Kensington Palace Gardens, backing on to the grounds of the Palace itself, is an impressive avenue of varied architecture, the London homes of many of the world’s ambassadors. I had come, on Monday 29 March 2010, with my family and some friends to the French Ambassador’s Residence for a ceremony in which, along with a dozen others, I was to be decorated as a Chevalier in the Ordre des Palmes Académiques for services rendered to French culture.
We were made to feel very much at home, although I was a bit anxious as I knew that I had to make a short speech to the gathering later on.The welcome glass of a crisp white wine helped to steady the nerves and I was able to relax into the occasion.
The Residence is a beautiful, elegant home embellished with marble busts and tapestry. The salon being used for the ceremony was infused with a soft purple light accentuating the colour of the palme’s ribbon. The Ambassador, a charming man, immaculately dressed, introduced himself and welcomed us to his home.
The moment had arrived. A gendarme picked up a cushion on which the palmes were resting and took up a stage right position. The recipients were also invited to take their place on the left and the ceremony began.
The ambassador spoke first in English, explaining the history of the palmes. Then, he called forward each person in turn to be decorated. Speaking in French this time he addressed the recipient directly summarising the contribution the person had made. Then picking up a palme from the cushion he presented it in the name of the French Minister of Education, pinned it on and following the formal embrace invited each to speak.
I spoke of the honour France had bestowed on me and through me on my family, colleagues, teachers and students who share a love of all things French.
The Champagne was opened and as canapés were served, the buzz of conversation increased.The Ambassador joined each group in turn and happily posed for pictures. We talked about him coming to Belfast... and then gradually and gently it was over.
It is an evening that I will always remember and an honour that I will always cherish.
I see it not as a culmination of my work but as an invitation to do even more.
It is a pleasure to accept.