Archive for the 'French culture and traditions' Category

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.

 

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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.

Going Once, Going Twice… Soldes!

July 24, 2011


un trois quart
a three-quarter (in this case, a three-quarter length coat)
la période de soldessales period
faire les magasins – to go shopping or tour the stores; literally translated: “to do the stores”
les soldes the sales
les soldes d’été – the summer sales
les soldes d’hiver – the winter sales
une foire d’empoigne – free-for-all
une bonne affaire – good deal
faire des folies dans les magasins – to go on a shopping spree
les riches – the rich, the wealthy
(la) première démarque – first markdown
(la) deuxième démarque – second markdown
(la) troisème démarque – third markdown
(la) dernière démarque
soldé(e)
– on sale
faire les soldes – to shop the sales
j’ai fait un peu les soldes – I shopped the sales a little
se faire plaisir – to treat oneself; (nous faire plaisir – to treat ourselves)
la crise
 – literally “the crisis”; French shorthand for the current economic crisis 

******

Last Saturday, the sales started,” my friend Julien wrote me last January. “I bought two suits, four shirts and ties, a coat (un trois quart) and a pair of shoes to be even more elegant than I was.”

J’ai besoin d’un nouveau paire de baskets et quelques trucs pour l’été,” my friend Anne mentioned to me last month, while we were waiting in line for an event at the Palais Brongniart. “Mais j’attends les soldes.” (“I need a new pair of sneakers and some things for the summer, but I’m waiting for the sales.”)

Santa’s not the only one who’s making his list and checking it twice. Parisians do it too and not just at Christmas. That’s because twice a year, every January and June, it’s the période de soldes in France and all over Paris, savvy shoppers in search of a bargain get out their wish lists, put on their comfiest shoes and brave the crowds to faire les magasins.

Unlike in North America, sales in France are strictly legislated. (For a culture known for its love of flaunting the rules, I am discovering, the French sure have a lot of them.)  Stores in France are not allowed to hold sales anytime they want. Instead, they are limited to two annual designated “sales periods” that are known as les soldes: five weeks beginning the last Wednesday in June for the soldes d’été, and five weeks beginning the second Wednesday in January for the soldes d’hiver.* If you’re Canadian, it’s the equivalent of five solid weeks of Boxing Day sales. If you’re American, it’s like five weeks of Black Friday.

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Happy Fête Nationale!

July 14, 2011


la fête nationale – the national celebration, France’s “Independence Day”; known in the English-speaking world as “Bastille Day”
le 14 juillet
 – the 14th of July (the French national holiday)
les soldes – the sales
je pars en week-end – I’m going away for the weekend

******

Happy 14 juillet everybody!  I’m currently working on a new post about the summer soldes that I’ll be publishing soon, but for those of you who are new to The Vanishing Point and interested in learning more about this French national holiday, be sure to check out last year’s posts, Le Bal des pompiers and La Fête nationale.

I’ll be catching the fireworks display tonight at the Eiffel Tower, one of my favourite summer events in this beautiful city, then je pars en week-end to the seaside town of Deauville. I can’t wait to hit the beach!

Hope you all have a great weekend!

See you in September

September 30, 2010
September can be like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.

rentrer – to come back, to go back, to return home
la rentrée“the re-entry”; refers to the period in September when everybody is coming back from vacation and returning to work or school
les vacances – vacation; also refers to the month-long holiday break that many French people take in the summer
l’energie (féminin) energy
le farniente – an Italian word that has been adopted by the French, the art of lazing about and doing nothing
un projet project, endeavour, undertaking
un défi a challenge
une boulangerie – a bakery
une boîte (familiar) – firm/company, office
rouler – to run (as in function)
Allez, c’est parti ! – All right, and we’re off/here we go!
une chambre de bonne – a “maid’s room”; many old residential buildings in Paris have what used to be servants’ quarters converted into low-cost one-room rental units (often for students)
une plaque – an electric stovetop burner; a hot plate
faire du lèche-vitrine – window-shopping (literally “window-licking”)
Je faisais du lèche-vitrine… – I was window shopping…
une nouvelle robe pour la rentrée – a new dress for la rentrée

******

“The year does not begin in January. Every French person knows that. Only awkward English-speakers think it starts in January. The year really begins on the first Monday of September.”
Stephen Clarke, A Year in the Merde


There’s something about the arrival of September that always makes me want run out and buy myself a brand-new box of pencil crayons. This impulse doesn’t actually make any sense, as it’s been years since I’ve taken an art class, and I can’t remember the last time I picked up a sketchbook. Yet for some reason, without fail, every September I am struck with the overwhelming urge to run to the local art supply store and buy myself a pretty new set of coloured pencils, preferably in a shiny tin case like the one I used to carry back in grade school.  Something about the sight of them, pristine, freshly sharpened, and lined up neatly in a row like an obedient regiment of soldiers, has become inexplicably linked in my mind with the idea of fresh starts and possibility…  a perfect metaphor for my feelings about September.

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How Beyoncé saved me from French assimilation disaster

September 13, 2010

faire la bise – how the French greet each other; involves a sort of “air kiss” on both cheeks (depending on the region in France, this can involve two, three or even four kisses)
à la européen – in the European fashion
une salle de bain – the room in the house with the bathtub in it, not to be confused with “les toilettes” (“la toilette” in French Canada), which is a separate room with a toilet in it.  I’m not sure why the French use the plural form for the toilet, even when there is only one.  Maybe an extra one miraculously appears in times of great need?
On fait la bise… – One exchanges kisses…
dans la merde – up the creek without a paddle
à la canadien – in the Canadian fashion

******

Have you ever done the awkward sidewalk dance?  You know the one – you’re motoring down the sidewalk, minding your own business, when suddenly you realize that you are nearly face-to-face with someone headed in the opposite direction.  You obligingly step to the right to let them pass, which would normally work, except that they have the exact same idea and step to their left at the same time, which means that you are still face-to-face.  You both then move simultaneously in the opposite direction, with the same result.  You, struck with a flash of brilliance, decide you’ll take the initiative and dart quickly to the other side before the other person can move – and they do the same, causing a near-miss (or sometimes not-so-near-missed) full-body collision.  It’s all very awkward, especially considering you barely know the person you are dancing with.  Finally, somebody half-laughs, throws up their hands in surrender and stays put, while the other person walks around them.

Well, welcome to my first few weeks in Paris.

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31 Days Later

August 19, 2010


Store Window, Montmartre, Paris

les vacances – vacation
une fermeture – closure
la Mairie de Paris – Paris City Hall
un embouteillage –  traffic jam
le supermarché
– supermarket, grocery store
une fermeture exceptionnelle – unexpected or extended closure; an “exceptional” closure, outside of the regular operating schedule
l’Hôtel de Ville
– City Hall
la plage – beach
les quais de la Seine – the quays of the Seine

******

Do you remember the creepy opening scenes of the film 28 Days Later?  They caused a stir among critics and sent a chill down the spines of audience members everywhere because they depicted, in very realistic fashion, the always-bustling London landmarks, Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, utterly devoid of human life.  The simple, surreal absence of people in such famously and characteristically overcrowded spots was eerier than anything Jerry Bruckheimer could have pulled out of his bag of over-the-top tricks.

Well, those famous scenes are kind of what Paris feels like in August.  Public spaces that are normally bursting to overflowing with people now appear vast and empty.  While passing through the central métro station Châtelet the other day, I could have sworn I heard the opening theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly playing as a piece of tumbleweed drifted by.

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La Fête nationale

July 22, 2010
“My “14 juillet” souvenirs


la fête nationale – national celebration
le 14 juillet – the 14th of July
le bal des pompiers – fireman’s ball
un pompier – fireman
un defilé – parade
le parfum
– flavour
une gueule de bois
– hangover (familiar)
un bonnet – bonnet, cap, head covering
une bavette – flank (steak)
papoter – to chatter
le feu d’artifice
– fireworks


******

A mere four hours after getting home from the July 13 pre-fête nationale Bal des pompiers, just as I was finally drifting off to sleep, my phone rang. It was my friend Floriane, with the wake-up call I had requested. She had received a V.I.P. invitation to watch the big defilé along the Champs-Elysées at a very special reception being held in one of the offices above the grand boulevard, and she had invited me to be her guest. “Coucou Darlene, tu viens de te reveiller ? ” (“Hi Darlene, did you just wake up?”) she asked me sweetly, obviously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, having had the good sense to skip the bal the night before. “Euh… non…” I fibbed. “J’arrive…” (“I’m coming.”)

I dragged myself, slowly, painfully, out of bed, cursing military parades and their early start times. Why? Why start a parade at 9:00 a.m.? What was wrong with a 1:00 p.m. parade? Or even better, a 4:00 p.m. parade?

Thirty minutes and two large cups of caffeine later, I left to meet Floriane. Having consulted Google Maps the night before, I knew that the address was a fifteen-minute walk or a mere five-minute Métro ride away. I had also checked the RATP (the Paris métro) site the night before and knew that my nearest subway station wasn’t closed, so I was all good. Or so I thought.

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Le Bal des pompiers

July 22, 2010

Photo courtesy Mélina.

la fête nationale – national celebration
le 14 juillet – the 14th of July
le bal des pompiers – fireman’s ball
un pompier –  fireman
une caserne (de sapeurs-pompiers) – fire station
un don – donation
une voyageuse – female traveler
“C’est gentil, merci.” – “That’s kind of you, thank you.”


******


Marshall:
Wow, you’re creating a holiday.
Barney: Why not? Everybody gets one – mothers, fathers, Bastilles…
“How I Met Your Mother”


Most people I know back home have heard of “Bastille Day”, although my guess is that many would be hard-pressed to define exactly when and what it was.  In fact, July 14 is la fête nationale de France – their version of Canada Day, if you will.  Somewhat oddly, it’s known internationally in English-speaking countries as Bastille Day, even though in France, it is either referred to as le 14 juillet (much like Americans refer to Independence Day as “the 4th of July”) or simply, la fête nationale.  It commemorates the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, a huge feast that was held on July 14, 1790 to celebrate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, considered to be a major turning point in the French Revolution.

Now, talk of a national holiday generally tends to conjure up images of the kind of pomp and circumstance befitting a dignified patriotic celebration.  And while it’s true that le 14 juillet is observed over here with much fanfare, parades, concerts and fireworks—the stuff you’d typically see in other countries during similar sorts of celebrations—the French also have another somewhat lesser-known tradition linked to la fête nationale that is quite unlike any of the customs associated with our own national holidays in North America.  In typical French fashion, it flirts with the hedonistic; a backyard barbecue, it’s definitely not.  I’m referring of course to le bal des pompiers, which really deserves to be touted in travel brochures as a genuine tourist attraction right along with the Eiffel Tower, at least for us voyageuses out there.

Every July 13, the night before the official patriotic celebrations begin, France’s finest open up casernes all over the country and throw les bals des pompiers for the general populace.  The parties usually run both July 13 and 14 from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. and entry is traditionally free, although dons of any amount are gratefully accepted at the door, with all proceeds going towards improving the conditions of workers.  Oh yes, my lady friends back home, you heard me right – on July 13 and 14 all over France there are parties hosted, staffed and filled with firemen.  Dancing.  All with cute French accents.  Don’t you wish you were here?

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