I couldn’t pass the high school exit exams in France, and not just because they’re in French

France has a highly competitive education system.  Your score on the high school exit exam–the baccalauréat général, usually referred to as the bac–does a lot to determine where you will go in your life afterwards.  Odd career paths like mine would be even less likely in France than they are in the US.

The bac is not easy.  Here are some example questions from the philosophy épreuve (see below), taken from this web page (and yes, philosophy is a required subject for high school students in France):

  • Is man condemned to create illusions about himself?
  • Can we prove a scientific hypothesis?
  • Does language betray thought?
  • Does historical objectivity presuppose an impartial historian?

As Nadeau and Barlow’s excellent book on France describes it: “The Bac exams in June are always covered by the media, starting with talk shows that invite guests to discuss and comment on the questions for the philosophy exam.”

Forget being able to pass the bac–thanks to Zipf’s Law, I have enough trouble just reading the analysis of the bac in the papers.  Here are some words that I had to look up from today’s article:

  • le dessous: as a preposition, it can mean on the bottom, underneath, under, or below.  As a noun, it has many meanings, including the downstairs apartment; bottom or underside; underwear; secrets, what lies behind something, hidden facts.  The headline of today’s newspaper story is Les dessous d’une note–good luck figuring out which sense is intended without reading the whole article!
  • la note: a number of meanings, including “note,” but also rating, mark, or grade–presumably the intended meaning here.
  • une épreuve: many meanings–in this case, part of an exam.  The article begins Après des épreuves de maths et de physique-chimie jugées trop dures, des consignes de clémence auraient été données aux correcteurs.
  • la consigne: a number of meanings.  In this case, an order or instruction, but also a baggage-checking room, as well as a deposit, as in a deposit on something that has to be returned. When you get into verbal and adjectival forms, it gets even more amusingly diverse, but we’ll leave that for another time.  (Addition: later in the day, I ran into this in an email from the director of the Institute regarding various and sundry things that people needed to do regarding the aménagement (layout, arrangement, set-up) of the new equipment room: Merci à tous de respecter ces consignes.)

There are, of course, many other words that Zipf’s Law brings us in the rest of the article, but at least now we can read the first sentence!  Almost, at any rate: I can’t even figure out what tense auraient été is, let alone what it means!



I can haz cheeseburger?

My morning conversation with my office mate, reconstructed to the best of my ability:

Brigitte: why are you sitting in the cafeteria this morning?

Me: the woman who is my desk is here today.

Brigitte: Oh, that’s right—Véronique is here. The desk by the door is free, though.

Me: each one is sitting at the desk by the door today.

Brigitte: no, there’s no one there.

Me: it’s OK—I is leaving early today.

Sigh…   Hope I can manage to get one non-idiotic sentence out of my mouth before I go home in a month…



You can’t even have a snack without running into Zipf’s Law

One of the great things about my current neighborhood is the fruit and vegetable stand.  Since the time that the proprietress chewed me out properly for picking up and sniffing the fruit, we’ve gotten along great, and I get a smile every day when I stop by to pick up my daily allotment of fresh fruit.  As always, Zipf’s Law strikes:

  • la prune: plum.  At the fruit stand this morning, I just had to point and grunt, because I didn’t know the word.
  • la framboise: rasperry.  Some great-looking tarts à la framboise at the corner patisserie.
  • la tomate: tomato.  Luckily, there was a sign by the tomatoes this morning, so I didn’t have to point-and-grunt.
  • mûr: ripe, mature.  I actually learned this word before coming here, but it sounds just like the word mur (“wall”), and when she asked me if I wanted figs that were mûr, I thought, “what’s a wall-fig?”, until she asked me “are you going to eat them today?” and I figured out which word it was.   So, I think that this word merits entry on my list of words that I didn’t know.

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!