Find the entrance

Entree_LyonAfter my post about getting lost, I thought I’d share another little challenge of finding one’s way in France.

There is a little game we play in this country. I call it, ‘Find the entrance’.

I discovered this when I arrived in Paris in the 1980s during the midst of a terrorist wave. The main entrances to many public buildings were barricaded by police, with access strictly controlled through a side door. The Alliance Française was one of these high-profile buildings, a hotbed of foreign nationals plotting to conjugate French verbs. I learned to never assume the front door was the entrance, and to always carry proof of identity.

When we moved to Lyon some years later, the plot thickened. Lyon is known as a secretive city and filled with many very old and winding streets including the famous ‘traboules‘. How well I remember going for my first prenatal appointment at Hôtel Dieu in Lyon. (The hospital has since closed and is undergoing renovations to be rebirthed as a luxury hotel and shopping complex). It felt oddly reassuring to be giving birth in such a historic place, always assuming that the medical inner workings were a bit more modern than the exterior.

Hotel DieuThe magnificent Baroque façade of this 17th century building on the Rhône river took up several city blocks. I walked the entire length of it without finding the entrance. Twice. There was a driveway labelled ‘Urgences’ but that seemed to be reserved for ambulances (although later, when my daughter was born, we used that entrance to access the maternity department). There were several large and looming doorways with rounded arches that were closed and without handles. Finally, on my third approach, I noticed a discreet sign saying ‘Entrées hôpital de jour’ (which I later learned means ‘outpatients’).

My little game continues to this day, though we live in a more remote corner of the country.

Mairie DouvaineImagine you have an appointment at la Mairie to get your passport renewed. You know where the city hall is, of course, as it’s usually one of the more obvious buildings in town. Often it has a large clock tower and looks rather like a church, with a sweep of steps and a stately set of wooden doors. Do not be fooled into thinking you should try to open them.

All those gorgeous doorways you see in photos of France? They are not the entrance. Nine times out of ten those doors are locked and only opened on state occasions or emergencies. The real entrance for le public is usually around the block or on the side, through a set of ugly modern doors that slide open, sometimes even with an elevator or a ramp for handicapped access. Practical, if something of a letdown in aesthetic terms.

Even when you find the door, you may not be able to get in. You may need a code, or an appointment, or be outside the official public opening hours from 13:45 to 16:15 (that’s 1:45 to 4:15 pm for North Americans). I exaggerate, if only slightly.

Finding the entrance in France is so much more than getting yourself to the right door. I’m still trying to figure it out.

Sometimes the exit can also be challenging. You have gone through so many sets of doors, corridors and stairways to reach your destination that you may have a hard time remembering the way out. I still get the giggles when I remember my husband, having just blown his stack in a public building following an interminable wait, turned on his heel to leave in a huff. Only he found himself standing in front of two glass doors that were locked. Sortie à gauche, we saw too late. Dignity intact, if slightly bruised, we exited stage right.

Oddly enough, it dawns on me that our new house, the one we had built here in France two years ago, has the front door in the back. Maybe I’ve been here too long…

What about you? Ever have trouble figuring out where the entrance is?

The sneakiest word in the French language

It is the secret agent of the French language. Car il passe souvent inaperçu.

It is only two letters long, and most of the time isn’t even pronounced. Yet it changes everything.

Have you guessed?


The little negation word. One of a couple, ne pas, which preface or encircle a verb and transform its meaning from positive to negative.

Fumer. Ne pas fumer. Je fume. Je ne fume pas.

Simple, right? Its role and place in French grammar are perfectly clear. Until it goes undercover.

I didn’t learn this at the Alliance Française or in any French grammar book. I went out on the street and found that in practice, the ‘ne’ is simply dropped in spoken French.

Ce n’est pas becomes c’est pas. But it doesn’t really matter (ce n’est pas grave) unless you’re a stickler like me. Because you are saved by the unmistakeable ‘pas’ which is your very big clue that there’s a negative in there.

‘Je ne sais pas’ becomes ‘j’sais pas’ or, to my non-native ears, what sounds like ‘chez pas’. (At first I wondered, who is this Pas and where does he live? Guess I’ll never know.)

So it’s complicated. But, hey, if them’s the rules, so be it. I can work with that.

Mais non! Ce n’est pas si simple.

To make matters more complicated, in literary French, the ‘ne’ often stays but the ‘pas’ is dropped. There’s a whole lot of rules as to when this happens, which you can read about here.

Et ça se complique. ‘Ne’ is often combined with a whole bunch of other words to indicate negation of some sort: jamais, rien, aucun, personne. Then dropped, like a hot potato, in spoken French.

Person? What’s with that? Une personne, ie a person, becomes (ne) personne, ie nobody.

Another variant is ‘ne plus’, which means no longer. Je ne fume plus. When the ‘ne’ disappears, as is its wont, it becomes ‘je fume plus’. Can we English be forgiven for finding this contradictory? I mean, plus is more, n’est-ce pas? In French, the rather subtle distinction is that when plus means more you pronounce the s, and when it means less you just say ‘plu’.

None of this can be learned in a book.

Et toi? What French words so you find most confusing? Do you ever find yourself, like me, trying to wrap your head around grammar rules?

Speak French in sign language


A few weeks of immersion training at the Alliance Française in Paris was all it took for me to master the mechanics of French. Once you’ve got the basic verbs and vocabulary, you can get by in day-to-day life. But the hardest thing about learning another language is the unspoken part, the between-the-lines meanings and culture cues. That can take years.

Fortunately, like most Latin peoples, the French use their hands a lot. Here is a quick guide to mastering six simple gestures that will make you look like a native without uttering a word.

1. The Gallic shrug. Perhaps the best known of all French gestures. Start by opening your hands outwards in a gesture of emptiness, raise your shoulders and then your eyebrows. Finish with a grimace that implies, “C’est comme ça.”

2. The semi-obscene mouth noise* that says you really haven’t got a clue. Raise eyebrows, purse lips and make a farting noise. Helpful when you have no idea what the question was. (*Popularly known as the face fart.)

3. The international sign for money. Very useful when trying to communicate how much money someone has (or how expensive something is), a situation that arises frequently in Paris and the south of France.  Extend one hand horizontally and rub thumb against forefingers.

4. Avoir un poil dans la main” (to have a hair growing in the palm of one’s hand). This somewhat obscure French expression describes one who is lazy. Turn your left hand palm up and use two fingers of right hand to mime pulling a long hair out of it. Frequently used when discussing service industry workers, such as the SNCF.

5. “Avoir les boules” (balls or glands). Quite commonly used although of uncertain origin. Some say it has to do with the game of boules or pétanque. It expresses a special mix of anger and frustration that is universally understood in France. Point both hands towards base of neck and form fingers loosely in the shape of balls. Move back and forth to demonstrate gonflement.

6. “Avoir un coup dans le nez” (literally, to have ‘one’ in the nose). A quick way of signing that someone has had a few drinks. Make a fist and hold by nose. Rotate once or twice, quickly. The drunk in question will never even notice.

Finally, let us not forget the international symbol for “stick it where the sun don’t shine.” The French are known to use this in the form of either the bras d’honneur  (formed with the elbow) or the good old finger — doigt d’honneur. But don’t be misled by the fancy name – there is nothing honorable about either gesture.

Warning: If you flip the birdie to a Frenchman (as I learned from painful experience) you risk being confused with a local and sparking a stream of obscenity that goes right over your head. If that happens, try gesture #1.