Guette au trou

“What are you looking at?” my husband asks.

“The neighbours across the street have a strange car in their driveway,” I say, stepping back from the curtain.

“Guette au trou!”

This conversation or variations on its theme has taken place hundreds of times in recent years. What can I say? I am not a voyeur but our house has a lot of windows. And there’s something about being at home and watching what goes on outside that I find endlessly fascinating.

This, according to the French, makes me a ‘guette au trou’. A spy, a snoop, or a nosey neighbour in common parlance.

For years I heard this expression and assumed that a ‘guette’ was a cute little mouse of some kind hiding in its hole. Ha! A quick google has put an end to that illusion.

The original ‘guette au trou’ is a phrase that was coined to describe the ‘sage femme’ or midwife. Crudely put, it describes the one who literally watches at the hole to see whether the baby is coming. It is derived from the verb ‘guetter’, meaning to watch in the patient way of a cat that is on the lookout for a mouse.

It is not to be confused with the related ‘guet-apens’, a trap or an ambush that is set to catch someone. In the news, people are said to have fallen into or ‘tomber dans un guet-apens’, often with criminal intent.

Interestingly, in both of these expressions ‘guette’ and ‘guet’ are pronounced just like the English word ‘get’. But, when you use it by itself, by saying that someone is on the lookout, ‘il fait le guet’, the pronunciation is more like gay.

All these years in France and I’m only now figuring out the origins of such expressions and how they are spelled or properly pronounced. Sometimes it feels like I’ve only just begun my journey. And on others I feel so rich with untapped knowledge of French that has only now bubbled to the surface of my brain. Language is truly a source of continual learning and inspiration.

Perhaps I’ve been distracted. So many comings and goings, windows to watch from, people scurrying about…

Are you — or do you have — a nosey neighbour?

Chasse aux sangliers

Cute, aren’t they? Not so much when they take over your home, farm field or vacation spot.

Wild boars have become the bane of many regions and towns in France. Not only do they present a risk of road accidents but encroaching urbanization means they are now a common sight around people’s homes. And they are proliferating like never before.

Canada’s cities have their raccoons and, increasingly, bears. Australia has its marsupials. Skunks, possums, foxes…increasingly it seems that wild animals are finding their way into our cities and towns. Or is it that our towns are expanding into their habitats?

One man in France recently returned home to find his house occupied by a terrified sanglier and the hunters who had followed him into the hall to track him down. The homeowner got them to leave and called the police. The gendarmes came and were able to get the animal outside with tasers, where it was let go.

Hunters are not allowed to pursue their prey any closer than 150 metres from a home or residential area, at least in theory. But there are those who demand measures to stop the scourge of the sanglier in France.

Crops are devastated when troops of wild boars take over the fields. They are especially attracted to the increasingly prevalent corn fields, grown for animal feed and bio-fuel. They rip up the grass in public gardens and golf courses in search of insects. And they even visit beaches looking for naïve tourists to share their picnics.

This video news report (in French) profiles an invasion of wild boars in Germany a couple of years ago, but it depicts an all-too-common scene in France today.

Every year thousands of these animals are hunted, trapped and otherwise chased away from human habitations. It seems unfair. Weren’t they there first? Shouldn’t they have the right to root about in the wild, nest in the bush, live their lives?

The problem is that human activities are not compatible with wildlife. We like to encourage migrating birds, but wild boars are something else. They bring a risk of swine fever for one thing. And they are outright dangerous to people. Sangliers are known to charge fences, knock down doors, pedestrians and cyclists. They have a powerful head butt that can do a lot of damage.

And if you run into one on the road at night, it’s not sure who will sustain the worst damage.

Hunting season is open in France and soon there will be ‘chasse’ on the menu of local restaurants. I’m no fan of guns or game but at least it will help reduce the nuisance population of wild boars and not go to waste.

Do you have to deal with any animal pests?

Cocorico!

‘Cocorico’ is French for cock-a-doodle-doo and a symbol of national pride. I’ve posted before about the Coq Gaulois and why it’s our national mascot. Now, recent events have inspired me to provide an update on the Gallic rooster. Or at least one noisy bird called Maurice.

You may have heard of the feisty fellow. Maurice made headlines around the world this summer as he became the object of a dispute between neighbours on an island off the west coast of France, Île d’Oléron. Joined to the mainland by a bridge on the Atlantic, it’s an idyllic holiday spot.

The rooster “Maurice” stands at Saint-Pierre-d’Oleron in La Rochelle, western France, on June 5, 2019. / AFP / XAVIER LEOTY

Maurice was crowing too early in the day and with too much gusto as far as his city-slicker neighbours were concerned. Roosters can make a hell of a racket. And they don’t just crow when the sun comes up. They can be like watch dogs, setting off their vocal alarm at odd hours of the day or night. This upset the holiday people who had bought a second home in the country to enjoy some peace and quiet.

The problem is that the countryside is not by nature a quiet place. There are ducks and chickens and cows and church bells. The farmers are out from dawn to dusk and their machines also make noise. The court case between Maurice and the city people represented the great divide between urban and rural France. The city mice vs. the country mice.

Translation: ‘Up yours, assholes!’

When justice was decided and Maurice won the right to crow his little heart out, it was like a victory for all of the French cocks. And I’m not just talking about our feathered friends. ‘Cocorico’ is not only the onomatopeia for the rooster’s crow, it’s a word that describes the sound of French pride. One that finds its roots deep in the dusty soil of la campagne.

It sparked a whole series of memes like the one below, warning outsiders to beware of the country village with its noisy church bells and farm animals. Love it or leave it!

I had to look up the meanings of a couple of words from in a French online dictionary to fully appreciate the above meme, which led me to a list of slang words for the Savoie region. A ‘monchu’ is a city slicker or a novice to a sport like skiing. It derives from ‘Monsieur’ and is associated with that most detested of Frenchmen in provincial France, ie the Parisian. ‘Arvi’pa’ means: get out, go away, get lost, ciao!

Here is the story of Maurice from an American point of view:

I’m of two minds about this. Personally, I would not be able to live in harmony next to noisy church bells or an overly enthusiastic rooster. But I understand that they have been doing their thing for centuries, so it’s up to me to adapt.

What do you think about Maurice’s victory? Should tradition stand or French villages adapt to changing times?

Urgences

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to the ER this week. More than half of the hospital emergency services in this country are on strike, a movement that’s been building since March. They want more staff, more hospital beds and better conditions. Not so much for themselves as for their patients.

Of which I was one, however reluctantly. My belly-ache hardly seemed worthy of a trip to the ER. But the first available doctor’s appointment was over a month away. It was probably nothing but what if it wasn’t? So off I went.

Here in France profonde as we call it, ‘les Urgences’ are the first and last resort for both the seriously injured and the walking well. We live in an area with few doctors. Hardly surprising, given the proximity of Switzerland where medical professionals earn twice what they do here. We’re too far from the big hubs of Lyon and Paris, where medical care par excellence is readily available. Our local GPs are few and far between; they are over-worked and under-paid. There are no walk-in clinics and basically no options other than the hospital.

Being of a squeamish nature, I avoid such places like the plague (and for fear of the latter). So when I arrived at the hospital, I went first to the general reception desk, hoping that the medical appointment side of the ER might be removed from the one with the helicopter pad. No such luck. Off I went.

I arrived before the set of solid double doors that said ‘Emergency – Push Hard’ and paused. Then I took a breath and pushed. Instead of bloody accident victims and George Clooney running alongside a gurney, I saw a waiting room with people that looked like they might possibly have a pulse. Eyes glazed over with either pain or boredom, possibly both, it was hard to tell. No one spoke. Waiting rooms are silent places in France.

Behind another set of doors was where it was all happening. I took a number and was heartened – 256 and they were currently serving 253! After several minutes I realized that this was the line for paperwork. Another ten minutes went by before I was registered and the real wait began. One of the many signs on the wall informed me that the order in which patients would be helped would not necessarily be in the order of arrival, depending on the nature of their affliction. Fair enough.

I had plenty of time to observe what was going on. The ER was on strike, but that didn’t mean they weren’t taking care of patients. It is more of a symbolic strike, a gesture aimed at raising awareness of the untenable conditions in our hospitals. A bunch of hand-made posters included one that said: “It’s not because we’re on strike that you have to wait so long, it’s because you have to wait so long that we’re on strike!”

After a two-hour wait, I was better informed about the issues surrounding the strike. It’s not just a matter of throwing money at the problem. The system is broken. The health minister Agnès Buzyn wants to fix it with a plan that will take pressure off the emergency services, developing other medical services rather than increasing ER resources. The striking ‘blouses blanches’ (doctors and nurses) aren’t happy with this solution. Clearly it is not the shot in the arm they were hoping for. I feel their pain. But I also believe that a bigger healthcare reform is needed and that the current plan is a step in the right direction.

When I finally saw a doctor, he prescribed two weeks of meds and advised me to follow up with my regular GP when my scheduled appointment finally comes up. I am grateful that this option was there and for the hard-working people who provide urgent care. But I had no business taking up space in an ER whose resources would be better spent helping urgently ill patients.

What’s your experience with the ER?

Carte de fidelité

“La carte du magasin?” the cashier asks dully, mustering all the enthusiasm of someone required to ask the same question of every customer, day in and day out. But it must be asked. He — or more often she — cannot process my purchase without an answer: do I have a store loyalty card?

Oddly, this is the only question anyone in a French store ever asks. Not “How are you today?” or “Are you satisfied with your shopping experience?” or even, “Can I help you?” No, we are sadly limited in our exchanges as to whether or not I have a store card. Mostly I say no, even though I do have a collection of such cards. At home, in a drawer where I keep the massive wallet with all my papers. Mostly the drawer is where it stays.

These days I travel light with just a small change purse and a couple of cards. I know I should carry my ID or at least my drivers license, but I can’t be bothered. In 30 years of driving in France, I’ve only been stopped once and that was by les douaniers, the border control, because I had obviously (from the boxes in my back seat) been shopping in Switzerland and not stopped to declare anything. What can I say? Our closest Ikea is in Geneva. They let me go with a warning. I’m not sure they even asked to see my big, pink French drivers license.

Carton rose

There is something about the term ‘carte de fidelité’ or loyalty card I find oddly endearing. I’m not sure why. I have no loyalty to any store, nor any other sentiment other than gratitude that such places exist within a reasonable drive. Ours is a relationship of convenience. And there is little convenient about such cards.

First is the fact that you need a physical card. You can’t just say your name or give a number, with the exception of a few smaller shops, which means carrying around a lot of plastic. This is especially true if, like me, you are not the faithful type. I confess: I shop around. Fast and furious. Based on my mood, to-do list and whatever a particular store has to offer: a better fish counter, fresh produce or selection of beer or wine.

Then there’s the fact that most of the reward programs require you to go online, log in to your account, and interact with them in some way to get your bonus. Only one store near me offers a simple ‘cagnotte’ or jackpot system in which you cumulate a bonus amount every time you shop that you can apply to future purchases whenever you choose. They even gave me a mini-card that attaches to my key ring. It takes little effort and adds up to a few euros off here and there.

Smaller places like hair salons give you a paper card that they must stamp each time you go. After a dozen services, you get a freebie. Usually I forget the card and start a new one several times, then change to a new place before it’s full.

I wish that store owners would understand that it’s service, not a little bonus after hundreds of euros spent, that wins my loyalty. How about a suggestion book, where I can let you know what’s missing on your shelves? A friendly cashier who actually says hello? Or even tapes that partially open container shut so that what’s inside doesn’t spill everywhere?

Happy staff create happy customers, so give your employees a reason to smile and that will earn you all the loyalty you need.

Do you have any store cards?