A Little French Charm…from 1816

Posted on 12 June 2009

I was recently put on task to translate part of a French book published in 1818, a first-hand account by a titled Frenchman of a visit to the mid-Atlantic United States (in case you are interested in looking at the book itself, in its original French by Montlezun, it can be found here: http://books.google.com/books?id=h6U2iBgVVMgC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_summary_r&cad=0#PPP13,M1).  Aside from the grueling task of trying to convey someone else’s carefully-crafted narrative using another language than theirs, this has proven unexpectedly entertaining.  So much so, in fact, that I thought I would share a few excerpts with you (all are my translations).

A funny, I dare even say classic, bit of French (or perhaps more broadly, European?) snobbery can be found on pages 25-27: Tuesday, September 10, 1816.  Trip from Baltimore to Washington City

“…The Gadsby Hotel in Baltimore is inconvenient for foreign travelers.  It is an infinite pain to procure a room where one is alone.  The standard there is very unimpressive, and the water of terribly poor quality.  To correct for this situation, one has only brandy or whisky.  Sixty people are at the same table; you must move at a gallop; dinner lasts around thirteen minutes, after which three quarters of the guests can do nothing but smoke, while the others don’t know what to do with themselves.

…We left in frightful weather.  The road from Baltimore to Washington is terribly bad; we greatly and frequently risked tipping over.  This road is not even worthy of a path in Europe.  The country we passed through was uninteresting; it is almost completely covered in forest.  In the intervals where the woods are cleared, the land is so bad that there is not a speck of cultivation; although, from time to time, you can see some small fields of corn or tobacco.  Hardly any houses, hardly any inhabitants to carry on.  We would be put to great pains if we were to have an accident.

The public stages are such that it seems they were conceived to be the least convenient and most detestable that it is possible to imagine.  There is rain on the top, in the back, in front and on the sides; three benches two feet apart from each other separate the passengers’ seats.  The situation inside the carriage puts the travelers in an unbearable position, knees up by your head, and in danger of breaking your legs by the harshness of the jerks in these miserable carts.”

Such a great line, about how short the meal was!  Highlighting a trademark difference between Europeans and Americans—and one that still exists today.  Also, the way he uses the word “cultivation” makes the link between this word and “culture” remarkably stark.  The tone, style and unfettered judgement of his descriptions are a striking window into the times—an era brimming with colonialism, haughty entitlement, and a strong sense of European superiority.  I love it!

Another excerpt I appreciated addressed the state of Washington, DC weather, on pages 28-29: Wednesday, September 11, 1816. Washington City

“The rainy weather we had yesterday continued today; a hazy sky must necessarily sadden those who have recently left the azure and brilliant colors of the equatorial zone.  This glance at a land half-drowned, muddy, sandy and enclosed by humid vapors, is still darker, and inspires still more melancholy in a new country covered in forests, whose population is scattered, where everything is an obstacle, inconvenient, disagreeable and dangerous, so that even the wealthy must escape and take shelter.”

I am happy to report that although I have not been a huge fan of the DC weather so far, my experience with it has been nowhere near what is described here!  The most fitting, I thought, was the comment about the oppressive humidity and the feeling of being “half-drowned.”  Clearly, some things never change!

Finally, a small tidbit and commentary on the change of diet, on page 73.  While describing his trip by horse to Monticello from Montpellier, Montlezun wrote the following:

“These edges [of the woods] are populated with a large number of squirrels with silver tails.  They are very good to eat.”

Haha!!  What??  I’m guessing he’s talking here about our regular old grey squirrels.  Wow.  So maybe some things do change, after all—but for the better!


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