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?

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?

Le Canard enchaîné

How a Chained Duck keeps France on its toes.

I don’t read the newspaper but if I did it would be Le Canard Enchaîné.

The investigative weekly first appeared in Paris in 1915. It was founded during World War I by a couple of French journalists, Maurice and Jeanne Maréchal, to help keep up moral in France. More than 100 years later the newspaper is still going strong, despite the slow demise of print media everywhere.

The title ‘Le Canard Enchaîné’ is a play on words taken from ‘canard’ (duck) which is also slang for a newspaper or what in English we might call a ‘rag’, and ‘enchaîné’ which means chained or linked. The Chained Duck has been quacking its revealing stories and satirical cartoons about the French political and business class for decades. The paper is said to have our leaders quaking in their boots. De Gaulle was known to regularly ask: “What has the bird got to say?”

Stop the press: You don’t read the paper? How do you keep yourself informed about what is really going on? I admire people who take the time to read the paper. The level of information you can get from a decent newspaper is far superior to anything available on the web, via radio or television.

France is a country with a lot of newspapers. Major dailies include Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, Les Echos, L’Equipe…to name but a few of the national editions. Alongside these are many respected regional papers: Ouest France, La Voix du Nord, La Dépêche du Midi. The list goes on, along with many local journals and the free press (meaning the papers that are distributed for free to commuters, not necessarily ‘free’ editorially).

The Canard ensures its editorial independence by the fact that it takes no ads and is privately owned, mostly by its own employees. The newspaper practices old-school journalism, relying primarily on leaks from sources from within the government. It is available only in print in France and digitally outside of Europe.

The latest edition of the Canard features stories about shootings in Trumpland, Brexit woes and the ongoing saga of the Notre Dame renovations. The latter story has been in the news this week following revelations of extensive lead pollution resulting from the fire in the cathedral and in the surrounding streets, posing a risk to both local residents and workers. The complexity of securing the site in order to begin the renovations has proven more challenging than first imagined and it is looking like the promised timeline will not be respected. In the meantime, traditionalists and modernists debate over whether to rebuild the structure with the exact same materials, i.e. oak beams, or something more fireproof.

A suivre.

Et toi? Do you read a daily or weekly newspaper?

Objets perdus

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

I hate losing things.

The thing is, most of the time, 99% perhaps, they are not lost. Just misplaced.

My husband is perfectly fine with this. After a few minutes of irritation and rapid searching, he gives up. It’s like he lives his life according to what is possibly the world’s first meme:

“If you love something, set it free.
If it comes back, it is yours;
if it doesn’t, it never was.”

Quote: Richard Bach, author of the 1970s novel ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’.

I, on the other hand, drive myself and those around me mad by embarking on a relentless search. Retracing steps. Picturing the object the last time I saw it. Not resting until I have exhausted every possible avenue of investigation that may lead me back to the thing.

“How do you say, ‘lost and found’ in French?” I asked my husband, when I first tried to retrace a lost object in Paris.

“Objets perdus,” he said. “Or, objets trouvés.” Hmm, I wondered. Which is it? The yin or the yang?

Last week, when I lost my very expensive glasses — the ones with the Alain Mikli frames and the progressive lenses that go dark in the sun — on a trip to Annecy, I left no stone unturned. Searched the car, various bags, called the restaurant where we’d had lunch. Emailed them a reminder. Called the stand-up paddle rental place. They all replied kindly and with patience that sadly, no glasses had been found. Rien.

Heart heavy, I realized that acceptance was probably the best approach.

Yet secretly I began to think about getting new ones. They are my working glasses after all, the only pair that lets me comfortably see my computer screen while reading close up, standing up and walking around. Oh, and if somebody comes to the door, as it happens fairly often, my eyes don’t tear up as they normally do in the sun.

“Wait for a while,” advised my husband. “They may turn up yet. Besides, they are very expensive!” He even volunteered to look for them again. Then forgot all about it.

Granted, he loses things a lot more often than I do. His wallet on our honeymoon, his wedding ring while repainting our first apartment, his keys more times than I can remember. He worries less, manages fine without. Is generally happier. I wish I could be more like that.

Years ago, on a return flight from Croatia, his suitcase vanished into some lost-luggage vortex. It was a smart little Samsonite that I’d bought, and it contained all of his best casual clothes. They never found it. If memory serves, we got $200 compensation. I am still in mourning for one particular summer shirt.

It is the lost part of the thing that upsets me. There is no closure. And let’s face it, is there anything sadder than a single sock? Anything more useless than a key untraceable to its lock? One lone earring, bereft of its mate, leaves me longing for my lost youth. Lost luggage makes me grieve for the perfect items that will never be replaced. Knowing it is out there, somewhere, of virtually no value to anyone but me.

I suppose this means I should work on something that in yoga we call attachment. To be happy, we must strive for non-attachment, which frees us to experience the world in a deeper, more fulfilling way. I am far too attached to things and to my creature comforts in general. I know this to be true. And yet. How wonderful is it to be able to see the world through a comfortable pair of glasses?

The best part of losing things is finding them again. The joy I felt when my glasses turned up yesterday, wedged in their black case in a corner pocket of the trunk, was like a redemption.

All is not lost.

Everything is possible.

Namaste.

P.S. What is the most memorable thing you have ever lost or found?

Feature photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash