Guette au trou

“What are you looking at?” my husband asks.

“The neighbours across the street have a strange car in their driveway,” I say, stepping back from the curtain.

“Guette au trou!”

This conversation or variations on its theme has taken place hundreds of times in recent years. What can I say? I am not a voyeur but our house has a lot of windows. And there’s something about being at home and watching what goes on outside that I find endlessly fascinating.

This, according to the French, makes me a ‘guette au trou’. A spy, a snoop, or a nosey neighbour in common parlance.

For years I heard this expression and assumed that a ‘guette’ was a cute little mouse of some kind hiding in its hole. Ha! A quick google has put an end to that illusion.

The original ‘guette au trou’ is a phrase that was coined to describe the ‘sage femme’ or midwife. Crudely put, it describes the one who literally watches at the hole to see whether the baby is coming. It is derived from the verb ‘guetter’, meaning to watch in the patient way of a cat that is on the lookout for a mouse.

It is not to be confused with the related ‘guet-apens’, a trap or an ambush that is set to catch someone. In the news, people are said to have fallen into or ‘tomber dans un guet-apens’, often with criminal intent.

Interestingly, in both of these expressions ‘guette’ and ‘guet’ are pronounced just like the English word ‘get’. But, when you use it by itself, by saying that someone is on the lookout, ‘il fait le guet’, the pronunciation is more like gay.

All these years in France and I’m only now figuring out the origins of such expressions and how they are spelled or properly pronounced. Sometimes it feels like I’ve only just begun my journey. And on others I feel so rich with untapped knowledge of French that has only now bubbled to the surface of my brain. Language is truly a source of continual learning and inspiration.

Perhaps I’ve been distracted. So many comings and goings, windows to watch from, people scurrying about…

Are you — or do you have — a nosey neighbour?

Chasse aux sangliers

Cute, aren’t they? Not so much when they take over your home, farm field or vacation spot.

Wild boars have become the bane of many regions and towns in France. Not only do they present a risk of road accidents but encroaching urbanization means they are now a common sight around people’s homes. And they are proliferating like never before.

Canada’s cities have their raccoons and, increasingly, bears. Australia has its marsupials. Skunks, possums, foxes…increasingly it seems that wild animals are finding their way into our cities and towns. Or is it that our towns are expanding into their habitats?

One man in France recently returned home to find his house occupied by a terrified sanglier and the hunters who had followed him into the hall to track him down. The homeowner got them to leave and called the police. The gendarmes came and were able to get the animal outside with tasers, where it was let go.

Hunters are not allowed to pursue their prey any closer than 150 metres from a home or residential area, at least in theory. But there are those who demand measures to stop the scourge of the sanglier in France.

Crops are devastated when troops of wild boars take over the fields. They are especially attracted to the increasingly prevalent corn fields, grown for animal feed and bio-fuel. They rip up the grass in public gardens and golf courses in search of insects. And they even visit beaches looking for naïve tourists to share their picnics.

This video news report (in French) profiles an invasion of wild boars in Germany a couple of years ago, but it depicts an all-too-common scene in France today.

Every year thousands of these animals are hunted, trapped and otherwise chased away from human habitations. It seems unfair. Weren’t they there first? Shouldn’t they have the right to root about in the wild, nest in the bush, live their lives?

The problem is that human activities are not compatible with wildlife. We like to encourage migrating birds, but wild boars are something else. They bring a risk of swine fever for one thing. And they are outright dangerous to people. Sangliers are known to charge fences, knock down doors, pedestrians and cyclists. They have a powerful head butt that can do a lot of damage.

And if you run into one on the road at night, it’s not sure who will sustain the worst damage.

Hunting season is open in France and soon there will be ‘chasse’ on the menu of local restaurants. I’m no fan of guns or game but at least it will help reduce the nuisance population of wild boars and not go to waste.

Do you have to deal with any animal pests?

Carte de fidelité

“La carte du magasin?” the cashier asks dully, mustering all the enthusiasm of someone required to ask the same question of every customer, day in and day out. But it must be asked. He — or more often she — cannot process my purchase without an answer: do I have a store loyalty card?

Oddly, this is the only question anyone in a French store ever asks. Not “How are you today?” or “Are you satisfied with your shopping experience?” or even, “Can I help you?” No, we are sadly limited in our exchanges as to whether or not I have a store card. Mostly I say no, even though I do have a collection of such cards. At home, in a drawer where I keep the massive wallet with all my papers. Mostly the drawer is where it stays.

These days I travel light with just a small change purse and a couple of cards. I know I should carry my ID or at least my drivers license, but I can’t be bothered. In 30 years of driving in France, I’ve only been stopped once and that was by les douaniers, the border control, because I had obviously (from the boxes in my back seat) been shopping in Switzerland and not stopped to declare anything. What can I say? Our closest Ikea is in Geneva. They let me go with a warning. I’m not sure they even asked to see my big, pink French drivers license.

Carton rose

There is something about the term ‘carte de fidelité’ or loyalty card I find oddly endearing. I’m not sure why. I have no loyalty to any store, nor any other sentiment other than gratitude that such places exist within a reasonable drive. Ours is a relationship of convenience. And there is little convenient about such cards.

First is the fact that you need a physical card. You can’t just say your name or give a number, with the exception of a few smaller shops, which means carrying around a lot of plastic. This is especially true if, like me, you are not the faithful type. I confess: I shop around. Fast and furious. Based on my mood, to-do list and whatever a particular store has to offer: a better fish counter, fresh produce or selection of beer or wine.

Then there’s the fact that most of the reward programs require you to go online, log in to your account, and interact with them in some way to get your bonus. Only one store near me offers a simple ‘cagnotte’ or jackpot system in which you cumulate a bonus amount every time you shop that you can apply to future purchases whenever you choose. They even gave me a mini-card that attaches to my key ring. It takes little effort and adds up to a few euros off here and there.

Smaller places like hair salons give you a paper card that they must stamp each time you go. After a dozen services, you get a freebie. Usually I forget the card and start a new one several times, then change to a new place before it’s full.

I wish that store owners would understand that it’s service, not a little bonus after hundreds of euros spent, that wins my loyalty. How about a suggestion book, where I can let you know what’s missing on your shelves? A friendly cashier who actually says hello? Or even tapes that partially open container shut so that what’s inside doesn’t spill everywhere?

Happy staff create happy customers, so give your employees a reason to smile and that will earn you all the loyalty you need.

Do you have any store cards?

A la pesée

A heavy subject is weighing on my mind this week. Let me share some thoughts on fruit and vegetables, or more specifically, the purchase of said foods in French supermarkets.

I do try to buy direct from the producer or at the open-air markets, preferably organic and in season. But the choice of fresh produce is rather less bountiful where we live in the Haute Savoie than in Lyon, for example, or Paris, and the fact is that I often find myself buying fruit and vegetables at the supermarket. Not ideal but ‘pratique’ as we say in French, to be able to get everything in one place. At least in theory.

Items are sold either per unit, ‘à la pièce’, or more often by weight, ‘au poids’. Very few stores do this for you at the checkout so you find yourself jockeying for position in front of one of the few weighing stations in the fruit and veg section.

First, you grab yourself a plastic bag (easier said than done as it is usually on a roll that must be carefully peeled off) or, if you are ecologically inclined, you bring or buy a reusable cotton bag. Fill said bag with chosen product and then approach the scales. If there is no line-up you can be sure that one will form after you immediately, thereby adding to your performance anxiety upon facing the screen.

As a non-native French speaker, albeit one who knows her way around a supermarket (They don’t call them ‘les courses’ for nothing!), I find the touch screen with its instructions challenging. First you must select the category: ‘fruits’ or ‘légumes’. So far so easy. Although sometimes there will be a third category here already lending confusion: ‘éxotiques’.

Being less of a picture person than a word person, the label is essential. But once I get to the next screen, confusion reigns. A new set of categories, grouping the produce by type, has been introduced, often leaving me perplexed. There is no apparent rhyme or reason in the way this is organized.

A few weeks back, after looking blankly at the screen for several seconds as other shoppers shot daggers into my back, I asked the guy stocking produce why there was no item for kiwis. “C’est marqué groupe kiwis,” he replied. Ah. I had missed an entire category.

The problems with this system are many. Starting with the vocabulary. It’s all very well to know the word for citrus fruit – agrumes. But do most people actually think of squash as ‘cucurbitacea’? Or carrots as ‘légume racine’? Do you look for tomatoes under ‘g’ for group or ‘t’ for tomato? And then there is the taxonomy. I mean, seriously. Who ever heard of ‘légumes soleil’ for peppers, zucchini and eggplant? And how confusing is ‘salades crudité’? ‘Salades’ means lettuce in French and ‘crudités’ means any fresh veg eaten raw. Do I look for carrots there or as a root vegetable?

Okay, maybe I am overthinking this a little. There are pictures to clue me in after all. But when I am standing at the scales with a queue forming behind me, my brain freezes. Inevitably a kind (or impatient) person will point me to the right category as I stand before the screen, finger waving stupidly. “Voilà!” she will say sweetly, as I feign thanks while wishing she would go away.

Pity the non-French speaker who attempts to shop for fresh produce. Pity the beleaguered shoppers who must wait while they learn to think in French. Pity the fruit and veg guy who must think up strange new categories in order to fit hundreds of items on a screen.

I can’t help but note that the Swiss have it all figured out with their usual efficiency. Each item in the fresh produce section is numbered. All you have to do is enter the correct number on the scales. It even trains your brain a wee bit to go through the section thinking, “Carrots 101, broccoli 129’.

How do you get your fruit and veg?

La Petite Ceinture

Did you know that you can explore history and discover the secret green spaces of an old Paris train line known as ‘La Petite Ceinture’?

The little belt, as it was called, circled Paris long before the métro. A rail line built in the second half of the 19th century, it was designed to link the different train stations and provide an efficient way of transporting freight around the French capital’s fortifications. It began serving passengers in 1862 and the complete rail loop, 32 kilometres all around Paris, was completed in 1869.

Le Métropolitain de Paris, built at the turn of the century, brought about the decline of the Petite Ceinture. From 39 million passengers in 1900, during the Exposition Universelle, the traffic fell to just 7 million in 1927. Le métro soon became the preferred way to get around Paris.

The old line closed down in 1934 and entire sections of the railway were left to decay for many decades. Access was forbidden but the old ‘chemin de fer’ became a kind of ‘secret’ greenbelt enjoyed by graffiti artists and those seeking a haven of calm within the city.

In recent years stations and sections of the old line have been restored and transformed, some as modern links in new transit lines like the ‘RER C’ at Courcelles-Levallois. Other sections have been taken over by restaurants, cultural centres and urban green spaces. Full history and a chart of all the sections here on Wikipedia.

Today, you can access 6.5 kilometres of parks and cultural activities on the restored Petite Ceinture line at different spots all around Paris.

This Saturday, August 31st is the ‘Fête de la Petite Ceinture’. Entry is free with fun and games, nature walks, concerts and workshops happening at different times and places. Visit the City of Paris website for details (in French only 🧐😠).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris this weekend, check it out!

Do you know La Petite Ceinture? Have you ever walked along the old train line?