The vocabulary of a random day at the office

Zipf’s Law strikes as often in the office as it does anywhere else.  Here are some random words from my day.  Gaps are due to lunch or to me giving a talk.

  • 11:00 AM le pinaillage: hair-splitting.  This came up in an email exchange about the best name for a directory.
  • 11:17 AM à propos de: regarding, about, concerning.  Directory names again.
  • 11:24 AM le fichier: a file–in this context, a computer file.
  • 11:36 AM le répertoire: notebook, file; I got this in a UNIX error message about failure of the scp command.
  • 12:30 PM le rappel: reminder, in which sense it was used in email the other day; today, it was used in the sense of the technical term “recall,” which is an important concept in evaluating systems in my field.
  • 15:10 PM: saisir: many meanings relating to grasping or seizing things, but in informatics, it refers to entering or inputting data.  The cue to put in your PIN on my cell phone uses the verb saisir.  (It showed up half an hour later in the more general meaning of grabbing, in an advertising email urging me to saisir some travel deals rapidement.)
  • 16:43 PM: si: I knew this one in theory, but didn’t recognize it in practice until, like, the 5th time in a row that my office mate said it to me.  It means “yes,” but something like “on the contrary–yes.”  I said that I could ssh from my desktop to a server, but couldn’t scp from the server to my desktop, at which she said si–if you can ssh, you can scp.
  • 16:50 PM: le tableau blanc: whiteboard.
  • 15:49 PM: sauvegarder: to back up, to save (data).  My cell phone voice mail has an option to sauvegarder a message.
  • 17:50 PM: la passerelle: a footbridge, gangway, or walkway.  It was used in the sense of something that allows you to connect to a remote computer.
  • 17:51 PM: rebondir: to bounce, bounce back.  It was used in the sense of contacting a server and getting something back.  (I ran into this word again in the evening in a book store, on a magazine cover, which asked the question “Can Japan bounce back?”)
  • 17:52 PM: la mise en place: setting up, establishment of something.
  • 17:53 PM: côté client: client-side.  (If you don’t know what this means: it’s a geek thing.  Not important.)

Every day starts the same: breakfast, Métro, Zipf’s Law

Days here start out pretty much the same.  Breakfast, then on to the Métro.  One of the nice things about the Métro is that free newspapers abound.  Many mornings someone hands me one as I walk into the station, and if not, you can typically pick one up somewhere.  Personally, I can’t get past the first sentence of the newspaper without running into words that I don’t know.  Here are some examples from the past couple of days, from the newspaper and life in general:

  • la chaleur: heat.  Everyone talks about how the summer heat is just around the corner.  No sign of it yet.
  • la myrtille: blueberry.  The crêperie that I went to yesterday had myrtille crêpes.  “Myrtle crepes?,” I thought…”Sounds horrible!”  Nope–a false cognate.
  • le pot: a variety of meanings.  I ran across two in three days.  One is of a pot, tub, or jar–I ran into this sense when reading the jar of chestnut spread that I put on my morning tartine when I don’t feel like Nutella.  The other sense is of a party with drinks–I ran into this sense when there was a pot at the end of the day of PhD student presentations of their research progress last Friday.
  • le ciron: the best word of the weekend–cheese mite!  My latest cheese is Mimolette–specifically Mimolette jeune, a mimolette that has been aged less than six months.  Take a look at the picture here–the holes on the crust are from cirons.  If you are as curious about what a cheese mite is as I was, see here.  Mimolette jeune is good, incidentally, and a good cheese for Americans–the flavor is pretty similar to a cheddar.
Cheese mites.
Cheese mites.
Mimolette Cheese
Mimolette, showing the holes in the crust that are caused by cheese mites.

A possibly foolish thing that I decided to do anyway

Going to a demonstration in a country where you’re not a citizen and don’t speak the language probably isn’t the brightest thing in the world, but last weekend there was an anti-Fascism demonstration (manifestation anti-fa) in Paris, and I feel strongly about anti-Fascism, so I went and marched.  I couldn’t understand most of the chants, but Pas de fachos dans nos quartiers, pas de quartier pour les fachos (“no Fascists in our neighborhoods, no quarter for Fascists”–it sounds better in French than in English, as it plays on two meanings of the word quartier) is about the speed of my French, so I joined in when they chanted that one.  (There’s a similar play on ambiguity in Face à l’extrême droite, pas un seul pas en arrière–“confronting the extreme right, not a single step backwards,” which plays on two meanings of the word pas.)  There was a lot of smoke from flares, a little trash-burning, a little glass-smashing, and an awful lot of riot police, but other than that, things weren’t particularly hairy–the French are old hands at demonstrations, strikes, and the like.

As always, Zipf’s Law strikes, and I learned lots of new words.  I thought that taking photos of people at a demonstration was probably a good way to get your phone taken away, get your ass kicked, or worse, so I didn’t take very many pictures at all, but of course much of the language is in the signs anyway.  Stoppons was my favorite word of the day–“let’s stop,” as in stoppons la violence–“let’s stop the violence” (see picture below).  Other useful words of the day:

  • manifestation: demonstration.  This is such an important word in France that you learn it in French 101 in college.  I include it here for the reader’s edification–it’s not a word that I didn’t know before, unlike every other word that you’ll read in this blog.
  • la rixe: fight, altercation, brawl.  This demonstration was the one-year anniversary of the death of a French anti-Fascist activist in a rixe with some right-wing skinheads.  
Stoppons la violence: Let's stop the violence
Stoppons la violence: Let’s stop the violence

2014-06-07 16.13.01Manifestation anti-fasciste: Anti-Fascist demonstrationFace à l'extrême droite, pas un seul pas en arrière: Confronting the extreme right, not a single step backwards

Three really nice things that French people did for me in just five days

OK, I’ve been here for more than 5 days, but in my first 5 days, some really nice things happened.  This might surprise those of you who read about my cell-phone-shopping experience, but indeed, people have mostly been super-nice—not at all the stereotype about French people that we have in the US.  Here are three examples.  No vocabulary this time—just cultural observations.

Nice thing #1

The nicest thing that happened to me was the day that I arrived, and it makes for the longest story.  I made it from the airport to the hotel, shleped my bags to the door of the apartment building, put in the code on the numeric pad, and…nothing.  I tried it every possible way: nothing.  I had the phone number of a contact person, but no cell phone service on my American phone.  What to do?  Find a payphone.  Everyone knows that there are no payphones any more, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.  So, I try up the street, and I try the other way down the street, and what do you know?  There’s a payphone, maybe half a block from my apartment.

So, I try to squeeze into the phone booth with my two suitcases and my back pack. Two young men at the cafe right next to the phone booth watch–hard to tell if they’re amused, or what.  Whoops: the pay phone requires a phone card–not unusual at all, in countries other than the US.  Where to get a phone card?  Everyone will tell you how unfriendly the French are, and indeed I’ve read a reputable anthropologist and others talking about the French distaste for dealing with strangers, but what the heck, I don’t see a lot of options: I squeeze myself, my two suitcases, and my back pack out of the phone booth, go over to the two young men, and ask them where I can buy a phone card.  One of them looks around: “There’s a tabac (tobacco store) across the street.”  (In France, as in many countries, many small things are sold at tobacco stores, phone cards often being one of them.)  So, I shlep across the street, buy a phone card, shlep back across the street, and squeeze myself, my two suitcases, and my back pack into the phone booth.  By now, the two young men have become a table full of young folks.  Everyone watches me as I put the phone card into the phone…and discover that the phone is broken.

So, what the heck: I squeeze myself, my two suitcases, and my back pack out of the phone booth and go up to the table full of young people.  “I’m sorry to bother you.”  (The most useful words in the French language, as far as I know: Je suis désolé de vous déranger.)  “May I borrow your phone?  My phone doesn’t work (holding it out to them).”  One of them hands me his phone.  I dial my contact person’s number: call doesn’t go through.  Now what?  I show one of the young folks the number, and he kindly points out that it’s written wrong–there’s an extra zero.  So, I dial again, and this time the call goes through.  I get voice mail, and leave a message saying that I’ll wait for her at the cafe on the corner by the apartment.  I thank the young folks profusely, and head down to the cafe, where I take a seat, not knowing if my contact will show up in an hour, or eight hours, or not at all.

So, I’m sitting there in the cafe having a bite to eat, when the guy who had lent me his phone rides up to me on a bicycle and hands me a cell phone!  My contact person had called his number back, and he left wherever he was and drove back to find me!  My contact person gave me the right number for the key pad, I thanked the young guy profusely, and he nodded and rode off.  How incredibly nice was that?

Nice thing #2

To get to work in the morning, I have to walk from a valley to what we call “the plateau” at the top of the hill.  The hill starts out with a slope, which becomes a steep slope, which becomes a really steep slope, which becomes a slope that’s so steep that I not only struggle to get up it in the morning, but I struggle to get down it in the evening.  After that last part, it lowers to a really steep slope, and then a steep slope, and then a slope—so, after the worst part, you’re definitely not done.

My first day walking to work alone, I’m struggling up the slope when a car pulls up next to me.  “You want a ride?”  The guy takes me to the plateau.  Very nice.

Nice thing #3

After a long day at work, I want wine with my dinner–more or less necessary when you’re living on bread, cheese, and fruit.  I find an open grocery store, find a bottle of wine, and get in line at the cash register.  In front of me: a woman with a huge pile of stuff.  She smiles and tells me to go first.  Totally kind.

So, despite everything you’ve heard: lots of nice people in France!

 

 

 

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How can you govern a country with 200 cheeses?: Cheese 101

The forms of the quote vary, but de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces during the Second World War and occasional president of France, is alleged to have asked, “How can you govern a country with 200 cheeses?”  One of my goals for this stay in France is to become knowledgeable about cheese.  I definitely haven’t reached the point of being willing to eat cheese for dessert, but I’m motivated to become more familiar with the various cheeses, and to eat a lot of them.  To that end, I’ve been picking up a new cheese every couple of days, and I purchased a copy of Guide de l’amateur de fromage, or “Cheese-lover’s guide.”  (You would be amazed at how many books on cheese there are in a good French bookstore.  I went to Gibert Joseph.  I picked this one because it was ranked #2 among all cheese books on Amazon’s French web site.  Strangely, I was unable to figure out which one was rated #1.)

Like everything else about France and the French language (or any other language, for that matter), Zipf’s Law comes into play, and I am constantly picking up new words.  Some of these are very general, but even reading about a specific cheese, I’m constantly looking words up.  More on that in some other post.  Here are some general words for talking about cheese:

  •  déguster: to taste, to savor.
  • disque: disc.  The shape of many cheeses.
  • épais/épaisse: thick.  Some cheeses are épais, some aren’t.
  • diamètre: diameter, as you might have guessed.  But, if you don’t ask, you don’t know–sooooo many French words don’t mean what they look like in English (and vice versa).
  • épaisseur: thickness.
  • fruité: fruity.  I haven’t figured out what constitutes fruitiness in the context of cheese.
  • texture: texture, but also “weave,” and “structure.”
  • moelleux/moelleuse: soft, creamy, gooey.
  • forme: shape, form.
  • matière: matter, stuff, substance.  Also urine, feces.  Not in the context of cheese, I hope.  Shows up in the context of matières grasses, which I believe means “fat content.”

I’ve got pages more of cheese-related words in my notebook, but this will do for now–there’s only so many words that you can absorb at once!  There’s only so many words that I can absorb at once, at any rate.

 

In France, even dogs understand French better than I do

icanhazcheezburger
What I sound like when I speak French.
When you read my reports of conversations in this blog, you should be aware that other people’s sides are as I report them, but my side of the conversation sounds more like a French version of the “I Can Haz Cheezburger?” cat. Indeed, in this country, dogs do understand French better than I do. French children are famously well-behaved, and French dogs are similar. Although most dogs are leashed, it’s not unusual to see a dog off-leash, walking obediently behind his owner down the sidewalk, and even crossing busy streets in the crosswalk. Dogs are typically allowed in cafes, where they typically lie quietly under the table. I have no clue how French dog-owners manage this. It’s certainly not like all French dogs are well-mannered–I saw a little guy jumping up on people the other day as his owner stood talking with a group of friends in the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious. But, for the most part, it’s amazing how well-behaved these dogs are.

Some pet-related vocabulary items:

  • le toutou: Affectionate word for a dog.
  • le minet: Affectionate word for a cat.