Historical Discovery, maybe

Waiting for a train the other day at Poitiers Gare, sitting on a bench and sipping a bottle of chilled Evian (alas, there was no Vittel available at the Relay), I happened to see a sign as shown on this photograph.


My French is adequate but not wonderful, so I puzzled idly for a while over what “ORTIE” might mean. I had not previously encountered this word; maybe it was some sort of error for the city’s name of Poitiers. But no, that couldn’t be.

And then it dawned on me: the word was meant to be SORTIE – the French for “Way Out” – and, somehow, the first letter had faded, fallen off or been erased.

And so, again, it dawned on me. This was a relic of World War Two, when the Nazis occupied France. Obviously, the Maquis – the rural French Resistance that was active in this part of the country – used a kind of secret message system, of which this sign was an example. The letter “S” was deleted from “Sortie”, and this was an indication (for the initiated – or better, perhaps, the “uninitialed”) that secret information would be revealed by deleting the first letters of subsequent words on the sign. So there it was, obvious to those who knew: “Bus” becomes “us” and “Taxis” becomes “axis”. There you have it: go towards the left and you will find “us”, friendly people. But if you move to the right, you will run right into the Axis, the  enemy forces.

What could be simpler? But I am joking, of course.

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