“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?