bon à rien

The stairs and all those tubes I told you about, when we moved to the farm and began home improvements.

bon à rien (bohn-ah-ree-ehn) noun, masculine, and phrase

   : good for nothing

Pour agir, il faut une forte dose de défauts. Un homme sans défauts n'est bon à rien. In order to act, we need a good dose of faults. A man without defects is good for nothing. --Jacques Chardonne


by Kristin Espinasse

While packing up the house last month, I came across a travel journal from 1989. Inside the spiral notebook with the oh-so-French quadrillé* pages, I had collected impressions from a two-week voyage through Spain and Portugal.

Betsy was my unlikely travel companion. The only thing we had in common was the study-abroad program we'd just completed in Lille, France; that, and the fact that we were both staying on in the Hexagone while the other students in our group returned to Tempe, Arizona.

There was a three or four weeks' break before school would resume in Aix-en-Provence, the southern French town where we had both registered for classes. Betsy had thoughtfully filled in the gap between semesters: she would tour Europe via an economy rail pass. I could join her, she mentioned, if I had nothing better to do. Less adventurous, I hadn't planned beyond getting myself from Lille to Aix. The idea of being with someone else during the three-week interval came as a great relief.

Our luggage said all you needed to know about our differences. Betsy wore one of those heavy travel packs on her back, the kind with buckles and straps and outer mesh pockets which could hold anything from a water bottle to one of those roll-up mats for sleeping "in a pinch".

As for me, I had an extra large suitcase, which held the little black dress that I might wear in another kind of "pinch" (of the wardrobe kind). In addition, the suitcase contained all the "musts" (make-up, hairdryer, heels...) that rendered the bag heavier than a sack of eight-balls. The suitcase was trimmed in royal blue and had a faux leather insignia that read "Ricardo of Beverly Hills". I had gotten it on sale at Dillard's department store, where I worked as a lingerie clerk.

Betsy and I took the train to Vienna. Then we took the train to Spain. She whistled all the way. I worried.

There is a passage in the diary where I am struggling with my overpacked suitcase in Barcelona. It's getting late, we need to find a youth hostel, and we are rushing to catch the metro--only I am stalled at the top of the escaliers,* fretting about how to get down the stairs with my heavy bag. Betsy is urging me on from the last step below. Finally, she heads up the stairs--two at a time--backpack on her back, collects my suitcase and whisks it to the lower level.

                                   *   *   *
At this point in my nostalgic pause I pitch the old journal into a packing box. Quelle gringalette!* How could Betsy have put up with me? Thank God I've changed! ...Or have I?

It is tempting to say that Jean-Marc picked up my bag where Betsy had gently set it back down. For I would meet him soon after, just as I was set to return to the States. Later in the journal, I write about the need to leave France, three months earlier than planned, owing to a troubling event. On one of the last pages in the diary, there is a revealing letter which I had transcribed. The note, written by Jean-Marc and dated 26 Février 1990, reads:

Avant de nous quitter, il faut que tu saches que la Provence et moi, nous voulons t'aider. Si tu as besoin de nous, nous serons toujours là pour t'entourer de tout notre amour. (Before leaving us, you must know that Provence and I, we want to help you. If you need us, we will always be there to surround you with all of our love.)

Flash forward now to July 4th (the day we were married, 13 years ago, at the "Bagatelle" town hall in Marseilles). Looking out the second-floor window, I see a field of vines. In the forefront of this image, there is Jean-Marc, who is negotiating with the plumber, the electrician, the woodworker. On his back he wears the weight of so many pressing decisions that need to be made as "we" undertake to rebuild the wings of this 400-year-old farmhouse. I need to be participating in the decision making, instructing the plumber on where to place the "standard-priced toilet". Instead, I wonder why the toilet is standard, as are all of the items on the devis.* The bathroom sink is so standard that it includes only a cold-water knob. "Can't we have something a little "warmer"?" I ask.
"Perhaps!" Jean-Marc reminds me, "If YOU'LL go out and find and price the items!" Fair enough.

"And the iron handrail along the stairs--why is there only one?" I want to know, having arrived on the scene several months after the work began, back in March. Jean-Marc, who has been overseeing the renovation, replies, "Because there will be a wall on the opposite side."
"But will the wall...(here, I pause to think about the plasterboard wall, wishing it were really stone)...will it run the entire length of the stairs?"
"No," Jean-Marc answers. "Listen," he says, exasperated, "if you want another rail then you'll have to talk to the ironworker and order one. I personally don't think we need one." Just as we don't need hot water in the W-C!,* I think, keeping my thoughts to myself.

The electrician wants to know how many electric sockets we want in the kitchen, living room and hall. I don't know...and what does "va-et-vient"* mean anyway?


I know I shouldn't keep calling on him. That "suitcase" of mine that he offered to carry is getting heavy. I notice he isn't whistling anymore.

To comment on this post, click here.

~~~~~~~~~~~French Vocabulary~~~~~~~~~~~~
= squared, grid-lined; l'escalier (m) = stairs; gringalette (gringalet) = a namby-pamby, weakling; le devis (m) = estimate; le W-C (pronounced "doo blah vay say) = water-closet; le va-et-vient (m) = two-way (light) switch (two-way wiring)

:: Audio File ::
French pronunciation: listen to Jean-Marc pronounce today's word and quote:
Pour agir, il faut une forte dose de défauts. Un homme sans défauts n'est bon à rien.
MP3 file: Download bon_a_rien_mp3.mp3
Wave file: Download bon_a_rien_waw.wav

Rick Steves Convertible Carry-On: Easily converts from a smart-looking suitcaseto a handy backpack:
Listen to French... (In music) Tour de Charme by Patricia Kaas
Durance olive oil hand cream

Our kitchen (view from the opposite side), after renovation.

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We all carry so much unnecessary luggage and need help from others to carry our load. It can be very hard to let go our "excess baggage".
Doesn't it amaze you to look back at these photos while sitting in your finished home? Those rennovation decisions are so stressful. (I write as I sit waiting for my workmen who promised to be here today and to have the upstairs ready to paint by the end of the month.Yeah, right!) You and Jean-Marc have created a lovely home
"Va-et-vient" is a wonderfull expression. I will have to work it into my next chat with my beaufils.


I want to see a picture of that same room today! Jeanne

Marti Schmidt

Oh I do remember the day I first read this entry...and could relate to all of it, as I have experienced dragging a really heavy suitcase around Europe and the renovation of a new/old home. Whew, a lot for any one to carry.And thank goodness we do learn what to leave out the next time and what is important.
In the suitcase and in life.

Mais regardez où vous deux se sont réunis.
You should be so proud!!!

All the best
Marti Schmidt


Great story Kristin! And you were/are probably the perfect partner for traveling or for marrying. Your suitcase may be heavy but your baggage is not. Could you imagine the intense pace of 2 Betsy's traveling together or 2 J.M.'s renovating a home together. We all proceed at different speeds and usually one speed compliments the other. Some work out of their heads and hearts others work best by using their hands and body. It's that yin-yang thing that keeps the happy balance.

I hope you called that ironworks company. That sounded much nicer. You probably could have written a whole book about that renovation.


What a lovely story Kristin...And all great stories are made when two different types get together briefly (as in Betsy) or permanently, as in Jean Marc.


My childhood home had slippery stone stairs and no handrails on either side. My most clear memory of that house is the number of times I slid down the stairs...I was always bruised.


Another great story..

It's funny I have a newer neighbor..she is a favorite person of mine since I met her.We are night and day..she is 69 I am 55.. it doesn't show..She has the backpack..I would have the suitcase.Her hair dries naturally.I have the blower.
I love everything about how she is.
It's just not me.
I feel comfy w/ her even though nothing of us is the same. I spend days with her and it's comfy.
I think it's not the luggage that can can make a difference.
I think it's the soul.We both care to be kind and nice to each other .I like that.

I love the letter your husband wrote you:)
How romantic.I would have married him on the spot:)
You're a forever couple.

Pat Cargill

Traveling and renovatiions--two demanding activities but both full of rewards along the way and in the end. You now have the farm house full with loving family -- life is good. Thanks for sharing this story. J-M's letter tatters my heart; honestly, it is in a little heap on the floor beside me...oh my, so sweet.

Jennifer in OR

I love this story! Wow, so much has happened, and so much to come.


I love this story, too.
I love your blog.
I will become your fan

Else Lund

Thanks a lot.-Kristin.
´I look foreward evry evening to see "French-word-a-day"
as a daily greeting from my family in France.
(my youngest son married a wonderful girl from Lyon last year,so I tried your site to brush up my french )
- and your daily stories are a great help!Tusinde Tak.-Else Lund from Denmark.
PS do you want to have a danish reciepe,too

Jules Greer

Hi Honey,

This is one of my favorite stories...it's so you!!!



Cynthia Lewis

Almost two years to the day after Jules wrote just above, I am writing to say how much I enjoyed this warm and enchanting story....so glad that I didn't miss it entirely! Not to ever worry, Jean-Marc "whistles" all of the time; sometimes you just can't hear him. (from the Eastern Shore of Maryland)

carol clark

I thought I was the only one with a postcard rack in the dining room!(Filled with my own creations.)

Carol, Los Angeles 90027

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