As you might recall from previous posts, I climb a serious hill on my way to work every morning.  The other day, I’m working my way up the hill when an elderly gentleman pokes his head out the window and says:

Elderly Gentleman: ça va?  (How are you?)

Me: ça va bien.  (I’m fine.)

EG: ça va bien?  (You’re fine?)

Me: oui, ça va bien.  (Yes, I’m fine.)

EG: bon courage!  (No exact translation–you say this to encourage someone who’s taking on a difficult task.)

Where do people come up with the idea that the French just aren’t friendly?


The steepest part of the hill that I have to negotiate going to and from work is so steep that it’s even hard to get down.  The other day, I’m working my down it after work.  As I gingerly pick my way downhill, I hear a clop-clop-clop-clop coming down the hill behind me, and a woman passes me, running down the hill in heels.  Only in France.  Well, maybe also in Romania or Albania.  But, mostly just in France.


Useful words:

  • chaussures à talons hauts: high-heeled shoes.
  • escarpins (m. n.): also high-heeled shoes.
  • Bon courage: said to encourage someone who’s taking on a difficult task.

Switched at birth. No, really.

The front-page story on the free newspaper that someone handed me as I got on the Métro was about a court case that just started.  Two families of twenty-year-old girls are filing suit because their daughters were switched at birth.  With such an unlikely occurrence, why wouldn’t Zipf’s Law strike over and over?

  • le procès: trial, lawsuit, (divorce) proceedings
  • intervertir: to switch, invert, exchange
  • la maternité: maternity hospital; motherhood, maternity; pregnancy
  • épuisant: exhausting
  • afficher: put up; post; display; exhibit; reveal
  • le sourire: smile
  • le sien: his, hers, its
  • les siens: one’s loved ones
  • accoucher: to have a baby, to be in labor
  • accoucher de: to struggle to produce
  • accoucher d’un garçon: to give birth to/to have a boy
  • une enquête: investigation; inquiry; (sondage d’opinion) survey
  • la jaunisse: jaundice
  • la couveuse: incubator

All in a day’s work

I’m getting settled into the office after having been gone all fall, which means paperwork.  Here are some words that came up in the course of my work day:

  • la formation permanente: in-service training.
  • une attestation: certificate, certification, proof.  I have to bring an attestation of employment to the cafeteria in order to get my meal card renewed.
  • un exemplaire: among other things, a copy.  I need an exemplaire of my contract to bring to the bank.
  • se tromper de + nom: to get the wrong [noun].

Proof of address

hsbcI took the day off of work today to open a French bank account, which for various reasons turns out to be crucial to my ability to function here, even for just a few weeks at a time.  I walked into the bank and learned that you don’t just walk into a bank and open an account–you walk into a bank and make an appointment to open an account.  This actually isn’t as crazy as it sounds, since it gives the bank a chance to prepare the paperwork ahead of time (e.g., I have to fill out an American W-9 to open an account in a French bank, believe it or not), and it lets you find out what kind of documentation you will need to provide, not all of which would have occurred to me (e.g., I have to bring a copy of my employment contract).

Zipf’s Law struck, of course.  It came in the form of the word justificatif, which is written proof or written evidence.  I have to provide a justificatif d’addresse–written proof of address.  For some reason, I have enormous amounts of trouble pronouncing this word, which the bank clerk was very kind to say slowly for me when I stumbled over it repeatedly–ju-sti-fi-ca-tif.  When I left, she said that my French is great, to which I responded that I wish it were, but it isn’t, to which she responded: “Well…for an American.”  Smiles all around.

Wandering the neighborhood at night, but totally staying out of trouble

You can't read the caption, but it says "special machine for couettes."  "La couette" turns out to be a quilt; it can also mean "pony tail."
You can’t read the caption, but it says “special machine for couettes.” I was a little worried that the scary-looking guys inside this laundromat were going to come outside and beat me up for taking their pictures, so you can imagine my surprise when I got home and learned that “une couette” turns out to be a quilt; it can also mean “pony tail.”

During the summer time, it stays light really late in Paris.  The sun didn’t set until around 10 PM in June, and I tend to go to sleep early, so I never really saw my own neighborhood in the dark.  Now that it’s December, the days are quite short, so when I went outside early yesterday evening for a stroll, I saw the entire neighborhood lit up, for the first time.  With the electric signs shining in all of the storefronts, I noticed places that had never caught my attention before–even within a block or two of my apartment!  Zipf’s Law strikes during an evening stroll as often as it does any other time–here are some pictures of signs with words that I had to look up.  Scroll down for the full range of words that I just didn’t know.

You've gotta love a country where the news kiosk by the taxi stop advertises a philosophy magazine, right?  "Subir" has a bunch meanings related to suffering (probably the intended sense in a philosophy magazine), putting up with, dealing with, undergoing, and enduring.
You’ve gotta love a country where the news kiosk by the taxi stop advertises a philosophy magazine, right? “Subir” has a bunch meanings related to suffering (probably the intended sense in a philosophy magazine), putting up with, dealing with, undergoing, and enduring.
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Two words here: la remise, which can mean a number of things, but in this is “discount, reduction”; and effectuer, which is to make, perform, or carry out. I bought a lamp here, which required me to ask the word for “lightbulb”–it turns out to be “ampoule.”
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“Raquer” is “to pay,” or colloquially, “to cough up.”
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“Oser” is “to dare.” If it has a complement, it will be a verb in the infinitive–there doesn’t seem to be a preposition.

Why supporting traditional French shopping is in your own best interest

The traditional French store is a little mom-and-pop operation.  A French neighborhood will have a boulangerie, where you get your bread; a patisserie, where you buy your pastries; a fromagerie, for cheese; a fruit and vegetable stand; a wine shop; a butcher…you get the idea.  Parisian kitchens are pretty small, without much storage space, so you go grocery-shopping pretty frequently, and make lots of small purchases at the local shops.

As in most places, the supermarket appeared quite a while ago in France.  In Paris, it’s most often a Monoprix.  You can find pretty much everything you need there, and not just food, but clothes, school supplies, on and on.  I go to the Monoprix once or twice a week, as there are a few things that I don’t know where else to buy–the giant 0.78 kilo jars of Nutella, for instance, or giant jars of cassoulet.  It’s convenient in terms of having everything under one roof, but: it is a miserable experience.  Shopping in a Parisian supermarket is a blood sport: you stand in line at the deli counter (if that’s the right word for the part of the store where you buy deli meats, but also grilled cuttlefish, duck Spam, blood sausages…and let’s agree to forget the time that I almost found myself in the middle of a fight in the deli line, when I suddenly realized that the British tourist for whom I was mindlessly translating was deliberately egging on a pissed-off French family man), you shuffle with hordes of other people through the coffee aisle, and finally…endless, endless lines for the cash register.  I now know why Parisians always look so glum–they’re exhausted from standing in line at the Monoprix.

There’s a way out of the hell of supermarket checkout lines: shop at the little mom-and-pop specialty stores that dot your neighborhood.  Go to my little fruit and vegetable stand across the street, where the seller will ask you when you’re going to eat his produce and then give you an assortment of more- and less-ripe things meant to last until you come visit her again.  (Sorry for the gender confusion–they’re a couple, and I’m too scatter-brained from sleep deprivation to fix this.)  Walk to the next subway stop to go to the cheese shop, where you can ask for a recommendation of a seasonal cheese and be offered a taste of something in season from a guy who actually does know what cheeses are in season.  Go to the little bakery on the corner, where the lady at the counter will very kindly correct your pronunciation of champêtre at no extra charge.  As soon as I figure out where else to buy giant things of Nutella and cassoulet-in-a-jar, I’ll be done with Monoprix for good.

Some words that came up in the course of buying my very in-season beaufort:

jadis: formerly; in olden days; long ago.  Fabriqué en Savoie et en Haute-Savoie, le beaufort est un fromage de garde, dont l’origine historique est liée aux grandes difficultés de communication qui caractérisaient jadis les régions montagneuses durant l’hiver.  (Note that no one has ever been able to tell me what a fromage de garde is.)

Guillaume Apollinaire: Exercice

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Street sign in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood.

I grow weary of technical terminology.  I love World War I poetry in English, and thought that I would look at some in French.  Guillaume Apollinaire was a (very) famous French poet who fought in the artillery and in the trenches in WWI.  He suffered a head wound in 1916, never really recovered from it, and in his weakened condition, died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.  Here is one of his poems, Exercice.


Vers un village d l’arrière
S’en allaient quatre bombardiers
Ils étaient couvert de poussière
Depuis la tête jusqu’aux pieds

Ils regardaient la vaste plaine
En parlant entre eux du passé
Et ne se retournaient qu’à peine
Quand un obus avait toussé

Tous quatre de la classe seize
Parlaient d’antan non d’avenir
Ainsi se prolongeait l’ascèse
Qui les exerçait à mourir

•    la poussière: dust.
•    la plaine: plain.
•    se retourner: (tourner la tête) turn around, do a double take; (changer de sens, de position) turn over, toss and turn; (se mettre à l’envers) turn over, overturn
•    la peine: punishment, sorrow, trouble—but, that’s not what it means here—see the next entry.
•    à peine: scarcely, hardly
•    un obus: shell (artillery).
•    tousser: to cough
•    d’antan: of yesteryear, of long ago
•    se prolonger: continue; perpetuate itself; persist; linger; go on; be continued; be extended
•    ascèse: This word is a tough one.  It’s not in any of my French-English dictionaries.  In Anne Greet’s translation (see below), it’s rendered as “ascesis.”  I found it in a monolingual (French-French) dictionary; the definition seemed to be something like asceticism.
•    exercer: to train, exercise, practice

What should we make of the past imperfect tense that is used throughout the poem?
Greet’s notes suggest that it produces a detachment between the poet and the four men: “The poet…is not part of the graphic little scene he is painting.  The verbs, in third person and imperfect tense, indicate that he is an omniscient observer.  This role produces a…fine balance in the poem between compassion and detachment.”

Towards a village in the rear
Marched four bombardiers
And they were covered with dirt
From head to foot

They stared at the vast plain
As they talked about the past
And they barely looked around
When a shell made a coughing sound

All four of class sixteen
Spoke of the past not future time
Thus the ascesis dragged on
That practiced them in dying

Translated by Anne Hyde Greet