Ian Clayton column - I love Paris in the springtime

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Right then, it’s confession time. I have had a massive crush on a French woman for many years, I’d go as far as to say I have been in love with this woman, or at least the image she portrays.

It’s alright, Heather knows and she has managed to humour me through a mixture of resigned sighs and gentle mickey taking for a long time now.

This French woman is a singer called Juliette Greco, a woman who up until last week I only knew through her records, photographs and what I’d read about her.

Actually Heather has had to put up with me going all giddy about a series of French women, mostly from the 1950s and 60s. First there was the actress Jeanne Moreau, especially in a film called Jules et Jim, after that there was Francois Hardy, a breathy chanteuse whose music I adore, but always there has been Greco, in my opinion the most beautiful woman in the world.

Now, this is going to sound flash, but I don’t think I can tell you this story without saying it.

Last week I nipped over to Paris for a few days because Juliette Greco was playing a concert at the famous Olympia Music Hall. I bought tickets on line, one for Heather as well and we took the Eurostar. Greco is in her 86th year now, so I thought it might be the last opportunity to see her. Or maybe not, because she belied her age to stand in a spotlight in a beautiful black dress for nigh on two hours.

She gave a performance of songs by Brel, Gainsbourg and Ferrat that was full of charm, wit, elegance and rare passion. I was entranced and played out a little fantasy in my mind’s eye for most of the show.

I am sitting at an outdoor table at the Café Flore on the left bank. It is 1954, Greco and Jean Paul Sartre are blowing the froth off a coffee, and they’re in deep philosophical conversation. I walk by and the breeze blows my beret off. Juliette Greco picks it up and hands it back to me with an enigmatic smile. We can all dream can’t we?

I’ve often thought that if I wasn’t from the north of England, I might like to be French. I don’t know what it is, maybe the food, the sense of joie de vivre or even that shrug French people do when they pretend that they don’t know what’s going on, but I love France and particularly Paris.

It was the first place I visited abroad. My mate John Southall and I went on the bus there when we were excited teenagers. The thing I think I like most about France is the way they embrace other cultures without compromising their own style. France truly is a cosmopolitan example of how a modern society can work.

For the last few weeks back home, I have been sick to the back teeth of listening to grinning ex-public schoolboys, talking about Little Britain and frightening everybody by saying we’re about to be overrun by foreigners while supping pints of warm ale. I can’t bear that ideology.

Heather and I stayed in a hotel on the Rue Richer near the Folies Bergeres. It’s a very multi-cultural area, there are kosher bakeries, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, North African street sellers and Ukrainian supermarkets all working hard to build a vibrant community.

Right in the middle of this neighbourhood we found an absolute classic French locals bar called Le Tabac des Folies run by Michel Poitrat and his Moroccan-born wife Myriam.

They were lovely people, undisputedly French and they were very proud of their little bistro.

They told me it was a historic landmark. I suppose what I’m getting at is that the native charm of that little place was in no way diluted by being part of a multi-ethnic area, in fact, as Myriam put it, they were enriched by it.

Two things I have learned this week then. First that Juliette Greco is even more glorious in the flesh than I could ever have imagined.

Second that as well as being a proud Yorkshire man, I’m now a confirmed European. So now when I say how much I do it with a little Gallic shrug of the shoulders.