Winter is upon us and rumors blow around about Nantucketers escaping to the mildness of France. It is true that Paris is relatively gentle in winter, but snow is not completely unknown. I survived a rare snowstorm and, surprisingly, lived to offer words of caution. The snow began to fall on a Wednesday morning and stuck – nearly 6” of it! Like Washington, D.C. but without the gun shots and crime rate, Paris is completely unprepared for snow. Plows do not exist, and drivers accelerate with abandon in compacted slush until all the streets are clogged (bloqué). After that, they sit in their cars beeping their horns until overcome by the dual effects of despair and carbon monoxide.
Greater civility reigns among pedestrians who exchange friendly words while picking their way, stiff-legged across ice-covered sidewalks. These little vignettes provide important cultural and linguistic clues for the observant foreigner. For those planning trips to France, I thought you might find it helpful to see how these clues can help you achieve greater fluency.
Say, for instance, you are someone who is paralyzed by fear of snowballs. Perhaps you had an older brother who pelted you without mercy, or perhaps you threw like a girl and could not defend yourself – or perhaps you were a girl. It does not matter. The point is that you are immobilized by panic when you realize that the French children clearing snow from all those parked cars are not good Samaritans – they are make-believe Communards, exhibiting in play behavior that is genetically programmed into them. They are taking the snow to make paving stones which they throw, by preference, at government buildings, statues of former kings, each other and passersby. You stand on the street immobile until you observe an old man with a cane walk through the snow riot unscathed without changing his gait. From this experience you learn that the word “Attention!” (pronounced att’-ahn-syon) means “Watch out brats!” – and it works when said with firm conviction.
So, having overcome your fear, you head to the train station because you have a ticket for a private tour at Versailles. You find yourself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with several thousand would-be passengers staring at a list of departures on which your train is labeled “retardé 10 minutes”. Due to the vagaries of the metric system, ten minutes in France are much longer than ten minutes in the United States. Thirty minutes later, the notation changes to “retardé 15 minutes”. Three minutes after that it changes to “supprimé” and the next train to Versailles is marked “retardé 10 minutes”. Through careful deduction, the observant traveler will learn that retardé means “unlikely” and supprimé means “You are on your own now.”
Should you finally arrive at Versailles, you might find yourself standing at a crosswalk on the Avenue de Paris admiring the château in the distance. Perhaps a dignified elderly lady will come up next to you and nod a polite greeting at the same moment that an overhanging tree drops a load of slushy snow on her stylish wool coat. She may mutter the word “merde” followed by a string of words that seem to be meteorological curses ending with a more conclusive “Merde!” This is a tricky word to derive entirely from context as you will hear it in many settings. Be careful in your deductions as most French words have their literal meaning and a profane or sexual meaning. Since I am trying to teach you to fish rather than giving you fish (pavé au saumon), I will offer by example one meaning of the word used in context: “One steps in merde much less frequently now that New York City’s dog owners have been equipped with plastic bags and fear of the law.”
Eventually you arrive at the Château de Versailles, where everything is in chaos (en bordel – remember what I said about the dual meanings of French words) and your opportunity to learn new words increases exponentially. At the tour office you present your ticket. Perhaps you feel a bit anxious because your train was late, the tour starts in fifteen minutes, and the person in front of you is having a lengthy discussion about braising leeks with the only available clerk. Be aware that the word “triage” has passed out of use in France. The urgency of your request will not cause the clerk to interrupt her conversation with those ahead of you in line – so don’t even try.
Finally, you get to the head of the line and are told that your tour is supprimé. You ask what to do about getting a refund and learn from the clerk’s blank expression and a quick flip through your French-English dictionary that there is no such word in French. She smiles awkwardly and says “desolée”, but being American you may not take the hint. After listening to your second explanation with well-feigned interest, she politely offers several suggestions which seem to involve bills being introduced in the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) if the museum’s director and the American Ambassador can agree upon proposed wording. She gives you a number to call, shrugs sympathetically and repeats – Desolée.
With few other options for amusement you wander out to see the château’s park and learn that the danger of the snow is so great that the entire park has been closed for the safety of the public who at that very moment are sliding to their deaths in record numbers on sidewalks elsewhere in the city. You wander the perimeter of the grounds stealing glances through locked gates. In the process, you gradually become part of a pack of Frenchmen doing the same thing. As you peer through the gate to the Neptune Fountain and the sparkling allées of trees that extend from it, you hear a murmur arise from your companions – “Superbe” (pronounced sue-pair’-bə). Attention dear Readers! This will be a word of great importance to you, because, despite all the bureaucratic foolishness, disorganization, strikes and other problems of French life, superbe is the word that fits it best.
Ton Correspondant à Paris et Versailles,
Brian Pfeiffer [pronounced: bra’-yanne fee’-fair]