her in English. She promptly responds in French, a sign of her “British stubbornness.” He smiles, admitting that he insists on speaking English to her even though she always replies in French. “But she loves double cream, custard, and porridge!” he exclaims proudly.

And just as we had nearly forgotten there was anything but French in him, his British humour surfaces: “I’ll never support the French rugby team though,” he says with a laugh.

“But I fell in love with the city, I fell in love with the people, and I fell in love with the culture. That’s why I am still here, eighteen years later.”

Alexander Forbes, 39.

For Alice, the “coup de foudre” happened on a school trip. As 17 year old Alice sat on the Champs de Mars on a beautiful sunny day, she realised that this was a place she’d like to call home.

Fast forward five years. Sitting cross-legged on a red swivel chair, a bust of Shakespeare on the left and books by Joseph Heller, Aldous Huxley, and Zadie Smith on the right, Alice’s short curly hair bounces as she laughs. It’s 10am and her day is starting, as it always does, with English Breakfast tea “with lots of milk, in the biggest mug that I can possibly find, as God intended.” From her living room, she’ll edit a British travel guide, sharing thoughts and croissants with her British boyfriend.

After editing the travel guide, Alice will hop onto the metro and head over to her second job as the editor of an online fashion magazine founded by Parisians but read mostly by American teenagers. This makes for a language gap even in her own language, she says, “as all of my strange British idioms get edited out!”

Alice explains that when she first moved to Paris, she lived with an elderly woman and worked two jobs, in an expensive shop on Boulevard St Germain and in a white table-clothed restaurant in the 7th: “It was very difficult to have my own personality that wasn’t selling expensive clothes or serving the dessert menu.” After moving arrondissements five times, and discovering the character of each one, she chose the diverse and eclectic 19th as her home. Together, Alice and her boyfriend Chris have set up an English language theatre festival in Paris and have created a community for themselves, “we have strong roots here: socially, culturally, economically,” she says.

Though she sometimes feels “like a fish out of water” in France, it’s partly this bicultural mix that makes life abroad so exciting. She tells of the time at a recent birthday celebration when she told her French colleague to make a wish as she cut her first slice of cake, only to get a blank stare in return. And in exchange, her French colleagues told her about Epiphanie, one of France’s favourite holidays, and how the youngest person sits under the table calling out the guests’ names.

Alice finally felt she had made her home in France when, on her way home one evening, she realised with frustration that it was a Sunday night and that all the boulangeries were closed. Fortunately, the 24-hour bakery welcomed her, and, to her delight, even gave her a freshly printed baguette loyalty card.

“They stamped four baguettes on my baguette loyalty card because they recognised me! I felt very French that day,” she says, smiling.

Alice Selwyn Brace, 23

Food seems to be a common theme when you talk to Brits living in France. The first thing that Tony told us about living here was that France had taught him to eat his steak rare. After years working at Wembley Stadium in London, Tony came over to the Stade de France for two weeks to oversee a new installation. And stayed. Other than his strong Yorkshire accent, he brought with him his British methods and his undivided attention to the grass.

For the past 18 months, Tony has been a dedicated commuter. He takes the train from Hitchin to London St Pancras, from where he jumps on the Eurostar to Paris’ Gare du Nord. From there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to the stadium. He is one of the 21 million people who travel through the Channel Tunnel every year and laughs about seeing the same faces every Monday morning and every Friday night. When he goes back to the UK to spend the weekend with his family, there’s always an initial adjustment period when he replies in French in the supermarket or says “pardon” in the street, before being told off by his son. “It’s just second nature now,” Tony says.

Paris has provided this Yorkshireman with a job he loves: “what drives me is seeing 22 players running on a pitch you produced, when the pitch is marked out and they take that first shot. That’s the big buzz.” He speaks proudly of the Stade de France and is grateful for the opportunity:

“It’s a real privilege to look after another country’s national stadium and I thank them for that,” he says.

Tony Stones, 41.

Tony’s first few days in Paris coincided with heavy rainfall and his team mocked him for having brought the English weather. But now, after months working alongside his French team, you can see how close they have become. “My guys took me on board and took care of me, they even took me shopping. If they come to England I’ll do the same.”

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