From war zones to Paris, BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson and his wife Dee can call home anywhere, and now they’re looking for accommodation in the south of France, he tells Richard Webber.
You bought a Parisian apartment in 1999 and have owned it for almost 20 years, tell me?
Dee: John and I agreed that it had to be on the left bank for any romantic, intellectual and artistic associations with Gertrude Stein, the American novelist and art collector who became such a central figure in the art world Parisian. It was in a typical mid-19th century block of white sandstone on Rue St-Dominique, one of those charming Parisian streets that completely steals your heart at a glance.
John: The apartment had delicate cast-iron balcony details and an oversized double door leading directly to the street, but also blocked out the interior life of the building to make it a private enclave and part of that hidden world of Paris known only to its inhabitants. We had fun being able to tell it’s right under the Eiffel Tower, knowing that whenever friends or family visited, they would never get lost trying to find us.
How many times have you used it?
Dee: I traveled the world for many years with John as one of his news producers for the BBC before the birth of our son, Rafe, who is now 16. We were constantly on the go and joked that our real home was British Airways! We couldn’t bear the thought of being in another hotel room in our free time and wanted to own a little corner of Paris to come back to during those rare times when we were alone.
John: We often arrived at the last minute, not knowing if we would stay a weekend or a month. It felt like we were on vacation, which was part of the fun. So we visited our jewel apartment as often as possible.
What were your favorite aspects of the apartment?
Dee: It wasn’t very big or particularly big but had so much character and luxurious details. It exuded that chic “je ne sais quoi” that only Paris could produce. Despite being in the middle of town, it was so well designed that the notorious horns of impatient drivers and general city sounds never became a nuisance. And our lovely large bedroom overlooked a courtyard at the back of the building, allowing us to open the shutters in warmer seasons and let the evening breeze in undisturbed.
John: So many quintessentially Parisian aspects made it special, like being able to walk to the best places in central Paris – from legendary fashion houses Chanel and Dior to food and art legends. All we had to do to reach the Champs Elysées was to walk across the Pont de l’Alma, five minutes from our front door, via the beautiful avenue Montaigne, or avenue Georges V.
Dee: Also, moments from the apartment was the Champ de Mars, the beautiful green space surrounding the Eiffel Tower where we started picnicking as a couple and later frequented with our son to play on Sundays and after. – lazy noon.
You must have a lot of special memories from your stay at the apartment?
Dee: Lots of things, like the occasion when John and I were eating at a very fancy seafood brasserie nearby, when Karl Lagerfeld casually walked in and took over a large table next to us. He nodded in greeting to me and John, which made my day as Chanel lovers and carried us away quietly throughout the meal. I couldn’t decide who was more intrigued by the other. I thanked heaven for taking the trouble to dress well before going out that night!
John: And then there was the time when we were playing football on the small field of the Champ de Mars. One evening, a friend of ours, a huge Arsenal fan and director of the Strasbourg Opera, came over for supper while our little nephew Rees, then nine years old, stayed with us. The four of us dined at Constant’s famous restaurant, Le Violon d’Ingres, located below the apartment, before playing football under the Eiffel Tower. It was so much fun; we played well past midnight. It was one of those unexpected magical evenings that I will never forget: the windless spring air that you seem to breathe only in Paris, the atmosphere of the city dancing on your skin in unison with the lights of the most grandiose towers, The Eiffel Tower.
Why did you sell it four years ago?
Dee: I’ve always wanted to live in the Mediterranean, ever since I visited the Côte d’Azur in the 1980s as a child. Our plan is to find a property on the French Riviera where we can spend more free time now that life is a little less hectic. There are so many daily flights from London to Nice and John could fly to all the hotspots anytime from there if needed.
John: Rafe, who is a teenager now, loves diving and all the other fun sports you can do on and in the water. So what could be more pleasant than sitting on a sunny terrace sipping a pastis or, in Dee’s case, a Château Ott, while watching the people pass by on this perfect seabed? But we are torn between the hassle-free existence of a nice apartment in Nice or Cannes and a villa with a swimming pool further afield. Currently we are looking for different areas with agents who have shown us different properties ranging from apartments in Nice to larger locations further along the coast from Cannes towards St-Raphael. A view of the sea is an important part of our idea of living there. We nearly bid on the top floor of a 1930s Scott Fitzgerald villa near Cap d’Antibes, but decided to take our time to make sure we got what we wanted.
Will you miss Paris?
Dee: We will always visit, of course, and it will always be the queen of cities as far as I’m concerned. Visitors unfamiliar with Paris see it as a grand place filled with haughty citizens sporting a typically Parisian superiority complex or attitude problem. Yes, there are elements of that, but when you scratch the surface, you quickly begin to discover that Parisians are also warm and eccentric individuals.
John: There’s genuine care for each other. Paris is not just a Hollywood setting of French clichés; it is a very welcoming city with each neighborhood exuding its own character and communal ‘village’ feeling.
Dee: Paris is also a relatively small city compared to places like London or Tokyo, which makes it very easy to navigate. We also like to drive our car around town. The traffic is never as bad as in many other cities. Don’t forget that going around the Etoile in a convertible while playing chicken with those who are trying to make their way through it remains one of my guilty pleasures!
Is there anything you don’t like about the city?
Dee: What makes us smile is also something that can be tiring at times: the dogmatic ways of the French, especially when it comes to their food culture. When John won the famous Bayeux Award for War Correspondent of the Year [the Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Award for War Correspondents], Calvados producers have created a special aperitif for the event, mixing Calvados with tonic. We loved it and once back in Paris we ordered it at our local street cafe. The server almost had a seizure to the Marcel Marceau when I asked, and although John explained the reason for my strange cocktail request in his best French, the waiter looked appalled.
He finally brought it reluctantly, shaking his head and grimacing as if I had asked him to do something totally inappropriate. He pulled back theatrically so I could pour the offending tonic into the holy Calvados elixir and gape as I emptied it to the bottom with relish. It’s all great fun as long as you don’t mind being too crowded.
John: Every company has its own way of doing things but in France it’s really their way or the highway. On the other hand, it was fun last summer to see that the idea of a “Poké Bowl” became acceptable in cafes and bistros around the world – some Asian fusion food finally creeping in. among the usual dishes of duck confit and the great boulevard dishes of old France.
A question for you, John – do you consider yourself a Francophile?
John: I go through phases. Sometimes I feel immensely pro-French, but then I read something a French politician or writer said about Britain, usually without understanding anything about it, and my aversion to bureaucracy and rigidity French returns. In short, I love the place and the people. What I like the most, however, are the Anglophiles who understand that neither France nor Britain are perfect, but still appreciate them. For me, France is a nice place to live, as long as I can keep a foothold in Britain for some down-to-earth common sense.
And tell me about your relationship with France over the years, including reporting on French politics and receiving the Prix Bayeux Calvados-Normandie?
John: I’ve always enjoyed reporting on French politics, although I personally haven’t liked any French president since the charming, if sarcastic, Jacques Chirac. He once told me that he was fundamentally Anglophile, although he didn’t choose to show it. The old fox also ran through a crowded room on a rather grand occasion at London’s Mansion House held in his honor to kiss Dee’s hand, which made him smile particularly broadly. Receiving the Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Prize for War Correspondents was a real honor for me. France has a fine tradition of war reporting and I counted myself in very good company.
John’s latest novel, Our Friends in Beijing, is published by John Murray and is available in hardcover for £18.99.