Written by Anna Richards
Emily In Paris is back for season two – but is dating in France anything like the show? One British transplant delves into the world of expat romance to explore the realities of finding love abroad.
France, long famed as the country of love. A country of sunset proposals under La Tour Eiffel and padlocks symbolising lifelong commitment lining bridges over the Seine. The country that gave us Amélie and French kissing. And the setting of the colourful, glamorous love life of Emily Cooper, protagonist of Netflix’s smash hit series Emily in Paris.
As any fan of the show will know, Emily (Lily Collins), an American marketing-executive-turned-influencer, has no shortage of handsome suitors as she navigates her new life in the City of Love. No sooner than she arrives, she knocks on the door of the wrong apartment, meeting her downstairs neighbour and future love interest Gabriel (Lucas Bravo) – a man who’s immediately enchanted by Emily, but also has a serious girlfriend. (As a British expat who has lived in Lyon on and off since the age of 20, I’ve also knocked on the wrong apartment door in my time – drunkenly, I must confess – but instead of being greeted by Gabriel, I was received by a rather irate mum-of-two.)
Yes, Emily In Paris is all about amour, and our titular heroine certainly takes it all in her stride as she races through romantic encounters in the first season. There’s her client, Antoine, married but simultaneously sleeping with her boss, Sylvie. There’s Thomas, the pretentious professor teaching semiotics, who only lasts two dates after proving himself to be far too self-absorbed. Then there’s Camille, Gabriel’s beautiful ex-girlfriend, who develops more than a little sexual tension with Emily throughout the season. There’s also Emily’s encounter with Camille’s 17-year-old younger brother, plus numerous other chiselled French boys who fall for her at every turn.
When I moved to Lyon permanently in September this year, my friends were endlessly fascinated by my dating life. Was it different to dating British men? Were they enamoured with my accent? Did it live up to all the romantic tropes? Yes, yes and no. Dating in France, like anywhere, is a mixed bag, and in my experience, the French are definitely fond of a foreign accent. Perhaps the episode about Camille’s brother wasn’t so off-piste: French men seem to be much more willing to date older women (I’m 29, but I’ve dated a 22-year-old since arriving, and in the UK I’d never gone out with anyone more than a year younger than me).
Still, expat dating isn’t so far removed from Emily’s romantic escapades, even with Netflix’s fantastical touch. When Emily splits from her long-term boyfriend, her boss back in the US, Madeline, has a no-nonsense response: “So you’re single? In Paris? Your life is croissants and sex.”
Croissants, it’s true, are in abundant supply, but what about the sex part? As we head into another season of Emily’s life abroad, I spoke to international expats across France and found an intriguing number of similarities between Emily’s dating stories and their own experiences.
Let’s begin with Antoine, one of the main clients of the luxury marketing agency in Paris where Emily works. Everyone (including his wife) knows that he’s having an affair with Sylvie, Emily’s boss. However, this close relationship doesn’t prevent Antoine from trying to seduce the new American in town. Indeed, Emily gets into hot water with Sylvie when Antoine starts flirting with her and sends her risqué underwear.
Twenty-nine-year-old Ana*, a Mexican living in Paris, had a similar experience with a Parisian boyfriend. “I’d been dating a man for five months. He was a lawyer,” she explains. “We’d met on Tinder and it had become pretty serious. I’d been to his apartment, we saw each other multiple times a week and spoke every day. We hadn’t had the chat about what we were, so I suppose I wasn’t officially his girlfriend. But we behaved like boyfriend and girlfriend, and I didn’t know if it was normal to clarify it in France.”
Fans of Emily In Paris might recall that in the first episode of the series premiere, estate agent Gilles (Gauthier Battoue) asks Emily if she’d like to join him in the cafe downstairs or for a drink that evening. When Emily tells Gilles that she has a boyfriend back home in Chicago, Gilles isn’t deterred. “So you don’t have a boyfriend in Paris,” he persists, suggesting that a serious relationship could be put on pause. As Ana discovered, her love interest also had similar ideas.
“One day, he told me that he had a girlfriend that he loved a lot and had been with the whole time. He started on the legal jargon, saying things like “if it’s a crime then I plead guilty to loving two women” and “any contract should be ruled by natural laws like the freedom to kiss whoever you want”. You could tell he was a lawyer! His texts were so ridiculous that I almost had to laugh rather than be angry.”
Even so, he didn’t completely disappear off the radar after she broke things off. “Four years on, he still messages me occasionally, but obviously I don’t want anything to do with him. I think some French guys do think we’ll fall for the romantic stereotype that you see on shows like Emily In Paris.”
A family affair
Sometimes, though, things can get complicated, even when you’re not actively dating. In the eighth episode of the first season, Emily goes to stay with Camille’s family at their château in Champagne. Camille tells Emily that she and her brother would really hit it off and that she can’t wait for them to meet – and on the tour of their family vineyard, they really do make a connection.
By the end of the night, Camille’s brother and Emily end up sleeping with each other. The next day, she’s mortified to discover there’s been a mix-up: Camille actually has two brothers, and she’s slept with the younger one, 17-year-old Timothée. As it turns out, sleeping with the host family’s son isn’t purely a storyline of the small screen.
“Well, he was 19, not 17,” says 28-year-old Georgia*, a British au pair living in Paris. “I was au pairing and teaching his younger siblings English. We went to their villa in the countryside for the summer and it was really remote. Nothing like Camille’s family château – it was much more rustic than that!
“There was nothing to do, they didn’t even have a TV or internet, so I started hooking up with their son. He wasn’t unattractive but there was zero chemistry there. The first time we hooked up we’d met a group of his friends and taken some bottles of wine to get drunk in a field, the way you do when you’re a teenager, except here it was because there wasn’t a single bar in the vicinity. So the first time we got together I was quite drunk.
“After that it kept happening. His room was next door to mine, and because the house was old and had a weird layout I had to go through his bedroom to reach my own. It got awkward when he actually asked me to take his virginity, but he was wearing these boxers patterned with cherries that his mum had bought when we’d been shopping together. It gave me the ick and felt all kinds of wrong. We’re not in touch now.”
Three’s a crowd
The most prominent love story in Emily In Paris, and the central source of sexual tension for most of season one, is the love triangle between Gabriel, Emily and Camille. Complicated from the get-go, thanks to Emily’s friendship with Gabriel’s girlfriend, she eventually sleeps with her neighbour when she believes that she’ll never see him again after he moves away to Normandy – only to discover the morning after that he intends to stay in Paris after all. But what actually happens when an expat gets involved with a French couple?
“I had a threesome with a couple who were visiting from Paris,” says 30-year-old Joe*, a British man living in Lyon. “I met them on an app. The girl was often in Grenoble for work, so we’d matched when she was in the vicinity. So when they were passing through I invited them over to my apartment.
“I’m bisexual and I like group sex, but this time was rather different! The guy was really into pet play, so he pretended to be a dog all evening. I’d heard of this before so I wasn’t as phased as some people might have been, but some things were disconcerting. He didn’t talk and his girlfriend put down bowls of food and water for him on the floor, which he ate from without using his hands. Then he slept on the floor all night while I slept in the bed with his girlfriend. In the morning he left before his girlfriend did. We haven’t met up since.”
Happily ever after?
It remains to be seen whether or not Emily will get her happy ending in season two (and judging by the trailer, there are plenty more bumps in the road before she does). But maybe she can take solace in that the best love stories don’t happen overnight.
“I met him in Dallas, Texas, in 1995,” says 52-year-old Madison*, a Californian living in Grenoble, of her French love interest. “We’d go out dancing and to dinner parties and pool parties. We had so much fun. But he was due to be married in a couple of weeks. I knew that it wasn’t right, so I broke it off. He went back to France as planned and got married, and we didn’t speak for almost 25 years.”
Life went by, Madison explains, and in the years that passed while they were apart, she too got engaged to someone else, although she never married. Decades later, the power of the internet brought her French lover back into her life.
“He was divorced when he got in touch again,” she continues. “He messaged me on Facebook, completely out of the blue. He came to visit me in the summer of 2019, and it was as though no time had passed. He was exactly the same! When he told his parents that he’d fallen in love again, his father said instantly, “It’s the girl you met in Dallas, isn’t it?”
It wasn’t long before Madison decided to relocate to be with her French boyfriend and – as it’s been suggested Emily will do in season two – made efforts to immerse herself in French culture by properly learning the language.
“I moved to Grenoble to be with him just before Covid. It’s been difficult to learn French with all of my classes online, but his family has welcomed me with open arms. The biggest challenge in moving has been the language, but as my language teacher says, learning a language is a huge act of love. I have noticed similarities between learning French over here and how Emily’s language classes are shown, though. Basic words like ‘l’eau’ (water) will have people correcting my pronunciation over and over and over again!”
Ultimately, Madison’s love story all came down to being in the right place at the right time. In January 2020, before Madison had even moved to France and was still applying for her visa, the pair got engaged. Now, they’re reunited in France, and couldn’t be happier.
“My time with my French fiancé wasn’t right in 1995, but it is now.”
*Names have been changed
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