…you start using French expressions

Learning French in Paris is a daily battle.  English is everywhere, so much so that you could actually get by without speaking French at all.  Well, at least in most places.

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In this GARDEN we speak FRENCH, BUT we don’t smoke…  (insert thinking face emoji) 

But, if you persevere, you do have little victories every now and again.  Like the feeling you get when you learn a new word and then you hear it absolutely everywhere, making you wonder how you got by without it.  (For example: I recently had this with the word “punaise”, which means bug (or thumb tack) and can also be used to say “gosh” or “golly”.  Something similar happened a few years ago with “machin”, which is equivalent to “thingy”, and pops up all the time.  And again, once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it.)  Or when you successfully order your vegetables at your local market – and don’t, for example, find yourself trying to order three navettes (shuttle buses) instead of three navets (turnips).  Or when you manage to wrap up a voicemail in French without sounding like the most awkward person on earth.

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#dailystruggle

But you know you’ve really made it when you start using French expressions.  This is where the richness of the French vocabulary and their gift for les jeux de mots (word play) come together.  There are literally hundreds of French idioms out there, suitable for just about every aspect of Parisian life.  I was reminded of this recently when discussing the weather with some colleagues.  This is always a popular topic of conversation at the office, but more so at the at the moment, with the mercury expected to drop below -5 this week in a phenomenon described by meteorologists as “Moscou-Paris” (which sounds more like a delicious cocktail than a cold weather front to me, but that is by the by).  In English, I could only think of two expressions to say “it’s cold” (one of which was, spoiler alert, “it’s cold”).  The French, on the other hand, have at least five expressions to describe le froid, each more colourful than the last.

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“Moscou-Paris” a.k.a. “Instagramer’s Delight”

After a few years here, I’d picked up a number of these expressions, applicable both to the weather and to many other aspects of life in Paris.  When I hear them, I note them in my phone (often incorrectly, as shown below), and then try to bring them out at the appropriate moment.

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One of the many incoherent notes in my phone.  FYI, “cou” (neck) of the crémière (dairy woman) is wrong (for reasons explained below) 

But the thing about using expressions or idioms in any language is that you have to use them word for word.  It’s not enough that you convey the general image or the idea.  (Even in English, you can’t say “You have to make your ducks stand in a line” or, “You shouldn’t count your chickens before they are born.”)

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Bref, even one word out of place and you’ve gone from impressing your French friends with your witty repartee to becoming fodder for their dinner party anecdotes.  Regrettably, but much to my French friends’ delight, I have found myself falling into the latter category on more than one occasion.  And more often than not it’s because I’ve taken an innocent turn of phrase and unknowingly turned it into something far more risqué.

To give some examples, starting on the tamer side: a few years ago I learned the expression, “Il n’y a pas le feu au lac” (literally, the lake is not on fire).  Essentially this means there is no rush or urgency.  This seemed like a great expression for use in the work context.  So, in a team meeting one day, when it seemed like we were clearly not in a lake-on-fire situation, I decided to assert myself and said, “Mais le lac ne va pas prendre feu.” (literally, something like, “But ze lake iz not going to catch on fire.”)  I looked around my colleagues’ puzzled faces and instantly knew I had failed.  A beat, before someone copped on, “Ahhh elle veut dire il n’y pas le feu au lac.”  It’s like a reversal of that familiar moment described by Stephen Clarke, when a French person says just about any Hollywood actor’s name and you make them repeat it three times before saying, “Ahhh, you mean Keanu Reeves!

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It’s WEEVES, like “W” for “Wyan Gosling”…

Another racier anecdote, which is a particular favourite among my French friends, happened when we were on a group ski trip last year.  We had rented a charming apartment in Val d’Isère.  It was our last day and we understood that nobody was checking in after us so we could fit in a full day of skiing before heading back to the apartment to shower, pack our things, tidy up and take our train back to Paris.  Hélas, we were out skiing up a storm on La Grande Motte when we got a phone call from the owner saying that there had been a misunderstanding and the cleaners were back at the apartment waiting to clean it before the next guests checked in a few hours later.  We raced down the mountain, dropped off our skis, ran back to the apartment and quickly packed our things.

When we piled into the elevator to go downstairs (along with a family of four with two small children, of course), my friend and I were lamenting the fact that we had not been able to shower due to the rush.  I said, “C’est bon, je vais me faire une douche à la chatte plus tard.”  What I had *wanted* to say was I would take a toilette de chat, which I understood to mean freshening up sans a proper shower, like a cat (i.e., wash my face, hands and underarms using a make-up remover wipe).  What I ended up saying was something far, far more rude involving another word for cat (you can guess the rest).

Another minefield is French slang.  Once you use it you start to feel like you have total street cred.  But again, you need to get it exactly right or else you sound distinctly uncool.

A dear Parisian friend of mine Caro is my go-to person for the latest French slang.  She’s a fan of verlan (a form of slang created by cutting words in two and turning them backwards) and regularly coins slang terms of her own.

One day Ro-ca (or Ro-K to take it a step further) was admiring my “bagouze” and I had no idea what she was talking about.  It turns out that bagouze (or bagouse) is slang for bague, which means ring.  I dug a little further into the practice of putting “ouze” at the end of words and found out, for example, that flouze is slang for money and that piqouze is slang for injection (piqûre).  I made a mental note about this “ouze” idea and carefully filed it away for future use.

A few weeks later I was in Berlin with Ro-K and some other girlfriends, one of whom had brought her boyfriend along.  On the Friday night we went out to one of Berlin’s famous night spots.  As we were walking into the club, I turned to the group wanting to announce something like, “Let’s party!”  (Or “Let’s make ze party !” (“On va faire la fête !”), as the French would say.)  I’d been toying with this “ouze” idea, so, for reasons I still cannot explain, I came out with “Allez, on va faire la part-ouze !”  Which actually means “We’re going to have an orgy !”  (“Partouze” = orgy).  Of course, as luck would have it I announced this within earshot of another group of français.  And given the club we were in, this did not sound like such an improbable proposition.  Needless to say, our male companion, in particular, found this absolutely hilarious and has dined out on the story on many occasions since.

Another favourite anecdote occurred when I was at a fancy business lunch at the prestigious cercle de l’Union interalliée on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.  I was seated next to a high-ranking executive from a large French company.  I was very carefully vouvoie-ing him (i.e., using the formal/polite form of “you”) and using my best French.  We started talking about our jobs and for whatever reason I found myself wanting to tell him that I had a sore neck because I was working long hours sitting at my computer.  So I told him that “Je travaille devant l’ordinateur et cela m’arrive d’avoir mal au cou.”  Except that instead of saying “cou” I said “cul”Et oui, a slightly different vowel pronunciation meant that instead of telling this gentleman I had a sore neck (“cou“), I instead told him I had a sore arse (“cul”).

To add to the complexity, you also have to watch out for traps laid by mischief-making locals.  For example, I used to work with a guy named Jacques* who is lovely, but has a very cheeky streak.  Jacques has that lethal combination of super quick wit and perfect English.  Once in my early days at our company we went out to lunch with a group of colleagues.  I hadn’t even been in France a year at this point and was struggling to keep up with the conversation.  I found myself wanting to say something but wasn’t sure how to say I “laughed out loud”.  Luckily (or not) I had Jacques beside me, and so I leaned in and asked him how to say it.  He whispered the phrase to me and I turned to the group and repeated what he had said, announcing, “J’ai ri à gorge profonde.”  What I should have said was, “J’ai ri à gorge déployée.”  (Literally, “I laughed with an open throat.”)  Instead I said, “I laughed with a deep throat.” Cue many LOLs from all around the table, and especially from Jacques.

A similar thing happened to my better half, who also had an equally quick-witted and mischievous (yet lovely) colleague named Stan. One day my chéri was feeling under the weather and asked Stan how to say he had “the flu” in French.  Lightening fast, Stan said, “Ah, c’est la chtouille !”   So my poor chéri went around the office saying he wasn’t feeling well and gravely telling people that he thought he had la chtouille.  Again, many LOLs were had until his dear office-mate (co-bureau) Mathilde kindly told him that la chtouille in fact means syphilis (and the he should have been saying that he had “la grippe”).

But none of this will discourage me from diligently noting down French expressions and using them (or trying to use them) in everyday life.  I would never throw in the sponge (“jeter l’éponge”) on my mission to turn Parisian so quickly !

*Name has been changed to that of my other favourite actor from Le Dîner de cons 

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…you become a French cititzen

It has been a while since I last blogged.  Nearly two years to be exact.  In those two years, a lot has changed.  Some changes have been good, others bad.  France elected its youngest ever President, Emmanuel Macron (cf. macaron.)

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Macron on a pile of macarons by illustrator Parisian Postcards, inspired by the latest Earful Tower podcast

Colette, a favourite hang-out of fashion folk and celebrities alike, closed its doors definitively.

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Where will I buy my overpriced candles now?

And David Pujadas, heart-throb of many a high school French student (or was it just me?), was unceremoniously booted from France 2’s celebrated nightly news show, 20 heures.

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Parting is such sweet sorrow.  And that hair – was it indeed too good to be true ?

So it’s been a big two years, full of unexpected events.  But nothing prepared me for the letter that was waiting for me in my boite à lettres upon my recent return from a month-long séjour in Australia.  The first sentence of the letter simply read, “Madame, J’ai le plaisir de vous informer que vous avez acquis la nationalité française depuis le 20 décembre 2017.” (“I have the pleasure to inform you that you acquired French nationality on 20 December 2017.”)

Accordingly, I was told that I would be receiving, in around 6 months’ time, a letter from President Macaron himself enclosing some official-sounding documents, including my French birth certificate.  (I already asked about this and no, I am not being “re-born” French and I will not get a second birthday.  From what I understand I will get a certificate saying that I was born on my actual birthday (but in France?), which apparently will come from Nantes.  And no, technically I do not think this will make me bretonne, but I will claim it nonetheless.)

This letter came as quite a surprise.  Although it’s true that I applied for French citizenship nearly two years ago, all the rumblings I was getting from the Prefecture to the press indicated that, due to the overwhelming number of British people applying for citizenship, the already sluggish wheels of the bureau des naturalisations would be slowing to a snail’s pace.  Plus, at the end of my interview to acquire citizenship (yes, it’s a real interview – more about that later), I was effectively told, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  So I did my very best to “bien vouloir patienter” (a nice way French people basically tell you to shut up and be patient), put the whole process out of my mind and assumed I would get some forewarning if and when my dossier had been accepted.

But no, I did not hear a peep out of the Prefecture until I got back from Australia around half a year later (in mid-January), when I found out that I’d been French for a month and didn’t even know it.

This was all the more surprising given that I didn’t exactly pass my citizenship interview with flying colours.  I’d done my best to study.  I read the Livret du citoyen (a handy booklet prepared by the Ministère de l’Intérieur, a kind of Dummy’s guide to how to be a good French citizen.)  I highlighted the key dates.  I tried to memorize the notoriously complicated carte administrative (the administrative map of France), and then quickly gave up (much like the time my parents told me I was going to a Catholic high school and I tried to read to the bible the night before.)  I learnt the names of five rivers in France (someone told me this might come up.)  I went into the interview feeling good about my prospects of becoming French.

The interview started well.  My rapporteur (a.k.a the guy looking after my file) kicked things off by going through my dossier.  Luckily, it was generally in good order; my yearly battles with the Prefecture had trained me well.  We looked at my birth certificate, passport, lease, gas bill, criminal record checks, diplomas, tax forms, social security forms, my parents’ birth certificates, my parents’ marriage certificate (and the list went on…)  My rapporteur laughed as he tried to pronounce the names of the towns where my parents were born (Bacchus Marsh and Yarrawonga, #theypartylongerinYarrawonga.)  He had a map of the world on the side of his cubicle and I pointed out various places in Australia.  We talked about how long it takes to fly there and I told him “ça vaut la peine quand même” (“but it’s worth the trip”), as I tell so many French people.  It all felt very pleasant – friendly, even – so far.

We looked at my pay slips and got chatting about my recent change of jobs.  I explained that I had recently moved from an American company to a French one; big change of culture, yada yada.  Without looking up from the papers he asked me if I had many French friends in my entourage.  I started explaining, “Obviously, having worked in an American company for so long, I have a number of expat friends…”. He looked up at me with a look that said, “WRONG ANSWER”, at which point I quickly corrected myself to add, “But I have lots of French friends, too.”  Relieved, he looked back down at the paperwork and I understood that the official part of the interview had begun.

Then the questions came.  “What are the values of the French Republic?”  Liberté, égalité, fraternité.  “What does each of them mean?”  Freedom, equality, yada yada yada. “What year was the French Revolution?”  1789.  So far, so good.  Then came, “Which King was overthrown by the Revolution?”  I panicked. Was it Louis XVI?  Or Louis XIV?  I should know this.  I took a gamble on Louis XIV (which, I know, makes absolutely no sense.)  My rapporteur gave me the same, “WRONG ANSWER” look.  He dropped his gaze, took a note and said, “Ce n’est pas très grave.”  (Which means, “It’s not very serious.  But it kinda is.”)

We carried on.  He asked me to explain what laïcité is.  I rattled off something about separation of Church and State and tried to suppress flashbacks to Arrested Development.

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Church ‘n’ State Fair, home of the Father-Son Triathlon and the “Miss Inner Beauty” Pageant 

Then came the million Euro question: “Why do you want to be French?”  I faltered.  I hadn’t prepared an answer for this.  I blurted out, “Parce que j’adore la France.” (“Because I love France.”)  He gave me a look that said, “Well, duh,” and asked, “Pourquoi adorez-vous la France ?” (“Why do you love France?”)  I drew another blank and started reeling off the first random things that came into my mind, “Son histoire, sa culture, sa cuisine…” (“Its history, its culture, its cuisine…”)  My rapporteur looked intrigued.  This must be the moment they prepare you for in French citizenship-testing school – get ’em to make a grand statement and then drill ’em with follow-up questions until they break.

“Well then, what is your favourite French cuisine?”  My mind went blank – it was like Louis XIV all over again – I know so many French dishes but in the moment I couldn’t think of any.  I wanted to say “beef bourguignon“, but I was too scared I wouldn’t be able to pronounce it properly.  Then I thought of “steak frites“, but that’s probably the least French dish going around.  I had nothing.  “Fromage ?”  I said tentatively.  “Ah bon”, he said, “How many French cheeses do you know?”  Again, my brain checked out.  Why did I say cheese?  I cursed myself.  I don’t even like cheese that much.  I started talking to cover my panic, “Well, you see actually I don’t like blue cheeses or soft cheeses, so that limits things somewhat…”,  I trailed off.  My rapporteur looked unimpressed.

For some reason my mind went to the mountains (it was the middle of July and the sun was shining outside on the Île de la Cité, so there was no logic at play) and I started thinking about Alpine cheeses.  “Well there are some very good Savoyard cheeses like reblochon, beaufort and raclette … we like to ski, you see, and I love having raclette after a day of skiing with cornichons and some white wine…”,  I trailed off again.  For someone who said they want to become French for the fromage I wasn’t doing a very convincing job of this.  But for whatever reason my rapporteur decided that he had exhausted that line of questioning and, miraculously (as I now know), that I had apparently shown sufficient knowledge of French cheeses to become a French citizen.

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Nothing like a steaming hot chunk of melted cheese in the middle of July #sonotFrench

Next my rapporteur pulled out a contract that I had to sign.  He told me that it said, amongst other things, that if and when I acquired French citizenship then, if asked what nationality I am, I would always have to say French.  I looked at him quizzically.  I simply could not fathom telling French people with a straight face, “Je suis française.”  They would hear my accent, take one look at my outfit and know that I don’t come from here.  He seemed to understand.  “You can say you’re Australian, too,” he assured me.  “But when you’re on French soil you must say that you’re French first.”

Relieved, I signed the contract and was told that if my dossier was accepted I would receive a convocation (a scary-sounding invitation) to a ceremony where I would sing the Marseillaise and receive my passport.  I asked when this would be?  He said it was hard to say, maybe 6 to 8 months if everything was in order.  But, he said, et ça c’est très important, there was no need to call him, write to him, or come into the office before then (“Ça ne sert à rien.“)  I would just need to “patienter“, he told me, and wait for the letter to come.  I nodded.  I’d heard this word many times during my time in Paris; on the phone, in the metro, in shops.  Being patient is not one of my fortes and in France it is a verb.  But for whatever reason, I did patienter.  And then, as if by magic, the letter came when I least expected it, proving that perhaps I was ready to become French after all.