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Posts tagged ‘un p’tit week-end’

No.296: Normandie—Mont Saint Michel


Abbey steep, thrust there, far from land,

as a mansion fantastic, amazing as

a dream palace, strange and improbably beautiful “



“The church was magical

the sun streaming in

the divine voices echoing off the walls

I adored the abbey

the mud was scrumdillilious

the best mud ever…”


Between rock and sea, a sheer-sided citadel-like abbey rises 80-metres out of the sand and water magnificently dominating the surrounding low-lying region of Normandie. This is Mont Saint Michel. Towering above an immense bay beset by the highest tides in Europe, the sea spills in over a dozen miles in the space of just a few hours, creating one of the most breathtaking sites in France.

Mont Saint Michel dates back to the 700s when at the “request” of the Archangel Michel a local bishop consecrated a small church on the point. Over the centuries Benedictines monks settled on the rock and continued building an abbey and monastery. During the Hundred Years War military construction was added to fortify the compound. In the early Middle Ages ascetic Christians known as hermits chose this site to live in complete poverty, and in an attempt to be closer to God, continued to the abbey towards the heavens.

It became a great spiritual and intellectual centre and was one of the most important places of pilgrimage for the western world. Multitudes of men, women, and children arrived by the paths to paradise—hoping for “the assurance of eternity, given by the Archangel at judgment.”

During the days of the French Revolution, the abbey was ransacked and nearly demolished and the remains were turned into a prison. It was restored in the 19th century and is now considered one of France’s national treasures.

Although an active religious community resides in Mont Saint Michel and it is still a place of pilgrimage for the faithful, it is now more of a Mecca of buzzing tourists. Over three million visitors make the trek each year. Aside from the astounding citadel-abbey and IMAX-like vista, tourists come to play in the tides. If you have ever been to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado you will understand exactly what type of sands surround the castle. At times the sea travels under the sand, creating traitorous pockets of quicksand, but most of the time it is merely harmless sinking sand, ready to delighting the young and old alike.

The small Normand village of inns, shops and taverns nestled below the abbey was built to house and water the pilgrims at the end of their journey. Nowadays as Superman rather crankily observed, “it represents the worst of humanity, packed like sardines” and pushing forward without regard for others. I was less bothered by the crowds. Instead they gave me an appreciation for what it must have been like centuries ago. The junky trinkets, hawking vendors, and overpriced scrummy eateries were all there to welcome the original pilgrims. Some things don’t change. At least we were afforded the modern conveniences of sewers and showers, clean drinking water and health codes. No plagues or rats; no stench of unbathed travelers, although the numbers of extremely overweight visitors—French no less—was an unsettling reminder of what awaits us in America.

Nonetheless, this picturesque meeting point of sand, sea, and sky, is a trip worth making.

No. 54: un p’tit… / une p’tite…

Now that I’m more in tune with the French (literally, I can finally understand a lot of what the French are saying to me…hurrah!), I keep hearing “un p’tit / une p’tite so and so”… Short, of course for un petit/ une petite.

While I, with my VERY literal grasp on français, find it an adorable habit to make nouns smaller than they actually are by prefacing them with the word “petite”, mes amies françaises have a slightly different take on it.

They seem to be of two minds, or perhaps I should say, they can see both a positive side and a negative side to their compatriots’ linguistic addiction to le p’tit mot “petit(e)”.

On the positive side, when used among close friends, or people you’d like to be close friends with, the word petite, indicates a “closeness” and not  a smaller size. For example, when you invite a few good friends to “une p’tite soirée” (a party), you are implying that it will be a warm gathering among close friends. Un p’tit café  with a friend implies an intimate catching up over coffee (not a tiny cup of Joe), where as an invitation to have un café with an acquaintance or colleague, is more in line with the business end of things.

Among friends you could share une p’tite bière, (beer), une p’tite blanquette de veau, (veal stew), un petit dîner (dinner), or un p’tit verre (a glass of wine). You could go for un p’tit ciné (a trip to the movies), on une p’tite ballade (walk), and, of course, un p’tit week-end, which the French adore. None of these things are necessarily reduced in size or length.

As a form of politeness you could ask your prof une p’tite question, or the cashier at the grocery store might ask for un p’tit signiture for your credit card bill. Both of which imply a certain reticence for disturbing you with a request.

But according to my French friends, the addition of the word petite also has a negative implication. They say that the word petite can be used to negate something that was actually a very pleasurable experience… lowering the bar and the value of a really enjoyable moment. Much as the French will almost always reply, when ask about their opinion of something, that it was: “pas mal” (not bad), rather than daring to articulate that is was pretty darn great, the word petite can take the wind from your sails, and imply that the glass is definitely half empty, and nowhere near full. That’s when un p’tit dîner detours from being a lovely dinner among friends, to a dinner that was pretty boring and hardly worth the time, or at least that’s what you want others to believe.

Mais moi, je préfère to go with the literal and positive translation. I like to imagine that when I’m invited to un p’tit restau (restaurant) that I will be dining in a tiny cozy café with my closest friends, drinking small beers and small glasses of wine and sharing tiny plates of food while laughing large and reveling in vast quantities of friendship.


le p’tit mot “petit(e)”: the small word “petite”

Mais moi, je préfère..: But me, I prefer…

mes amies françaises: my French friends