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!

 

 

 

s

 

 

 

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.

Judo in France II: tai otoshi

So, last night’s work-out was all about tai otoshi.  It was as well-thought-out as any judo class I’ve ever attended, I think.

We started with working on tsugi ashi.  Initially, we did the forward and backward (en arrière) movements of nage no kata.  Then we worked on going in different directions–sidewards, diagonally, and even around in semi-circles, which mystified me somewhat.  Next we worked on doing a little circle with our foot while moving…sideways?  Forward?  Not sure how to describe it.  This mystified me even more.

From there, we moved on to tai otoshi.  We started with the typical things–weight on the foot that you want to throw the guy over, etc.  Then we moved on to timing–the senseis showed how it was much easier to throw your partner if he’s walking and you attack the rear foot, which I think is different from anything I’ve seen before.  They’re right–it works well.  Finally, we worked on what to do if the guy steps around it, and that’s where the mysterious semicircles came in–you use them to go with your partner’s sideways movement.

Finally, we moved on to countering tai otoshi.  Here’s where the mystifying circle with your foot comes in–you use it esquiver (that mysterious word again–in this sense, to evade, the central meaning of the word) the throw and step around in front of your partner.  Then we learned three counter-throws, depending on how well your partner is pushing with his lapel grip–slip in for o goshi if he doesn’t have a good push there, turn all the way in for seoi nage if he has a strong push (really nice–you totally use his push against him), and ko soto gake if you can’t get in at all.

As always, Zipf’s Law brought some new words my way last night:

  • chuter: To fall.
  • esquiver: To evade, avoid, dodge.  I talked about this one a couple of posts ago.  Last night, the sensei used it in the most basic sense (in a judo context)–evading an attack.
  • en dessous: Beneath.  When you do tai otoshi, you need to attack beneath your opponent’s knee.
  • pêcher: To fish.  The sensei used this as Hideki Sensei does the English word–to describe the motion of the tsurite.
  • un enchaînement: In the judo sense, we would call this a combination.  It’s a chain, series, succession, sequence, linkage.
  • en arrière: Backwards.

Oh–the beautiful woman in her 50s showed up again, this time in civvies.  Incredibly elegant–like a movie star.  The old-fashioned kind, not the new kind.  I’m smitten.

Zipf’s Law strikes again

French words from walking around my neighborhood, checking out the various businesses:

  • le traiteur: Caterer.  I think it also might refer to a place/person that makes food to go.
  • la gestion: Management, administration.
  • un achat: Purchase, buying.  As opposed to…
  • la vente: Sales, selling.
  • le comptoir: A counter (as in a bar), although I see it more often in the sense of a bar.

Words from doing the grocery shopping:

  • le seiche: Cuttlefish (quite tasty grilled)
  • le poulpe: Octopus.  Having it for dinner, in a salad.
  • la coquille: Shell.
  • filme fraîchure: Saran wrap.
  • écrémé: Fat-free.