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Entries from August 2008


"Gateaux Basques" (Summer 2008): on the west coast of France, not far from Bayonne, in the hills of Briscous.

un sourire
(soo-reer) noun, masculine
    : a smile

Rides, des sourires gravés.
Wrinkles are engraved smiles.
--Jules Renard

Hear today's word and the above quote, in French (compliments of Son Max): Download sourire.wav .  Download sourire.mp3

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Thanks to Laura Ingalls Wilder,* the kids and I are working on a new habit: le sourire.*

We began watching the televised series, "La Petite Maison dans La Prairie,"* over summer vacation--after the DVD box set was given to my daughter. Since, the whole family has benefited from the gift.

Mesmerized by the daily dramas--and the Ingall's family's habit of rolling up their sleeves in the face of adversity--we hardly noticed that some of the old-fashioned family values were rubbing off on us.

One episode in particular has changed our daily routine. In yet another tear-jerking scene, Laura is paying tribute to her mother, whose smile is the first thing she sees in the morning, and the last thing she sees before closing her eyes at night. Indeed, Laura's mother, Caroline, whether about to be scalped by the natives--or on the verge of being burned alive (while, bucket by bucket, she tries to put out the flames that threaten to destroy her family's cabin), yes "Sainte Caroline" always manages a smile before putting out the candle's light each night.

"Elle est trop parfaite!" I often lamented, in a mock complaint as we finished watching yet another happy ending. "Well, you can try to be more like Laura's maman,*" my daughter offered, of Perfect Mother Caroline. Feathers ruffled, I pointed out how Caroline's daughters, Laura and Mary, were just as good role models for a couple of other rug rats that I knew personally. The kids giggled and I looked back to the screen, lost in thought. True, something about the Ingall's façon de vivre* resonated, and soon my family and I found ourselves trying to be good, or at least better.

We started simply, with The Smile. Soon a new habitude* was instilled in our daily routine: "Le Sourire Matinal"* and "Le Sourire du Soir".* Lately, no matter what mood is coloring the moment, we freeze in our tracks in time to paint a sensational smile across our faces. And I do mean sensational, for once
the smile is "put on," we can't help but feel better.

When I slide, sourire-wise, the kids are good at reminding me of our goal.
"Mom!" they'll say, as I peck them on the cheek at night, adding "Did you brush your teeth?" and "You'll have to straighten up this room first thing tomorrow morning!" and "A wet towel? Is that a WET TOWEL on the floor? Where do wet towels belong? That's right: In the bathroom--on a hook!"

"Mom!" they'll interrupt, and I snap back to my senses--my "smile senses". Soon, a toothy smile is flashing across all of our faces, and exaggeratedly so. Life's cares fade quickly into the background as a cloud of consciousness overcomes us: We are Toothy Smile. We are Grin. We are, however fleetingly, happy again.

And no matter how ruffled my feathers get each time "Sainte Caroline" impresses my kids, I have to give her credit for keeping her hair on when those Indians came calling. That's proof right there that a smile can be disarming.


Laura Ingalls Wilder = pioneer woman, writer; le sourire (m) = smile; La Petite Maison dans La Prairie = Little House on the Prairie; la maman (f) = mom; la façon (f) de vivre = way of life; une habitude (f) = habit; le sourire (m) matinal = the morning smile; le sourire (m) du soir = the evening smile

Little House on the Prairie - The Complete Season 1

A cremerie--and a lazy employee--near Biarritz.

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Bowls or "bols" from Pornic (a village in the Loire-Atlantique, north-western France).

empiler (om-pee-lay) verb

: to pile (up), to stack (up); to do

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Quote / Example sentence:
L'argent est plat pour être empilé.
Money is flat for stacking.

Hear the French word empiler and the above quote: 
Download empiler.mp3 . Download empiler.wav


se faire empiler = to be had
s'empiler dans = to squeeze into (car, elevator)

More on today's word...
"Empiler" was the first word that came to mind when thinking about the French equivalent of "stack" (as in "to stack cups"). Only, while flipping through the dictionary, I noticed that "entasser" is listed as a synonym.

Entasser... yes, that makes more sense, I thought, noticing how "tasse" (cup) finds its way into the word. "Entasser" would seem to be the right verb for stacking cups (or bowls, as in today's picture), and everybody knows the French use bowls as cups: think café-au-lait)....

Turns out the "tasse" in "entasser" is really the word "un tas" (heap, pile) and not "une tasse" (cup). It looks like "empiler" is most often used for dishes, and "entasser" when you want to heap something onto something --such as dirty clothes onto a mound of laundry... which reminds me of that nagging pile in the next room.... Off now, to faire une machine.


Your Comments:
...Meantime, do you know the word for "stack" in another language? And, do you like to stack stuff neatly... that is, are you "maniaque" ("fussy") or are you more the messy type? ("bordélique"... whoops, Jean-Marc tells me I'm not supposed to say that word). Anyway, thanks for sharing....

P.S.: Did you spot any coquilles (errors) in this--or a previous--post? Corrections are always welcome. Please use the comments box, below, and thanks in advance!


(What we Francophiles tend to bring back from France...)

Cafe lait bowl
café au lait bowl: to drink our morning up like the natives

Book: Using French synonyms


Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
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Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes Pyrénées. My husband with his two favorite things: grapevines and a stubborn side-kick. More about her in today's story.

têtu(e) (tay-tew) adjective
    : obstinate, headstrong, stubborn

Listen to the French word têtu, and hear this expression "têtu comme un mulet" (thank you, Bastien--my son Max's friend--for today's recording!): Download tetu.wav Download tetu.mp3

Terms & Expressions
  têtu comme un mulet =  stubborn as a mule
  les faits sont têtus = the facts are stubborn ("no getting around the facts")


How to Know Whose is Whose

Sometimes I bring my husband his first cup of coffee in the morning: a thoughtful gesture that I learned from him. He likes his java--or *kawa*--with a little more milk in it than I do, and he likes it a bit cooler. I no longer have to drop two sugar cubes into his cup, not since he listened to Reason when she whispered to him that coffee is just as good without it, once you get used to the taste. Besides, two fewer cubes to stir saves time in the morning.

Once I have micro-waved the milk and filled each tasse* with coffee, it is time to remember whose is whose, that is, which cup of coffee is his (more milk, less hot) and which is mine (the strong stuff), before heading upstairs with the hot drinks.

The cups look alike, so in order to not confuse the two I "mark" them with a hand. "His is Left. Mine's Right," I say of my hands and of our coffees. Sometimes I fret that, by the time I make it up the stairs, I'll forget whose is whose and end up with the tepid milky coffee (his)... but, in fact, it isn't
that hard for me to remember. "Mine," I affirm, "is right". I sometimes repeat the affirmation: "Right. I'm right. Always right!" I'll remind myself, as I head upstairs with our coffees.

This system works well for me, especially when I am the least bit "conflicted" with my husband. "He is GAUCHE.* I am RIGHT," I'll mumble, as I bring him his coffee along with a forced smile and a "Goodmorning dear!" (I learned that one from him, too: "Begin the day with 'Bonjour, Cherie'!").

But when things are smooth and sailing in our everyday life, I am sometimes the coffee in my left hand, and he gets to be the right one. He just doesn't know it, but then he doesn't pay attention to Whose is Whose. Maybe I should pay less attention, too?, learn to share a bit... be less particular about things. Then one day I'll say "he taught me that, too."

How do you like your coffee? Do you know the word for "stubborn" (têtu) in another language? What's the latest life lesson you've learned? Thank you for your "partage" or "sharing" in the comments box.

More stuff I've learned, here in these "Lessons in Life and Language from the South of France"

une tasse (à café) = coffee cup; gauche = left (also: awkward, warped, skew)

Learn French in Your Car while driving to school or work:

Songs in French for Children

Coffee - French Press by Bodum: When Bodum took over a small clarinet factory in Normandy in 1982, it was not because of the fine orchestra clarinets they were producing. In addition to musical instruments, the factory also produced the coffee of a relatively unknown brewer called "The Chambord." Read on, and check out the French press.

French sugar cubes for your coffee -- for those who like it sweet!

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A lampshade boutique in the town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Did you see the leopard one (left and center)? My mom, Jules, (...and my daughter, who inherited that gene) would buy two of those, at least). P.S.: notice the typical Basque design, painted red (or green...) shutters and woodwork, just above the shop.

If you woke up this morning
with that nagging question on your brain ("Just how, pray tell, does one say "lampshade" in French"?) then you're in luck and you have come to the right endoit. Read on...

abat-jour (ahbah-joohr) noun, masculine
    : lampshade

Do you know how to say lampshade in another language? Chinese, Spanish, German, Tagalog? Swedish, Dutch? Or, by chance, do you have a funny lampshade story? Thank you for sharing your language savoir-faire in the comments box.

Listen to today's word and here the following definition, in French, compliments of my daughter:
Download abat-jour.mp3 . Download abat-jour.wav

French definition by Petit Larousse:
"Dispositif fixé autour d'une lampe et destiné à diriger la lumière tout en protégeant les yeux de l'éblouissement." Device placed around a lamp and destined to direct the light while protecting the eyes from dazzlement. (Hmmm. There may be a better translation out there.... anyone want to help?)

Continue reading "abat-jour" »

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
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on the road to Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port ("Saint John at the foot of the pass").

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Did you know that the French word "basque" just so happens to be related to the Italian "basta" (which means "That's enough!" "Stop!"... or simply "Whoa boy!"--something the Spanish Basque might have been shouting a few days ago, as they marched through the streets of Bilbao, rallying for independence for the Spanish region. Today, we focus on French Basque country... read on.

1. basque (bask) adjective
  : Basque (le Pays Basque: a region in northern Spain & southwestern France)
    : (noun) language

2. basque (bask) noun, feminine
    : tail (coat), skirt*

*The French word "jupe" is the word that the French use for "skirt".

Expression and audio file:
Listen to my son, Max, pronounce today's word and one of the following expressions: "être toujours aux basques de quelqu'un" and "être pendu à ses basques" = to be hanging on someone's apron strings, i.e. to follow someone around: Download basque.wav . Download basque.mp3

Nearly two weeks ago we returned from Basque country, and the region's colors, no matter how vibrant, are just now beginning to fade. What struck me most about the Basques, the people who populate this westernmost region of France (with its toe ever dipped into Spain or vice versa...), were their time-honored traditions.

Take the French beret, for example... while the streets of Paris may not be teeming with them, you will see plenty of berets worn in Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port, where they help to distinguish the lively locals from the pèlerins*... never mind that the latter are easily recognized by their heavy backpacks and their faces sprinkled with awe.

The Basque cross, or "lauburu,"* a symbol of prosperity, is to the Basque what the fleur-de-lys is to France, and though you won't find as many French streets "fleurdelisé,"* when in Basque country you will see the cross-shaped lauburu partout!*: on most of the souvenirs in gift shops, over Basque doorways, and on T-shirts, flags, and even tombstones.

As for those vibrant colors, most of the homes and many buildings still sport the characteristic red or green shutters which decorate the stark white maisons.* Judging from the many freshly-painted volets* and newly white-washed façades, it looks like this tradition won't fade anytime soon.

In just about any Basque town, you'll find a tall "fronton"* wall, in stacked stone or concrete, against which the locals still play ball, or "pilota,"* with their hands or with oblong baskets. The players hardly notice the sunburned tourists who file by, occasionally pausing to snap a photo.

My favorite long-standing Basque tradition is the love for their lyrical language, which, unlike Provençal, can still be heard on the street and in squares and shops. Finally, Basque is still part of the curriculum in certain schools across the region.

Those are but a few lasting impressions of le pays basque français.* I've left out so many more: le poulet basquaise,* the striped linens, the cheeses (especially "Osau Iraty" and "Etorki"*), and the irascible waitresses who would rather throw a traditional gâteau basque* into a diner's face than to follow the mantra "the customer is always right" (well, maybe not all Basque waitresses... but some. I'll have to tell you about HER one of these times). Oh, and those home-made Basque bombs (!), one of which we apparently just missed while sojourning in Bidarray... (see Yikes!

To leave a comment on this post, or to share your own traveler's tale to the Basque region, click here.

le pèlerin (m) = pilgrim; lauburu (Lau buru) = "four heads" (or summits); fleurdelisé (adj) = decorated with fleur-de-lis; partout = everywhere; la maison (f) = home; le volet (m) = window shutter; le fronton (m) = "front" wall; pilota = pelota ("ball" in Basque) : a court game in which one uses his hand or a basket to hit the ball against a wall or "fronton"; le pays (m) basque français = the French Basque country; le poulet (m) basquaise = famous Basque chicken dish; Etorki = kind of cheese made of sheep's milk ; le gâteau (m) basque = custard tart, typical dessert from the Labourd region

Book: The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation

~~~~~~~~~Domaine Rouge-Bleu~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Good news: our wines are now available here! :

Great Wine Buys:
1515 NE Broadway, Portland, OR. 97232
(503) 287-2897,


The Roads to Santiago: The Medieval Pilgrim Routes Through France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela. According to legend, St. James the Apostle preached throughout the Iberian peninsula. His bones found their way to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela and today many pilgrims make trips to the shrine. This fully illustrated book covers all the routes to this holy place from Paris and Spain. Providing readers with historical context for the routes, it showcases all the stunning monuments and magnificent landscapes along the way.

Etorki cheese: made from sheep's milk, imported from France:

Traditional Basque beret for man or woman that is fully lined and sports a leather sweatband, and at a great price - cheaper than going all the way to France to pick one up. Imported from France.

Colloquial Basque: A Complete Language Course

"Escape 101: The Four Secrets to Taking a Sabbatical or Career Break Without Losing Your Money or Your Mind" by Dan Clements and Tara Gignac

Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
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Salt marsh
Le marais salant: salt marsh in the Camargue.

chômer (sho-may) verb
    : to lie idle; to be idle, inactive
    : to be unemployed, out of work

[from the Latin "caumare": "to rest during the heat"]

Listen to the French definition* of chômer (that's my daughter speaking): 
"Célébrer une fête par le repos, en ne travaillant pas."
(To celebrate an occasion by rest, by not working.)

* Download chomer.wav. Download chomer.mp3

Below a Mediterranean sky emblazoned with a rainbow of kites... there in the turquoise sea, beneath the swooping cerfs-volants,* a half-kilometer out from the coastline (or so it seemed, for it took a thousand steps before the water hit waist-level), je flottais.*

Now and then I glanced back to the shoreline, where my extended French family salt-and-peppered the sandy beach: the aunts collected pretty jackknife clams or "couteaux," the cousins worked on their tans, the uncles played pétanque,* and the kids ran circles around the portable picnic tables, which were lopsided from the weight of French gastronomy: there were fresh-baked olive cakes, home-grown canary melons, grilled sardines, chocolate cake, et encore!*

At a safe distance from the kitesurfers and floating peacefully, I thought about our gathering. Hadn't we all returned from vacation last week--so why were we taking another day off work? Just what public holiday was this one? I wondered, too embarrassed to ask. What did August 21st represent? Surely some historical event in French history took place on this day. Or maybe we are commemorating something saintly? Then again, does Grandmother's Day exist in France ("La Fête de Mémé" perhaps)?

Reaching our destination was an event in itself: we had driven past several rice factories, a few salt museums, a field of lethargic Camargue bulls, rambling rice pastures, plenty of pampas grass, hot-dog shaped "cattails" and those knobby-kneed and long-legged flamants roses*... before reaching this, the tipping point of the continent (all those home-baked goods piled high on one French picnic table).

Retracing that same scenic path on the way home last night, fed, full, and facing another workday, I asked my brother-in-law, Jacques, just what public holiday we had been so patriotically observing.

"Ce n'était pas un jour férié,"* Jacques answered, and I noticed his guilty grin.
"I managed to get off work," he added, as if an explanation was needed. Well, it looked like the rest of our French clan, all thirtysomething of us, had "managed" the same.

Comment on today's post, translate the French word for chômer into another language... or share your own language savoir-faire, here.

le cerf-volant
(m) = kite;  je flottais = I floated; la pétanque (f) = a popular French game played with metal balls a.k.a. "boules"; et encore = and more; le flamant (m) rose = pink flamingo; ce n'était pas un jour férié = it wasn't a public holiday

Vacances Provence & The Cote D'Azur: Including The Camargue: The French on France

Related Words and expressions:
le chomage = unemployment, joblessness
une période de chômage = layoff
l'allocation de chômage = dole, unemployment compensation
chômable = non-working
un jour chômé = public holiday
un chômeur = unemployed worker
les chômeurs = the unemployed


Ultimate French Beginner-Intermediate (CD/Book) 
Fleur De Sel De Camargue French Sea Salt
Red Camargue rice - a.k.a "riz rouge"
Horses of the Camargue
Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language...

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
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prise de bec

A neighboring IRM... read on in today's story, below.

prise de bec (preez-deuh-bek) noun, feminine
    : an altercation, a spat, an argument

"Le bec" ("beak") also means mouth.

In the chic town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz there were plenty of BMWs and so you might say we fit right in with our own deluxe IRM....

After watching the French movie "Camping"* (which shines the comedic limelight on that remarkable recreational species, the camper, in his garden of delights--or self-contained "tent town" replete with quirky campers like himself) my family was keen on spending our ten-day annual vacation at a campground: one teeming with portable cooking appliances, communal showers, cliques and, hopefully--oh so hopefully!--the spicy mini-dramas that only a close quarters community with its "let it all hang out" spirit can cook up.

During check-in time at the campsite, I studied the arriving vacationers (future characters for a brewing mini-drama?) and decided that our fellow campers did not look the part. Though half-clad, or "demi vêtu", as summertime campers are, they were neither racy nor raunchy, but appeared every bit as reserved as this reluctant campeuse*. Therefore I guessed, judging by their "covers", that we wouldn't be witnessing any juicy dramas unfold outside our aluminum-sided "star quarters". Oh, how I would soon regret those "covers"....

Several months back, faced with the camping conundrum that was "how to sell wife on the idea of spending our much-anticipated ten-day vacation camped out," Jean-Marc came up with a generous compromise: enter "IRM": "Idéale Résidence Mobile," which is just a fancy term for "mobile home" (which, in turn, is just a fancy name for "trailer"). When my husband mentioned that even the bed linens were included in the deal, I shouted "VENDU!"* Soon, I would spend my vacation sweetly sweeping the plastic faux-bois* floor, delighted to have a toilet and a shower of my own and to be able to stand while frying up our Gallic grits.

As for chores, sweeping the floor was as much work as I would find, for the kids would be territorial about the dishes (this, in their quest to earn money to spend at the campground's mini-market, from which they would bring back too much candy and not enough gossip).

The only thing missing from our pre-conceived notions about Campground was the mini-drama, but not for long. After unpacking my family's suitcases I went to make the beds, only to discover that sheets were not provided!

"You told me not to pack sheets," I began, huffing my way out to the terrace, where Jean-Marc was examining the BBQ. My husband snapped into defense mode.
"Oh, non. Non, non! I did not tell you not to pack sheets."
"You told me there was no need to -- that sheets would be included in the rental!"
"You may not have HEARD me, but I definitely told you to pack sheets."
"YOU may not REMEMBER telling me not to pack them, but...."

Noticing a passer-by, I slipped back inside our IRM... to continue the discussion in private. Jean-Marc followed, reluctantly.

"Most definitely you did NOT!..."
"Did too!..."
"Did not!"

Tired from the 6-hour drive, Jean-Marc had a solution.
"Look. I don't need a sheet," he said.
"Well, maybe YOU don't need a sheet... Monsieur Back-to-Nature... but the kids and I will need them."

I stomped back out to our IRM deck and promptly froze in my tracks. Up and down the narrow trailer lane, perched over their temporary property lines and leaning as far forward as gravity would permit, a half-clad audience had appeared, virtual popcorn in hand. Looking up and down the street, my eyes returned to our own mini front yard, where, at center stage before a deluxe "star quartered" caravan, I soon realized that WE were the first act in the spicy melodrama that my preconceived notions had obligingly cooked up, portable stove or not.

P.S.: On the second day, our neighbors took the relay... with a shouting match, or "prise de bec," to rival our act. I must say, I was a bit less obvious while ogling the operetta (viewing it from behind discreetly-parted curtains, where I listened, greedily, before an open window).

Share your own story, respond to this post, or help translate today's word "une prise de bec" ("argument") into another language... in the comments box, below.

Camping; la campeuse (le campeur) = camper; vendu! = sold!; faux-bois = fake wood

Zip around in this Miniature Euro Electric Scooter
Caravan & Camping France 2008
Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language...

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
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The self-serve candle machine at Lourdes.

Audio File: The sign in the photo, above, says "Un cierge c'est une prière qui se prolonge." (A candle is a prolonged prayer.) Hear today's word and the above quote: Download cierge.mp3 .Download cierge.wav

le cierge
(see-airzh) noun, masculine
    : candle (votive); cereus (a kind of cactus)

Do you know the word for candle in another language? Thank you for sharing it here.

French definition of cierge from Le Petit Larousse:
Longue chandelle de cire que l'on brûle dans les églises.
Long wax candle that one burns in church.

...and from French Wikipedia: "Un cierge est une bougie utilisée dans les cérémonies religieuses." (A cierge is a candle used in religious ceremonies.")


I did not write an illustrative story for the French word cierge today... but a reader, or lectrice did! Merci beaucoup to Pamela for sharing her account of visiting Lourdes with her son -- and the "mini miracle" that occured on the road out of the sacred French town.

Pamela writes:

Years ago... we were in France on vacation for the first time, and I had always promised myself if I ever went to France, I would go to Lourdes. It was more important than ever, because my son has autism.

We went there, not expecting a miracle, but to ask for grace and strength throughout our lives (and I believe that request has been granted!). When you light a candle at Lourdes, apparently the volunteers extinguish them, and relight them later. As I was turning away, the volunteer got my attention and showed me he was not extinguishing our candle. That was sweet.

We did have our minor miracle while leaving. My husband was driving, my aunt was in the passenger seat. I was in the back of the van with mother and son. My nonverbal son turned to me, touched my hair and said "hair". I almost jumped out of my skin. This boy cannot talk. I tried to stay calm and smiled and said "yes, that's my hair".

No big cures happened for us at Lourdes, but we did receive the smallest of graces, and my son did speak, one word, one day.

Pamela lives on a small ranch in the Pacific Northwest where she and her family raise Norwegian Fjord Horses. Here is a picture of Pamela and her son, and more pictures of her horses, here, which she trains for dressage, handicapped riding and also search and rescue. More info here.

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
♥ Contribute $10    
♥ Contribute $25    
♥ Contribute the amount of your choice


Snapshots of France: the Basque town of Bidarray.

lecteur (lek-tuur) noun, masculine
    : reader

The feminine of "lecteur" is "une lectrice"

Listen to today's word and the following quote: Download lecteur.wav. Download lecteur.mp3

En réalité, chaque lecteur est, quand il lit, le propre lecteur de soi-même.
In reality, each reader is, when he reads, the own reader of himself.

                                                             -Marcel Proust

A Day in a French Life... by Kristin Espinasse

This morning I received an email from a longtime reader. Only, on closer look, there was something unusual about the courriel: the sender's full name was repeated in the email's subject line. The last time that I received such a letter from a subscriber address, it was bad news.

Clicking open the email, I soon learned that the sender was not a reader of my newsletter, but the son of a reader. The email was a faire-part announcing that his mother, Ginny, had passed away.

Ginny.... like Cher, Madonna, Oprah, or Martha, it took only a prénom for me to recognize her each time her name popped into my inbox.

Caught off guard, I clicked shut the email and sat back to stare at my inbox, where the letter was sandwiched in between dozens of emails labeled "SPAM". Heartless spam! I went to delete the intruder messages, and to safeguard this fragile message.

Clicking back open the email, I noticed how the next line of the letter reflected the newly-peeled sentiments inside of me, including sorrow.

The writer was apologetic about the delivery format of his message:
"I'd prefer a more personal way to let you know, but for many of you, this is the only contact information I have...."

I wanted to thank Ginny's son for informing this stranger, who, under the circumstances, felt something like a voyeur. After all, how to explain the relationship that I had with his mother, who was, in effect, a "virtual" acquaintance--someone I had never seen or spoken to before?

My mind was normally as busy as a hummingbird's wings, and now a new and sorrowful stillness reigned inside: a stranger's grief... my own.

I began to wonder. Had I answered Ginny's last email? I went back over the 61 courriels received from Ginny in the four-and-a-half years since she began responding to my internet column.

She addressed me as her "Chère amie de la courrier électronique". Other times, I was "Chère Madame" or "Chère Kristin" or, simply, "Chère amie", to which she added, in her signature humble way "si l'on ose à le dire" ("if one might be so presumptuous as to say").

I noticed that self-effacing "P.S." that she usually added: "Réponse Pas Nécessaire" ("No Response Necessary", she always insisted, as if to say "you must, or should have other priorities than answering this silly note").

In the dozens of to-the-point emails that Ginny sent, she rarely spoke of herself and, when she did, she mostly poked fun at her persona: "Salut d'une vieille dame de Californie," she once wrote, and I can still remember the smile that it forged across this rigid-while-working face.

I learned that the "vielle dame" was a teacher, and "when... lucky ... taught French". Mostly, Ginny offered encouragement and support: as to my first, practically pasted-together book (which she bought) she wrote: "I hope you sell a jillion of them!"

Whether in French or in English, her signature lines varied, and light-heartedly so, bringing to life one unforgettable character in my inbox: "Ginny 'la bavardeuse'," or "Ginny in the foothills of the Sierra, off Highway 50". By associating a "place" with her name, I could better identify this French Word-A-Day
lectrice in an inbox full of many unfamiliar names. For me she was "Ginny dans le piédmont.... where we are three inches low in rainfall" and "Ginny in Placerville, just downhill from Lake Tahoe" and, finally, "Ginny en californie... qui rêve d'un voyage en Norge cet été."

Ginny, wherever you are, in the piedmont or, finally, up north (yes "up north" I trust...)--YOU ARE MISSED. And while I never knew the color of your hair, the tone of your skin, or the twinkle in your eye--you were indeed a mystery to me--I knew a charming precious bit about "la vieille dame de Californie".

P.S.: I wished my own signature line had as much zip, character, and warmth as yours... I'm sure that the teacher in you would be encouraging--so here goes:

"une moitié-vieille dame de Provence qui a beaucoup appréciée votre éloquence életronique"
("a half-old dame in Provence who very much appreciated your electronic eloquence.")

French Vocabulary

le courriel = email
le faire-part = announcement (of birth, marriage, death...)
le prénom = first name
la bavardeuse (le bavardeur) = the chatty one
la lectrice = reader

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Woman in cart waiting to collect curative water at Lourdes

Many thanks to those who are translating the word of the day into other languages -- over at the new comments section! The latest translation, of yesterday's word "pancarte," is in Danish (thank you, Jens!). You'll find translations in Tagalog, Dutch, Pig Latin... and more. See the comments section at the blog and thank you for sharing your own language savoir-faire.

PS: That's right - "yesterday's word". The website was updated yesterday, though no newsletter went out. See the right-hand column to find the last five French words.

baptême (baah-tem) noun, masculine
    : baptism

French definition:
Baptême: un mot grec [baptizein] qui signifie immersion.
Baptism: a Greek word [baptizein] that signifies immersion.

A bit of background on today's story:

"The sacred grotto at Massabieille, near the town of Lourdes in southern France, appeals to Catholics as does no other place. This is the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, the place where Mary appeared to a humble peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous in 1858 and spoke words of comfort and simple faith. At Mary's behest, Bernadette dug in the rocky soil of the grotto and struck water. A puddle soon became a spring that gushed forth waters that were recognized to have documented healing properties, baffling physicians and scientific experts. Some six million pilgrims visit Lourdes each year, making it the most popular place of pilgrimage in the world."

--from the book: Lourdes Diary: Seven Days at the Grotto of Massabieille

Entering the holy quarter of Lourdes, I paused to recall the pancarte* by which I had just passed.... Had it shown cameras as prohibited? Looking around, I tried to discern whether other visitors had appareils*... The woman in the wheelchair didn't. Neither did the man on crutches....

Petit à petit,* I began to notice the pilgrims around me, who entered the commune via various modes of transportation: on foot, on crutch, on a loved one's arm (or cradled there, protectively). There were many wheelchairs, and vintage blue carts pulled by pedestrians. I noticed that those who sat inside the blue carts had colorful afghans covering their laps, in contrast with their pale faces, and I figured that the blankets were hand-made by volunteers. Those who were not seated in the carts were lying in them -- helplessly flat on their backs, eyes fixed on the royaume* above.

Together, and in varying degrees of degeneration, the pilgrims advanced toward the golden church facade and the lingering inside me felt something like judgment day.

Looking over to my family, I saw three rosy-cheeked vacationers: my son, my daughter, and my husband. I realized that there was nothing to be afraid of: it was not our time yet... and hopefully it wasn't theirs either, I thought, my eyes returning to the pained pèlerins.* A scripture played silently on my tongue:

"Il y a un temps pour tout, un temps pour toute chose sous les cieux:
 un temps pour naître, et un temps pour mourir... un temps pour guérir..."*

For those surrounding us, flocking towards the holy waters, it was indeed a time to heal....

Like sheep, we followed one another until we reached a bridge and a fork in our path. To our right, there were long lines leading up to what must be the sacred site where the Blessed Virgin is said to have appeared in the grotto. Those in line must be waiting for a full immersion into the holy water there. While I was tempted to wait with the others, my family was pressed for time, and so we headed over the bridge, toward the church.

Clusters of people gathered at the side of the église,* around the corner from the entrance... On closer look, I saw the long row of robinets, or "push knob" fountains, that attracted the crowds. The pèlerins were busy filling empty bottles and gourdes* -- or any kind of portable container -- at what could be
called a self-service holy water bar.

Completely unprepared, my family and I didn't have anything to fill. Then again, my conscience reasoned, we weren't sick or ailing like the others, so why take healing waters away from someone who actually needed them? On second look, it became apparent that everyone had a need, for some of those water collectors appeared healthier than Olympic medalists.

"Venez,"* my husband said, noting an available robinet. The kids and I approached only to stand hesitant before the faucet. I reached over and pushed the knob. Out came the curative water, and I cupped my hands beneath the spout in time to catch it. I poured a bit of it across my husband's shoulders and cooled his neck, drip by drip, then patted my hands across his tired and weathered face. Looking into his appreciative eyes, I remembered the many trials that he lived through this past year, while setting out as a newbie wine farmer--this, while patching up a 17th-century farmhouse with the help of a sometimes flippant crew of workers--all the while answering, hit or miss, to the emotional needs of his family. By the end of December, he was no more than a sack of bones held together by one threadbare string of hope: he simply hoped to not fall apart. We were never certain whether or when the last frayed ends of that fragile ficelle* would snap, and the uncertainty was our own threatening noose, one we wore along with the constant knot of anxiety in our throats.

My husband's next gesture acknowledged that he was not alone in that difficult time: I watched as his hands reached up to his face, still wet with healing, before reaching out to touch my own. Suddenly, the dampness from his palms absorbed into my own pores with such a cathartic jolt that I had to turn away in time for the water to rush out, as it had done at the fountain, from behind the blinking eyes on my face.

This past transitional year, with its ups and downs, with all that was spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten, was now behind us, and here we were, still standing, each on his/her own two feet: with a home and a first vintage** to boot.... and two thoughtful kids who were now baptizing each other and their parents with splashing, sacred glee.

Walking out of Lourdes, the other pilgrims' pain was manifest: those crutches, the wheelchairs, the disfigurement. Hidden was the pain of those "healthy ones" who sometimes wear their anguish on the inside flap of the heart.

*     *     *
To comment on today's story, or to add the definition for "baptême" in another language, click here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~French Vocabulary~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
une pancarte
(f) = sign; un appareil (m) = camera; petit à petit = little by little; le royaume (des cieux) (m) = Kingdom (of Heaven); le pèlerin (m) = pilgrim; "Il y a un temps pour tout, un temps pour toute chose sous les cieux: un temps pour naître, et un temps pour mourir... un temps pour guérir... = (Ecclesiastes 3) There is a time for everything, a time for everything under the heavens... a time to be born, and a time to die.... a time to heal ; une église (f) = church; une gourde (f) = flask; venez = come here; la ficelle (f) = string

** first vintage = order Jean-Marc's first vintage! Contact Tim at French Country Wines (email: ) for more info.

The Ultimate French Review and Practice: Mastering French Grammar for Confident Communication

Film: Rififi - Jules Dassin went to Paris and embarked on his masterpiece: a twisting, turning tale of four ex-cons who hatch one last glorious heist in the City of Lights:

Excellent French/English dictionary

In Music: Carla Bruni's "Comme Si de Rien N'Etait"

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me to continue this French word journal, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy and look forward to these posts and want to give something back, please know your contribution makes a difference! A donation by check or via PayPal is greatly appreciated.
♥ Contribute $10    
♥ Contribute $25    
♥ Contribute the amount of your choice