Author Melanie Cantor fell in love with a Frenchman in Juan-les-Pins — but there was no fairytale ending. As told to Nick McGrath.
I had just turned 21 and was living at home with my parents in North London and working as an assistant for a West End theatrical agent, when I took a holiday to Juan-les-Pins with my friends Julie and Ian in 1978.
At the time, Juan was the cheaper sister of Cannes, full of young people and cafes and bars, such as Pam Pam and Le Whisky à Gogo. Walking down the street, there were little boutiques full of clothes on racks that spilt on to the streets and everywhere was crowded. The tree-lined boulevard followed the private beaches with their colourful parasols until you got to the less flamboyant plage publique.
Opposite our hotel was our favourite haunt: a neon-signed, triangular-shaped cafe called Le Crystal. That was where I met Didier, a very handsome and sophisticated-looking man, with broad shoulders and a girlfriend.
Didier and his group of friends used to hang out on the same stretch of the boulevard as us and we gradually drifted into conversation with them, but it wasn't until the penultimate night, when Didier's girlfriend had gone home, that we started to talk properly. I think Didier was as much of an Anglophile as I was a Francophile and we hit it off. And as for his girlfriend? We didn't mention her.
After a while, Didier and his friend, Serge, invited Julie and me to join them for a meal at his mother's rambling house just up the coast in Cannes. We drove up there in his white Peugeot 204 convertible, which felt terribly exciting and, after he had cooked a candlelit dinner on the terrace, Didier and I disappeared.
The next day, Julie and I had to fly home. Didier kindly drove us to the airport and asked for a piece of paper so he could leave me his details. I gave him a postcard on which I had written the current exchange rates. From what he wrote, I could tell he was as smitten with me as I was with him.
We both knew that whatever was between us, it was serious; un coup de foudre, as the French would say. Didier promised he would visit London soon, but the prospect of his turning up at my house would have driven my parents nuts, so, as was typically impulsive of me, I decided to move out.
Two weeks later, I was in a flat share in Muswell Hill. My father didn't speak to me for a year. Didier came to London and we spent an idyllic three weeks together, laughing the entire time. It was then that he told me he was heir to a beer fortune, which he was due to inherit from his rich uncle when he died. There was one condition, though: he must never marry, as his relatives hated women.
I was in love. I didn't think, "Well, where's this going?" The way it was sold to me was this: "There's only one uncle left and he's old and he's going to die soon." It was almost like, "Don't worry, he'll die and we'll be fine."
As Didier lived in Lyon, for the next few months we agreed to meet midway in Paris. The affair continued until he invited me to move to Lyon, although I had to disguise the fact I was his girlfriend, because of the family dynamic. I was so young that I initially didn't question this.
We lived together in a flat on Rue Montesquieu overlooking the Rhone for about 18 months. But eventually things came to a head when I went back to the UK and decided enough was enough. I told Didier I wouldn't return to France unless he told his uncle that I existed.
The next day he told me that he wouldn't risk his inheritance. I told him: "It's over". I'll never forget the pain of knowing someone had chosen money over love. I was heartbroken. But Lyon had never been easy and I had to make the best of moving on. A year later, Didier married a nice local Protestant girl, while his uncle was still alive. He has been married and divorced three times now and eventually got his inheritance, which he shares with his brother.
Despite this, it didn't dent my belief in romance. There's still a little part of me that goes, "Was that for real?", but I still live life with an open heart and mind and I have had several wonderful relationships since. We're still in touch because I never hold grudges, but it put things into perspective. I now always insist that money or status will never be the power that drives the relationship.
If it weren't for that holiday in Juan-les-Pins and my experience with Didier, my understanding of relationships, love and pain — as well as my writing — wouldn't be the same. It taught me that I can live somewhere alien, face challenges and disappointment, and survive and thrive.
Life and other Happy Endings by Melanie Cantor is on sale now (Penguin, $24)