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?

Haute gastronomie

Presentation on a plate

France is known for its gastronomy and one cannot live here without indulging from time to time in ‘un bon gueuleton’ – a familiar French expression for a feast or a bit of a blowout.

While I love to eat, I am not a foodie. I don’t follow the latest culinary trends or keep a bucket list of famous chefs whose cuisine I simply must sample before I die. Still, over the years we have celebrated various occasions with something a little special. Having tried a few Michelin star restaurants of the ‘haute gastronomie’ variety, I must confess that most of these establishments fall short of their promise.

Back in the day when ‘nouvelle cuisine’ was still relatively new, I remember my Belle-mère making a comment along the lines of: “Ça coute la peau des fesses* et tu n’as rien dans l’assiette!” (It costs a fortune and there’s hardly anything in your plate!)

Haute gastronomie

It is certainly true that when it comes to la haute gastronomie, the size of the portion tends to diminish in reverse proportion to the prices on the menu.

That said, I am fine with small portions of very good food, as the mere number of courses and accompanying wines means that you cannot leave the table without feeling full. If not entirely satisfied.

Our latest venture into one of these temples of grande cuisine was last week on holiday in Porto, where there are a number of Michelin-starred chefs. Why Portugal produces so many culinary stars is often explained by the quality of fresh produce, especially from the sea, the variety and richness of their wines and a longstanding tradition of fine food.

It begins with a bit of a show. The room with its perfectly toned-down décor, the greeting and introduction by the maitre d’hôtel, the prolific wait staff wearing black gloves. There is no menu, just a choice of 8 or 12 courses. You balk at this prodigy and go for the modest menu, then realize that the thimble-sized servings are really not going to go a long way towards filling you up.

I chose the menu with wine pairings and regretted it. Each course came with a different vino, and by the time I’d imbibed various glasses of sparkling, port, white and red wines, my palate if not my head was spinning. And while the food was very good, I would have preferred a bit more of one or two things, but overall fewer courses of many tastes and tidbits.

Porto wine porto

What it comes down to for me is a preference for real food cooked with flair and a dash of originality, not so much the molecular gastronomy with its emulsions and foams of intense flavours. Just simple, hearty food of excellent quality cooked with loving care.

Presentation matters to me and the French do it very well. You eat with your eyes as well as your senses of taste and smell. But when the show upstages the food, when the presence of servers overly intrudes upon the experience, and when the final bill is several times what you would have paid for just a very good restaurant meal…perhaps I’ve had my fill.

How about you? Do you enjoy ‘haute’ gastronomy?

*Why ‘la peau des fesses’ or the skin of one’s rear end should represent a large amount of money is a mystery that perhaps our friend Phildange can explain?

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?

Ça roule

I am struck by how many French expressions there are to say that things are going.

There’s ça va, ça marche, and my personal favourite, ça roule. Meaning: that goes or that works or literally: it rolls.

‘Rouler’ generally describes the action of wheels – les roues. We are big fans of wheels here in France and what I am most struck by (not literally, merci!) is the number of bizarre, noisy and exotic motorized contraptions that come out in the summer months.

It starts with the Tour de France. While those crazy cyclists bust their bananas (again, not literally one hopes…) racing around France, the crowds turn out to see something called the Caravane du Tour. This is a publicity parade of sponsored vehicles pimped to perfection. To wit:

(Note: I personally abstain from following any form of televised sport, but when le Tour comes to any French town, it is a very big deal.)

This is followed by the annual mass migration for summer vacation – les vacances. Essentially this means that everybody and his oncle hops aboard whatever vehicle they possess and heads cross country. If you live in Paris you go south to the Cote d’Azur. If you live in Grenoble you head to Bordeaux. If you live anywhere south you probably go to Brittany. You get my drift.

Aside from epic traffic jams, this is usually when those who work for some major form of transport – rail, air, ferry or even toll collectors – decide to go out on strike. ‘Ça roule?’ is transformed to ‘ça circule ou..?’

Then, when all of those tourists, French or otherwise, get to wherever they are going, they get on a motorized vehicle and trawl around town. Motorcycles, vespas, convertibles, anything goes. The louder and more attention-getting the better.

Whatever the preferred mode of transport ,soon everyone will ride back whence they came in time for la rentrée.

“Ça roule, ma poule?” (How’s it going, my little chickadee?) will be heard echoing throughout France, as we get back to school and business, still fresh from our holiday adventures.

From the fabulous French movie, ‘Les Intouchables’

How do you roll? Got a favourite set of wheels?