How to say wasp in French... and the fascinating life inside a figue!

Kristin Espinasse with Smokey, Fig tree, Olive Grove, boules or petanque court (c) Jules Greer
"Ignorance is Bliss." Remember this photo from last September? Back then, while eating my way from one end of this fig tree to the other, I had no idea there was more to a fig than meets the eye.... 

une guêpe (gep)

    : wasp

Terms, Expressions, and an example sentence:

la taille de guêpe = slender-waisted, hourglass figure
le nid de guêpe = hornet's nest 

Pour éviter les piqures de guêpes, un vieux truc [ou astuce] de viticulteurs: pincer le bout de la langue entre les dents tant que l'insecte menace. Cela créée une légère tension corporelle qui le gêne, s'il vient à se poser sur la peau.

To avoid wasp stings, an old tip [or trick] from winegrowers: pinch the tip of your tongue between your teeth for as long as the insect threatens. This creates a light corporal tension that bothers [the wasps], if they come to land on the skin. (that story here...)

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

Figs and the Fascinating Life of a Lilliputian Wasp

Last night I heard a curious sound coming from outside the bedroom window. Toc, toc, toc.... Was it a thief?

My heart fluttered as I tuned into the strange noise. I listened to the intermittent thumping and shuffling, wondering what in the world? Was it a wild animal?

My mind reeled with possibilities, eventually settling on the least spooky conclusion: falling figs! I remembered back a day or two ago when playing fetch with Smokey. As he retrieved his stick, over by the boules court, I saw a scattering of figs lying there on the ground.

Next I noticed the ping pong table. It too was covered with figs.... I recalled the rumbling sky and the burst of rain we'd had the day before. The figs must have been knocked from the tree.

Allez. Pousse-toi, Smokey! Va là-bas, BraiseLike looters who appear on the scene, our dogs rushed up to the fallen goods, attempting to cash in on the catastrophe. 

I reached down to pick up a fig and saw it was too young to salvage. But then, could one eat an unripe fruit? It was a question I'd often wondered about. Such a pity all these figs might be destined for the compost pile, instead of our plates--in the form of tarte à la figue or figues farcies au fromage bleu or "figues tout court"!

Impatient to know the answer I tore open one of the figs. Instead of the usual raspberry color with lovely star-burst yellow accents, this one was pasty white inside. 

As I stood frowning into the fig my eyes caught on something... something wiggling! Dropping the fig I wondered, Was that a worm I just saw?

I walked over to the ping pong table and picked up another fig. Splitting it open I searched the interior until--wiggle, wiggle, wiggle!--I found what I was looking for. Beurk! C'est dégoûtant!

Any disgust was soon replaced by curiosity. The little fig in my hand was teeming with life. But how had the wiggly vers gotten there? Turning the fig round and round, I could find no port of entry....

An internet search ("worms in figs") opened up a fascinating new world--in which two living things come into being by the grace of the other--a process called mutualism. But how is this possible and which came first--the chicken or the egg (or the fig or the wasp?). 

Quit sait? Meantime what is known is this: because of the location of the fig's flowers (inside the fig), to pollinate it a female wasp has to enter the fig through a tiny hole in its base. It takes a very small wasp to do this, hence its moniker "la guêpe liliputienne". 

Once inside, the female deposits pollen and lays her eggs, which soon hatch. After the pupal stage, male wasps quickly find their way over to young females--and mate! Next, ever energetic, the males forge an escape route for the females (remember, everyone is still trapped inside the fig!). But all that gusto soon goes broke. The machos die at or near the sortie de secours and only the females make it out alive.

As the females crawl out of the fig, their little legs collect the pollen distributed by the first wasp.... Exiting, finally, the fig they salute their fallen heroes (OK, this part's made up) and, without missing a beat, make their way over to the nearest fig and into a little hole there at the base. Next the whole extraordinary cycle repeats itself!

As I said, some of the males--and those females who've lost their wings on the voyage out, die sur le chemin...   These unlucky ones remain there, fallen heroines and heroes, trapped inside the fig which then grows and ripens around them--like a sweet tomb.

At this point you may be wondering, like I was, whether or not to give up your addiction to figs? Could you overlook this wiggly fact and bite into the luscious fruit with the same wild abandon?

(Relax, nature cleans up the gory mess....)

Better than a sci-fi movie, the mutant fig eventually (and completely) consumes the unlucky wasps--this with the help of alchemy! ASU's Ask A Biologist column explains the process:

Figs produce a chemical called “ficin” that breaks down the wasp bodies. Ficin is so effective at breaking down, or digesting, animal proteins that natives of Central America eat fig sap to treat intestinal worm infections.

The article goes on to say that the rumor some of us once heard (about fig newtons containing crushed insects) is false. As for the figs on the trees, it all depends....

Recently, I watched my friend Isa reach for one of our figs while admiring our fig tree. Je les adore! She cooed, about to pop one of the fruits into her mouth.

Noticing the figs weren't ripe yet, I yanked the fruit out of her hand. 

"I wouldn't do that if I were you...."


To leave a comment, click here -- or share your favorite fig recipe (and assure me that you are no namby-pamby--that you won't let some lusty wasps keep you from enjoying this fascinating fruit!). 

French Vocab

toc-toc-toc = knock-knock-knock
allez = come on
pousse-toi = move it!
va là-bas! = go over there!
la tarte aux figues = fig pie, fig tart 
figues farcies au fromage bleu = figs stuffed with blue cheese
figues tout court = simply figs (figs full stop) 
beurk = yuck!
c'est dégoûtant = that's disgusting
un ver = worm 
qui sait? = who knows
sur le chemin = along the road
la sortie de secours = emergency exit 

Kristi and Chief Grape - Painting by Dana Constance Thomas
Kristi and Chief Grape. (We moved from the Ste Cécile vineyard, Domaine Rouge-Bleu, almost one year ago, but Jean-Marc will always be the grape chief. Meantime he's getting ready to plant his next vineyard). Painting by Dana Constance Thomas. At Dana's blog, you will find the interview we did together about what inspires me... and the answer to this question : If  Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?. I had a lot of fun answering that one. Don't miss the interview, here

sunflowers old french farmhouse mas in st cyr-sur-mer france
I planted sunflower seeds sprouts last fall -- and forgot about them. Those are radish pods. Having fun in the garden -- hope you are having fun there, or elsewhere. Enjoy your day.

Ongoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal. If you find value in this website and would like to keep it going strong, please know your donation towards this effort makes all the difference! A contribution by check or via PayPal (links below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!

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How to say lawn chair in French

almost summertime (c) Kristin Espinasse 
Has a friend forwarded you this French word journal? Sign yourself up for the free newsletter and never miss a word or photo. Photo of front porch, where Mom and I will soon have coffee. The wind blew off the makeshift curtain (an attempt to shade the area at lunchtime...)

Rent an apartment in Monaco
Villa Royale apartment in Monaco. Large studio with beautiful sea views in the residential district of Bea

la chaise-longue (shez- lowng)

    : lawn chair 

Elle est dans le jardin, en train de lire sur sa chaise-longue. She's in the garden, reading on her lawn chair. 

Mas de la Perdrix - visit this charming rental in the south of FranceProvence Villa Rental Luberon luxury home; 4 bedrooms, 5 baths; gourmet kitchen, covered terrace & pool. Views of Roussillon. Click here

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

"I could hear you girls giggling all night long!"  Mom called out.

I looked up from the flower bed, where I had been experimenting with an ice plant (could one really stick a griffe de sorcière in the ground.. and it would grow?). "Good morning Mom!" I chirped, waving the experimental cutting.

A second-story window framed my mom and the morning sun dazzled her eyes, which sparkled with life. She had her silver hair tied back and her olive complexion was as fresh as the morning dew that covered the plants beneath me. I could tell Mom was full of energy today. Perhaps we could do something special to mark this, her second-to-last day in France before returning home to Mexico?

"Come have your tea with me?" I stood up, shook the dirt from my hands and pointed to the picnic table. 

Mom was down in a flash and we were reliving the previous evening, in which I had the pleasure of spending time with Ann and Katia, a writer and a beloved podcaster. I rarely have the occasion to speak in person with people who do similar work to my own, and it was interesting to talk about the highs and lows of creative work.

Mom loved my friends and I assured her that they found her just as endearing. "I'm sorry I talked too much..." Mom apologized, as we took our cups of tea and walked from the front porch to the meadow, below, to have a look at all the plants among the olive trees. 

"Don't worry about it!" I said, feeling a little ashamed for having elbowed Mom the night before. Having realized she was three-quarters of the way through her life story, I wondered: had Mom gotten to the part where she was rescued? Strapped onto a lawn chair and lowered onto a Mexican panga boat to be transferred from the remote fishing village to a city hospital? Ironically, that would be the beginning of her nightmare.).

I was sorry to have been disrespectful to my Mom and regretted my words from the night before (along with a few other things I'd said during her four week visit to France). And now Mom would be leaving soon. Had we said and done all we had wished to say and do?

"I just want to lie here in the garden," Mom said, "here under this olive tree. I'll go get the other lawn chair."

"Stay there! I'll get it for you!" I dashed off, past the wild fennel and the bright red poppies, to the terrain de pétanque--where those "witches fingernails" I'd been transplanting grew--and snatched up the chaise longue.

We arranged the lawn chairs along the slope, until we were looking up at one of the ancient olive trees. "I'd like this one to be mine," Mom suggested. "Could you put my name on it?"

It was a lovely idea. I could then sit by the tree and think of Mom while she was an ocean away....

"Look over there," I said, pointing to a figuier I'd discovered the day before. The little fig tree (really a series of shoots from an ancient trunk) had been completely overrun by an invasive bush. The night before, I'd gotten the long-handled shears and freed it of its leafy invador and could now admire it from where Mom and I were sitting. "OK, I said, this one is Jules! And do you know what I've named the little fig tree?"

Mom's eyes were bright with curiosity. 


We sat there laughing beneath the olive tree, remembering yesteryear--before one of us moved to Mexico and the other to France. Back when we shared tall glasses of milk and those favorite fig-filled cookies.

"Fig Newtons..." Mom said, reminiscent.

"I'll call him "Newey" for short." I winked at my mom, who smiled as we gazed at our trees, affectionately. 

As the wind blew through the trees' branches, causing the leaves to rustle, our conversation carried on, lackadaisically. I no longer hoped we were making the most of our time, but knew that this cozy moment was the yesteryear of tomorrow--as comforting and sweet as those fig-filled cookies.

*    *    *
To leave a comment click here.

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   Calanque (c) Kristin Espinasse

Making memories with Mom. After Mom befriended this guy, she handed me the ball to play.

A Jules by the sea (c) Kristin Espinasse

The game of retrieval (c) Kristin Espinasse

Don't tell Smokey and Braise... We'll bring them the next time!

How to clean a French window (c) Jules
Tidying up the house before tidying up ourselves... and heading out to explore another seaside town...

Mama Jules
Mom, "la capitaine", at the port in La Ciotat. I think it's time to name Mom's fish purse à la Mr Sacks. Suggestions welcome in the comments box!

Kristin Espinasse - la Ciotat
At the seaside market in La Ciotat, I bought a jujube tree and a few other natives to plant in our garden, beside the Mediterranean strawberry tree, or arbusier. What are some other local trees and fruit-bearing shrubs that you would suggest? Meantime, Mom and I are busy trying to identify more than trees... but all of the edible weeds and medicinal plants here in the olive field or meadow: plantain, fumeterre, fennel, lucerne, chardon de marie, pissenlit... and heaps of thyme and rosemary.

Jules in Provence (c) Kristin Espinasse
I'm going to miss you so much, Mom. Come back soon! And thank you for being my sweet maman. While her adoring husband is waiting for her back in Mexico, help me wish Mom bon voyage, here in the comments box.

Ongoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal. If you find value in this website and would like to keep it going strong, please know your donation towards this effort makes all the difference! A contribution by check or via PayPal (links below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!

♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

To purchase our memoir, THE LOST GARDENS click here.


      My son, Max, collecting figs from our figuier. Photo: Chris White

Confiture bookMes Confitures: The Jams and Jellies of Christine Ferber. "This book, a best seller in France, presents dozens of recipes, organized by season, for preserves from Black Cherry with Pinot Noir to Greengage and Mirabelle Plum with Mint; a number of them includes chocolate, not a standard addition."--Library Journal. Order it here.

la confiture (kohn-fee-tyur) noun, feminine
  1. jam

La vérité n'est pas faite pour consoler comme une tartine de confitures qu'on donne aux enfants qui pleurent. Il faut la rechercher, voilà tout, et écarter de soi ce qui n'est pas elle.

Truth is not made to console like the buttered bread with jam that we give to children who cry. You have to look for it, that's all, and distance from yourself all that is not (truth).
--Gustave Flaubert

A Day in a French Life...
I walk into the kitchen to find my husband kissing a bottle of vanilla extract. He'd been searching for this key ingredient and, in finding "her" (French vanilla is undeniably feminine), was overcome with emotion.

The cupboards are wide-open, baring their spiced, sugared and cereal-boxed souls. The sink is full and the countertops have disappeared under a bumpy rug of lemons, figs, odd jars and cooking utensils. A toy helicopter, some binoculars and a map of the French Alps figure into this chaotic scene, inviting the question, "What's wrong with this picture?" On the stove top four casseroles
quiver and spit.

If real French men make confiture* they don't seem to wear aprons. Mine's got on a bright orange T-shirt which reads "Châteauneuf-du-Pape" and which does not co-ordinate with his two-tone swim trunks in teal and gris.*

My eyes dart back to the storm of ingredients and impostors scattered across the counter. "Do you know what you are doing?" I inquire, concerned. "Non," Jean-Marc answers, casually, and with a smile. With that, he picks up a carton of sugar and swirls the downpour over the bubbling, frothing fruit.

If I were the one making jam, I'd have scoured the sink, cleared and disinfected the countertops, scrubbed the figs. I'd have worn a shower cap, a stopwatch and a furrowed brow. I'd have taken the phone off the hook and lined up all the needed utensils by order of appearance before hyperventilating over a well lit, perfectly propped open cookbook. But then, I would never get around to putting together such a perfect environment in which to make perfect confiture. The jam wouldn't get made. That's why Jean-Marc is le confiturier* around here.

I look around our imperfect kitchen, to the messy counter, where my eyes focus on the cookbook which has been tossed aside, landing face down. Jean-Marc is not even consulting the recipe except to see what the major ingredients are. There is not a scale or a measuring cup or spoon in sight. He is cooking au pif* again, guessing his way through the jam-making process. But will the result be any good?

It will if last year's batch is any indication, and besides--what a silly question. I have lived the answer! In anticipation of "Jimmy's* Jam," I have crawled out from beneath our fig tree, my legs en compote,* my hair a nest of fig droppings (the tree's branches having teased it to heights and gnarls no fine-tooth comb could achieve), my knees scratched, my skin aflame, to arrange this year's fig harvest in a two-tiered basket at the foot of our Maître Confiturier.* You know, "He who can't take his lips off Mademoiselle Vanilla".

*References: la confiture (f) = jam; gris = grey; le confiturier (la confiturière) = jam maker; au pif = by guesswork; Jimmy = our nickname for Jean-Marc; en compote = (legs) like jelly; maître contifurier = master jam maker

In books: La Bonne Cuisine

Bonne_cuisine From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Translated into English for the first time since its original 1927 publication, La Bonne Cuisine has long been the French housewife's equivalent of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook or The Joy of Cooking—a trusted and comprehensive guide to "la cuisine bourgeoise" or home cooking. Order a copy here.

French Pronunciation:
Listen to Jean-Marc's sentence: (tip: sound clip works on second try!)
La culture, c'est comme la confiture, moins on en a, plus on l'étale.
Culture is like jam, the less one has, the more one spreads it. Download confiure_jme_2.wav

faire des confitures = to make jam
donner de la confiture aux cochons = to throw pearls before swine

More references to French jam in these books:

Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine
Accounting for Taste: The Triumph of French Cuisine by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson
Middlesex: A Novel
Middlesex: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
World Food France (Lonely Planet World Food Guides)
World Food France (Lonely Planet World Food Guides) by Steve Fallon and Michael Rothschild
The Oxford Companion to Food
The Oxford Companion to Food by Alan Davidson
The Cooking of Southwest France : Recipes from France's Magnificent Rustic Cuisine
The Cooking of Southwest France : Recipes from France's Magnificent Rustic Cuisine by Paula Wolfert
Glorious French Food: A Fresh Approach to the French Classics
Glorious French Food: A Fresh Approach to the French Classics by James Peterson
Chateau of Echoes
Chateau of Echoes by Siri L. Mitchell

Ongoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal. If you find value in this website and would like to keep it going strong, please know your donation towards this effort makes all the difference! A contribution by check or via PayPal (links below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!

♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

To purchase our memoir, THE LOST GARDENS click here.


For more about this photo, see Photo du Jour (below)

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."

secouer (suh-koo-ay) verb
  1. to shake; to shake off; to shake out

n'avoir rien à secouer = not to give a hoot
secouer le joug de quelqu'un = to throw off (dictator, tyrant)

Citation du Jour
Il faut secouer la vie; autrement elle nous ronge.
One must shake up life; otherwise it will eat into us.

A Day in a French Life...
Beyond my computer screen, I can see out the window to what the kids are up to in the yard: usually soccer, circuits around the house on the vélo* or rollers,* dribbling the basketball or playing cache-cache* with Césarine the rabbit. They switch from one activity to the next, multi-tasking their adventures.

Beyond les aventuriers* I see the wild figuier.* Wild, for its wayward trunks, some of which fall to the ground. Or "fell," I should say. Our neighbor came over and sawed off almost half the trunks, for the bien-être* of the tree. Not having une main verte* to understand these matters, I find it a painful sight--such a gorgeous monster fruitier* razed like that.

The other day I heard a shriek and looked up to find the fig tree trembling. My eyes followed the branches until they reached a cluster of boys engaged in a rain dance around the tree, taking turns shaking the figuier to liberate the rain drops that had gathered upon the leaves.

"What on earth are you doing?" I said to Max and his friends.

The little French Indians froze. Next, five grubby gueules* looked up, sporting whodunit expressions. Before les coupables* would fess up, the Chief, in a heavy French accent, spoke:

"We are refreshing ourselves!"

To borrow a French expression, I should have "shaken the fleas off" those boys for traumatizing le figuier. Instead, I sat back and witnessed joy spinning under the ol' fig tree.

*References: le vélo (m) = the bike; les rollers (mpl) = roller skates; le cache-cache (m) = hide-n-seek; un aventurier (m), une aventurière (f) = an adventurer, an adventuress; un figuier (m) = a fig tree; le bien-être (m) = well being; une main verte (f) = a "green thumb"; un arbre fruitier (m) = a fruit tree; la gueule (f) (informal) = the face; le coupable (m), la coupable (f) = the guilty one

Photo du Jour...

Yet another snapshot from Italy (in this photo, the port of Positano). The French images will be back next week!

Ongoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal. If you find value in this website and would like to keep it going strong, please know your donation towards this effort makes all the difference! A contribution by check or via PayPal (links below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!

♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

To purchase our memoir, THE LOST GARDENS click here.