A couper au couteau

So thick you can cut it with a knife.

That expression, the French version of which is ‘à couper au couteau’, is often used to describe an accent. A heavy one. Like one in which a typical French politician, ie not a slick new model like Emmanuel Macron, attempts to speak English.

In French, however, it is also used to describe heavy fog, a wine or even an atmosphere. I learned this from Bob, that wonderful online reference for French as it is actually spoken (not for learners as it’s all in French).

And when it comes to cutting with that knife, if you are in France it has to be with an Opinel knife. The Savoie company started making its trusty folding knife with the wooden handle back in 1890 and has been famous for it since. So it is that the Swiss have their army knives and we have our Opinels. If you go on a picnic in France, that slab of sausage or cheese or baguette just has to be sliced with a trusty wooden-handled knife that someone happens to have in their pocket, hopefully one in better condition than ours!

As you can see from my feature photo, we are not good examples of French culture. Our Opinel was moldering in the back of a drawer and is in terrible shape. The tip of the blackened blade appears to have been broken off, possibly from being used as a screwdriver instead of a knife, and the handle bears the logo of another company, so it was probably a giveaway. In fact, it probably belongs to my Beau-père, handyman extraordinaire, so it has been around the block a few times.

Whose English, by the way, sounds a lot like Sarkozy’s. There is no political message in that; Hollande’s anglais was just as bad.

But like the knife itself, though it may be thick at times and dull at others, it is sincere. And it gets the job done.

Do you have an accent? Or a trusty knife?

Poser ses valises

Set down your suitcase

How I love the French expression, ‘to set down one’s suitcases’. Although it hints of travel, ‘poses ses valises’ means just the opposite: to stop moving around and settle down somewhere.

Ah, travel. The romance, intrigue, the sheer chic of wheeling that expensive Samsonite trolley bag around. Of taking off in one language and landing in another, of leaning back in your seat and being served while selecting from various entertainment options.

Readers of this blog will see where this is going. I love going places. I just hate getting there.

Why do I dislike travel so much? I’ve mentioned before how much I hate packing. I used to enjoy the idea of a few empty hours in which to read, catch up on work or just let my thoughts go idle. And I still do: on a train or a boat. But when it comes to air travel, it’s another story.

Travel for me is a great many small details and a few sweeping generalities. Most of them are aggravating. It seems that effort required to move from point A to point B across borders and seas with suitcase intact is inversely proportionate to the increasing democratization of international air travel.

First there is the airport security check. The removal of personal items, the stacking of your stuff in plastic boxes, the impatience of the staff and fellow travelers. The shoes that ring alarm bells and must be removed. The full bottle of water that goes down the drain, only to be replaced by one that costs twice as much on the other side.

Rinse and repeat. Hurry up and wait.

If purgatory exists, it must surely be in an airport departure lounge. Where, despite the unpleasant state of being on hold, the upside is the chance to people watch. And the endless parade of humanity, with all of its foibles, is by turn entertaining and repugnant.

The fact is that I do not wait well. I am unable to settle comfortably into one of those molded plastic chairs with the immovable arm rests that prevent people from lying down. My eye wanders continually to the departures board, to check if there are any changes in flight status. I look for signs of life at the gate, in case we may be called to board. I watch the people for signs of lunacy, check for the nearest exit, ever vigilant in case a disaster should be about to occur.

In another scenario, I race to the gate for fear of missing the ever-earlier boarding call, where I learn that my flight is delayed. Then look around hoping to get a good coffee or a nice strong drink to dull the pain only to discover that this particular terminal or departure area is devoid of anything as civilised as a proper coffee shop or bar. Vending machines only with their astronomically priced distractions.

Finally we board (bored) and I learn that the only thing on offer are soft drinks and hot beverages, served at boiling temperature in carcinogenic plastic cups and so late in the short haul flight there is barely time to gulp them down before we land.

If we land, says my ever-paranoid self. Despite the fact that time and again seems to prove that we will indeed deplane in one piece. But that little voice has been drummed into my psyche and nearly always makes itself heard somewhere midair.

If the flight is long enough to have food and drink service, I order the Frenchman to get wine even though he no longer drinks, just so I can have a second tiny bottle. He is highly amenable to my inflight alcohol dependency.

Possibly he hopes it will take the edge off my nerves enough to hunker down and read or watch a film for a few hours. He, of course, has downloaded a slew of his latest series, something involving drugs, violence and bloodshed. His iPad is primed for hours of entertainment, which is he able to absorb under almost any circumstances. Turbulence, delayed food service, even amidst the crowds in the departure lounge. I do envy his ability to focus on pleasurable pursuits while I self-inflict mental anxiety and count the minutes. Either that or he is asleep. He often nods off before we even achieve altitude.

With a raging thirst brought on by being so unnaturally high in a pressurized atmosphere of the plane, exacerbated by nerves and boredom, I down each and every beverage on offer. Wine, water, coffee, tea, more water…which is why I always take the aisle seat. I’m frequently up and visiting the loo. Husband will go perhaps once in an 8-hour flight, often just before we land.

Another form of limbo for this reluctant traveler is circling in the sky over an airport for endless loop de loops waiting to land. When all of the highly impatient, nervous flyers like moi are thinking to themselves: is everything all right in that cockpit? I imagine the copilot, suicidal, having slipped a mickey to his unsuspecting captain. I can almost see terrorists having cracked the door code and insinuated their way inside. Or worse, having taken remote control of our plane somehow and sending us for a nosedive into the sea.

Welcome to my twisted writer’s mind. There is a great deal of drama. Travel only fans my flames.

I watch in fascination as people go by in wheelchairs, with babies and toddlers, with pets in carriers, folding strollers and various paraphernalia. How is that I, an able-bodied middle-aged adult, find this so hard when others with real baggage seemingly grin and bear it?

On a positive note, I may have missed my calling as a consultant to the airline industry. By the end of our trip, I had completely redesigned overseas air travel to be more comfortable and efficient for the modern-day passenger. More on that later.

For now, vive l’été chez soi!

Just as many in France are packing their bags for a much-anticipated summer vacation, I’m home from holiday and very pleased to be staying put for awhile.

How about you?

 

S’entendre

Beautiful Madeline and Humphrey

‘Entendre’ is one of those French words that effortlessly brings together different concepts and blends them into one. It means both to hear and to understand. Employed in its reflexive verb version, s’entendre, it also means to agree and even to get along with someone.

There is no understanding without hearing. And if you do hear someone, and I mean really hear them, you are halfway to understanding. Which is the basis for every agreement.

Perhaps this wisdom is one reason why French became the language of diplomacy.

Diplomacy never having been a strong point, I struggle daily with this.

Several years ago I lost all of the hearing in my left ear. The diagnosis of the problem that led to this was a perfect example of one doctor who neither heard nor understood my complaint and another who did.

Thankfully, my right ear remains fully operational. The resulting lopsided hearing, however, can be painful. It means that my good side often gets an earful of unwanted sound such as music or conversation. This can make me miserable in restaurants, for example, where the next-door table is a bit loud. Conversely, it makes it impossible to hear anyone on the left side. Generally I avoid sitting with anyone on my left (other than husband, whom I know well enough to guess what he’s saying or can comfortably ignore). At parties or crowded events of any kind, I must constantly perform a strategic repositioning to catch important information, turning me into a sort of whirling dirvish.

It can be comical. I have no ability to pinpoint where sound is coming from, so will turn my head like a radar when someone calls me on the street. People who call themselves friends and even family have been known to have fun with this.

What I’ve gained in return for the hearing loss, however, is considerable. Selective hearing, the ability to tune out unwanted noise, is essential to understanding. It is a skill I’ve been forced to learn, one that I haven’t yet mastered, but is beginning to serve me well. Je m’entends.

I am literally learning to tune out unwanted noise to better understand my world.

And the magical, wonderful thing that happens when you do this is that you begin to read the subtext, the real message that lies beneath the surface.

Getting along with anyone, be it family, friends or work associates, is challenging. No matter how much you appreciate someone, there are times when you just can’t share their point of view. With family, at least with mine, there are times when you would cheerfully gag them to shut them up. But if hearing is the basis for understanding, then not hearing is also a strategy. At times like these, it helps to turn a deaf ear.

Do we understand each other?

Respirer

Ocean

Inhale – inspirer. Exhale – expirer. The French words for the act of breathing – la respiration – inspire me to write this post. Breathing is something I do rather well. Not to brag but I’ve been doing it my whole life.

When I was a kid, it occurred to me one day that all this life-essential breathing stuff was happening without my even being aware of it. Suddenly I became gripped with fear that I might forget to take a breath. Until some kind big person explained that even I did, my body would take over and do it for me. Later in life, a sports instructor gave me the best advice ever: “Focus on exhaling and the inhales will take care of themselves.”

The French are good at breathing. Not that they do a lot of yoga or practice breathing per se. But they take the time each day to ‘respirer’. This means stopping to smell the roses, to take a few moments for oneself. It’s probably why we take pride in not answering work emails after hours or during holidays (I’m not quite there yet…). But skipping lunch? No way. Working through the weekend? Non, merci. Foregoing a vacation? Tu plaisantes?

So much can happen in the space of a breath. Time stops as air gently fills your lungs. Oxygen energizes your body and its gentle effervescence hits your brain. The wave passes as you release it back out, along with the nasty stuff accumulated along the way. Relaxation sneaks in.

Breathe in. Can you smell the ocean? Briny, mineral, time-soaked. We are in Portugal for a few days. The sun is playing hide and seek but the air invites me to make the most of every breath.

What’s your favourite way to ‘respirer’?

Boite à souvenirs

Boite à souvenirs

I’ve always kept a memory box. None of your nicely curated ones with the pretty covers, neatly annotated photos and properly catalogued albums. Just the random flotsam and jetsam of my life.

Somewhere in our basement is a collection of boxes, battered and bruised. They contain the memorabilia of growing up, the bits and pieces I’ve found it necessary to keep over the years. Always with the vague idea that, one day, I would look fondly through these things and remember that one particular moment: this elation, that heartbreak, the time we… The broken guitar string. The cigarettes I believed I’d never give up.

Thankfully I did quit, and my broken heart mended. And though I never seem to find time to sort through all the keepsakes, I roost upon them like a clucking hen, hoping that one day they’ll hatch into something.

In among the boxes are photos, unsorted, mostly in the envelopes they used to come in when you picked them up from the drug store. What? Yes, mes enfants, we did that.

There are birthday greetings and farewell cards, both funny and corny. Party invitations, concert ticket stubs, student travel cards. There are yearbooks with messages earnest and flip from people I went to school with and have mostly forgotten. Crude comments from clever boys. There is an impassioned letter with an embarrassingly bad poem written by a doorman in London whose heart I apparently stole with my ‘face like an elfin grove.’

There are poems and lyrics of my own, a few that got published in high school reviews. There are my on-again, off-again journals – the sporadic ramblings that kept me sane pre-blog era.

There are the letters – ah, the letters! – exchanged over months of overseas correspondence with a certain Frenchman. And the postcard that changed everything. The one that made me decide he was serious.

There are the family mementos, the cards my kids made for Mother’s Day. Souvenirs of holidays in France and trips back to Canada. Ghosts of Christmas past.

The boxes have gotten thinner of late. Now most of our memorabilia is online. This makes me sad. Nothing can replace the treasures hidden inside my memory box.

Recently I’ve dug through some of it, pulling out pieces I needed for my memoir. So far, though, most of my memorabilia has yet to be released from its boxed purgatory. But I’m glad I saved it, every last bit.

Photo: Robert de Jong

Thanks to Colin Bisset, whose excellent blog recently reminded me of the importance of keeping a journal.

Do you keep a memory box?