NO, NOT really. Je plaisante, as the French say when they’re only joking. But I have been a bit frustrated in trying out a new experience, trying to add something to the definitive Campbell’s Diary Guide to the Complete French Experience.
I’ve done driving a 2CV, I’ve done eating snails, I’ve done protest demonstrations, I’ve sat on French committees, to mention only four. (If you’ve really nothing better to do they’re all accounted for, back in the Campbell’s Diary archive.) But I’ve never yet put on a suit of bleus de travail. Bleus de travail? Blues of work? They’re the French blue working gear. Traditionally they consisted of blue trousers, sometimes with a bib and shoulder straps like dungarees, with a blue jacket. Not very fashionable, but so French. The most remarkable thing about them was their blueness, a really bright French blue. You must have seen cartoon stereotype Frenchmen wearing them, generally with a black beret and a baguette under one arm. I haven’t quite gone down that road yet.
Every now and again we find a catalogue in our letter-box, generally from outfits with names like Outilleur Auvergnat or Provence Outillage, the tool merchant from the Auvergne or Provence tool suppliers. The catalogues feature tools and appliances of all kinds, hammers and omelette pans, socket sets, pumps, car jacks, generators, washing lines, loo seats, blow-up mattresses, pergolas, patent nutcrackers, hoses, you name it. Fork handles and saw tips, too, for all I know, as in the famous Two Ronnies sketch. They tell you when their lorry is coming to your part of the world and where it’s going to park for business, and in the meantime you’re supposed to mark up your catalogue with what you want, so that you can hand it to the driver/salesman when he arrives two or three days later. They come to the village about four times annually. These catalogues were invaluable for learning French terms, and my ironmongery vocabulary increased no end as a result of leafing through them at coffee time.
Last July an Outilleur catalogue arrived just at the time when we were wanting a large tarpaulin (une bache) to cover the 6 cubic metres of firewood we’d had delivered. (Contrary to popular belief it does sometimes rain here, and winters are quite cold enough to need a log fire.) I found a selection of tarpaulins to cover all our needs, and further on in the catalogue I chanced on bleus de travail. Aha, I thought, just what I’ve always wanted. Just the thing for fetching the wood and looking busy in. There was a question mark over the not very illuminating range of sizes, medium, regular and average, but never mind that, I thought, let’s go for it. Next stop the beret and baguette. Wow, I could even model them for French Connections, as What The Well-Dressed Columnist Is Wearing . . .
So at the appointed time down I went to the large open space in the village, which used to be a goods yard when the railway was working and is now home to France’s proudest collection of potholes. I thrust my marked catalogue up to the driver, a dour man who grunted acknowledgement and disappeared into his travelling ironmongery. He reappeared with a two very dirty packages, so thick with dust that you couldn’t see what was inside the plastic wrapping. Clearly the demand for baches and bleus hadn’t been heavy. Could I open the bleus and have a look? I asked. Certainly, the driver said, but he was desolated to tell me that once the package was opened he couldn’t take it back. You got what you were given. That was the rule. No exceptions, Monsieur. (There’s a French term for someone aflame with zeal for the rule book, réglo-réglo. It must be one of the least used expressions in France.) I paid up – they weren’t expensive – and took the goods home. The bache was perfect, but those bleus had clearly gone so far out of fashion as to be non-existent.
They turned out not to be jacket and dungarees at all, but une combinaison de travail, an overall, a miracle of blueness with an orgy of white zips running from the neck to the ankles and all stations between, new to me but probably in a design you can get anywhere in the world, medium, regular or average. True enough, the size on the collar was marked M, I suppose for medium, but the regular or average Frenchman for whom it’s designed must have a wasp waist, gorilla arms and walks on stilts, judging by the length of the legs. In despair, I handed the thing to Josephine.
Now, thanks to some nifty Josephinian alterations, I’ve got over my disappointment and here I am, as the photo shows, bang up-to-date in fashionable work gear, ready to link arms and advance in a tide of French blue with (I leave the translations to you: you don’t really want to be spoonfed all the time, do you?) forestiers, agriculteurs, mécaniciens, électriciens and so on. I expect you’ve spotted the slippers. I promise to take them off before I roll my sleeves up.
* * *
HERE IN Philology Corner I’ve come across something as new to me as that work gear was. I don’t expect it’s only the French who have an appetite for catchwords and catchphrases, which you hear all the time for a bit until everyone gets tired of them. Tous azimuts was a recent one, meaning hammer and tongs, flat out, but suddenly it has vanished from the news bulletins.
In a similar vein, adding -duc or -oduc to certain commodities or entities comes to mean the way of ensuring a passage for them. Viaduc (viaduct) carries roads or railways, aqueduc carries water, and if I still ran competitions in this column I could offer prizes for translating oléoduc and gazoduc. But you’ve guessed, of course: oil and gas pipelines.
The other day, travelling tous azimuts along one of the wonderful French autoroutes, my attention was drawn by the sign crapauduc. My first thought, I’m afraid, was that if it wasn’t some kind of sewerage conduit or drain, the sort that would need men in blue overalls to flush out now and again, then it ought to be.
Way out, of course. It comes from crapaud, meaning toad. It marked an underpass for toads to reach the other side of the road without being squashed. A happy thought, but given the speed toads move at, by the time they’ve got there crapauduc will probably have dropped out of fashion. Just like those original bleus de travail.
Tagged in: Campbell's Diary, french lifestyle