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?

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?