Norwegians across the world: The “Norwegian” baker of French Catalonia

Côte Vermeille

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The Côte Vermeille (“vermilion coast”) is a region in the Pyrénées-Orientales Department of Mediterranean France, just north of the Spanish border. It’s called “French Catalonia,” in part because Catalan is also spoken, as it is in Catalonia, the autonomous community south of the border in Spain. Save for bilingual street signs in Catalan and in French, the small towns along the coast are quintessentially French.

Yet there are exceptions. One is the bakery near the city hall in Port Vendres, the third town north along the coast from the Spanish border. Outwardly it seems much like typical small-town Artisan Boulanger (“Artisan Baker”) establishments throughout France. But once inside, a customer from Scandinavia may discover a distinguishing difference: native French owner/operator Laurent Boudigue is fluent in Norwegian.

The story of that unusual ability starts in the early 1990s, when Laurent, then in his early 20s, started a career in insurance business in his native Toulouse. With a commercial school education, he was well suited for the job. Powerfully built and agile, he played rugby, the team sport of choice in southern France. Life seemed assured. Then chance appeared.

At the insurance company, he made friends with a colleague who had lived and worked in Norway for 20 years. After six months, the colleague left to return to Norway, explaining that he had lost much of his Frenchness. Laurent wondered what that meant. He was soon to find out. He and the colleague kept in contact, and in 1993 Laurent was invited to spend the Christmas vacation in Norway. That he did.

The vacation visit stretched to a pivotal three months. In June 1994 he was back in Oslo, with a demanding schedule of working six hours a day in insurance and learning Norwegian for five hours a day in an intensive program. He triumphed at both: nine months later he was assigned to customer support for the Storebrand insurance company. He stayed at that job for eight years, first in Oslo, then in Tønsberg, a major port on the Oslo Fjord.

Upon turning 35 in 2001, he realized that a moment of truth was at hand. Should he stay in Norway, where he had assimilated so well that he felt Norwegian, or should he return to his native land? If he stayed in Norway, he knew what he would be doing. Returning to France was another matter. Staying in insurance would entail moving to and working in Paris, which he didn’t want to do.

Chance again appeared. He saw his future while working on an insurance claim that in part involved a bakery. He enjoyed making things by hand and had always wanted to be his own boss. Clearly he should return to France and become a baker. Learning to bake to have his own business in France could hardly be more difficult than learning Norwegian to work in Norway.

Photo: MM Brady Baker Laurent Boudigue and daughter Valentine (9 years old).

Photo: MM Brady
Baker Laurent Boudigue and daughter Valentine (9 years old).

Back in Toulouse in 2002, he plunged into another intensive program of re-education, first to obtain a baccalaureate and then to qualify in the artisan skills of the bakery trade. Within a year, he was a certified apprentice baker working in bakeries in the Toulouse region, absorbing skills and on the lookout for a place to set up his own shop.

In 2006 he found one, a boulangerie put up for sale by the couple who owned it, as they were retiring from the trade in Port Vendres. The location was ideal, just two doors from the city hall on a pedestrian street overlooking the waterfront. Laurent acted quickly.

With the names of its new proprietors, Cécile et Laurent Boudigue, on its awning banner, the boulangerie reopened in 2007. Soon Scandinavian customers coming into the shop found that he spoke Norwegian, often by chatting amongst themselves in making a decision on what to buy and being politely asked “skal jeg hjelpe deg med noe?” (may I help you with anything?).

“They always were astonished,” Laurent recalls, “as I don’t look at all Norwegian. But then the Norwegianness acquired in Oslo and Tønsberg showed through.”

Word of mouth has carried that trait throughout the Côte Vermeille, where Laurent now is known among resident and visiting Norwegians as Den norske baker (“The Norwegian baker”).

This article originally appeared in the April 24, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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