The hardest word

We Canadians can’t get through a day, never mind a conversation, without using the word sorry. But as Elton John famously wrote, saying it in my new language is proving to be hard.

I’ve recently learned the German word most often used to vaguely apologize around here: Entschuldigung. Yep. It’s a mouthful.

My tongue, so used to gargling out French, can’t seem to decide how to pronounce this new language. So even though German is closer in many ways to my English mother tongue, I struggle to get a word out without reverting to French phonoemes. My ‘u’ is too ew instead of oo. My ‘ach’ sounds like French some days, English others. And I absolutely can’t decide whether ‘e’ should be ee or ay.

The other problem is public places. For years my world consisted of a clearly delimited bilingual space: French was public and English was private. So it’s a reflex to speak French to people on the street or in shops. My brain struggles to resist French now while attempting to pluck out the few words of German vocabulary appropriate for the situation.

For some reason people talk to me a lot. On the street, in shops. Perhaps I just have one of those approachable faces, or I look like a local, proving yet again how appearances can be deceiving.

“Kein Deutsch,” I say to the fellow who has stopped me with a seemingly friendly stream of babble while walking the dogs on the path by the river. Then the inevitable: “Sorry. You speak English?”

“Yes, well you seem to have forgotten something back there.” He points to a part of the path under the bridge. “From your dogs.”

I get his meaning but am not going to take this. “No, it’s not me! I always pick up after my dogs,” I insist, pointing out the red bags attached to their leashes. He shakes his head, walking away. A minute later I realize he was right: I must have dropped my bag of merde de chien.

“Entschuldigung!” I say in my head. He is long gone and I am sorry indeed.

Learning a new language is humbling.

There’s a lot to be sorry about these days. This song was recorded in 1976 at Eastern Sound in Toronto as part of Elton John’s album ‘Blue Moves’. That studio was a landmark in my hometown, and in early in my career as a copywriter I went there a few times to record commercials. It was located in Yorkville, Toronto’s once artsy-edgy neighbourhood that emerged from the sixties and seventies as the preferred location for high-end shops and hotels. Sadly the Victorian building that once housed the famous sound studio was torn down some years ago. It’s now the Four Seasons.

Entschuldigung.

What are you sorry about at the moment?

Les aléas

– How are you this morning? – If you really want to know, press 1. Otherwise, press 2.

We all have those Murphy’s law moments, when we are reminded that nothing in life is ever intended to be easy. A natural catastrophe. An unexpected expense. Anything involving a government administration

Here in France we talk about ‘les aléas de la vie.’ And as long as they don’t involve death or taxes, it’s par for the course. I’ve had my share lately – nothing serious but annoying none the less.

It started with the bank. We ran out of checks, and as France is a country where people still write a lot of checks, and also take long holidays in the summer, I wasted no time in ordering some. More fool me, I tried to be super-efficient and modern by going online. After digging up my login and password, a feat in itself, I wrote a quick message to our so-called account manager. In six years with this bank, the turnover at the branch has been too frequent to allow us to develop much of a relationship with the constantly changing staff. And we live half an hour’s drive from our bank so stopping by is not convenient.

– It’s about a loan.
– Great, how much can you lend us?

Two weeks later, still sans-cheques, I phoned. My tone may have been slightly annoyed when the woman I dealt with informed me coolly that she had no idea why her colleague had not replied to my message; I was, of course, free to send a message to any of the staff but each individual was responsible for replying to their own messages. I pointed out that there was no point in going through a centralized platform if there was no centralized follow-up, and that email was only good if you got a reply. She snippily informed me that the checks were now ordered and I should have them by the end of the following week, given the mid-August holiday. The end of the month came and went, with still no checkbook.

Everything changed when our regular contact returned from holiday. Naturally nothing had been ordered in her absence but she pulled some strings and I got the checks within the week. Several companies who’d probably thought we’d taken a very long summer holiday finally got paid.

Meeting agenda: do we really need insurance for water damage?

Next, my car registration papers went AWOL. I searched up and down, convinced I must have stuck them in a drawer, a file or even another purse but alas, there was no sign of the ‘carte grise’, as we call it. I would have to pay for a new one. Then began a little dance with my leasing company, the official owners of the car. The first phone call involved endless loops of automated voices and after punching in the wrong contract number finally led me to a cranky lady who informed me they would send me the necessary document by la poste. Snail mail? I hung up in frustration.

The letter arrived the following week, advising me to connect to an online platform where the entire process would be handled automatically. I needed a letter for that? Still, it was good news: no lengthy trip to the Préfecture with various copies of documents. But first I had to create an account, or log-in with something called France Connect – a service that manages your identity with various online administrations. It turned out I already had an account with this mysterious organization. Once again, I surprised myself by finding the keys to the kingdom and logging in. Off to the races!

Shortly out of the gate, I ran into the first hurdle: I needed a special code to request a new registration for the vehicle, and as the vehicle belonged to leasing company, it would sent – by la poste – to them. Gah! Back to cranky voicemail lady a week later. I explained my tale of woe and was informed that they had in fact received a code in the mail, but they had to request the number from whoever opened the mail by phone so who knew how accurate it would be? Their words, not mine, as I wondered in what kind of parallel universe they operated.

– CIVIL SERVICE WITH A CUSTOMER FOCUS – SPEAK UP!

Naturally, the code was wrong. Back on the phone, punching in numbers and another disembodied voice informed me that this time, they would send me the code. Seriously? They couldn’t have done that in the first place?

It arrived several days later, an official letter bearing exactly the same number as the first time. In despair, I went back to the government site and typed in the number. Still wrong, although this time the message seemed to suggest it had once been right but was now expired. Determined to have no further dealings with the leasing company ladies, I ticked a different box that led me to a different window. It’s all a bit of a blur now but somehow, the magic happened. And once again, French efficiency kicked in: I was able to print a temporary registration document and, lo and behold, two working days later, my brand new Carte d’Immatriculation was delivered by La Poste.

(I will probably find the old document within the week.)

It seems that even with all the technology in the world, things still work essentially the same way in France: you get stuck in an administrative no-man’s land where you think you’ll never get out and then, suddenly, you’re done!

What’s your most memorable Murphy’s law moment?

La diplomatie

France has a longstanding diplomatic tradition. Sadly, the French language has lost ground to English in recent years as the official ‘lingua franca’ of diplomacy. While English is obviously more widely spoken, there is something about the phrasing of French that facilitates diplomacy: the indirect question, the polite probing rather than the direct yes or no question. But you have to be able to read between the lines – something which is challenging for a second-language learner.

I am not the most diplomatic of people, even in my native tongue. I tend to be blunt, often rushing in where angels fear to tread. Living in France has taught me to mind my p’s and q’s. Especially the q’s (which letter rhymes with ‘cul’ – a catch-all word for sex).

“Remember that time you told the doctor that our son ate shit off the floor?” husband likes to remind me. Just to even the stakes, mind you, as his English is so often the butt of family jokes. I reminded him that ‘connerie’ sounded almost the same as ‘cochonnerie’ and I was only trying to explain why our child might have picked up pinworms.

“Ha, ha…or when you first met my grandfather, and called him ‘pipi’ instead of Pépé.”

“A slip of the tongue, when I barely spoke French. And as if ‘fart-fart’ is any better!”

Our family’s sense of humour is often in the toilet bowl.

Thankfully over the years I have picked up a trick or two. And I am not the only one who makes bloopers and blunders across the cultural divide.

I remember once, shortly after we’d met, having dinner with my husband’s parents at a fancy French restaurant in Toronto. The service and food were classically French, but the wait staff were a little rough around the edges. One server, with an accent that rang of Québec, stepped up to the table with an open bottle of wine and asked my Belle-mère bluntly: “Tu veux du vin?” That lady may have choked before discreetly laughing into her napkin.

I didn’t get what was so funny.

Husband explained that not only had the server used the informal ‘tu’ form of address rather than ‘vous’, but he had effectively asked: “You want some wine?” Admittedly, “Would you care for some wine?” or even, “May I refill your glass?” would have been more appropriate.

This week’s official visit by the French presidential couple to the US bears all the signs of a well-orchestrated diplomatic coup. The bromance between Trump and Macron that began last July has been largely played up by the media. This paper’s version of events cracked me up.

I am convinced that our presidents’ mutual affection has been intentionally exaggerated by the two men. I can just imagine their conversation behind closed doors:

Trump: “You know the media say you’re gay, right?”

Macron (shrugging his shoulders): “Yes, but you know some of the things they say about you?”

Trump: “Fake news!”

Macron: “How could anyone believe such things? We both have such beautiful wives.”

Trump: “Yeah, about that…Brigitte is really in pretty good shape.”

Macron: “Thanks, Don. I’ll tell her that again. She really appreciated it last time.”

Trump: “But hey, Emmanuel, let’s give them what they came for.”

Macron: “I’m sorry, not sure I understand. Don?”

Trump: “Let’s really show the media some love. You know they eat that stuff up!”

Macron: “Ah, bonne idée, Don! It’ll take their minds off of all the little troubles we have brewing at home.”

Of course, we all know that none of this is ever decided by the leaders themselves. Such encounters are planned months in advance. Dozens of diplomats and their underlings negotiate details about who wears what, says what, eats what. The fact the both first ladies wore white at the official greeting surely involved a great deal of negotiating. Perhaps it was agreed that both should wear white as some sort of bridal symbol, or expression of hope. Certainly it would not have worked in Japan, where white is worn to funerals.

Fortunately, behind all those orchestrated outfits and overly cordial entente, French diplomacy can still pack a punch – or perhaps be the velvet hammer. Macron’s speech to congress yesterday took direct aim at America first, proving that even best friends can share some hard truths.

Perhaps Donald should read my post on how to charm the French.  He could sure use some of that French diplomacy.

What do you think?

Aux toilettes

‘Here fall in ruin the wonders of your cooking.’

Following an emotional week here in France (see note below) and in the spirit of keeping my mind from more noble pursuits, I am going to give you the down and dirty on toilets and bathrooms in France. By special request and dedicated to Kiki!

I have posted before about the mysteries of French grammar when it comes to les toilettes, such as why they are invariably referred to in the plural when most often available only in the singular?

When it comes to the plumbing in people’s homes, however, the plot thickens further. There is essentially one rule that guides such installations: the separation of the clean from the dirty.

A toilet is a dirty place; a bathroom a clean one. So you have the explanation, as far as I can gather, as to why the French insist on separating the WC from the salle de bains.

When we bought a new house a few years back, the builder provided plans which we were able to modify to a degree. For the upstairs, I suggested one room with everything: toilet, sink, bath and shower. The builder looked at me, perplexed by this request: Why would we do that when we had enough room to keep them separate? I was lost for words to explain why it seems only natural and fitting to be able to perform all of one’s ablutions at the same time and in the same space.

Seeing my hesitation, he drove the knife home: “C’est plus propre.” Cleaner sounded like a better option so I nodded dumbly as he kept the upstairs toilet separate from the bath. Downstairs, however, where space was at a premium, I had my way: next to the sink and opposite the shower went our main floor toilet. Not only did we save the cost of an extra door, our guests can wash their hands without having to navigate from one room to the next.

Toilets, much like bathrooms, half-baths, powder rooms and other plumbed spaces dedicated to personal hygiene, are not quite as readily available in France as they are in North America. Our first house had one toilet and a separate bathroom. The times they are a-changing, though, and the proliferation of the water closet with them. Now, you will often find small sinks in main floor toilets, elevating them to the status of the powder room or half-bath. Master bedrooms with ensuites are starting to proliferate in French homes, although most often these adjoining bathrooms do not include a toilet.

The insanity of this still leaves me gape-mouthed as I watch the property shows on TV in which potential buyers rave about the luxury of an ensuite bathroom without a word for the missing WC. Do their nocturnal wanderings happily take them downstairs to pee, I wonder? Or do they use the bidet? Perhaps this explains why I have so often heard the older generation see a bidet and exclaim: “C’est pratique, ça.”

The bidet deserves a post of its own. The mysteries of this plumbing fixture, so oddly reminiscent of the toilet yet with a tap instead of a flush, have long perplexed the English visitor to France. (“We use it to cool the wine!” a fellow Canadian once confided. Another friend raves: “Great for washing your feet!”) Formerly prized by the French as a way of ensuring intimate hygiene when showers and baths were scarce, the bidet has lost popularity since the 1970s and these days is rarely found in new houses. It is, however, rumoured to be making a bit of a comeback.

So, what are the various bathroom equivalents in French and English?

Les toilettes, also known in French slang as les chiottes, are most frequently found in a dedicated room called le WC. Alternatively, le cabinet de toilette.

(“WC? Like Water closet?” I asked in stupefaction when I discovered that toilets in France are identified by this entirely English yet unpronounceable expression. Because the ‘w’ is so unwieldy in French they pronounce it ‘vay say’.)

When it comes to homes and hotel rooms, there are a few terms to keep in mind.

  • WC séparé means a separate toilet. What to call this room in English presents a problem for North American translators. Water closet is literally what it is, i.e. a closet-sized room in which water runs. But that sounds odd. Toilet room? Still strange. Sometimes these toilet rooms have a small sink or ‘lavabo’, what some call a half-bath but for which I can find no specific expression in French.
  • Salle de bains is a bathroom that includes an actual bathtub.
  • Salle d’eau is a bathroom with a shower but no bath.
  • Salle de bains avec WC (or salle d’eau avec WC) is a bathroom that includes a toilet.
  • WC avec lave mains intégré is a new concept that I have just discovered. An actual toilet with a small sink built-in. Have I been leading a sheltered life or is this now a thing?

So there you have it. The scoop on the poop. Hope this helps you navigate the wonderful world of French plumbing.

Oh, and don’t forget to ‘tirer la chasse’ – flush — on your way out!

P.S. I can think of no more fitting way to honour the memory of a man who has become a national hero than to scoot over to FranceTaste’s excellent blog and read her post about Carcassonne in the aftermath of the Trèbes attack.

Pays de merde

Pity the humble translator whose increasingly challenging job it is to find the words for modern diplomatic language like ‘shithole countries’.

Having worked as a French-English translator in a former life, I can sympathize with those lost-in-translation moments. Often our job is not to literally replicate the words but to find terms that most people will understand to somehow capture the nuance of meaning. Not that the word ‘nuance’ can be readily associated with certain world leaders.

Translating Trump’s recent blunder, in which President Frog* used the unfortunate term to refer to Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries, the French media for the most part took the easy route with the already-coined phrase, pays de merde. An expression often used by the French themselves to describe France, it literally means ‘shit country’.

The proper meaning of ‘shithole’ was picked up by the excellent newspaper Courrier International as ‘trou à merde’. I learned all this from the Guardian, whose frankly hilarious piece details the translation challenges from around the world. Who knew there were countries where birds don’t lay eggs?

But nothing beats the Urban Dictionary, which has updated the definition of the term to its true meaning:

When my kids were little, they used to say: “C’est toi qui le dis, c’est toi qui l’es!”

I can’t think of a good equivalent in English but essentially: You said it, you’re it!

Out of the mouths of babes…

 

* Disclaimer: In carrying out in-depth research for this post, I discovered the Trump-frog chin meme; please note, however, that term ‘President Frog’ has nothing to do with France or the French. The author accepts no responsibility for any sensitive souls who have been offended by this post.