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Parlez-vous Franglais, Madamoiselle ?

Youthful endeavours forging the Entente Cordial

Bob Seager

LEARNING French was not an option at LCGS, though in 1944 it seemed a bit pointless. The war was going our way, but, even if France became liberated, only rich people would be able to afford to go there, so I had little enthusiasm for the subject. However, when the war ended and school trips to Blois started, it had a bit more resonance, and a chance to practice the language that Claud Auld had tried to drum in seemed most attractive. Thus, in 1948 I persuaded my parents to part with the princely sum of £15 - three weeks wages for my father at that time - and off I went.

Now, school trips were intended to immerse impressionable youth in the ambiance of France, and, sure enough, on the train from Dieppe to Paris, we got lots of it. The smell of second-hand garlic, Gauloises and BO in a packed compartment made an impression on me that stayed for quite some time, and reinforced quite a few prejudices! However, I survived this ordeal, and, after a night in Paris, we arrived at Blois, ready to impress the peasantry with our sophistication.

Le Crumpet, Blois Men about Town - Vennell, Welfare and Fletcher Now, it was well known (in the fifth form at least) that all French girls had absolutely no morals and couldn’t wait to ... well, couldn’t wait, and a group of us made a determined assault on the flower of Blois young womanhood. Sadly (or, perhaps, happily), we were soon disabused on this score, and, although we managed a wonderful chat up line in Franglais, the chastity of the Gallic maidens remained undisturbed.

However, I managed to fall madly in love with a dark beauty whose name and address I remember to this day. Micheline Schmitt of 1, Rue de la Usine de Gaz [1, Gasworks Road]. How could one forget such a romantic name and location?

Although we did all sorts of cultural things, like visiting chateaux, the most lasting memory (apart from Micheline Schmitt) was exposure to France’s most famous product. Coming from a teetotal family, my exposure to wine was nil, and, when, at the civic reception, the cordial flowed freely - red, white, rosé and fizzy - I had quite a bit of catching up to do, with unfortunate results. I wasn’t quite in the Euan Blair class, but I was certainly more than a bit poorly, and it taught me a lesson that was, perhaps, not quite what NRB had in mind.

The sting in the tail of this epic was the return journey. The ferries of that era were about the size of a large rowing boat, and a heavy swell introduced me to a problem that even two years in the Merchant Navy did not cure. The French have a word for it, or even three - mal de mer. I still always book a cabin when we cross, as lying down is the only certain preventative measure.

That, then, was my first visit to France. It was fun, but the idea that, twenty years later, I would holiday in France every year, and that, at 68, I would be happily retired in la france profonde, would have been too silly to consider. Claud’s efforts to teach me French were not wasted, and, although I don’t speak it as well as I should, je me debrouille. (Se debrouiller, regular reflexive verb, look it up boy, look it up, that’s what dictionaries are for ...)

We now live not all that far from Blois, but suggestions that we should visit the town and try to find what happened to the ravishing Micheline are received with a marked lack of enthusiasm!