Ça roule

I am struck by how many French expressions there are to say that things are going.

There’s ça va, ça marche, and my personal favourite, ça roule. Meaning: that goes or that works or literally: it rolls.

‘Rouler’ generally describes the action of wheels – les roues. We are big fans of wheels here in France and what I am most struck by (not literally, merci!) is the number of bizarre, noisy and exotic motorized contraptions that come out in the summer months.

It starts with the Tour de France. While those crazy cyclists bust their bananas (again, not literally one hopes…) racing around France, the crowds turn out to see something called the Caravane du Tour. This is a publicity parade of sponsored vehicles pimped to perfection. To wit:

(Note: I personally abstain from following any form of televised sport, but when le Tour comes to any French town, it is a very big deal.)

This is followed by the annual mass migration for summer vacation – les vacances. Essentially this means that everybody and his oncle hops aboard whatever vehicle they possess and heads cross country. If you live in Paris you go south to the Cote d’Azur. If you live in Grenoble you head to Bordeaux. If you live anywhere south you probably go to Brittany. You get my drift.

Aside from epic traffic jams, this is usually when those who work for some major form of transport – rail, air, ferry or even toll collectors – decide to go out on strike. ‘Ça roule?’ is transformed to ‘ça circule ou..?’

Then, when all of those tourists, French or otherwise, get to wherever they are going, they get on a motorized vehicle and trawl around town. Motorcycles, vespas, convertibles, anything goes. The louder and more attention-getting the better.

Whatever the preferred mode of transport ,soon everyone will ride back whence they came in time for la rentrée.

“Ça roule, ma poule?” (How’s it going, my little chickadee?) will be heard echoing throughout France, as we get back to school and business, still fresh from our holiday adventures.

From the fabulous French movie, ‘Les Intouchables’

How do you roll? Got a favourite set of wheels?

AZERTY vs QWERTY

In high school I made a random choice that changed my life: I took a typing class. At the time it seemed like a backup plan. I had no desire to become a secretary, and in those days, typing was almost exclusively the role of admin staff. Still, I loved to write and dreamed of doing it on a typewriter – maybe one day even a Selectric.

So I learned to touch type, an incredibly liberating skill that means you don’t need to look at the keys to know what you’re typing. As technology evolved through electric typewriters to word processors and the computer keyboard, I continued to enjoy my ability to whip off words at lightning speed compared to colleagues who had to hunt and peck for the keys.

Until I moved to France. And discovered the horrors of the AZERTY keyboard.

AZERTY describes the top line of keys on a typewriter or keyboard. In the English world we use QWERTY. Germans use QWERTZ. But it doesn’t stop at the top line. A whole lot of things like the period key (full stop), numbers and essential letters (notably, the ‘m’) are not where they’re supposed to be.

The first time I showed up for work in France and discovered I was expected to type on an AZERTY keyboard, my heart fell. How could I possibly do a decent job if I was spending the entire day looking for the comma? Certain signs were unfindable, and accents I had no use for in English kept dropping in for unwanted visits.

Finally I became somewhat functional in AZERTY, meaning that in a pinch I could navigate around to find the essential keys without wasting too much time. Then I went to work in the German-speaking world and had to do it all over again on QWERTZ, which while seemingly closer was far worse, perhaps because of the confused state of my brain at that point.

Eventually technology evolved again and it became a relatively quick  fix to change the keyboard configuration in software. This saved my soul but became the bane of any IT guy who stopped by to work on my computer. Those guys never know how to touch type, and it drove them crazy that the keys did not match the hardware.

There has been talk recently in the French-speaking world of changing the AZERTY keyboard, which is not particularly efficient for rapid touch typing. At first I thought this meant aligning it with QWERTY, but no. Quelle idée! Rather, optimizing it to accommodate commonly used things like the ‘@’ sign.

I have no idea how keyboards in Asian languages work. Typing for non-natives must be a nightmare. Maybe some smart techie type could invent a virtual keyboard that is just a hologram of sorts. Users’ choice of how they want to configure that.

My preferred keyboard is the Canadian CSA version of QWERTY, which also offers all of the accents needed to type proper French.

Do you touch type or use the hunt-and-peck method?

Sa langue dans sa poche

chatty-cathy

I’ve never been known for being tongue tied.

When I was a little kid, I talked a blue streak. Family lore has it that my younger brother was assumed to be very quiet because I did all the talking for him: “That’s my brother. His name is David. He doesn’t talk very much.”

The first toy I remember getting for Christmas was a doll called Chatty Cathy. My parents probably hoped for a little relief. You pulled a string in her back and she would say things. After a little while the string broke but I kept chatting.

Things changed when I grew up. Shyness came upon me with the awareness of how I sounded to others, of how little I really knew about so many subjects, and how unpleasant it was to be around a loud mouth know-it-all. Either that or I had already used up all my words. Or at least the nice ones. Cursing became my new friend and I learned to do it with flair. Bloody fucking hell. Holy fuckoly. Fuck a duck.

When I first learned French, I was shy about speaking the language. Afraid of looking foolish, of not being understood or of saying something funny or frankly stupid. But once I came to France, there was no room for being timid. It was speak up or be ignored. So I spoke French and was misunderstood, corrected and laughed at. But I learned.

I learned that French is a language of subtlety and suggestion, that there are many indirect ways around things that we English speakers (or at least, we Chatty Cathy’s) would probably barge right into, feet first. I learned that it is not just what you say, but how you say it.

I also learned to swear with the best of them: merde, putain, fait chier.

I still feel shy at times. Whether with family, friends or professional associates I’m rarely the most talkative person in the room. Sometimes I don’t even answer the phone. But I love a good conversation and cannot resist an argument. And when I have something to say, I cannot remain silent.

The French expression ‘ne pas avoir sa langue dans sa poche’ means to be outspoken, to say what you think.

That’s me in the photo, at a team event a few years ago. With my tongue where I usually keep it.

How about you? Do you speak up or hold your peace – and in which language?

La pluie

 

La pluie

It has been a long, dry summer here in France. The earth is parched, the fields bleached by the sun. Normally the final days of August and early September bring a few big storms but so far they have missed us. This morning, the rain has rarely been so welcome.

La pluie is not something we often rejoice over here in France. It is not like the English rain, so light and prevalent. When it rains here, it pours. And generally brings with it a mood that is like the weather – maussade (pronounced: moh-sad) Meaning gloomy, dull, sad.

Perhaps that is why I used to confuse the verbs ‘pleuvoir’ and ‘pleurer’. To rain and to cry. I may have once told my husband that his mother was raining. Things could be stormy when she was around, so it may not have been entirely unintentional.

Long ago I gave up on trying to find the logic behind the attribution of gender in French. No matter how you try, you have a 50/50 chance of getting it right. I find you have greater success if you let your instincts rather than your memory guide you. Somehow la pluie feels right. Rain must surely be feminine, just as wind – le vent – is masculine.

I love the smell of rain. I love the way it sounds upon the roof. I love to sit outside on my balcony and watch the patterns it makes across the sky over the Léman, as I did in this photo from last summer.

Perhaps what I love most about the rain is that it forces me to sit inside and ponder it. Curl up and read a book, enjoy the comfort of being warm and dry inside. And some of my fondest memories of childhood are running around outside as the skies opened up after a hot dry spell.

J’aime la pluie.

Et toi?

S’endormir sur ses lauriers

Z Frenchman clowns aroundI am not the only one in our family to make bloopers and blunders in an adopted language. My husband, aka Z-Frenchman, is the first one to laugh at his own English. In fact, he’s the first one to laugh at most things. A fine sense of humour is one of his best qualities and at least part of the reason why our marriage has endured these thirty years.

From the time we first met in Toronto, we have always communicated in my native tongue, or a version of it. My French skills were non-existent back then so English was the only option. It is very difficult to change the language of a relationship. Even after living in France for nearly twenty-five years, speaking French together still feels unnatural.

We English speakers find the French ‘r’ challenging and I remember at first getting it stuck in the back of my throat and sounding like I was choking when trying to say ‘rouge’. ZF, on the other hand, found it near impossible to say ‘squirrel’. There are a lot of squirrels in Toronto and it came up a lot. His rendition of it came out sort of all squished together like ‘skweerl’.

English is all about emphasis. Hitting the right syllable remains challenging for ZF even now – he will still put the emPHASis on the wrong syllABle. I described his attempt to tell me about visiting one of our wonders of the world in this post about pronunciation.

While shopping at St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto, he was once heard to say: “I take a leek!” That got a few smiles – and at least one anxious look.

The French say ‘take’ a lot as it is a translation of ‘prendre’, the verb used in French to describe anything you buy or order. Breaking him of the ‘take’ habit has been one of my life-long missions.

Another time he advised me: “Do not fall asleep on your bay leaves.” It only took me a minute to figure that one out, along with the French translation: “Don’t rest upon your laurels.” (Ne pas s’endormir sur ses lauriers).

Raising kids in a bilingual family like ours meant that somebody always got something wrong. Howls of hilarity regularly ensued when Daddy made a boo-boo in English, or Maman got something bass-akwards en français.

For the record, Saudi Arabia in French is Arabie Saoudite, not Saudi Arabite.

Most French people have trouble pronouncing English sounds like ‘th’, turning it into ‘z’. The aspirated ‘h’ is also a problem. For some unknown reason, however, ZF often removes them from where they should be and adds them where they don’t belong. Leading to greetings like: “’Ow h-are you?”

Difficulty enunciating certain vowel sounds can still get him into trouble. Piece and piss, sheet and shit are very different concepts.

Plurals are another challenge.

As the ‘s’ is so often silent at the end of words in French, he rarely finds it necessary to add it to the English. He will ask: “Would you like some chip?” Leading one of us to add the punchline: Just the one. Like the elusive ‘h’ he will add s’s where they don’t belong: “We’re out of cereals.” Or imply a plural: “Your hair are looking nice.” I have learned to enjoy the compliment, and keep the correction to myself.

Despite our comical moments, one of which is captured in this photo from our first winter in Toronto, communicating across the language gap has not always been a walk in the park. It makes it easy to misunderstand each other, but perhaps also makes us work a little harder to try and understand the other person’s point of view.

Et toi? What’s your funniest experience of French in English?