There is a new boy coming to my daughter’s school. Already, the girls in her class are all a-twitter. Their main concern seems to be whether he will be bigger than the other boys in Form 2.
We have been at pains to explain to our little girl the importance of being kind to the new boy. “Try some of your French on him,” I said. (She knows three words: bonjour, merci and, for some reason, les anchois [anchovies]).
Meanwhile, I am already well disposed towards the new arrival. He comes from Paris, and his parents probably live the glamorous, nomadic, ex-pat life that I always wanted.
Peter Ustinov, the actor and raconteur, was my ideal. His parents were impossibly elegant: nobles of German, Russian, French, Italian, Swiss and Ethiopian heritage.
His father worked in the German Embassy during the second World War, and spied for the British; his mother was a ballet set designer and artist. Not a civil servant or accountant in sight.
Ustinov, who died in 2004, was the epitome of what we mean by the phrase “citizen of the world”. He was at home anywhere, and spoke a dozen languages. But when I think of him, I imagine him in Paris.
Paris was the place where you went if there was a revolution, or a civil war, or a coup in your homeland. Conversely, you also went there if your country was just plain boring.
Thus, in the 1920s, the place was knee-deep in White Russian counts, ex-pat Americans and British noblemen loosening their starched collars.
It is also the place where I have always wanted to live. “I’m thinking of spending a year in Paris,” I would say, probably on a monthly basis, when I was in my 20s.
Myself and a friend planned to set up a news agency covering the EU when we graduated from journalism school in the 1980s. It was the EEC back then, and the parliament in Strasbourg was relatively new.
I signed up because, well, Strasbourg is not too far from Paris, and I could always travel down and dip my spoon into the creative soup of the city. The news agency plan never took off, and neither did the year-in-Paris scheme. There is a lingering sense of regret over those two failures.
In truth, the reality would probably never have been as wonderful as I imagined it. In my mind, I was installed in the top floor of one of those grand hôtels particuliers that lined the boulevards laid out so gracefully by Baron Haussman.
I was, of course, a writer – think Ewan McGregor’s character Christian in ‘Moulin Rouge!’ – but spent a good deal of time philosophising in the local bars.
Sometimes this took the form of deep analysis with existentialists in Les Deux Magots in Saint-Germain des Près in the 6th arrondissement, where Satre and Simone de Beauvoir used to have stand-up rows in the 1940s.
At others, I imagined myself in a down-at-heel local bar, the sort that features so often in the romans policiers of Georges Simenon.
There, the locals sit every evening, nursing beers and grievances, and there is an oppressive silence about the place. Everyone knows everyone else, so there is little need for speech. And one of them is a murderer.
I did not, in this imagined life, abandon all civilised routine. I had my regular bakery where I went every morning for my croissants and baguette, and a florist who dispatched my bouquets to ladies all over the city.
In the evenings, when I wasn’t overdosing on Pernod and little actresses, or hanging out with taciturn killers, I was wandering the streets, inspired by one grand building after another.
In Paris, you turn a corner and see a building so beautiful that you think: this is the one everyone comes here to see. And in any other city, that might be true, but in Paris, it’s just another building.
So when my daughter told me about this new arrival at her school, I didn’t just see an eight-year-old schoolboy. I saw Paris, the city where I nearly lived.