Ça va?

Ca va?

This post is dedicated to the two little French words that just keep on going.

With these two words of vocabulary, you can say a great many things. You can ask if someone’s all right, in general or when they’ve hurt themselves (like Louis de Funès in the above pic), or expand upon them to create an entire conversation.

Ça va?

Ça va, merci. Et toi?

Ça va ça va. Et ta femme?

Ça va bien aussi.

Alors ça va. Bonne journée!

It’s extraordinary how much nuance can be expressed in those two words.

‘Ça va’, when said in a bright tone of voice, means happy. Ça va bien, super, or even super bien adds degrees of delight. If enunciated with an interrogation or a slight downward lilt, it can mean something less joyful. ‘Ça va pas trop mal’, means not bad, but could also mean not great either. When you get to ‘ça va pas trop’ or the ill boding ‘ça peut aller’, you know things are heading south. Until they stop all together.

Now despite our ups and downs, our strikes and our politics, things in France generally always go. Until they don’t go. Which is to say that most of the time ça va, until suddenly ça va pas. And then – Attention!

Ça va pas du tout aller là. Ça va vraiment pas du tout. Du tout du tout du tout!

When things stop going in France, watch out. There will be drama and sparks will fly. Couples divorce. Heads have been known to roll.

Usually after a dramatic episode of ‘ça va pas’ there will be a healing period of ‘ça va mieux’. Things are not fine but they are a bit better. They are going, which is infinitely preferable to not going at all.

‘Rien ne va plus’ (nothing more goes) was the title of a 1997 French film directed by Claude Chabrol about a couple of con artists. The title was inspired by the expression which is used in the world of casinos, about which I know nothing. Truly. But Google tells me this is what the croupier says when no more bets can be placed on the table.

Of course, you know that the ‘ne’ is usually dropped in spoken language. Just like you know that the word ‘ça’ is actually a contraction of the more formal ‘cela’. Some people prefer to say ‘cela’ to give themselves an educated air. Verging on the ridiculous, like the character infamously played by Thierry Lhermite in the French film classic ‘Le Père Noël est une ordure’.

C'est cela oui

As for the photo of Louis de Funès, it is from a 1966 film called ‘La Grande Vadrouille’. I’ve just learned it has been remastered and re-released. Not sure if it can be found anywhere to rent online but it’s out on DVD. I intend to watch it, both for the slapstick silliness that the French do so well and the wonderful scenes of 1960s Paris.

Alors toi, ça va?

Le leader sheep

Leader sheepThe other day I heard someone on the radio talk about le leader sheep. While I have lived here long enough to be able to recognize when the French speak franglais, it nonetheless took me by surprise. And the rather strange image of the leader sheep popped into my mind.

It’s funny because we tend to think of sheep as followers. If we hear about people behaving ‘like a bunch of sheep’ we will imagine them blindly following. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s what leadership is all about?

There is something endearing about the French use of English words. It’s as if certain concepts must be expressed in the original version as they simply do not exist in French. Business French is strewn with such jargon, sometimes to the point where it is difficult to know which language is being spoken. Some very funny examples were immortalized by the French minister Annick Girardin in an open letter to the business world, shared here.

I remember once asking a colleague: Surely there must be a French word for leader? “Oui,” she said. “Un meneur d’hommes.”

“Hommes?” I asked. But what about women? My colleague explained that ‘hommes’ in this context is meant in the broad sense (sorry, bad pun) to also include les femmes. Ah oui, bien sûr.

One of the reasons I like living in France is that the cult of the politically correct is slower to catch on here. They may not have a word for leadership but they are also less like sheep. Come to think of it, getting the French to follow anybody is a challenge.

Care to share your experience of leadership or leader sheep?

S’endormir sur ses lauriers

Z Frenchman clowns aroundI am not the only one in our family to make bloopers and blunders in an adopted language. My husband, aka Z-Frenchman, is the first one to laugh at his own English. In fact, he’s the first one to laugh at most things. A fine sense of humour is one of his best qualities and at least part of the reason why our marriage has endured these thirty years.

From the time we first met in Toronto, we have always communicated in my native tongue, or a version of it. My French skills were non-existent back then so English was the only option. It is very difficult to change the language of a relationship. Even after living in France for nearly twenty-five years, speaking French together still feels unnatural.

We English speakers find the French ‘r’ challenging and I remember at first getting it stuck in the back of my throat and sounding like I was choking when trying to say ‘rouge’. ZF, on the other hand, found it near impossible to say ‘squirrel’. There are a lot of squirrels in Toronto and it came up a lot. His rendition of it came out sort of all squished together like ‘skweerl’.

English is all about emphasis. Hitting the right syllable remains challenging for ZF even now – he will still put the emPHASis on the wrong syllABle. I described his attempt to tell me about visiting one of our wonders of the world in this post about pronunciation.

While shopping at St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto, he was once heard to say: “I take a leek!” That got a few smiles – and at least one anxious look.

The French say ‘take’ a lot as it is a translation of ‘prendre’, the verb used in French to describe anything you buy or order. Breaking him of the ‘take’ habit has been one of my life-long missions.

Another time he advised me: “Do not fall asleep on your bay leaves.” It only took me a minute to figure that one out, along with the French translation: “Don’t rest upon your laurels.” (Ne pas s’endormir sur ses lauriers).

Raising kids in a bilingual family like ours meant that somebody always got something wrong. Howls of hilarity regularly ensued when Daddy made a boo-boo in English, or Maman got something bass-akwards en français.

For the record, Saudi Arabia in French is Arabie Saoudite, not Saudi Arabite.

Most French people have trouble pronouncing English sounds like ‘th’, turning it into ‘z’. The aspirated ‘h’ is also a problem. For some unknown reason, however, ZF often removes them from where they should be and adds them where they don’t belong. Leading to greetings like: “’Ow h-are you?”

Difficulty enunciating certain vowel sounds can still get him into trouble. Piece and piss, sheet and shit are very different concepts.

Plurals are another challenge.

As the ‘s’ is so often silent at the end of words in French, he rarely finds it necessary to add it to the English. He will ask: “Would you like some chip?” Leading one of us to add the punchline: Just the one. Like the elusive ‘h’ he will add s’s where they don’t belong: “We’re out of cereals.” Or imply a plural: “Your hair are looking nice.” I have learned to enjoy the compliment, and keep the correction to myself.

Despite our comical moments, one of which is captured in this photo from our first winter in Toronto, communicating across the language gap has not always been a walk in the park. It makes it easy to misunderstand each other, but perhaps also makes us work a little harder to try and understand the other person’s point of view.

Et toi? What’s your funniest experience of French in English?

Chère Académie française,

academiePlease accept my application to become one of ‘les immortels’.

I have always dreamed of being immortal. Imagine my surprise and delight upon discovering that such a job description exists, and that it can be found among your illustrious number on the Académie Française, protectors extraordinaire of the French language!

Why should you consider my humble application?

Firstly, let me assure you that I meet your sole qualification of being under the age of 75 at the time of application, and, as an aside, that jacket would look good on me. Secondly, although English is my first language, I have spent nearly half of my life in this fair land and have come to appreciate both its language and its denizens, along with the produce of its labours, namely the fine foods and wines of la belle France. At the same time, I have become intimately familiar with its weaknesses as perceived both from within and beyond its borders.

Let me put this simply: I think you need me. As someone who has long worked in the field of communications, who understands brand and is familiar with the blogosphere, I can bring you kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The Academy has a bit of an image problem, you see. The French perceive you as a bunch of decrepit old coots, completely disconnected from reality, falling asleep in your plush chairs – I among them, until it became clear that I had confused you with the elected members of our National Assembly.

My confusion can perhaps be forgiven. You, too, are elected by vote, although uniquely among yourselves, a far more civilized approach than asking the public to weigh in, n’est-ce pas? What, after all, does the average Joe (sorry, make that Jacques) know about the language of Molière?

I do realize, bien évidemment, that you will not be able to consider my candidacy until a chair has been duly vacated, that is, until one of your number has gone on to better things – oh, let’s just call a spade a spade: popped his clogs, kicked the can, croaked. As you can see, I have a fair grasp of the vernacular in my native tongue and une maîtrise certaine in French.

I will be an ardent defender of French. I will fight to the death against the dumbing down of this great and wonderful language and resist further indignities like that of the spelling reform which has recently brought your name into the news. I understand it took from 1990 until the present to implement the reform, based upon a decision not of the Académie Française but of the Superior Council of the French language.

In conclusion, I will do everything in my power to maintain the original orthography of our language, from the jaunty circumflex in ‘août’ to the inimitable ‘i’ in oignon.

Till death us do meet.

Madame Mel

Mes oignons

My onionsI am here today to tell you all about onions. Mes oignons that is – mine, not yours.

Yours would not be at all appropriate. According to French wisdom, I must mind my own onions, which is to say my own business.

So here are my onions. Rather cheeky, no? There they were, all tressed up so prettily, until I started using them up and – voilà! Was inspired to take a photo that set them off in all their glory.

Ah, the onion. Such a wonderful member of the Allium family. So humble, yet so strong. Along with leeks, garlic, chives…this family is one like my own. Outspoken, atypical, memorable – if at times rather overpowering. The French favour the shallot, l’échalote, for its gentler, more subtle flavour. At least it doesn’t make me cry.

I love how the onion has all those intricately packed layers, hard yet soft, and a papery outer skin. I love its bulbousness. I love how it melts, how it browns and most of all, how it caramelizes. I love the onion in so many ways: pissaladière, onion tart, with tomatoes, potatoes, eggs, fish and, most memorably of all, cheese.

My favourite onions are red. Most often enjoyed raw, they’re also lovely on the barbeque, in a stir fry or combined with other kinds of onion. Here they are featured in one of my favourite winter dips – when it gets cold, I am a still a North American at heart.

I also love the French expression for minding your own business: Occupe-toi de tes oignons. Why onions? I looked it up and, lo and behold, there is a reason. It would seem that the French woman was first given a small measure of independence in being allowed to cultivate a portion of the garden as an onion patch, which she could then take to market and sell to make a bit of money. You can read all about it here (in French).

And let’s not forget that sometimes onions produce beautiful flowers.

Do you have a favourite onion? Or it that any of my business?