When my dear friend Amanda Gourdault Montagne asked me if I would write about my experiences with Bienvenue en France she didn’t have to ask twice.
I was delighted to have the opportunity, first of all to revisit my memories of our very special posting in France – a country that my husband and I care for deeply, and also to show my appreciation of this venerable and impressive organization.
When we arrived in Paris in 2013, my husband Paul took charge of the Irish Embassy, which is housed in the renowned Hotel de Breteuil on the Avenue Foch. The official residence there was in need of some renovation and I brought my prior experiences in New York, Brussels and Geneva to bear in support of this task. It was a time consuming affair while I accompanied a team of architects and contractors over a period of twelve months. They did excellent work.
However, this meant there was some delay in my being able to reach out fully to all that Paris can offer to an active and committed spouse of an Ambassador posted there.
Nicole Tordjman one of BEF’s grandes animatrices, sent me a beautifully hand-written note enticing me to join her group: Richesses du Patrimoine de France. Once the renovations were well under way I arranged to join Nicole’s group.
During those years a dedicated BEF committee offered an extensive range of activities leading to a much deeper understanding of France, her culture and her institutions. The welcome there was warm and friendly and my somewhat creative version of their beautiful language did nothing to diminish the enthusiasm of their embrace.
In many respects, Paul and I have always seen his role as Ambassador of Ireland as a partnership between us. And I feel that BEF equipped me to carry out my function in this partnership more effectively in the special setting that is Paris.
As I oversaw an intensive professional and social programme at the Embassy and I was able to draw on what I had learned through my BEF experiences. These equipped me to enrich the Embassy’s engagement with France and the French through networking and outreach.
As time passed, BEF embraced me and my fellow senior diplomats’ spouses into much of the core of French society, its esteemed and distinquished institutions, its wonderous art and culture and its modern economy. We had privileged access to places and people.
I discovered that the organization offered a variety of activities aside from visits to cultural and government institutions. These activities included golf lessons, and if I remember correctly even archery. I branched out from total immersion in culture and signed up for golf lessons at l’Hippodrome de Longchamps. My golf came along petit à petit and we had great fun!
I recall one of the first outings with Richesse du Partrimoine was a visit to the Musée Cognacq-Jay in the Marais, on rue Elzevir. Here was an Aladdin’s cave of 18th century fine art and decorative items from the Louis XV and Louis XVI eras.
Another memorable visit was to the majestic Jas de Bouffans in Aix en Provence. Cézanne lived and found inspiration here for over forty years. Our guide was the wonderfully kind Phillippe Cézanne, a descendent of the painter.
During our visit to the Palais Royal, seat of the Conseil Contitutionnel, our group was addressed by its then esteemed President, Jean-Louis Debré.
Another unforgettable moment was our visit to the Maison Hermès on the Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré. Thomas Patrick, the president spoke to our gathering on the topic of Hermès and its global business strategy. We were invited to visit their special-order worshops, to tour the flagship store and to view the most exquisite jewelry collection. The visited culminated with a coupe de champagne in the beautiful Hermes roof garden.
Years later as I taught English to economically disadvantaged internal migrants in a charity school China I reflected on the difference between these two chapters of my life. Certainly each episode has been hugely enriching though completely different experiences. The nature of this life, and of being in full partnership with one’s spouse, allows us to take on new and diverse experiences; each one enriching in its own unique way.
It could be said that clubs and organisations such as Bienvenue en France belong to the past; that nowadays diplomats’ partners are solely occupied in developing their own careers or that they have established different outlets and no longer desire or see value in membership of such groups.
But my own personal experience tells me that an organization such as BEF is as important today as ever. It binds its members and the diplomatic families to which they belong into a fuller understanding of the host country, of its society, its mores and in short, of what makes it tick.
It is right also to recall that there is a measure of dislocation attached to the diplomatic career – as families cumulatively spend entire decades in one country and culture after another.
This places particular demands on each one of us and our families – demands which even the most well-adjusted and accomplished of us experience from time to time.
They cultivate mutual comprehension and understanding (not the same thing!) and make it a good deal easier to settle in and appreciate our different cultures. And goodness knows, there a need for this in the twenty-first century.
By Rosemary Kavanagh