Le temps des cathédrales

Here is this week’s song for a Saturday. Voici ma chanson pour un samedi.

The year was 1998. The musical ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ had just opened in Paris and this song was among the many taking France by storm. Powerful, dramatic, it seemed to somehow capture the spirit of Victor Hugo’s novel.

With music written by Richard Cocciante and lyrics by Luc Plamandon, the musical had all the ingredients of a major international success. It had the most successful first year of any musical ever according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It was translated into 8 languages and went on to have long runs around the world.

There are many more beautiful and deeply moving pieces of classical music being played in honour of Notre-Dame de Paris this week. Yet this is the song that stands out in my memory as that which epitomizes the drama and magic of the place.

Bon weekend!

Les dents qui courent après le bifteck

Photo credit: Louise Pierga, artiste créatrice de concepts visuels

After the dramatic events of this week in Paris, it’s time for some comic relief. One of my favourite French expressions provides plenty of that.

Let’s unpack this phrase in all its illustrative glory.

As you will see from the delightful drawing above, ‘les dents’ are teeth, an easy enough translation for anyone familiar with the dentist. The ones pictured here are an orthodontist’s delight (or nightmare) as they are veering off at an unhealthy forward angle.

Pictured next to the teeth, towards which they might be said to run or ‘courir’, is a piece of beef. For further clarity, the distance needed to ‘parcourir’ is also shown.

Why the French refer to steak as ‘bifteck’ remains a mystery to me. Just as why they refer to roast beef as ‘le rosbif’ and even more curiously, why the Brits are called les rosbifs. Is it revenge for the French being called frogs?

This blog for English learners (in French) provides some good answers to that question: roast beef is a traditional English dish, the British soldiers traditionally wore red coats and the fair-skinned English tend to turn bright red in the continental sun. (Ironically, though, Brits are not known for enjoying meat rare enough to be that red!)

So, back to our analysis of the French expression. The translation is: teeth that run after the roast beef. In other words, buck teeth. I love it because it is so colourful and immediately creates a funny word picture of what is being described. As the French would say, c’est très imagé.

Whether or not this implies that Brits are very hungry or they tend to have buck teeth, I shall not venture to say. You have not grown as long in tooth as I have without learning to keep dangerous opinions to yourself.

By the way, the English expression ‘long in the tooth’ does not translate in French. ‘Avoir les dents longues’ means to be ambitious.

Do you have a favourite French expression?

Notre-Dame des larmes

Our Lady of tears

They gathered by Ile de la Cité in shock, hundreds and thousands of the faithful, the curious, tourists and locals. For believers and non-believers alike, the gut punch of seeing nearly 900 years of history going up in flames was too painful to bear.


The words in French expressed deep grief and shock. “On est meurtri,” said Stéphane Bern, France’s Monsieur Culture, moved to tears during an interview. Bruised, injured, struck down. That this monument, Notre-Dame de Paris, the most-visited site in France, possibly in the world, should be so ravaged by flames when it had survived eight centuries of history, come through bombings and world wars.

When its proud spire fell, the gasp was audible. Hands flew up to cover faces, the emotion beyond words. It was a knife to our collective heart.

The timber roof structure was called ‘la forêt’ as it was a virtual forest of hardwood beams, each representing a single tree. Work was underway to renovate this structure, known in French as la charpente. Although it had stood strong for hundreds of years, it wasn’t in that good shape and any work on it represented a certain risk. That is why last year, a dry run was held of simulated crisis with a plan in place to save its priceless treasures.

Dieu soit loué, thanks be to god, they were able to get most of the icons and paintings out in time.

So many tears fell around the world as this beautiful building was saved by the brave Paris firefighters through the night. This morning, they are saying that the cathedral’s structure is still sound. It will take decades to rebuild but I have faith in this country and its passion for history that it will be restored to its former glory.

Thanks to all who said a prayer or shed a tear for this grand old lady.

Do you have a memory, recent or far off, of Notre-Dame de Paris?

Au boulot!

Monday morning oblige, it’s time to get to work.

Déjà? After running around on Saturday and enjoying a well-earned day of rest on Sunday, getting back to work on Monday can come as a bit of a shock.

In France, as in countries all over the world, the beginning of each new week means we’re up with the birds and back to work.

It’s been a few years since I had to badge in and out of the workplace. In France, official time management systems are a legal obligation. To ensure that the employer gets a fair share of working time or to count up all the extra hours le salarié puts in?  It works both ways.

When I worked full time for a French pharmaceutical company, the ritual of badging in and out each day ensured that any extra time was added to the ‘compte epargne temps’, a sort of savings account that employees could use to add extra time for special circumstances like maternity leave, a sabbatical or even early retirement. Anyone who put in more than a 35-hour week on a regular basis had to watch out though — HR was on the case and cracked down on the workaholics who simply could not leave the office.

I knew a few. It should come as no surprise that I was not one of them.

Now that I work freelance, mostly from home, my commute to the office takes only seconds (although I can easily get sidetracked by other, more pressing tasks…). I no longer have to ‘pointer’ or badge in and out. But the numbers on the invoices at the end of the month will show me up if I slack off.

I figure it’s all about pacing. Slow and steady wins the race, like this 84-year-old florist who was featured on a France TV report last week.

Monsieur Château, however bent over, seems to be a firm believer in the French saying, ‘le travail, c’est la santé’ (work is health).

I tend to agree with him. It’s important to keep doing something worthwhile, to have a purpose in life that gets us out of bed each morning. There’s nothing wrong with retirement and leisure pursuits for those who’ve reached the appropriate age and feel they’ve had enough of the grind. But we all need a ‘raison d’être’ to keep going.

In that spirit, happy Monday to all. Now, au boulot!