About two years ago, in total naivety, I popped into the Bureau de Tourisme to see if they ‘had a job going’. The women behind their desks peered at me as if I had just landed from a different planet (which indeed I just had) and sent me packing, and I spent the rest of the evening thinking how dreadfully rude they were.
Two years on I see their point!
This January, a few curious jobs later, the door of the Bureau de Tourisme inched itself open just a little bit as I managed to get a place on the ‘Formation Guide Conferencier’ having quite by chance made a second tentative the day the Bureau had started recruiting. If I had had any inkling what I was about to put myself through, perhaps I wouldn’t have been so keen. But that’s niavity for you.
So it was that I turned up for an intensive three month lecture series, spending the worst part of the sub zero winter temperatures shivering in freezing monuments, led by two lecturers who can only be described as walking ‘Masterminds’ who spent a good proportion of their time, when not delivering the essentials, embellishing miniscule details and corroborating, or disputing each others event dating down to the sheerest milli-second. Clearly this level of detail was ridiculous…
Or was it?
Curiously, over the space of three months, the thirst for linking each historical event and ancient monument became almost unquenchable. The fact that the canons at the cathedral became so irritated by the merchants at the herb market in the cathedral square for using the cathedral as a meeting house when it rained that they demanded the markets relocation, which in turn lead to the location of the future Palais de Justice on the same site in 1499. Equally interesting was the fact that the wife of King Charles the Mad held, in 1393, a fancy dress party for him as a distraction from government, in which all the men wore feathered costumes heavily impregnated with highly flammable glue. The Queen’s lover, the Duke of Orléans turned up with a candle, and all the costumed guests, with the exception of the king, burned to death. I am not sure, however that that was the queen’s plan! Who was she? She was the woman that handed the French throne to the descendent of the English crown, which in turn led to the arrival of Joan of Arc.
“Do not”, said our lecturers,” make an error on dates”. Dates, if anyone has not yet tried them in a foreign language, are hellish. Then followed a discussion on how the Germans, in order to route out foriegners and spies, would deliberately lead the conversation around dates, where the unwary would inevitably blunder. If the accent didn’t give me away first, clearly the dates would!
The trouble with the history of Normandy is that the English just didn’t know when to leave. In practically every epoch, or so it seems, the throne of England and the Duchy of Normandy were held by the same man – and more often than not the English king had designs on the French throne. Clearly the English were not very good at throwing in the towel and returning home, however much more simple that would have made the revision process for me.
Clearly I have more English genes than I had anticipated, for even when the crowd of suited Directors of Tourisme and Directors of Normandie Patrimonie headed for me on Tuesday morning; when I should have seen their approach and run off down the road screaming in terror, I stood resolute, nurturing my limited vocabulary, ready to give my very best shot.
Part of the exam process had been to select a little blue envelope from the pile of 20 or so on the table. Good fortune was shining on me when I opened mine to discover the coveted ‘Aitre St Maclou, the macarbre Black Death cemetery’. Twenty minutes of preparation and we were at the location ready to begin the presentation.
Not to be deterred by the black suits, I led ‘Le Direction’ into an obscure corner of the cemetery to show them one of the few carvings that had survived the anti-iconographic destruction of the Wars of Religeon.
“Note the exceptional carving of Eve, tempted by the serpent” I said.
“Yves?” said Monsieur Le Direction, looking bewildered,
A hasty discussion ensued amongst the Direction, clearly concerned that Paradise had been inhabited by Adam and Yves, before Monsieur Patrimoine managed to clarify that it was an error of pronunciation,
“Ehv” he reassured.
When we moved on, Monsieur Patrimoine was clearly tempted to look at the statue of the murder of Cain and Abel, despite being very mutilated in the Wars of Religeon and in its very undignified position almost in the toilet, where-upon Madamoiselle Patrimoine expressed more than a passing interest in the location of the toilets. I rather suspect she went back there afterwards!
Twenty minutes later it was time to wrap up.
“The cemetery is now on the list of….” but my brain was weary and could no longer recall the translation for ‘Historic Monuments’.
“Monuments Historiques” filled in Monsieur Le Direction, and my lecturer squeezed me a sympathetic smile.
I left the monument gutted at my linguistic inadequacy, sure of failure.
But a long five hours later an email popped into my in-box from the Direction.
“J’ai le plaisir de vous informer que vous avez réussi votre test en français ce matin”
“I have the pleasure to inform you that you have passed your test in French this morning”
The door of the Bureau de Tourisme is open wide. Their office is my office; I am now an official ‘Guide Conferenciére de Rouen’. There has been gain from the pain!
It was nearly the death of me!
So to all planning a visit to Rouen –