Les œufs

On a fine spring morning when people are outside in the garden hunting for Easter eggs, it seems as good a time as any to dedicate a few lines to that most perfect of foods: les œufs.

The challenge with eggs in France is not eating them – we have no shortage of farm-fresh eggs and specialties ranging from omelettes, quiches, mousses, meringues and flans – but to spell and pronounce the words properly.

First we must get past that funny little vowel configuration created by the ‘o’ and the ‘e’. When these two characters get overly familiar and become one as in ‘œ’ this is called a ligature and has its own particular sound, somewhere between the two vowels. A bit like the ‘ou’ sound in enough. But it changes slightly depending on what comes after.

Un œuf (uhf) in the singular becomes des œufs (euh) in the plural. Put like that, it seems easy enough. But for some reason I’ve always struggled with these words.

For one thing, in French they have a weird similarity to eyes. Un œil (oy) and des yeux (yeuh). Am I imagining this?

Les oeufs dur

Eggs in France are almost always brown in the shell rather than the sterile white I grew up with in North America. They sometimes bear scraps of dirt and feather on the shell, reminding us of their origins. They are date-stamped with either the ‘date de ponte’ (date they were laid) or the ‘date limite de consommation recommandée’ (DCR or use-by date).

I recently learned of an easy trick you can use to tell if an egg is still fresh.

Here are a few of the ways you will find eggs on the menu in France:

  • Œufs au plat: fried eggs, usually served sunny side up
  • Œufs durs: hard-boiled eggs
  • Œufs à la coque: soft-boiled eggs
  • Œufs brouillés: scrambled eggs
  • Œufs pochés: poached eggs (my personal favourite)

And of course, les œufs de Pâques. Easter eggs. Preferably au chocolat. Hope you are enjoying the kind you like best on this holiday Sunday.

And, in case you’re wondering, this year the Easter bunny will not be on the menu.

Joyeuses Pâques!

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?

Contourner

Getting from point A to point B is never as simple as it looks in France. One-way streets, traffic jams, road works and demonstrations are just a few reasons why you often need to find a way around.

I quickly learned the words for this on moving to France.

Contourner: to go around something (an object but also various rules and regulations, or the ‘interdictions’ I posted about here.)

Contournement: the act of going around something or, in road terms, a route that takes you around. Most people call this a ring road. It’s also known as a rocade.

When we lived in Lyon and were looking to buy our first home, there was much talk of a potential ‘contournement ouest lyonnais’ (Lyon west ring road). The famous ‘COL’ was a much talked-about project that would have freed up the huge mess of north-south traffic on the A7, the main motorway that serves traffic between Paris and the south. It has the misfortune of cutting through the heart of Lyon via the Fourvière tunnel – a crammed, polluted and sometimes scary experience that is best avoided.

As you can see from this map, the city has no major alternate route on the hilly west side. Which, by the way, is the most picturesque, pastoral part of the countryside.

The eastern side of the city, with its broad plains, has all kinds of highways and byways serving the airport, leading east to the Alps and to parts south. Using these routes can save time when you factor in traffic, but they do add considerable distance. Therefore, many drivers prefer to avoid them. Or look for another way around. Un contourement au contournement. Am I making sense?

So when we were considering buying near a village in a pretty corner of the southwest of Lyon, we went to the city hall to check that there were no plans to start work on a big highway project just beyond our doors. Just to be safe.

Can you tell us if there any plans for the ‘contournement’ in this area? my husband asked the nice lady at the Mairie. Ah oui, she said, nodding her head vigorously. It’s supposed to be just on the other side of the village from where you want to build.

My heart fell. Mais non, sans blague? (No kidding?)

Further probing revealed that she was talking about the ‘contournement du village’. A local way around rather than straight through the village. We were relieved. It was nothing more than a minor road around the village.

Many towns and cities in France have ring roads, rocades or contournements. If your objective is get from A to B as quickly as possible, they’re probably a good bet. If you want to see the local sights, stop and smell the roses along the way, it may be best to avoid them.

But if you want to think and act like a French person, you need to learn to find your away around by using alternate routes. Believe me, I know. I’ve been getting lost on them for years!

Un défi

Challenge

They say a challenge is good for the soul. So I’ve decided to challenge myself here on the blog.

Je me lance un défi.

How? To step off the path. Go a little further. Up my game.

Regular readers of this blog will see daily posts for awhile. New readers may be inspired to come along for the ride.

I will be posting brief thoughts about words and expressions, Frenchisms, flavours, memories, favourite places. Along with my regular weekly rambles on a theme about French life.

Are you ready?

Je vous mets au défi!

 

Bonnes femmes

I am a good woman but please don’t call me a bonne femme. This is one of those literal translations that gets you into trouble every time. The word ‘bonne’, the feminine form of ‘bon’ or good, is loaded with the potential to insult or outright offend.

‘Une bonne femme’ is the familiar French expression for a woman or a wife. Once a perfectly respectable term, it has now become pejorative. It is not necessarily rude but it should be used with caution.

‘Contes de bonnes femmes’ are old wives tales.

Its homologue, bonhomme, means a friendly little fellow and is often used to refer to children or a bonhomme de neige — snowman. Bonnefemme de neige? Only with tongue firmly in cheek.

Many recipes include the words ‘bonne femme’.  They generally refer to simple, home-cooked dishes like soups, fish and chicken but some are actual culinary references, like sauce bonne femme. Here’s the recipe in English.

La bonne is also a maid. To refer to ‘une bonne à tout faire’ (good for doing everything) is a correct use of the term for hired hep but also has some rather naughty connotations — just google it.

The worst trap is, of course, the easiest one to fall in. Imagine you have want to say that a woman is good. A good person. Do not, under any circumstances, say “elle est bonne.” This has a sexual connotation that will upset or confuse or even just amuse your audience.

What is it with the feminine forms of words in French? Another word, chatte, is even worse. It is virtually impossible to talk about one’s female cat without feeling like an extra in a bad porn film. I speak from painful experience. Each year when I take my, ahem, pussy, to the veterinarian for her shots I find myself doing mental gymnastics to avoid the dreaded term. We have two cats, a male and a female, so at one point in the conversation it becomes necessary to distinguish them. The flush on my face as I leave the vet’s office is not just from schlepping the two cat carriers.

The photo featured above is from the 1960 ‘new wave’ film by Claude Chabrol, Les Bonnes Femmes. I haven’t seen it but want to after discovering the post about it on this fabulous blog for fans of world cinema.

The problem, ironically, is finding such films in France. You can stream it on Amazon Prime in the US but not in France. Here you can buy the DVD but what’s the point? I only want to watch it once.

I’ve been thinking lately how much of our cultural gender bias is embedded in language. I’m not one to agree with the substitution of ‘their’ for personal pronouns like his and her; that is a deformation of the language that my inner word nerd finds offensive. But I wouldn’t mind the creation of a new, neutral term.

And I would be very happy if someone found a way to say ‘bonne’ nicely in French.

Any thoughts?