Tuesday, June 23, 2015

French kids can’t really cope with English

There’s an uproar in France today among baccalauréat students because their English exam expected them to discuss the ways in which a certain fictitious personage managed to cope with the horrors of the bombardment of his village. Apparently hordes of students had simply never encountered the verb “to cope”, and they’re now trying to suggest that this is some kind of exotic or antiquated verb. That’s to say, they’re attempting vainly to drown their ignorance in ridicule.

The funniest thing of all is that “cope” is a variant of the French noun “coup” (a blow dealt to an opponent). So, coping with an obstacle means that you’ve managed to deal it a blow.

I reckon that, back in my native Australia, I must have been about five years old when I mastered the verb “to cope”. That’s what our life Down Under was all about: coping with adversity.

I’m convinced that the main reason why the French run into so many problems in trying to master English is that they find it hard to liberate themselves from the powerful attraction of their own native language. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that French readers, running into the verb “cope”, imagine vaguely that it might mean “écoper” (to cop punishment). Consequently, the students were confused by the possibility that they might be expected to talk about the ways in which the fictitious personage copped punishment from the horrors of the bombardment of his village. Or maybe this fellow was intent upon punishing the forces behind the bombardment. Or whatever…

In the domain of foreign languages, the French can be terribly stubborn. For years, I’ve been trying spasmodically to point out that a sad individual who has a constantly negative relationship with the problems of existence should not be designated as a “looser”, because the verb “to lose” and the adjective “loose” have strictly nothing in common. But French people persist in making this error.

These days, I’ve come to sense the kind of English traps that French people fall into. For example, they’re almost incapable of understanding the elementary adverb “solely” in a simple sentence such as “It’s solely a question of taste”. In spite of their adverb “seulement”, they don’t seem to grasp the simple fact that “solely” is a blend of “only” and “uniquely”.

Once, when I worked as a technical writer with a major French software company, their technical genius tried to convince me that standard English is simply a convenient second-class language, useful solely as a communication tool, which doesn’t deserve to be taken too seriously. To Hell with Shakespeare and all the rest! I told my colleague [now a senior Internet administrator] that I didn’t agree. He smiled, as only a smug English-speaking Frenchman might smile.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Cars with a difference

This is a new Renault Kangoo: the same brand-name as mine, with a similar external appearance.

But it’s no ordinary automobile. Judge from the fuel station where this vehicle fills up.

In fact, it’s an ordinary electric version of the Kangoo ZE that has been enhanced by the insertion of a hydrogen fuel cell, located in small compartment behind the front seats. This unit, referred to as a range extender, can be seen in the following photo of one of a fleet of 50 such enhanced Kangoos.

The general idea is that the range extender burns compressed hydrogen, producing electrical energy that is either consumed directly in moving the vehicle or used to recharge the vehicle’s battery.

I happen to be living in the middle of the geographical zone where the two major partners in this fascinating technological adventure have their headquarters. The hydrogen fuel cell has been created by a company named Symbio FCell in Grenoble, founded by Fabio Ferrari, seen in the above photo. [Click here to visit their website] The hydrogen consumed by the cell is produced by the French McPhy company, located in the tiny village of La Motte-Fanjas in the Drôme department, and directed by Pascal Mauberger. I drive past their neat and tidy little production plant every time I go to Valence. [Click here to visit their website.]

It’s interesting to note that these two high-tech businessmen—Ferrari and Mauberger—were recently invited along to the Elysée Palace for a luncheon with François Hollande in the context of planning for the forthcoming COP 21 conference in Paris.

Finally, another prestigious French company, Air Liquide, is playing a downstream role in this fabulous project as the creator of hydrogen refueling stations such as the one seen in the first two photos, located at Sassenage, between Grenoble and the Vercors mountain range.

Readers might be wondering why several major partners in this Renault Kangoo ZE-H2 adventure happen to be located, as I’ve pointed out, in my corner of the Dauphiné region. One significant explanation is the existence, on the outskirts of Grenoble, of a laboratory of the CNRS [Centre national de la recherche scientifique, France’s national science-research organization] that bears the name of Louis Néel [1904-2000], who was awarded a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1970 (along with the Swedish astrophysicist Hannes Alfvén). The fundamental research work that is now being exploited by McPhy, concerning the storage of hydrogen in the solid form of magnesium hydride, originated in the laboratory of Daniel Fruchart at the Institut Néel. McPhy was also able to take advantage of the industrial expertise of Michel Jehan, in charge of a company at Romans, MCP Technologies, that had become a specialist in the processing of magnesium. So, the “green hydrogen” of McPhy (or is it rather blue?) provides an exemplary illustration of synergy between basic research and high-tech industrial partners.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The day that England thrashed France

In France, it's a fact, rightly or wrongly, that few folk celebrate the Battle of Waterloo, which took place exactly two centuries ago, on 18 June 1815.

My wife and I used to drive to Waterloo often when we were living in Brussels, but it’s an uninteresting place. Funnily enough, I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that the illustrious Napoléon Bonaparte was defeated by a dull Englishman, Wellington, neither in France nor in England… but on the outskirts of the Belgian capital. That has always appeared to me as what the French call une histoire belge (a Belgian tale, which might be translated as a shaggy dog story).

Maybe we should have made an effort for the second centenary of this terrible defeat… but it’s not easy to rouse enthusiasm for this affair. Besides, France has always had an excellent reason for celebrating a quite different event: the BBC radio speech of Charles de Gaulle on June 18, 1940.

Be that as it may, the French newspaper Le Monde has just reacted to this anniversary by the publication of a moving English-language editorial addressed to our British neighbors:

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Paris wall

For centuries, an old-fashioned bank in Paris, the Crédit municipal, has enabled ordinary citizens to deposit valuable stuff such as jewelry and take out low-interest cash loans. Later, if and when clients get back onto their feet financially, they can return to the institution and buy back their deposited goods. After a certain time, if the stuff is not bought back, then the institution, in the time-honored traditions of pawnbrokers, auctions it off and makes a nice profit. So, everybody is happy… except maybe the ghosts of ancestors who see their precious family legacies being dilapidated by cash-strapped descendants.

Click to enlarge

This kind of money-lending institution, referred to in Italian as a Monte de Pietà (Mount of piety), was invented in the 15th century by an Italian monk as a scheme designed to end the monopoly of usurers of the kind that would be stigmatized, a century later, by Shakespeare’s notoriously anti-Semitic portrait of Shylock.

The Italian expression has in fact been misunderstood. Monte de Pietà has nothing to do with mounts. It refers rather to an amount of cash that is offered, allegedly through piety, to people in need.

Since the eve of the French Revolution, the Parisian Mont de pieté has been located in the Marais quarter. Its ancient entrance still exists in the Rue des Blancs-Manteaux.

Meanwhile, the main entrance is located in the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois: the eastern continuation of the Rue Rambuteau, where I lived for many years.

I’ve walked past that door almost daily, for years. Well, I’ve just learnt that this ancient Parisian financial institution is about to be closed down, simply because (like many other old-fashioned social entities) it can’t adjust itself to the digital era. This is weird in a way, because it shouldn’t be too hard to invent an Internet business model for pawnbroking…

I come now to the subject of this blog post: the existence of an ancient wall around Paris. referred to in French as the Enceinte de Philippe Auguste [Wall of Philip II Augustus]. This protective wall around the French capital was erected as a reaction against threats from the nasty English monarch, my ancestor King John, who would be forced at sword-point to sign the Magna Carta on 15 June 1215. Here’s a plan of the wall dating from 1223:

Click to enlarge

Its builder was the king of France, Philip II, commonly referred to in French as Philippe Auguste, primarily because he was born in August, and also because this nickname likened the monarch to a wise ruler of ancient Rome. Be that as it may, the French king appears to have been a nicer sort of a fellow than the abominable English monarch on the other side of the Channel.

Parenthetical comments: From a pragmatic viewpoint, the fact that King John was my 22-times-great-grandfather means little, if anything at all. His genetic contribution is diluted homeopathically today in a chromosomal soup stewed up from the gametes (reproductive cells) of countless other male and female ancestors. He was no more than a single member of the vast cohort of my medieval ancestors, whose number cannot even be vaguely estimated. Realizing that he’s one of my ancestors, I’ve nevertheless made an effort to know more about the man. Sadly, it’s almost impossible to find anything whatsoever of a noble nature in his profile. Consequently, it’s not surprising that no other English king has decided to call himself John.

Let’s get back to the Paris wall. Inside the domain of the Paris pawnbroking institution that is about to become extinct, there’s a fine fragment of the wall of Philippe Auguste.

Observing this tower, I was always impressed by the lovely pink-brick structure at the top… but what counts, in fact, is the relatively dull stone structure at the base, which is a perfectly intact fragment of the wall of Philippe Auguste.

Further to the west, we enconter the address of 16 rue Rambuteau, where Christine and I lived with our children Emmanuelle and François for many years. At the time, we didn’t think much about the fact that our apartment was situated upon the wall of Philippe Auguste. People had told us that this was the case, but this didn’t mean much in the context of our daily existence. In my personal photographic archives, I have countless images of our children on the balcony overlooking the nearby Hôtel de Saint Aignan, seen here:

Today, the elegantly-restored edifice has become (thanks to Jacques Chirac) the Museum of Jewish Art and History.

The balcony of our apartment was located in the upper left-hand corner of the above photo, where there seems to be a video camera. In the middle of the courtyard, there’s a huge statue of the extraordinary man who symbolized French anti-Semitism: Alfred Dreyfus. On the left of the courtyard, directly below our apartment, a stone façade with fake windows has been erected, solely for esthetic reasons, against the ancient wall of Philippe Auguste.

I often wonder what the ghost of the Colonel Dreyfus might think to be depicted here at a spot that I know so well, in the heart of Paris, where he looks out upon a panoramic façade of which the left-hand third, built against the wall of Philippe Auguste, is both archaic and totally false.

In any case, and above all, I'm overcome by a strange and wonderful feeling of warmth and pride every time I reflect upon the fact that our tiny Skyvington-Mafart family came into being here in the ancient inner heart of the fabulous City of Light. At the time, I didn't think that this might be any kind of achievement (maybe Christine did). But today, I realize that Emmanuelle and François grew up on the top of a legendary wall, in a fabulous Old World place that might even be thought of (by people like me, in any case) as the cultural centre of western civilization.

Monday, June 15, 2015

My ancestor King John

Elias Ashmole's suggestion that my Latton ancestors descended from the illustrious Estouteville family was published in 1719, with superficial documentary evidence. In They Sought the Last of Lands, I explored the possible origins of this alleged Estouteville/Latton link, and concluded that it probably came about during the 12th century, in the context of Latton Priory in Essex, through the marriage of Robert de Stuteville with Sibyl de Valognes.

Click to enlarge

Today, 15 June 2015, is the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta by our ancestor King John.

Our descent from this monarch passes through one of his illegitimate sons, Richard Chilham.

Yesterday, I discovered, quite by chance, that Richard’s maternal family, whose French surname was de Warenne, provides us with a link to the original French line of the Estoutevilles. It’s a trivial link between two sisters and their respective husbands, but this information nevertheless adds weight to the Estouteville/Latton hypothesis presented in my book. The starting point of this newly-discovered link is a famous personage, Geoffrey Plantagenêt, Count of Anjou [1113-1151], who reposes peacefully (except for the last 24 hours) in the capital of the ancient French province of Maine, Le Mans.

Geoffrey got his “Plantagenêt” nickname through his habit of decorating his hat with a sprig of the yellow broom shrub [genêt in French].

Geoffrey went down in history as the father of Henry II of England, founder of the Plantagenet dynasty. Not surprisingly, Geoffrey had several illegitimate children. His son Hamelin (nothing to do with the German town of the Pied Piper), of an unidentified mother, was invited by his half-brother King Henry to marry an extremely wealthy English widow, Isabel de Warenne, 4th Countess of Surrey. Young Hamelin was delighted to accept this invitation, even to the extent of adopting the lady’s Warenne name. Consequently, in a flash, the French bastard child became Hamelin de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. 

The couple had several daughters, one of whom was the above-mentioned Suzanne de Warenne, who jumped into the royal bed of her cousin King John and gave birth to my ancestor Richard Chilham. And I have just discovered that, in 1190, her sister Maud (Matilda) de Warenne [1166-1212] married Henri d’Estouteville [1170-1232], lord of Valmont.

This Estouteville/Warenne marriage plays no direct role in my Latton ancestry. That’s to say, the English marriage between Robert de Stuteville and Sibyl de Valognes remains the only explanation I can find for an alleged Estouteville/Latton link. But the Estouteville/Warenne marriage indicates that the French Estouteville family had personal links with ancestors of the Wadham, Stourton and Berkeley families, described in my book. Incidentally, in the context of Hamelin de Warenne, we come upon references to the feudal town of Ambrières in the Mayenne department (mentioned in my book), which played a role in early French Estouteville history.