Avoir du pif

Alas, I do not have a French nose. More Churchill than De Gaulle, it remains too round and stubby to be considered at all Gallic. Yet over the years I have acquired a little bit of a French nose in the sixth-sense department.

‘Avoir du nez’ or ‘avoir le nez fin’ describes the ability to suss something out intuitively, to feel it in the air. Other variations include ‘avoir du flair’, referencing the hunting dog’s ability to pick up on a scent. And my favourite, ‘avoir du pif’ — ‘pif’ being colloquial French for the sniffer.

Gégé – Gérard Depardieu

The nose is everything that defines the French: fine wine, perfume, flavour and taste. And yet, le nez is not, in my view, the most attractive part of the French anatomy. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat overdeveloped.

I’m going to go out on a limb (if not a long nose) here and say it: the French, as classically beautiful as so many are, do not have discreet noses. Could this be that the appendage has grown in size along with its importance in French life?

Serge Gainsbourg

This instinct of ‘smelling’ someone also seems to explain the curious way that French people have of sometimes taking an instant dislike to each other. There is even an expression to describe this: Je ne peux pas le sentir. Literally, I can’t ‘smell’ him, used to describe someone you can’t stand. Another variant is: Je ne peux pas le voir. So when you can’t smell someone, it becomes an affair for all the senses, meaning you can’t see them either. When this is the case, the individuals in question (experience shows that this feeling is always mutual), are able to circulate within the same space as if literally blind to one another.

Pierre Niney

I’ve been rewatching Season 4 of the cult series Call My Agent (‘Dix pour cent’ or 10% en francais) since it reappeared on Netflix. The show is a study in interpersonal relationships in French life, with all the star cameos as a bonus. The relationships between the characters in the show are bang on — so true to the way I’ve observed French people behave throughout my years in the country. Toute l’amérique has recently woke to brilliance of this series, as detailed in this article in Vanity Fair. Not coincidentally, a few of the actors are blessed with excellent examples of le French nez (in every sense of the word).

Laure Calamy

On the other hand, I have become entirely allergic to nose jobs. Just as there is nothing more beautiful than a face that entirely assumes the magnificence of its pif, there is little sadder than she who has felt the need to doctor it. You can always tell: the mouth is too wide, the eyes too far apart for the tiny perfect nose sculpted by the surgeon’s knife. I see them everywhere on American screens, and British ones too. In France this is, happily, less prevalent.

Camille Cottin

Among all these famous French noses…whose do you prefer? Or is there anybody (and their nose) that you absolutely can’t ‘smell’?

The hardest word

We Canadians can’t get through a day, never mind a conversation, without using the word sorry. But as Elton John famously wrote, saying it in my new language is proving to be hard.

I’ve recently learned the German word most often used to vaguely apologize around here: Entschuldigung. Yep. It’s a mouthful.

My tongue, so used to gargling out French, can’t seem to decide how to pronounce this new language. So even though German is closer in many ways to my English mother tongue, I struggle to get a word out without reverting to French phonoemes. My ‘u’ is too ew instead of oo. My ‘ach’ sounds like French some days, English others. And I absolutely can’t decide whether ‘e’ should be ee or ay.

The other problem is public places. For years my world consisted of a clearly delimited bilingual space: French was public and English was private. So it’s a reflex to speak French to people on the street or in shops. My brain struggles to resist French now while attempting to pluck out the few words of German vocabulary appropriate for the situation.

For some reason people talk to me a lot. On the street, in shops. Perhaps I just have one of those approachable faces, or I look like a local, proving yet again how appearances can be deceiving.

“Kein Deutsch,” I say to the fellow who has stopped me with a seemingly friendly stream of babble while walking the dogs on the path by the river. Then the inevitable: “Sorry. You speak English?”

“Yes, well you seem to have forgotten something back there.” He points to a part of the path under the bridge. “From your dogs.”

I get his meaning but am not going to take this. “No, it’s not me! I always pick up after my dogs,” I insist, pointing out the red bags attached to their leashes. He shakes his head, walking away. A minute later I realize he was right: I must have dropped my bag of merde de chien.

“Entschuldigung!” I say in my head. He is long gone and I am sorry indeed.

Learning a new language is humbling.

There’s a lot to be sorry about these days. This song was recorded in 1976 at Eastern Sound in Toronto as part of Elton John’s album ‘Blue Moves’. That studio was a landmark in my hometown, and in early in my career as a copywriter I went there a few times to record commercials. It was located in Yorkville, Toronto’s once artsy-edgy neighbourhood that emerged from the sixties and seventies as the preferred location for high-end shops and hotels. Sadly the Victorian building that once housed the famous sound studio was torn down some years ago. It’s now the Four Seasons.

Entschuldigung.

What are you sorry about at the moment?

Tomber amoureux

To fall in love translates perfectly in French: tomber amoureux. Perhaps it is the same the world over.

The expression is apt. ‘Falling’ implies giving up control, abandoning oneself to love. You have to let go, give up a bit of yourself, to love another. Whether it is a person, a place, or a way of life.

My adventure in this country began many years ago, in my hometown Toronto, with a chance encounter in a bar. It led to a long-distance relationship, then my first stumbling steps in French, a wedding in Paris, then, a few years and a young family later, a transatlantic move.

I can’t say that falling in love was what drove my choices beyond that first encounter. Over the years my relationship with France, with the language and its people, has been as often fraught as loving. There has been frustration, connection and (mis)understanding in varying degrees, laughter and learning. But isn’t all love like that? A tapestry of emotions, each thread woven together with passion and patience to ultimately render something that is rich and nuanced, neither perfect nor uniform, but a beautiful whole nonetheless.

I don’t remember exactly when it was but some time early in my life here we visited the region we’ve called home for the past ten years. The lake that stretches between France and Switzerland was on our way to and from the mountains that my Frenchman always managed to convince me to visit on holiday, even though I wasn’t a great skier and at best a reluctant mountaineer. Lake Geneva, Lac Léman to locals, has a wide plain on the French side, an area called le Bas Chablais. I know nothing of geography but I think it was carved out by the Rhône glacier. What it means is that you have a backdrop of mountains on either side and the lake in the middle, which makes for a stunning combination.

“This is more like it,” I said to my husband when we first stopped here. We stayed for a few nights in Thonon-les-Bains, visiting nearby Evian and venturing into Geneva on the Swiss side. There was swimming in the lake, pleasure boats and restaurants on the waterfront. We came back again some years later and stayed in a small medieval town called Yvoire, with cobblestone streets and an artsy feel. I fell in love with the area.

Later, when work offered up a job in Geneva, I snapped at the opportunity. My husband was already ahead of me, having relocated his business and working with clients on the Swiss side. For four years I commuted back to our family home outside of Lyon each week. Then, with both kids moving on to university, we decided to move closer to work. We looked for places to live on either side of the border, flirting with the idea of living in Switzerland. But I wasn’t ready to leave France. And when we found a lot with a lake view in the Bas Chablais, it was a no-brainer. We would build our house here. We were head over heels.

I remember the year we spent waiting for our house to come out of the ground. We’d rented an apartment in a development just behind so that we could walk over and check the construction daily. I felt like a kid in a candy store. Could this magical place really be our home?

After a few years though, the thrill began to dim. I’m not sure exactly when I fell out of love with our house, or the area we live in. But something shifted.

Not the place itself. It is still beyond beautiful. But living on the border means that you are never entirely there. You live daily in the awareness of the contrast between two places — and one begins to feel a lot more attractive than the other. And our house, while I’m proud of having built something so beautiful, needs a lot of love.

Fortunately, I did not have to cheat in deciding to leave it. My first love agrees with me. In fact, I think he fell out of love with his home country way before I did.

What is it about France? When did the dysfunctional side of things begin to weigh more heavily in the balance? Just watching the news the other day and seeing the riots and looting (yet again!) on the Champs Elysée after a win by the football team PSG. I feel beyond disgusted and discouraged.

Like you do when you fall out of love with someone, and their every fault, every flaw becomes unbearable.

Funny there is no expression for that, at least that I know of. In French it is just, ‘on ne s’aime plus.’

Forgive me, chère France.

Perhaps when I leave you, I will be able to love you again.

Bises.

Se faire la malle

You know that feeling you get when you’re preparing to leave a place? It’s rather strange and unsettling. Everything seems so impermanent and when it’s time do the things you would normally do, you wonder, why bother? Yet it can be sort of liberating. You can stop caring about certain things because, well, tomorrow you’ll be somewhere else.

Just this week I learned a new expression in French that perfectly describes (at least to me) the feeling I have at the moment: ‘On va se faire la malle.’

Meaning: we’re packing our bags. Taking off. Literally, doing ourselves a trunk. Or a bunk. I got the full sense of it here on my favourite website for contextual translations of French expressions in English.

It made sense. I knew that ‘une malle’ is a trunk. Remember those? My grandparents had one in their basement. Something you packed on a steamer when you travelled overseas. It seems the origin of the French locution can be traced to 1935 and is associated with prisoners planning their escape from jail.

It always amazes me when I come across an expression I’ve never heard before. After so many years in France, you’d think I’d have heard them all. But no. The French language is rich with such turns of phrase and there are many yet to learn.

‘Se faire la malle’ is my mindset at the moment. Not just because we’re gearing up for a major move in just over a month’s time, but because we’re going on a holiday. Just for a week, and nowhere too far away. In fact, because it’s nearby and the risk of infection is fairly low, we’re going on holiday in Switzerland.

How original, right? The same country we’re moving to. Although we may be forgiven, I think, given how lovely it is and how much there is to do and see. There will be time for travel in other years. For now, we’re heading to the Bernese Alps near Interlaken, and a little town called Lauterbrunnen.  

Many, many years ago, shortly after graduating, I took my maiden trip to Europe. I was a young woman on my own, and nervous about travelling in foreign lands. So I signed up for a Contiki tour out of London. We were a group of mostly single tourists from North America, the UK  and Australia. For several weeks we went through France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. We stayed overnight at a campsite near a town that I remember thinking had to be the most beautiful place on earth: Lauterbrunnen. I only hope it lives up to the memory.

And while I am planning my own escape from France, I think it will not be long before I am dreaming of returning to it. There is nothing more attractive than something that is both familiar and unknown, something loved yet just out of reach. I’m fairly certain that as soon as I’m living in Switzerland, holidays in France will have a new appeal. And I’ll be attentive to keeping up my language and continually exploring new linguistic turf en français.

What’s your favourite French expression?

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

L’argent du beurre

I hated butter when I was kid. Not so much the taste but the greasy, slimy nature of it. It seems this was an acquired dislike. One of my first memories, which is probably only a memory of a story I was later told, was of reaching my hand into the butter dish and having it slapped away. So began my aversion.

Later in life the sentiment dissipated as I discovered the flavour and richness that butter brings. At first I could only enjoy it as a topping on popcorn, when cooked into something or as a scant scraping on toast. Unfortunately for my cholesterol count, I now like a bit of butter on warm bread (very un-French, other than at breakfast) and add liberal doses of le beurre to everything from sauces to omelettes to veg.

I must admit we’re rather spoiled for butter around here. French butter is heralded by many for its superior quality. The only other butter which might possibly be better is Swiss. Just think of all those alpine pastures with the cows grazing on grass.

There are three kinds of beurre: doux (sweet), demi-sel (semi-salted) and salé (salted). There is even the kind with little salt crystals for those who enjoy the taste of salt explosions. The best butters are churned (‘barrate’) to separate out the buttermilk (‘babeurre’).

There is a French expression which seems particularly apt to me these days: “On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre.” Literally this means that you cannot have both the butter and the money you make from selling it. Which essentially translates to the English expression, “You can’t have your cake and it eat it too.” Or have it both ways.

Looking for a new place to live means confronting this reality head on. You can downsize and have the same space. You can’t live in or near a town without having some noise. You can’t enjoy a mountain view without having to climb some hills. You can’t enjoy the advantages of good transit connections without have a train line or highway nearby.

When we decided to sell our house and move to something smaller on the Swiss side, we knew we wouldn’t have everything we wanted. So we set a few guidelines for our search. I was prepared to compromise on many things but not on a certain quantity and quality of space.

It has been a bit of a journey. Along the way I learned a few things, or re-learned them:

1. Shit happens. COVID-19 happened. The best-laid plans are nothing in the face of a pandemic.

2. You must stay true to what you want but keep your mind open to unexpected opportunities, go off the path and explore a little.

3. Pictures and online visits are all very well for a first impression but you have to actually see a space to get a feel of whether it’s right for you.

4. Things will eventually fall into place.

And so they have. Against all odds, only one month after lockdown was lifted in France, it seems we have found buyers for our house, and a new place to live in Switzerland. Neither of which quite fit the initial ideas of what we thought. But both feel right. More on our new place soon. I’m too superstitious to share details before we have signed on the dotted line.

In the meantime, there will be butter. I will definitely not be selling but enjoying it.

How do you like your butter — sweet, demi-sel or not at all?