One week ago, almost everyone in France seemed to be on the road, heading south on the first serious holiday departure date of the summer.
Silly season means French towns are never lost for words
One week ago, almost everyone in France seemed to be on the road, heading south on the first serious holiday departure date of the summer. These vast movements of people, repeated at intervals throughout the high season, have French television presenters talking solemnly about whether a particular day is a jour rouge or, worse, jour noir - red being grim, black suggesting you should stay at home. I am glad to say that last weekend I was driving against the flow, travelling north to the English Channel.
My route did not include Bouzillé, and this village in the western département of Maine-et-Loire does not at first glance present itself as an obvious tourist destination. Yet, people flocked there in their thousands for this year's festival dedicated to French towns and villages with silly names. The silliness relies in most cases on plays on words. Bouzillé, for example, is unremarkable as a place name when written down. Spoken out loud, it is close enough to bousillé to sound like "screw up", which once meant to raise prices but was adopted, initially by Americans in the early 1940s, to refer to making a wretched blunder. President Barack Obama used it when apologising for having offered posts to two individuals with questionable tax records.
Among other towns and villages represented, there was much indelicate allusion to bodily parts and functions and to rude or moderately rude words or phrases. Vatan, which had hosted last year's festival, qualifies because its name is similar to va t'en, a brisk way of saying "go away". Beaufou literally means "handsome madman", Poil is the correct spelling for bodily hair, Arnac-la-Poste might be an instruction to rob the post office. The list would be incomplete without variations of stupid (Ballots, Andouille and so on) and at least one location that would sound obscene if given its harshest translation into English.
Far from feeling reflected shame, the mayors of these dots on the map of la France profonde are proud that their communes are included in a total of 985 now listed at a website - www.commune-burlesque.com - which resembles an academic record of names variously described as quaint, singsong or burlesque. They are smart enough to see potential for attracting tourists. A national association is steadily growing and, after six years, has 33 members. There is a book as well as the website and association, and all owe their existence to the simple pleasure one former mayor, Patrick Lasseube, took in running a district that included the hamlet of Minjocébos, which translated as "eat onion" in the old language of Occitan spoken in parts of southern France.
I am sure Mr Lasseube's work could find equivalents in most countries. In Britain, for example, a singer named Tom Bliss, fascinated by the signposts he saw while travelling along English country roads between live performances, came up with a song that assembles some of the better examples into the ingredients and cooking instructions of an eccentric pie recipe. For all the fun I occasionally poke at France, my French wife is able to remind me that very early in our marriage her bus home from work in England, if stopping short of our home town, bore a sign announcing that it was going to No Place.
In methodical fashion, Mr Lasseube's site offers a multitude of categories, among them anatomical, culinary, health and naturally drôles de grossièretés (vulgar but funny). Jolly stories are told to explain some of the strange choice of names, not all of which translate as amusingly into English. A brief note mentions that the little community of Poisson in Saône-et-Loire is twinned with Avril (Meurthe-et-Moselle). It is necessary only to know the French for April fool joke - poisson d'avril - to appreciate the simple pleasure, taking my cue from Mr Lasseube, I drew from this small fact.
Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org