I have a book which my Auntie Jean gave to my Mum for her birthday. There has to be a good chance that it was her 17th as the book was first published in February 1930 and was in its 4th impression by April of the same year. Mum was born in June 1913.
The book was written by WG Hartog, MA (London), Docteur de l’Université de Paris, Officier d’Académie and Senior French Master of St Paul’s School. His little masterpiece’ Brush Up Your French’ is a compilation of the 75 conversations which he wrote for the ‘Daily Mail’ together with invaluable ‘hints and vocabularies’ which he added so that’those who go to France will seldom be at a loss for a word or phrase’.
In a recent comment to Soutie, I may have given the impression that I was less than impressed with all things French apart from Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Audrey Tautou. At the time, I was a wee bit upset by that excrescence of a French referee Pointe who ruined a potentially great game.
In truth. I am a bit of a fan of France. Wouldn’t want to live there but really enjoy visiting it. So, when our friend who has a house south of Angoulême asked if we would like to mind it for her while she nipped back to Blighty, we jumped at the chance.
Now, I learnt French from the age of 10 to 17 and have a perfectly good Higher pass therein. But age has dimmed my memory and I was a bit concerned about my grasp of modern colloquialisms. I resolved, therefore, to immerse myself in Dr Hartog’s tome to prepare myself for the holiday. I admit that I gained some useful information. Until I delved into his oeuvre, I had never realised that the French for both ‘By Jingo’ and ‘Deuce’ is ‘Sapristi’.
Overall, however, I was not impressed. Take his financial advice. At the tourist bureau in London, his principal character, M Dupont, changes £20 into French money at a rate of 124 francs to the pound. On arrival in Paris, the Duponts have a meal of 2 pea soups, 2 fried soles, a veal and a steak, fruit and coffee all washed down with a bottle of Montrachet 1923. The total bill was 90 francs or about 72.5p. I realised, of course, that they now used the euro and that the exchange rates might have changed slightly so I erred on the safe side and changed £30. That just about got us out of Paris Charles de Gaulle and onto the TGV.
I never got the chance to follow his advice about porters either. ‘When travelling, never give more than 10 francs to a porter. As a rule 5 francs is ample. Over-tipping by English and Americans is very hard on the French for it tends to make people grasping and dissatisfied’. I looked all over the station but could not find a porter anywhere to test their grasping nature.
Moving on, I read that it is essential etiquette to tip your hat when entering a French shop. This was a bit of a problem as I did not have a hat and none of the Hartog dialogues for M Dupont involved buying one which meant that I could not, for example, go into the hosier (le chemisier) to buy my wing collars (les cols cassés) or braces (les bretelles) without mortally offending the shopkeeper involved.
I suppose that I could have gone down the Mme Dupont route and visited the milliner (la modiste) but all that Dr Hartog taught me was the French for a little hat draped in black and red which completely covered the ear on the left side and was carried down on the right in a long fold that just grazed my shoulder. I just don’t think it would have been easy to tip such a hat.
The beach was somewhat of a disaster as well. Being fair-skinned, I followed the book’s advice and rubbed myself well with olive oil to protect my delicate skin. Luckily, said book did contain the word for a lobster (un homard) in Vocabulary XIII – Les Poissons so I was able to describe my symptoms when we phoned for emergency medical assistance.
But it was the ordering of the meal that finally made me give up on the book. Having practised, I went for the pea soup, fried sole and steak (potage Saint Germain, sole frite et bifteck saignant). The garçon asked me if I wanted fries with it.
On reflection and to be fair to the boy Hartog, I probably shouldn’t have tried out my new knowledge in a McDonalds in the first place.