The M Word

July 6, 2016

à  partir d’un certain age – after a certain age
difficile à vivre 
– hard to get through
à chaque fois – every time
une vieille 
– old lady (derogatory)

une boulangerie – bakery
t’inquiète – don’t worry (short for “ne t’inquiète pas”)
c’est pour ça – that’s why; that’s the reason why
c’est bien – it’s good, that’s good
respectueux – respectful
avoir du mal à s’y faire – to have a hard time getting used to/accepting something
tenez – here, as in, ‘Here you go’ or ‘Here, hold this’ (the imperative form of the verb “tenir”, which means “to hold”)
un colis – a package
s’appeler quelqu’un– to call somebody
exagérer  – to exaggerate, to get carried away, to go too far
la séduction – seduction
au fait – in fact, actually

*********

I still remember the first time it happened. It was a chilly Paris evening, my phone was dead and I had forgotten the door code to my friend’s apartment, so I popped into a nearby hotel to ask if I could use their internet. It was an isolated incident at the time—it gave me pause for about two seconds, but ultimately, I didn’t think too much about it.

Then it started happening intermittently. Once, when I was dressed up for a job interview. Another time, on a date at a fancy restaurant. Eventually, it worked its way into at least half of my daily interactions… then most of them… until one day, it just became the norm.

I am talking, of course, about being greeted with that dreaded two-syllable word that is an inevitable rite of passage for any French woman… and, by extension, any young foreign woman living in France.

Madame.

You see, there comes a time in every French woman’s life when she goes from being a Mademoiselle to a Madame. In theory, this happens when she gets married, as historically, the two words are intended to indicate a woman’s marital status, much like their English equivalents, “Miss” and “Mrs”.

 

rue-madame

 Rue Madame… Once you’re on it, there’s no going back

 

But as my friend Marc once explained to me, most people will default to Mademoiselle when addressing a young woman, if they don’t know her marital status. However, he added, à partir d’un certain age

Ah yes. It’s those ominous words, followed by that pregnant ellipsis full of unspoken meaning that say it all… and make this rite of passage so difficile à vivre.

A partir d’un certain age” (“after a certain age”), the automatic default greeting becomes Madame, and Mademoiselle becomes inappropriate, even cheeky. But since the average shopkeeper/bus driver/passerby on the street doesn’t actually know how old you are, the label is just a judgement call based on how old they think you look.

 

Mademoiselle or Madame

Mademoiselle… or Madame?

 

In short, getting a Madame instead of a Mademoiselle means the person you are speaking to has sized you up in one swift glance and decided that you are clearly past a certain age.

With one critical, calculating look, they’ve Ma-damned you.

When this first started happening to me regularly, it was like a tiny little stake through my heart à chaque fois I heard it. As far as I was concerned, they might as well have been saying, “Bonjour, la vieille!” (“Hello, old lady!”)

Of course, similar rites of passage do exist in Anglophone culture, since the modern-day French usage of Mademoiselle and Madame can be likened to how we would use “Miss” and “Ma’am”. But although being addressed as “ma’am” or “lady” can be traumatic for some, it really isn’t the same. In Canada and the US, we don’t employ these terms on a daily basis. In Toronto, at least, you’re far more likely to be greeted with a simple “Can I help you?” than you are a “Can I help you, miss/ma’am?” When I lived in Canada, entire days or weeks might go by before anybody addressed me by either one.

 

Penny from “Happy Endings” understands my pain.

 

In France, it’s different. Honorifics like Mademoiselle, Madame and Monsieur are an integral part of everyday life, employed in nearly every interaction that happens between strangers, and sometimes, between people who know each other. Using one is considered the polite and appropriate way to address somebody you don’t know. Walk into any boulangerie, store or restaurant and you will be greeted with a “Bonjour Mademoiselle/ Madame/Monsieur” or, for the time-pressed, a simple nod accompanied by a perfunctory “Madame?” which serves the double purpose of being both a greeting and the question, “What can I get for you?” If you ever want to leave the house in France, honorifics are unavoidable.

In short, you’re pretty much Ma-damned if you do and Ma-damned if you don’t.

 

Interestingly enough, if you walk into an establishment accompanied by a man in France, you will be greeted with “Monsieur-Dame” (as if you were his wife), regardless of age. This becomes a running joke in the 1967 French film classic, “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”: the character Simon Dame is greeted by shopkeepers as “Monsieur Dame” and even gets his own musical number lamenting the fact that no woman wants to be called, “Madame Dame”.

 

When you’re not yet accustomed to it, getting Ma-damned in this way, several times a day, is essentially like having your day punctuated with regular reminders that you look old. For me, it was like being on the receiving end of a thousand tiny little pinpricks all day long.

 

Beautiful young woman in a Parisian cafe

I suddenly went from feeling like this…

 

Shopping slight pause

…to feeling like this

 

When it first started happening, I would stare into the mirror at home, trying to figure out what had changed, poking here, pulling at my skin there, in an attempt to decipher what it was that had put me over the edge. Were there suddenly more wrinkles around my eyes? Had I sprouted a multitude of grey hairs overnight? What was it that gave me away?

When my obsessive scrutinizing didn’t turn up any answers, I turned to Google to find out exactly what age à partir d’un certain age was referring to. Just how old were people pegging me at?

I clearly wasn’t the only one who had been tortured by this existential question. Google returned pages and pages of results from twenty-something French girls and expats anxious to know why they had suddenly been promoted to matronly status in the eyes of the public, as well as young married women complaining about being addressed as Mademoiselle (who I grumpily felt like trolling with mature comebacks like, “World’s tiniest violin”). Alas, my Google research returned no conclusive results. Nobody seemed to have any kind of definitive answer. 23-year-olds complained of being called Madame. 37-year-olds gloated about being occasionally addressed as Mademoiselle.

 

Laetitia seems totally okay with being a Madame. Maybe I just need to eat more Yoplait.
 

“You know, the French government just passed a new law banning ‘Mademoiselle’ from all official forms,” my friends comforted me. “T’inquiète, c’est juste pour ça.” (“Don’t worry, that’s the only reason they’re calling you Madame.”) Sadly, this argument doesn’t hold much water when the store clerk addresses the university student in line ahead of you as Mademoiselle, only to hit you unequivocally with a stone-faced “Madame?” when it’s your turn at the counter.

Then there was the time a restaurant server greeted me with a sunny, “Bonjour Mademoiselle !” and then, just as I was starting to perk up, took a second look and hastily corrected himself, “Pardon, Madame.” Talk about rubbing salt in the wound.

Ever the cheerleader, my sunny friend Jean-François tried to give my new status a positive spin. “Mais c’est bien, Madame ! C’est plus respectueux !” (“But getting called Madame is good! It’s more respectful!”) he exclaimed, in an attempt to lift my spirits. Oh Jean-François. You have a lot to learn about women.

I asked around to see how my French girlfriends were dealing with the “M” word. “I hate it. I hate it,” my 29-year-old French friend Lisa sighed. “The worst is when I’m at the supermarket and the cashier is barely younger than I am. I feel like saying to her, ‘Hey, don’t call me Madame—we’re practically the same age!’”

You’d think the transition would get easier with age, but from what I can tell, even with time, you can avoir du mal à s’y faire. A 42-year-old American co-worker who’d been living in Paris for 20 years once grumbled out loud at the office, “I don’t know why the super’s wife has to keep Madame-ing me. ‘Bonjour Madame. Tenez Madame. Vous avez un colis, Madame,’” she mimicked, indignantly. “She’s not that much younger than I am!”

Et comment tu veux qu’elle t’appelle ?” responded our (male) boss, the voice of reason. (“Well, what would you like her to call you?”)

“Well…” and then in a very tiny voice that betrayed the fact she knew she was being a wee bit unreasonable, my co-worker responded petulantly, ‘…Mademoiselle.’”

Our boss barely managed to contain a snicker and gave her a pointed look that clearly said, “I am biting my tongue because I don’t want to be mean but you are definitely not a Mademoiselle.”

But it’s easy for men to laugh when they don’t have to live through the same thing—they’re considered a “Monsieur” from adolescence onward.

 

Call Me Madame

Spotted in the Paris métro. Shout out to the nice girl who humoured the weirdo that asked to take pictures of her tote bag (i.e. me).

 

To be fair, I don’t really have any right to complain about being promoted to Madame. As an Asian, I have always looked younger than my Caucasian counterparts and have probably enjoyed the perks of being a Mademoiselle far longer than I should. But that doesn’t mean the transition stings any less. It’s a bit like having the world at large tell me, “The jig is up, honey. You officially look your age.”

I should probably mention that not all women interpret the Madame designation as a negative thing. While some do grumble, or resign themselves to their change in status with good grace, others actually embrace it wholeheartedly as a sign of respect.

In fact, many see the label as a feminist issue and think Mademoiselle should disappear entirely from the language, since it would be laughable today to call a man Mon Damoiseau, the medieval male equivalent of Ma Demoiselle (both titles originally indicated that a person was unmarried and, by implication, a virgin). This argument was the main impetus behind the aforementioned change to French law, which aims to transform Madame into the equivalent of the English “Ms”—a neutral title that denotes gender but not marital status. That said, I’ve heard many a French person pooh-pooh this reasoning with the same dismissive tone they reserve for vegetarians or people who can’t eat wheat or dairy: “Oh là là ! Il ne faut pas exagérer, non plus !” (“Oh come on! Let’s not get carried away!”) Old traditions die hard in this old-word country.

 

mademoiselle-la-case-en-trop

French feminists campaigned for years to have “Mademoiselle” removed from all official government forms, arguing (quite justifiably) that if men don’t have to indicate their marital status, then women shouldnt have to either. In 2012, they finally won the battle.

 

On the flip side, some women cling tenaciously to the label Mademoiselle long past its expiry date. Despite the fact that she is in her 70s, French actress Catherine Deneuve still prefers to be addressed as Mademoiselle*.

And of course, in the country that has an international reputation for its skill in la séduction, there are women who can turn being called Madame into an opportunity to flirt:

Bonjour, Madame.
Au fait, c’est mademoiselle.” Clin d’oeil.
Read: “Actually, I’m single.” Wink wink, nudge nudge.

Politically correct or no, the truth is that in French culture, the label Mademoiselle continues to carry with it the connotation of someone who is young, beautiful and desirable. Men use it to flirt; a well-placed Mademoiselle with a wink and a smile can sometimes say it all. Mademoiselle also evokes the idea of liberty—a woman who isn’t tied down and is free to roam and do as she chooses. This is part of what can make the transition such a difficult pill to swallow for some. It’s not always just about age—it can also be tied to how attractive or appealing you are to the opposite sex or how much possibility lies in your future.

Every once in a while, I do still get the odd Mademoiselle, mostly on rare occasions when I’ve gotten ten hours of sleep, or I’m speaking to an elderly person with failing eyesight. Feminist or no, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it brightens my day. It’s a bit like getting carded after the age of 30—a little pick-me-up that makes you feel like you’ve still got it.

But as the years go by, I know these instances will get fewer and farther between. The day will come when calling me Mademoiselle will seem so utterly absurd that even servers shamelessly angling for tips won’t dare use it as a tactic. At the moment, the prospect seems depressing, but maybe by that time, I will be over the whole thing and happy to be addressed with the respect and deference befitting my age.

Or maybe, like Catherine Deneuve, I will defiantly remain a Mademoiselle at heart and in spirit, free to go wherever the wind takes me, regardless of how many grey hairs there are atop my head.

 


Iris Apfel, the 94-year-old style icon, poses outside Le Bon Marché in Paris, where she was the subject of an exhibition and pop-up shop earlier this year. If I can be like Iris when I grow up, life as a Madame won’t be all that bad! (Photo credit: Dmitry Kostyukov for the New York Times)

 

Do you have any first-hand experiences to share about when people first started calling you Madame, Ma’am, Lady, Señora or other similar terms? How did you feel about it?

 

* “Actresses are usually always styled mademoiselle, especially in film or theatre credits, regardless of their age or personal situation.” – Source: Wikipedia

 

Special thanks to:
Dmitry Kostyukov, who kindly gave me permission to use the photo of Iris Apfel that he took for the New York Times. Check him out on Instagram!
My friend Lucie, who spent part of her day off modelling for my Mademoiselle/Madame photo without asking too many questions about all the costume changes.

 


April… Fish Day?

April 1, 2014

Fish-shaped goodies start popping up in French boulangerie windows as April 1st approaches

rigoler – laugh, have a laugh
pour rigoler 
– for fun
pitreries – clowning around, tomfoolery
Poisson d’avril !
– April Fools’ Day! (literally, “April Fish!”)

un poisson – fish
une boulangerie – bakery
une poissonnerie – fish shop
la bise – the traditional way the French greet each other, with air kisses on each cheek
faire le pitre – to clown around
râler – grumble

*********

Much like it is in many countries around the world, April 1st in France is a day pour rigoler. However, instead of following up the customary pitreries and practical jokes with cries of “April Fool!”, the French, instead, will shout, “Poisson d’avril!” (“April Fish!”).

In the lead up to “April Fish Day”, poisson-shaped goodies start showing up in boulangerie windows and other unexpected corners outside of their usual place of honour at the local poissonerie… Fish, ahem, out of water, you might say.

It seems that to the French, one of the funniest things you can do on this day is to stick a paper fish onto somebody’s back and mark them as an April fish (fool). French children will spend March 31st carefully cutting out, and even decorating, paper fish, which they will then go to elaborate lengths to stick onto unsuspecting (or perhaps indulgent) adults the next day.

I’m not quite sure where the whole fish thing comes from, or why it’s so funny, although I’ve heard some theories that it’s related to the zodiac sign Pisces, whose dates end a bit before April. But while the humour in paper fish may be destined to remain another mystifying aspect of French culture to me, much like la bise and keeping off the grass, I do find it interesting is that, according to WhyGo France, April Fool’s Day may have actually originated in France:

The theory goes like this: In 1564 King Charles XIV of France reformed the calendar, moving the start of the year from the end of March to January 1. However, in a time without trains, a reliable post system or the internet, news often traveled slow and the uneducated, lower class people in rural France were the last to hear of and accept the new calendar. Those who failed to keep up with the change or who stubbornly clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate the New Year during the week that fell between March 25th and April 1st, had jokes played on them. Pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were thus called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish—which, to this day, remains the French term for April Fools—and so the tradition was born.

Historical proof that, despite popular opinion, the French do like to faire le pitre once in a while and not just râler?


Bonnes Vacances !

August 1, 2012

Store Window, Saint Paul, The Marais

Bonnes vacances ! – Have a good vacation!
les vacances
– vacation, holidays

tranquille – quiet, calm, peaceful
une boulangerie – bakery
tant pis
– too bad
le métro – the Paris subway
l’heure de pointe – rush hour
la foule – crowd
le quai – quay
du monde – (many) people
il n’y a pas grand monde – there’s hardly anybody; there aren’t many people
une complicité – understanding, complicity

*********

“Les gens s’étonnent toujours que vous ne quittiez pas Paris l’été, sans comprendre que c’est précisément parce qu’ils le quittent que vous y restez.”
(“People are always surprised that you don’t leave Paris in the summer. They don’t understand that it’s precisely because they leave it, that you stay.”)
– Henry de Montherlant



It’s August 1st!  For many Parisians, that means one thing – it’s time for les vacances!  As I write this, Paris’ year-round inhabitants are fleeing the city in droves, abandoning it willingly to starry-eyed tourists and the handful of residents who are staying behind. The next 31 days promise to be tranquille, as stores, boulangeries and businesses close up shop, often to the perplexed frustration of August visitors to the city.  My friend Andrew, for example, got here last Sunday and immediately started calling around to make restaurant reservations – only to discover that virtually all the eateries on his list… which he had oh-so-carefully researched and notated for his long-anticipated vacation… are closed.  For the entire month.  (I tactfully refrained from pointing out that if he had been reading my blog, he’d have already known about Paris in August, though I guess, technically, I’m now pointing it out here. Ahem.)

It’s all so very French in attitude. Even Berthillon, the world-famous artisanal ice cream maker—who could easily make a killing during high tourist season—closes its doors during the month. Some things are sacred, after all. Money or not, August is designated for les vacances. Tant pis.  The tourists will just have to get their ice cream elsewhere.

This marks my third August in Paris and I’m looking forward to it. No impossibly jam-packed métro during l’heure de pointe. No fighting the foule at the supermarket. Crowded, narrow sidewalks that are normally overrun with people are free and clear for strolling and il n’y a pas grand monde along the quai de la Seine. As long as you stay away from the main tourist attractions, it feels as if the city is suddenly at your disposal.


Room for quiet contemplation on the quai de la Seine

There’s an unspoken, friendly complicité between all us Parisians who are left behind to wander the city streets – as we go about our daily routines, we cross paths and exchange knowing, sympathetic glances with each other. Yes, for whatever reason, we have not been able to leave the city for les vacances along with the others. But we also share something else in common: a delightful little secret. For the next month at least, the city belongs entirely to us, and to us alone.


Petit Coucou de Provence

July 12, 2012

Taking a sunset walk across the famous “champs de lavande” in Provence. Photo by Margaret Ko.

un petit coucou – a little hello
un champ – a field
la lavande – lavender
en attendant – in the meantime

“Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essential’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”
― J.K. Rowling

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.” ― Pablo Picasso


Recently, I made a deal with a friend that I would commit to posting to my blog at least once a week, “even if I only had time to upload a photo”.  I’ve got a lot on the go at the moment, so it looks like this is going to be one of those weeks!

The aforementioned agreement constitutes part of our mutual effort to kick our own butts and stay creative by being disciplined about writing/producing/what have you on a regular basis, adhering strictly to our own self-imposed deadlines, even when we “don’t have the time”. Even when we don’t feel like it.  Even if the end result won’t be “perfect”.

It’s that last one that will be the biggest struggle for me, a self-confessed chronic perfectionist.  But I’ve also come to realize that it doesn’t matter how perfect an idea is if it only ever exists in my head. I can (and have) easily spend years mulling over an idea, picking it apart, speculating about the best way to put it into motion… but never actually putting anything down on paper. I think that on some level I feel that if I don’t take any concrete steps towards making that idea a reality, it’s still possible for it to turn out perfectly—and in effect, it does get to stay perfect… in my imagination. But the funny thing is that I always feel so much happier once I’ve actually just gone ahead and accomplished said idea/task/goal, even if the results are not exactly what I had hoped. And even if I’m not totally satisfied, the great thing about producing creative work on an ongoing basis is that there’s always the next project, waiting for me to do better. Continue reading »


Fifty Shades of Grey

July 3, 2012
Not even the rainy weather could deter these tourists from admiring la belle Tour Eiffel from the outlook at Trocadero Gardens.

C’est penible – it’s horrible; it’s awful
la météo – the weather report
Météo France – France Weather, the French national weather bureau
grisaille – grey (and dreary) weather
temps pluvieux – rainy weather
le moral – morale
la pluie, toujours la pluie – rain, rain and more rain
lunettes de soleil – sunglasses
un maillot de bain – a bathing suit
une terrasse – a terrace, a patio
un accessoire de mode – fashion accessory
un parapluie – an umbrella
Paname – an affectionate French nickname for Paris
SNCF – France’s national state-owned railway company
ensoleillé(e)(s) – sunny
desinations ensoleillées – sunny destinations
se changer les idées – to clear one’s head; to take one’s mind off of things
réchauffer le cœur – to warm the heart
le paysage – landscape
la crème solaire – sunscreen
une robe d’été – summer dress
le soleil – sun
spontanément – impulsively, in the moment
un boucle – a loop
un boucle à véloa bike trip; a bike tour
les champs de lavande – the lavender fields
se faire du bien – to do one good (me faire du bien – to do me good)

 

******

« En juin, trop de pluie, et le jardinier s’ennuie. »
(“Too much rain in June and the gardener languishes.”)
– French saying


This spring and summer has been one of the rainiest that Paris has seen in a very long time. Day after day, I wake up, throw open the window and look hopefully up at the sky, only to be greeted with endless clouds of grey and an unrelenting rain that continues to fall without pity. C’est pénible.

From April 1 to June 21, Paris received 330 mm of rain.  In June alone, the city recorded 98.5 mm of rainfall – nearly twice the normal average for this time of year. Last week, Météo France confirmed it—this June has been one of the rainiest Paris has seen in the last 50 years. On June 21, we hit 48 days of rain since the beginning of spring.  June 24 marked 49.  I’m starting to feel like I’m living out some kind of alternate and, sadly for me, much less racy version of Fifty Shades of Grey – or rather, Fifty Shades of Grisaille.

All this temps pluvieux has not been good for le moral.  “Je n’en peux plus de ce temps merdique !” my friend Jen texted me the other day in despair. (“I can’t take any more of this sh*tty weather!”)  It’s a sentiment shared by many. I have a new appreciation for the lyrics to the early 90s pop song by French group Au P’tit Bonheur : “J’veux du soleil ! J’veux du soleil ! J’veux du soleil !” (“I want sun! I want sun! I want sun!”) Continue reading »


To Canada, With Love from Paris

July 1, 2012
“L’Express Special Edition – Moving to Canada: All the Keys to Success”


Happy Canada Day to my fellow Canadians, at home and abroad!

It’s a funny thing being an expat—I have never felt more Canadian now that I live outside of my country than I ever did while I was living in it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been really proud of my Canadian heritage.  Like most other Canucks, I get all excited and puff up with some bizarre sort of delighted pride when our neighbours to the south poke fun at us in films and sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, 30 Rock and Family Guy (probably because, I suspect, someone on their writing staff is Canadian).  I occasionally crave poutine when I’ve been drinking it’s cold out, I know all the lyrics to If I Had A Million Dollars—including the banter about gourmet ketchup—and when somebody says, “If I wanted water…”, I know exactly how to finish the sentence.  I followed the events of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics with zealous fervour, and I was part of the ecstatic, flag-waving crowd celebrating with national pride in Toronto’s Dundas Square when we beat out the Americans in a nail-biting overtime game to take home the Olympic gold in hockey.

But all that aside, for the most part, being Canadian was something that had always been kind of a given.  You’d trot it out when you were rooting for your favourite team, during national elections, when you were good-naturedly mocking your American friends for forgetting their “u”s… and then you mostly forgot about it.  When everybody around you is also Canadian, it’s not something really something that you tend to think about on a daily basis.

When you live abroad however, the first thing that people ask you once they realize you’re not local is, “Where do you come from?” Over here, I probably tell somebody that I’m Canadian at least once a week, if not more.  And there’s always that instant, spontaneous reaction—positive or negative—upon hearing your response. Just naming your country conjures up all sorts of preconceived notions and connotations about your background that influence how other people interact with you. I’m proud to report that most of the time, saying I’m Canadian elicits a big smile, followed by a comment along the lines of, “Ah, le Canada ! Il est beau, ce pays !” (“Oh, Canada! It’s a really beautiful country!”) or “J’y suis allé une fois et les gens étaient vraiment sympas !” (“I went there one time and the people were so friendly!”)

Living abroad, you also somehow become THE representative for All Canadians, Everywhere. When Canadian politics or culture come up in a discussion, my French friends will turn to me quizzically and ask me to explain why something is a certain way in Canada, or why Canadians have such-and-such an opinion. Ummm….  (As somebody who has never really been into politics, I’ve been somewhat shamed into following them from abroad, just so that I can answer their questions.)  When crazy Canadian psycho killer, Luke Magnotta, fled our borders to hang out in Paris cafés, suddenly everybody wanted to talk to me about it. And when I do or say something out of the (French) ordinary that aggravates or pleases a friend of mine, that behavior isn’t just seen as my own, it’s also “typically Canadian”. I remember one time being reluctant to complain about a dessert that didn’t come exactly as described in the menu, and being scolded by my friend Jean-François: “Non, mais Darlene, arrête de faire la Canadienne ! Tu ne vas pas payer six euros pour un moelleux au chocolat qui n’est pas moelleux !” (“No Darlene, stop being so Canadian! You’re not going to pay six euro for a chocolate lava cake that doesn’t come with any lava!”) Continue reading »


C’est les Soldes !

June 27, 2012
 alt=
“Soldes: Day One / ‘I remain Zen.'”
This funny illustration of the first day of “Les Soldes” was created by my friend Flavie Solignac, one of the many fine and talented people who I somehow have the good fortune to be surrounded with.
You can check out more of Flavie’s work here.


C’est les soldes! 
– The sales are on!
les soldes the sales
tout petit – really small; really little; tiny
un tout petit budget – a tight budget
fringues – (familiar) threads, as in “clothes” (a more dated translation would be “glad rags”)
la période de soldes – sales period
une vitrine – store window
se bagarrer – (familiar) to duke it out, to fight
une bagarre – (familiar) a fight
une bonne affaire – good deal, bargain
faire la queue – to line up
un long moment – a good long while
vous encaisser – ring up your purchase(s), or ring your purchase(s) up for you (“encaisser quelqu’un” means to ring up a purchase for someone)
se fringuer – (familiar) to deck yourself out, to dress up
électromenager – (plural) electrical domestic or household appliances
un bon rapport qualité-prix – good value for money
faire du lèche-vitrinewindow shop (literally “to lick the store windows”)
une queue – lineup
la caisse – the cash register
faire des économies – to cut corners, to save money
la première démarquethe first markdown ; “les soldes” in France generally involve several markdowns, with bigger discounts as you go along

******


It’s the first day of the summer soldes in Paris!

I’m on a tout petit budget at the moment and therefore not really in the market for new fringues, so I had completely forgotten about the upcoming période des soldes until I was walking home last night and passed a few vitrines that had already put up their signage in anticipation of The Big Day.

If my experience with last year’s soldes is any indication, tonight after work, I imagine, women will be flocking to the likes of BHV, Printemps, Maje, and various other boutiques to se bagarrer over les bonnes affaires, and snatch up the choice items they’ve been carefully staking out over the last few weeks. If you’re planning on joining the fray, prepare yourself to faire la queue un long moment with other impatient shoppers, though if you’re lucky, there’ll be extra staff on hand to vous encaisser. After all, whether you’re looking to se fringuer or just pick up some électroménager, the période des soldes is always a good opportunity to get un bon rapport qualité-prix.

If you’re curious about how “the sales” work in France (they’re government-regulated!), I wrote a lengthy post on them last year, explaining the whole, complicated process.

As for me, I think I’ll just faire du lèche-vitrine and avoid the long queues at the caisses. I’m hoping to do a little travelling come fall, so I need to faire des économies.  Of course, that said, it’s only the première démarque—we’ll see how long my resolve lasts!

Happy shopping!


Of Maïs and Men

May 24, 2012

Moulard Duck Foie Gras with Pickled Pear. From the Wikpedia Commons. Photo by Luigi Anzivino.


les souris
– mice
maïs – corn; pronounced “mah-eese”
24h sur 24 (spoken aloud as “vingt-quatre heures sur vingt-quatre” or “vingt-quatre sur vingt-quatre“) – 24/7 
(in French, they say “twenty-four hours out of twenty-four”, instead of “twenty-four/seven”)
foie gras – foie gras is a traditional French delicacy made from the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened; literally translated, it means “fat liver”
gavage – force-feeding
bricolé(e) – thrown together, cobbled together, tinkered with (familiar); from the verb “bricoler”


******

The first time I met my friend Dave, he told me he’d been living in Paris for two years.

“Wow, your French must be really good by now,” I remarked enviously, still not feeling quite up to the task of speaking French 24h sur 24.

“Not really,” he replied. “Actually, you can get by quite well in Paris without speaking much French at all.”

Continue reading »


And the Winner Is…

May 8, 2012
The final round of voting in the May 6th French presidential election inspired a number of humorous ads around the city, including this clever little “jeu de mots” from Gleeden, “The #1 site for extra-marital affairs, thought up by women”. The ad says “Because it’s important not to make a mistake on May 6th, our website will be shut down temporarily”. However, the ad plays on the similarity between the verb “se tromper”, which means “to make a mistake”, and “tromper”, which means “to cheat on”.  In French, adding the word “se” in front of a verb can also mean that the action is “reflexive”, or being done to “each other”, so read differently, the message can also mean: “Because it’s important not to cheat on each other on May 6th, our site will be closed temporarily.” (It’s a lot funnier if it doesn’t require an explanation first!)

The French adore their jeux de mots and they figure quite frequently in ad campaigns, much to the delight of someone like me, who loves with the art of manipulating words and playing with language.

jeu de mots – play on words
ça y est ! – that’s it !
guignols – shenanigans
Liberté, égalité, fraternité – Liberty, equality, fraternity (or brotherhood)
avoir honte – to be ashamed
J’ai honte – I’m ashamed
Bisounours – Care Bears
Il vit au monde des Bisounours – Literally, “He lives in the land of Care Bears”, an expression that is used surprisingly often in France to indicate that somebody lives in an idealistic fantasyland
voter blanc – to indicate on your ballot that you don’t support any of the proposed candidates

******

Well, ça y est !  For better or for worse, France’s fate for the next five years has officially been decided. In case you haven’t been following along, last Sunday marked the second and final round of voting in the 2012 French presidential election, a bitter showdown between right-wing incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy, and left-wing socialist contender François Hollande. It was a nail-biter down to the finish, despite various polls that declared Hollande the favourite to win, because nobody really knew how the extreme right was going to vote, or if Sarkozy’s unpopular policies would be enough to spur otherwise right-voting citizens to choose Hollande. Not one of my friends (who were almost equally divided between the two candidates) felt confident enough to make a call on who would take home the title of president. For a while there, it felt like it was anybody’s game.

Continue reading »


Do You Hear the People Sing?

May 5, 2012

“Foreigners, don’t leave us alone with the French!” © 2010 Anne Petitfils
A strong opposition to immigration is one of the defining tenets of the Front National, the French far right,
a position which is met with much criticism from French socialists. Marine Le Pen, the party’s leader, sent shockwaves through the nation two weeks ago when she walked away with an unprecedented 17.9% of the national vote in the first round of this year’s presidential elections, although in the end it was
Nicolas Sarkozy (27.18%) and François Hollande (28.63%) who moved on to the second round.


une fête – a festival, a celebration, a party
un jour ferié – statutory holiday, civic holiday, public holiday, bank holiday
muguet – Lily of the Valley
faire le pont – literally “to make a bridge” (bridge a gap); an idiomatic expression used to describe the common French practice of taking a vacation day in between a statutory holiday and the weekend, thereby creating an extra-long weekend
le premier mai – the first of May
le syndicat – (trade) union
un ouvrier – a worker (historically, this term was used to refer to tradespeople or factory workers)
la classe ouvrière – the working class
une manifestation – a protest, a rally
le Palais d’Élysée – Élysée Palace, the official residence of the French president
Monsieur le Président – the proper way to address the French president, in the same way that English-speakers say “Mr. President”
le vrai travail – real work
la gauche – the left
un defilé – a parade, a march
le defilé syndical – the union parade
la crise – French shorthand for the current economic crisis or the recession
“travail, famille, patrie” – work, family, fatherland
l’extrême droite – the far right
le Front National – The National Front, the far-right political party in France. Their current leader is Marine Le Pen.
l’UMP – Union for a Popular Movement, the French political right. Nicolas Sarkozy, the current French president, is their leader.
le Parti Socialist – The Socialist Party, the French political left. François Hollande, current presidential contender, is their leader.

**********

“Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.”
                      – “Les Misérables”, The Musical, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg


This past Tuesday was May 1, otherwise known as La Fête du Travail (better known in English-speaking countries as “Labour Day” but literally translated as “The Festival of Work[ers]”). It’s hard to believe that it’s been two whole years since I first learned all about this nationwide jour ferié and its various traditions, like offering friends and family a small bouquet of muguet or taking an extra day off work to faire le pont. The last time I wrote about le premier mai, it seemed to me like just one of many random holidays that made the month of May in France seem like one long drawn-out vacation. What with it falling smack dab in between the two rounds of this year’s French presidential elections, however, the day took on a far more serious and political tone than many have seen in recent memory.

You see, in addition to being a great opportunity to take a long weekend trip somewhere, I’ve recently learned that, at its core, la Fête du Travail is meant to celebrate workers and workers’ rights. In Paris, the various big syndicats have a long-standing tradition of getting together to organize a big rally every year on this day, with the intention of uniting les ouvriers and reminding them of the importance of the holiday’s origins, of what their predecessors fought for, and of the fact that there are still battles that need to be fought today. It’s something of a sacred day to the unions, a day that has always traditionally belonged to la classe ouvrière. This year, as usual, the syndicats were on track to organize a giant manifestation at Denfert-Rochereau in the south of Paris, culminating in a grand march to La Bastille.

As a teenager, a high school field trip to watch the musical “Les Misérables” was my first introduction to French history, so it feels vaguely surreal to now be in Paris and witnessing strikes and marches happening along the very same city streets, carrying on the tradition of Victor Hugo’s famous unwashed poor.


Continue reading »


%d bloggers like this: