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Entries from February 2006



French Word-A-Day is back now that winter break is over and our kids are in school again--growing their brains with soustraction,* imperfect (tensed) verbs, poetry, geography and more until the electric cloche rings at 4:30 p.m. Ahhh....

une cloche (klush) noun, feminine
  1. bell

Une ville sans cloche est comme un aveugle sans sa canne. A town without a bell is like a blind man without his cane. --Jean Fischart

A Day in a French Life...

                Our new neighbors, The Clochettes

We returned home from the snowy French Alps to find the empty lot across the street occupé.* "Well, that was fast!" I said, as we pulled into our driveway past the flowering hydrangea bush. Here in southeast France, I have witnessed houses pop up like champignons* but this was the first time I've seen the tenants flock to the property even before the toit* was set.

Max, Jackie, and I rushed over to check out the new neighbors who were already making a racket. Not only were they noisy (with all that bleating and bell clanking), but they were restless. Still without a roof over their heads, only the pine and butterscotch-leafed chestnut trees for cover, they were busy working in the yard, cutting back most of the wild grass--and needless of a clunky machine--they were mowing it with their mouths...

A portable fence now ran the length of the block, defining their domain. "Territorial ones at that!" I thought. The kids and I studied the greedy newcomers from the foot of a crumbling stone restanque,* just next to a row of beat-up mailboxes beneath which a pile of flyers was scattered, the promotional offers now bleeding and blurred from the sun and rain. Jean-Marc collected the mail before bending over to pick up the soggy litter.

"Regardez leurs clochettes!"* Max said pointing to the copper-plated bells around the neighbors' wooly necks. On closer look, our new neighbors were not so new. Come to think of it, I'd seen the four-legged gitans* eating their way across other pastures in our area. I'd even driven two kilometers per hour--all the way home from the village--when caught at the tail end of their nomadic flock.

Early the next morning I slowly parted the curtains at the kitchen window to spy on our foraging friends across the street. Instead, I saw clear past the lot, unhindered by the bulky baaing beige mass, all the way to the baker's home with its bright burgundy shutters, which were still fastened shut. I hurried out of the house and over to the dirt road to watch the mass exodus of 200 moutons* (and one awkward âne*) in transit once more, headed down the country lane toward the blooming garrigue,* having up and moved 'à la cloche de bois'.*

References: la soustraction (f) = subtraction; occupé = occupied; le champignon (m) = mushroom; le toit (m) = roof; une restanque (f) = terrace held by a stone wall; regardez leurs clochettes! = look at their (little) bells!; le gitan (la gitane) = gypsy; le mouton (m) = sheep; un âne (m) = donkey; la garrigue (f) = wild Mediterranean scrubland; déménager à la cloche de bois = to sneak off in the night
Ne comptez pas les moutons--Don't count sheep...the next time you're up late, see an excellent French film.

Listen: Hear the word cloche pronounced Download cloche.wav

Terms & Expressions:
Quelle cloche! = What an imbecile!
avoir l'air cloche = to look stupid
clochettes bleues = bluebells (flower)
une cloche à fromage = cheese cover
se taper la cloche = to stuff oneself

Another story about a cloche--this time "la cloche volante" or "the flying bell"--in my book "Words in a French Life":
Words_in_a_french_life Words in a French Life: "...a heart-winning collection from an American woman raising two very French children with her French husband in Provence, carrying on a lifelong love affair with the language."

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
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Roulez au Pastis (c) Kristin Espinasse









Jean-Marc with his genial 'mop-spear'. Read on...


noun, feminine
a spear

While preparing for a romantic getaway, I asked my husband where he had set his suitcase. That was when he informed me he wasn't taking one. I guessed the shirt on his back would be, once again, sufficient for an overnight trip, and that he would just borrow my toothbrush and deodorant, comme d'habitude.

No matter how many times I object—Beurk!—regarding the toothbrush-sharing and—c'est pour les femmes!—concerning the deodorant, he does as he pleases. Such accoutrements and hygienic hassles are unimportant details—downright snags—in his very down-to-earth existence.

Meantime, life beckons with its rugged, cobalt-blue sea and its remote, Mediterranean coves now bursting with succulent sea urchins. Such were the treasures we were about to rediscover over the weekend, on the quaint French island of Porquerolles, where Jean-Marc had reserved a Valentine's Day retreat.

On the eve of our departure, I found my husband in the kitchen fashioning an impromptu spear from a floor mop.

"Where'd you get that?" I questioned, pointing to my mop.

"I didn't think you used it," he said, innocently.

"That's beside the point!"

Rather than argue, Jean-Marc began to pierce holes in one end of the mopstick, having already removed its stringy top....

"Hey! What are you doing?!" I asked as I stood there, goggle-eyed, not sure whether I really cared about the mop, but shocked, all the same, to witness its demise.

Jean-Marc opened the silverware drawer and reached for a fork. He had found an old shoelace and was now using it to tie the fork to the end of the mop. For an instant, I was tempted to calculate just how many gasoline points we had saved to pay for that fork... only this, too, was beside the point. Come to think of it, just what was the point? What on earth was he rigging together this time? A hunting lance, I think he said it was?

"Let it go!" I thought to myself, for the umpteenth time in 10 years of marriage. I walked out of the kitchen, leaving my husband to explore his creative side—at the expense of yet another cooking or cleaning utensil.

By the time we arrived in the coastal town of Hyères to catch the navette, I'd long since gotten over the novelty of the wacky, homemade hunting implement. It was when we began to receive odd looks from the other passengers that I realized just how goofy (worse—psychopathic!) my husband appeared, sitting there with a blank look on his face and the mop-fork spear at his side. One woman got up and changed seats. Another pulled her child close. A few people whispered. More than one set of eyes narrowed.

Jean-Marc sat oblivious to the commotion. I'm certain he was dreaming of the day's catch—all those spiky oursins (and the delicacy inside them: sea urchin roe), the ones he would soon rake in with his clever, multi-purpose outil.

There he sat, dreaming of the new frontiers he would be forging with the aid of his... mop. He was terribly impressed by how the mop-spear doubled as a walking stick.

"Look," he said, tap-tap-tapping it against the ground, stepping gleefully forward and backward for effect.

I shook my head, reminded of life's simple pleasures, and of my husband, who is like the child who pushes aside the newly-acquired toy to play with the champagne cork. May he continue to free himself of life's superficial snags, to enjoy the ongoing adventure that thunders beneath his French feet. May he go forward, unadorned by all that is superflu. May fashion or deodorant never hinder him from his burning quest to discover the rugged coastline, where shellfish rock gently beneath the shimmering sea.

Should the road less traveled ever get too bumpy, he'll have his mopstick to lean on—and he'll have me, too.

French Vocabulary

comme d'habitude = as usual
beurk! = ew, yuck!
la garrigue (f) = Mediterranean scrubland
la navette = shuttle (ferry boat)
une lance = spear
un oursin = a sea urchin
un outil = a tool
le superflu = excess

Did you see any typos or ambiguities? Thank you for pointing them out, here, in the comments box.


Listen: hear Jean-Marc pronounce the word 'lance': Download lance2.wav


baisser la lance = "to lower the spear," to yield; to give in
rompre une lance = "to break a lance" to support an argument
rompre des lances pour quelqu'un = to defend someone
rompre des lances contre quelqu'un = to cross swords with someone
être à beau pied sans lance = "on foot without a spear," to be ruined


Citation du Jour:
La France fut faite à coups d'épée. La fleur de lys, symbole d'unité nationale, n'est que l'image d'un javelot à trois lances. France was built with sword strikes. The fleur-de-lis, symbol of national unity, is only the image of a javelin with three pikes. -Charles de Gaulle

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
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Chocolate shop in St. Tropez (c) Kristin Espinasse

Happy Fête des Amoureux*--or Valentine's Day! Don't miss today's column where you will learn more than a dozen ways to say "darling" in French.

amouracher (a-moor-a-shay) verb; s'amouracher de = to become infatuated with, to fall head over heels in love              

Le coeur découvre, la tête invente. The heart discovers, the head invents.-Arthur Cravan

Les Mots Doux ~ Terms of Endearment
It may seem strange that the French, widely regarded as one of the most sophisticated and beautiful people on the globe, use some of the most strange (and not so beautiful) terms to refer to their belle/beau (loved one). Take, for example, "ma puce" which means "my flea" (very popular here); also "mon chou" or "my cabbage" (beau, n'est-ce pas?). Here are a few more original ways to say sweetheart:

mon amour (mohn a-moor) = my love
mon bébé (mohn bay-bay) = baby
ma belle (mah bel) = my beautiful (one)
ma biche (mah beesh) = my doe
ma caille (mah kahy) = my quail
mon canard (mohn ka-nar)= my duck
ma chérie/mon chéri (mah/mohn shay-ree) = my dear
mon chou* (mohn shoo) = my cream puff (sweetie-pie, cupcake)
mon coeur (mohn ker) = my sweetheart
mon lapin (mohn la-pahn) = my rabbit
ma moitié (mah mwa-tyay) = my half
mon poulet (mohn poo-lay) = my chicken
mon trésor (mohn tray-zor) = my treasure
mon poussin (mohn poo-sahn) = my chick
ma puce (mah poose) = my (little flea)
mon sucre d'orge (mohn sookr-dorzh) = my barley sugar
ma petite crotte (mah pteet crot) = my little turd
*from mon chou à la crème

..........................French Vocabulary.........................

la fête des amoureux = the lovers' celebration; une toquade (f) = crush. Read about Max's crush in the book Words in a French Life--coming May 2nd!

Listen: hear the word 'amouracher': Download amouracher.wav

Some related "heart" expressions:
un coup de coeur = a spontaneous attraction (to someone or something)
vider son coeur = to reveal one's feelings

Do you see the heart? And, talk about in theme: that's passion fruit!

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
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la poule

Boulangerie patisserie in la Motte (c) Kristin Espinasseune poule (pool) noun, feminine
  hen, fowl

(sound clip and expressions follow at the end of this edition)

Celui qui veut manger des oeufs, doit supporter les poules.
He who wants to eat eggs, must put up with the hens.

A Day in a French Life...

I take the one-way road through the town of la Motte, searching for a parking space along avenue Fred Mistral. Another car is tailing me so I cannot in good conscience slow down and hunt for parking. I end up making a left turn on rue du Moulin* to park near a chicken coop around the corner from the Mairie* and just a few steps from the honey shop; the sign in the window, just beneath a flapping blue and yellow striped awning, reads "Mangez du miel. C'est naturel." Eat honey. It's natural.

The wind is coursing through the riverain* town and the tall buildings cast shadows over the tiered and narrow streets, canceling out any warmth that the sun could have offered. I shut and lock the car door, salute the hens, zip up my parka, and prepare my digital camera for the few snapshots it will take in the next hour before it is time to return home to pick up the kids from school.

At two p.m. on a Thursday afternoon the Mottois and Mottoise (pronounced 'moh-twa' and 'moh-twahz')--as residents of la Motte are called--are either siesting or getting a head-start on afternoon chores; those that aren't sleeping or scrubbing are poking their heads out of their windows like the first buds of spring, lured by an endless blue sky and the sun, though hidden behind the tall

On rue du Four I see a woman leaning out of a second floor window. She is hanging white socks, one after the other, across a drooping wire line which runs beneath the window.
"Bonjour," I call up, somewhat embarrassed.
"Bonjour, madame," she replies.

I snap a photo of the street sign "Rue du Four" so as to look like I am ambling with purpose and not simply ambling. As I walk away, tucking my camera back into my pocket, I curse the abashed photographer for not adding "madame" to her greeting, as in "Bonjour, madame." Saying "bonjour" is not enough.

I didn't mean to be impolite or dismissive--no, I did not mean to dismiss. In fact, I would have loved to have stopped and conversed with Madame. I could have begun by pointing out that we hang socks in the same way. (But that would be incorrect; I tend to pile one sock on top of another, never having enough clothespins for an entire batch of chaussettes.*) I could have asked her where the oven was on "rue du Four" or "Oven Street". Perhaps that's when she would have come down to indicate it, at which point she would have noticed how my lips were beginning to turn blue from the cold. She might then have asked me in for coffee. Pourquoi pas?* We would have climbed the red-tiled staircase, chipped and in need of repair, to her second floor apartment. She would have gone to the armoire in the kitchen and pulled out a big tin box of assorted gateaux*--butter, sugar, and chocolate-covered cookies to dunk into the coffee she that would have offered me. We would have talked about "tout et rien" or "everything and nothing" including the man who just walked by with the two unleashed Labradors or the guy with the ponytail leaning out of the window one street back. She must know all her neighbors, or know of them. The stories she could tell... Hélas,* I am too chicken--or 'poule mouillée'*--to stop and say anything beyond 'bonjour'.

When I reach the end of Rue du Four, still wondering where the oven is, I pause to stare back at the woman hanging socks, a would-be friend. Looking up, I am relieved to discover Rue du Tonnerre* and wonder where that street might lead. Off I go, taking the road less traveled which, for once, is less risky than the one just trodden.

References: Rue (f) du Moulin (m) = Mill Street; la mairie (f) = town hall; riverain(e) = riparian, riverside; la chaussette (f) = sock; pourquoi pas? = why not?; le gâteau (sec) (m) = cookie; hélas = unfortunately; poule mouillée ("wet chicken") = coward(ly); Rue (f) du Tonnerre (m) = Thunder street
Go beyond bonjour and meet a few more small town characters in my book, Words in a French Life

Listen: hear Jean-Marc pronounce the word "poule" Download poule.wav

Terms &Expressions:
se lever avec les poules = to be an early riser
se coucher avec les poules = to go to bed early
tuer la poule aux oeufs d'or = to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs
quand les poules auront les dents = "when chicken have teeth" = it will never happen

Learn more French expression and idioms, check out this book.
You will find the French word poule referenced in these books:
French Connections: Hemingway and Fitzgerald Abroad
French Connections: Hemingway and Fitzgerald Abroad by J. Gerald Kennedy and Jackson R. Bryer
Simple French Food
Simple French Food by Richard Olney, James Beard, and Patricia Wells
My First 100 Words In French And English (A Pull-the-Tab Language Book)
My First 100 Words In French And English (A Pull-the-Tab Language Book) by Keith Faulkner and Paul Johnson

Baby Einstein: Language Discovery Cards: Images and Words to Teach and Delight... (Baby Einstein)
Baby Einstein: Language Discovery Cards: Images and Words to Teach and Delight... (Baby Einstein) by Julie Aigner-Clark

Jacques Pépin's Table: The Complete "Today's Gourmet"
Jacques Pépin's Table: The Complete "Today's Gourmet" by Jacques Pepin

Against Interpretation: And Other Essays
Against Interpretation: And Other Essays by Susan Sontag

The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time: Wit and Wisdom from the Popular Language Column in the New York Times Magazine
The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time: Wit and Wisdom from the Popular Language Column in the New York Times Magazine by William Safire

Paris Bistro Cooking
Paris Bistro Cooking by Linda Dannenberg

Joan of Arc: Her Story
Joan of Arc: Her Story by Regine Pernoud, Marie-Veronique Clin, and Jeremy duQuesnay Adams

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
♥ Contribute $10    
♥ Contribute $25    
♥ Contribute the amount of your choice


Traiteur pain (c) Kristin Espinasse (a thin photo)

maigrichon (may-gree-shon) adjective
  thin, slight

Citation du Jour:
Un de mes frères était si maigre que lorsqu'il avait bu un verre de vin rouge, on le prenait pour un thermomètre.

One of my brothers was so thin that once he had drunk a glass of red wine others took him for a thermometer.

                                            --Pierre Doris

A Day in a French Life...

I push a pile of papers, a bottle of eau gazeuse,* a few thirsty ballpoint pens, two dictionaries, one French phrasebook and two pocket carnets* to the end of my desk. Next, I tell Max to move the loose-leaf manuscript off the extra chair so that he can sit down and do his devoirs.* "Quietly," I remind him. He is supposed to do his homework in his room but when he appeared at the foot of my desk earlier, asking in his sweetest voice (and in English with a heart-melting French accent) "Mommy, can I work in here?", how could I refuse?

Max sits at the L-shaped table, a four-inch thick Larousse dictionary in front of him. Beside the dictionary there lies his green cahier d'essai* and his over-stuffed trousse* with pencils, erasers, and rulers threatening to spill out. In his right hand he holds his blue fountain pen. Now settled, he speaks:

"Maman, tu n'as pas de mots dans la famille du mot maigrichon?"
(Mom, you don't have any words in the family of the word maigrichon?)

This was a most complicated sentence in French (or in English) for me to unravel. The first image that pops into my head is of a family named Maigrichon, and have I had a word with them lately? Having no idea what my son is talking about I turn to him and look him in the oeil.* He responds:
"Maigrichon, you know..." and with that he points to his stomach and sucks it in until his rib cage juts out like the serious overbite I had as a child.

Who needs to borrow her son's four-inch French dictionary when she has a living, breathing, gesticulating definition sitting next to her?
My son's assignment, it turns out, is to look up a list of words and find further word relations to the individual mots.* "OK, Max: 'a word family for maigrichon'. Let's see..." I flip through the dictionary and arrive at page 615. There, near the bottom of the third column, Max spots a family reunion of the word kind. There is Father Maigre* and the triplets Maigrelet,* Maigrichon* and Maigriot.* There's old uncle Maigrement,* and cousin Maigreur.* How they resemble one another--all so thin!--and how kind they are (or well-meaning or, rather, similar in meaning). Finally, there is Grandma Maigrir who overlooks the wordy bunch with a proud and loving eye.

I can relate to Grandma Maigrir and I throw an appreciative look over to my son--thanks to him I've just fattened up by five or so new words (and not by almost five kilos,* as I did when I got my teeth straightened and moved to France).

References: l'eau gazeuse (f) = sparkling water; le carnet (m) = notebook; le devoir (m) = homework; le cahier d'essai = practice notebook; la trousse (f) = case (pencil); l'oeil (m) = eye; le mot (m) = word; maigre = thin, skinny; maigrelet(te), maigrichon(ne), maigriot(te) = scrawny, a little thin; maigrement = meagerly; la maigreur (f) = thinness, leanness; maigrir = to lose weight; un kilo (kilogramme) = 2.2 pounds
More stories on French life in my book "Words in a French Life"--click on cover to view:


.............More on maigre.................................

Listen: hear my son, Max, pronounce the word "maigrichon": Download maigrichon.wav
maigre comme un clou = "thin as a nail" (thin as a rail)
c'est un peu maigre = it's insufficient
faire maigre = to abstain from meat and fatty foods

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
♥ Contribute $10    
♥ Contribute $25    
♥ Contribute the amount of your choice

le béton

    Les Millesimes wine shop in Chateauneuf-du-Pape (c) Kristin Espinassse



noun, masculine


My son has mentioned wanting to be a baker or a construction worker when he grows up, but I suspect his talent might lie in styling.

For the past year Max has been working hard at perfecting what I call the gentleman's Mohawk: "gentleman's," for the understated height of the hair, so subtle you could almost get away with it at the office or at school... if your mom weren't waiting by the front door each morning with the flat side of her hand ready to "mow" down your "hawk".

"It's called une crête," Max corrects me, "...une crête iroquoise!"
"OK, Max. But you aren't allowed to wear your hair like that to school. It isn't polite."

But wear his hair like that at home he does, so much so that he is running out of gel again.
"Papa," Max asks during the drive to school, "the next time you go to the supermarket can you get me the 'gel fixation béton'?"

I can't help but laugh at what he has just requested: "concrete binding gel."

"Even if you spin on your head," Max insists, "your hair won't move—not one millimeter! My friend Lucas has the concrete gel and the last time he fell on his head rien a bougé! Not one hair went out of place!"

Recently I came across une pub for the gel my son requested. The ad suggests that with the help of this product, "les cheveux sont durs comme du béton!"

"Hard as concrete?..." I am reminded of Max's other when-I-grow-up wish: to work in masonry. Yes! I am finally seeing the subconscious connection! OK, in that case our son will need to rule out baking... or take the risk that his pâtisseries have the lightness or the flakiness of a cinder block!


French Vocabulary

une crête
 = comb, crest
une crête iroquoise = Mohawk (hair)
Papa = Dad
rien a bougé = nothing moved
la pub (publicité) = advertisement
les cheveux sont durs comme du béton = the hair is as hard as concrete
la pâtisserie = cake 

Your Edits, Please!
Do you see any typos in this story? Is the episode clear and understandable? Thanks for your feedback and suggestions here, in the comments box!



Citation du Jour:
L'oeuvre d'art naît du renoncement de l'intelligence à raisonner le concret.
The work of art is born of the intelligence's refusal to reason the concrete
                                                                                  --Albert Camus

Listen: hear the word béton pronounced: Download beton.wav

Terms and expressions:
laisse béton! = forget it!
bétonner (verb) = to consolidate; to build using concrete
le bétonnage = defensive play (football)
la bétonneuse = cement mixer

More on Max's travails with the tube (of gel) in the book Words in a French Life.

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
♥ Contribute $10    
♥ Contribute $25    
♥ Contribute the amount of your choice


       Toilettage = (dog) Grooming (c) Kristin Espinasse

zinguer (zehn-gay) verb
  ...would that today's word translated to 'zinger' or 'a striking or caustic remark' but no, it simply means 'to cover with zinc...' Useful, no?

Citation du Jour:
  Sans morale, la politesse ne sert que de cache-misère.
  Without ethics, politeness only serves as a cover up.
--Georges Koussouros

A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

Dominique and I sat out front of le Café du Commerce watching the metal-toothed dragons file by. Make that "les Dracénois," or "inhabitants of Draguignan" for, being teenagers with angst firing from their metallic mouths (braces...), 'dragons' seems like a fun, if not a fitting, term of endearment.

"C'est nul, Draguignan!" one ado* said to the cluster of teens around him. "Il n'y a rien qui se passe ici! Nothing's happening here!" My friend and I sipped our tea, smiles of complicity growing across our faces. Depending on how you looked at Draguignan--a town named after the legendary dragon that inhabited the Rhône River in the 13th century--the place could be dead or divine.

Take the painted and etched building fronts, for example, and the raison d'être* for our visit (besides tea and a tchatche*). Around every corner we were awed by another old, swirly-lettered sign. "I think it is called signography or typography or... " I searched for a term, real or made up, for the beautifully-lettered signs. "Lettrage, for the pretty letters," Dominique volunteered, "and 'enseignes' for those kinds of signs--which give information--or 'ren-seigne-ments' about the shop."

We strolled along the cobbled path, studying the painted 'devantures,' or shop fronts, deciding that they were either "vieilles,"* "très vieilles"* or "modern." We were making our way to the old part of the city via la rue de l'Observance when Dominique paused. "Look," she said. There, across the narrow street, high up on the side of a building, was an old painted advertisement for pharmaceutical products. How many times had I crossed it and never noticed it? The sign was so faded from la pluie* and le vent* that you had to stare until the pink and gray words (formerly vivid red and blueberry bleu*?) came into view: "Pastilles Bel suppriment la toux." ("Bel lozenges suppress coughing.")

We followed the serpentine road to a small square, known as La Place aux Herbes, where the old writer's café, 'Mille Colonnes,' sits like a bookend on one side of the quiet placette.* There, we spontaneously turned right.

Along rue des Chaudronniers,* the homes and shops--connected one to the other and rising three floors skyward--were both dilapidated and proud. One woman in a housecoat stood on a doorstep, a bucket of water beside her, mop in hand, eyeing my friend and me as if we'd just landed our spaceship over at the placette.

Further down the path, where rue des Chaudronniers becomes rue du Jeu de Paume,* I backed into a corner to snap a photo of an enamel street sign when the scent of urine filled my nose. I jumped out of the alley to rejoin my friend who waited in front of the toilettage* boutique. Two shops down, a woman with a shaved head, heavy frame, and a piercing ring in her right brow stood in front of a bar, sanding an old green shutter and pausing to offer a warm bonjour.

Rounding another block of homes/shops, and not far from rue Blancherie, we stumbled upon a colorful, letter crowded sign--one of the words jutting out like a poppy on the first day of spring. "'Zinguerie'--what a word! What does it mean?" I asked my friend. Without missing a beat, Dominique knocked on the metal pipe running up the building behind me. "It has to do with zinc work, like in plumbing."

Lastly, we entered the ancient tannery section, with its crumbling buildings and pigeons peeking out from the missing slats of the window shutters. There we rejoined the cobbled road to the Café du Commerce where we would soon encounter the metal-toothed dragons and know, with a shared smile and clink of the teacups, that the city is not dead, but rich and lively if one will only see, literally, the ancient writing on the walls.

References: un(e) ado (m,f) (adolescent) = a teen; la raison d'être (f) = reason for being (purpose); tchatche (from the verb 'tchatcher,' to chat); vieille = old; très vieille = very old; la pluie (f) = rain; le vent (m) = wind; bleu = blue; la placette (f) = small square; le chaudronnier (m) = coppersmith; le jeu de paume = "the game of the palm" (the French sport, a precursor to lawn Tennis, was played without rackets); le toilettage (m) = grooming (dog)

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Audio File: Hear the word zinguer pronounced: Download zinguer.wav

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A wee fender-bender in the neighborhood...  well, that's one way to meet your neighbor! Read on in today's story column.

le choc
(shok) n.m.
    : impact, crash, bump; clash; shock

Toute culture naît du mélange, de la rencontre, des chocs. A l'inverse, c'est de l'isolement que meurent les civilisations. All cultures are born out of mingling, meetings and clashes. Conversely, civilizations die from isolation. --Octavio Paz

(February 2006)

"C'était tout bête," as the French say. "It was so stupid," the accident I had at the end of my street. I had pulled up to the crooked T-intersection, slowing my car to a complete stop. Having looked left, then right, then left again, I pulled forward to turn, as I've done hundreds of times before.

I felt the impact before I even saw the car. A soft choc.* Like a bumper-car bump, nothing abrupt--no slammed brakes, no flying glass or screeching metal. I was well into my left turn when the right front-end of my car collided with the left side of the oncoming car.

Hit. No! Safe. Thanks. Neighbor. Mercedes! Insurance... English words running through a stupefied mind in the French countryside.

The victim, or "accidentée," (a neighbor) pulled her black Mercedes to the side of the road, just next to the old, slouching-over-the-lane mulberry tree, across from a field of hibernating vines. I followed, pulling up behind her car and turning off the engine. The neighbor got out of the driver's side. Her daughter got out of the passenger's side. I got out of my car and met them halfway.

I asked if they were okay and said that I was navrée, terribly sorry. They said they were fine, and that is when the woman began complaining about the damage: a shallow dent along the left side of her car, on the back passenger door....

The next day I travelled at a snail's pace down my street, stopping at the crooked T-intersection after putting on my turn-signal three houses back. I looked left, right, left, RIGHT, left again, and once more right, feeling more like a wide-eyed deer about to cross a firing range than a "bonus" driver with 20 years of bonne conduite* under her seat belt.

A few French blocks later, I pulled into the accidentée's driveway, convinced that I would flatten the rosemary bush or crush a garden lamp or even drive right into the swimming pool! I checked my rear-view mirror once again and saw Calamity tailgating me.

I rang the sonnette,* fidgeting with the insurance papers until the door opened. "Entrez," said the accidentée. Laundry--socks, undershirts, tea towels--was drying on an indoor étendoir* just behind the couch, which held stacks of neatly folded clothes. The tile floor invited bare feet to feel its cool, clean surface. Framed portraits of three smiling adolescents lined the hall.

As I followed the woman through the living room to the kitchen table--stopping when she stopped to flip off  "Les Feux d'Amour"*--I slinked back with that intrusive, guilty feeling: she was missing the end of her soap opera (the mouth-dropping, what-will-the-heroine (or hero)-reply-tomorrow? cliffhanger part) because of my moment of inattention the day before.

I followed her to the kitchen table where she sat down. After some hesitation, I pulled out a chair and joined her, uninvited. I looked at the Frenchwoman who wore only a thin painted line of coal beneath each eye, her short, thick auburn hair neatly combed back. I thought about how many times I'd crossed her on the one-lane country road. I always pulled over, letting her and her stone face pass.

Why did I have to hit her? Why couldn't it have been the ever-souriant* hippy mec* in the beat-up truck? Or the shy, retired couple--he who always nods in appreciation and she who enthusiastically waves "Merci!"? I always pull over to let others pass, when I'm not busy denting passenger portes.*

At the kitchen table I notice that her insurance paperwork is complete. I spread out my papers across the table and begin reading through the French: Insurance company name; Address; Client number; Nature of accident... I hesitate before each blank space, mouthing the words to the questions.

"My husband usually does our paperwork," I admit, realizing I sound like one of those ousewives.

"I put this down for that one," the woman says, showing me an example. "Oh, merci," I say, and copy as many of her answers as I can get away with, minus insurance numbers and addresses.
"My daughter speaks English," she says, off the subject.
"Oh, really?" I reply. Looking up, I see her face has softened.
"Does she baby-sit?" I say.
"She loves to!" Before long we are exchanging phone numbers, with a promise to call if I need help with the kids. If I need help...

For a moment, I wonder what a conversation would have been like around the hippy-mec's table, or at the retired couple's. Who knows when destiny will have us crossing paths? (Hopefully for a cup of sugar and not a dented door). For now, I warm to the stone (make that *soft*) face of the accidentée, glad for the chance to get to know my misunderstood neighbor, despite the circumstances.

................................French Vocabulary..............................
le choc = impact; la bonne conduite (f) = good driving (record); la sonnette = doorbell; un étendoir = washing line (here, a free-standing metal rack); Les Feux d'Amour = The Young and the Restless (soap opera); souriant(e) = smiling; le mec = guy; la porte = door

.................................Audio File..........................
Listen: hear the word 'choc' pronounced: Download choc2.wav

Expressions & Terms:
  le pare-chocs = bumper, fender
  les prix chocs = incredible prices
  le choc culturel = culture shock
  le choc septique = toxic shock
  résiste au(x) choc(s) = shock-resistant
  tenir le choc = to cope

Better stick to cycling. (Photo: The second-to-last vélo my Mom bought me. Sadly, it was left behind in the move... I miss you, Bike!)

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
♥ Contribute $10    
♥ Contribute $25    
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