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Last Updated: Saturday, 30 September 2006, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Tourists evoke wartime memories
By Joanna Robertson
BBC News, Paris

British soldiers on a Normandy beach in 1944
British soldiers came armed with a guide book to the French
Saturday lunchtime at Le Dome café on Boulevard Montparnasse, and the regulars are feeling somewhat squeezed.

The usual midweek mix of locals - with the odd table of tourists - swells for 24 noisy weekend hours - from Saturday lunch to Sunday lunch - with British day or weekend trippers fresh off the Eurostar, ordering the Dome's fabled seafood in rather dreadful French or 'shouted-so-you-might-understand' English.

Denis is the waiter. Fleet-footed as Fred Astaire and as agile, he sashays between the marble-topped tables and cane chairs in his starched white apron, good-humouredly taking the orders of the British before nipping along the pavement to the oyster bar to place them.

Then, swivelling on his polished heels, he heads back bearing platters of glistening shellfish trapped in seaweed and lemon wedges.

At her usual place, shielded from the hubbub by her hat-of-the-day and the fronds of a brass-potted aspidistra, sits Madame Elisabeth Patrice.

Hundreds of hats

Ninety years old, elegant, spry and beautiful, she is behind her daily dose of uplifting effervescence - a single glass of Deutz champagne (as recommended by her cardiologist).

Madame Patrice has a great many hats: "Simply hundreds - I adore them," she confesses. She keeps these hats in two large wardrobes - one here in Paris, and the other at her seaside house near Deauville in Normandy.

"I have worn a hat every day of my long life, even through the Wars', she confides. "In the First World War, in Alsace, it was my mother who tied my baby-bonnet, but in Paris during the occupation - well, I wore my hat to lift my spirits. Paris was not so nice then," she sighs. "We had the Gestapo, you know."

In 1944, when the Allies finally arrived, Madame Patrice donned a carefully preserved "confection of a hat", as she called it, and slipped her war-thinned feet into yellow shoes to dance through the streets of her liberated city.

'Hard-working and serious'

Tucked into the pockets of the British soldiers' would have been a slim, hardback volume - standard Foreign Office-issue - bluntly called Instructions for British Servicemen in France 1944. This was a succinct guide to understanding the country they were liberating - that hazy world across the Channel that was France and the French.

More than 60 years later, that same manual, in French translation, has become a surprise bestseller for a small Paris publishing house.

Both Madame Patrice and Denis the waiter - along with a great many of the French public - have been reading it and it seems they like what they read.

Captured between its neat, olive-green covers is a description of the French as serious, hard-working, polite and well-educated; a people with solid family values, a talent for food, and a deep love of fine art and good books.

With regard to dancing with Madame Patrice in the streets of liberated Paris, see page 26...

Thank You flags on Normandy beach
British tourists are flocking to the wartime beaches

"It is also as well to drop any ideas about French women based on stories of Montmartre and nude cabaret shows. If you should happen to imagine that the first pretty French girl who smiles at you intends to dance the can-can or take you to bed, you will risk stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself - and for our relations with the French."

Denis the waiter, rudely exposed as he is to the peculiarly British pronunciation of his native language, particularly liked the phonetic French Words and Phrases section (prefaced by the soothing advice "Be patient if you find a Frenchman hard to understand - he is having difficulties too").

"It's hilarious!" Denis said, pausing - seafood platter in hand - to giggle-out an example. 'Have you seen the enemy? Avay voo view day lenmee?' Incredible!"

No-frills invasion

The handbook has a particular appeal in a France that, in 2006, feels it's experiencing a fresh invasion by the British.

Madame Patrice has been reading another successful book with a scream of a title - 'Help! The English are Invading Us!' It looks at the British boom in buying up French property, and then visiting their second-homes on budget flights.

The subject has just grown uncomfortably close to Madame Patrice's French heart - and to half her hat collection. Soon, Ryanair will fly three times a week to her chic, seaside hometown of Deauville.

But while D-Day probably saved her life, Madame Patrice is not so certain about these new arrivals on the beaches of Normandy.

"I can only hope," she says, raising the restorative flute of champagne to her carefully rouged lips, "that they've had the good sense to read that handbook first."


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