La madeleine de Proust – Proust’s « sponge cake »

Grandma's Cooking«La madelaine de Proust » has become a rather fairly common expression in the French language. It refers to a passage in Mr. Marcel Proust’s, seven-volume novel, A la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search  of Lost Time, also translated as Remembrance of Things Past. In this passage, the narrator examines the notion of involuntary memory, a conception of human memory in which cues encountered in everyday life, like enjoying a petite madeleine with one’s tea, evoke recollections of the past without any conscious effort on the part of the individual. « Proustian memory » to which this type of memory is sometimes referred has since become a part of modern psychology. The expression “la madeleine de Proust” then refers to how powerful unconscious memory can be and how it can resurface in a very strong and irrational way. The passage  goes on to analyze how such memory should enable one to reconnect with one’s youth, to cherish it and the memory of it.

For a foreigner, no matter how many decades you live abroad, such an “attack” of memory can occur at any time. It is less unexpected when you go back to your hometown and experience old smells, familiar landscapes, old tastes. There you are not surprised to have this kind of flashback. It is when such an experience happens completely unexpectedly that it is most powerful.

Ymer med brun sucker, a Danish dessert, is a liquid yogurt with a particular kind of dark cane sugar added, which has a unique taste and consistency. I often enjoyed this sweet treat on family vacations to what I considered  my “second home” in Denmark, my mother’s country of origin. My wife bought this kind of sugar in Paris at Naturalia, a French health food store chain a few months ago. Only recently has one been able to find this product somewhat easily in France.

Next thing I knew, I was mixing it with a plain Perle de Lait yogurt and memories of my childhood came rushing back as the taste triggered the process. I was this child between 8 and 12 years old, staying with my grandparents and my uncles and aunts in Denmark. I was back in their home – everything was so vivid. It was a very moving experience.

For each of us, no matter how many decades we live in our adopted country, no matter how fully integrated we feel, there is this special spot where childhood lies waiting to be called up. The worst thing to do is to dismiss it. The foolish thing to do is to conclude that one is not integrated after all, that one should move back. As a foreigner, we will always miss things, which means longing for what was left behind. From the deepest rapture to the silliest craving, such feelings are all important because they speak to us about the same thing. We need to cherish these moments and treat them with the utmost respect. This is twice as important for expatriates as it was for Proust. Too often expatriates feel very uneasy about such experiences, blaming themselves for being mushy and having corny thoughts, and end up feeling that all this is ridiculous.

I just hope my testimony can help others grasp this aspect of the life of a long-term immigrant. Such experiences say nothing about your ability to function as a responsible adult in your new culture.


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