Tag Archives: france

Pardon my French

imageYou would think that speaking French would be easy given that something like 30% of English words come  from the French language.  It’s no coincidence that words like nouveau, espionage, cuisine, etiquette, encore and meringue, sound a little French and fancy.   However, the list does not end there, no it goes on and on…(google Wikipedia just to see how long…).  There are many more words, some less obvious than others, such as comfortable, ponder, air, garage, orange, and even car.    In fact, when you are in France, you will be amazed at how many words you recognise in the written form….words like pavilion, regrete, fatigue.

However, this is where the similarity ends..You may think you know French but do you really?   You might be able to sing along to the words of Kylie Minogue’s hit song perfectly, (remember, Je ne sais pas pourquoi?) or  you may find yourself using French/English words in your everyday conversation with ease…such as when asking your beau for a rendezvous!  You might even write RSVP on the bottom of every invite and actually know what it stands for.  In fact, since watching Master chef, you probably know the difference  between a terrine and a gratin…..or better still, maybe you pepper your sentences with real French words like voila!  But does this mean you can speak French?  And more importantly can you be understood?

We all know it’s a disaster  to try and say many of these French  origin words phonetically…. somehow, we just know how to say them (those familiar to us, anyway).   But can you think back to when you first tried to say any of these or other French sounding words?  Did you cringe when someone corrected you ( its not fox pas…its foe pah!).  Did you first whisper it quietly before feeling bolder and more confident to talk about your “déjà  vu moment while having  hors d’ouvers at the haute coutture shop?”

The words you already know may seem like child’s play…but what about all the rest..e.g the ENTIRE French language…what do you think then…  Do you think you’ll just be able to fake it by putting on a French accent and sounding all posh?!  Well…. close enough…pronouncing any of the words with a French flair is defintiely a good start.

So when WE  got to France, I was feeling particularly smug.  Firstly, I had a background in Italian and some Spanish so this was just another one  of those Latin languages.  I also found, that I could recognise many of the words I saw, I just couldn’t say them in a way that was understood by anyone except for me.

Somehow, an ocean exists between the way I say  a french word and the way it’s meant to be said….  When we were in South America, I cringed when I heard someone pronounce   “hola”  like they were some rodeo riding a bucking bronco…  (oooohhh laaaa). I thought, how could they get it so wrong… but then I found myself in France, wondering how my request for “creme brulee” was not understood, then mistaken for cafe au lait, until finally I had to point to the word on the menu… ahh,  ickkrrrreme brulayy!. That’s what I thought I said, but no..

I met someone who told me, the French aren’t rude, they just don’t understand what your saying.  I think there is a lot of truth in that.

I remember my Italian cousin finding it hard to differentiate between the sounds of  beach and bitch.  There is a huge difference, and you don’t want to make the mistake of getting it wrong.  So when your speaking French, do you really know what it is that your actually asking for!  Carrying flash cards or miming the words might just be safer!

The French people we met weren’t as arrogant as I originally thought or as the stereotype suggests.  When I asked ” parlay vou anglais”  the answer usually was: yes a little.   This had changed from ten years ago when as a backpacker in France, the answer back then, was almost always no.  Given that we are struggling with speaking French, I gather the French might also be finding it somewhat difficult speaking English…..a bit of vis-a-vis.

French is not the sort of language, you can learn from your French phrasebook, no it’s not that simple and no you can’t be that lazy…. even the phonetics to help you with the pronunciation are way off the mark…. no, French is a language that must be learned by audio means.  So for this visit to France I packed a beginners 1 & 2 learning french audio CD pack.

Even my eldest son couldn’t get it quite right…. Up til that point he was doing brilliantly, repeating a word he heard once and getting the pronounciation perfect immediately.   Yet we arrived in France, and he couldn’t quite seem to get bonjour right, preferring to say bonjour’d.   Let’s say, I stopped asking him to “repeat after me”….

We found google translate useful, if not hilarious at times.  We had to write several emails to book camping accomodation for ourselves and confirming a spot for our two donkeys.   One email confirmation returned to us google translated  as “yes, we have room for you and your asses”!     It was funny because it sounded so correct and yet was horribly incorrect – the French would never be so crude, well not in a first email.   You will find the French to be unusually polite – addressing someone as madame or monsieur.  This form of greeting is not just reserved for the “older” generation, but used all the time.  It helps if you greet this way also upon entering a shop or store.    

So what is the best thing you can do to help  in the foreign language speaking department?  Start young and early.   There is a reason why many German and Dutch people speak English almost better than you.  Language learning starts early and its offered more than 30 minutes per week, more like 30 minutes per day.  I would often find myself forgetting that the German person I was conversing with was speaking to me in their second or third language.

However, if you didn’t quite start at age 3, never fear.  It can be harder learning  a new language as you get older as it requires more effort.  However, it’s never too late.   Visit a tourist country and you’ll find locals with very little schooling and who are sometimes a lot older than you (in their 60s+)  conversing in 4, 5 or 6 languages.  Unfortunately, a native English speaker  often has the expectation and assumption that everyone can or should speak English, no matter where they are in the world.

There is nothing quite like the experience of being misunderstood and the frustration of miscommunication to be more sympathetic to those who you encounter in the same position whether it be while travelling or meeting a non English speaker in your own country.  There’s nothing quite like a bit of humour, empathy, understanding and some patience to help someone get their message across or at least let them know that what they need to say is important even if it is a struggle.  So even if its talking in monosyllables,  a series of unintelligible grunts, pointing fingers and comic hand gestures….,we’ve all been there at some point…even if we have to think way back to our toddler years!



Knowing when to stop


You know your in France, when your husband starts making crepes everyday, your eldest childs favourite cheese is camembert, your calling baguettes by their real name not the inept name  of “french stick” and your other child is fussing about which croissant to have!

Yes, make no mistake about it, your in France and  your culinary taste buds are about to explode…..welcome to  a food lovers paradise!  I know it sounds snooty all this talk about gourmet cheeses, fancy pastries and overindulgence in sweet and savoury delights, however, we are in FRANCE!!   Not only  is it impossible to avoid the boulangeries with their amazing choice of good sweets but it would be unFrenchlike not to!   You can eat meringue, eclairs, profiteroles or French vanilla slices (again, not their real name!) and they are mouth wateringly good.  The other advantage is  that many of these things which you would expect to pay a fortune for back home,  are not as expensive as you would think….a wheel of Camembert  is the cheapest cheese you can buy at 1-2€ and baguettes and croissants are cheap at 80c compared to $3+ back home.  These treats need no longer be reserved just for special Sunday mornings.

However, before you do go crazy and buy one of everything, it is worth doing as the French do… The French diet consists of lots of overly fatty and sugary products… much the same as our western  diet, however  given the sorts of food you could overindulge in, the French should be up there as the nation with the highest obesity rate per  capita, but they are not.    No, France is not even ranked in the top ten countries yet NZ, Australia, Canada, and the European countries of England, Ireland, Finland and Luxembourg are.     The  U.S is at number one and even Australia held  the numero uno spot at one point.  I was relieved to see we had  dropped to 5.  But we are still number 5..  I have no issue with being a top ten country but would rather it be for things like having some of the most liveable cities in the world!

So whats the secret?  The French  have small portions and eat less of the food thats not so good for you.  No-one is going into the bakery and coming out with supersize me portions of chocolate eclairs, in fact most of the time there are more petit portions on offer than the normal sized ones.  It’s all about having those one or two delightful bites, just enough to enjoy and savour the taste and just enough to want more…but that will have to wait for tomorrow….The French must have amazing self discipline.

We camped next to a French couple who very generously offered us some of their petit sponge gateaus (cakes).  They had just shared their medium sized container of cakes amongst a large group of them, everyone took one and they were offering us the remaining eight…they weren’t saving them for later, for midnight snacks or early morning pick me ups.  They were done. And you know what the four of us scoffed them down…wow they were good…yet what is it in our thinking to want and even crave huge, gianormous portions of  food…it no longer becomes a taste sensation but a vomit sensation!!

Enjoying a plat du jour in France (menu of the day),  is a similar experience.. It’s impossible not to feel like your fine dining when you get 3 reasonable sized delicious portions of food and all for an affordable 12€.  The French just know how to make great  food all the time.  Even going for a bush walk in a National park in the south of france is a gourmet delight for the senses….we encountered lavender and rosemary bushes and even olive trees…

Another thing we noticed is the gusto with which the French enjoy their outdoour pursuits.  The French are  fanatic cyclists and walkers/hikers…that’s also bound to help them burn off any excess calories from the mornings pastry and coffee breakfast…!!

So the most important thing to remember when in France is not the “what should I eat”  so much but remembering when to stop!

Equality, liberty & fraternity… except for when it comes to dress

imagesCA0J0GHZEven if you don’t know much about French history, these three separate yet interlinked words can be associated with the  French. A bit like the three musketeers (sometimes the third gets forgotten) these words are well known. If you are in France, you will regularly see these three short and powerful words proudly adorned on the facade of many a town hall.

For some reason, the notion of equality and liberty doesn’t quite translate when it comes to the liberty of choosing your style of swimwear when visiting the  local swimming pool.

I can understand, the swimming caps (I had to purchase three of them, even for my 18 month old who has very little hair), I can understand the obligatory showering before entering the pool for hygiene reasons…. all this makes sense to me. I get it….  What I didn’t quite get, after 30 minutes of  getting my two kids and myself ready was being told that my 4 year old son who was wearing his new batman swim suit (shorts and top) was unable to enter  the pool because his shorts were too long….Imagine saying that to a 4 year old… I just stood there….really??!  We all must’ve looked so disappointed, forlorn and absolutely rooted to the ground…(there was no way I was going back through those change rooms…) that the lady went away for 10 minutes and returned to tell us that it was okay this one time…. phew….

So of course, the next time we went to the local pool (a different town this time and an aquatic fun centre – so no swimming caps required here), I made sure my husband knew the rules… wear the short shorts. We could conform too, you know. Well, it wasn’t long (this time we got into the pool and even had a splash in the water) before my husband got pulled up by the fashion police patrol, or should I say lifeguards… The only reason he got caught out was because he decided to go and have a turn on the waterslide…if only he kept low and discrete and not brought attention to himself, you know blended in with the crowd…

It was then that we discovered rule number 2, it’s not about the shorts being short (my husband was wearing his running shorts) but about the right style of shorts, the new version male  speedo swim shorts. Well it appears that they have become the uniform poster outfit of the French pools (has the French president taken to wearing them?!). So, much like a national holiday is declared, these shorts have been declared THE only swimwear that can be worn in the pool… for boys and men.

This time, we were told we could purchase a pair at the front counter…isn’t that handy… and all for some ridiculous price.   I’m beginning to wonder whether its a revenue raising venture… some company out there is making a hell of a lot of mens’ swimsuits to meet France’s dress code requirements… I have no idea what the requirements are for women, other than, at this stage, my two piece tank top which is faded and years old, has not offended or violated any French law.

So, too bad, if your an awkard teenager, a modest sort of a guy, or one who just wants to wear whatever the hell he feels like… .. sorry no liberty to chose your own swimsuit here and as far as fraternity goes…well you’ll be in it together…all wearing the same style shorts looking all very much…the same….!