The 22nd of December 2001 was a black day for English expats in Paris: Marks and Spencer finally closed down their Paris Haussmann and Rivoli branches.
In a last desperate bid to stock up on crumpets, English breakfast tea and mature cheddar I braved the closing day 40%-off-sale hordes. Anarchy reigned. Protestors were making their anger felt by tearing the wrappers off triangle sandwiches in the food hall and scoffing them without paying. The clothes section looked like a jumble sale. Extra security guards had reportedly been taken on for the day to keep the peace.
Once the store closed, I began to fully comprehend what I had lost. Never again when feeling a bit low or homesick could I turn to English comfort foods like toasted teacakes and hot cross buns to munch in front of Eastenders. There were to be no more properly spiced chicken biryani ready meals. Crispy duck with pancakes, plum sauce and a side order of crispy seaweed was a thing of the past. (Parisian Chinese restaurants don’t seem to serve this, my favourite dish, more’s the pity.) Rice pudding, custard, cheddar and stilton were definitively off the menu. I would have to learn to recover from hangovers without the help of a bacon and tomato ketchup sandwich.
When I first moved to Paris, I started off terribly enthusiastic about all things French. Thus I watched the French terrestrial TV channels, read only (terribly serious) French novels, and ate 100% French food. As the months stretched into years and it was clear that France was to be my permanent home I started to crave a bit of English food, English language literature and television programmes. Nowadays I have gone to the opposite extreme and watch exclusively English/American films and TV programmes on cable TV (apart from the odd good French programme on Canal+ like ‘+Clair’ or ’90 minutes’) and order English/American fiction via Amazon. I watch Eastenders religiously every night, even when it is going through a bad patch. I read Heat magazine when I can lay my hands on it (even though I’ve never seen the English version of any of the reality shows they harp on about ad nauseam). In my former life in the UK I wouldn’t have been seen dead reading a gossip mag and I didn’t follow Eastenders. I suppose I clutch at any Englishness I can get my hands on these days.
Don’t get me wrong, my love affair with France is by no means over. I just missed my English side a little bit. Especially during the period where I worked for Franco-French companies and spoke only French all day long. My Englishness is an important part of who I am, and I want to preserve it.
And I feel the best way to cultivate this is by eating crumpets and drinking tea.