Nostalgie du Pays

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, after the success of the hard right parties in the European elections in France in May this year.

Even if you don’t normally watch videos, even if politics leave you cold, even if you don’t understand French, please take the time and have the patience to look at this – a man visibly moved by what is happening to his country.


Va, la France. Va, ma belle patrie. Allez les travailleurs, ressaisissez-vous, ne laissez pas que tout ça soit fait en votre nom. Ne permettez pas… Ne permettez pas que la France soit autre chose que ce qu’elle est dans le coeur du monde entier…


Forward, France, Onward , my beautiful country. Workers, organise; do not permit all this to be done in your name. Do not allow…Do not allow France to be any other than that which she is in the hearts of the whole world.


This came back to me in the wake of the murder of the young  Canadian soldier guarding the war memorial in Ottawa….we can know our country is not perfect, but we can love it despite – and sometimes because.

The corpse of that young man travelled the 310 miles of the Highway of Heroes – named as such when the dead from the war in Afghanistan were brought home  -with, it seems, every inch lined by people wishing to express solidarity with his family and solidarity with the values of the country in whose service he died.

Because the people of Canada have not reacted with hatred, but with sorrow, not by instigating witch hunts, but by expressing their love for a young man whose life was needlessly lost – and by setting up a trust find for his young son.

Practical, kindly, level headed people.


So why should this remind me of the words of a defeated French politician?


Because the love of country is a strange and unfathomable beast.


You can loathe  a system yet love the people who live under it….

You can live under oppression yet find relief in the memory of ancient freedom…

You can experience nostalgia for a way of life that once you knew, that you know to be gone, but whose memory lingers like the scent of lavender in your grandmother’s handkerchief drawer.
A scent which comes to you, softly, faintly, when you least expect it and rouses memories of times past.

Apollinaire in his ‘Cors de Chasse’ says that memories are like the calls of the hunting horn, dying away in the wind…but for me those calls bring the past vividly to life…while you live and remember, these things are real.

And the love of country seems to me to be to be a love of your memories…not the abstract ideals trumpeted by politicians who defile the very ideals of which they speak.

Much as I, a Scot, loathe ‘Flower of Scotland’, that dirge now sung on all national occasions…the lines ‘fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen’ conjure up for me my grandfather’s farm…the cattle in the byre, the sheep on the hill, someone cursing the reaper binder and all its works …and although I know that all that world has passed its memory still attaches me to Scotland.

I might know of the Declaration of Arbroath and all the tarradiddles about its real intention; the Wars of Independence, the Darien scheme which brought the country to its knees …but Scotland to me is my own small world when young; the neighbours – ‘canty and couthy and kindly, the best’…the soldiers of my father’s regiment, so kind to me when a child….my grandmother – the terror of the family – explaining to me that every stranger who knocked at the door was the Christ and was to be received with respect and assisted if in need…not that that prevented her from asking the Christ to chop a few logs…

I never really took to England…formed too early in Scotland, I suppose. Perhaps had I grown up in Edinburgh and gone to the right schools…but I had not.
I lived there, I worked there, but despite knowing a number of good kind people, overall life there confirmed my father’s view of the English.

The English? They’re like kippers. No guts and two faces…
Unfair, I know and untrue in private life, but all too evident in the public sphere.

I remember the miners’ strike in the Thatcher years…and how glad were the other union bosses that Scargill would not take the – by then – legally obligatory ballot for strike action…those yellow bellies sold out their own movement and now we have unemployment…people working zero hours contracts…and tax evaders ruling the roost.

I enjoyed the county shows…the magnificent animals and their proud owners…but no landscape held me, no one place anchored me.

But I came to England as an a child…

When I moved to France it was as an adult, eyes wide open.

I had made the move as, at that point, property was much cheaper, as was the cost of living and I could still work by fax….without the commuting, without the hassle. Less money, more time.

I was lucky…the neighbours were decent, welcoming people…I made friends with them and, through the man who ran the library in the local town, met others of a more literary bent.
I began to get to know the place through their eyes….

And what a place it was!

I felt at home as I had not since childhood…there was a real inclusion in local life, an expectation that I would participate.
And participate I did, in the Maison Pour Tous – the local centre for activities for all, young or old – in the walking group, in the gardening club, and the Am Dram, playing Feydeau farces under the manic direction of the local dentist.
Unfortunately I wasn’t then eligible for the Old Age Pensioners meetings…a real den of iniquity under the guise of cards and knitting.

Walking the dogs in the evening I would be invited to join the game of boules in front of Jules’ farmhouse, or get hijacked by Papy into helping him fix the window of his little Renault van..Edith would pile us all into her ancient 2CV and we would visit Alice in the next hamlet, her garage full of the implements invented by her husband, who had been a surgical instrument maker…

These people let me into their world and gave me a great love for France – not the France of the caste of vain, incompetent buffoons who run the place, nor the France of the colour supplements where people sit at cafe terraces inhaling vehicle emisssions, nor yet the France of culture and architecture – but the France of ordinary people getting on with their lives as best they can and what those lives bring forth.

I love to keep in touch with it all…I can still see in my mind’s eye the woods at the back of my first house where the flowers of the sweet chestnut trees burst in yellow fireworks against the soft green foliage….I can still ‘hear’ the town band on its erratic way round the commune on July 13th.

Costa Rica has proved to be an amazingly happy place in which to have landed and has conquered me hook, line and sinker…

But, from time to time, I have nostalgie du pays.


56 thoughts on “Nostalgie du Pays”

  1. As I read this, I had a very emotional response and then read Ann Aubrey Hanson’s perfect words above – it is achingly lovely, Helen. It really is and as such, strikes such a chord. Very excellent piece. Axxx

  2. Yes. Nostalgie du pays…for so many of us, older now, of course, who have lived in other countries, there are and will always be such memory hooks.

    Lovely post, Helen. And thanks for the kippers!!:-)

    1. It’s something I’ve never understood, expats who seem to feel obliged to care only about the country in which they are living, running down their country of origin…

      Ah yes…the kippers….

  3. Beautifully written, Helen. It brought to mind some favorite sayings. One, by my old buddy TS Eliot was “Home is where one starts from” and that seemed to fit your description of Scotland. But then Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts” and that seemed to reflect your times in France and now Costa Rica.

    So I wondered, if “home is really where the heart is”, as per the old chestnut, where is “home” for you now?

    1. Home for me is where my husband is…sounds corny, but that’s it.
      Mark you the dogs come a close second…and overtake occasionally when too many demands for tea are made…

  4. I can understand what you say about loving a country despite. But personally I’ve never been in any way attached to the countries I’ve lived in (England and now Northern Ireland). My attachment is to art and culture, which of course transcends national boundaries. I’m sure I could live happily in many countries as long as my cultural interests were provided for. To me, statements like “England is the greatest country in the world” are obvious nonsense. No guts and two faces is about right.

    1. I suppose I’m attached to places where I have been happy…but, like you, I could live anywhere that allows me access to music, the theatre, art…and basic liberty to live as I please.

      Jingoism leaves me frostbitten – wherever it raises its head.
      Glad you liked the kippers…

  5. Oh Helen, thank you so much for this.
    I have been feeling ‘displaced’ just recently, what with all the anti- foreigners rhetoric in the UK and a bit of nostalgie du pays thrown in and getting old and being aware of having no ‘home’ and no family to go back to. Thank you for your words and thoughts, they have helped me to see the brighter shades rather than the dark and gloomy ones.

    1. The foreigner bashing in the U.K. is extremely depressing…I can see why it gets you down, especially if you are having vulnerable moments, worrying about getting older and the horrible one – what do I do if I am left alone in the world….That bothers me too.
      I’m glad if this picked you up a bit…we’ve had good times and it is good to remember them.

  6. I think you’ve found a bit of your Scottish hills in the Costa Rican hills. In America, in Britain, in France, and now in Canada, there is no going back, and so little experience to build a future like the memory of the past.
    No country has a strong national memory; I wonder what it would take, tragic or triumphant, to turn our eyes out to nation again. Just the other day it occurred to me “citizenship” is no longer taught in our schools.

    1. Yes. with the mountains and the fast running streams Costa Rica has much which reminds me of Scotland…though luckily it is somewhat warmer!

      In France the Front National plays on the memories of the past to divide opposing parties, just as in the 1980s President Mitterand cynically boosted the Front National to divide the right and maintain himself in power…yet another means of maintaining the status quo, the rule of the governing caste.
      We seem to have been robbed of our past…when we were children in school we had books of traditional songs…anything from Summer is icumen in to My mother bids me bind my hair via The ash grove and Hearts of Oak. Friends tell me their grandchildren have never heard of any of these.
      Friends teaching law tell me that students have no knowledge of their country’s history, no context in which to set the meanderings of Common Law…

      It seems so sad to me that we have allowed an elite whose interests are not our own to hijack not only the state but society, dividing people from their roots and leaving them at the mercy of every wind that blows.

  7. Are people are defined not by their politicians or the economy under which they toil but by their response and reaction to it. And the life they carve out despite it all.

      1. You should see my typos, Steve!
        Yes, and the problem is that people aren’t – it seems to me – actors in society any more, but limited to being reactors.
        All that initiative and intelligence wasted…

  8. This is beautiful Helen, and has struck chords for all of us reading your words. I love the kipper reference. “Home” for me has developed into a where “we are” at the moment, but your comment about it being where your husband is, has made me think. If I was alone, I would have to think very carefully about where home would be… is, undoubtedly, with Mark at the moment…wherever “we are”.
    As our French home has become more home than it used to be, we have managed to rid ourselves of the company of people we first met who forever complained about their previous homes, and those who moaned about the shortcomings of their hosts in their new homes…….I want to appreciate here and now, whilst being happy to hold solid and important memories of previous places where I have been happy.
    Thanks for posting these thoughts….they’ve certainly got the brain cells working for me this morning….thinking it all through.

    1. Re the kippers, father had several pithy phrases which rise to mind from time to time…
      I think you are right…enjoy what you have while you have it, enjoy the memories of passed times that were good…but above all, I think, enjoy the company of decent people.
      I wonder too about what would be ‘home’ without Leo beside me…but will have to solve that one when or if it arises. At the moment that thought is a bridge too far…

  9. What Melanchon says is repeated at length in Zemmour’s new book ‘Le Suicide français’. I’ve started it and it makes depressing reading. What the country is becoming is not pretty and I do wonder how long things can last. My DB wants to leave, but I like where I live.

    I can understand your nostalgie du pays. Just thinking about having to leave makes me feel the same!

    1. Guy has sent me a copy of Zemmour, so I’m haunting the post office for its arrival.

      We left France when it became unbearable – using Leo as a guinea pig without his consent and finding no lawyer willing to take on the hospital was the last straw, but the open corruption in the justice system and the sheer incompetence of commerce were supporting factors. When every day is a battle life becomes wearisome.

      I have lovely memories of my life there, but things changed for the worse as time went on…system D morphed into norms and ever increasing false costs for inspections that were worthless….
      No, it was time to go.

  10. Wonderfully stated, Helen. I believe that no matter how beautiful an area is, without people and the memories they evoke, it’s hard to form an attachment. Your remembrances of Scotland and France likely wouldn’t be nearly so poignant without their association to your grandparents and friends, respectively. When I think of the different places I’ve lived, I think as much of the people as the place.

    1. It is the people, you are right…I can conjure up in my mind the places in which I lived when in England…but they are not alive with the people as are those of Scotland and France..

  11. This is an incredibly moving post, Helen. I have such wonderful memories of my time growing up on a farm in the US, and a deep love for the people in the country of my birth. But, like France, I fear the country is being ruined by those in positions of power, be it financial or political. Thank you for your very kind words about Canada.

    1. Canada’s response to that tragedy has been an example to all of us.

      With you on the way that countries we love have been and are being ruined…here in Costa Rica we have a president taking on an uphill fight to try to reverse that process – and being accused of ‘tyranny’ while he does so…

        1. Agreed. Kristie’s post showing the video of the dignified TV newscaster brought me to tears. His use of language, his restrained outrage, oh, it was just so opposite of what would be going on on our cable networks.

          1. When I caught the BBC coverage I realised that the effect of 24 hour news has been to reduce every event to talking heads….
            News used to be news, with a newscaster and a bit of supporting background, now it’s non stop wittering from people who know nothing but surmise much.

  12. Helen, I cannot begin to express how beautiful your words are to me, how perfectly they express the intangible, how powerfully they evoke deep emotion. You are a treasure, an absolute treasure in the blogosphere. And I cannot agree more with your sentiment towards Canada whose people have comported themselves in such a dignified and noble manner. “The scent of lavender in your grandmother’s handkerchief drawer.” Exactly.

  13. Helen this is a great post and as always so well written.

    I have to say we are happy members of the pensioner’s club here and enjoy our Tuesday afternoons with them. We are the only English in our group, thank goodness for N’s pretty good French. Having said that, we play French scrabble instead of Belote (which I still want to learn) and I quite often come up with words that get a “non, non, non”. A check in the dictionnaire proves me to be right and generally causes much amusement 🙂 The fourth Tuesday of the month is a walk, weather permitting, and we have learnt so much about the local area which we would never have discovered alone.

    Take care and both of you keep well, Diane

    1. Belote bemused me for years; people would explain it, I would watch them…but it never sank in….
      By the time I qualified Leo was too ill for there to be much point in joining….but I wish i had been able to join the club in my first village…the gendarmerie did a breath test in the parking area and out of forty or so thirty or more were over the limit…and I used to think it was just cards and knitting. It also fitted in with the instability of the OAPs keep fit classes, which I was once privileged to observe…ladies lifting pressure stockinged legs to mutters of admiration from the gentlemen who attended class in their caps……

      1. Belote still is a complete mystery to me but I do want to try!!! We do not have keep fit classes, but as an ex aerobic instructor maybe there is an opening for me…….. Nooooooo too much like hard work especially in French 🙂

  14. Lovely post, Helen. They say you should never go back to somewhere you loved, because you generally remember only the good parts, and when you go back they are not as you remember them. I certainly found that when I revisited childhood haunts. I feel immense nostalgia for Kenya, but recent photos show that so much of what I loved is no longer there, so I cling to the memories and will resist the temptation to return to be disillusioned.

    1. Easy to lose the illusions, isn’t it.
      I went back to a place we lived when in England and found that the house had been demolished and replaced by a block of flats…garden gone to nothing, just grass, gravel and dustbins…very depressing.

  15. La vidéo dont vous parlez n’était pas sur votre post. Je l’ai trouvée sur le journal Libération. Oui, c’est un beau discours qu’il a fait. D’un côté c’est plus facile pour moi quand j’ai le mal du pays de me rappeler que mes beaux souvenirs. Si j’habitais encore à Paris je suis sûre que je ne serais pas contente de la politique d’extrême droite. Vous avez raison, quand on a le mal du pays, ou la nostalgie comme vous le dites, c’est surtout les bons moments dont on se souvient. C’est aussi surtout quand on ne se trouve pas à l’aise dans le pays où on a immigré. Un post intéressant à lire et qui fait penser.

    1. Jr m’excuse…quant a la video j’aurai du utilise celle du Liberation…mais ca ce dure trop longtemps et j’ai voulu seulement les phrases que j’avais copie ci-dessus.
      Nostalgie du pays me prend en les moments quand je suis tranquille, quand je ne suis pas totalement occupee par les choses de la vie quotidienne . Soudainement, spontanement, l’idee me viens…’comment Didier aurait aime ca’….qu’aurait dit ma grandmere …et je me retrouve au passe.

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