N’importe quoi

“N’importe quoi!” The phrase slipped off my tongue so naturally, it was as if I’d been born saying it. Nonsense! Anything at all!

It was one of the first colloquial expressions I picked up in my early days of learning French. Like most such things, it came out of real-life conversation. I’d heard it said around the table, after someone made a silly remark or pushed a joke to the extreme.

“N’importe quoi,” I smiled, shaking my head. It passed without a raised eyebrow so I knew it was good. I’d always liked ‘quoi’ (what); it was easy to pronounce and could even be used by itself in a pinch as a question: “Quoi?” And the ‘n’importe’, which translates roughly to any, either or no matter which, made perfect sense.

But that was just the beginning. As with most expressions, there are layers of meaning that only become clear over time. Beyond a throw-away phrase, I learned that the words are often used for something much darker. ‘Faire du n’importe quoi’ means to do something any old which way, far from the way in which ‘il faut’ — how things should be done. Aside from a few exceptions, situations in which the French excel at pulling rabbits out of hats, they are rather uncomfortable with things that are improvised and undefined. ‘Du n’importe quoi’ borders the dangerous.

We hear a lot of “C’est n’importe quoi!” these days. In fact, it could almost be a catch phrase for the times we live in. Surely Boris Johnson’s answer to a journalist’s question about his party’s twitter feed is a telling example:

On another, slightly less fraught front, I have recently seen some pretty lively examples of n’importe quoi in my daily life. The postman, who not only never rings twice but generally never rings at all, contenting himself to slip a notice saying you were absent into the mailbox, tried a new approach with my neighbour’s parcel. I watched as he drove up to the gate, rang, saw no one was at home and then threw the parcel towards the door, as if trying to sink a basket. The box bounced once and landed with a thud on the driveway. This takes it up a notch to what we call ‘Tout et n’importe quoi’. Anything and everything.

Thankfully there was nothing breakable inside. Still, when I told her what I’d seen, my neighbour went to the post office to complain about this unorthodox delivery method. “It’s so hard to find people in this area,” she was told, with a sad shake of the head. “All the better ones go and work in Switzerland.”

I’ve been doing quite a bit of online shopping lately. But since we saw the excellent film from Ken Loach, ‘Sorry we missed you’, I’ve had second thoughts about home deliveries.

So whenever possible, I’ve been trying to group my orders and have them sent to a ‘relais colis’, a delivery point at a local supermarket. I go there to shop anyway, so it seems to make sense and be a more environmentally friendly approach.

Unfortunately the system still has a few kinks. The first parcel I picked up at one relay point was somewhat battered looking but it didn’t occur to me to check the contents until I got home. On opening it, I found broken glass and a gooey mess inside: my ‘lot de 3’ jars of peanut butter had been put loose inside the box and broken in transit. I got my money back but gained nothing in my carbon footprint.

N’importe quoi!

My second attempt at having merchandise sent to a different delivery point was no more successful. Although I’d ordered several items at one time, Amazon decided to send them at different intervals. (It seems you can no longer request a ‘grouped’ delivery). The second shipment containing the stuff I wanted most (ie the peanut butter) was supposed to arrive at my local Intermarché last week, where I planned to go and get groceries. But instead I got a message saying that in order to deliver it on time, the company had sent my package to a different delivery point, at least 15 km away and not on my route to anywhere. Needless to say, I refused to go and pick it up. After a couple of weeks, it will be returned to sender and I’ll get my money back.

Du grand n’importe quoi.

In the meantime I went to a local health food store and found some peanut butter (organic, crunchy, just peanuts!) for a price only slightly higher than the online shop.

I suspect that such things are not just happening here in France. Have you recently experienced any examples of ‘n’importe quoi’?

En suspens

Larousse defines ‘en suspens’ as a state of momentary interruption. To me it feels like time is standing still. This state of being suspended, in limbo, while we wait and see what the future holds.

I am not normally given to pre-election anxiety. But in light of the surprising results the world has seen this past year whenever voters went to the polls, it is natural to feel anxious. Everywhere you turn in France there is talk of what may be the fall-out after Sunday’s first round of the presidential election.

Sure, there will be a second round two weeks later, on May 7. But by then the choices will be narrowed down to two from the current 11. And if we believe the polls, which I am not particularly inclined to do but at the same time cannot reasonably ignore, we could conceivably find ourselves stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place: Mélenchon on the left, and Le Pen on the right.

That particular scenario is responsible for my sense of creeping discomfort. If it came down to it, I am fairly confident that France would go left. But at what price? The end of Europe as we know it, of free trade and the free movement of its citizens. What would it be like to live in ‘La France Insoumise’ (Undefeated, rebellious France)? There are things I could get excited about: a new constitution (6ème République) that would allow this country to make the kinds of sweeping changes that are needed; a real commitment to investing in renewable energy. But how exactly would we distribute the so-called wealth of our country to better serve its citizens?

What concerns me is that there are so many cynical, deluded and misguided citizens who either will not vote at all, will vote ‘blanc’ as a protest, or will vote for an extreme faction which, however endearing, has no chance making more than a ripple at the polls. Which leaves the window wide open – grande ouverte – for our worst nightmare.

Until next week, then, when we will have a better idea of ‘à quelle sauce on sera mangé’…

Penelope gate

penelope-gate

She is someone I can relate to. An English speaker, about my age, married to a Frenchman. Which makes the uproar currently sweeping our nation, the so-called ‘Penelope gate’, all the more disturbing.

I know almost nothing about Penelope Fillon, née Clarke, except that she is said to be from Wales and has been married to François Fillon, former Prime Minister (under Sarkozy) and the Republican candidate for the upcoming French presidential election in May.

When I learned that Fillon’s wife was Welsh, he immediately went up in my esteem. That she was shy and stayed out of the limelight made her seem rather sympathetic; her role as a stay-at-home mother of five perhaps less so. Often referred to by the media as Catholic and ‘deeply conservative’, Fillon has been accused of wanting to revoke abortion rights (something he has publicly refuted, stating that his personal convictions and the rights of women in this country are two separate matters).

It came to light last week that Penelope had received large sums of money as her husband’s ‘parliamentary assistant’ and later as a contributor to a political review. The left-leaning Canard Enchainé newspaper revealed the amounts, up to 900 K euros, over a 10-year period and suggested that it was in the guise of an ‘emploi fictif’, i.e. that she was paid to do nothing.

If there is one thing that French voters are sensitive to, it is the suggestion that someone has been paid for nothing. In an age of high unemployment, where so many people scrape to get by, the idea of our leaders taking advantage of the system to funnel money into their own households is unpalatable to say the least.

The unfortunate affair is now in the hands of the courts. In theory, there was nothing illegal in an elected official hiring members of his own family to do things like research his speeches, organize his schedule and do whatever else an assistant would do – giving birth to some interesting memes.

euro-fillon

It will be hard to prove that Penelope did not earn the salary she received, which was fully declared for tax purposes. But the mere suggestion of such corruption has tarnished Fillon’s image in the eyes of a good part of the voting public – perhaps irrevocably.

François Fillon has taken the moral high ground in his campaign, declaring that if he is under any kind of investigation, he will not run. He has also pointed the finger at his opponents on the left, accusing them of the worst sort of mud-slinging, even a ‘coup d’état’.

It’s a political scandal with a potentially disastrous fall-out. The conservative votes that would normally have gone to Fillon, should he not be a viable candidate, will now be split between the left and the extreme right.

Hollande’s ruling Socialist Party has been left in ruins. It began with the defection of Emmanuel Macron, his former economy minister, who is leading his own presidential run as a free ‘centrist’ candidate. The Socialists’ official candidate, Benoît Hamon, is a ‘frondeur’ – a rebel of sorts – seen by some as a utopian. On the far right, rubbing her hands together like Wile E. Coyote, is Marine Le Pen.

While Fillon waits for the courts to decide whether or not to open an inquiry, the pack of hyenas who call themselves journalists in this country have already torn him apart and declared him an unfit candidate. ‘Presumed innocent’ hangs vaguely in the air while they speculate over campaign tactics and a potential plan B for the right.

In the meantime, I feel for Penelope. It can’t be easy to be a shy person who is suddenly cast into the worst kind of public scrutiny. I’ve never heard her speak on camera, so I don’t know how she handles herself in French. The suspense won’t last long – the investigative news magazine Envoyé Spécial is said to have an ‘incriminating’ interview with her which will air tonight.

Penelope gate, as the French have dubbed the affair, continues. Stay tuned.

Souriez, c’est la rentrée!

Frenchie smiles

It’s that time of year again. Drum roll, please…

C’est la rentrée!

Time to get back: back to school, back to business, back to the grind that is French life. Although you might think this would mean long faces, around here it seems that getting back to work gives us a lot of reasons to smile.

I’ve posted before about how this is my favourite time of year. And it’s not just for the school kids. Although I still have one (mostly) mature student under my roof, la rentrée is the start of a whole new year on many different levels.

First, there’s la rentrée des vacances. The French are back from vacation and they are smiling, at least for the first week. We did not go away anywhere this summer. Instead, we took shorter breaks in the spring, then lounged around all summer while everyone else took off. Although we live in an area that is a draw for tourists, we still feel the deadness of the summer season. Shops close, streets are oddly empty, anything administrative gets lost in an overflowing inbox. We began feeling the first signs of life again last week. Traffic reports went from green to red, tanned faces appeared in the shops and long line-ups sprouted in the grocery store.

Then, there is la rentrée politique. This means that the brief lull in rhetoric is over. My ears had barely stopped ringing from all the noise over Brexit and Trump’s latest antics. And with presidential elections in the offing next spring, French politicians are back with a bang. Nicolas Sarkozy broke the silence by officially announcing his run for a spot on the ticket in 2017. Since he declared his Republican candidacy with a proposed France-wide burkini ban, he will not be getting my vote.

Today is la rentrée des classes. It’s back to school for the kids, which means we will see a lot of freshly scrubbed faces and bright new backpacks on the street. It’s been awhile since my kids were small, even longer since I went back to school myself, yet that buzz of newness and energy still gets me.

The teachers have been back for a week already, having completed la rentrée des professeurs ahead of time to get things ready for a new crop of students. This means new security measures in schools, although I doubt they will be enough to reassure everyone after so many terrifying incidents in the past two years.

I have been enjoying the rentrée audiovisuelle this week. My favourite French access-to-prime-time talk show, C’est à Vous on France 5, is back. Next week will kick off a new season of Le Grand Journal on Canal Plus. And I’ve just learned that Les Guignols, those political puppets extraordinaire, who were banished from the show last year having crossed some sort of line, will be back.

In a week or two it will be time to sign up for activities: yoga, zumba, choir…I’m still debating what to make time for but have decided there will be at least one thing that gets me out each week!

It seems there are lots of reasons to smile. The summer sun is still with us, yet there’s a chill in the morning air that heralds the change of season in a few weeks’ time. I love the fall, and I feel energized at the thought of getting back down to work again.

What’s your favourite thing about la rentrée?

Aucune idée

Hollande hasn't got a clue
Hollande hasn’t got a clue

I have no idea why French President François Hollande is making this face. It could be for any number of reasons.

Perhaps he’s reacting to a question about his popularity. Or lack of. It could be a response to his ex’s new book, in which Valérie Trierweiler casts aspersions not on his sexual prowess so much as his true sentiments towards the poor classes. Someone should have told her that living well is the best revenge, not writing about it. Then again, Hollande should have known that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

But I know what he meant. This face, and its expression, is familiar to anyone who’s ever lived in France. It’s the face fart, or universal expression for ‘aucune idée’ – I haven’t got a clue. And a clue is just what this fellow does not have, it seems, as his popularity slides further into oblivion.

It’s just one of several ways to speak French in sign language. Which gesture is your favorite?

I must confess to a certain penchant for the doigt d’honneur. And I’d be willing to bet it’s a certain former first lady’s too.