Sinister Street

Re my last post on bac, a reader very reasonably asked why I hadn't mentioned bac as the abbreviation for baccalauréat, the school leaving examination.  The answer is simple--I intended to, and then forgot! I'm glad she reminded me; I suspect it's the first association a French person makes on hearing bac without a context.

Context is usually crucial in understanding a word, but sometimes it doesn't give enough help to grasp the nuance. I've just read the lovely novel by David Foenkinos, La Délicatesse (2009). (Also a film, screenplay by Foenkinos himself and his brother Stéphane, starring Audrey Tatou). It's the first book I've read by this prolific young author (born in 1974) but it won't be the last.

I found certain key words and themes running through it, including sinistre. This didn't seem quite the same as English "sinister," but its shade of meaning wasn't clear. The heroine Nathalie congratulates, with surprise, Markus on making a joke. Markus, Swedish and phlegmatic, replies, "Thanks. Do I seem as sinistre as that?" He says in Sweden he is considered a boute-en-train (a live wire), and "being sinistre is a calling" there. Another character, Charles, thinks he hasn't made the women in his life laugh enough, and wonders, as his wife hasn't laughed for two years, three months and seventeen days, if he has the power to turn women sinistres. Markus and Charles have a dinner which seems to Markus the most sinistre of his life; Charles, disappointed in love, feels oppressed, feels his life is sinistre. 

I should mention that the book contains joy and optimism as well as sadness. But as these examples suggest, and as the Robert & Collins dictionary confirms, sinistre means "gloomy," "lugubrious;" sometimes "miserable" or "creepy"--c'est vraiment sinistre ici.  It can also mean grim--une sinistre réalité. It does sometimes mean, as in English, "ominous," "of ill omen;" the dictionary adds a special note explaining that this is the only sense in which it translates English "sinister."

In the historical dictionary, Alain Rey says that since the nineteenth century sinistre is often used in a weakened sense to mean "sad" or "boring"--as in La Délicatesse. This weakening is reflected in slang usage: une réunion sinistre, a deadly boring meaning; un sinistre imbécile, an absolute imbecile, with sinistre an intensifier, much as we say "he's an awful idiot."  It's the weakening of sinistre that makes it hard to understand for an English reader, since "sinister"is still strong,  as "awful" used to be.

As in English, the origin is ultimately Latin "sinister," meaning "left" as in "left-hand," "left side." The Romans originally thought the left-hand side was lucky, but then switched to agree with the Greeks that left is bad. This idea has permeated folk-lore and superstition ever since.

I'm Bac!

Though by now you have probably, and understandably, gone away. However, it's just about spring, time for this space to re-flower, after a pause that turned into an unintentional winter hiatus.

Bac means a bin; it's used for the open bins in which records--now CDs or DVDs--are displayed and sold, for rubbish bins, for recycling bins on which one sees written Ce bac est réservé pour le tri, and for various other sorts of containers and tubs, such as a vegetable bin in a fridge--bac à légumes--or the tub of a sink--évier à deux bacs, for example.

It also means "boat," especially a flat ferry-boat type of vessel, but I haven't yet come across this in context. Here on Lyon's rivers we have barges or péniches.

Somehow I thought bac was a modern word, but it has ancient origins. From vulgar Latin baccu or baccos, recipient, it seems to have originally been a Gallic word for "boat," and it has a Breton cognate, bag, plural bigi, boat/s.  Over the centuries it expanded from "boat" to other kinds of containers.

I started wondering whether our modern English "bag" comes from an ancient British cognate of the Breton bag. A bag is also a kind of container, after all. But not so, according to the OED. The early Middle English word bagge "possibly" came from Old Norse baggi. There was also Old French bague and Provençal bagua, "baggage," and medieval Latin baga,"chest" or "sack."  But it's not clear where any of these came from, nor their relationship to each other, and there seems to be no connection with the Breton bag at all.

More etymological mystery. But back to bac and ce bac est réservé pour le tri: le tri is a short form of triage so of course means "sorting," used particularly of sorting rubbish for recycling. In my building there is a rubbish room with grey bacs for rubbish and green ones for recyclables. This not-so-fragrant locale poubelles--first mentioned here last February, a year ago, heavens!--is used by the restaurant and shoe shop workers as well as by other flat-dwellers, and so there's rubbish of all sorts. Cardboard boxes and bits of card from inside boots seem to be thrown willy-nilly into the bacs pour le tri and it's not clear whether you are meant to separate paper from plastic from cardboard or whether it's Ok for it to just all go in pell-mell. As it does.

Glass, however, must be taken to special big oval containers--not bacs but silos, I learn from the city's website--on the streets. You push your bottles and jars piece by piece through a rubber-edged hole in the container's side; each one makes a satisfying crash on impact. This process takes quite a long time when performed by bleary-eyed young men emptying bags full of bottles the morning after the night before.

walk at your own risk

In the last post I mentioned surprising areas in which French punctiliousness is absent. The one that immediately springs to mind--and to sight, and all too often to shoe-sole--is the attitude towards cleaning up after your dog. Which is, ce n'est pas nécessaire.  

Actually, although I've put this attitude in French, I simply cannot begin to understand it. Of course, some dog-owners do clean up after their chiens, I have seen them doing so--one or two. But judging from the appalling condition of the pavements, they are in a small minority. In a country that prides itself on appearances and presentation--and where the wearing of elegant shoes is de rigeur!-- this filthiness in the streets of otherwise beautiful towns and cities is extraordinary.

Many other writers have talked about this, most famously perhaps Stephen Clarke (A Year in the Merde) in his inimitably funny and acerbic way.  I cannot attempt to say anything new or better or funnier or more bitter, but I add my own lament to all the others. And I realise I'm breaking my own rule of shaping a post around a French word or phrase...this one is based on a French phenomenon.

One of the English-language French newspapers recently had an article about this ghastly mess, from which it's clear the phenomenon is not restricted to Lyon (or Paris, where Clarke lives and writes). The article explained that there are special pavement-cleaning machines to deal with this problem, and cited the number of tons of dog waste removed from France's pavements yearly--my numerical blind spot prevents my recalling the figure, but, believe me, it was staggering. And it's true that the urban clean-up crews are very efficient here, just as public transport is, and most other public services; every morning, the streets and pavements are clean, ready to be soiled all over again.

I live on a pedestrianized shopping street down which it should be an unmitigated pleasure to promenade. I'm not far from the cobbled, narrow lanes of Vieux Lyon, also traffic-free, where again one should be able to walk with a liberated and relaxed stride. Instead of which, one has to keep one's eyes vigilantly upon the ground ahead to avoid stepping into disaster.

Que faire? Do I dare accost every dog-owner I see leaving behind his pet's souvenirs? Strangely enough, one rarely sees it actually happening; but if I did, is my French good enough, am I confident enough, to say anything? And what kind of difference would it make, in the grand scheme of things?

We noticed that the little villages around Lake Como in Italy had scrupulously clean pavements and frequently-posted signs enjoining dog owners to be responsible about this. While we were sitting on a bench looking out over the lake one evening, a young boy with a puppy who had taken him by surprise came up to ask if we had any tissues. Young as he was, he knew he had to clean up after the dog. If only this understanding could be imported to all dog-owners in France.

the cheese man knows his onions

I live very close to Monoprix--a shop selling clothes, housewares, and food at reasonable but not rock-bottom prices. In the food department there is a fresh fish counter (overpowering in aroma and avoided by me), a fresh meat counter, and a counter with a wonderful array of cheeses sold by weight. (All these things are also available pre-cut and wrapped).

At this cheese counter, a sign on the wall says:

The key word here, coulant, is of course from couler, to flow, as rivers, tears, or taps; applied to cheese, it describes that perfect soft, flowing, almost runny texture that a ripe Brie -- or local San Marcellin -- has at its heart. A coulant wine is smooth, a coulant writing style is free-flowing.

So, coulant used figuratively of a person means "easy-going" (Robert & Collins) or d'humeur accomodante (Rey's Dictionnaire Historique).  I found no other translation offered in either book. And here is where it becomes interesting: easy-going and of accommodating temperament would seem to be positive attributes. But in the Monoprix sign,  the boast is that the cheeseman himself is NOT coulant  (while his Brie should be, and is). Coulant-ness in him would be a negative trait.

At first I thought the sign referred only to the person (often a woman) working at the counter selling the cheese, but as I write it comes to me that it might refer just as much to the cheese buyer, the person who selects the cheese for the shop and supervises its quality. And of course, when it comes to quality, especially of food, one should never be easy-going in France.

With regard to the cheese he offers the customers, he should not be soppy, or wishy-washy, or "wet" as we British say (more liquid metaphors), but, instead, he must be precise, controlling, and vigilant for any defects in quality. Actually it probably applies to the seller as well -- he must not be slipshod enough to allow any inferior cheese into a customer's panier. (I rather like "slipshod" as a translation for coulant in this negative sense. Opinions welcome).

This sign pleases me very much, with its elegant play on words and its emphasis on quality. Definite opinions, clarity of thought, knowing what's what, drawing a sharp distinction between something good and something that doesn't come up to scratch--all that is highly valued in this culture. This attitude can lead to a certain inflexibility, as famously encountered in officialdom; on the other hand, it produces on-time buses and trains. In my experience, if someone says they will deliver your new washing machine between 10:00 and noon, they do.

But this punctiliousness applies most of all to food. (And is completely lacking in surprising areas--of which more anon). I wouldn't presume to analyse or define Frenchness; I can only speak out of my short experience so far. But to me this sign by the cheese counter seems quintessentially gallic-- So French.

* Literally: When it comes to quality, our cheese specialist is much less runny than his brie.

je suis back

In my last post, written shockingly long ago, I said Italy was a delightfully nearby country. Recently we put this to the test, as we drove to Italy for a holiday. First we went, via the Fréjus tunnel and the Turin-Milan motorway, to Lago di Como, which is as lovely as they say and as pictures illustrate, but even more so. (It did take five or six hours, longer than we expected, to get there...but still, only about as much time as driving to the Dordogne). After that, Aosta, in the mountains and very close to France. The people there speak both Italian and French--a special French all their own--and often German as well. It's a fascinating place with many historical features including the well-preserved Roman city gate and walls; and the whole Val d'Aosta is a feast of dramatic scenery, ancient villages, and chateaux. (Now I sound like a tourist brochure; you had to be there).

We came home via the Mont Blanc tunnel, on the French-Italian border; the wait was half an hour for us, but an hour and a half the other way, and we'd heard the previous Friday evening that there was a two-and-a-half hour queue from France into Italy; so Italy isn't always as near as all that.

In Italy, at first, I had great difficulty in retrieving my once-fluent Italian; everything came out in French.  A good sign, I suppose, though it felt strange. And both my husband and I found ourselves automatically saying Pardon all the time, which shows how often this word is deployed in France--by me (quintessentially English even now) apologetically, but by many French, forcefully, as a weapon for making one's way through a crowd.

Rather than "quintessentially English"--and I suppose I have to add no offence was intended to the Welsh, Scots, or Northern Irish--perhaps I should have said So British, a phrase frequent in French journalism.  Like many other English language expressions, it's often used with a blithe disregard for syntactical function and even meaning. There's a fashion right now, especially in advertisements, of using English words with an appended asterisk pointing to a French translation at the bottom of the page. So we see phrases like must have and mon look and prix light throughout the French text.

Those two last examples are from a flyer from the discount shop Tati; I have to hand, as it arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Prix fous! Prix light! it proclaims, and by the word "light" there's an asterisk. A tiny note explains it means légers.  Not that we would ever say "light prices" in English, of course, but that's the charm of the thing.