En bisbille

Bisbille en Terrasse by Catherine Haro

The precise origins of the French expression, être en bisbille avec quelqu’un, are mysterious. The word ‘bisbille’ apparently comes from the Italian ‘bisbiglio’ meaning to murmur or whisper. How the meaning evolved in French to mean a quarrel or difference with someone is unclear. And yet it speaks volumes: whispering behind someone’s back is exactly the kind of behaviour that starts such disputes.

What is clear to me is that this ability to pick a fight and turn petty differences into a life-long feud has strong Latin roots. I have observed such behaviour in particular in my Italian and Portuguese friends and in every set of French neighbours.

I’ve posted before about how the French are so good at ignoring those they dislike. They either literally can’t ‘see’ each other (On ne peut plus se voir) or they sulk when they do (Faire la gueule).

I love the above painting, ‘Bisbille en Terrasse’ by French artist Catherine Haro, as it perfectly captures the mood of disgruntled people on a café terrace who seem to be at odds with all of those around them.

As for me, I’ve gotten better at not picking fights and am successfully avoiding conflict with others at the moment.

Are you ‘en bisbille’ with anyone?

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’?

Outrés

Hand-pressing wine

Here in France it is traditional to celebrate the arrival of les vins primeurs – the most famous of which is the ‘Beaujolais nouveau‘ – on the third Thursday of November. It seems that this year our attention has been on politics and past terrorist acts rather than festivities around the young wines. There’s been barely a ripple in the news and even in the shops I’ve seen little noise around les vins nouveaux.

To be fair, the French are not crazy about young wines, believing that they give you a headache, and tend to view the whole Beaujolais Nouveau craze as a marketing scheme to attract foreigners. It has certainly been more successful overseas.

I happen to enjoy the young wines of the Beaujolais and the Rhône valley and over the years have been an avid consumer of our local produce.

A few kilometres away from our former hometown in the Monts du Lyonnais was the village of Taluyers. The road to that town had but one attraction for us, but one that kept us coming back regularly for years: Le Domaine de Prapin, a grower of the wine called Coteaux du Lyonnais. The Chardonnay whites were truly magical, the still hand-pressed Gamay reds pleasantly fruity. Best of all, we discovered that you could buy directly from the producer. Our car beat a path to their door on many weekends.

wine-skinWe were delighted to learn that you could buy the wine in bulk, en vrac, in a box container with a vacuum-packed bag inside, to keep the wine from spoiling (chance would be a fine thing), and a handy spout for serving. What the English pragmatically referred to as a bag-in-a-box, they simply called une outre, the term loosely referring to a traditional wine skin.

Not only was it more economical to buy the wine this way, it was a relief to have fewer bottles to dispose of. Glass is recycled in collective containers on street corners in France, and there were times when I was tempted to take out our recycling by cover of night – if it weren’t for the noise. Our empties made a satisfying smash as they landed in the container but it was impossible to get rid of them discreetly. I felt as if I should wear a sign that said ‘I am not an alcoholic, I support the local produce’.

In a comedic quirk of the French language, the word ‘outrer’ means to push to the limits of the acceptable, to the outrageous or outlandish. When we ran out of wine, my husband would joke that we were ‘outrés’ and make a quick run over to Prapin.

Outrageous.

Have you enjoyed any of this year’s vins nouveaux? Do you care whether your wine comes from a bottle or a box?

Ça va?

Ca va?

This post is dedicated to the two little French words that just keep on going.

With these two words of vocabulary, you can say a great many things. You can ask if someone’s all right, in general or when they’ve hurt themselves (like Louis de Funès in the above pic), or expand upon them to create an entire conversation.

Ça va?

Ça va, merci. Et toi?

Ça va ça va. Et ta femme?

Ça va bien aussi.

Alors ça va. Bonne journée!

It’s extraordinary how much nuance can be expressed in those two words.

‘Ça va’, when said in a bright tone of voice, means happy. Ça va bien, super, or even super bien adds degrees of delight. If enunciated with an interrogation or a slight downward lilt, it can mean something less joyful. ‘Ça va pas trop mal’, means not bad, but could also mean not great either. When you get to ‘ça va pas trop’ or the ill boding ‘ça peut aller’, you know things are heading south. Until they stop all together.

Now despite our ups and downs, our strikes and our politics, things in France generally always go. Until they don’t go. Which is to say that most of the time ça va, until suddenly ça va pas. And then – Attention!

Ça va pas du tout aller là. Ça va vraiment pas du tout. Du tout du tout du tout!

When things stop going in France, watch out. There will be drama and sparks will fly. Couples divorce. Heads have been known to roll.

Usually after a dramatic episode of ‘ça va pas’ there will be a healing period of ‘ça va mieux’. Things are not fine but they are a bit better. They are going, which is infinitely preferable to not going at all.

‘Rien ne va plus’ (nothing more goes) was the title of a 1997 French film directed by Claude Chabrol about a couple of con artists. The title was inspired by the expression which is used in the world of casinos, about which I know nothing. Truly. But Google tells me this is what the croupier says when no more bets can be placed on the table.

Of course, you know that the ‘ne’ is usually dropped in spoken language. Just like you know that the word ‘ça’ is actually a contraction of the more formal ‘cela’. Some people prefer to say ‘cela’ to give themselves an educated air. Verging on the ridiculous, like the character infamously played by Thierry Lhermite in the French film classic ‘Le Père Noël est une ordure’.

C'est cela oui

As for the photo of Louis de Funès, it is from a 1966 film called ‘La Grande Vadrouille’. I’ve just learned it has been remastered and re-released. Not sure if it can be found anywhere to rent online but it’s out on DVD. I intend to watch it, both for the slapstick silliness that the French do so well and the wonderful scenes of 1960s Paris.

Alors toi, ça va?

La directrice

Tina_fey-1024x728France, like most countries, has its own particular brand of sexism. The title ‘La Directrice’ seems to encapsulate this. When the boss is a woman her attributes of leadership are somehow feared or used as the butt of jokes. Often both.

My first encounter with la directrice was in the person of a certain Madame Guillaume in Lyon. She bore the rather lofty title of ‘Directrice d’école maternelle’ or headmistress of the preschool where I had come to register my son turn my baby over to the wolves. For someone who made a career of educating the under-fives, she had nothing short of a military bearing as she gazed at me through her pince-nez. “What do the children call you?” I asked, as we were leaving. She raised an eyebrow to indicate mild surprise at this question, then replied: “Madame Guillaume, ou Maîtresse.”

I nodded dumbly while thinking that two-and-a-half was awfully young for a boy to have a Madame or a Mistress.

My second run-in with the authority of la directrice was when I entered the working world. Like many non-native speakers, teaching English was my default career choice upon arriving in France with few employment credentials able to ensure my continued professional growth keep the wolf from the door. The head of the Berlitz language school in the business sector of Lyon was a certain Madame Bissuel who looked a bit like the photographer Annie Leibowitz. To be fair, I was foisted upon her through a job transfer from the school in Paris but she made it very clear that she was not particularly happy about having me on board. Her unhappiness turned to outright dislike when I announced my precipitous departure on maternity leave a few months later. I took a weird delight in writing my letter of resignation after my benefits ran out; spellcheck kept changing her name to ‘bisexuelle’.

My most intimate encounter with a female head of state was in the person of my late Belle-mère. For reasons that eluded me, my father-in-law always referred to her affectionately as la directrice. This struck me as especially funny as my mother-in-law never seemed to be centre stage; it was always Beau-père who did everything. But as I later learned, theirs was rather like the authority at the highest level of French office. As Jacques Chirac once explained of his relationship with his then-finance minister, a certain Sarkozy, “Je décide, il exécute.”

Somehow I grew into the role of directrice in our family. This was not by any particular choice on my part, although I have been accused at various times in my life of being a bossy boots, that is, of knowing my mind, having strong opinions and not being afraid to voice them. But someone has to be in charge and as no other candidates stepped up to the plate, it fell upon my shoulders to lead our pack. Unlike my mother-in-law, who ruled from behind the scenes with a velvet hammer, the only way I seem to be able to do this is through a more frontal approach.

“Mom, the recycling is full!”

“Someone’s at the door!”

“Where’s the wrapping paper? Do we have any gift tags?”

“Whose turn is it to walk the dogs?”

Never fear, I say, la directrice is here. “Take it out! Can you get that? It’s all gone, you’ll have to buy some! Yours!”

I rule our roost with snap decisions and clearly iterated instructions backed by foot stamping and a voice that carries. It’s not always pretty but it gets things done. What can I say? Like my hero, Tina Fey, some are born to lead.

Oh, and by the way, you can call me Madame la directrice.