Sauf exception

Sauf exceptionThe first time I heard the expression ‘sauf exception’ I was sure it was a mistake. Except for exceptions? It sounded like the invention of a bureaucrat somewhere in an ivory tower, a grammatically clunky attempt to make sure there is always a way out of any situation.

Here in the land of the galls (et oui!), it is a useful phrase indeed. There are a lot of rules in France. But never fear – there are always exceptions.

You get used to hearing people say things like:

“En principe, c’est interdit, mais…” (In principle, it’s not allowed, but…”)

“Théoriquement, je n’ai pas le droit…” (“Theoretically, I’m not supposed to…”)

One exception to the exceptions – l’exception qui confirme la règle – is grammar. French is full of rules. Mostly they are unavoidable. There is the small matter of gender, verb groups and little ditties like the COD (complément d’objet direct) vs. the COI (complément d’objet indirect) that affect structure and endings.

I fought against them at first. “But surely you don’t mean that every time I say something, I have to remember whether it’s masculine or feminine?” Et oui….sauf exception. Language is one of the areas of French life with the most rules but relatively few exceptions. You just have to learn them. Suck it up and move on. And, as anyone who has ever tried to learn the language of Shakespeare can tell you, we English-speakers are in no position to complain.

When it comes to the rest, however, you learn to adapt. When we first moved to Lyon, the closest school was just two blocks away. I was thrilled until I discovered that we were in a different arrondissement, and therefore in another périmètre scolaire, whose school was much further away – and in a dingier neighbourhood. Then I learned I could request une dérogation. Both parents had to work, mother was pregnant, bla bla bla…an exception was made.

This lesson served me well. It taught me never to assume that a situation couldn’t be adapted, negotiated or remedied. And that in France, just like the whole world over, rules are meant to be broken. Sauf exception.

It seems that France has now decided to allow exceptions to the rules on Sunday and late-night openings for stores located in tourist areas. See the article in the NY Post on French opening hours. What do you think?

Chez le coiffeur

Chez le coiffeurThere are almost as many beauty parlors in France as there are bakeries. Which says something about where the French have their priorities.

At this time of year, an appointment chez le coiffeur is a must for every self-respecting Frenchwoman – and man. Looking one’s best for the end-of-year holidays is as essential as uncorking a bottle of champagne and preparing a special meal on Christmas Eve.

One of my first French lessons was learning that you go ‘chez le coiffeur’ rather than ‘au coiffeur’. This applies for any shop or service that has a person behind it. For example, you go chez LeClerc but à Carrefour because there is a Leclerc family but no Monsieur or Madame Carrefour.

Another lesson is that hair is not singular in French but plural. So when you talk about your hair it’s les cheveux (not to be confused with les chevaux unless you’re grooming horses rather than hair). Which also explains why my husband will say: “Your hair are nice like that.” (Isn’t he sweet?)

I have passed many long hours chez le coiffeur, simply because my short hair with blonde highlights requires frequent ministrations from my stylist. Those hours spent waiting for the chemicals to do their magic and transform my chatain clair into shiny blonde streaks have allowed me to observe at leisure the inner workings of the French beauty parlor.

Most salons are independently owned and managed by a single hairdresser. Depending on the size of the place, they may have one or several coiffeurs working for them. Only in the bigger chains like Dessange or in high fashion haute coiffure salons do they have a dedicated receptionist. This means that in between shampooing, rinsing, coloring and snipping, your typical hairstylist is also answering the phone, greeting customers, ringing up receipts and serving coffee.

A French hair salon is never dull. Over the white noise of hairdryers and water running, the piped in radio, the hissing of the coffee machine and collective chatter of les dames (the men are usually silent), the place can work up to quite a hubbub.

Should the wait be rather long, there is always the lure of “la presse people.” All French hair salons, no matter how trendy, share the common denominator of offering customers a selection of the latest rags –Paris Match, Voici and Closer along with more fashion-forward offerings like Elle. How else to stay atop of breaking stories like Hollande’s three-wheeled sexploits, Valérie Trierweiller’s revenge lit or Carla Bruni’s desire to be left alone? If there were any doubt about the need for regular visits chez le coiffeur, the extra incentive of the gossip press seals it.

Many salons offer ‘la carte de fidelité’ or customer loyalty cards that give you a reduction or a freebie of some kind after several services. I suppose this is intended keep people coming back, but I never really understood the need. If you have a good hairdresser, one who understands you and doesn’t talk too much, why go anywhere else?

My dad once commented during a visit to France that he had never seen so many bad dye jobs. I think this is because a lot of French women tend to go for more pronounced colors than are typical for North Americans. This was a few years ago when bright henna was all the rage and also the dip-dye craze with a lot of dark root showing beneath blonde tips.

This year I am wondering: where have all the blondes gone? From the TV screens to the fashion pages, brown hair seems to rule the day. Have you noticed this?

I’m not much of one for changing my hairstyle. Aside from a few kinky perms back in the early 80s, I’ve been pretty faithful to my highlighted short cut for the better part of 30 years.

It hasn’t always been easy to find a coiffeur willing to coiffe to my taste. French stylists tend to prefer longer, looser styles. I like these too, on other people. Just not on me.

And just as it’s chic in English to use French words, hair salons here often play with anglais to sound cutting edge. Sometimes with disastrous double entendres in English, like one in our parts called ‘Hair Mess.’ Oops. Think I’ll give that one a miss.

How about you? What’s your latest scoop from the hair salon?

Petit nègre

Petite annonce mal écriteThis note turned up in our mailbox last week, along with the usual jumble of ads from takeaways and real estate agents. (The latter despite the ‘pas de publicité’ injunction displayed loud and clear above our names.)

I was horrified. Not just by the lack of spelling and grammar but by the fact that someone might think that this is the way to find a job.

What does it say about the candidate?

  1. She’s a ‘young’ female student, 21 years old (Questionable, but you don’t technically become an ‘étudiante’ in France until university)
  2. French is not her first language (and clearly, she’s not a language student)
  3. She’s willing to do household labor during the month of August

Those are the facts. But to me it also says that this young woman has no sense of presentation, and presumably doesn’t care about detail. Not exactly the ideal candidate, even for house cleaning.

The ad reminded me of the importance of presenting oneself professionally at all times, no matter what your level on the job ladder. It also spoke to how very French I’ve become in my attitudes towards language. To be able to express oneself correctly in simple written French seems to me the absolute minimum prerequisite for a job in this country.

My French wasn’t that great, either, when I first put together my résumé and started knocking on doors. All the more reason to make sure my CV contained no spelling or grammar mistakes. Okay, I had a little help from husband. But these days, anyone with access to a computer can use spell check.

There is a proverb in French that says: “Les paroles s’envolent, les écrits restent.” Meaning that while the spoken word vanishes into thin air, anything you put in writing has a way of sticking around. It’s one thing to make mistakes when you speak French – that’s understandable for any non-native. A mistake in writing is far more shocking.

There’s also an expression to describe someone who speaks or writes in pidgin English. It’s called petit nègre, and it’s also a kind of creole from the French colonies.

Here is a corrected version of the ad text. Compare the original and see how many mistakes you can find:

“Jeune étudiante, 21 ans, cherche travail pour le mois d’août, repassage, ménage, baby-sitter.”

I count at least 8.

How about you? Would you hire this person? Do spelling mistakes and typos matter to you? Or is literacy over-rated?

The coolest word in the French language

Creative Commons, LaughingSquid.com
Creative Commons, LaughingSquid.com

It slips into phrases like an uninvited guest, crashing the party yet instantly finding its place.

A single letter long, it belongs to a very elite group indeed – one of the two shortest French words.

Have you guessed?

It’s ‘y’.

Or the Greek ‘i’ as it’s known in French – pronounced “ee-greque.”

It is both a vowel and a consonant. How cool is that? If it were human, surely it would be wearing Ray-Bans and sitting by the pool, sipping Bacardi on ice.

It’s so low profile a word that I had to check my dictionary to ensure that it really is a word, and not just an element of speech. An adverbial pronoun, it’s a word that acts like a sort of stand in – an understudy who occasionally replaces the starring role.

It has no real meaning of its own, other than that of designating a place. The closest English translation is ‘there.’ Are you going to the party? Oui, j’y vais.

It’s subtle, and elusive to English ears. Which is probably why I was hesitant to use it at first. It felt sort of daring the first time I pronounced it – moving things around in sentence order kind of goes against the natural order of things. But soon enough, expressions like these just rolled off my tongue:

Ça y est. (Sa-ee-ay) That’s it. Done!

Allons-y! (A-lon-zee) Let’s go!

When we moved to Lyon some years ago, I learned that its denizens, les Lyonnais, are known for their love of the ‘y’ – they use it far more than people elsewhere in France, adding it to phrases where normally it would not appear.

For example: Do you like it?  Tu y aimes?

Want to know ‘y’? A few links for fellow grammar geeks:

‘Y’ explained very nicely in English: http://www.slideshare.net/mrash/the-french-pronouns-y-and-en
http://french.about.com/od/grammar/a/pron_adverbial.htm

More about the Lyonnais accent (in French):

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parler_lyonnais

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0DiCYpsJAc

The sneakiest word in the French language

It is the secret agent of the French language. Car il passe souvent inaperçu.

It is only two letters long, and most of the time isn’t even pronounced. Yet it changes everything.

Have you guessed?

Ne.

The little negation word. One of a couple, ne pas, which preface or encircle a verb and transform its meaning from positive to negative.

Fumer. Ne pas fumer. Je fume. Je ne fume pas.

Simple, right? Its role and place in French grammar are perfectly clear. Until it goes undercover.

I didn’t learn this at the Alliance Française or in any French grammar book. I went out on the street and found that in practice, the ‘ne’ is simply dropped in spoken French.

Ce n’est pas becomes c’est pas. But it doesn’t really matter (ce n’est pas grave) unless you’re a stickler like me. Because you are saved by the unmistakeable ‘pas’ which is your very big clue that there’s a negative in there.

‘Je ne sais pas’ becomes ‘j’sais pas’ or, to my non-native ears, what sounds like ‘chez pas’. (At first I wondered, who is this Pas and where does he live? Guess I’ll never know.)

So it’s complicated. But, hey, if them’s the rules, so be it. I can work with that.

Mais non! Ce n’est pas si simple.

To make matters more complicated, in literary French, the ‘ne’ often stays but the ‘pas’ is dropped. There’s a whole lot of rules as to when this happens, which you can read about here.

Et ça se complique. ‘Ne’ is often combined with a whole bunch of other words to indicate negation of some sort: jamais, rien, aucun, personne. Then dropped, like a hot potato, in spoken French.

Person? What’s with that? Une personne, ie a person, becomes (ne) personne, ie nobody.

Another variant is ‘ne plus’, which means no longer. Je ne fume plus. When the ‘ne’ disappears, as is its wont, it becomes ‘je fume plus’. Can we English be forgiven for finding this contradictory? I mean, plus is more, n’est-ce pas? In French, the rather subtle distinction is that when plus means more you pronounce the s, and when it means less you just say ‘plu’.

None of this can be learned in a book.

Et toi? What French words so you find most confusing? Do you ever find yourself, like me, trying to wrap your head around grammar rules?