It all started – or rather ended – with an Instagram story. A friend posted the other day about looking for a permanent flat in Paris, and I knew a whole period of my life was now behind me. L, as I’ll call her, was the last of them, and now she’s gone for good.
Back in the day, my French friends were unavoidable. They weren’t all in London at the same time but, over the course of around a decade, a number of them came and went. R realised she didn’t like her degree so decided to do one here instead; E got a teaching gig for a year in a school in Tower Hamlets; L just didn’t want to study at all; B had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, and London seemed like a good place to figure it out. Lastly, S followed because, well – so many women she knew had made the jump already, so why shouldn’t she?
We sometimes lived in house shares together and often went out, two by two or as a gang. I never made any French friends in Britain; I had everything I needed already, because they’d all followed me here. Some of them were obviously always going to go home eventually; S would only fall asleep to French television, and R listened to little but French radio.
Others thought they would be lifers, like me, and settled deeply into their English lives. In the end, though, they all left – went back to France or moved elsewhere. L was the last to go, originally to Paris for a few months, just to see how it felt.
She is now looking for a permanent flat. She’s not coming back. I’m the only one staying.
It’s an odd feeling, being the last survivor. I was the first one to make the move and, as I was in 2009, I’m now alone again. Of course, I don’t hold it against any of them – deciding to build a whole new life elsewhere and sticking to it is quite different from spending a few years abroad, expanding your horizons, then returning home.
Their lives should be seen as EU success stories; migration, in their cases, wasn’t arduous or costly, but something they could do more or less on a whim, just for a little while. They made friends and met partners, perfected another language then went on their way. I’m the exception, and that’s fine.
I was thinking about them the other day when I saw the news that the Home Office was working on a scheme allowing young Europeans to come and live in Britain for up to two years, in order to work as baristas, au pairs or whatever else. It is still in its infancy and may not happen soon, but a Labour government would hopefully turn it into a reality.
It has been criticised for being a poor replacement for freedom of movement, and an insult to those young people who could just go somewhere else, but it warmed my heart. I was able to build a whole new life for myself in Britain while it was still in the EU, but that is not what most people want.
London especially is a place people came to if they didn’t quite know what they wanted from life. It’s always felt like one of those cities in which “figuring it out” is fun, instead of daunting. At risk of stating the obvious, there is also no better way to learn a language than to immerse yourself in it, which is why many people come here if they can.
Many young people want an interlude before they commit to adult life, and this scheme could offer it to them. Sure, it’s not perfect, and it’s infuriating that it’s only now being trialled – some time after Britain left the EU – but it does feel like a win. We’ve had very few of those over the past few years, so we ought to be celebrating the ones we get. Here’s to the next generation of French girls coming and going; raising hell in the capital, then disappearing in a charming puff of smoke.