I notice my husband is shaving this morning, something he rarely does anymore, now that he’s working from home as a wine sales rep.
"Where are you going?" I ask.
"Prospecting? Where?" I wonder.
Saint-Raphaël? My mind fills with visions of the foamy sea, sandy beaches, sidewalk cafés and brasseries, the boardwalk, the boutiques, the marché, and the glamorous Belle Époque architecture.... Suddenly a pulsion comes over me. The pulsion to pout.
"I didn't know you were going out today...." I grumble.
"Well, do you want to come with me?" Jean-Marc offers.
"You know I can't come with you. I have work to do!” With a huff and a puff I leave the room.
In 1994 the only conseil Jean-Marc's ailing grandmother gave me before I married her grandson was this: "ne boude pas." Don’t boude when love gets tough! “C’est terrible—insupportable!—une femme ou un mari qui boude!”
I hurried to look up the word bouder just as soon as I returned from Grand-mère’s modest apartment in Lyon to Jean-Marc’s studio in Marseilles. I was hesitant to ask my husband-to-be what the word meant. What was it that was so terrible, so insufferable… something a husband or wife should never ever do? And why had Jean-Marc’s grandmother selected this bit of counsel above the rest?
"Germaine," as Jean-Marc’s mamie was called, was a stern woman who saw the collapse of a family fortune. In Morocco, after the war, she peddled house linens from her Estafette (a converted military supply vehicle) as there were six mouths to feed. When her husband, a prisoner of war, returned from la guerre, Germaine continued to "wear the pants," selling her linens porte-à-porte, while her husband went seaside to cast out horrific battle images along with his fishing line.
My first encounter with Germaine had me watching the once-authoritarian-now-frail woman eat the eyes right out of the fish on her plate! No sooner had I recovered from the fact that the French serve their seafood with its heads and tails intact, than I witnessed this unforgettable eye-popping scene!
Apart from Germaine’s advice not to sulk, she taught me where all those forks, knives, and cuillères belong on the French table, at once thoughtful about her bourgeois upbringing, and méprisante of it.
The French word bouder, it turns out, means “to pout”. From bouder comes the noun boudoir, which originally meant "a place in which to sulk". Though the dictionary says that a boudoir is "un petit salon de dame," it is really nothing more fancy or exciting than a pouting room.
I return to my sulking place, and continue to work and to sniff. Je boude, je boude!
"We'll leave in 10 minutes?" my husband suggests, popping his head in from the hall.
"I didn't say I was going with you!" I snap.
"Well, if you change your mind, I am leaving in 10 minutes."
I continue to faire la tête, or "be in the sulks," while my husband prepares for his surely glamorous tournée along the French Riviera. At my desk, I peck at the faded keyboard, staring into the dismal screen. I can’t concentrate on writing a story when I’m so busy obsessing about my husband’s freedom:
"Monsieur Espinasse goes to the sunny Riviera," I grumble. "Monsieur Espinasse would like the plat du jour. Would Monsieur fancy a glass of champagne with his foie gras?"
Despite my ridiculous imaginings and the cynical commentary that accompanies them, I know that reality is quite different. My husband’s door-to-door sales day will be spent lugging 18-kilo boxes of wine from one cave to another, navigating medieval roads, trying to find parking in a small French village full of one-way streets!
The glamorous day will continue as he stops for lunch at a grimy roadside gas station where he’ll pick up one of those preservative-rich sandwiches: un jambon beurre or un pan-bagnat. He’ll wash that down with a cup of bitter coffee before rushing to the next appointment. Finally he will weave in and out of traffic on the autoroute, struggling to get back to our village in time to pick up our son from basketball at the end of the day.
Meantime I will be working freely at my computer, trying to write the next great American story (or so my imagination would like to think!). To my left, there’ll be a café au lait, before me, the adventure of my choice, if I will but find the words to transport me there. Will I ever find the words? Oh, to be transported!
"Do you know what the word boudoir means?" I am out of breath, catching up to my husband, who is loading cases of wine into the trunk.
"Comment?" What's that? he asks.
"Boudoir. It's French," I reply.
"No. I don't know that word. What does it mean?" Jean-Marc asks, opening the car door for me.
“A sulking place,” I laugh. “It’s a place to bouder, or to be in the sulks.”
"Are you in the sulks?" Jean-Marc teases.
“Oh no, not me!” I glance out of the car window, to the heavens above. I hoped Germaine was watching. God rest her courageous, peddler’s soul.
I look over to the other peddler, seated beside me. Germaine would be proud of her grandson, who has, in his own way, followed in her steps.
a sales round (sales prospecting)
a piece of advice
ne boude pas!
C’est terrible—insupportable!—une femme ou un mari qui boude!
It's awful—intolerable—when a wife or a husband sulks!
un petit salon de dame
a woman's sitting room
faire la tête
to sulk, to give somebody the silent treatment
le plat du jour
the day's special (in a restaurant)
a kilo, or 2.2 pounds
une cave = cellar
a ham sandwich with butter
a sandwich made with tuna and olives (specialty from Nice)
le café au lait
coffee with milk
Thank you for the time you've just spent reading this French word story. If you have learned more than a little vocabulary here and find yourself looking forward to the next letter, please know that a one-time contribution helps me continue doing what I love most: improving these posts. Your support is vivement apprécié. Donating via PayPal is fast and easy when you use the links below. Merci infiniment!