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Entries in French Language (2)

Tuesday
Jan252011

A Puppy in Paris…

 Our Concierge recently had an unusual request for travel planning assistance.  To help a woman from California transport a rare breed of puppy from Toulouse to her home in San Francisco.

A reasonable request, but not so straightforward as first expected.  Turns out there is a temporary embargo on shipments of unaccompanied animals from France to the USA.  So David from our staff accompanied the dog from Paris to SFO.  

In itself, this is not such an interesting story.  However, once the dog had arrived in California, the family wanted some advice on naming their puppy.  After all, a dog from France should have a French name – mais oui, bien sûr! (but, of course)

So like many of the articles here, it illustrates the remarkable idea that in France, a country with countless social rules and customs, there are actually rules about how to name your dog.

The custom, dating back to 1885, refers to the fact that for purebred dogs to be included in the official listing recording births (called the L.O.F. – Livres des Origines Francaises) they must be have a name that corresponds to the letter of the year they were born.   The current sequence started in 1973 with the letter “I” and exludes the letters  "K", "Q", "W", "X", "Y" and “Z” which are considered too difficult.  So, every twenty years one returns to the same letter.

Apparently, this custom exists in many countries, including the US and Canada, where it is controlled by the AKC and CKC.  However, the sequence of letters differs in each country.  For example in Belgium, 2011 is a “K” year.  Despite the prevalence of the idea, in France people seem to be much more aware and I noticed long ago that when someone mentions a new puppy, this invariably leads to a discussion where people try to figure out what letter it is this year.  In fact, this very thing happened in the office when we were asked to help with a French name.

For example, the puppy we helped “emigrate” to the US was born in 2010, a year corresponding to the letter “F.”  So his birth name was Fakir.  You can understand why the family wanted to change his name.

If you have a new puppy and are looking for a French name, there are countless sites where you can get suggestions for male and female puppy names starting with the right letter.

Names starting with G for 2011:

Another site with more than 6,000 choices starting with all letters.

If you are visiting Paris, don’t be surprised to see a dog under the table at a restaurant or café.  There doesn’t seem to be any rules against it and even if there were, most rules in France were made to be broken.  I have even seen dogs snoozing under chairs on stools in three-star Michelin restaurants.  They are nearly always extremely well-behaved and only once did a small dog leave the comfort of his carry-bag to come over and beg for a treat from my plate.

One other canine anectdote is inspired by my friend J.  A dog lover with a keen interest in the differences between French and English language he has long searched for an equivalent word in French for the game “Fetch.”  The exhausting pastime for dog owners that never ceases to amuse the dogs themselves.  In French, it turns out, there is no word for this game.  It’s simply called “Throwing the ball for the dog.” 

Huh, here is yet another sign that the English language actually has a larger vocabulary than French.  I’ve heard there is a difference of as much as 250,000 words in French to 400,000 in English.  Of course, no self-respecting Frenchman (or woman) would ever agree to such a dramatic difference. 

So perhaps “Those French don’t actually have a different word for everything.”

If you would like help from the Paris Private Guides Concierge, click here.

Opening Photo: Princess Lee Radziwill with Thomas, her pug, by Henry Clarke, August 1960

 

Our Concierge recently had an unusual request for travel planning assistance.  To help a woman from California transport a rare breed of puppy from Toulouse to her home in San Francisco.

We were able to accomplish this with little trouble, but it was no simple feat.  Initially the idea was to send the dog unaccompanied on Air France, but there happens to be an embargo on such shipments from France to the USA.  So someone from our staff accompanied the dog from Paris to San Francisco. 

In itself, this is not such an interesting story.  However, once the dog had arrived in California, the family wanted some advice on naming their puppy.  After all, a dog from France should have a French name – mais oui, bien sûr! (but, of course)

So like many of the articles here, it illustrates the remarkable idea that in France, a country with countless social rules and customs, there are actually rules about how to name your dog.

The custom, dating back to 1885, refers to the fact that for purebred dogs to be included in the official listing recording births (called the L.O.F. – Livres des Origines Francaises) they must be have a name that corresponds to the letter of the year they were born.   The current sequence started in 1973 with the letter “I” and exludes the letters  "K", "Q", "W", "X", "Y" and “Z” which are considered to difficult.  So, every twenty years one returns to the same letter. 

Apparently, this custom exists in many countries, including the US and Canada, where it is controlled by the AKC and CKC.  However, the sequence of letters differs in each country.  For example in Belgium, 2011 is a “K” year.  Despite the prevalence of the idea, in France people seem to be much more aware and I noticed long ago that when someone mentions a new puppy, this invariably leads to a discussion where people try to figure out what letter it is this year.  In fact, this very thing happened in the office when we were asked to help with a French name. 

For example, the puppy we helped “emigrate” to the US was born in 2010, a year corresponding to the letter “F.”  So his birth name was Fakir.  You can understand why the family wanted to change his name.

If you have a new puppy and are looking for a French name, there are countless sites where you can get suggestions for male and female puppy names starting with the right letter.

2011: http://ecoledeschiens.com/prenoms-chiens-2011.html

Another site with more than 6,000 choices: http://www.noms-de-chiens.com/

One last dog anecdote is inspired by my friend J.  A dog lover with a keen interest in the differences between French and English language he has long searched for an equivalent word for the game “Fetch.”  The exhausting pastime for dog owners that never ceases to amuse the dogs themselves.

In French, there is no word for this game.  It’s simply called “Throwing the ball for the dog.”  Huh, yet another sign that the English language has a larger vocabulary.  I’ve heard there is a difference of as much as 250,000 words in French to 400,000 in English.  Of course, no self-respecting Frenchman (or woman) would ever agree to such a dramatic difference.  Perhaps “Those French don’t have a different word for everything.”

Sunday
May092010

Talk like a Parisian

I’ve come to the conclusion that since the tours created by my company afford visitors a glimpse of Paris that isn’t in the guidebooks, the people I meet are especially curious about French life and culture.  As a result, we are often asked what French to learn before coming to Paris. 

Of course, it’s unlikely that anyone can actually “learn to speak French” in the course of planning a holiday vacation to France.  However, you can use a few commonly known words to your advantage.  You just have to use precisely the right word at just the right moment. 

The best place to start is to forget everything you think you know.  There is a charming term used in French language schools called the “Faux ami” – pronounced Fauze-amie.  This translates litteraly to false friend and refers to words that seem like they should mean the same thing in English and French but don’t. 

An example is “excusez-moi” which is generally thought by English speakers to work like “excuse me” when it’s closer to “sorry.”  “I’m sorry” is actually “Je m’excuse”  So this is the first thing to remember.  In my opinion you should forget about “excusez-moi”.

If you are in a crowed place or in the Métro and want to get by the thing to say is not "excusez-moi", but “Pardon” pronounced par-DON.  With the emphasis on the second syllable and with a nasal “own” sound if you can manage it.  When the doors open in a crowded Métro car and you are stuck far from the quickly closing door, saying Pardon firmly and emphatically will part the crowd in seconds. 

If you are curious about other ways to attract attention, you can read this post for advice on service in restaurants.

The next thing to learn is when to use the words Bonjour, Bonsoir, Au Revoir and Adieu.  “Bonjour” which means “Good Day” is used from morning until dusk.  “Bonsoir” is “Good Evening.”  Both greetings are used in common speech so there’s no faux-ami lurking here.  While there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule about when to switch, it seems that this often happens around dusk  I notice it also can happen when you meet someone working in a shop in the late afternoon who has become bored and tired.  I think they say Bonsoir out of wishful thinking that their workday is almost over.  I would say, it's a safe bet to start using Bonsoir about 6pm.  Of course, you will quickly relize that you are using the wrong greeting when you say "bonjour" and the person responds "bonsoir."  Note: This only works with native speakers, the rest of us are sometimes as confused as you are.

What about Au revoir and Adieu you ask?  Well, just thinking about what each of these words mean will give you a clue when to use them.  “Au revoir” translates to “See you again” and “Adieu” is “To God”.  Clearly the finality of “To God” makes it something that is not necessarily used when saying “goodbye” to people.  The lesson here, unless you are at a funeral, forget Adieu.

I’ve saved the easiest for last.  “Merci” and “Merci beaucoup”.  “Thank you” and “Thank you very much” – nothing tricky here.  At last -- Something that you can thank Madame Charles, your Junior High School French teacher, for telling you. 

Now that we’ve reviewed the words, we can now discuss the more challenging part of this effort.  When to use the words to get the effect we want --  Like when we need to get people to step aside quickly to let us out of the Métro before the doors shut.

There is a myth that the French are rude, but I think this is no more true in Paris than any other big city in the world.  In most cases, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, there are some basic cultural guidelines for being polite to strangers that don't necessicarily apply in English speaking countries. 

When you enter a small boutique or a café  you are expected to say “Bonjour” (or Bonsoir) to the person working there.  Once you have looked around (and regardless of whether you’ve bought anything) one says “Merci – Au Revoir” when leaving.  This is also regardless of whether the person in the shop has even bothered to come over and offer to assist you.  But I can assure you, no matter how disinterested the person working in the shop may have seemed, when you leave and say “Merci – Au Revoir” they will respond with “Au Revoir.”  

The same is true when you leave a neighborhood café.  I have already written about how to order coffee in Paris, but after a having a coffee at the counter or a table, when you pass by the bar on your way out the door, you should say “Merci – Au Revoir”.  Again, no matter how disinterested the barman may seem they will generally respond with an automatic “Au Revoir.”

The final and perhaps most important moment to use “Bonjour” and “Bonsoir” is when you are asking a question in any store, shop, grocery store or department store.  Imagine you have been looking around inside for a little while and now have a question for someone working there.  In English, it’s acceptable to glance over and say “Excuse me, do you have this in red?” all in one quick and efficient phrase. 

Not so fast there partner, we’re in France;  things are different here.  I learned this the hard way in the first few weeks of living in Paris back in 2001.  Armed with just a couple of weeks of French studies, I went to the Monoprix grocery store in my neighborhood of Passy.  I was looking for something that I was sure they stocked but I simply couldn’t find. 

I looked around and found a man who was stocking the shelves.  I went over to him and said – “Excusez-moi ou est mayonnaise?” -- “Excuse me, where’s the mayonnaise?” Okay, it was a bit roughly said, but I thought I was getting my point across.  After all, I'd only been studying French for two weeks.   The man responded with a blank stare and replied “Bonjour”.  I repeated my question differently assuming I'd made a mistake.  “Je cherche mayonnaise” - “I’m looking for mayonnaise”.  Again he replied “Bonjour”.  The third time I thought I should keep it simplesaying only “Mayonnaise” which I probably pronounced slowly “May-onnnn-NAIZZZZZE” to ensure that I was as clear as possible.  By now I became convinced that "Mayonnaise" was not actually a word in French because he responded again with “Bonjour”. 

Exasperated, I didn’t know what to do.  It was clear that I was not going to be buying any mayonnaise that day.  So, I started to walk away.  “Monsieur” the man called after me “En France on dit Bonjour d’abord” -- “In France we say Bonjour first”. 

Ah, I finally understood, and started over.  This time I said “Bonjour”.  He replied “Bonjour”, then I said “je cherche mayonnaise” and he replied “Aisle five”.  Success!  It was my first cultural lesson, and it happened right there in the middle of the Monoprix where I recently had another cultural awakening.

One last moment when I think it’s very important to say Bonjour is on the bus.  When boarding the bus, most people greet the driver who says “bonjour” in return.  A nice custom I think.  In general, when you come up to someone and you want to ask them a question, start with “bonjour” or “bonsoir” and you'll never go wrong.

So, it’s not necessary to learn a lot of French to blend in a bit and give the people you meet in shops and cafés the impression you are making an effort.  In reality more and more people speak English in France and so it’s generally not so difficult to communicate in most shopping, eating or sightseeing situations.  In most shops even if the person you first greet doesn’t speak English, they will find a colleague who does.

So instead of studying French, I recommend you spend your time reading guidebooks and scouring the internet for places to go, things to see and hidden restaurants to discover.  Or, you can let our concierge do the planning for you and simply enjoy the result.  Bon voyage!


Thanks to Scott Schuman from sartorialist.com for the images.