Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian in Normandy, was born in London two years after the war ended. His father had seen action in North Africa with General Montgomery while his mother worked in munitions and survived the London Blitz. It was inevitable that the images of bombsites and tales of the war that punctuated his childhood would create indelible memories. Now, after 40 years of working in education, Alan is living in Normandy and leading visitors in the footsteps of the soldiers who liberated the area the summer of 1944.
After four years gaining qualifications at the University of London, Alan moved north to Manchester to take up his first lecturing post. In his second year he met his future wife, Carol. They had three daughters, and by 1981 they were experiencing their first of many family holidays in France. In addition to discovering a fascinating country where they would all like to live someday, Alan also encountered the battlefields of WW1, and on returning home began interviewing veterans and writing up the stories they told. During the 1980s and 90s, Alan worked on a national campaign with universities and government ministers to break down the access barriers to higher education, enabling many thousands of people who had left school with few qualifications to gain a university degree. Subsequent overseas projects included the development of English language schools in China, the establishment of the first International Business College in Gambia and post-tsunami reconstruction work in Sri Lanka.
In 2007, Alan and Carol retired in Normandy, where they began restoring a 300-year-old farmhouse with historical connections to D-Day. Within a year, Alan and Carol were running a touring business combined with a bed and breakfast (www.normandybnb.com). Alan’s personalised tours have been particularly successful with young people for whom the concept of war is often difficult to grasp. He has been recommended by one American high school as a guide for a forthcoming Normandy immersion program.
While many companies offer D-Day tours, Alan believes his success is due to his treatment of the subject as social rather than military history, looking at how the war affected ordinary men, women and families. Taking an empathetic approach, his “students” gain an insight into how it felt to be involved in the events which shaped the destiny of the world that devastating summer, and they leave with a deep respect for those who risked everything to bring the nightmare to a close.
AWP: What is it about France?
AD: You can’t choose where you are born but you can choose where you live. I enjoyed my childhood in the UK, but the more experience I had of France, the more it felt like home. Crossing the English Channel for a holiday in the summer felt like going home. France is a more relaxed place to live; family and community values have not been eroded; people are polite and their children well-mannered. And then of course there is the importance placed on good food and drink without the healthy eating obsessions that contradict themselves every couple of years.
AWP: Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) Emperor of the French who established the bureaucratic structure of the modern French state, and reactionary pragmatist regarding women said in a letter written in 1795: A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris for six months. How do we understand this statement today?
AD: When Napoleon wrote this in 1795, the glamorous lifestyle of bourgeois ladies had evaporated, to be replaced by images of women standing alongside men and cheering every head that fell! If he meant to say that by living in Paris a woman can explore her degree of independence, this is certainly still true. It’s a place to fulfill aspirations and has such a range of diversity that you can be yourself, however quirky that may be, and nobody blinks an eyelid!
AWP: Some expatriates are predisposed, each in their own way, toward France; through fantasy, family or a cultural context at that time. Some may have already held a piece of their narrative. How was that the same for you?
AD: The divorce from the land of my birth was inevitable. I thought there would be days when I’d experience regrets but that hasn’t happened. If you expect a move to France to be a bed of roses, you’ll be disappointed, but if you accept that there will be difficulties to overcome, you’ll be able to take them in your stride. It’s interesting that for many English people France is still seen as the home of arrogant Frenchmen living in squalid cities and subsisting on a diet of frogs’ legs and snails. I have seen much more arrogance among expats who refuse to integrate, and the level of cleanliness between the two countries is best exemplified when you cross the Channel and see the amount of litter deposited along English roads. When I arrived in France, one expat told me “In France they think the best of you until you prove otherwise. In Britain it feels that the opposite is true.”
AWP: How has the idea of study abroad changed since you went? Do you think the new technologies make a true study abroad experience obsolete?
AD: When you study abroad there are so many more opportunities for personal development and learning about other cultures. To think this can be achieved by the application of new technologies is dangerous. Virtual worlds produce virtual people.
AWP: What do you think today’s women, and men, living abroad as students bring to the French?
AD: Globalisation (or la mondialisation to the French) is a key word for the 21st century. We have to encourage our students to think beyond their national boundaries. The popularity of France as a destination for study has never waned. Studying alongside students from the English-speaking world, young French men and women have the chance to not just improve their language skills but also develop their cultural awareness of the nations with whom they will be working and trading in the future.
AWP: Several of our contributors have lived abroad as students or have taught school in France or Francophone countries. Many followers are preparing to study or live abroad. What would you say to them?
AD: Go for it! But consider the fact that you may not wish to return home.
AWP: In your youth, what did you imagine your adult life would hold? What influenced this vision?
AD: Anyone born in the post-war baby boom in the UK had infinitely more opportunities than their parents. A series of educational and social reforms paved the way for families of modest means to access university degrees which, in turn, opened doors to hitherto undreamed career paths. My family were pub landlords in the poorest parts of London where poverty forced them to leave school without qualifications, and in my early years I could never have expected life to hold anything better for me. Luckily, a series of dedicated and inspirational teachers changed all that and the availability of free university education with subsistence grants opened up the whole world to me. I would, however, like to point out that it was easier for boys to follow this path. Unfortunately in the ‘50s and ‘60s society still had low expectations of girls and even those lucky enough to achieve a coveted grammar school place were not encouraged to take advantage of it.
AWP: How did you get your foot in the door at the beginning of your career?
AD: The degree opened the door without the need for a foot. Jobs were plentiful and at my first lecturing interview there were three candidates for two posts! Times have changed: there are many more graduates and many fewer jobs.
AWP: Name the single book and movie, works of art and music, fashion or cuisine that has inspired you.
AD: I have always been inspired more by music and books than by fashion or food. I am a major fan of singer-songwriters like Paul Simon and Ralph McTell. Of course there are dozens more but I marvel at their knack of finding a lyric that sums up everything in a few words. And they can put it to music! As for books, I discovered Lord of the Rings as a teenager, have read it countless times and love the film. It’s the kind of inspirational, good versus evil story that is timeless and has a message for all generations.
AWP: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it?
AD: Munich, by David Faber. It explains what was going on between Britain and Hitler in the run-up to the war better than anything I’ve ever read and makes the reader realise how close we came to utter defeat and humiliation. There are times to feel proud to be British but 1938 was not one of them.
AWP: Was being stylish important to you growing up? Is it now?
AD: I cannot ever remember anyone being described as “stylish” when I was a child. There were no real role models and no hard sell. As people acquired more disposable income in the mid-60s, the fashion crazes started, fuelled by music and vice-versa. I didn’t think I had taken much notice until I took out some old photographs many years later and noticed the long hair, sideburns, flares and colourful velvets. Any style I may have exhibited was a matter of what felt right for me. I didn’t feel it necessary to follow someone else’s trend but there I was with the rest of the hippies!
For most of my working life as a lecturer and manager, a suit was the dress code, but my suits are now hung up in the barn.
AWP: How do you define style or fashion?
AD: Style is all about wearing something in which you feel comfortable and which reflects the person you are. Fashion can often be about wearing what others are wearing. I’ve always found it a matter of personal confidence. In rural Normandy we tend not to take fashion seriously. The fashion-conscious here have a clean pair of gardening gloves and an extra pair of Wellies rain boots for best.
AWP: Tell me about your cooking and eating habits and traditions.
AD: I never used to cook but I’ve learned a lot since living in France, and Carol will even let me cook for guests! Living close to the coast and a major farming region we have access to a huge range of fresh produce and I’ve particularly enjoyed learning how to prepare fish meals. We are surrounded by such great, fresh food and our own fruit and vegetable garden has provided abundantly. We still enjoy the occasional English Sunday roast dinner but the French influence is there with everything else. A frequent question from our B&B guests after one of Carol’s evening meals is, ”Do you eat like this all the time?” We answer with an honest “Yes.” I can’t believe all those TV dinners I used to consume in the UK.
Two years ago I restored our 18th century bread oven and turned it into a garden feature. In my excavations I hoped that I might find my predecessor’s stash of calvados or wine (It was the practice to hide such treasures when they realised that occupation was imminent). Unfortunately, all I found were some broken Pernod bottles. I did however unearth a small gold and turquoise stud fastening which could probably tell a story just as well. The metal door to the oven is also still missing but as soon as I can track one down, we can start baking bread for the hamlet as happened in days gone by.
The garden is an acre in size so it’s great to eat out of doors. Even more enjoyable are our picnics in the neighbouring woods where we have spectacular views over the Drome Valley and where we often have roe deer for company.
AWP: What was your most memorable meal to date?
AD: Family holidays in France helped to incubate the idea that we may live there one day. In 1993 we hired a gypsy caravan and toured the forests of the Périgord region in the southwest with our youngest daughter, Rosie, who was 8 at the time and mad on horses. One night we discovered an old mill that had been converted into a restaurant. We stopped for a beautiful duck meal, washed it down with a bottle of Buzet, which is now one of my favourite wines, and the whole experience could not have been more idyllic. I think that evening was a turning point and I knew that I was hooked on France for life.
AWP: What is in your refrigerator right now?
AD: The freezer is filling up with produce from our garden, as it does every year. We have been particularly successful with our fruit crops and fruit means jams and baking! As well as our current store of damson, strawberry and raspberry jam we also have rhubarb chutney and elderflower cordial. The elderflower grows in the lane outside our house and we have been experimenting with the kind of drinks it can make. Last year Carol discovered an internet recipe for elderflower champagne but the bottles kept exploding like Molotov cocktails. Look a little further and you’ll find apple pies (made from our Bramley apples that are an English favourite in which we continue to indulge), tarte au citron and gooseberry crumbles. We have a gooseberry glut at the moment and we are currently searching for new fish recipes where they can often make a useful accompaniment. The last visit to the market netted us some sea bass and plaice and we also have some salmon and lots of fresh meat. The fridge houses plenty of pungent Normandy cheeses (Normandy boasts an unholy trinity of Camembert, Pont L’Eveque and Livarot) and any available spaces are filled with bottles of Normandy cider and cans of beer. I should be allowed to hold on to one cultural tradition from the country of my birth!
ART OF LIVING:
AWP: What natural gift would you most like to possess? What talent are you most thankful for?
AD: I wish I could be more musical. I have some nice guitars but my playing has been on a plateau since about 1970.
I’m told I have a talent for communication. Throughout my life I have been called on to write letters to persons in authority or resolve conflicts with difficult people and since I’m still in one piece I deduce that I must have got it right most of the time. It seems that Normandy has a strong message to communicate to the world and I am happy to be its conduit.
AWP: You have retired now, why start up a new business?
AD: I firmly believe that future world leaders, and the people whose role is to support them, must see at first hand the effects of the biggest war that has ever cast its shadow over our earth. The Normandy beaches provide one example of nations working together to pull the world away from the brink of disaster, and I know that many visitors come away deeply moved. They need to know the fragility of peace, and begin to think about how they might contribute to the future stability of our world.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® blog, D-Day Travel Guide: For American visitors to Normandy, France, by Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan has managed to seek out a number of places of significance that do not usually feature in guidebooks. Guides included.
French Impressions: Alice Kaplan – the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, on the process of transformation. Author and professor of French at Yale University, Ms. Kaplan shares her new book, Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, on the process of transformation. By entering into the lives of three important American women who studied in France, we learn how their year in France changed them, and how they changed the world because of it.
Wherever you go, you always meet a Breton, by French woman from Breton, Bénédicte Mahé, who is in her mastère-spécialisé final trimester doing an internship in Paris. Bénédicte asks us to take out our notebooks and pens and get ready for a lesson on Brittany. Recipe included for Far Breton (with prunes), a crêpe for your sweet tooth!
French Impressions: Alyssa Glawe on living abroad and teaching in France. Alyssa Glawe an English assistant teacher, who worked for the Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) writing about her experiences in Grenoble, France.
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2012 Alan Davidge. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.