Faux amis

Anyone who has ever tried to speak another language will have had an encounter with les faux amis – those foreign words that appear to be all friendly and dressed in familiar clothes but turn out to be perfect strangers.

False friends are easy traps to fall into when you begin learning French. They offer a tempting short-cut to new vocabulary, although they rarely mean what you think they do. Ancien is not ancient, monnaie is only one type of money, and you must realize that réaliser means to achieve something. Achever may just finish you off.

At first I felt cheated: it was simply not fair that all the French words I thought I knew by osmosis were virtually useless. Not only was it a waste, I had to learn them all over again. And how unsporting of the French to change the meanings of their own words! It was as if they did it on purpose to confuse us foreigners.

Once I got past this rather childish fit of pique (itself another example, the French word pique meaning not temper but a cutting remark), I was able to get on with the business of learning to speak French — the real language and not some ideal in my head.

My first clue that the faux amis could also be my friends came one day when, in a moment of weakness, I began to cry. They were tears of pure self pity. From not understanding. From being misunderstood. From feeling like a fish out of water.

“Poor sweetie, you are very sensible,” my Frenchman said.

“Sensible?” I sniffed. “What’s sensible about crying?”

“You shouldn’t get upset so easily.”

So I learned that sensible means sensitive. It didn’t seem very sensible to be so sensitive but there it was. It was reassuring somehow to know that the false friends could strike in both languages. And it gave me a strategy for figuring out new vocabulary.

There was also that memorable occasion on which I informed my French mother-in-law that in my country, they put préservatifs dans le pain. Yes, that really happened. But no, if you need a condom don’t go looking for one in a loaf of bread.

This post is in response the WordPress Daily Prompt ‘jolly’. Jolly is a false friend of the French word, joli or jolie in the feminine, which means pretty. Sometimes the two meanings intersect but it is far from a rule. Take Angelina Jolie. She is surely pretty – beautiful even – but rarely appears to be very jolly.

With the holidays upon us, there is often a good amount of both in the air. There is nothing prettier than a fresh layer of snow and our spirits are high as we prepare to ring out the old. And a rose, that jolliest of blooms, is a rose and is still a rose in French. All dressed in her winter coat.

 

Muet

‘Tis better to be a vowel than a consonant if you want to be heard en français.

In French, while the likes of r’s, s’s and t’s are often silent, every vowel is given a voice. Thus the word for mute – muet – is pronounced ‘mew-ay’.

Two voices that defined French culture have gone silent this week. The news arrived as death often does: seemingly out of nowhere, then one after another.

First was Jean d’Ormesson. The 92-year-old ‘immortel’, as members of the Académie Française are known, was a larger-than-life character and a bon vivant among the aged and wise members of that illustrious body responsible for governing the French language. This France 3 clip (in French for those who understand enough to enjoy it) is a portrait of the man in all his wit and personality.

Yesterday morning broke the news that we would no longer hear the voice of Johnny Hallyday, notre Johnny national, icon of French rock music and a personality as deeply engrained in the culture as les frites (not a bad analogy as Jean-Philippe Smet was born to a Belgian father). He was ‘only’ 74, far too young these days even for one who has led as wild a life as Johnny.

When I first came to France I scoffed at this so-called rock star, seemingly a throw-back to an outdated notion of rock and roll, more Chuck Berry than French Elvis as he is often dubbed abroad. Yet I came to appreciate Johnny’s fine voice, honed to a richness that somehow transcended time, and his unstoppable stage presence. Here is a clip of how he set the Eiffel Tower on fire (Le feu) back in 2000.

By the way, while no one will ever replace our Johnny, my application for a place on the Académie Française still stands.

La flemme

la flemme

This is me. Actually it is not me but our cat, Léo, lolling around after a night on the town. But it is how I feel. J’ai la flemme.

‘La flemme’ is when you feel lazy. When your bed beckons well after the time you should have left it. Or the TV remote tantalizes you from across the room. It’s when you just can’t be bothered to do something, no matter how much you know you should.

To have la flemme is very French. Not that the French are lazy, pas du tout. It’s just that they alternate periods of extreme activity with moments of pure paresse. Relaxation, holidays or just lounging around. It’s what saves their sanity.

I am this way by nature, and living in France for so long has certainly made it worse. Most days I get up and kick myself in the butt, have a military approach to sticking to schedules and deadlines all in order to avoid the encroaching flemme that wants to take over and subvert me into a life of sloth.

Perhaps it is fitting that I write of low energy and a lack of motivation today. It is the last day of November, a month that always makes me feel like death. December 1st will bring the promise of pristine slopes, the year-end holidays and a new start in 2018.

So just for today, like the cat, I’ll stretch out and enjoy a few moments of blissful laziness.

Do you ever give in to la flemme?

Et/ou Madame

 

We get a lot of mail addressed to Monsieur ______ et/ou Madame.

I never thought of myself as an ‘and/or’ before I moved to France.

I kept my name when we got married, and this has mostly stuck. Although the French do have their own rules when it comes to names and married couples. Essentially you can do as you like but your spouse’s name will be used as the default when it comes to things like family, healthcare and taxes. Alternatively they will address you in full including both surnames and all given and middle names.

My husband’s family name, which for reasons of privacy I keep out of this blog, is not an easy one. Beau-père always joked that had it been Rothschild, I would have changed it. I think not.

Identity has always been extremely important to me. I yam what I yam, as Popeye the sailor man said. I don’t mind if you hate me. Just don’t ignore me.

But as a middle-aged woman, especially one with short hair and glasses, I find myself increasingly invisible. At the market, on the street, in public places. This will not do, so I stamp my foot and roll my accent around the r’s for effect. Usually once I open my mouth I get attention. Sometimes more than I bargain for.

When I saw the trailer for the film, Madame,  I knew I had to see it. I love Rossy de Palma, and the story of the maid who is invited to make up the numbers at the chi-chi Paris dinner party hosted by an American couple just resonates with me. She’s a woman who goes from being invisible (is there anyone less visible than a maid?) to standing out a bit more than she – or others – are comfortable with.

It’s just come out in France, although I see it was already released in Australia back in August. Maybe someone who understands international film distribution can explain that to me.

How about you: have you ever felt invisible?

C’est du pipeau

Macron

Lies, baloney, bullshit. The French expression ‘C’est du pipeau’ describes the music of a pan pipe and the fake news that some would have us believe.

The rumours that Emmanuel Macron was gay began to circulate earlier this year, just as his presidential campaign was taking off. It was first whispered into my ear by my coiffeur, a normally reliable source of gossip. Marc fancies himself a hairdresser of the Warren Beatty school in the movie Shampoo, so presumably not batting for the other team.

I was shocked. Not that Macron might be France’s first gay president but rather that he was hiding his orientation behind a so-called ‘sham’ marriage.

The media picked up on the rumour that Macron was in a relationship with head of Radio France, Mathieu Gallet. It was continually denied but kept coming back, the way such things do. Presumably the source was political and designed to ‘déstabiliser’ the candidate.

The real-life stories of Emmanuel and Brigitte’s love affair, with their 24-year age gap, seemingly put to rest the gay pipeau. (Read this excellent piece in the New Yorker.)

Politicians are seductive, and Macron is certainly that. The fact that he is young, attractive and speaks fluent English doesn’t hurt. He is also the first French president to have figured out how to manage the media. Or at least keep them on a short leash.

Now Macron’s latest image abroad is that of le séducteur. His ‘saucy Gallic charm’ is immortalized by Tracey Ullman’s Merkel (not the funniest clip in the series but a propos…)

What’s the best ‘pipeau’ you’ve heard lately?