Jan 13, 2015

I've Met My French Waterloo: Boulette de Cambrai


In my art class, I am trying to paint a scene that's particularly difficult for me, and I announce, in French, "I've met my Waterloo!" Surprisingly, this leads to a conversation not about the best way to tackle the painting, but about why on Earth an English speaker would refer to Waterloo as the point of defeat, when it was the place of Napoleon's defeat at the hands of the English (under the Duke of Wellington along with some Prussians).

My confused classmates are perfectly right, of course; we say, in English "I've met my Waterloo," but really, we're pretending we're saying it from Napoleon's perspective. Meanwhile, the French themselves do not have any version of this expression, in any translation or iteration. Believe me, I tried.

Waterloo just isn't that big a deal to the French, anyway. The 1815 battle signaled the end for Napoleon, but it wasn't actually the turning point of his campaigns. The French say that if they wanted to speak from Napoleon's perspective and express dismay at the site of their greatest defeats, they would either say they'd met their Trafalgar (the 1805 naval battle that dashed Napoleon's hopes of invading England) or that they'd met their Moscow (Napoleon attempted to invade Russia in 1812, then subsequently retreated, with great loss of life at the Battle of Bérésina, and the French largely consider this the reason Napoleon was ultimately defeated). In fact, I have just learned (from an anonymous comment below) that there's a French expression: "C'est la Bérésina!" (sometimes spelled Berezina) meaning "It's a disaster!"

My French classmates try to dissect and reconstruct the expression: What should an English-speaker actually say, instead of Waterloo? If we wanted to talk about Napoleonic battles, we could say we'd met our Austerlitz, which was one of Napoleon's greatest victories in 1805 against the Russian and Austrian empires, though the British don't figure in largely, so it makes less sense.

The Hundred Years War, on the other hand, is a goldmine of linguistic possibilities: "I've met my La Rochelle", where in 1372, the English were defeated by a French-Spanish alliance. Not only were thousands of knights and troops captured here by the French, it also was the moment at which the tide turned for the English on the European continent itself. Or, "I've met my Orleans", where in 1429, Jean d'Arc led the French to a miraculous victory against the English (who captured her and burned her at the stake a year later). Or "I've met my Bordeaux", the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453, in which the French used 300 guns (an ungodly amount, at that time) and their cavalry to defeat the English.

Perhaps the most appropriate expression would be to say "I've met my Somme," the World War I battle in 1916 in which about 20,000 British died (with 60,000 casualties). The British were so confident about the battle beforehand, commanding officers told their soldiers to walk (think: casually saunter) across no-man's-land to the German side, while the French advised their soldiers to dash quickly to cover.

The English expression could also be "I've met my Saratoga" (1777) or "my Yorktown" (1781), both of which were great defeats for the English -- at the hands of the Americans during the revolution. So that would make it confusing since for some English-speakers, it's a historical defeat and for others, a victory. It would really only work with a British accent.

Perhaps equally confusing would be "I've met my Hastings" of 1066, in which the then-local-English-contender for the throne was defeated by Guillaume le Conquerant (William the Conqueror) who may well be considered the first of the Norman English kings now, but at the time was an invader from across the Channel. English king, yes, but also the Duke of Normandy and as French as a Nutella crêpe.

Napoleon, by the way, was not a war-mongering megalomaniac because he had an inferiority complex for being so short, contrary to what you've heard all your life. Yes, Napoleon was 5'2" -- in the French measuring system of the time. In the Imperial system, that translates to 5'7" (170cm) which was about average, or even a bit tall then, since at the time the average French male was 5'5" in the modern Imperial system, or 165cm. It was roughly during Napoleon's era that France switched to metrics to avoid just such problems of inconsistent measurement systems.

You could be a voltigeur -- whatever that means, militarily -- in Napoleon's army if you were French 4'11" (5'3" in the modern Imperial system, or 160cm). To give you another idea, in 2005, the average French male was 175.5 cm. So you'll have to find a different reason to pin on Napoleon for wanting to take over the world.

Look, I'm 4'11" Imperial (150cm and impossibly short by ancient French systems), and I don't want to rule the world; I'd be happy if I could just figure out how to finish my painting.

THE CHEESE: Boulette de Cambrai
The Boulette de Cambrai is, in nearly every way, very much like the related and much-more-common Boulette Blanche d'Avesnes. Both are made from cows' milk (usually raw, but can also be mixed with pasteurized) in the norther part of France, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, in that tip of the hexagon next to Belgium.
It's historically made from the residue of butter-making and also failed Maroilles cheese molds. The creamy mixtures are then smushed together with herbs and formed into an oblong ball or cone shape. The end result has the texture of dry mashed potatoes, and is meant to be spread on bread. The flavor is much milder than Maroilles, since the cheese is not aged and salt-water-washed to the point of a stinky orange moldy crust. It's a mildly lactic cheese, with just a hint of tang.
Though it is very nearly a Boulette d'Avesnes, it's named after the town, Cambrai, where it is made. They don't taste exactly the same, so perhaps the herbs are different, or used in different proportions; Or, more likely, it could simply be that the particular specimens I taste are not identical, or that I don't taste them right next to each other, so I'm trusting to faulty memory.
Would I have used the cheese called Napoléon if I could have? Of course. But I've already used it to talk about the Louvre. It's actually the third or fourth time I've wished I could use this cheese. But just when I begin to despair, I discover the Boulette de Cambrai. First of all, this cheese is made in the north, in the same region as the Battle of the Somme, and just across the Belgian border from Waterloo (considered part of the Netherlands at the time of Napoleon's battle). By coincidence, the cheese has almost the same name as Napoleon's general Cambronne, who responded to Britain's demand for surrender at Waterloo with the less-than-eloquent "Merde!" ("Shit!"), which is why that particular swear word is sometimes euphemistically referred to as "le mot de Cambronne"  ("Cambronne's word").


  1. You are right, in French we would use "Beresina" as a synonym of disaster ("c'est la Berésina!") or Trafalgar as a synonym of treachery ("un coup de Trafalgar").
    But do we ever use the name Waterloo ?
    Never, unless we are talking Abba and pop music …!

    1. I love everything about your comment. I just learned so much, I'm actually going to have to go back and edit my post. But all the credit goes to you!


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