Péter le feu

‘Péter le feu’ may call up images of a fire-breathing (or farting) dragon, but in French it means to be bursting with energy.

And I’m happy to report that after a long, hot summer, during which my get up and go got up and left, I’ve finally got my mojo back.

Je pète le feu.

This week there’s a definite fall vibe in the air, even though we’re currently enjoying a lovely Indian summer. All those cooler nights and early mornings have me energized and raring to go, even, dare I say, looking forward to the change of season. I love the autumn, always have, with the exception of a few weeks in November when I become convinced of my imminent demise. Something to do with the change of light after we set the clocks back. (Although the EU recently announced they would put an end to this barbaric practice, making me oh-so glad to be part of Europe).

Twice this week I woke up before the alarm clock at 5:30. I’ve gotten back into some healthier eating, drinking and exercise habits (yeah, I know…boring). But I’m exploding with ideas for several writing projects, looking forward to my next vacation and frankly, happy to be alive. It has been ages since I felt this way.

Not to brag or anything. That would be a different kind of péter all together.

‘Se la péter’, to show off, is one of those French expressions I gave up trying to fathom years ago. It is filled with pitfalls for non-natives: if you forget the ‘se’ or the ‘la’ it means something completely different. Like to actually fart. Which is not something most people brag about.

Aside from its less than noble meaning, péter also means to blow up, to explode or to crack. Like a firecracker, un pétard. And it is associated with another verb also used to describe being full of energy: gazer. ‘Ça gaze?’

How or why these explosive terms became associated with being in good health and raring to go is a mystery to me. But it seems the French are well aware of the comic potential of the word and its English cousin. The expression, ‘Salut, ça farte?’ was immortalized by the actor Jean Dujardin back in 2005 when he played a French surf bum obsessed with speaking Franglais called Brice de Nice (jokingly pronounced with a long ‘i’ as in Bryce de Nyce). The film, while silly, became a cult comedy classic.

Alors, ça farte?

Sa langue dans sa poche

chatty-cathy

I’ve never been known for being tongue tied.

When I was a little kid, I talked a blue streak. Family lore has it that my younger brother was assumed to be very quiet because I did all the talking for him: “That’s my brother. His name is David. He doesn’t talk very much.”

The first toy I remember getting for Christmas was a doll called Chatty Cathy. My parents probably hoped for a little relief. You pulled a string in her back and she would say things. After a little while the string broke but I kept chatting.

Things changed when I grew up. Shyness came upon me with the awareness of how I sounded to others, of how little I really knew about so many subjects, and how unpleasant it was to be around a loud mouth know-it-all. Either that or I had already used up all my words. Or at least the nice ones. Cursing became my new friend and I learned to do it with flair. Bloody fucking hell. Holy fuckoly. Fuck a duck.

When I first learned French, I was shy about speaking the language. Afraid of looking foolish, of not being understood or of saying something funny or frankly stupid. But once I came to France, there was no room for being timid. It was speak up or be ignored. So I spoke French and was misunderstood, corrected and laughed at. But I learned.

I learned that French is a language of subtlety and suggestion, that there are many indirect ways around things that we English speakers (or at least, we Chatty Cathy’s) would probably barge right into, feet first. I learned that it is not just what you say, but how you say it.

I also learned to swear with the best of them: merde, putain, fait chier.

I still feel shy at times. Whether with family, friends or professional associates I’m rarely the most talkative person in the room. Sometimes I don’t even answer the phone. But I love a good conversation and cannot resist an argument. And when I have something to say, I cannot remain silent.

The French expression ‘ne pas avoir sa langue dans sa poche’ means to be outspoken, to say what you think.

That’s me in the photo, at a team event a few years ago. With my tongue where I usually keep it.

How about you? Do you speak up or hold your peace – and in which language?

Faut pas confondre

1734420_naturismeThe French language is filled with pitfalls for the non-native speaker. I have personally fallen into so many of them I have permanent bruises on my tongue.

Okay, I exaggerate. But I have become rather good at rolling with the punches when I make a faux pas.

The wonderful thing about an acquired language is that you are allowed to make mistakes. Of course everyone can make mistakes, but it feels like we get a special pardon for bloopers and blunders in French.

One of the my frequent funnies is confusing words that look similar but have very different meanings.

  1. Culot / culotte
    ‘Avoir du culot’ or ‘être culotté’ means to have a lot of nerve. A culotte, on the other hand, describes a type of ladies’ undergarment. ‘Perdre sa culotte’ means to lose one’s shirt, for example in a game of poker. But to go ‘sans culotte’ may require a certain culot.
  2. Naturiste / naturaliste
    You need a lot of culot to go to the plage naturiste (nudist beach). Unless you happen to stumble upon it in the way of a naturalist simply studying the fascinating wildlife. According to the French Naturist Federation, this country is the world’s leading destination for nudists.
  3. Gâteaux / gâteux
    I love cake so this first word is a piece of it. For many years I was confused by the expression ‘Mamie gateaux’, which affectionately describes an over-indulgent grandmother, thinking it had something to do with the verb ‘gâter’ which means to spoil. A word of advice: don’t tell your mother-in-law she is gâteux – senile, doddering or incontinent.
  4. Jambe / jambon
    My jambes (legs) may not be long and slender but they are not quite jambons (hams). Yet.
  5. Cochonnerie / connerie
    Speaking of ham, why do we blame the poor pig for everything? A mere syllable separates the familiar expression for junk food (cochonnerie) from that which describes an act of stupidity (connerie). Do not use either expression when attempting to describe your child’s diet to a pediatrician.
  6. Piéton / pigeon
    French drivers may not always distinguish between them, but pedestrians (piétons) are not pigeons. There are plenty of both on the streets of Paris so when in France it is best to watch where you put your pieds!
  7. Baisser / baiser
    You may well lower (baisser) your eyes. A single ‘s’ is all that separates the act of lowering with a much lower act. Although ‘baiser’ has a place in the dictionary to officially mean kiss (baiser la main), in actual fact it is only ever used to mean to screw or get screwed.

We all know someone who says ‘prostrate’ instead of ‘prostate’. Do you ever mix up your meanings in English or any other language?

Avec ou sans gaz?

Mineral WaterWine is often thought of as the national beverage in France but mineral water is a close contender. You will find it on the tables of every restaurant and most homes. Every region has its own local mineral water. The supermarket has an entire aisle devoted to l’eau minérale in all its varieties: flat, sparkling, flavored, high in magnesium salt to aid digestion.

The first thing a non-native needs to know is that there are essentially two kinds of mineral water on offer in French restaurants. I was somewhat surprised the first time I ordered ‘eau minérale’ to be asked: “Avec ou sans gaz?”

‘Gaz’ sounds a little too close to reality to be polite. Can’t they say bubbles?

“Avec gaz,” I replied, deciding to go for the gusto. When you sit down for a meal in France, there will be gas at some point.

Now the French have adopted a similar term for sparkling water: ‘eau pétillante’. (Maybe they realized that ‘gassy’ just didn’t do it?)

When I first came to France I only knew of one kind of sparkling water: Perrier. In fact, I used the brand name as a generic short form for sparkling water. Until I discovered that whenever I asked for Perrier, I actually got Perrier. In all its intensely carbonated glory. All very well as a drink on its own but there are so many finer, more delicate tasting mineral waters to accompany food.

Over the years I became somewhat addicted to sparkling water. I can give up wine, if forced, but please don’t ask me to go bubble-free. Most French people in my experience will prefer flat mineral water like Evian or Volvic. A few will insist upon tap water, a carafe of which must be offered for free by law in restaurants. But there is a general misgiving about drinking tap water in France, perhaps a holdover from bygone days when the water filtration system was less sanitary.

For years, Badoit held pride of place on our table. It tends to lose its sparkle just after opening, though, which is probably why they introduced a more intense version, Badoit Rouge, a few years ago. Now my house sparkling water is St. Pellegrino, which has just the right bubble for me. Yes, it’s Italian and many French people hate that. But hey, they’re all owned by Nestlé or Danone anyway.

OrezzaWhen on holiday, I love to try the local waters. This one from Corsica was beautifully refreshing.

The French are not the only ones with a predilection sparkling mineral water. In Germany I have often found it to be offered along with flat water in business meetings, with a choice of small, medium or large bubble. Some people drink it all day long, which even for me is a bit much gaz.

How about you? Flat, sparkling or non, merci?

A tale of two cuillères

Dish ran away wih spoon

This is a story of two spoons, one French, the other English. La cuillère à café was petite yet shapely, designed to stir a tiny cup and bring small, delicate tastes to elegant rosebud bouches. The other implement was a practical sort, the more generously endowed cuillère à thé. Despite their similar functions, between the coffee spoon and the teaspoon there was not a drop of comprehension.

“Pardonnez-moi, Mademoiselle,” said the coffee spoon. “Around here we take our coffee in thimble-sized tasses. You are rather too hefty for our liking.”

“Well, excusez-moi,” said the teaspoon, polishing her accent. “I am much appreciated all over the world for my spoonful of sugar. And I’m a whizz at scooping breakfast cereal. You may look pretty but you are clearly not up to snuff.”

“Pfft! I can assure you my lineage is sterling. Not only do I stir with the best but I am used at many fine French tables with dessert.”

“Dessert? But that is the job of the fork.”

La fourchette to eat dessert?” scoffed the coffee spoon. “Ma pauvre cousine, quel manque d’éducation!”

“You sure talk fancy in French but you strike me as a bit of a lightweight. How much do you weigh, exactly?”

And that is when things got rather ugly. They scooped and clashed and poor teaspoon, for all her heaping size, rather swooned. La cuillère à café was petite but she packed a good punch.

“I shall leave this place and never return,” declared teaspoon, defeated. And off she went, accompanied by a dish.

And it was ainsi.

The moral of the story? Here in France the cuillère à café, also known as la petite cuillère, is commonly used for coffee and dessert. If you, like me, feel the need for the heftier teaspoon, you will have to import it.

Do you prefer to eat dessert with a spoon or a fork?