It’s all Greek to me

Kitschy door to a public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

Kitschy public toilet on Iguana Beach in Crete

I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time. Ever since I arrived in France and found myself floundering in a sea of incomprehension. But something always seemed to get lost in translation. Until I figured out that it’s not Greek but Chinese that describes what the French find impossible to understand. ‘C’est du Chinois?’ I’m sorry but that just sounds wrong.

Spending a week on the island of Crete is the perfect excuse to finally use the expression. We’re here catching a week of sun and making up for the summer that wasn’t in France. Also the vacation we didn’t find time to take. By ‘vacation’ I mean going away to a place with nothing more urgent to do than sit on a deck chair and watch the waves roll in. And decide what to order for lunch.

So here we are in boutique-hotel heaven on the western part of the island near Chania (pronounced ‘HAH-nea’), enjoying mostly sunny skies and warm but not sweltering temperatures. Where they serve delicious, heart-healthy Cretan diet food and excellent local wines – meaning you can eat and drink to your heart’s delight knowing that any weight you gain will be chock full of omega 3’s and antioxidants. Rest assured, I’m sporting the healthiest of belly rolls.

The crowd at our hotel is a mixed bag – Nordic, German, Swiss, French, Brits and the odd North American transplant like me. Everybody speaks an English of varying accents, including the staff, who are Greek and Turkish. I love the fact that English is the default language that enables people from such different cultures to communicate, even on such a mundane level as ‘Please pass the olive oil’, or ‘May I have an extra beach towel?’

And I find myself doing that thing I do. Where I become a sponge for other people’s verbal tics, speaking with an unfamiliar accent or an oddly European intonation. I’m convinced it’s a form of empathy that makes me do this. Either that or an odd desire to parrot.

I first noticed this when I began to speak French. It was as if the process of learning a foreign tongue made me temporarily lose my own. I found myself stuttering to get words out in my native language, or worse, employing French grammatical constructions in English: “She is the sister of my mother,” I explained to someone who asked about my aunt. He gave me a puzzled look. “You mean your mother’s sister?”

Sometimes my English sounded like a bad translation: “I am desolate,” I would say by way of apology, literally translating ‘je suis désolée’ from French. It wasn’t intentional – it just came out that way. I remember feeling very silly after being introduced to someone and popping out ‘I’m enchanted.’ While ‘Je suis enchantée’ may be perfectly correct in French, it sounds more than a little dated in English.

Whatever the reason, being surrounded by foreign languages leaves me temporarily at a loss for words. Which is probably just as well. It is so incredibly beautiful here that words seem redundant. Even the Greek ones with all those strange characters that defy description. You just want to lay back and watch the waves roll in. Wriggle your toes in the sand. And forget about all the things you don’t understand.



Bon voyage!

The French travel rather well.The French tend to holiday in their home country, especially during ‘les grandes vacances’ of summer. After all, why go anywhere else when you have so much to enjoy at home? Between the invigorating coasts of Normandy and Brittany, the beauty of the Alps and the sunny beaches of the south, there is something for everyone.

But since the low-cost airlines opened up the skies of Europe, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to discover the world beyond our borders. Living in France, we enjoy taking off for the weekend to neighbouring capitals like London, Lisbon, Barcelona or Berlin. And when we do, lo and behold, we find them. Sitting at the next table or right beside us on the bus. The very people we thought we’d left behind.

Les Français. They’re easy enough to spot when they’re not at home: the quiet ones who tend to keep to themselves. Who mutter in French to each other, usually things like: ‘Rien compris’ (I didn’t understand). Who clutch a French guidebook, usually le Routard or Lonely Planet. And who always look a little hungry.

As a native speaker, I am instantly at home in any English-speaking country and can travel to most parts of the world with the confidence of knowing that someone will speak my language. This gives me an unfair advantage over my compatriots, one that I shamelessly exploit. When abroad, I enjoy going undercover and observing the French as they struggle to adapt to my world. It’s payback time.

I watch them studying the menu board outside a restaurant so intently, trying to determine whether the food will be remotely edible. Queuing politely to buy tickets and timidly trying out their English. Putting their best foot forward in every way.

They’re like fish out of water. But the fact is, the French are great travelers. They’re well-read, knowledgeable about their destination and prepared to walk its streets. They explore, adapt to local customs, try the special foods. They’re budget-savvy and know how to find the best deals without dropping needless cash on bells and whistles.

In fact, when they’re not at home the French are much more endearing than they are in France. (Unlike certain other nationalities who shall remain nameless on this blog – I’ve already offended enough sensibilities.) I guess that’s because when they’re not on home turf, they don’t have that certain je ne sais quoi – no, actually I do: arrogance. Yes, folks, the French can be humble. And it is a lovely thing to see.

Last week we were in Scotland visiting our wee lass and there were a great many French-speaking tourists in our midst. The combination of the Scottish brogue and the French r-r-r’s made for some challenging communications. But overall, I was quite impressed at how well everybody managed to understand each other.

Seems a little humility goes a long way.

So, where are you going this summer? Home or away?

The most insulting word in French

Casse-toi-pov'conThis one says a lot about the French, their language and their attitudes toward one another.

While not an insult on its own, one word is often used to add injury to insult.

Hint: it’s not what you might think.

Have you guessed?

‘Pauvre.’ Which means, purely and simply, poor.

Why in the world would the French word for poor be insulting? Do our Gallic cousins consider poverty itself to be an insult? I don’t think so, at least not in material terms. (Moral or intellectual bankruptcy is another matter). It would seem to have more to do with pity, and looking down on someone. When ‘pauvre’ is used in that sense, it’s a fine line between pity and ‘mépris’ (disdain).

But like most things in the French language, it all depends on how it’s used.

‘Mon pauvre’ can be a perfectly pleasant, if familiar, way of addressing a friend, expressing humor and empathy in a difficult situation.

Or it can be ironic and cutting, especially with the addition of another little word (pun intended): ‘petit.’

‘Ma pauvre petite dame.’ (My poor little woman). From mildly patronizing to downright pejorative, you can be sure that whoever says this to you is ‘taking the piss’ as the Brits will say.

But it gets worse.

Add ‘pauvre’ to one of the most commonly used ‘gros mots‘ in the French language, and you get downright insulting.

‘Pauvre con.’

And when you’re the President of France, words like that are not considered appropriate, even less so when making an official visit with full media attention. No matter how badly you’re provoked.

So when Nicolas Sarkozy extended his hand to a bystander at the Paris Agricultural Show back in 2008, and that fellow refused to shake it, saying ‘Don’t touch me, you’ll make me dirty,’ the French were shocked by their former president’s casual reply: ‘Casse-toi alors, pauvre con.’ So much so that it became a meme and something of a cultural phenomenon. Its popular version, ‘Casse-toi pov’con’ can still be found on everything from websites to t-shirts. It certainly marked a fall from grace and was an early sign that his quinquennat would not be renewed.

The word ‘con’ is hard to translate. While its original dictionary definition actually mentions the female sex apparatus (‘vagin’), in common usage it means idiot, or at worst, asshole. (Perhaps not quite as strong a word as the subtitle on the above clip!)

But the degree of insult is completely context-driven. One thing is sure: if you’re ever in a situation where you feel tempted to call someone a ‘pauvre’ so-and-so, be prepared for a strong reaction!

What’s the most insulting thing anyone has ever said to you in French?

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?

Accent on the you

I’ve always been a sucker for an accent. My ear contorts with delight to tune in the voices of people who hail from places near or far, New York to New Zealand. Do I detect a bit of the brogue or a southern drawl?  A midwestern twang or an Irish lilt? Speaking with an accent can make even the most mundane locales sound exotic – and the speaker sound fascinating, sophisticated or just plain fun.

But accents can be a delicate matter. North Americans will always ask you where you’re from but I have learned that on this side of the pond it’s not always so polite.

For Brits, your accent speaks volumes about your social class and what kind of education you received. In France, an accent from various parts north and south is peu recommendable (hardly a character reference).

Lots of people I know think they don’t have any accent. These are mostly people who’ve never left home. The fact is, everyone has an accent. Even we Canadians, such polite, diplomatic and otherwise non-descript types, are teased when we’re ‘out’ and ‘about’…

Anyone who learns to speak a foreign language as an adult will have a telltale accent in their adopted tongue. French natives who speak English generally give themselves away when the first few words leave their mouth (or is that mouse?). By a ‘r-r-r’ that catches in the back of their throats or a misplaced ‘h’ (‘ow hare you?).

But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as a French accent in English can be charming (at least when you decipher what they’re saying), similarly an English accent in French is considered as sweet, sexy, even smart.

I remember watching the classic French film ‘Breathless’ (‘A bout de souffle’), with the late American actress Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. It was probably the first time I understood enough French to be able to follow a film on television – and I was fascinated by the way she spoke French so fluently yet with such a strong English accent (and by her gamine style.)

And then there’s Jane Birkin. Possibly France’s most famous adopted Brit, she was married to Serge Gainsbourg and is the mother of actress Charlotte Gainsbourg and singer Lou Doillon, Yet after decades in this country she retains an inability to pronounce a French ‘r’ and still says things like le chaise. As much as I like what she stands for, her French makes me cringe.

My own accent in French is fairly subtle now. It was not always so. It took years to be able to properly articulate vowel sounds like the ‘ou’ in ‘rouge’ vs the ‘u’ in ‘tu’. I was utterly mystified by subtle differences like the ‘é’ in élégant vs the ‘è’ in règlement. They sounded just the same to my unschooled ear.

The only time I was completely stymied by an accent, though, was when attempting to speak French with a fellow Canadian. A French Canadian, that is, who upon discovering we both hailed from the great white North began regaling me with an anti-French diatribe unlike anything I’d ever heard. The problem was I barely understood half of what she was saying.

Them Canucks sure talk French funny.

What about you? What does your accent say about who you are and where you come from?