It’s as foreign and far removed as Timbuktu, and as unpronounceable as any four syllables in French can be. And just where is Pétaouchnok you ask? Theoretically somewhere in Russia or the Ukraine, although it’s an imaginary place. Also known in French as le trou perdu, le bled or le patelin. Pretty well everywhere in provincial France outside of Lyon, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Marseille, Toulouse and Nice. I exaggerate, if only slightly.
Just as bizarre and foreign sounding are most of the place names that appear on the signs of French towns – their sister cities or twin towns as they call them over here. Twinning or jumelage in French is a kind of socioeconomic mentoring between towns of different places and cultures intended to foster better understanding and economic ties. The European list is here if you’re interested.
Our current town is too small to have a twin, but nearby Evian has two. I am still waiting to see one that says ‘Ville jumeléé avec Pétaouchnok.’
The twinning program in its current form began after the second world war, which explains why so many French towns are twinned with German ones. There was certainly a need to bridge the huge gap between European countries in the post-war period. As one of my all-time favorite television programs so brilliantly spoofed:
I wonder whether twinning exists on a different level.
The street was used to live on was called Le Couchant, referring to the sunset. We had been living there for ten years when, on the other side of town, they built a new development with a street called Le Levant, or the rising sun. One day my daughter asked if we thought that there was a family living there who were just like us, only opposites. Where the Dad was always giving orders and the Mom was really happy all the time. Out of the mouths of babes.
Does your town have a twin? How do you say ‘trou perdu’?