Quelque chose qui cloche

Lundi de Pâques here in France gives me a good excuse to reblog this one from the archives. Easter Monday is a holiday in our parts so I feel like goofing off. Whether you’re enjoying a day off or back to the grind, enjoy this story of bells and bunnies.

FranceSays

shutterstock_26340932The French expression “quelque chose qui cloche” (literally: something is off) describes a situation that doesn’t quite add up. A cloche is also a bell, and Easter tradition has it that the church bells (“les cloches”) fly away to Rome and return at Pâques full of chocolate eggs which they hide in the gardens for children to collect.

When I first heard that story, I scoffed. Flying bells bringing Easter eggs? How far-fetched can you get?

But upon reflection, is it any more ridiculous than the idea of a bunny bringing Easter eggs? Or of Santa bringing presents to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus? While we’re at it, what have chocolate eggs got to do with the resurrection of Christ? Isn’t there “quelque chose qui cloche” in that whole story?

The fact is that the pagan festival of “Eostre” was conscripted by the Catholic church for its own purposes…

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Les œufs

On a fine spring morning when people are outside in the garden hunting for Easter eggs, it seems as good a time as any to dedicate a few lines to that most perfect of foods: les œufs.

The challenge with eggs in France is not eating them – we have no shortage of farm-fresh eggs and specialties ranging from omelettes, quiches, mousses, meringues and flans – but to spell and pronounce the words properly.

First we must get past that funny little vowel configuration created by the ‘o’ and the ‘e’. When these two characters get overly familiar and become one as in ‘œ’ this is called a ligature and has its own particular sound, somewhere between the two vowels. A bit like the ‘ou’ sound in enough. But it changes slightly depending on what comes after.

Un œuf (uhf) in the singular becomes des œufs (euh) in the plural. Put like that, it seems easy enough. But for some reason I’ve always struggled with these words.

For one thing, in French they have a weird similarity to eyes. Un œil (oy) and des yeux (yeuh). Am I imagining this?

Les oeufs dur

Eggs in France are almost always brown in the shell rather than the sterile white I grew up with in North America. They sometimes bear scraps of dirt and feather on the shell, reminding us of their origins. They are date-stamped with either the ‘date de ponte’ (date they were laid) or the ‘date limite de consommation recommandée’ (DCR or use-by date).

I recently learned of an easy trick you can use to tell if an egg is still fresh.

Here are a few of the ways you will find eggs on the menu in France:

  • Œufs au plat: fried eggs, usually served sunny side up
  • Œufs durs: hard-boiled eggs
  • Œufs à la coque: soft-boiled eggs
  • Œufs brouillés: scrambled eggs
  • Œufs pochés: poached eggs (my personal favourite)

And of course, les œufs de Pâques. Easter eggs. Preferably au chocolat. Hope you are enjoying the kind you like best on this holiday Sunday.

And, in case you’re wondering, this year the Easter bunny will not be on the menu.

Joyeuses Pâques!

Le temps des cathédrales

Here is this week’s song for a Saturday. Voici ma chanson pour un samedi.

The year was 1998. The musical ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ had just opened in Paris and this song was among the many taking France by storm. Powerful, dramatic, it seemed to somehow capture the spirit of Victor Hugo’s novel.

With music written by Richard Cocciante and lyrics by Luc Plamandon, the musical had all the ingredients of a major international success. It had the most successful first year of any musical ever according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It was translated into 8 languages and went on to have long runs around the world.

There are many more beautiful and deeply moving pieces of classical music being played in honour of Notre-Dame de Paris this week. Yet this is the song that stands out in my memory as that which epitomizes the drama and magic of the place.

Bon weekend!

‘Impossible n’est pas français’

The first time I heard this statement, I took it for corporate speak. I was working in a big company that had set what seemed like an impossible objective to be achieved in a ridiculously short period of time.

“Pas possible,” I may have scoffed. ‘Pas possible’ being one of those easy expressions that non-native speakers pick up and use like gold. They’re so easy, and most of the time, they work. Not this time. My boss turned to me and said, a steely look in her eye: “Impossible n’est pas français.”

This improbable statement turned out to be true. The organization rallied, pulled out all the stops and met the impossible deadline. Proving that the French are capable of pulling off stunts that others might discount as not being feasible.

It struck me as a contradiction. Given how long things normally take in this country, the delays due to strikes and disagreements among various teams and members of personnel, how could we have achieved so much, so quickly? I guess it comes down to a certain military mentality that takes over in times of crisis. I’ve also seen it in action at large events of incredible scale that the French are so good at pulling off. Operationally, the French are capable of amazing feats.

That is why when Macron announced that our beloved Notre-Dame de Paris will be rebuilt within five years, I believe it can be done. Whether or not that happens will depend on whether the government is able to get everybody on side. If time is wasted arguing over the best approach (artisanal or industrial?), the funding (a huge uproar has already begun over the donations raised by private capital — why can’t a fraction of that money be found for social causes?), we may well miss the goal. But if everyone pulls together, it’s possible.

As for the proverb, it goes back to Napoléon Bonaparte, who wrote in 1808 to one of his generals that impossible was not a word he understood. So was born the expression ‘Impossible n’est pas français’. Popularized by Balzac, it became the title of books, films and this song by Sheila, in 1967

P.S. There is a mistake in the YouTuber’s title – it is ‘français’ the language, not ‘Français’ the people — even if many prefer to think the latter!

Les dents qui courent après le bifteck

Photo credit: Louise Pierga, artiste créatrice de concepts visuels

After the dramatic events of this week in Paris, it’s time for some comic relief. One of my favourite French expressions provides plenty of that.

Let’s unpack this phrase in all its illustrative glory.

As you will see from the delightful drawing above, ‘les dents’ are teeth, an easy enough translation for anyone familiar with the dentist. The ones pictured here are an orthodontist’s delight (or nightmare) as they are veering off at an unhealthy forward angle.

Pictured next to the teeth, towards which they might be said to run or ‘courir’, is a piece of beef. For further clarity, the distance needed to ‘parcourir’ is also shown.

Why the French refer to steak as ‘bifteck’ remains a mystery to me. Just as why they refer to roast beef as ‘le rosbif’ and even more curiously, why the Brits are called les rosbifs. Is it revenge for the French being called frogs?

This blog for English learners (in French) provides some good answers to that question: roast beef is a traditional English dish, the British soldiers traditionally wore red coats and the fair-skinned English tend to turn bright red in the continental sun. (Ironically, though, Brits are not known for enjoying meat rare enough to be that red!)

So, back to our analysis of the French expression. The translation is: teeth that run after the roast beef. In other words, buck teeth. I love it because it is so colourful and immediately creates a funny word picture of what is being described. As the French would say, c’est très imagé.

Whether or not this implies that Brits are very hungry or they tend to have buck teeth, I shall not venture to say. You have not grown as long in tooth as I have without learning to keep dangerous opinions to yourself.

By the way, the English expression ‘long in the tooth’ does not translate in French. ‘Avoir les dents longues’ means to be ambitious.

Do you have a favourite French expression?