Memory is extraordinary – the least obvious thing can trigger something unexpected and long forgotten, with a clarity that seems to concertina time itself.
Thus it happened this morning.
It was a chilly, grey start to the day. At around 9pm, I was wondering what on Earth to have for breakfast.
Breakfast is my least easy meal of the day – particularly when I’m at home. I rarely actually feel hungry first thing and whereas by the time I get into the office if I’m working there, I’m ready to go up to the deli and find something, at home I have to force myself to eat before 10am – or it’ll be almost lunchtime and I still won’t have broken my fast.
So there I was, on this chilly, grey morning, wondering what caught my imagination. I felt in need of something warm – and something meaty. I don’t eat meat every day by a long chalk, but sometimes the body wants a particular foodstuff and you have to listen.
I’ve got plain pork sausages in, but they’re for tonight. Rooting around in various cupboards, the answer eventually presented itself. On a pre-Christmas shopping trip to Lille last December, I’d bought an outrageously cheap stack of small tins of terrine and paté. Fourteen for – if memory serves – around €24. So I fished around, making the effort to read the French labels, and pulled out a pork liver and Armagnac one, put some bread under the grill to toast, and then enjoyed a really rather indulgent and luxurious repast.
And so my mind turned to that Lille trip – and then to my very first visit to France, in early 1983 – probably almost exactly 26 years ago.
That was a grey and chilly day too.
I was at college in Leicester and a friend had decided to take a day trip to Dieppe. Since she lived in Milton Keynes, we drove there the night before, then set off for the port at Newhaven early the next day. This was in the times when you could take a couple of photo booth snaps with you and get a temporary passport at the point of departure. No planning required.
It was a four-hour ferry trip. I stood on deck, po-faced and ridiculously serious, staring back at the fading coast of Albion with something approaching melancholy, as though I were a scouting party for my little-Englander family; the first one to depart this green and sceptred isle and unlikely ever to return.
I even remember what I was wearing. After a nasty back injury had left me with a lot of back pain (it eventually saw me chucked off the course), I’d bought an old British Army battlejacket – the sort of heavy top with a thick belt at just the right level to support my aching lumber region. I had that on and sported a rather large grey cord cap with it.
If anything could ever illustrate my extreme gaucheness at being abroad for the first time, it was perhaps my amazement to find that Dieppe was, well … so French. For some reason or other, it didn’t seem to have occurred to me that there really would be picturebook narrow streets with their narrow houses and long, painted shutters at the windows.
And the cobbled square, where a large church – St Jacques, I think – towered, a vast Gothic edifice, dark and brooding, and unlike anything I’d ever seen outside of films and books. If it was chilly outside, icy fingers seemed to caress me as I entered the gloom, my mind playing images of the Maid of Orleans.
There were a few stalls outside the church. I remember the pungent smell of cheese, which seemed so much stronger then than it now, to my more experienced nose. And then the bakeries, with the aroma of fresh-basked bread wafting invitingly out into the street.
I found a little post office and bought a couple of postcards. The elderly woman at the counter (and the queue behind me) waited with remarkable patience while I managed to dredge up enough pidgin French to ask for stamps. My change included a note with a picture of the composer Berlioz on it – since a shared birthday has enhanced somewhat my liking for old Hector, I still have that note somewhere.
When I met my friend again, ready to depart for home – it was just a few hours stop over – she realised that she’d left her camera in a shop. For some reason or other, I was sent back to get it, something achieved almost exclusively with mime, since my smattering of the lingo didn’t go remotely that far. And besides, I was a drama student.
I don’t remember anything about the journey back, except that I watched a few minutes of a grotty X-rated old horror movie on the ferry.
But I’d done it. I’d been to furrin land. And had returned.
Memory, as I said, is extraordinary.
And I went home without the slightest inkling that, over 20 years later, I’d return and find all those things that had astonished me in Dieppe to be amongst the things that made me fall in love with France.