Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Typically English Sports?

Even though a case could possibly be made out in defense of the foreign beginnings of a limited number of minor sports, little doubt can be entertained as to the English origins of the major ones and, above all, the source of the sporting spirit in which they are played.
     Readers will have already realized it was my Englishman who won the toss and kicked off this article on sports with the above lines. Initially he set the ball rolling by: ‘Even though absolutely no doubt whatsoever may possibly be entertained as to the English origins of all popular sports …,’ but was crunchingly tackled on this by his left-wing French team mate. My Gallic vehemently protested that, contrary to general belief on the English side of the Channel, popular sports such as football, rugby, and tennis are, in fact, of French origin. He went on to insist that if his English alter ego were to remain true to the principle of fair play he claimed for himself and his compatriots, the very least he could do was to admit the existence of doubt on this score.
    

My French left winger then proceeded to declare that, though English history maintains that the game of rugby was inspired by a certain William Webb Ellis, a pupil at the Public School of the same sporting name who, in November 1823, during a game of soccer, hit on the brilliant idea of picking up the ball and running with it towards the opposing goal, this sport can actually be traced much further back in time to the ancient French game of la soule. This contest, apparently originating in Brittany, took the form of what was little more than a mass punch-up between two gangs of young men from rival villages, with few, if any rules – the goal being to carry a bran-filled pig’s bladder over a predetermined line.  “If no rules existed,” my Englishman commented, “then it must have come from France.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Similarly, again according to my Frenchman, tennis has its origins in the French jeu de paume. For him, indisputable proof of this is provided by the word ‘love’, signifying ‘nought’ in this sport only, and which is, in fact, a corruption of the French word ‘oeuf’, meaning ‘egg’– an egg having much the same shape as the figure nought. Imagine my Englishman’s stupefied indignation, however, when his French alter tried to bowl him over by declaring that even that quintessential English game of cricket was of Gallic inspiration. So silly was this point that my Englishman was stumped for a reply. After a few seconds, however, he creased himself with laughter but, realizing they were playing on a sticky wicket* here, he made an appeal to call off play.
      My Frenchman then served for the match by announcing that even the concept of ‘fair play’ was of French inspiration. The Englishman in me managed to get the ball back into the other half of the court by arguing that proof of its English origins would seem to be provided by the fact that no linguistic equivalent exists in the French language (the Gallics readily use the English expression), and even less in the French mentality. To this, my Gallic was unable to hit back a winner, and after a protracted rally my Englishman finally managed to win his point.
     In all justice it has to be admitted that, though my rosbif remains unshakeably convinced that the spirit of fair play left the shores of Albion in unadulterated form, only to arrive on the Continent considerably diluted (perhaps it got dropped in the water on the way), he is fair-minded enough to concede that the actual level of playing ability of sports, reputedly English in origin, is often considerably improved upon when exported abroad.  

*For the benefit of my non-English readers ‘to play on a sticky wicket’ means to find oneself in a difficult or delicate situation. Derived from the game of cricket, a better understanding of this commonly-used expression pre-supposes an elementary knowledge of this sport – if, indeed, the word ‘sport’ may be used to qualify an activity which my  Frenchman describes as ‘more akin to ritualized loafing’. The ‘wicket’ is the name given to the narrow strip of grass where, again according to my Frenchman, ‘most of the little action which characterizes the game’ takes place. On it, a bowler pitches a ball at a hitter who will attempt to strike it with his bat. Unlike baseball, the cricket ball is usually pitched in such a way that it bounces in front of the batter, and when the wicket is ‘sticky’ (i.e. drying out after a fall of rain) the ball can rebound in an unpredictable way, thereby placing the batter in a perilous situation.

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      


     
    

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lateral Queuing

In his permanent quest to prove it is in no way impossible that those who are the last to join a queue can be the first to leave it, the Frenchman has, of course, at his disposal an infinite number of techniques, one of the more widespread of which is the practice of lateral queuing. My French alter has kindly offered to explain.
     Bonjour tout le monde. The aim of lateral queuing (or side queuing as it’s sometimes called) is, above all, psychological in that it is directed towards creating and then exploiting confusion in the minds of other queuers. As the term suggests, the technique consists in casually positioning yourself laterally, as near as possible to the front, rather than tidily behind the last person at the back as the sheep-like English are programmed to do. By doing this, it is hoped that at some time during progression towards the exit, it will be possible to take advantage of the doubt created in the minds of existing queuers as to the exact moment of your arrival in relation to theirs, and sneak in well before your turn. Moreover, in the event of protest on the part of those already queuing (it does occasionally happen), positioning yourself laterally presents the immense advantage, especially when your trolley or basket is heavily laden, of allowing you to justify your action by invoking the pointless expenditure of energy required in pushing it right round to the back. Moreover, the more accomplished side queuer can make the strategy even more convincing by accompanying his explanation with heart-rending sighs of fatigue.
     Another not negligible advantage of the lateral queuing method is that when objections are encountered you may save face by retreating into feigned absent-mindedness, or ignorance as to the exact moment of your arrival at the side of the queue in relation to those already in it. But you can take it from me that, contrary to appearances (in France, things are never what they seem and never seem what they are), this type of master un-queuer is keenly alert – stealthily poised to exploit the slightest inattention. And what beats it all is that, when more stubborn opposition is encountered, you can even obtain a rousing moral victory by withering the remonstrator(s) with a look of lofty disdain, intended to bring it firmly home that there are more important things in life than this type of petty consideration. Obviously, this kind of creative un-queuing can only be effective under the right conditions, i.e. busy airports, supermarkets on Friday or Saturdays evenings, or on the eve of public holidays when the volume of trade is such that queues stretch a long way back.
    

This same lateral queuing technique is particularly effective when queuing for a  ski-lift . In these circumstances successful application is considerably facilitated by the nature of the sport which requires participants to wear appendages extending some distance ahead of and behind feet, thereby rendering conventional rectilinear queuing totally impractical (ten skiers aligned with skis attached would probably occupy a distance which could accommodate 50 ski-less queuers). As a result, ski-lift queuing automatically generates lateral bunching which provides even the most inexperienced un-queuer with a multitude of opportunities to improve his technique. And so much do queues  of this kind make speedy advancement a matter of such elementary simplicity that they provide the perfect training ground for our French youngsters to begin their un-queuing apprenticeship. Moreover, it is interesting to note that, in spite of my English brother’s attempts to make us believe his compatriots are at all times respectful queuers, English skiers – no doubt working off the accumulated frustrations occasioned by the uncompromising rigidity of queuing at home – are, along with their skis, letting their sense of fair play slip. And such is the enthusiasm shown that I have every reason to believe they will take full advantage of the lessons and experience it has been our privilege to provide them with in order to implement the same lateral queuing techniques on returning home.

The Art of Un-Queuing

A Roundabout Notion of Linearity?

Though the word ‘queue’ is shared by both English and French, nothing embodies more the gaping chasm that exists between the two peoples than their attitudes to, and behaviour in this mundane line: for its configuration differs so much in outward appearance and inner workings that, for the Englishman in me, it is doing the term a grave injustic to use it to describe the loose bunching and jockeying for position which goes under this same name on the Gallic side of the Channel.

Military-Style Alignement

     The English approach to queuing is of child-like simplicity, being based exclusively on the principle of military-style, single-file alignment in strict accordance with the rule of ‘First In, First Out.’ As a result, the Englishman is prepared to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time patiently waiting his turn – provided, of course, that others do the same. For when other queuers show the same scrupulous respect for the rule he will relax and, amazingly, even enjoy himself.

A Fascinating Diversion

     For example, my own Englishman will while away time spent in a supermarket line by honing his skills of empirical deduction through a fascinating diversion which consists in determining the occupation of fellow queuers by the articles reposing in their trolley. And at the time of writing, he has identified, with a high degree of probability, an alcoholic bee-keeper, a sweet-toothed house-husband, and a transvestite hooker with bunions.

Unbounded Fury

     However, the slightest deviation from the implacable rule of queuing which states that the first to join shall be the first to leave will unleash unbounded fury on the part of the English – so much so that very few allowances are made. I’m reminded of an incident some time ago when my poor mother who, in her mid-eighties and only partially sighted, mistakenly joined a queue in the middle. In spite of   her age and infirmity, that stony-hearted English queuing law was applied in all its relentless rigour, and she was sternly enjoined to ‘get to the back!’  

Freudian Complexity

    The Gallic attitude to Queuing, on the other hand, is of Freudian complexity. After close observation of his French alter my English part is tempted to think that when a Frenchman appends himself to that shapeless formation which in France masquerades under the name ‘queue’ (in spite of Cartesian precedent when it comes to queuing the French have a roundabout conception of linearity), he is seized by feelings of depersonalization and a resulting loss of self-esteem. Thus, the only way for him to re-find his identity and self respect is to accept the challenge which consists in proving to himself that he has enough personal resources to minimize to a maximum time spent in the line.

Every Man for Himself

     Nevertheless, far be it for my Englishman to suggest that the rule of ‘First Come First Served’ is unknown to the French, and that the Gallic is not aware that un-queueing – necessarily to the detriment of others – can be contrary to accepted standards of fair play. The importance he attaches to le Système D is such, however, that he simply has a far less degree of conviction than the English queuer. And so, though he may well be piqued on observing that another has jumped the queue before him, his annoyance (which may even be tinged with grudging admiration), results less from the fact that the offender has infringed the sacrosanct Anglo-Saxon rule than that he has proved himself ‘beaucoup plus malin’, much smarter, in finding a way round it. As a result, whenever the opportunity presents itself, the non-rule of ‘Every Man for Himself’ is applied.      

Lateral Queuing

    In this respect my Frenchie is especially proud of one instance last year when I went along to our local supermarket to do some last minute Noël shopping. As in England, French supermarkets are very busy places at Christmas time, and my local supermarket is no exception. After completing my purchases, I wheeled my heavily-laden trolley towards check-out (in reality, it was my wily Frenchie who positioned himself so that my Englishman did most of the pushing). Now check-out at this supermarket consists of three cash desks, only two of which were, for some reason or other, in operation at that precise moment. And such was the afflux of shoppers that two long queues snaked back some twenty metres or more between the shelves. It goes without saying that my Englishman was on the point of walking right round and dutifully joining one of the queues from the back. But my Frenchie would have none of it, and positioned me laterally at the front, just by the side of the unstaffed check-out. And then, as he had certainly anticipated, a third check-out girl quickly appeared and proceeded to open up this cash desk. All I had to do (in fact, it was my Frenchie who took complete control) was push my trolley smartly over and empty its contents onto the conveyor belt. So, I was checked out first, well before those sheep who, in some cases, had joined their queue as long as twenty minutes before me!  

 

 

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More Système D

By-Passing le Code de la Route

You know, I just don’t seem to be able to get it through my English alter’s thicker part of our skull that life is too short not to take advantage of every single moment, and that precious time can be wasted blindly following the rule. Once again le Système D can be of precious assistance. Take, for example, le Code de la Route. During the time we were together, Priscille lived with her parents in a small mountain village some five kilomètres from the town where we lived and which could only be reached by a twisting mountainroad. Journey time could, however, be reduced by turning left off this main road and following another route – a steep, narrow, but relatively straight lane leading directly into the village centre. So narrow was this lane that a one-way system had always operated to the advantage of the coming-downers, the going-uppers being officially informed they must take the longer route by a large No Entry sign located at the intersection. It goes without saying that when our Englishman was at the wheel the words ‘No Entry’ constituted a barrier as impenetrable as Priscille’s virtue and, as my Frenchman never failed to remind him, we stupidly lost up to five minutes following the longer main road to the village instead of taking the short-cut.
      Things really came to a head when a section of the main road between the short-cut intersection and the village was partially blocked by a landslide, and a one-way system, regulated by temporary traffic lights, was implemented . When he was at the wheel, not only did my English part continue to take the same route, but he actually waited when the lights were red, frequently wasting precious time. What I could never get into his bird-sized part of our brain was that, even if we took the short-cut, the limited number of inhabitants, the remote location of the village, as well as the time of day (usually we called on Priscille and her parents in the evening after dinner) weighed the law of probability heavily in favour of us not meeting a going-downer on our way up.
      Of course, much to our Englishman’s extreme discomfort, whenever my Frenchie was in control, we always took the shorter way up. This choice always revealed itself to be right, except on one occasion when we had to stop and pull in to one side to let a coming-downer through. He, of course, in true French fashion, left us in no doubt as to his opinion on the matter by lowering his window, sticking his head out and bellowing, ‘Ca ne va pas la tête, non?’ However, this allusion to the softness of our brain  was due less to the fact that we’d infringed the rule than the slight personal inconvenience he’d been caused: for this certainly didn’t prevent him from taking the same short-cut himself when he became a going-upper on his way back.
     Sooner or later, of course, life’s journey leads us on a collision course with those officially appointed to make sure rules and regulations are respected. It must not be imagined that because a French policeman is clad in blue, a heart of gold doesn’t beat beneath. What my French half doesn’t seem to be able to get through to our rosbif is that, with the help of le Système D, this type of encounter is far from obliging you to resign yourself to the worst. During the short time Priscille and ourself were together (the poor girl soon realized she couldn’t cope with an English and Frenchman rolled into one), whenever my Froggy was driving and we were stopped by les flics for exceeding the speed limit, he’d given her strict instructions to pretend to give us a resounding telling-off (towards the end I suspected she wasn’t acting at all). At the same time, our Anglo didn’t have to force himself to impart a typically English, sheepish expression to our face. In nine cases out of ten the policeman was unable to conceal his amusement and let us off with just a warning! C’est ça, le Système D!

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Who’s Afraid of Officialdom?

In the course of our everyday life officialdom frequently places in our path a host of petty rules and regulations which, as my Frenchie frequently observes, you Anglo-Saxons resignedly accept as insurmountable hurdles. You just don’t seem to realize it only takes a modicum of resourceful and audacity – the very essence of the Système D – to reduce them to mere stiles to be hopped over with ease. Nothing illustrates this better than that masterpiece of bold inventiveness my French part is especially proud of, which got us round a little snag we had with the la Poste, the Post Office, last year. I’ll leave it to him to relate.
The other Saturday morning, on getting back home from our weekly shopping, we found reposing in our letterbox an official post office form, duly completed by the postman, informing us that he’d called at precisely 10.50 a.m. with a lettre recommendée avec accusé de reception, a registered letter whose receipt had to be acknowledged by the signature of the recipient. However, in view of our absence, post office rules and regulations had obliged him to take it back to the main post office where it would be available for collection the following Monday morning from eight o’clock onwards (the main post office in the town where we live closes for the weekend at noon on Saturdays). Now past experience has taught us that this sort of missive, often arising from official sources, can, like tap water in foreign climes, be the prelude to a messy business. Being a born worrier, our English half began to fret so much about what it could contain that this threatened to spoil our weekend.
     ‘Well, we’re going to have to wait until Monday morning to know what it’s all about!’ he muttered with resignation.
      ‘Pas du tout, mon pauvre!’ I retorted. ‘Leave it to me. On va se débrouiller!’ It didn’t take me long to concoct a way of getting round all this. Here’s what I did:
     Picking up the phone, I called the main post office and asked to speak to Monsieur le Receveur, the Post Office Manager. Once I’d been put through I began by politely explaining that I had in my hand a post office form which the postman had deposited in our letterbox, informing us that he’d called at precisely 10.50 a.m. that morning with a registered letter which, in view of our absence, he’d been obliged to take back to the post office.
     Monsieur le Receveur replied – not, I noted, without a trace of irritation – that he didn’t really understand why I was calling, as it was certainly indicated on the post office form that the registered letter would be available for collection on Monday from 8 o’clock onwards.
     ‘In addition,’ he added, ‘the postman was simply following post office rules and regulations.’
     ‘Do post office rules and regulations stipulate,’ I asked, ‘that before taking the registered letter back to the post office, the postman should first use all reasonable means to ascertain whether the addressee is, in fact, at home?’
Monsieur le Receveur confirmed that official post office rules and regulations did, in fact, require the postman to first use all reasonable means to ascertain whether or not the addressee was, in fact, at home.
     ‘And does using all reasonable means include ringing the doorbell or applying knuckles to the door?’ I then enquired.
     ‘En effet,’ Monsieur le Receveur replied, ‘official post office rules and regulations are to be interpreted in that sense.’
     ‘And is it your honest opinion we can be absolutely sure the postman acted in full accordance with post office rules and régulations?’ I continued.
     ‘Since all postmen have received strict instructions in this respect, monsieur, I have no reason to believe that he did not act in full accordance with post office rules and regulations.’
     ‘But don’t you think that, since I’ve not put a foot out all morning, some doubt might be cast on whether the postman really acted in full accordance with post office rules and regulations?’
     ‘Might I be justified in thinking,’ the post office manager retorted, ‘that when the postman rang the doorbell, you were engaged in some form of sonorous household activity – vacuum cleaning, for instance – which prevented you from hearing him? But whatever the case may be, you’ll only have to wait until eight o’clock on Monday morning,’ he went on, ‘so I don’t really see where the problem is. And since I’m a busy man, would you please forgive me for abridging this conver…’
     ‘On the contrary,’ I interrupted (and here I showed all my inborn inventive genius), ‘there is a very real problem. You see, I was expecting this registered letter. It contains vital information, determining whether or not I take the six o’clock T.G.V., the High Speed Train, on Monday morning for an important nine o’clock business meeting in Paris. And since I’ve spent all morning quietly reading the newspaper, the only explanation for me not now being in possession of the letter in question would seem to be due to the fact that the postman, for reasons known only to him, did not act in accordance with post office rules and regulations.’ I paused for a moment to let my words sink in.  
     ‘But, whatever the cause may be,’ I continued, ‘there’s absolutely no question of me letting the matter rest here. If I don’t obtain satisfaction, I’m going to lodge an official complaint. So what do you suggest we do about it?’
     After a long and heavy silence, it was, I must confess, with some relief that I heard him pronounce those magic words I was waiting to hear:
     ‘Bon. Exceptionnellement, on va se débrouiller! Voici ce qu’on va faire.’
     He then proposed the very solution I had in mind. Though, normally, it would have been out of the question, in view of these exceptional circumstances, he was prepared to bend the rule. Since it was now going on for midday and the post office would be closing shortly, if we presented ourself at his private flat located to the rear of the building, and identified ourself by giving three sharp raps on the door, he would personally remit the letter to us. This, of course, we did.     Everything went without a hitch, the contents of the registered letter weren’t half as bad as our Englishman had thought, and we had an excellent weekend. C’est ça, le Système D. En France, on se débrouille!


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Le Système D?

 What is le Système D?

It is yet one more measure of the vast differences exisiting between two nations – geographically divided by just a narrow stretch of shallow brine but, mentally, deep oceans apart – that what is a veritable institution on one side of the Channel, is totally unknown on the other. So, for the benefit of our Anglo-Saxon readers the Froggy in me will begin with a brief explanation of the etymology of the term ‘le Système D’, followed by a definition, along with some examples of its modus operandi in daily life.
My non-French-speaking Anglophone readers will certainly have realized that, in regard to the word système, the two languages converge so closely that deleting the grave accent and the last letter leave us with an English word meaning ‘a scheme, or plan of procedure’. But it’s the capitalized fourth letter of the alphabet which imparts that same French flavour to the expression as garlic does to a roast leg of lamb when pushed in near to the bone: for this ‘D’ represents the initial letter of the commonly-used reflexive verb se débrouiller, literally meaning ‘to disentangle’ or to ‘extricate oneself.’
You unimaginative, sheep-like, stick-to-the-rule Anglo-Saxons tend to adopt a submissive attitude towards those relatively minor obstacles which everyday life, at some moment or other, inevitably places in our path. These little problems may be of a practical nature, can be caused by rules and regulations, or by those officially appointed to make sure they are applied. In contrast, the more creative, individualistic Frenchman has developed what is termed ‘le Système D’ – an implicit, institutionalized anti-code, perhaps not always perfectly licit, but never more than marginally detrimental to others, which relies on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of each to improvise an immediate solution. De plus, ‘être débrouillard’ is a positively-perceived trait, an attribute it is considered desirable to possess when confronted with life’s daily hassles and, as such, a quality which French parents encourage in their offspring.
In its most rudimentary form, le Système D consists in improvising a practical solution to a concrete problem by adapting any material at hand. Let me illustrate this by two examples. A few summers ago, I spent a couple of weeks’ holiday on the Côte d’Azur. Now, in view of the long journey ahead and the likelihood of encountering dense traffic on the way, I decided to set off well before dawn. However, while loading up my car of that time, an old 2CV, I realized I’d forgotten to remove the many insects that had come to a sticky end on the windscreen over the previous days.
‘I’ll go and get the window spray,’ my Englishman said.  On coming back I directed the nozzle towards the glass and applied my right forefinger to the button. Nothing happened.
‘The bloody thing’s U.S.,’ he muttered in dismay. ‘What the heck are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux !’ my Frenchie replied. ‘On va se débrouiller!’ – ‘Don’t worry, old chap ! We’ll sort something out!’
Being a bit slow-on-the-uptake, what my English part didn’t realize was that the same, even better results can be obtained, totally free of charge, simply by using a few sheets of newspaper, a drop of water, and a bit of elbow grease. Soak the newspaper in the water, rub away and squashed insects disappear like magic!
‘Elémentaire, mon cher Watson!’
On another occasion, a rather more serious problem enabled me to come up with a more daringly imaginative application. I was driving along with Priscille, my girl friend of that time, when a red warning light started flashing on the dashboard of that same old 2CV. Of course, I pulled up immediately, jumped out and proceeded to lift up the bonnet. It didn’t take long to see where the problem lay. The fan belt had chosen that moment to come apart. Now, as my more mechanically-minded readers will know, this type of breakdown, while not being a disaster in itself, would have made any further attempt at motorized advancement liable to seriously compromise the future health of the engine. So, I had to find a makeshift solution to get me as far as the nearest garage.
‘Oh, shit!’ said my Anglo. ‘We’re stranded. What the hell are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux!’ my Froggy replied without the slightest hesitation. ‘Il n’y a pas de problème. On va se débrouiller.’
Needless to say, he’d already found a solution. Now, the armour of Priscille’s virtue constituted an impenetrable shield against every conceivable type of incursion, whatever form it came in, whatever direction it came from, and whatever part it was aimed at, and I had to use all my charm to get her to divest herself of her tights (after all, weren’t we in a tight spot?). But the rest was plain sailing. After twisting them into a rope, I knotted them round the pulleys of the dynamo, and hey presto! two minutes later I was breezing along again. C’est ça, le Système D!

 

English Portocole

Yet one more example of those countless, irreconcilable differences separating English and French is provided by their diametrically-opposed attitudes to port. For the French le porto is usually consumed as just one more apéritif. It tends to be drunk chilled in its lighter, white variations and, along with other fortified wines, is more a preference of the female sex. The English, on the other hand, prefer their port velvet red, served at room temperature, and in full-bodied, vintage form – while drinking it is traditionally an almost exclusively male, after-dinner practice.

     Historically, port-drinking in England goes back to the beginning of the eighteenth century when conflict with the hereditary enemy obliged the English to turn to their Portuguese allies to provision them in wine. The long sea journey to England proving detrimental to quality, the wine began to be ‘fortified’ – stabilized by the addition of distilled grape alcohol which stopped the fermentation process, thereby retaining a high sugar content while increasing alcoholic strength.

     Port is generally regarded by the English as providing the ideal complement, both in texture and flavour, not only to indigenous cheeses such as Stilton, Cheddar or Gloucester, but also as a dessert wine to accompany, in particular, full-flavoured, fruit–based sweets as well as nuts. It must be savoured in slow, contemplative sips, and is reputed both for the warm, calming effects it has on imbibers, and the philosophical orientations it is apt to impart. Perhaps it was this latter propensity which, in higher social circles, went towards creating that after-dinner custom which required ladies to retire to the drawing room for tea and gossip, leaving the men to discuss politics and life’s vicissitudes over a cigar, and a glass or two of mellow vintage port.

     And what is more natural with these lovers of ritualized tradition that port-drinking should have generated a number of odd ceremonial procedures? For serving and passing the port are subject to rules of etiquette as minutely detailed as those set out in the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews’ Book of Regulations. At formal dinners, a custom, apparently originating in the British Navy, requires the wine to be passed from port to port (the port side of a ship is the left-hand side): the host first serves the person seated on his right before passing the bottle clockwise to his neighbour on the left; the latter then proceeds to serve the passer on his right, and then hands it on to the next person on his left who does the same. In this way the bottle is sent round the table until it comes full circle back to the host. If a person should, for some reason, fail to pass the bottle on (another rule states that it must never be allowed to touch the table on the way round), it is considered discourteous to bring this to his attention directly (we are, of course, among gentlemen). The only acceptable procedure consists in asking him the question: ‘Don’t you know the Bishop of Norwich?’ This is intended more as a reminder than a reproach. If, however, the miscreant is unacquainted enough with port etiquette to answer in the negative, the correct response is: ‘He’s an awfully nice fellow … but he never remembers to pass the port!’ *

     And what more can you expect from a nation of incorrigible boozers that another long-established tradition requires that a bottle in the process of being drunk should never be re-corked? The injunction ‘No heel-taps!’ requires that the last drops of the bottle be drunk off so that another may be swiftly opened. At formal military dinners, moreover, no other wine but port is considered noble enough to be raised in toast to the King or Queen.

 

*Legend has it that the ecclesiastic in question was the long-lived Henry Bathurst (1744-1837), Bishop of Norwich from 1805 to 1837, who in his later years was in the understandable habit of nodding off over his port, thus failing to pass it on. So seriously was the problem taken that elaborate lengths were gone to in order to find a remedy. A solution was finally provided by the Hoggett Decanter, the rounded base of which made it impossible to stand, thereby making sure it inscribed a full aerial circle before landing back on a special stand (itself called the Hoggett) positioned in front of the host.

 

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La Perfide Albion or Hypocrisy – English Style

Though anecdotes abound concerning the Englishman’s legendary ability to preserve his sense of humour and sang-froid in moments of crisis, the Frenchman in us has just pointed out that fewer exist regarding another of his specialities: hypocrisy. You know, we’re sure he’d be ready to bet our bottom euro that there isn’t another country in the world where direct rectification, disagreement or contradiction is perceived as being tantamount to a declaration of war. And it can only be you English who, when you find yourselves in the embarrassing situation of having to correct a mistake, will go to such extraordinarily apologetic lengths to point out that what you are about to say is in no way a criticism, but stems merely from a wish to explain. Though our Froggie would be the first to admit that the rules of politeness oblige us all to conceal our true feelings and opinions so as to minimize the risk of conflict with others, you take this to ridiculous extremes. He really doesn’t know of any other people in the world who, instead of declaring, ‘No, I disagree with you entirely!’ go to such extraordinary lengths to reply, ‘Well you certainly might have a point, but, on the other hand, don’t you think …?’ when they are intimately convinced you’re talking unmitigated rubbish. Now, let’s be honest. How can you possibly trust someone who systematically professes to agree with everything you say?

     And some years ago during an IRA terrorist bombing campaign in London, we were enjoying a quiet evening drink with an English friend in a pub near Piccadilly Circus, when suddenly in the distance we heard a violent detonation. The window panes rattled slightly, glasses on shelves behind the bar chinked together, and a few particles of dust floated down from the ceiling. To our utter amazement, everybody except us threw themselves to the floor, and remained there for several moments in deathly silence. Finally, on realizing there was no danger, our friend raised himself to his feet, casually dusted his jacket sleeves and trouser legs, looked us knowingly in the eye, and then remarked with a smug-looking smile, ‘Oh! You were so scared you couldn’t move!’

     What’s more, in the field of sport our Frenchman is convinced that you English are much less stars of fair play than champions at making people think you are and, if there was a gold medal to be won in the field of perfidious hypocrisy, you would be world-beaters. On this score, the experience our neighbour, Monsieur Martin, had in his youth can be taken as just one example.

     In his younger days, Monsieur Martin played rugby for our local fifteen. Now such is the aggressive nature of this sport, ‘a game of thugs played by gentlemen’, that certain situations could provide the opportunity for violent, below-the-belt tactics, worthy of the most unsavoury street-fighter which, admittedly, the referee is not always in a position to witness and punish. The game relies, therefore, on the rules of fair sporting conduct being responsibly applied by all players. In this respect, Monsieur Martin often tells the story of the ‘friendly’ match he once played against a touring English club team.

     A match between England and France can never, of course, be amicable in the true sense of the word, and this one was no exception. In an enthusiastically-disputed ruck Monsieur Martin received a kick in the head from an English forward (out of sight, of course, of the referee), vigorous enough for him to be obliged to play the rest of the match with blood streaming from a gash in his forehead (this was before the days of the blood substitute). At the end of the game (narrowly lost by the French), the English consolidated their triumph, as is their custom, by lining up in a guard of honour and ‘sportingly’ shaking hands with their adversaries.

     ‘Oh dear! Did you bump your head?’ enquired the English forward, seizing Monsieur Martin warmly by the hand.

    

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ?  In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.

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Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle

You know, just one of the things which never ceases to astonish the Frenchman in us is not only how familiar you English are with those you’ve just made the acquaintance of, but how distant you can be with people you’ve known for years. We mean, isn’t it far more logical to be friendly and relaxed with people you know, and just polite with those you don’t? A well-brought-up young Frenchman on meeting a girl for the very first time, will politely address her as ‘mademoiselle,’ and after they get married she will certainly become ‘ma chérie.’ In contrast, an Englishman will use ‘darling’ or ‘love’ to address a girl he’s never met in his life before, yet proceed to call her ‘missis’ once they have walked down the aisle! But on reflection, is it all that surprising that you English should go about addressing people the opposite way to what they ought? Après tout, what can you expect from a people who drive on the left (sure proof they’re not right in their head), and take roundabouts the wrong way round? So who can deny that it’s the French who’ve got things right? For what’s more normal that, when you meet someone you hardly know, you address him or her with a polite ‘bonjour monsieur,’ ‘bonjour madame,’ or ‘bonjour mademoiselle?’ in the morning or afternoon, and ‘bonsoir’ in the evening? And it goes without saying that if you decide to stop for a chat these same rules oblige you to say ‘au revoir, monsieur/madame/ mademoiselle’ when you part.

It’s also important to note that the French titles ‘monsieur’, ‘madame’ and ‘mademoiselle’ are not, as many of you English seem to imagine, always the exact equivalent of ‘sir’, ‘madam’ and ‘miss’.  For while the French titles are simply polite, the English words ‘sir’ (apart from its use as a title of nobility, i.e. Sir Winston Churchill), ‘madame’, and ‘miss’ are both polite and deferential, and as such used to address someone perceived as being in a position of social, professional (or commercial) superiority. Consequently, if you wanted to address a stranger in an English street in order to make a request or ask a question you’d simply say ‘excuse me’ (and not ‘excuse me sir/madam’). In France, on the other hand, it could be considered impolite not to say, ‘excusez-moi (or s’il vous plaît) monsieur/madame’ or ‘bonjour monsieur/madame’. If you were addressing a young, unmarried woman, however, it would be a little old hat to say ‘excusez-moi/s’il vous plaît/bonjour mademoiselle’, and a simple, more informal ‘bonjour’ would suffice. But just to complicate matters, it’s probably better to say ‘madame’ when addressing an older, unmarried woman as ‘mademoiselle’ could give her the impression she’s on the way to becoming an old maid. What’s more, in the name of female equality, the public sector has been recently instructed to use ‘madame’ when referring to an unmarried female in official documents.

Normally, then, the codes of French polite etiquette require you to address a stranger or a person you hardly know by his or her title: monsieur, madame or mademoiselle.  On getting to know the person a little better you can pop on the surname (i.e. bonjour, Monsieur Martin). Unlike in Anglo-Saxon cultures, however, Christian name terms are usually considered only when you really begin to hit it off. Though this is becoming old-fashioned, a subtler halfway point consists in showing slightly more cordial respect towards someone who is more than just an acquaintance, but far less than a bosom friend, by simply using the title to which the Christian name is appended, i.e. Monsieur Pierre. Considerable time may elapse between each phase – though this is not necessarily a question of duration – and, depending on the case, the relationship may even remain stable at one defined point. As a general rule, the longer you remain at one stage, the more difficult it is to progress to the next, and you may never get beyond the Monsieur Martin point with someone from whom you are separated by a difference in age, social or professional status, or even gender.

In the France of today, there is, however, an increasing tendency simply to use a simple ‘bonjour’ to greet a person we don’t know or only know slightly – especially in the friendlier context of a club or association where adding the person’s title would be considered too formal. Here ‘bonjour’ is very much the equivalent of the English ‘hello’ (though this seems to have been now almost totally eclipsed by the American ‘hi’). If you meet someone you’ve already encountered that same day you would normally not shake hands (or cheek-kiss) a second time. It would, nevertheless, be polite to say ‘re-bonjour’ (literally ‘hello again’), or simply use the abbreviation ‘re’.

Another common mistake on the part of Anglo-Saxons is to confuse ‘bonjour’ with ‘salut’. Be aware that ‘salut’ is far more familiar than ‘bonjour’ and is, therefore, only appropriate when greeting someone (it can be a man or women but is more common between men) with whom you are on very informal terms. I suppose it’s somewhere more or less the equivalent of the American ‘hey’. It can also be used to say goodbye – in which case it’s rather like the English ‘so long’. Curiously, I’ve even heard old male pals greeting each other with a ‘salut monsieur’, where the juxtaposition of the very informal and very polite produces an absurdly comic effect.

Though there are few French equivalents to the numerous terms of endearment you English insist on applying to greet complete strangers (‘love’, ‘dear’, ‘duck’, ‘darling’, to name just a few) we do sometimes hear market stallholders treating some female customers to a familiar, slightly patronizing ‘ma petite dame’, or even ‘ma chérie’. The latter is very much the same as the English ‘my dear’, and offence mustn’t be taken at either. However, we do personally take exception to the ironically familiar appellation ‘chef’ (literally ‘chief’), in many ways equivalent to ‘mate’, and used to address another male somewhere perceived as being ‘superior’. In cases like this we usually reply in much the same vein by a mockingly egalitarian ‘camarade’. But on some occasions we’ve been known not to reply at all!

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ?  In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.

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Tu or Vous?

It might be thought that, under normal circumstances, politeness, especially when served up in its friendly form, can only go to unite. But what is less surprising with the French and English (where things are never normal) that it can frequently divide? And what greater damage has been inflicted on Anglo-French relations than that inoffensive-sounding little subject pronoun tu? You know, the Frenchman in us can’t help thinking it’s that same irrepressible desire to get on cordial terms with every Tom, Dick and Harry in less time than it takes to say Jacques Robinson which makes so many Anglo Saxons consider it an open sesame to instant friendship with all. Take the case of Sue.
      Last year, our neighbours, Monsieur and Madame Martin, had a young English au pair girl, Sue. Now Sue had just left school and, before going on to study French at university, she had decided to take a sabbatical year working in France with the aim of improving her spoken language and knowledge of French customs and lifestyle. The problem was that at the beginning of her séjour she systematically used the familiar tu to address all and sundry as a signal that she wished to be on friendly terms with all. Finally, Madame Martin had to take her to one side and explain that, though natural with people of her own age, using tu to address complete strangers, those she barely knew or whose social or professional status, age or even gender created a distance, was little more than misplaced familiarity – a discourteous lack of respect akin to a youngster in England addressing an adult he barely knew by his Christian name. Consequently, to avoid any risk of giving offence, she could only advise her to use the more distantly polite (and also plural) equivalent vous and, as a general rule, to leave it to the native speaker to call the tune.
     But while the more formally-structured codes of French polite etiquette usually require a stricter adherence to prescribed or customary forms with the result that you would normally use tu only to address relatives and friends, this is merely a broad indication and exceptions may occur. For example, in the past especially, but sometimes even today, some parents from the grande bourgeoisie, the upper middle classes, still require their children to address them by vous!  And though we have known my wife’s brother-in-law (as well as two of her cousins) for more than 40 years now, we have always used, and will certainly continue to use le vouvoiement. So, it’s important to realize that longstanding vous relationships of this type will probably be entrenched for life. It is also not uncommon for an older person to use le tutoiement when addressing a younger one (especially someone known since childhood) while the latter continues to uses the more respectfully polite vous.
     To complicate matters even further, though we would normally use vous to address those we’re not on familiar terms with, we can, in some circumstances, be on tu terms with those we hardly know. This is especially the case in a club or association where members are considered to be amicably united in pursuit of a shared activity or goal. So really there’s no hard and fast rule: things may depend on the situation you find yourself in, and/or the nature of your relationship, and it all boils down to a question of what you (and the other person) feel the more comfortable with.
     But, as our Frenchman has to admit, sometimes the choice between tu and vous can be both subtle and complex – even for a native speaker. At our golf club, for example, we sometimes play with a member some twenty years younger than us. When playing together we quite naturally use the tu form to address each other. But strangely, back in the clubhouse over a drink he reverts back to vous – presumably in deference to our age. This puts us in a rather embarrassing position. How do we react? Do we continue to use tu or, like him, go back to using vous?  In cases like this it’s probably better to discuss things openly and come to some form of mutual agreement on the use of one or the other. This is what we did on one occasion while playing a round of golf.
     As we were preparing to tee off on the last hole a lady came up and greeted us with a, ‘Bonjour, Barry. Comment ça va?’
‘Mais ça va très bien!’ we replied, recognizing Geneviève, a lady golfer we hadn’t seen for some time.
‘Et …?’
     We hesitated for a fraction of a second. Were we previously on vous or tu terms? We couldn’t for the life of us remember! So, it must have been our formally polite French part who prompted us to choose, ‘Et … vous?’ The expression of disappointment which momentarily clouded her face said everything. Fortunately, on realizing his mistake, our Frenchman managed to retrieve the situation by saying, ‘Oh, excuse-moi! On se tutoyait, non?’ For the short conversation which followed was full of friendly warmth.
     

Dreaming of moving to France ? Thinking of spending a holiday there ? Or would you simply like to know more about the French way of life ? In this free Ebook you’ll find 369 tips to help you get your bearings in a country where it’s easy to feel all at sea. They’re based on the author’s own observations, experiences (and mistakes) during 45 years of mainly peaceful cohabitation with the French. Available in Kindle, Epub and PDF format.
Get started here : http://calloffrance.com/free-ebook-offer

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