Au cimetière

It’s November, so naturally thoughts turn to death here in France.

It is a time of endings. All around us, nature is shrivelling up and battening down the hatches. The lake is a cold, grey sheet with rippling ridges whipped by the wind. Like the elderly themselves, the mountains have donned their winter caps.

Each French village has its cimetière and right now they feature colourful displays of chrysanthemums. November is their time of year. At La Toussaint on the first of the month everybody visits their dearly departed and sets a pot of mums on the grave.

I love visiting cemeteries. I discovered this unusual form of tourism when I was first in Paris many years ago. Père Lachaise is so beautiful and peaceful and it is amazing the famous names whose graves you stumble upon.

Our little village has no famous people buried here and the cemetery is small. Still, I stopped by the graveyard this week and was pleasantly surprised. First of all, by the gorgeous sunset view enjoyed by  those sleeping their eternal sleep. And by the fresh flowers that decorated just about every grave.

It was November 11, Remembrance Day. The town war memorial is just outside the cemetery and it had been decorated for a small ceremony held that morning. It is fitting to see the memories of the dead who fought for our freedom kept alive, even while the world goes a little mad all over again.

But what shocked me at the cemetery was this sign:

It seems that whoever bought this grave concession, their time is up. Basically, there is no eternity in a cemetery unless you pay for it. I googled it: ‘perpetuité’ costs extra, when it is available. Certain graveyards don’t even offer it. Those that do charge a premium. In Paris, the most expensive, it’ll run you 11,500 euros.

I can’t help but wonder: what do they do with the remains when the concession ends? Dig them up and put them in a public burial area? It is ghoulish to think of.

Cremation offers no respite. As it illegal to spread or even keep ashes privately, you are obliged to pay a fee to keep them in a columbarium.

Death is a scam that I hope to avoid for as long as I possibly can. But when it becomes inevitable, I intend to go up in a cloud of smoke. Have my ashes illegally scattered somewhere, maybe in the middle of a lake.

My last act will be law-breaking. I kind of like that idea.

Do you visit any cemeteries or places of remembrance?

Deux secondes

It was the recurring refrain when my kids were growing up.

“Deux secondes,” my son would say whenever I asked him to do something.

“Deux secondes!” my daughter would call from her room when we were running late for school.

“Je suis à vous dans deux petites secondes,” says the woman at bakery, placing baguettes on the shelf. (Be with you in two seconds.) Two small seconds obviously being much quicker than normal ones.

I’ve never understood why the French require two seconds when all we ever needed was one. “Just a sec!” I used to yell when my mother would call me. But around here two seconds is the norm. Sometimes it’s two minutes (deux minutes!) or even two hours (ne prend pas deux heures!) but whatever the unit of time, two are always required. I guess everything with the French just takes longer.

It is said that patience is a virtue. Unfortunately it is not one with which I am familiar. Two seconds or minutes or hours are too long for me when I want to get somewhere or do something. It goes against my nature to spend any longer doing anything than is absolutely necessary. This philosophy is entirely incompatible with running a business, raising a family or living in France.

So finally, after much reflection, I’ve decided to cultivate the art of patience. Because it seems that patience, like other qualities, is not something that you have to be born with to enjoy.

And I’m starting small.

Two seconds isn’t a lot of time but if you’re mindful, you can make them work for you. In fact, they can be life changing. It’s enough or run a stop sign or get hit by a car. Long enough for your heart to beat a few times, to make up your mind, to have a stroke of good luck. Two seconds was all it took for me to catch a certain Frenchman’s glance across a crowded bar a very long time ago.

So I’m using ‘deux secondes’ as my mantra. Every time I’m about to tell myself — or the dog, or the driver in front of me — to hurry up, I stop and say the magic words: deux secondes. And for that tiny bit of time, I breathe, focus my eyes on something, relax.

I don’t know if the two-second rule will ultimately stop me from stamping my foot or swearing to myself for very long. I may not make it to two minutes, never mind two hours. But so far I’m amazed at what two seconds can do. Even if I can’t be patient for long, I can enjoy two seconds where things slow down. And then somehow, my sense of urgency evaporates.

Are you a patient person?

Bec et ongle

It is rare to find an exact translation of an expression from one language to another. Which is why ‘se défendre bec et ongle’ is a gift.

‘To fight tooth and nail’ for something is one of those colourful idioms that is immediately understood. When I first heard it used in French, I understood the reference and by extension that ‘bec et ongle’ translated to beak and claw, or tooth and nail.

We can thank the Latin for providing the original expression: unguibus et rostro. It is used as a motto by various organizations of the military, as pictured above, and also the city of Valence, France.

Amshudhagar [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

‘Bec’ is a funny kind of word as it refers not just to a bird’s mouth but also to the human ‘beak’. ‘Faire un bec,’ also means to give someone a kiss. It makes me think of something my Dad used to say: ‘a pow in the kisser’, describing a punch in the nose.

There’s also, ‘clouer le bec’ which means to shut someone’s trap. ‘Tomber sur le bec’, to fall flat on your face and ‘rester le bec dans l’eau’ — to be left hanging, high and dry, or in the lurch.

‘Ongle’, on the other hand, has been taken over by the modern love of nail art. I cannot think of this word without remembering my late Belle-mère, whose love of the false nail was legendary in our family. The trouble was that they were always breaking or falling off. After she visited we would find bits of them in remote corners of the house and refrigerator.

As for bec et ongle, I find it interesting that the rooster is often used to illustrate this expression. I’ve posted before about the Coq Gaulois as the symbol of France. And it’s somehow fitting: if there is a people that will fight tooth and nail for something, it is the French.

Is there anything you would you fight for, bec et ongle? Do you have a favourite idiomatic expression?

La truffe

Their rich yet subtle aroma is earthy and reminiscent of rich chocolate. They are prized for the intense flavour they bring to cooking and the rarity of their supply. They are most often found in certain regions of France and Italy.

Truffles are found growing in the root systems of trees like oak, beech, birch, hazel, pine, and poplar, especially where the soil is light and high in limestone. In France, the Périgord region in the southwestern part of the country is most famous for its prized black truffles or ‘la truffe noire du Périgord.’ The best white ones are said to come from Alba, Italy.

Truffles can be cultivated but are most often found growing wild under trees. Truffle pigs or dogs can be trained to earth them up, but the pigs are more inclined to eat the bounty before the hunters can grab them. I guess because they are, um, pigs?

Oddly enough, some of the best truffle dogs look quite like the prized truffles themselves, don’t you think?

One of the things I love most about truffles is the word play in French. ‘La truffe’ is either a truffle or — you guessed it — the canine sniffer that finds them. In other words, a dog’s nose.

The resemblance is quite remarkable, n’est-ce pas? Although I wouldn’t want to eat a dog’s truffle, especially if it looked like my dog’s (not the one pictured below, which actually doesn’t look bad…). And also as I know where it’s been!

However, as much as the authentic truffle is to be savoured, there is a disturbing trend in restaurants these days to use truffle oil, a fake, chemical flavour that bears little resemblance to the real deal. Personally, as I am highly sensitive to perfumes and other synthetic (chemical) smells, it gives me a headache.

I enjoy the taste of truffles but am not crazy enough about them to go truffle hunting or pay the price for the privilege of slicing off shavings from one of the little nuggets to flavour a nice risotto. I will happily order such a dish if prepared with authentic truffles by a good chef. I recently heard about one such place in Paris, an Italian restaurant: http://www.prestofresco.fr/

How do you feel about truffles? Have you ever been truffle hunting?

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?