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Posts tagged ‘French’

It’s All French to Me

Could this possibly be the reason for my daily struggle with spoken French?

Here is a little something for all you non-native French speakers who may be feeling alone in your attempts to master your tongue and contort your face as you brave life in France. Grab some aspirin and take a peek at the Top French Words You’ll Never Pronounce Right as reported in THE LOCAL FR last month. Go ahead, sit down with a teabag and a steaming mug of hot water from your bouilloire (kettle), if you can pronounce it, that is…

No. 357: Bon voyage and all things bon(ne)



As I am in the final countdown of our extraordinary 3 years in France, some of my friends and neighbors have already begun to wish us a bon voyage. But since I am still in denial about leaving this country that now feels like my home, I’ve decided to completely ignore these well wishes for a good journey and contemplate instead all of the curious and concise sayings the French use with the word bon(ne).

Yep, one last language post with some of my favorite bon(ne) expressions. Go ahead and wish me bonne chance and please do correct me and any misinterpretations I may have made with this versatile mot.


To begin with there are all the basics: bonjour, bon après-midi, bonsoir, and bonne nuit. And then there is bonne journée and bonne soirée. At week’s end and before the hols you can always offer a jaunty, “Bon week-end!” and “Bonnes vacances”. And on Sundays all the shopkeepers are happy to wish you a “Bon dimanche!”

I like these quick greetings and send-offs because all of the “I-hope-you-have-a-good…” is tightly packaged in one robust “bon(ne).


When we (expats) sit down to eat, we say, “Bon Appétit!” (I’ll let your French friends explain if and why this is or isn’t a gauche thing to start a meal with.) I suppose it is better to say, “Bonne degustation!” (Literally, “good tasting”.) And I heard it is good to have a “bon fromage”, not a good cheese, but a cushy job. It seems like it might be fine to be une bonne fourchette (a good fork/hearty eater) as long as there is enough food.


On your birthday, we’ll all say, “Bon Anniversaire!” and on major holidays or meaningful occasions, “Bonne fête!” When the clock strikes midnight on December 31, we will chime in with Bonne Année!” and maybe even add a “bonne santé” (good health).


When the French are looking for a bargain, they’ll use, bon marché, which no longer has anything to do with the luxurious and highly priced food halls in the 6éme. They may cherche un cadeau bon marché, but they definitely won’t find one au Bon Marché.


There is a multitude of ways to wish a friend or customers an enjoyable leisure activity. At the cinema it is, “bon film”, or “bonne séance”, or even “bon ciné”. Off to Rock en Seine? Bon concert is the appropriate farewell. I’m guessing you can say, “Bonne lecture!” (good reading) to your book club, although I’ve never tried. For your hunting friends, sign off with a “Bonne chasse!” For those of you hunting for a retail deal, “Bon Shopping!” fits the bill. I have even heard, “Bons magasins!”(literally good department stores!) on the first couple of days of the massive sales. For the sporting types, “Bon match!” works before the ref blows the first whistle and after he blows the last.

I can’t decide if it is good to be told you have a bonne tête (good head on your shoulders?) or if in fact a bonne tête means you are a fool, easily duped. But it might be good to know that à bon chat bon rat is tit for tat.


When life is tough and you are facing new and difficult changes, a sincere, “Bon courage!” Is always helpful.

I suppose I will be getting a lot of those in the next few days along with wishes for a bon retour, bonne route and my favorite, bon vent, as long as those well wishers don’t mean “good riddance”…



No. 252: French Body Language Redo

After my semi-successful attempt in January to interpret French body language, my favorite virtual French teacher, Géraldine, has come to my rescue again with her helpful new lesson: 12 Common French Gestures.

Finally a clear explanation of j’ai du nez: tapping the side of your nose = I have a good instinct/idea; I have flair; and she offers up a few new ones that I have seen a lot of lately but had not quite understood correctly:

  • Je m’ennuie (making a sort of shaving motion along your jaw line with your fingertips curled in) = I’m bored
  • Cassé! (a sideways karate chop) = Gotcha! or I win!

Follow Géraldine weekly on Comme une française TV every Tuesday. Moi, j’adore.

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. 151: Quiet Restaurants

The new Paramount Theatre at Emerson University, Boston

The new Paramount Theatre at Emerson University, Boston

After following Button around on a 10-day audition whirlwind tour between Boston and New York City, my appreciation for the quiet and calm restaurants of France has only deepened.


Holy Smokes! Eating out in America can be agitating.

Between the throbbing red lights at Lolita’s Mexican Restaurant in Boston and the Vanderbilt in Brooklyn serving up pounding heavy metal music at 11 p.m. on a Sunday evening, my vocal cords and eyeballs could use a rest. There is nothing worse than shouting at your girlfriends or daughter between bites of a fancy meal or $15 cocktails.  So glad we had a kitchen to cook in for most of our days in the States.

The best meal we had was a late-lunch at Legal Seafood in Boston (a chain restaurant of all places) because we arrived at 3 p.m. after the lunch crowd and were the sole guests dining. The lobster rolls and crab cakes were wonderfully fresh and the noise level was limited to two expats using our “French voices”, or our inside voices, which Americans seem to have forgotten how to use inside. To top things off there were no flashing lights, no obnoxious soundtrack imposed on our meal, and no one trying to rush us out so they could give the table to the next guest.

The crab cakes in Boston are amazing...

The crab cakes in Boston are amazing…

Lovely lobster roll

Lovely lobster roll

I know some Anglophones complain about restos being so hush-hush in France and the French squelching the fun out of dinnertime, but I am convinced that the unruffled atmosphere in French restaurants makes French food taste even better, is infinitely better for the digestion, and certainly more conducive to cultivating friendships.  Even in a crowded café the noise levels never require you to raise your voice. I couldn’t imagine the French engaging in a shouting conversation over a meal, and I wish it wasn’t the norm in the States too.

While it is always nice to spend some time in my homeland and there are many things I miss, I am happy to be headed home today and am looking forward to enjoying some serene meals en famille surrounded by quiet French voices.


en famille: with family

restos: short for restaurant

No. 91: Overseas Departments: Martinique


One of my goals this year is to see as much of France as possible, so I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to visit one of the five overseas departments belonging to France.

Having secured a sweet deal on flights (it would have almost cost as much to take the four of us to Strasbourg’s Marché de Noël by TGV), I am thrilled that we chose Martinique.

It’s a funny thing to think of a Caribbean island as part of France. I’d love to have a conversation with our new friends here about whether or not they consider themselves French, and what they think about mainland France.

Martinique, like many countries taken over by European and American colonialist, has quite a sad history. The more time I spend on this island, the more I wonder what life would be like here today, if the French had ignored it the way Columbus did when he first sighted it in 1502.

Thanks to Columbus’ indifference, the indigenous population was granted an 85-year reprieve before the French claimed them and began colonization in 1635. This is when the true atrocities of colonial history (now conveniently whitewashed in history books) began. In every article or book I read about Martinique before leaving Paris, the initial colonization of Martinique was reduced to barely two sentences, and it was presented something like this:

“…colonization began in 1635, when the French promised the native Caribs the western half of the island, in return for establishing a settlement on the eastern half. Then the French proceeded to eliminate the Caribs…”

After annihilating 6,500 years of civilization in a few short decades, the French realized they were short on manpower and began to “import” African slaves as sugar plantation workers. With no indigenous population to stand in their way, a tropical climate, an abundance of sugarcane, and free slave labor to boot, Martinique quickly became one of France’s most valuable colonies.

As rum production (from sugarcane), distilleries, and sugar refineries became more lucrative, the African slave trade became even more important to the colonialist and life for the slaves became even more unbearable. In addition to providing the labor for the sugar and rum production, the slaves were also recruited into the island militia to fend off the British attempts to take control of the island. (In return they were promised their freedom.)

The Brits did manage to occupy the island for a short while in 1762, but returned it the following year in exchange for a small country called Canada. They invaded and held the island once again in the early 1800s, but in the end, it was returned to the French.

By the mid-1800s, Martinique had more slaves and “freedmen” than free colonists. Slavery was abolished in 1848. Obviously life was still not peachy for the former slaves and things got worse when in 1902 Mount Pelée erupted and destroyed the capital, Saint Pierre, wiping out 30,000 inhabitants in less than an hour.

So in many respects, Martinique’s society is a very young one, made up mostly of decendents of African slaves , decendents of their former colonial masters, and often a mix of both. Their language is a fusion of Créole and French, with French the official language. The food is a mingling of French and Créole, heavy on the Créole side and influenced by the locally grown products. There is definitely a French vibe to Martinique, but not too much to stifle the vibrant and colorful culture.


No. 88: French People Who Speak French Slowly

IMG_2804Oh, how I love when the French speak French slowly. Every time I leave Paris and travel around France my confidence gets a boost when I realize I actually know more French than the hard knock Parisians have led me to believe.

It is such a relief to be on the Island of Martinique, the French territory off the coast of Venezuela.  Obviously it’s a relief for many of the normal reasons: work stress, school stress, family dysfunction, etc. The whole tropical-island-paradise-thing certainly helps out with that. But the real relief is being removed from cranky French people, who definitely don’t count patience as a virtue, and wouldn’t dare crack a smile if their life depended on it.

It is a welcome respite to be in a part of France where French isn’t the chosen language, but the colonial language, and where the people are quite happy to have you stumble along in French, so pleased that you are trying.

The Martiniquais don’t seem to give a rat’s patootie if you make a mistake. Their patience is immense, their smiles are large and they seem to have all the time in the world to let you mangle their not so precious language.

Most importantly they speak S-L-O-W-L-Y. And slow is so very appreciated by us not so fluent speakers.