I’ve been living with Annabel Simms’ books nearly as long as I’ve been living in Paris. She’s the author of several guides to exploring the city from is outer limits and beyond, into the glorious French countryside, rife with forgotten castles, unexpected vistas, appealingly decrepit train stations, and much more.
I’ve had a parasocial relationship with Annabel since I first bought An Hour from Paris, which includes detailed itineraries for 20 day trips outside the city (but easily accessible via a dense and generally well-run public transportation network.) Another book of hers, Half an Hour From Paris, earned a new edition in July and covers destinations including the Parc Saint-Cloud, Malmaison, and the Chateau de Vincennes.
For all these reasons, I was incredibly excited to chat with Annabel over Zoom about her life in Paris — she in her 25 meter square apartment in Paris, me in Iowa City. Anyone dreaming about coming to Paris to start a new life should keep reading to see how she decided to, and succeeded, forge a new life in France, following a midlife crisis.
How did you first come to Paris?
It was September 1991, and I didn’t come for a man, and I didn’t come for a job, which makes me unusual. It’s the first question expats ask each other, in more or less direct ways: Why did you come? If it’s a woman, it’s either a man or a job. And if it’s a man, it tends to be a job, but sometimes it’s a woman. In my case, it was a midlife crisis.
I had just turned 40 — all the zero [birthdays] are significant, and that one was particularly so. I had finally been promoted to this incredibly responsible job, training other trainers — I was training people from the Metropolitan Police [in London], I was training the local nurse tutors from the local hospital, I was training some of my own colleagues. I’d been in the job 18 months, realized that I was now actually on top of it, and I was just dismayed at the thought of the future. The future would be more responsibility — more and more of it. And my heart sank.
I was staying in a crumbling convent in Gabon, near the Congo, with an American. We didn’t like the little town we were in, and so we lurked in the dormitory — a huge dormitory designed for about 30 people, and just the two of us, sitting on our beds, eating sardines out of a tin, and drinking a disgusting concoction that we’d bought in the town, a ready-mixed gin and tonic.
It was the most miserable birthday I’d ever had, and I was 40, and I saw my future in England: Yawn. Dismay. I got back to Libreville, the capital of Gabon, and the good friend I was staying with said, “Well, you get on with the French, nobody else does. Why don’t you go to France? Take a sabbatical?” It took a year and a day to organize, and I arrived for a yearlong, unpaid sabbatical the day after my 41st birthday.
I feel like a lot of people are drawn to start over in France because they dream of a life of exploration and adventure — but if you were in Gabon for your 40th birthday, you must have already been doing that!
I was visiting a friend — an American who was unusual because she’d gone to university in England. She worked for the American diplomatic service, but she’d been sent on this punishment posting to Gabon. The only diplomats you meet in Gabon are people who’ve done something wrong, like my friend, or very young people, on their first diplomatic posting. I met all these diplomats — the lot of diplomats we never met were the French. They wouldn’t talk to us.
It was expensive and complicated to get there because it’s not a tourist destination. But I thought, you know, how many chances am I going to get to go to Africa? I’m convinced that had I been in Europe for that birthday, I’d still be in London. I’d have been with friends, I would have been in a familiar environment, and those horrible existential questions would have been squashed. But I was in Africa, and so I came to France, and have been here ever since.
Having lived in the U.K., I know that the English can have really intense ideas about the French. How did you confront those?
I should explain that my parents were not English — they were Hungarian, and they met in England as refugees after World War II. And my mother was in love with France all her life. She brought me up to sort of look to France for all that was different, civilized — you know, sitting in cafes outside, literature, the lot.
My mother spoke four languages, and she came from a very cosmopolitan background. So did my grandmother, who brought me up as well. They would both make very disparaging remarks about England, especially things like crap heating: You know, “On the continent, we had central heating in the ’20s and ’30s.”
I realized that in a single year — I suppose, 1990 — I’d been to France four times on little trips. Did I have illusions about it? Probably. My mother had illusions about it. My illusions have changed, but I still find the way of life [in France] attractive, and I can’t make up my mind between the two countries. So I’m still here. Dithering. I’ve been dithering for 30-odd years.
When you say you can’t make up your mind between the two countries, what do you mean? I think you live in France full time.
I am a full-time resident, as far as the tax people are concerned. I do have the pleasure of paying tax in both countries, because I have not cut certain key links with England. I still have my flat [in London], which I rent out. I think it’s significant that I have not bought in Paris — I’m renting here. I took this place that I’m in now for six months, and 30 years later, I’m still in it, even if it’s obviously not a place for a grown up to live in: top floor, five flights of stairs, 25 square meters, no washing machine. There’s a lot of things it hasn’t got, apart from no washing machine and no lift. So clearly it was always meant to be temporary. And then I never found a place I liked better. It’s in a 17th century building on an island in the heart of Paris, it faces south and has a wonderful view of the sky because it isn’t overlooked by other buildings. It’s quiet and sunny, and I can walk everywhere. It feels like more like home than any other place I have lived in, and I have lived here longer than anywhere else in my life.
I want to go back to what you said about illusions. I feel like every American who comes to France is hit in the face with their crashed illusions about what it means to be in Paris.
I couldn’t agree more. Some of them who’ve been here for as long as I have have survived the loss of those illusions. And many of us end up having a love-hate relationship with France. There are some things I still love and some things I hate. But I can say I don’t find it boring.
How do you compare London and Paris?
London and Paris, and the area around London and Paris, couldn’t be more different. I’d brought my knowledge of London with me and expected the area around Paris to be the same [as around London] and gradually discovered how wrong I was. Think of a fried egg: Paris is the yolk and the white is greater Paris — le Grand Paris. If you think of the Tube map of London, Paris would fit into the Circle Line.
Wow. That’s crazy. I didn’t realize that’s how tiny it is.
The area around Paris, though — the white of the egg — is ten times bigger [than the area around London]. London’s more like a scrambled egg — that is, the yolk and the white are mixed up. The center of Paris is this tiny yolk, which is incredibly densely populated, the most densely populated city in Europe. But in London, like a scrambled egg, there isn’t a huge difference in population density. It’s nothing like as dense in the middle as Paris is in the center. Not many people actually live in the center of London — they can’t afford to. It’s shops and millionaires. All the poor have been squeezed out and everybody lives in Zone 2 and beyond.
And people have gardens. I had a garden. It’s normal. Nobody in central Paris has a garden because of the pressure on space. But outside Paris, it’s a completely different story. And only — if you can believe this — only a quarter of that huge expanse of space [of outer Paris] is urbanized. And that area is very well served by an extremely good commuter network. That’s also the opposite of London, in that the London network is very clearly mapped and described, and it’s easy to find your way around, but the service is poor compared to Paris. The Paris one is sort of opaque. If you don’t know how it works, you’re not going to find out. The Paris one is efficient and the London one is not, but you have brilliant information and presentation. That’s London.
You talk about this a lot in your books — about how hard it is to get clear, reliable information about things like public transport in Paris, even if the service itself is quite good. Why do you think that is?
The attitude to information is based on how you grow up in France, and your closest relationships are with your family, and then the very close friends you make at school. And you keep those friends for life — so your relationships are very close and very warm. If you need any help, you activate your social network, and you get help from your family and friends. The public face of the way that French people interact is cold. Private, warm — public, cold. And I’ve noticed in England it’s the opposite: It’s public, warm — private, cold. I’m exaggerating enormously. But the attitude to information is linked with that, in cultures where kinship patterns matter enormously: family, the close friends you make when you’re growing up, who become effectively family too. Those are the links that matter and you distrust everyone outside that, including other French people, because you don’t know them. So you treat them with suspicion — and there’s good reason to be suspicious of foreigners and strangers in France — unlike in Britain, which is an island. France has been invaded lots of times, and it was only unified in the 18th century — even the 19th, for some parts of it — whereas Britain hasn’t been invaded since 1066. And so you get your information through all sorts of private, family, and friendship networks. And if you are informing the public as part of your job, you don’t have the first idea how to go about it.
I suppose you could make a very crude link in Europe between Catholic and Protestant — the Protestant countries, in their handling of information, tend to be information rich. They’d rather tell you too much than too little. And the Catholic countries — I don’t know if the other ones are as bad as France, but it’s information light by our standards because they don’t want to patronize you by telling you the obvious.
The Catholic and Protestant thing is not original — I think it was Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I’m jumping around a lot here — anecdote within an anecdote within an anecdote. The French love that. The English hate it. Most of them, they find it disconcerting. I put it down to my Hungarian upbringing.
Once you were in Paris, how did you come to realize you’d discovered this thing: a rich cultural heritage, easily accessible to people in Paris if they only knew how to get there?
I’d met various men in Paris, and then a particular one, who happened to be an American — one of those millions of Americans who love France but actually find it quite difficult when they’re here. I’d had a long history of relationships that didn’t work, and this was obviously going to be yet another one, because the bloke had just left, and I didn’t know when I was going to see him again, if ever. I felt terrible, but not just terrible because of the immediate circumstances — it was a familiar feeling of “Why does this happen to me? This isn’t how it should be.” And then I remembered that I’d jotted down some ideas for a book. I think I’d put them — not quite on the back of an envelope, but that kind of thing. I fished them out, looked at them, and thought, There is a book here. And I immediately felt better. It was born out of emotional misery — as a way of picking myself up. It was a way of picking myself up and saying, “I’ve got some value. I don’t have to rely on my crappy relationships with men because they all seem to be doomed to disaster.”
That was the germ of it, but it did take about two years to sort of sell the idea. And then another two years to bully my publisher, who is still my publisher, into getting around to doing it. And I did end up having a long and fruitful relationship with another American, and I did most of the walks with him. Then the bastard died. The way they do.
How did you originally come to do the kind of long walks in the countryside that are covered in the book?
I’d had a garden in London. I didn’t have one here, and I started going out on Sundays. I put all this in the introduction to the book because this is the sort of thing you can admit to. I did not say that it was yet another emotional disappointment that decided me that I would bloody well try and get this project going.
I want to give you two follow-up questions. One will be French and discursive, and one will be very American and practical. The American one is: Will you tell me about your favorite walk in the book? The French question is: What happened next romantically and did you figure out how to avoid disappointing romantic entanglements?
I can answer the last one first. The next romantic entanglement was with a Frenchman and it was the most intense and in some ways the most rewarding of the lot. But also impossible. We’re still in touch all these years later but only by text. I know enough now to keep my distance from the kind that attract me — that I know are going to be trouble.
The other question: what’s my favorite walk. I find that quite difficult. I don’t really enjoy so much going back to a walk I’ve already done. I enjoy discovering — discovering comes first, even if what I discover is crap and can’t be written about. And that’s nine-tenths of it. Nine-tenths of [my exploration] never gets written about because, you know, it’s not good enough. But I like going out and exploring. Putting together the walks and creating the maps and researching the restaurants and testing it — that’s more fun for me than taking people on walks that I know work well — which I do sometimes, because you’ve got to please some of your friends some of the time. I had another friend, who I first knew at the British Institute. She took [my American friend’s] place and on those walks — the fun was exploring. Because neither of those people cared if we got lost or missed the train. And I love that. That counts for me more than anything else. Unfortunately she’s died as well.
But I do have a little sort of roster of people I walk with who, you know, haven’t died. They’re still around. And some of them are new walking partners. I tend to pick tried-and-tested walks for those who are less adventurous and save the pioneering, exploratory walks for those who are.
So the pleasure of it for you comes from exploring, not guiding.
I hate guiding — I hate it. I’ve taken that off [service] my website, but it was there.
My favorite people to walk with are people who don’t mind exploring and are happy to go anywhere, and if it rains, they don’t care. If we get lost, they don’t mind. I’m interested in all aspects of those walks, including the shabby cafes, which are getting thin on the ground. It makes my day when I find a cafe open on a Sunday, in the middle of nowhere.
For our last question, I want to go back to something you said at the beginning: that you’ve been dithering between two countries, France and the U.K., for 30 years. What do you think are the benefits of that indecision, and what are the costs?
On a good day, the pluses are that I found a lifestyle that suits my nature. I’m adventurous, but I’m also very family oriented. And I keep my friends forever. So, I have the adventure here. I have the family and the old friends in England, even if I also have some very old friends here now, because I’ve been here so long.
Because we are expatriates here, we almost function like a second family. So, the good side is I have the adventure and the challenge of living in a different culture, and the closeness of and solidity of family and old friends in England, and in France.
It depends on what day it is, but on a bad day I feel I don’t belong in either place. I’ve sort of forgotten how things function in London, even though I go over a lot. I don’t live there. My spoken French wasn’t bad when I arrived, but it’s not much better than it was. So on bad days, I feel like a complete foreigner, in both places. On most days it’s a mix of those things. I’ve learned to accept that I belong in both, to make the most of what both have to offer and not to fret about the future more than I can help.