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Posts tagged ‘French language’

NO. 237: It’s Raining Ropes and Other Such Things

I think I am getting my comeuppance for posting so much about our long and warm fall and our early and bright spring.


We have definitely hit a rainy spell in France……and by rain, I mean “cats and dogs” type of rain. Which of course got me to thinking about the equally vivid, but much less random French phrase, il pleut des cordes, or it is raining cords, as in, there is so much rain, the drops have joined together like long thin ropes dangling between the heavens and earth.


Which is much more poetic than “cats and dogs”, especially now that I’ve researched the genesis of that not-so-whimsical-to-me-anymore phrase. There are of course many different theories about the origins of our four-footed friends tumbling from the skies. They most fanciful being that in the olden-days thatched roofs couldn’t support perched animals in the rain and they literally fell through your roof when it rained. The phrase more likely originates from inferior seventeenth century drainage systems, where heavy rains washed dead and decaying cats, dogs, rats, and birds stuck in the gutters onto the streets.

A less grim and more agreeable explanation (and one that will please francophiles) is that the phrase “cats and dogs” is merely a mispronunciation of an old French word: “catadupe” which meant “waterfall”. And raining waterfalls makes a heck of a lot more sense, and conjures a much more pleasant image than cats and dogs plummeting to the ground.

Of course the French do have their less polite way to describe the weather we have been having for the past few weeks: Il pleut comme vache qui pisse: It’s raining like a pissing cow.

But remember:

Après la pluie le beau temps!

Every cloud has a silver lining!

(literally, after the rain, the nice weather)


Here are a few more of my favorite European expressions describing buckets of rain:

The Danes would say: Det regner skomagerdrenge: It’s raining cobbler boys/shoemakers’ apprentices.

You might hear a German say: Es regnet junge Hunde: It’s raining puppies.

In Greece, it rains chair legs, of course: Brékhei kareklopódara.

And our Norwegian friends just might tell you: Det regner trollkjerringer: It’s raining troll women/witches.




No. 234: Grins and Wisdom from the Marais


morning spiders (bring) sorrow...evening spider (bring) hope...white butterfly, sign of spring...circled moon, rain ensured

morning spiders (bring) sorrow…evening spider (bring) hope…white butterfly, sign of spring…circled moon, rain ensured

a magpie in the spring signifies dreadful weather...when the rooster crows at night watch, his tail is already wet...if the peacock screams, we stay at home...

a magpie in the spring signifies dreadful weather…when the rooster crows at night watch, his tail is already wet…if the peacock screams, we stay at home…


Warning! Vicious carrots, carnivorous radishes and crazy parsley…


marais: marshland, swamp

No. 226: Wine 101

The ever perky Géraldine Lepère from Comme une Française TV lays out some important wine vocabulary, debunks a few myths about the French and wine, tells us how expats are easily identified at a café by the locals (Hint: Drinking wine without a meal? You clearly aren’t French, but possibly an alcoholic!), and gives us THE prickly wine phrase to use at a French dinner party to start an argument. Take a listen and consider subscribing to her weekly updates. She is adorable and spot on.

source: Comme une Française

source: Comme une Française



No. 210-211: Jesus Shaves: Easter Explained (in French Class) by David Sedaris and the Returning Bells of Easter


David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day is a must read for any expat in France, especially those of us who have taken too many French classes to count, and are still longing to “talk pretty” one day. In this particular excerpt, Sedaris and his global classmates are asked to explain the religious significance of Easter to an Islamic student who has never heard of the holiday. Without having the vocabulary for “cross” or “resurrection” let alone, “He gave His only begotten Son”, the conversation, and I use that term very loosely, quickly degenerates to trying to explain the Easter Bunny, and understand how and why the French Easter Bells fly in from Rome.

Take a listen (or read the transcript below).

It is a dead on and excruciatingly accurate (and hilarious) portrayal of those cringe worthy moments in French class when your dismal vocabulary and tenuous grasp on grammar leads you to say things like:

“He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber.”


 Jesus Shaves by David Sedaris

“And what does one do on the fourteenth of July? Does one celebrate Bastille Day?”

It was my second month of French class, and the teacher was leading us in an exercise designed to promote the use of one, our latest personal pronoun. “Might one sing on Bastille Day?” she asked. “Might one dance in the street? Somebody give me an answer.”

Printed in our textbooks was a list of major holidays alongside a scattered arrangement of photos depicting French people in the act of celebration. The object was to match the holiday with the corresponding picture. It was simple enough but seemed an exercise better suited to the use of the word they. I didn’t know about the rest of the class, but when Bastille Day eventually rolled around, I planned to stay home and clean my oven. Normally, when working from the book, it was my habit to tune out my fellow students and scout ahead, concentrating on the question I’d calculated might fall to me, but this afternoon, we were veering from the usual format. Questions were answered on a volunteer basis, and I was able to sit back, confident that the same few students would do the talking.

Today’s discussion was dominated by an Italian nanny, two chatty Poles, and a pouty, plump Moroccan woman who had grown up speaking French and had enrolled in the class to improve her spelling. She’d covered these lessons back in the third grade and took every opportunity to demonstrate her superiority. A question would be asked and she’d give the answer, behaving as though this were a game show and, if quick enough, she might go home with a tropical vacation or a side-by-side refrigerator-freezer. By the end of her first day, she’d raised her hand so many times, her shoulder had given out. Now she just leaned back in her seat and shouted the answers, her bronzed arms folded across her chest like some great grammar genie.

We finished discussing Bastille Day, and the teacher moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a black-and-white photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds. “And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?” The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?” Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”

The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain. The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability.

“It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and . . . oh, shit.” She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid. “He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber.”

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

“He die one day, and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”

“He weared the long hair, and after he died, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”

“He nice, the Jesus.”

“He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”

Part of the problem had to do with grammar. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “To give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One, too, may eat of the chocolate.”

“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked.

I knew the word, and so I raised my hand, saying, “The Rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”easter_bunny.jpg

My classmates reacted as though I’d attributed the delivery to the Antichrist. They were mortified.

“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wiggling them as though they were ears. “You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”

“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have the basket and foods.”

The teacher sadly shook her head, as if this explained everything that was wrong with my country.

“No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by the big bell that flies in from Rome.”

I called for a time-out.

“But how do the bell know where you live?”

“Well,” she said, “how does a rabbit?”

It was a decent point, but at least a rabbit has eyes. That’s a start. Rabbits move from place to place, while most bells can only go back and forth–and they can’t even do that on their own power. On top of that, the Easter Bunny has character; he’s someone you’d like to meet and shake hands with. A bell has all the personality of a cast-iron skillet. It’s like saying that come Christmas, a magic dustpan flies in from the North Pole, led by eight flying cinder blocks.

Who wants to stay up all night so they can see a bell? And why fly one in from Rome when they’ve got more bells than they know what to do with right here in Paris? That’s the most implausible aspect of the whole story, as there’s no way the bells of France would allow a foreign worker to fly in and take their jobs. That Roman bell would be lucky to get work cleaning up after a French bell’s dog -and even then he’d need papers.flying-bells.jpg

It just didn’t add up.

Nothing we said was of any help to the Moroccan student. A dead man with long hair supposedly living with her father, a leg of lamb served with palm fronds and chocolate. Confused and disgusted, she shrugged her massive shoulders and turned her attention back to the comic book she kept hidden beneath her binder.

I wondered then if, without the language barrier, my classmates and I could have done a better job making sense of Christianity, an idea that sounds pretty far-fetched to begin with. In communicating any religious belief, the operative word is faith, a concept illustrated by our very presence in that classroom. Why bother struggling with the grammar lessons of a six- year-old if each of us didn’t believe that, against all reason, we might eventually improve?

If I could hope to one day carry on a fluent conversation, it was a relatively short leap to believing that a rabbit might visit my home in the middle of the night, leaving behind a handful of chocolate kisses and a carton of menthol cigarettes. So why stop there? If I could believe in myself, why not give other improbabilities the benefit of the doubt? I accepted the idea that an omniscient God had cast me in his own image and that he watched over me and guided me from one place to the next. The virgin birth, the resurrection, and the countless miracles -my heart expanded to encompass all the wonders and possibilities of the universe.

A bell, though, that’s fucked up.



No. 197: Advice, Encouragement, Hopes and Strangely Accurate Thoughts from My Calendar



No. 184: Laughing in French

I have to share this happy news with someone.

Last night I was able to watch the entire French film le Prénom in French (ok, avec sous-titres français) and understand almost everything that was going on. I actually laughed out loud at all the right times and cringed at the cringe-worthy moments, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The whole time I kept thinking, “Look at me understanding French!”

After 2½ years of struggling with this difficult language, being able to laugh in French seems like nothing short of a miracle.



avec sous-titres français: with French subtitles

le Prénom: the first name / given name; a rapid fire, rich and funny dinner party comedy turned dinner disaster, starring the lovely Patrick Bruel. It was a huge hit in the French theatre before being made into a film. 

No. 165: Idioms/Expressions with our Second Favorite Furry Four-footed French Friend

I’m not a cat person. I never have been. I’m highly allergic to cats, so that doesn’t help matters. I’m also a very sensitive soul, which means, when a cat snubs me, I take it personally. Never a big fan of aloofness, felines aren’t generally my cup of tea…

…except maybe this gorgeous Parisian cat, who could possibly steal a petite corner of my heart if I spent enough time with her.


For Lily’s sake and for all you cat lovers, as promised, I’ve uncovered a few French expressions which incorporate your favorite furry four-footed friend. As my morning has been packed, I’ve only had a wee bit of time to devote to les chats, but my initial observation is that cats could use a little more respect en France, at least linguistically.

There seems to be some greed and gluttony and whipping and scalding associated with our French feline friends. Par exemple:

  • il n’y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat: literally, there’s nothing to whip a cat about, or, it’s not worth worrying about.
  • avoir d’autres chats à fouetter: to have other cats to whip, or as we might say, to have other fish to fry.
  • chat échaudé craint l’eau froide: literally, (a) scalded cat fears cold water, or en anglais, once bitten, twice shy.

In regards to behavior, one can be:

  • gourmande comme un chat: greedy or gluttonous like a cat

While some things can be:

  • C’est du pipi de chat: literally, this is cat’s pee, or it’s pathetic, a waste of time, or tastes terrible or weak (referring to coffee or other drinks)…please do not use this phrase, it’s not very polite.

Cats have also found their way to the mouths and throats of the French, as in:

  • Donner sa langue au chat: to give one’s tongue to the cat, or to give up, stop guessing, (as when you can’t think of anything else or what the right answer might be).
  • While we have a frog in our throats when we’ve lost our voice and it’s croaky, the French have un chat dans la gorge, which really must be hard to talk through.

If you are super busy, one can:

  • faire une toilette de chat: wash oneself quickly, or give oneself a lick and a promise.

But thankfully, you can also be (like Lily):

  • amoureuse comme une chatte: very affectionate

Donc, I think we better ne réveillez pas le chat qui dortlet sleeping dogs lie, or as the French say, not wake the sleeping cat.