Bella Pizza (c) Kristin Espinasse
"Livraison Gratuite!" The sign reads "Free Delivery". Photo of pizza parlor taken in Marseilles' 8th arrondissement.

noun, masculine
wooden shoe, clog, sabot  

In the eighth arrondissement of Marseilles, at my mother-in-law's apartment complex, Jean-Marc and I climb several flights of stairs until we reach the last two doors in the building. One of the portes has a sign on it that reads "peinture fraîche." The wet paint warning causes us to automatically curl our shoulders inward and pull our suitcases close.

Jean-Marc slides la clef  into the keyhole and pushes open the door to my belle-mère's one-bedroom apartment.

"Vas-y," Go ahead, I say, trying to catch my breath after stepping off the French Stairmaster. We have just climbed four flights of stairs! How does my poor mother-in-law manage without an ascenseur

My belle-mère's apartment, where we've come for a weekend getaway (Belle-Mère is staying with the kids, at our place), carries me back to my first impressions of France, to the quirky things I'd forgotten (after having gotten rid of them, for comfort's sake), to the Frenchness that's worn off things and places—the foreignness I wish would still pop out like so many doors on an Advent calendar, each with its own sweet cultural surprise.

All that stair-climbing has caused me to work up a sweat. After depositing my overnight bag in the bedroom, I make my way to the salle de bain. I have to enter my belle-mère's tiny bathroom sideways, inching my way to the tub known as un sabot, which in French means "slipper bath"—and for good reason: the bathtub is only slightly bigger than a pantoufle! 

The tub has an unusual bi-level base—stand or sit! I choose to stand, but when I automatically reach out to tug closed the shower curtain, there isn't one. Oh yes, I'd forgotten about that: shower curtains are rare in France!

A bit awkward in the curtainless bain-douche, I juggle the shampoo and the savon—all the while balancing a hand-held shower head so as not to flood the bathroom.

After the shower circus, I make coffee on one of those space-saving, three-in-one appliances where the lower drawer is a dishwasher, the middle section is an oven, and the burners are on top. I put water on to boil and go searching for a coffee mug; instead I find a stack of porcelain bols and am reminded that the French still drink their café-au-lait from a bowl, just as they still eat their cake with a spoon and not une fourchette.

I spend the rest of the weekend running into the Frenchness that I had left behind when we packed our bags and left Marseilles for the countryside ten years ago, for a home which has, over the years, gone from French to functional, from quirky to comfortable, from bi-level to... banale.

From the word sabot we get the verb saboter: "to bungle," or "to walk noisily." Come to think of it, it's no wonder I've become desensitized to the uniqueness that is France: I've been making too much noise and can no longer perceive it!

May this be a reminder to tiptoe past the Gallic culture that still whispers out from every French nook and cranny, to travel forward—light on my feet—so as not to "sabotage" this ongoing French experience.


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French Vocabulary

un arrondissement
a city district 

la porte

la peinture fraîche
wet paint

la clef

la salle de bain

la belle-mère

go ahead

un ascenseur

la pantoufle

le bain-douche

le savon

le bol
bowl for drinking hot liquids

la fourchette

boring, ordinary 


(Text from here, on, will not be included in the book)

Listen: Hear the word "sabot": Download sabot.wav

Terms & Expressions:
une baignoire sabot = short tub for taking baths "assis" (seated)
voir venir quelqu'un  avec ses gros sabots = "to see someone coming"-- to see someone's true intentions


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