In this blogposting (which was drafted and posted in France)...
* News From Nowhere
* La Vie en France/Life in France
* Rugby
* The National Anthem
Et maintenant - allez!

Half a dodo has been discovered in London.

Even worse - at least from the dodo’s point of view - is that it was mistaken for a crocodile when its bones were first put in the box in Edwardian times.

The Grant Museum, part of University College London and one of England’s oldest natural history collections, had decided to move its 70,000-item collection of bones to new premises and that’s when the original error was uncovered.

A museum spokesman said the mistake was understandable. ‘The bones of crocodiles and birds have a lot in common’, he said.

I am not remotely qualified to argue the point. It does, however, seem to be a spectacularly bad mistake to make, up there with ‘Peace in our Time’ and the famous ‘can’t sing, can dance a little’ assessment of a Fred Astaire audition.

I don’t know which half of the dodo it was, but I can’t help wondering what happened to the other half. It could be in a box somewhere, being mistaken for an elephant or something.

I’ve now spent quite some time in France, on and off. This, I think, entitles me to give voice to some of the ways - great and small, good and bad - in which daily life is different there.

Do not expect any heavy cynicism here, by the way. I know a few French people who will cut and paste this posting into an online translator. So anything other than the gentlest, kindest ribbing would result in a rapid and rather unpleasant end to ma vie en France.

By ‘flannels’, I mean ‘facecloths’ - those small, square bits of terry-towelling which many Brits use in the shower or the bath.

Well, they don’t exist here. Instead, the cloth is shaped and sewn into a mitt shape, which you ‘wear’ over your hand. Which is all very well until you want to change hands. The resulting struggle can make shower-time a nightmare.

For reasons which French people regard me as being tendentious for even asking about, French pillows are not oblong; they’re square.

This variation in our national preferences is, of course, completely unimportant. I just wonder why it exists at all. After all, one of us must be right.

I spend most of my French time in Beaujolais, famous (of course) for producing France’s most popular wine. It’s popular because it’s good and it’s inexpensive; the French drink more Beaujolais than any other wine.

And it comes from a very pretty part of the country, too. It’s splendidly hilly. The lower slopes of the valleys are clothed in vineyards (as you’d expect) while the hilltops are forested or have small, unchanged and captivating villages planted on top of them. In Beaujolais, and the areas round it, you’re spoilt for choice if you want a trip out to visit an unaltered mediaeval village on a Sunday afternoon. Last Sunday, we chose Oingt, above.

I love the way the French place an innate value on their countryside and its villages. The preservation of ancient buildings and whole villages is not a cause you have to fight for here; it’s a fait accompli.

The sport of handball is enormously popular here. This is just as well as, at the moment, it seems to be just about the only game the French are good at. A few weekends ago, they won the World Handball Championships (against Denmark) and it was headline news.

We mustn’t begrudge them their moment in the limelight; it’s helped to eradicate the palpable sense of collective national shame that was felt here over the pantomime antics of the French football team at the World Cup last summer.

I had the very great pleasure of watching England beat France in the Six Nations on French tv last weekend. I would make myself look even more foolish than usual if I made any attempt here to analyse the match, so instead I thought the more linguistically curious truckshunters may be interested in some of the ‘match-words’ I managed to pick up from the commentators (who are even more fast-talking there than they are here.)

* les meilleurs gagne! - 'may the best team win!'
* French imports the words ‘match’ and ‘score’ from English
* French touch is used for ‘touch’
* a ‘try’ is translated literally as an essai
* a ‘conversion’ is a transformation
* teams play a domicile or a l’exterieur - ‘at home’ or ‘away’
* a ‘scrum’ is a melee
* a ‘penalty’ is a penalite, although in soccer, the English word ‘penalty’ is used
* for a ‘drop kick’, French uses the English word drop; like many languages, French has no word for ‘kick’
* English ‘tackle’ - pronounced tack-luh - is also used, although I sometimes heard plaquer, ‘to bring down’, as well

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but watching the England/France match brought it home to me once again...

As far as international sporting events are concerned, the French (and several other nations besides) have us beaten into a cocked hat before things have even got under way. Their National Anthem is a real cracker.

La Marseillaise has it all. A stirring, uplifting and easily-remembered march tune with words that actually mean something. And it builds up to musical fireworks which the French can, and do, sing as loud as they like, with very great gusto indeed and to truly awesome effect. I love it.

Interestingly, they seem to know all the words, too - and not just the first few.

Compared to La Marseillaise, our national anthem falls short of requirements on several fronts.

For starters, it’s always sounded to me like a dreary funereal dirge rather than an uplifting anthem to stir the soul.

Secondly - and as more than one French person has remarked to me - it isn’t about the ‘nation’ at all; it’s about a person. (They know the meaning of the words because, during the anthem-singing at the start of each match - and in a remarkable display of international good fun - helpful French subtitles appear on-screen: God Save The Queen is Que Dieu Protege La Reine. If the BBC did that, we could all sing along to La Marseillaise.)

Thirdly, God Save The Queen isn’t the ‘national’ anthem of England at all, but of the United Kingdom. The French do not really understand the make-up of the British ‘nations’. If we are all part of one country (which, to them, we are), why do England, Scotland and Wales compete separately in rugby and soccer? (Let’s set aside the nightmarish complications of Ireland, which is two countries for soccer but only one for rugby.)

I’m with the French on this one. I don’t see our current arrangements as a pleasing baroque curiosity but rather as an outdated and unmanageable contraption to be dismantled and rebuilt a little more sensibly.

And we could start with the National Anthem. In a list of the world’s top ten, it wouldn’t figure at all. In the Six Nations alone, we are defeated soundly (as it were) by the French, the Italians and the Welsh.

Further afield...well even Advance Australia Fair stirs the soul more profoundly than the dreadful shower of rain we have converted into our national song.

Sometimes sudden realisations hit us right between the eyes, like the moment we finally understand what quadratic equations are all about or why it snows.

Sometimes, the elation that often comes with these road-to-Damascus moments is dulled by a secondary realisation; that whatever it is you finally understand must have been so blindingly obvious to everyone else that they didn’t even think it worthwhile, or even necessary, to explain it to you.

I had a moment like that in Chatillon market last weekend. I noticed that eggs were boxed and priced par douzaine - ‘in twelves’. At one and the same time, I realised that douzaine comes from French douze - ‘twelve’ - and that English dozen is therefore derived in exactly the same way.

I still haven’t got over it.

As if that weren’t enough, I also found a new ‘false friend’ - a French word that looks similar to, or even exactly like, an English word but means something entirely different.

In this case, it’s etiquette. In English, it’s ‘good manners’. But in French, it means ‘label’. I’ve lain awake at night wondering how the one became the other, especially as etiquette seems to be a French word borrowed into English, like rendezvous or lingerie.

In which of the two languages has it changed its meaning? And why?

Post comments on this blog or email me: truckshunters@googlemail.com


Burton said...

To my dearest chums at Truckshunters. I was absolutely delighted to read in blog 250 the letter from The very Reverend Unseemly Dogposture regarding the forthcoming nuptials with his beloved friend of longstanding Euphemia Overall-Burke the esteemed Duchess of Esh Winning. My friend Malmesbury Billington (who also plays with me in the Bearpark and Brancepeth Light Orchestra) would like to take part in the ceremony. As you know he is the pianist in our ensemble and never tires of bashing away at his old cottage upright. He would be honoured to play the organ at Langley Park Church on this most auspicious occasion. We must inform you however that the electric wind pump has broken down, and the organ chambers have to be recharged by the wind from the choir boys behind....pumping away, each taking their turn to give it a blow.
It will I'm sure be a most splendid time and I hear that her darling son Sebastian was unsure to be bestman or bridesmaid, I'm afraid the dear boy is at a crossroads in his life.
Hope to see many of you on that very special day.
Burton Coggles

Kev said...

Do you really understand quadratic equations? I quote "Sometimes sudden realisations hit us right between the eyes, like the moment we finally understand what quadratic equations are all about or why it snows."
If so, you could be of assistance with a couple of classes of mine.


Ian Robinson said...

Kev...as soon as I posted the blog, I knew there'd be problems from a certain quarter...