Just before Christmas, PF nabbed the family car, and hence thwarted my evil plan to use the necessary purchase of pepper corns as an excuse for stocking up on British yummies and buying his Christmas present in the nearby jewellers shop. The next day I turned on the radio and discovered that if I had gone to the jewellers as planned, I would have been rudely interrupted by two numpties in balaclava helmets who had run into the shop and sprayed all its occupants generously with tear gas before smashing the glass cabinets, grabbing all they could fit in their backpacks and running away with it. So hip-hip-hooray for P.F, my loveable and unwitting hero.
However, what really surprised me for just a minute was hearing on the radio how they had left the crime scene: on a scooter. I laughed, as despite my many years in France, when I heard the word “scooter”, I imagined them making a speedy getaway with this:
But in French, it’s actually this.
This event got me wondering about other English words that the French have adopted and now use with great confidence, sometimes describing totally different things than their real English cousins. A thick slathering of French accent apparently makes it convincing enough for the Académie Française to slip it quietly into the French dictionary. English words are made French with an exotic little “le” or “la”, like “le weekend” and “le burger” (which has so much more gastronomic sex appeal when pronounced “beurre-geurre”). Then there are the “English” nouns that the French have invented by simply by adding a cute little -“ing” to a verb to give it an « oh so charm– ing » lilt. Like “le parking”: “Excuseuh-me, where eez ze parking?” When you say, “Urr, do you mean the car park?”, you will then be informed with a hurt expression that this is an English term. Si, si, Madame.
Another favourite of mine is “un lifting”, a far more honest vision of a face-lift. When your hairdresser proposes “un brushing”, she’s not going to brush you down like a shedding St Bernard, she’s suggesting a blow-dry. Also “un jogging” is a difficult one – either a track suit or a jog, depending on the context. When you see a car accident on the autoroute, your passenger will invariably tell you to switch on your “warnings“, with the “w” pronounced in a hard German manner. Hands up who knows what “un living” is? It’s English, and it exists. Si, si. Give up? It is… a piece of furniture. You live and learn.
I particularly remember a language quandary at an infant school meeting. I had unwisely arrived late, and ended up sat on a tiny chair beside Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is a frightening mother. (More about her here for anyone who wants more.) She goes to all the meetings, and is always on time. Her kids never lose their fair trade lama hair mittens, but she’s sewn a printed name label into each of them- just in case. She looks elegant all the time, even with her knees jammed behind her ears on an infant school chair. I, on the other hand, am fully paid-up member of the badly-organised mum squad: I sidle in at the last minute, then dig through pockets full of paper tissues and sweet wrappers to find an abandoned colour crayon and a supermarket receipt to jot down the essentials.
The teacher smiled magnanimously at us and said “Of course, your children will need a pair of baskets and one or two sweets, as the weather may be rainy and cold during the day”. I looked blankly at her, then peered discretely over my neighbour’s shoulder as she diligently recorded everything bar the teacher’s bra size in a dainty notepad she’d pulled from a perfectly organised handbag. She had neatly penned “2 x sweets, plus baskets” with an ultra-feminine pink biro.
I nudged Wonder Woman in the ribs, and politely whispered into her ear. She glared at me; serious parents do not talk when the teacher is explaining Important Stuff. She looked condescendingly down her nose at me before stabbing a perfectly manicured claw at her immaculate handwriting. “Des baskets et deux sweets. It’s English, after all!” she snarled at me, then turned her attention back to the teacher before she lost Brownie points for not paying attention.
I switched off and started wondering. Did the French have a secret use for candy? I thought it was just plain edible, but maybe you can be saved by pulling a family-sized bag of fraises tagada out of your anorak pocket after crashing into the freezing depths of the Alps? Set a match to them, and hey presto! An emergency sugar torch to heat everyone up and attract the attention of any superheroes who happen to be flying by. What on earth were the baskets for? Mushroom picking?
Back in the real world, Wonder Woman was gazing at the teacher and thoughtfully sucking the end of her pink biro, much to the delight of the two daddies who had been forced to go there. She nodded her head with knowledgeable approbation as the teacher explained how many pairs of spare knickers we had to provide for the day’s outing. I seriously considered hot-footing it out of the door, hiding behind her Range Rover and mercilessly lapidating her with aniseed balls before she had time to say “Harrods”.
I asked the mother on my right, who appeared less worried about being put in the corner. She had written the word correctly: “sweat”, and amiably pointed to the child sitting beside her. I finally clicked. Think Rocky working out in the gym. Think Sarkozy running in a park. Ah, ok. A sweat shirt. The baskets turned out to be “basquettes”: laced sports shoes.
That’s your lot for now. I’m off to dream about summer, when we’ll be able to have a barbecue in the sun without hearing the Tramontane wind howling around the house. That’s right, a “Barbe- euh-cul” – which translates from the French as “beard -um- backside“. Bon appetit.