A Little French Lesson

Words and Phrases to Live and Learn

Languages have always been one of my special interests, and I find there is no quicker way to get into a culture than to absorb a bit of its language. Even words that have the same definition in one language can have a very different connotation or nuance in another. And connotation and nuance, that sense of words beyond the totally literal, is where the essence of culture resides. It differentiates even two cultures that supposedly speak the same tongue. As George Bernard Shaw said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Imagine how much a totally different language estranges us from the French.

I obviously believe there are valuable things to be learned from traditional French living. As I have said, a lifestyle is more than a list of habits in isolation; it’s a total mind-set and in this case a culture. So if you want to live a bit like a traditional French woman—training yourself to tune in to peak sensory experience, to live in the season, to eat for pleasure and not get fat—being able to get inside the “head” of French culture is a big help.

My first professional training was as a translator interpreter. I remember one translation class at my university in which we had to learn the rules of cricket. For a French girl, this was as alien as studying a repair manual for a spaceship. We never got to American baseball (I doubt the professor understood it), but the point was that any important part of a culture, in this case sports, infiltrates the language and provides its metaphors. Living in the United States, I appreciate how important baseball is to our American language and culture. I’ve been to enough games to know what a home run is. (That’s when your hotel room isn’t ready and they upgrade you to an available suite with an ocean-view terrace, right?) Anyway, the language of whatever preoccupies a people—be it their food, fashion, lifestyle, the arts, sports, even business—is a unique window on their being.

The French are inordinately proud and protective of their language, which for a millennium was the world’s language of diplomacy and for centuries the lingua franca for style, fashion, and many of the arts. There is even an official body, the Académie Française, a collection of forty writers, artists, academicians, and politicians (called the Immortels) who meet on Thursday afternoons to rule on what’s correct language usage and what isn’t. (An inconceivable notion in America, where usage seems to morph at the speed of streaming video.) It is a source of continuing pride and wonder that even today in America far more students are studying French than Chinese, Russian, or Arabic, say—languages whose knowledge may seem more vital to our future. In any case, you don’t have to learn the language fluently to absorb the lifestyle. As with French portions, a little can go a long way, if you choose well. In that spirit, here’s a little French vocabulary list à ma façon useful for all seasons. It is drawn chiefly from words and concepts I have used in this book. Alas, there are no sports metaphors.

***BIEN DANS SA PEAU [byeh(n) dah(n) sah poh]***: Healthy French women achieve the state of being “comfortable in one’s skin.” For all her attention to what she wears and what she eats, a French woman is most defined by her ease in being herself and the attractiveness that comes of relishing her pleasures. French women achieve this state more intuitively than most, but not everyone is successful. The secret of the woman who continues to be bien dans sa peau is that she has come to terms with enjoying each phase of her life and adjusting to life’s different seasons. Being comfortable with oneself is such an important concept that I want to share another illustration, une petite histoire.

Every year we go back to Paris for the year-end holiday season when the Christmas decorations are low-key but lovely and the museums tend to be less crowded and so much more enjoyable. One of our little traditions is that Olivier, who is an inimitable art conférencier and the brother-in-law of a friend, gathers a dozen of us at the Musée du Luxembourg at the Sénat to comment on the current art exhibition. In late 2005 and early 2006 we saw the splendid Phillips Collection (Washington, D.C.) of French art from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The group attending varies slightly from year to year as some of us can’t always make it. For me, it’s one of those small pleasures not to be missed. Among the newcomers that year were two women over age fifty. One, Edith, was stunning: slim, full of energy but gently so, with a great haircut, a simple, long black coat, very little makeup, a sense of self-confidence, and emanating an air of serenity and douceur de vivre. Her age didn’t really matter. She had that je ne sais quoi of the mythical French woman. She had adjusted well to time and age.

The other, Claudine, was a bit plump, didn’t quite look as though she was bien dans sa peau, and in her conversation didn’t sound as if she was. She vaguely offered what I believe, that at around fifty, women have to start making choices such as cutting down on food and wine portions, increasing the number of walks and whatever exercise we do, drinking more water, getting enough sleep, and, most important, picking our indulgences . . . but also wearing less and different makeup, deciding what to do about hair color and style, and giving up certain clothes. In other words, to some extent we have to reinvent ourselves for the next season of life. Claudine knew that but didn’t practice it. Being comfortable in one’s skin is not simply a question of slim versus plump. Edith, however, knew that this season in life is also often a time for new friends, perhaps some new hobbies; the main point is to remain active, curious, enthusiastic, and optimistic. The most positive among us, like Edith, do it almost effortlessly as if one more challenge is welcome. The feeling of well-being is ever so crucial in the way we age and confront the later phases of our life. No laissez-faire. No laissez-aller.

***BIO [bee-OH]:*** In their pursuit of quality over quantity French women increasingly select organic (or as they call them, bio foods) at markets and shops. Whether organic foods are more nutritious than regular foods is debatable; they are at least as nutritious, but for about the same price—sometimes a bit more, occasionally a bit less if they are local they spare us ingesting chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And, of course, they are superior to processed foods. Bio is as fast a developing market in France as it is in America. But the French are a bit more skeptical about labels; they know that “organic” can mean different things to different governing authorities. If “organic” becomes just a marketing strategy, supply will have to expand to compete with demand, and standards may suffer. That’s why we always prefer foods that taste as they were meant to taste. For that, local producers, who are more likely to grow organically, and whose offerings are more likely to be fresh and seasonal, are more reliable than labels. Organic is a good thing but only if we keep it real.

***Bonheur [boh(n)-UHR]: ***French women know happiness is not a matter of luck; it’s what you make of your life. This word for happiness is literally “good time.” The French way of connecting feeling with time is telling. It suggests something to be cultivated in the course of our hours and days and months and years, how we live in relation to them. The English word happy comes from the archaic word hap, which means “luck.” Interesting distinction.

***Bonjour [BOH(N)-zhoor]:*** A French woman’s first word to anyone, be they stranger or friend, is usually bonjour: good (bon) day (jour). The salutation is at the heart of French culture and etiquette, and if you listen the emphasis is almost always on the good side: BON-jour. If you are the sixty-eighth person of the day walking into a small shop, you will be greeted with bonjour as were the previous sixty-seven and as will be the sixty-eight who follow. It’s an ingrained social ritual, and you must return the store clerk’s bonjour before anything else, such as asking a question. In New York, complete sentences, let alone verbal niceties, can seem a waste of time to most. (On the other side of the world, credit goes to the Australians who have kept up G’day in a positive spirit.) In France, where the relation to time is different from America, not to observe these customs is considered rude. You have a much better chance of being treated nicely if you say bonjour to everyone you meet. If it is evening, bonjour becomes bonsoir. “Good evening.” Only friends use the word salut, “hi” and “bye.” The farewell matters, too. When you leave a store, don’t be surprised if the clerk says good-bye, even if she is occupied with another customer. You should not neglect to say, “au revoir” (“good-bye” but more literally, “until we see each other again: time again”) and always “merci.” Among friends we also say à bientôt (“see you soon”). These pleasant little expressions go a long way in France to help people connect in a friendly and effective manner.

***Bricolage [bree-koh-LAZH]: *** French women (and men) have made an art of making do with what’s at hand, whether with one’s clothes, or what’s in season at the market, or available in a storeroom or closet. When I removed a mirror from a wall not long ago, exposing an embedded hook, I had to figure out what to do about that eyesore. I discovered a long-forgotten, old ceramic “art” plate that I had bought years ago but had never found the right place to hang. Now I did, though it was never intended for this sort of wall covering. The ceramic is not the Mona Lisa, but guests are repeatedly drawn to it. It covers a blemish as if it were born for that spot and gives the room a fresh, distinctive, and harmonious look. I love this word, bricolage, which comes from the verb bricoler, to tinker about, mostly around the house. Though implying somewhat mechanical applications (there’s a chain of hardware stores in France called Mr. Bricolage), the word certainly has an extended definition covering how one combines things in the kitchen or even how one puts oneself together in clothes. It has special cultural meaning in that it celebrates a person, un bricoleur (masculine) or une bricoleuse (feminine), who is creative and imaginative and who puts things in fresh and original ways. Recently nine out of ten French women admitted to adoring bricoler. A friend, for instance, recently made a celebratory, nonedible, birthday cake for her eight-year-old out of flowers from her garden. When I go to the market and the eggplants are in season, I tend to overbuy to capture the moment to the fullest; I come home and then have to figure out how to incorporate them variously into our meals over the next few days. Ratatouille, for certain, but what about using the barbecue to grill them or the vegetable mill to purée them into a spread to start lunch or dinner? Once I went fishing off Long Island and came home with forty-eight mackerels, but that’s another story. Sometimes I get really creative and think I’ve invented a new dish, only to find it on a restaurant menu later. Good chefs are great bricoleurs. Often in the winter months I must draw upon my ability to be une bricoleuse to satisfy my desire for color and vitality in such a gray season. An orchid or some cut flowers make for just the right touch to liven my home on the darkest day. See what I mean.

*** Une certaine tenue [ewn sehr-TEHN ten-EW]:*** A French woman expresses her indefinable flair through that certain something, an added element. It’s said we know how to jouer l’accessoire–to accessorize (See this in action by watching a slide show on scarves). And it’s true, the French woman’s style has much to do with this knack. But it’s not so much the accessories themselves; rather the choice of this (rather than that) as a form of self-expression. As with so many things, less is more. One element—a handbag, a bracelet, even a lipstick—can pull a look together, making it bien tenu. Mixing elements, for example, something precious with an item bought from a street vendor, is what stylists and designers do. French women do it for themselves, adding a touch that is entirely individual—sometimes witty and idiosyncratic, perhaps even a little eccentric, but not tacky. It’s all about knowing themselves well enough to make the choice self-expressive: this is the French woman’s edge.

*** C’est la vie [seh lah vee]: French women know there is a certain serenity in knowing those things you can change from those things you can’t, and French women strive to know the difference. When they use the expression “that’s life,” it expresses an acceptance, even an embrace, of those things we cannot change, such as getting older and the rhythm of the seasons. But it is also accepting little things. I know when I am in France and at a post office that closes at 5 p.m. and the clerk stops selling stamps ten minutes early (to pack up, of course) or when I show up at the hairdresser for my appointment for a blow-dry and the smiling and chatty coiffeuse is an hour behind, I have to tell my American self to stop and think, “c’est la vie” (or sometimes, “c’est la France“).

*** Champagne [shahm-PAH-nyuh]: A French woman’s eyes sparkle when she hears the word, and even more when she’s offered a glass. She will always answer—and here I speak from extensive experience—”volontiers” (“gladly,” but literally, “most willingly”). Champagne is a state of mind, a very pleasant one. It is made in the Champagne region of France and serves as a mood enhancer the world over. It is at once history and culture and pleasure and celebration, quality and refinement. The sound of a cork popping is magic. Embracing Champagne as part of French culture starts young in France. Some people in France place a drop on their infant’s forehead or behind his or her ears when christened. My first memory of drinking the real thing was when I was six. Recently I had the pleasure of dining at a top French restaurant with a group of six- and seven-year-olds as part of an educational enrichment program. They all started the meal nonchalantly with a glass of bubbly. I was taken aback for a moment, but then asked a little girl if she liked Champagne, and she said, “It is Champagne d’Enfant, Madame.” (Children’s Champagne.) The bottle was the same, the label looked just like one on a Champagne bottle, the pop was the same, the glass used was the same as I had for my Champagne, and the bubbles were lively, but the bubbly was nonalcoholic apple cider. It seems these kids always celebrate their birthdays and special occasions with Champagne d’Enfant.

*** Détox [day-TOX]: French women are very mindful of the process of flushing out the waste products of metabolism that reside in our tissues, aiding our liver in its constant detoxing of our bodies. It’s not just hedonism, for example, that makes French women love massages, and it’s not only for the tactile pleasure. The vigorous touch of another can stimulate the lymphatic system, loosening stagnant toxins. For this reason, after a massage one is always offered a glass of water. While getting the toxins moving is one thing, nothing flushes them out like the process by which we absorb and eliminate water—again a reason to hydrate plentifully after a massage. And in today’s world of preservatives, pesticides, artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners, we have a lot to flush. The occasional Magical Leek Soup weekend is also as good a detox regimen as you’ll find at any spa. (I appreciate professional massages can be expensive, but it’s something partners can easily learn to do for each other.)

*** Eau [oh]: This French woman begins each day with a glass of water and makes sure to have a glass just before going to bed. Water is mythically one of the basic elements, along with fire, air, and earth. It is so vital to the French they denote it with a single vowel sound. French women drink it all day long. It is essential for every bodily process. We absorb it in some of our foods: soup is rich in water and it’s known that a meal started with soup is one in which we will typically eat less overall. Some beverages are mostly water, but there is only one way to get enough: drink water itself. And drink it for the taste. (Too many people lose the taste for water by preferring to drink anything but. The idea that a meal might taste better with a diet soda than a glass of water is utterly alien to French women.) Hydration plumps tissue but not with fat. Learning to hold more water not only makes all our bodily processes work better, it also leaves skin clearer and fuller. There is never a time of year not to drink plenty. We lose 80 ounces a day in respiration alone. But in extreme heat and cold, hydration requires more vigilance. As you practice increasing your water intake steadily throughout the day—think six- or eightounce glasses—your body becomes more efficient at making use of what it was hoarding before. Just see what drinking water does for your breath. Now there are times when I compensate for all the added water by eating a few mildly diuretic foods: leeks, asparagus, cherries, grapes. Stronger diuretics, like any drink with alcohol or caffeine, need to be taken inmoderation since they dehydrate and stimulate appetite. Finally, remember that some experiences of hunger are only thirst in disguise. So try answering the sensation with water first.

*** Entre deux âges [AHN-truh douze ahzh]: French women have a phase in life, literally “between two ages,” or of ambiguous age. To be able to appear so is one of the advantages of living like a French woman. Nothing can alter the fact of the number of years you have lived, and some changes with time are inevitable. But how quickly the body ages depends in large part on how you take care of it, especially on what you put into it and whether you keep it moving throughout the day, every month of the year. Aging gracefully, French women don’t suffer the ravages of time too fast, and so they learn to be comfortable with their age. It’s an important element of living bien dans sa peau, which is the key to feeling good and being attractive. You don’t have to be old to be a grande dame . . . just great.

*** Équilibre [eh-kee-LEEBR]: French women know that maintaining balance or a healthy equilibrium is all-important and takes work, though after a while it becomes a continuous, unconscious activity. In terms of food, the notion of equilibrium as it pertains to living like a French woman is the balance between the calories one consumes and those one expends exerting oneself. French women don’t aim to “burn” calories. They eat to fuel their bodies in proportion. If they overeat they don’t plan to balance by overexerting themselves later. (If they overindulge, they simply eat less later.) Walking and the more intense routine exertion of taking the stairs are the French équilibristes secret agents. Equilibrium is maintained in several time frames: daily (quotidian) balance is, for example, if you have a big fancy dinner, you have a soup or salad for lunch the next day or go for a walk after supper. If you can’t square the books the next day, do so by the end of the week. The balance for maintaining weight is weekly (hebdomadaire). The yearly equilibrium (équilibre annuel) is maintained by observance of the seasons. But what of the monthly (mensuel)? For a stretch of our lives many of us face an added equilibrium challenge. (To some, it can seem a month-long affair every month, from premenstrual syndrome to menstruation to postmenstrual syndrome.) The difficulty of the experience varies by individual, but French women have traditionally done a few things to ease the symptoms. First, avoid too many carbohydrates at breakfast. Replace orange juice and other sugary things with a bit of protein, such as slivers of boiled ham or prosciutto and a small piece of cheese. For me, yogurt has always been a life-saver, especially when I had more than one a day to ease cramps and control cravings. And something a little counterintuitive: although you may be feeling bloated, do not neglect hydration. Try a big glass of lukewarm water (it’s easier to absorb) with a squeeze of lemon first thing when you get up. When you are retaining water, the best way to get rid of it is to add more.

*** Faites simple [feht sahmpl]: French women know that generally less is more and when you start with quality—keep it simple. In terms of food, “simple” means less preparation and cooking time required, especially when you use marvelously fresh food. In terms of wardrobe, French women are likely to have only a few prime garments per season, but they are quality pieces that can be handsomely dressed up or down with the use of accessories, making it easier to put yourself together.

*** Joie de vivre [zhwah duh VEEV-ruh]: French women know that a healthy mind and body, taking pleasure in the seasons and in things great and small, are all part of “the joy of living,” joie de vivre (an expression for which there is sadly no American equivalent). One sure way to maximize your joie de vivre is to become a student of l’art de vivre, cultivating an appreciation of balance and gratification in all forms of sensory experience.

*** Laissez-aller [LEH-say al-LAY]: French women rarely give up on themselves, literally, to let oneself go. They know that it’s never too late to be beautiful and that being beautiful is nothing more than maintaining themselves physically and mentally at any given interval of life. Coco Chanel said, “Nature gives you the face you have at twenty, life shapes the face you have at thirty, but at fifty you get the face you deserve.” The fashion industry would like to make us think that a fifteen-year-old girl is the ideal of beauty. Subtext: After that, what’s the point? I’m amazed to find lovely young thirty-year-olds in New York who consider themselves past it. Sometimes they make the mistake of trying to seem younger in clothes and styling, but ironically when one appears to be hiding one’s years, one only winds up seeming older. Then there’s being figée (unevolving, frozen) and coincée (uptight: we age but our presentation stays the same, for instance keeping the same hairstyle for ten years). French women do make the most of themselves at every age, and it’s a matter of adaptation—it’s up to each of us to construe our own beauty. They believe in beauté charme: the total effect beyond just a nice body and a pretty face; it includes the way one talks, smiles, moves, and gestures. If we are confident in feeling energy, depth, and charisma, we naturally transmit the feeling with our body and face. Beauty and its seductiveness are generated from within, not applied from without. As the fox in Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince says, “One sees the essential only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes.”

*** La Moitié [lah MWAH-tyay]: When being served meat, vegetables, soup, whatever at someone’s home or even in a restaurant, French women are apt to tell the person dishing it out, “la moitié, s’il vous plait“: just give me half of that. It’s mainly rhetorical in a French setting, where you are far less likely to get an outsize portion. But in other places, it’s a survival tactic. This is the 50 Percent Solution in practice. How much do you want to eat? How much should you eat? How about half?

*** Nos petits démons [noh puh-TEE day-MOH(N)]: French women, indeed all women, have their little demons, their personal offenders. They can be foods whose siren song is most likely to mess up our equilibrium. The only answer to their danger is to identify them and to enjoy them with extra care. None should be forbidden; your discipline is not to skip them but to practice eating them mindfully and with focus. For those who are inclined to empty a bag of nuts, for instance, it is an excellent mental yoga practice to eat one nut at a time, up to five, very slowly, until you get to the point where it’s simply too boring to contemplate having another one (shelling your own helps in this discipline).

Apart from chronic offenders we must also be on guard for cravings, especially at the most hormonally turbulent time of the month. I often answer cravings with a bit of dried fruit, such as figs, apricots, or prunes. Another excellent answer to this faux hunger are the French gherkins, or cornichons. Something about the vinegar and spice of these little pickles and their intense hit of flavor tends to dispel cravings. I find this is true of licorice as well, a fresh, intense taste that somehow turns off your desire to eat.

I confess to chocolate and bread as two of my demons (not-so-uncommon personal offenders), but happily, shopping is not a third. Nos petits demons are not limited to food. I don’t binge on new shoes or clothes as a pick-me-up (keeping the same size and weight since adulthood helps). But the drill is the same. Know your offenders and indulge mindfully and in moderation in order to maintain equilibrium. And if once in a while you succumb to your demons? Congratulations: You are human. Forget the guilt and remember to compensate over time to regain your balance.

*** Petits riens [puh-TEE ryeh(n)]: French women love their little nothings. A misnomer, really, and all a matter of perception. I love the $5 and $10 gifts I receive, incalculably great and incalculably small. It could be a candle, a flower, four chocolates, a nifty magnet for the refrigerator with a clever phrase or picture, a ceramic insect (I did not think that was possible until I got one). In a complex world we have conditioned ourselves not to sweat the small stuff. It’s true, you shouldn’t sweat small things, but you should enjoy them. I am not speaking of the little irritations we face but about things that seem incidental but can enhance experience and give pleasure. When it comes to our petits riens we don’t need to know exactly what they add to the fullness of our experience; we need only to be open to the possibility that seeming trivialities may play a significant role in how we feel overall.

*** Peu à peu [puh ah puh]: French women appreciate that Rome wasn’t built in a day (and neither was France), but rather “little by little.” The progress of your life toward peak experiences in all aspects of living will take time. Changes made drastically or all at once are often the sorts of modifications that don’t stick. Like New Year’s resolutions, they are upheld proudly for a little while, but then we fall back to our old ways. Arrive at your new ways gradually, and you will leave your old ways too far behind for easy return. And if you slip up a bit, you won’t feel a failure; you will know how to get back on track because it isn’t all or nothing. It’s a game of inches.

*** Plage de temps [plahzh duh tahm(p)]: French women are hedonists without being narcissists, but also pragmatists who understand that a healthy balance of pleasure in life requires a “beach of time,” a lovely expression meaning a space of time for oneself to which one repairs on a daily or periodic basis. Sometimes it means making a morning for oneself—I have had to make a practice of scheduling a beach day for myself–or sometimes it can be a half hour or just a few minutes. It can be found in the most unlikely places: when you are stuck in traffic, listening to music, or just doing routine chores. You can let your mind fill up with anxiety or resentments, or with a bit of practice you can learn to head to the beach. The mind is its own place.

*** De Saison [duh say-ZOH(N)]: French women know life would be tedious if it came in only one flavor. Whether fashion, food, or travel, French women anticipate and indulge in what’s “in season.” It’s fun to be “au courant” with respect to the latest in food, drink, style. But this does not mean we don’t pay proper attention to les classiques, whether they be the little black dress or the best of foods that return and give indispensable pleasure year after year. Alas, to define de saison properly takes a book or a Web site (hopefully this one).

*** Terroir [tare-RWAHR]: French women know it is a combination of soil, sun, and microclimate that makes the same variety of melon from farmer Chassain taste sweeter than that from farmer Dubois. I am mindful of this when I shop locally at the Union Square Greenmarket, where I can choose tomatoes or strawberries from a half dozen vendors, but always seek out the one whose fruit is to my taste. The cultivation of the terre (soil, earth) and seasonal weather also have a big impact on quality, which is why wine vintages can vary so much in quality and characteristics from year to year, and from producer to producer, but it all starts with the terroir, which imparts distinctive quality to what is cultivated locally on the spot. Terroir is virtually a holy word in the world of wine, whether in Alsace, Champagne, Bordeaux, or elsewhere, but especially in Burgundy, vines planted six feet apart can produce grapes and then wines that are unmistakably different in character and often quality as well. This difference—validated over centuries of harvests—is always registered in the price, sometimes in multiples of five or more from vineyard to vineyard. There is a group of oenophiles who are such militant followers of terroir they call themselves “terroiristes.”

*** En vélo [ah(n) vay-LOH]: French women are much more likely to travel en vélo, “by bike,” than Americans, but as in China the days of bicycles being a primary means of transportation are greatly diminished. However, French women are terrific at incorporating bursts of physical activity as part of their daily routine (as opposed to going to the gym)—walking, of course, taking the stairs, even swimming when possible. Today bicycling is still a top recreational activity in France. Go to a sporting goods store and see all the special clothing and accessories and varieties of bicycles in all sizes and prices. It seems everyone lives Le Tour de France (and dresses the part). When I am out for a scenic ride and am huffing and puffing up some gradual climb with my mind on vacation, I am sometimes awakened by the sound in my left ear of the word “bonjour,” a signal I am about to be passed by some man or woman or peloton (pack) on their racing bikes speeding on their way.