Souvenirs

We have lived in Paris since 2001 which is the longest period that I have spent anywhere; even as a child my family made regular, work related moves. Paris is now my home and yet, as an expatriate, one is never totally assimilated in either culture or language and I do suffer terribly with the latter. The strangeness of this has arisen because we are creeping towards the time in our lives when we need to think about where we would eventually like to settle for retirement; we left the shores of Great Britain in 1993 and have only returned for brief family visits. Both our children were born ‘overseas’ and though they are British by nationality and speak with a polished English accent, they both describe France as home. This is where they are culturally and linguistically comfortable. We are torn – a return to England has it’s appeals but, and weather aside, we are so very out of touch after so many years away and, from the benefit of looking from the outside, not all changes seem positive. The Mediterranean climate of the South of France with its relaxed pace of life certainly beckons and the children approve of this but, do I want to spend my entire adult life as an expatriate? Yes, a charmed lifestyle but one which also has many frustrations that can involve the simplest of things but, difficult to manage because of unknown systems and inference of language.

Regardless of the future, I am increasingly aware that we have few physical souvenirs of our time here. Granted, nothing can replace memories but, it is also nice to have well-chosen items as memories too; I remain as passionate about Baguette Boy as the day that I first hung him on my kitchen wall.


I associate activity to place; new skills that I learn and activities enjoyed. Oslo triggers memories of the stunning but short lived autumn, Chilly mornings that were warmed by the sun so I sweltered in sweaters as I came home from work. Deep mid-winter snow set against sunshine lighting up cobalt skies – mornings and evenings were dark but not terribly dissimilar from where I grew up in the north of England. We skied in the winter and took advantage of never ending summer days in spectacular countryside. But, our real souvenir was being first time parents with a new baby daughter; born at 5.30 am, breakfast was brought to me on a tray complete with a miniature Norwegian flag.

Belgium offered us a brief home that ironically, was set against a bitterly cold winter. We ventured out to buy chocolates, tapestry and lace but, parallel to life in Oslo, our lasting souvenir was the birth of our son. A completely different experience, far away from the natural approach of the Norwegians and my memories of this country aren’t particularly fond; I didn’t understand or speak a hint of French and my husband changed employer from one who offered a comprehensive family support system to one which simply didn’t…. I shall never be able to fully express my gratitude to the volunteer from the Belgium Red Cross who literally moved in with us and took over my life for a week when my newborn returned to hospital for surgery. Mrs. Doubtfire she may have resembled but, she was certainly my angel.


With two young children, I was very happy to return to Norway – a family orientated culture and a way of life that I understood. The coastal oil town of Stavanger became our new home and the children flourished at the local British school. Many foods were imported into Norway and fresh vegetables weren’t always in bountiful supply but, I had fun in learning about specialties such as lutefisk, smoked sheep’s leg and the astringent-creamy caramelised ‘brown’ goat’s cheese. I learned (almost) to play tennis, ‘perfected’ my cross-country skiing and even qualified as a swimming instructor. My husband and I have very happy memories of our time here – laughter at watching aquavit take effect at parties, family weekends staying in countryside cabins with friends whose children were similarly aged, wearing knitted ‘Norwegian’ sweaters (not quite so hip in Paris!), collecting pewter serving spoons and tableware, Norwegian Hadeland crystal and a plethora of candles that I have only just exhausted. I’m not entirely sure, but, because Norway and Belgium were only ever postings rather than a possibility of a permanent base, we spent a lot of time exploring, assimilating memories for the future.


France has been different though it is only now that I truly appreciate this. Food and living aside, there is very little that I want to buy; there are the usual tourist shops selling their tat and I certainly don’t want clutter for the sake of possessions. Maybe subconsciously, Paris became home; one can’t dismiss the children’s strong roots in this beautiful region. I describe our home as Paris because everybody can picture this but, we are actually 20 minutes west in a most pretty market town that hosts a large anglophone population. An international school originally attracted us here and we created our new life in a beautiful location but, the ambiance here changes as folk come and go, the majority leaving sufficient happy memories to enjoy. Thankfully there is so much to continually explore: the sights, galleries restaurants and shopping in Paris, regional France too, hiking in the Forest of St Germain, the hunting ground of Henry V and is quite literally on our doorstep – a perfect foil for food, cooking and photography, some of which I showcase here. But, my real souvenir remains in the pipeline – a project to showcase contemporary French food; exploring local artisans, traiteurs and markets for ingredients and ideas to recreate. The beauty of this is that it is never ending but, that presents a problem too…


Whatever our future holds and where ever that may be, I am grateful to be able to have overcome obstacles which in turn offers strength to see and appreciate what is around us in the present, creating new memories. There will always ups and downs, as one difficulty is sorted another all too quickly raises its head but, on reflection in years still to arrive I hope that we will be happily content in what has been…