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?

Les interdictions

No dogs allowed. No campfires allowed. No entry, no talking, no breathing. Okay, I made those last two up.

The first thing the visitor notices on arriving in France is the number of things that are you are not allowed to do.

And you quickly become familiar with this word: interdit. It is used to describe both the things themselves that are prohibited (e.g. chiens interdits), the act of forbidding, interdire (to prohibit) and the resulting bans, interdictions.

You are not allowed to walk on the grass, wear your helmet in a store, ride a bike while wearing a headset. Aside from speeding, there are a great many things you are not allowed to do while driving in France. Not being allowed to use a smart phone even hands-free is one that drives me nuts. My guess is that ‘the GPS made me do it’ will not be a viable excuse if you are stopped by the police.

Alternative wordings include the oft-seen ‘défense de fumer’ (no smoking). But défense de cracher? Apparently people needed to be told not to spit in the Paris metro back in the 70s.

Fortunately, the second thing you learn is that many if not most of these bans are somewhat theoretical. This is what makes life bearable in France. A great many rules of which only a small percentage are to be taken absolutely seriously.

The challenge is knowing which ones. A lot of faux pas (as I’ve posted about before) can be made if you get it wrong, and you may want to weigh the chances of getting caught against the associated penalty.

I know, for example, that the park where I walk my dogs by the lake is theoretically forbidden to dogs (and horses) all year long but that the chances of anyone objecting or even seeing me in the off-season winter months are virtually nil. Also, it’s a dumb law. So, I take it as my civic duty to break it as often as possible.

Where we live not far from the border with Switzerland, I have been stopped for driving a car with Swiss plates. It seems there is an obscure rule that you are not allowed to drive a company car across a border other than to go to or from work. I’m pretty sure they only trot that one out when they’re looking for an excuse to get up someone’s nose. Thankfully I got myself out of it by arguing with the cops — when they caught up with me. The thing was, it had not been at all clear that I was being asked to stop. I pointed this out in firm but polite terms while expressing my astonishment at the crazy rule. It was one of those times I realized that I had become truly French. My formerly polite Canadian self would never have dared to argue with a police officer.

What forbidden action or item would you ban? Or, as some have suggested, would you create this as a rule?

Forbidden to forbid!

Faire de l’oseille

A friend asked me how work was going the other day. “Ca va? Tu fais de l’oseille?”

I had to laugh. It’s a funny sort of expression, and joking is just about the only way you can safely refer to money in conversation.

If there are a lot of words to describe something in a language, is that an indication of its importance? There are certainly a bunch of ways to talk about money in French: argent (money, but also silver), monnaie (currency but also coins or change), liquide (cash), blé (bread), fric, pognon, thune (dough, money, bucks).

Between blé (wheat) and galette (cake), both slang terms for money, do I hear echoes of Marie Antoinette? (“Let them eat cake!” Which, by the way, was one of the original ‘fake news’ and wrongly attributed to that hapless royal.

I like the sound of the word oseille, and the quirkiness of the expression. It reminds me of what we might call in English, ‘the green stuff’. To be fair, we have quite a few ways of talking about money: cash, bucks, George Washingtons, dough, moolah, do-re-mi, rolling in it. Most of these are pretty dated, like moi. I’ll have to rely on any younger bucks among you to update my lingo.

We all need money to live. Having enough not to have to count it all the time certainly makes life easier. It is, however, one of the great taboos of the French culture. It doesn’t do to talk about, to show it off, or spend it too obviously. Money is not something people tend to talk about. How much things cost or, worse, how much you make. Don’t mention the inheritance you got when your grandfather died. Or what you paid for your house. You might as well ask someone their age, religion or political party while you’re at it.

This may well be true in most cultures. But in France I would go further and suggest that people have an issue with wealth, period. It doesn’t do to be rich around here. Thankfully, I am not. And if one day I win the lottery, it’s just a hop across the lake to Switzerland.

The oseille herb, on the other hand, does have real value hiding among its acidic green leaves. When cooked, they reveal a lovely flavour that is delicious in omelettes, sauces and soups. You may know it as sorrel.

How do you like your oseille?

 

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?

Poser un lapin

You’re supposed to meet someone at an appointed time and place. They don’t show up. You sit there and wonder: is it me?

In English we call this being stood up. Back in the day when I was dating (pre-mobile, pre-internet, ie the ice age), you had little choice but to wait and wonder. Now, presumably, you phone or text.

I have never been stood up in France. Getting my wires crossed is something else. My feu (late) Belle-mère was famous in our family for les rendez-vous ratés. We would agree to meet somewhere then miss each other entirely – in one case waiting on opposite ends of the train station for an hour before eventually giving up.

The French expression ‘poser un lapin’ literally means to place a rabbit. According to my source, aka Google, this rather mysterious term finds its roots in the rabbit as a symbol of fertility and plenty. The original meaning of ‘poser un lapin’ was not to pay someone for their favours, or more generally to leave without paying. Somehow this got transformed into modern parlance for not showing up.

Rabbits are rather common in France. People raise them like they do chickens, keeping a few in a backyard hutch. Rabbit meat is in all the supermarkets. I don’t mind it, although I’m also not crazy about it. The first time I ate rabbit was, bizarrely, at Easter.

Right now in France les chasseurs are out in force. Presumably hunting for Peter Cottontail among other small game in the fields and forests.

Let’s hope he gives them a run for their money. Or places a rabbit.

Have you ever been stood up?