No Trombones

I'm about to send back my automatic debit information for payment of an electric bill--ah yes, life in France isn't all café au lait and croissants--and when I lift the flap of the reply envelope provided, I'm confronted with the following admonitions:

Ne pas plier. Pas de trombone. Pas d'adhésif. Pas d'agrafe.  *

"Pas de trombone" ?!  Of course, as a little diagram illustrating each prohibition shows, a trombone is what the French call a paper clip, and the reason is suddenly obvious as I look at the picture. But what poetry in the prosaic! I am charmed all over again by the way another language can cast a new light on something mundane. Here's a metaphor in the midst of the everyday that the French probably don't even notice, just as we don't notice the metaphors that have become commonplace in English. It takes someone new to the language--a foreigner, a child--to hear them.

When my daughter was four, I showed her a lily of the valley and told her its name; she repeated it slowly and said, that's a lovely word--and I heard the phrase freshly again. More tragi-comically, when one of my sons was about five, he bumped the side of his head hard against something, and I said, "You're going to have a cauliflower ear." He went away, looking thoughtful; I don't remember just how long he suffered in silence. Eventually he whispered anxiously to his father, "Is a cauliflower really going to grow out of my ear?"

For the expert in-depth shedding of light on the mundane, there's Henry Petroski, whose 1994 book The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts--from Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers--Came to be as They are has a close-up paperclip on the cover. I haven't read it yet, nor his book dedicated entirely to another stationery item, the pencil; but I do know The Book on the Bookshelf, his wonderful exploration of the history of the book, from its earliest beginnings, including the evolution of the codex from the scroll (an interest of mine), to the growth of libraries.

Here in France it's easy to find les trombones, les agrafes, les papiers, les cahiers, les stylos, and every sort of stationery item you can imagine, because--at least in Lyon--stationery and art supply stores abound. Some are free-standing, others are enormous departments within bookshops. It's a stationery-lover's paradise; and the word for "stationery" is much prettier in French: papeterie.  And when I signed up for the Decitre bookshop carte de fidélité --almost every store has its loyalty card--I was given a coupon for 10% off all the papeterie. I can't wait to go and spend it! Decitre is a wonderful bookshop with two branches on opposite sides of Place Bellecour; one with many floors of books in French, the other with books and newspapers in various languages, especially English. And, of course, I go back and forth between the the two.

*for non French speakers: Do not fold; No adhesives; No staples. Re trombone, read on.