We were in London for the last week staying with friends and a major difference between family life in London and in Paris that filled me with a wave of homesickness was suddenly revealed to me: London life is horizontal, Paris life is vertical. It was one of my best friends who came up with the notion over a few glasses of wine one evening. This was after a day in which half a dozen adults - not including the builders - nearly a dozen children and a dog had passed through the house. At one point finding myself in charge of five or six young children (I lost count exactly how many) the doorbell rang and there were another three on the step. I went upstairs to find four of the children in a tepee they had constructed in a bedroom and La Fille punching one of my best friends' boys in the head. He is nine years old and much bigger than La Fille but was clearly too well brought up to thump her back so he was taking a pasting. She seemed to be enjoying herself and he wasn't crying so I left them to it.
Over the wine I remarked to my friend and his wife, who live in a terraced house in a tree-lined street, that their home was like a train terminus with a steady stream of people coming and going, popping in, popping out, popping next door, over the road, over the fence; depositing children, collecting them. It made me think of the close-knit communities of old the demise of which is often lamented in the press and in wistful television series. I hastened to add to my friends that my comment was not a criticism. Far from it; it was an expression of envy. "In Paris nobody drops in on us," I said. It is true. Sometimes someone will ring and make an arrangement, but nobody just drops in for a cup of tea or pops in to ask if they can leave their offspring for half an hour/day/week or so. I have several friends with children in Paris but have never heard anyone suggest a sleep-over. "That's because in Paris you live vertically in flats and in London we live horizontally in houses," said my friend. How right he is, I thought in what was a small, eureka moment that almost made me tear up my return Eurostar ticket.
When my friends and their children and their friends and their children weren't popping in and out of each others houses, they were going to carol concerts at schools - not allowed in France's secular education system, going to the Christmas sales - against trading laws in France, putting up fairy lights in their gardens - hardly anyone in Paris has a garden, and heading for that singularly British Christmas tradition, the pantomime.
And for those who also lament the boorishness and dumbing down of British youth I would like to report that the death of manners is greatly exaggerated. I met two nearly teenage boys - comprehensive school classmates of my friends' eldest son - for the first time when they arrived to collect him for the walk to school. On the morning of the day we were returning to Paris both of them turned and said: "Goodbye. Pleased to meet you." How lovely is that?