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Parlez-vous Phrase-Book French? By Mary Kenny

Blog | By Mary Kenny | Apr 16, 2024

Illustration by Toby Morrison

Foreign-language phrase books are a reflection of the manners and mores of past times.

Until the 1980s, ‘Would you like a cigarette?’ and ‘Can I smoke in this carriage?’ were examples of how to make conversation in French, German, Italia, and so on. Then, no more.

Older language guides are sometimes marked by class – evidently people who visited continental Europe used to be posher. I’ve inherited from a deceased cousin E E Patou’s French à la Mode, published in 1932, which illuminates the social position of contemporary travellers.

Instructions are issued on how to conduct oneself ‘chez le grand couturier’, book tickets for the opera and interview a servant. It includes the rules for ‘the hand kiss’. ‘A Frenchman kisses the hand of a married woman of his own social rank, but not that of a girl.’

It is bad form to turn on the radio or play music after 11pm, and the postman delivers five times daily. The fashionable places to visit include Longchamp, Le Touquet and Biarritz. One plays golf as a guest at Chantilly.

E E Patou also wrote a German equivalent, An Englishman in Germany, which reveals social values of the early 1930s. Young ladies are addressed as ‘Gnadiges fraülein’, and ‘many men wear monocles’.

Useful phrases to understand include: ‘I have seen the great Russian

tenor in Dresden’; ‘Where is the baroness How the app would cheer me when I tackle the Camino de Santiago! this evening?’ ‘Mrs Rossetti receives every Wednesday’; and ‘Since the Until this innovation, walking bored war, the police all over Europe are me. I’d walk in the course of a day, but not with much enthusiasm. But now I’m very strict.’ There is a prescient note with the in competition with my paces achieved daily, like a schoolchild striving for a gold instructive conversational sentence: star from a teacher. ‘My father has a strong prejudice against foreign husbands for German girls.’ It sure prompts exercise. It also tells you a lot about human psychology.

At the start of this year, I was launched into a new obsession. It was a pedometer/step-counter app, which measures every step you take. Within a short time, I’d become a slave to it. A fit adult needs to walk 10,000 paces a day to stay healthy. For older people, 5,000 daily steps is acceptable.

Even 3,000 steps is quite good for a not very agile oldie. And so my days became shaped around not only the number of steps taken, but the reaction of the app.

My count varied: 4,243 one day, 3,825 another; a virtuous 7,385 one day; a commendable 5,879 another. And when I hit the 8,000, the gadget gave me a little round of applause.

Such is our childish craving for approval that I began to worry that, should I fall behind with my steps, I would earn a black mark. Some days, when the weather has been inclement, I’ve taken to walking up and down stairs repeatedly, just to enhance my step rating.

On encouraging days, I fantasise that I might develop into an outstanding walker, like Nietzsche, or Hilaire Belloc.

It’s a common complaint that young people don’t now write thank-you letters, or even send messages. This disturbs me less – I allow youth a certain heedlessness – than another practice: oldies seem less inclined to respond to letters of condolence.

In the course of natural events, I send about half a dozen condolence letters (or sympathy cards) yearly; but over the last twelve months, only two out of six bereaved recipients responded. It feels as though your condolences, framed as comfortingly as you can, are ignored.

The Irish used to issue ‘memorial cards’ – some still do – with a few holy quotations alongside a picture of the departed. This memorial was sent as an acknowledgement of a condolence message. It struck a rather nice note of remembrance.

I believe etiquette considers a letter of condolence more ‘correct’ than a commercial sympathy card. But some people like to display sympathy cards in their homes, as a tribute to the loved one who has, as some now say, ‘passed’.

An old man is praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, loudly intoning his incantations. A reporter approaches him and asks, ‘May I ask you what you are praying for, sir?’ ‘World peace,’ says the old fellow. ‘But I might as well be talking to the wall.’ The veteran Jewish joke is sadly continuously contemporary.