January 28, 2017 by Richard Crowest
This morning, for no adequate reason, I suddenly realised that I know the German word for “mustard factory”. This is insignificant in itself, but the fact that I’ve known it since I was 13 years old is perhaps a little more so. (To be strictly honest, I initially thought it was “soap factory”, but I’ll put that confusion down to the intervening 38 years and the lack of opportunities to use either word.) It shows that, for reasons of their own, in the 1970s somebody, somewhere, decided that I needed to know it. I can only wonder at the thought processes that led to that decision. Perhaps, in days so long before Brexit, a career in the European mustard trade was a realistic possibility for a boy from Norfolk, especially if Colmans was feeling acquisitive. Its likelihood declined, no doubt, owing to my study of German lasting only a year. French, which I’d started at primary school, carried on to ‘O’ Level at 16.
I think part of the reason why German appealed less was the way the two countries appeared in their respective lessons. National stereotypes were very much in evidence. Germany was all industry and administration, each town possessed of its obligatory senffabrik, a rathaus where the good burghers promoted local industry, a gasthaus, where doubtless travelling salespeople stayed between meetings about the international price of mustard, and of course the legendary straßenbahnhaltestelle, from which the aforementioned salespeople would travel to the mustard factory.
France was an altogether more leisurely place, if the lessons were to be believed. Local administration was limited to the syndicat d’initiative, suggesting tourism was a far higher priority than industry. No factories disfigured the French townscape – in their place, food was all-important. So much so that not one but two varieties of our domestic shops could be found on every high street. A boulangerie for bread and a pâtisserie for cakes. A general boucherie and a charcuterie for hams and sausages. Even in the home, the everyday took on a familiar yet sophisticated ring, the dreary kitchen replaced by a classy-sounding cuisine. There, among the condiments, one would of course find moutarde, though the name for the factory that produced it remained an elusive mystery.
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