Wooden boats all dressed up for the holidays. More about le bois in today's story. Enjoy French delicacies? Don't miss the sweet column at the end of the edition. If today's word is too easy for you, find some more advanced terms in the story below.
TODAY'S WORD: le bois
AUDIO: Listen to all the French words in today's story by clicking on the sound file below. Then scroll to the vocabulary section and check your comprehension.
A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE by Kristi Espinasse
If it's wintertime where you live and you have a wood-burning stove or fireplace, maybe you have discovered the joy of collecting sticks? I talked last week about our morning promenades, and today I'll share one of the multi-purpose benefits of la marche--because besides being good for the mind and body walking is good for treasure-hunting. More about that in a minute. First, some history for the wood-related term "stere," from Wikipedia:
"The name was coined from the Greek stereós, "solid", in 1795 in France as a metric analogue to the cord. The unit was introduced to remove regional disparities of this former unit, for which the length could vary greatly from 6 to 13.5 m. It is not part of the modern metric system and is no longer a legal unit in France, but remains used in the commerce of firewood."
En hiver, a stère of wood is a treasure, especially when you have gone to collect the logs and stack them yourself. Jean-Marc drove to Aubagne recently, to a wood yard, where the two of us filled the back of our jeep with logs. It was amusing driving up onto the vehicle-size scale to weigh our car and then weigh it again after we filled it with le bois. I wish I'd brought gloves for protection, but we managed to pile a bunch of le chêne into our bagnole. After driving back onto the scale to weigh our load, a giant digital screen registered 190 kilos. The next step was to park in front of a trailer (inside of which a secretary was tallying up our purchase). The total price? 50 euros.
Returning home to stack les bûches beside our front door, I was surprised at how little 190 kilos amounted to once we stood back to admire our (short) wood stack! Ah well. The upside about helping my husband with the firewood--and learning to build a fire--is how it has opened my eyes to all the wood treasures out there. I can hardly wait to get out of bed each morning and take off in search of sticks!
It is amazing how much kindling can be found in our neighborhood here in town. This isn't the woody countryside. And yet, each morning I'm delighted to find small branches and hearty twigs here and there along le trottoir. It must be the wind blowing everything around at night. Trees lose their flimsy limbs, delivery trucks leave behind morcels of crates (or entire cageots), and beautiful pine cones salt and pepper the ground all around!
In the beginning, before wood-collecting became our winter sport (it involves lots of lunging and bending), Jean-Marc and I would return home with a few sticks each, but as our outings continued, so did my appetite for kindling. Now we carry a bag (Jules' suggestion) and often manage to fill it.
Jean-Marc doesn't have the same enthusiasm for our firewood findings. He won't shout "LOOK AT THIS ONE!!” each time a thick stick is discovered. But he is a willing and faithful accomplice. (And just this morning he did finally shout “LOOK AT THIS ONE!!” if only to humor me. Or maybe he is finally feeling the joy in it? In nature's equivalent of dumpster diving!)
Across the street from where the trucks deliver to the local eateries, there's the beach--another good place to treasure hunt. I have had my eye on an 8ft long log that washed up to shore a month ago. But pride keeps me from waking my husband and stealing out into the night with a giant saw. What if someone noticed us? Besides, there must be laws against collecting wood in certain areas. But picking up smaller pieces of driftwood seems to be ok....
When I feel self-conscious about how the two of us look walking home with armloads of sticks each day, I make a joke of it: "Our neighbors are going to start referring to us as Monsieur et Madame Bois or Monsieur et Madame Bâton..." Thankfully the older you get the less you care! How do you say that in French? Because I'm going to carve it on one of my bâtons!
Madame Bâton. The bag is practical (and helps with discretion).
When we return from our walk, I like to set all the wood along the stone stairs, where the sun helps to bake them dry. Stepping back to admire the short and tall bâtons, I see more than a lineup of sticks: I see so many funny characters.
Free tinder or kindling in the city does have its downside (if some of you are smiling now, you have already figured out what took me weeks to understand: we have lots of dogs in town, and they only have one place to pee—on the ground, near...or on...these wood treasures). But even that won't stop me from picking up sticks. I'm too obsessed. (Lately I wear gloves, when I remember to bring them.) More than an obsession, I like to think that, like the resourceful ant, we are building, day by day, a useful reserve for our family. And sitting here typing this story next to the fire, in a warm room, feels cozy and good!
* * *
P.S.: To be clear, none of the sticks I've picked up are smelly. No good dog would pee on a stick (would it?). Sticks are for tossing and chasing! And sticks are for hunting and heating. Tell me, what do you do with your picked-up sticks? Do you make art with driftwood? Let us know in the comments.
Sticks and wood collected on the beach--there's even a half-burnt log (score!), and a lot of driftwood.
This wild, woody pile was a gift from our son Max. Can you guess what it is? Hint: it comes from a vineyard and is excellent firewood for the BBQ. Answer: These are "les sarments" or woody vine shoots. Skip to the photo below for a French dessert or sweet of the same name....
la marche = walking
un stère = stere of wood
en hiver = in winter
le chêne = oak
le bois = wood
la bagnole = (slang) car
une bûche = log
le trottoir = sidewalk
le cageot = crate
le bâton = stick
le sarment = vine shoot
la friandise = candy, sweet
Sweet of the Week: Les sarments. (Popularly known as "orangettes.") These chocolate orange “shoots” (sarments = that part of the grapevine that is pruned in winter) are made up of a piece of candied orange peel and dark chocolate.
This time of year you’ll see these candies drying behind the counter of our local pâtisserie, where my son Max picked up a few hundred grams of the delicacy for a recent Sunday lunch.
Sarments are a Christmas specialty and a favorite friandise to savor with coffee or tea. To be extra decadent have them with hot chocolate.
Sunset over the shipyard in La Ciotat, and a parasol pine tree about to release more cones. May you find many treasures in your day. See you next week and thank you for reading.
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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety