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Entries from August 2011


wine grape harvest harvesters chateauneuf du pape
Our son, Max, harvesting at Châteauneuf-du-Pape some seven years ago. Yesterday, he and his 16-year-old buddies helped out with our rosé vendange. By the way...

The rosé harvest is finished! ... As we recover from the field and the four (behind which I've been roasting poivrons and sauteing courgettes....), let's take the time to enjoy another's story.  Read with me now the account of volunteer harvester, Thomas Mann, a friend and neighbor, who harvested at a nearby vineyard. But first, today's word:

la cueillette (kuh yet)

    1. picking, gathering
    2. crop, harvest

Also: cueillir (to pick, gather, pluck) 

Audio File: hear Jean-Marc pronounce these French words: Download MP3 or Wave file

la cueillette des raisins, des champignons, des pommes et des poires....
  the gathering of grapes, mushrooms, apples and pears... 

la cueillette de la lavande, des fleurs sauvages....
  the gathering of lavender, of wildflowers... 

la cueillette à la ferme, au verger...
  harvesting at the farm, at the orchard... 


V e n d a n g e

By Thomas O. Mann

“You want to do what?” was the typical reaction when I said I wanted to pick grapes in the vendange, the annual harvest in Cairanne, my part-time village in France’s southern Côtes du Rhône wine region.  I summered there for over a decade, but before retiring, I always missed the vendange because I had to go home to my job in Washington.  I wanted to experience the primeval magic of the harvest, the bacchanalian mystique of wine making, an important part of France’s rural patrimony, and a short-term stint of hard physical labor.

Cairanne is perched on the edge of a promontory dividing two rivers, the Aygues and the Ouvèze, in the Rhône Valley, between Orange and Vaison la Romaine, two larger towns that date to Roman times. Mont Ventoux, “the giant of Provence,” and the jagged rocks of the Dentelles de Montmiral rise on the eastern horizon. The mountains of the Ardèche lie to the west.  Vineyards dominate the local landscape, and the village is home to 40 wineries.

When September arrives, the grapes hang in ripe bunches, waiting for the right moment.  Their readiness is a function of the weather--they need warm sun and just the right amount of rain--and the critical sugar content, tested daily. Meanwhile, tension builds.  Clean wagons appear in the winemakers’ yards.  People keep a nervous eye on the sky. Too much rain at the wrong time could ruin the vintage by producing grapes that cannot make wine with the proper balance of fruitiness, tannin, acidity, and alcohol that vintners seek. Making wine sounds glamorous, but it depends on farming, always a risky business.

I get the call at night from the winemakers who agreed to let me work as a volunteer vendangeur for a day.  They issue me a pair razor-sharp pruning shears, and I report for duty early the next morning.  Riding in a rickety van, we follow the tractor into a vineyard where an empty wagon is waiting. Everyone gets a black plastic bucket, and we fan out across the rows.  It is hard work and the morning air is cold.  I feel the muscles stretching in my lower back as I bend to reach the grapes.  When the bucket is full, I carry it over to the wagon and dump in the grapes.  When the wagon is full, it is hauled off on a tractor and replaced with an empty one.  The sun gets hot by mid-morning, and we break for lunch at noon. My crew is a mixture of different ages, migrants from Spain, people without regular full-time jobs, and retirees.  Some are immigrants (or their descendants), from the Maghreb, France’s former North African colonies of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.  I try out my rusty 40-year old Peace Corps Arabic.  This gets some laughs, but my vocabulary is limited.

We begin the afternoon in another vineyard, whose old vines have few grapes. Then we finish the day on a steep hillside, picking from an organic vineyard with scratchy weeds growing between the plants, where you have to wrestle the grapes off their vines.  I am in mid-pick when the clock struck 6:00 p.m.  A senior crewmember points to the hour on my watch and tells me to stop working immediately.  I forgot for a moment that I was a laborer, in France, where workers’ rights are still taken seriously.  

The quality of the grapes harvested each season gives a preview of the vintage.  In a year with the right weather conditions, the grapes will look clean and healthy, and few will be sorted out. This year had a relatively wet winter and spring, and the grapes flowered later than they had in recent years. July and August were hot and dry, and the crop was smaller than usual, but the grapes are excellent. Back at the winery the grapes are fed into vats by a crushing machine, and the juices are left to ferment.  The type of wine being made, red, white, or rosé, determines when the skins are removed. We picked only Grenache grapes on the day that I worked, since Cairanne winemakers vinify each variety from each parcel separately before they are eventually blended together in the assemblage to make the finished product.  The vineyard’s mère de famille gives me a bottle of juice from the grapes we picked.  I plan to wash down an aspirin with a glass of the juice before passing out for the night. My back is a little sore, and I have a few nicks on my hand, but it feels good to have experienced the harvest at ground level.  By working as a vendangeur, I bridged the gap between being a “summer person” and a local, if only for a day.  

There is undeniable excitement in the flurry of activity during the vendange.  Crews of pickers are busy in the fields, tractors pulling wagons full of grapes slow traffic on the roads, and they queue up at the wineries to deposit their precious cargoes. Spots on the road become black and sticky with grape juice.  Tall mounds of raffle, the residue of the crushed grapes, pile up by the wineries, before it is carted off to an alcohol plant.

The romance I feel from being part of the vendange overlooks the economic realities.  The wine industry of today is partly an ancient craft, but also a modern business in a competitive global market. The traditional manual harvesting is mandatory for the vines that produce the best local wines in this region, and migrant workers still come here from Spain and Eastern Europe to work in the vendange. However, harvesting for the mid-grade wine in the Côtes du Rhône region is increasingly done by giant machines with menacing mechanical mandibles that devour whole rows of grapes at a time like giant insects.  In many wine-producing areas around the globe, all the grapes are harvested by machine, and I wonder if this will happen here as well.

In addition, the winemakers of Cairanne have applied for status as a grand cru of the Côtes du Rhône, which will recognize the excellence of their wines and could lead to higher prices in the future.  However, this also means that the French wine authority will delineate the areas within the Cairanne appellation that will be included in the cru, and those that will be left out.  The wine produced from excluded terrain will have to be sold at a lesser price as Côtes du Rhône or Vin de Pays rather than AOC Cairanne.  There will be winners and losers from the enhanced status.  This is further complicated by the fact that most wineries own many small parcels of land scattered throughout the Cairanne appellation, so the effects of the cru remain uncertain.  But the application is made and there is no turning back.

The countryside around Cairanne is perfumed with the intoxicating aroma of fermenting grape juice after the vendange, especially in the cool, foggy mornings of early autumn.  As I ride my bike across the countryside, I smell this tantalizing scent each time I pass a winery.  The leaves on the vines are beginning to turn red and gold, and soon I will go back to Washington until next spring.  I am glad to have felt the magic of the vendange.  Bacchus, the wine god of the ancient Greeks who brought the grape to Provence, would be content.   

Thomas O. Mann is a retired lawyer who divides his time between Washington, DC and Cairanne, France.  His stories about fly fishing have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and various angling publications.  This is his first time writing about the wine industry.  


Le Coin Commentaires
I am so grateful to Thomas for allowing me to post his essay. I hope you have enjoyed it and learned from it as much as I have. A question for readers: is this how you pictured the wine harvest? What elements of the harvest would be most/least pleasing to you? Click here to leave a comment.

Related Story: La Page Blanche (The Blank Page): Read what it feels like, for a hostess, when the last harvester leaves... and see a favorite photo from Grignan!


Selected French Vocabulary

la vendange = the wine harvest

le vendangeur (la vendangeuse) = the grape picker

la mère de famille = mother

Exercises in French Phonics

Exercises in French Phonics is... 
" a great book for learning French pronunciation"
"useful and practical"
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Braise & Baby (c) Kristin Espinasse

"The Nudge" -- from The Smokey Files. This may be Smokey... then again it may be one of the Smokettes (that is, one of his 5 sisters... See more puppy photos, here.


                 Expression: avoir du chien = to have a certain kind of charm
Smokey received a note from his fan, Carol, in Belgium. It reads:
Voici un message pour Smokey pour illustrer sa superbe photo digne d'un portrait Harcourt:  "Beautiful Smokey Doodle Dandy". Avec ton Bandana, tu as vraiment du "chien". Here is a message for Smokey, to illustrate his superb photo worthy of a Harcourt portrait: "Beautiful Smokey Doodle Dandy". With your Bandana, you really have certain something (special charm).

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue creating this French word journal and its newsletter, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site humming along, please know your donation makes all the difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
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♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

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Halt! Harvest Time. The next edition may or may not go out on Monday... depends on the state of the grapes!

une impatience grandissante

    : a growing anticipation


Audio FileDownload MP3 or Wave file

Comment décrire les sentiments d'un vigneron la veille des vendanges? C'est une impatience grandissante! How to describe a winemaker's feelings prior to the harvest? Anticipation!


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

Une Impatience Grandissante

I'm up early, looking for a word to describe the general atmosphère around here--at an 18 acre Vauclusian vineyard... 24 hours prior to harvest time! This side of the open window, where a minty morning breeze reaches me, I hear a rooster crowing in a far off basse-cour and the rumble of a tractor in the leafy field to the west, opposite which the sun has yet to rise from behind Mont Ventoux; given the headlights which brighten the vine rows, my guess is that the farmer harvested le grenache or le cinsault throughout the cool night. Not a bad idea considering the week's sweltering temperatures. Though it feels like la canicule, a true heatwave happens when stifling temperatures continue into la nuit, without relief. 

Jean-Marc tells me that it will be a little cooler this weekend, that there may even be un peu de pluie followed by a light Mistral. I keep my fingers crossed for our own vendange, which leads me to settle, finally, on today's word (also the title of today's missive): "A Growing Impatience", or, in less poetic prose: anticipation. Only, every time I think of the word "anticipation", it throws me back to high school, when my friend Holly, learning of my prom date and bent on seeing my face flush red, sang the tune by Carly Simon: "Anticipation" ( is making me wait!...). Holly sang the Heinz ketchup version and not the Carly Simon original, which we were unaware of, it being a little before our time). As Holly sang, I prepared to go to the dance with a junior on whom I had a short-term crush. And now, three decades later, I've another crush coming on.... A Grape Crush!

To be honest, my husband (no connection to the aforementioned prom date) is the one in love with grapes--and the crushing of them--and, because I vowed to follow him anywhere, I have ended up here, in the Rhône Valley, anticipating the arrival of so many harvesters who will soon sit down to the table and wonder "Qu'est-ce qu'on mange?"

What's for lunch, indeed!!! Never mind that our frigo is bursting and our garde-manger now groans beneath the weight of its bounty; the question now is how to get all those ingredients to add up to a satisfying meal? It seems we're in for a humble beginning (my brother-in-law has voted for les sandwiches. He is only being practical, trying to inspire my inner American cook; now to dig in deep, past le ketchup and le peanut butter.... and find her --'else perpetuate a certain gastronomic myth which has the French assuming that hamburgers and Coke are on every star-spangled menu!).

Meantime, my husband, Chief Grape, is busy with his own pre-harvest flurry. He is washing out buckets, or seaux, painting the old benne, which will receive all those ripe raisins, and scouring his cement tanks. I am relieved to hear him whistling and joking and stopping to eat his lunch -- what a different picture this is from four years ago, when I witnessed a gaunt figure racing back and forth, from the cellar to the field, fueled by his own sweating flesh. He never took the time to eat, and stayed up late into the night trying to keep one step ahead of the voracious vendange. I feared the harvest would consume him completely. In the end I understood that he had put himself, sweat and tears, into the wines that he made.

These days my husband pushes away a part of his lunch... and I wrap up les restes to snack on later. He is no longer a skinny first-year vigneron, he is a grape chief, which, come to think of it, makes me Mrs Chief ! I think it may be time, now, to do away with so much self-doubt, and begin to live up to my new name, Mrs Chief, by getting into some of the former, beginning with the harvest menu....


Le Coin Commentaires

Corrections, comments, and stories of your own are welcome here, in the comments box


 Please have a look at how last year's harvest jitters were handled, here, in the story "Affolement" or "Panic" - you'll also see Smokey's Elizabethan headgear....

 See a picture (from the story reference, above) of what Jean-Marc looked like after the first "voracious" vendange. He has since gained back all the lost weight.

French Vocabulary

l'atmosphère (f) = atmosphere

la basse-cour = farmyard

le grenache = a grape variety

le cinsault = a big-sized grape used in rosé wine

la canicule = heatwave

la nuit = night

un peu de pluie = a little rain

le mistral = a kind of northern wind

la vendange = wine, or grape, harvest

qu'est-ce qu'on mange? = what's for lunch?

le frigo = fridge

le garde-manger = pantry

le seau = bucket

la benne = the moveable bin at the back of a truck

le raisin = grape

les restes (nmpl) = left-overs


For those of you who asked for some Smokey and Braise photos... Here's Smokey, ogling the carrot salad (I like to mix pureed avocado, olive oil, lemon, and roasted (sometimes burnt!) pine nuts inside.

 Here's another harvest lunch possibility... now if only tomatoes will stay in season for another month... Click here for the Tomato Tart recipe.


Braise (Smokey's mom) says: "I'll eat anything!"

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue creating this French word journal and its newsletter, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site humming along, please know your donation makes all the difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

You can also support this journal by purchasing our book-in-progress, click here.


Trompe-l'oeil (c) Kristin Espinasse
Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Casanière, or a "homebody"... like me? How do you feel when you finally venture out? Read on, in today's missive. As for today's word, look carefully: it's not a mouchoir, or a handkerchief! Not even a Kleenex, sniff! (Photo taken in Saint-Roman-de-Malegarde, a village or two away from where today's story takes place.)

mouchard (moo shar) noun, masculine

    :  informer, police spy; sneak, stool pigeon

Synonym: un espion (une espionne) = a spy 

le mouchardage = spying, informing, sneaking
moucharder = to sneak on, to inform on 
une moucharde = female spy, sneak, informer 

Audio File: Listen to Jean-Marc read this sentence: Download MP3 or Wav file

Dans tous les cafés à Paris, pendant la guerre, il y avait des mouchards qui écoutaient...
In all the cafés in Paris, during the war, there were spies who listened... 

  Exercises in French Phonics Exercises in French Phonics is... 
" a great book for learning French pronunciation"
"useful and practical"
"high quality material, good value for your money" --from Amazon customer reviews. Order your copy here.

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

Spying on La Maraîchère

Not too far from our vineyard, just past a blue-gray oliveraie and a modest truffle orchard, beyond which a lovelorn donkey brays through the night, its woeful calls answered by the cranky aboiements of the neighbor dogs (who'd like to get some sleep, thank you very much!) there stands a fruits-and-vegetables shack.

It would be tempting to call the small structure une paillote--but paillotes are normally found near la plage, and are little freestanding structures with roofs en paille, or straw; not this hutch, c'est tout en bois, or all in wood, from its head to its "toes", which might, for the sake of art, be represented as so many stubby wooden crates that litter the edge of the little maraîchère hut.

Each time I go to the produce stand, which is found on private property, opposite the owner's mas, just up the road from le poulailler, I mumble to myself (and sometimes aloud, within ear reach of the proprietress), je dois venir ici plus souvent. Instead, I have the shameful habitude of buying our produce at the supermarket drive-through (and in all my pre-moving-to-France-dreams, I would never have imagined shopping in France's fast lane! Hélas...)

Because la vendange is just around the corner (phase one, or the picking of red grapes for our rosé wines, begins Saturday!), I'm making an effort with my shopping list, where farm-fresh vegetables are on the menu. Part of that effort involves getting out and rubbing elbows, or coudes, with the locals--always a challenge for a homebody, or casanière, who feels more comfortable among books and slobbering dogs--but who secretly thrives on society, where real characters are to be found (no offense, Braise and Smokey, and no offence Oliver Twist).

Pulling up to the paillote (we'll go ahead and call the stand by the more charming term, again, for art's sake!), I felt those familiar inner tormentors urging me to "rentre!", or "turn back!". "It's been so long since your last visit to the stand," the inner voices menaced. "You're not welcome here among the clients fidels.

With a little effort, I managed to brush off the mind's ramblings in time to hear the greeting coming from behind the wooden comptoir.

"Bonjour, Madame!" Looking up, I noticed two women. The one, middle-aged, looked a little familiar, the other, twice the age of the first, I had never seen before.

I eagerly returned the warm greeting, then, deciding it best not to linger, looked casually around the stand, my mind more on the women than on the crates of vegetables. Being the only client, I felt even more conspicuous than I was acting, loitering like that among the wooden crates, sending surreptitious glances, now and again, to the women behind the fig-flanked register (I selected a few pieces of fruit, there, and threw in a pot of basilic, so as to look busy).

But who can concentrate on homegrown vegetables when real French characters are in the environs? I wanted to meet these personnages, to know what they had for breakfast... and what were their dreams for tomorrow? 

But how to break the ice, or briser la glace? And then it hit me: with a word that looks a lot like "love", or "amour"... and that would be "humour": aMOUR / huMOUR!

And so I gave it my best shot, this stepping-out-of-one's-cozy-shell, using humour as the ice-breaker:

"I haven't seen you here before..." I ventured. With that, one of the women shook her head.

"I am the mother of the proprietor," the one answered.
"And I am the sister," the other offered. 

"We are taking care of the stand while my daughter is away on vacation," the mother explained. She studied me through her bifocals, concluding her examination with an inviting sourire.

I felt those familiar butterflies inside, but pushed past any apprehension. 

"Aha... yes... just as I suspected!" I said, remembering my amour/humour antidote to timidity. "Vous voyez... on m'a envoyé ici pour vous moucharder! I am a spy, you see... sent here by the vacationing proprietaire!" I informed the ladies. "I'm here to make sure that you are indeed doing your work... and I see that you are! I shall now know what to report back to the proprietor!"

Following my mock confession, the women smiled at each other, and at me, while making an animated effort to straighten up, and put on their best impression of Industrious Workers.

 "Voilà," I winked. C'est bien comme ça! Continuez! Continuez!"

With that, I collected the brown paper sacks in which the women had placed the figs and the basilique, and I was off, following quickly in the wake of my nerves, which were already back at the car, ready to go home after this latest venturing out. It seems that no matter how many times I get out, I must still encounter that stifling feeling of awkwardness, before even encountering the locals.

Reaching for the car door, I looked down and noticed a large stone. It was shaped like a great imperfect heart and, although it had no words etched onto its surface, it murmured a clear message -- the echo of which I could hear, even as I stood there: Venture out! Venture out! It whispered. Never fear! Just a bunch of us heavy hearts lying around out here, waiting to be lifted up.....

I looked back at the "hearts" over at the stand, and the women who owned them smiled back at me. Whether their spirits needed a lift, I can't be sure. Meantime, my own soul felt lighter, confirming the maxim that quand on donne on reçoit, when you give you receive.


French Vocabulary

la maraîchère (le maraîcher) = market gardener, one who sells produce

une oliveraie = olive grove

un aboiement = bark (dog)

une paillote = straw

la paille = straw

c'est tout en bois = it's entirely in wood

le mas = a type of house in Provence

le poulailler = henhouse

une habitude = habit

je dois venir ici plus souvent = I should come here more often

le personnage = character

briser la glace = to break the ice

la vendange = wine harvest, or grape picking

le coude = elbow

rentre! = return!

les clients fidels = faithful clients

le sourire = smile

Voilà = there you are!

C'est bien comme ça = very good like that

continuez! = continue on!


I didn't get a picture of the vegetable stand (in today's story), but here is a photo of a homemade-jams-and-eggs stand, to tide you over! The picture was taken a few years ago, in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. And here is a story that takes place there! I hope you have a minute to read about my stroll there with my belle-tante. You'll see a saintly detail of our house... and read about my sharing an English expression ("He's in the dog house!") with my French aunt-in-law. Click here to read the "Niche" post, written before we moved to this vineyard.

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue creating this French word journal and its newsletter, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site humming along, please know your donation makes all the difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

You can also support this journal by purchasing our book-in-progress, click here.


Old French "pointu" boats (c) Kristin Espinasse
Gone fishing. Home now. And so good to be back at work, putting words down on the blank page and watching a story come to life. Read today's slice o'life... and learn a trick or two!

  Capture plein écran 27072011 100956 Mas la Monaque - rent this beautifully restored 17-century farmhouse! Click here for photos and availability.

une astuce (ahss tooce)

    : tip, trick (or "recipe" for solving a problem)

les astuces du métier = the tricks of the trade

Audio File : Download MP3 or listen to Wav file

Pour éviter les piqures de guêpes, un vieux truc [ou astuce] de viticulteurs: pincer le bout de la langue entre les dents tant que l'insecte menace. Cela créée une légère tension corporelle qui le gêne, s'il vient à se poser sur la peau.

To avoid wasp stings, an old tip [or trick] from winegrowers: pinch the tip of the tongue between the teeth for as long as the insect threatens. This creates a light corporal tension that bothers [the wasps], if they come to land on the skin.


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

Uninvited Guests Guêpes

My family and I are seated around our picnic table, swatting at les gûepes that hover over lunch. I stare into my plate: no barbequed meats (the usual object of a wasp's lust)--just vegetables and eggs via a panfried omelette de courgettes.

It soon becomes difficult to eat as more wasps come hovering and, when our arms fly up and flail some more, eating turns into an aggravating chore.

"Tiens," our thirteen-year-old offers, wiggling her tongue. "Mettez vos langues comme ça." With that Jackie places the tip of her tongue between her upper and lower front teeth... and bites down.

Nodding her head, our daughter invites us to mimic her and, easily led souls that we are, Max, Jean-Marc, and I follow suit, biting down on our own tongues. 

Next, several slurry, inquisitive "Comme thahs?" exit our oral cavities as we attempt to speak through clenched teeth.

Jackie nods her head, slurs a mixture of English and French: "Yeth, comme thah". If our family were already guilty of Franglais, we were now adding a new slobbery dimension to our language crimes.

Tongues held tightly between teeth, we wait anxiously for the next invader to arrive. If Jackie's trick, or astuce, works... the wasps will fly off on arrival. The theory is that the tongue-in-teeth position creates an offensive, high-pitched vibration (undetected by the human oreille... positively piercing to the wasp's ear... hang on a minute -- do wasps have ears? Bon, bref....)

As with all sensational stunts, just as soon as the soon-to-be impressed audience arrives the subject balks. In this case, we four tongue-clamped characters are the audience, the balking subject being the NowhereToBeSeen pests.

In the seconds that intervene, Max, Jackie, Jean-Marc and I sit staring at each other, tongues protruding. "On n'a pas l'air un peu con comme thah?" Max voices our collective suspicion. "Don't we look a little ridiculous like this?"

Braise (brez) and Smokey, who are lying on the flower bed beyond, crushing the fragrant belles de nuit, look up, hoping to see something out of the ordinary, but, hélas, nothing unusual about the quartet of tongue-pressed persons with whom they share this circus, or "grape farm".

When another wasp-less moment passes, a light goes on in one of our brains:

"Thah marche!" Max declares. Then, extricating his tongue from between his teeth so that we can better understand his epiphany, our son repeats, "Ça marche!"

Only, as with every sensational stunt, the stinger-tailed artists appear in time to collect their accolades. And, in this way, we are once again surrounded by those annoying insects, who now interpret the flailing and swatting arms as high praise, or applaudissements. And, after that, as with all brilliant productions, it's encore and encore! Never mind how hard we try to boo the annoying actors off stage.


Le Coin Commentaires

Corrections, comments, or stories of your own are welcome here, in the comments box.


Capture plein écran 22082011 095958 Book Notes: I've ordered Sarah's Key and am awaiting its arrival! Click here to order a copy for yourself.


French Vocabulary

une guêpe = wasp

    => read more about guêpes in this story "affolement", in which Chief Grape's eye swells up like a cluster of raisins!

une omelette de courgettes = zucchini omelette

tiens = look here

mettez vos langues comme ça = put your tongues like this

une astuce = trick, tip

une oreille = ear

bon, bref = well, anyway...

On n'a pas l'air un peu con comme thah (ça)? = don't we look a little dumb like this?

les belles de nuit (fleurs) = Marvel of Peru (flowers)

hélas = alas

ça marche! = it works!

un applaudissement = applause

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A couple of tongue-lolling characters from today's story. Braise (pronounced "brez" like "Pez") is on the right. That's her son Smokey, left. 

  P1020013 Read on! Learn about la ruade, or kick in the pants, I received when helping my daughter at the horse stables. Click here for the short story and photos of the French horses!

We're playing a lot of board games this summer. And you? Here's a French one:


Mille Bornes. First published in 1962, Mille Bornes (pronounced "meel born," French for "milestones") is an auto-racing card game whose object, for each team of two players, is to be the first to complete a series of 1,000-mile trips.

Jean de florette And in French film, these two come highly recommended (favorites of Jean-Marc!). Click here to see the reviews.

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un petit mot

Flowers and un petit mot for you today.

Note: SUMMER BREAK! The next edition goes out the week of August 22nd.

un petit mot (uhn peuh tee moh)

    : a little note

Audio FileDownload MP3 or Wav file

Je t'ai laissé un petit mot sur ton bureau. I left you a little note on your desk.

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

I just deleted a story I'd written about racism. It began something like this:
They say that racism is at a new high...

In the essay there was a thought I was developing that went like this:
That anyone could feel superior to another seems to me the lowest form of barbarism

(I admit, I had to pause to look up "barbarian", and, just to be sure:
barbar = savage, Neanderthal, rude, uncivil, lacking learning, insensitive, a boor... "a crude uncouth ill-bred person lacking culture or refinement")

Then I had another look at the idea I'd been developing:
That anyone could feel superior to another seems to me the lowest form of barbarism.  

Only... it occurred to me that such a thought (a judgement, wasn't it?) might itself be barbaric! (is "judgmental" a synonym for "barbarian"?)....

And so I threw it out: the thought, and those that followed. Perhaps when it comes to ideas, it is better to receive than to give? Anyways, I know so little.

What is sure is that along with most people I am heartbroken about the state of the world. The London Riots, racism, hunger, illness. So many people in need. What are we to do? 

Meantime, our own families cry out for our attention--reminding us of the idea that charity begins at home.

I awoke yesterday morning to a message on my keyboard. The handwritten note made me pause before firing up my computer. Le petit mot was written in sky blue, sunshine yellow, and rose red. In the center, there was a beautiful rosette, colored in with the same rainbow in which the words were written.

I recognized my daughter's calligraphie and, on reading her words, her message deeply touched me:

    Mon Plus Beau Cadeau

        Je t'aime

        tu me donne espoir


        à avancer

        à réussir


        Je peux réussir

        cette annee grâce à toi

        j'ai confiance en toi

        je t'aime tellement

        Car sans l'amour que serait le monde?


I sat staring at the paper and its colorful illustrations. I imagined my daughter voicing these words. I heard each phrase clearly: aide-moi... pousse-moi... je peux reussir...

I listened as her voice drifted off... as other voices superimposed themselves over her own. I heard the misguided youths in London, their victims, the hungry children, the forgotten, the outcast, the elderly as they echoed my daughter's message: aide moi... car sans amour que serait le monde?

Rereading my daughter's letter, I realized that she speaks for all humanity, young and old, and that what the world needs more than ever is "espoir", "aide", "amour"  for "without love what would the world be?"


Note: To put my daughter's message into context, her petit mot comes just before the beginning of the school year (several weeks from now, but she is already motivating herself...).

P.S.: I have left Jackie's spelling as is (proof that she needs help in school :-). corrected Jackie's spelling in the passage above.

Le Coin Commentaires

Comments, corrections, and stories of your own are welcome here, in the comments box.



French Vocabulary

le petit mot = the little note
calligraphie = handwriting

Translation for Jackie's letter:

Mon Plus Beau Cadeau = my most beautiful gift
Je t'aime = I love you
tu me donnes de l'espoir = you give me hope
aide-moi = help me
à avancer = to advance
à réussir = to succeed
pousse-moi = give me a little push forward
Je peux réussir = I can succeed
cette année grâce à toi = this year, thanks to you
j'ai confiance en toi = I trust in you
je t'aime tellement = I love you so much
Car sans l'amour que serait le monde? = For without love what would the world be?


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Reminder: SUMMER BREAK! The next edition of French Word-A-Day goes out the week of August 22nd.

Meantime, I highly recommend the book that I have just, sadly, finished. Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks!!! You learn so much, laugh and cry so much... It'll leave you thinking. Félicitations to the writer, whose prose touched me deeply. Order Rebecca Skloot's book here

Random Stories: Click on the links to read these anecdotes

Enfance: An Arizona Childhood

"Harvest Widow": on following my husband's dream

Tel Quel: My Rock-n-Roll sister-in-law 

My Mother-in-Law, Aging, and Elvis 


Correct Your French Blunders

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Green shutters in Cassis. All photos (c) Kristin Espinasse. Never miss a word or photo, subscribe to French Word-A-Day


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Colmar (c) Kristin Espinasse
Today's story opens in the poetic place known as Colmar, France. Never miss a photo: sign up, here, for French Word-A-Day.

Exercises in French Phonics Exercises in French Phonics is... 
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le collier (kohl yay)

    : necklace

 Listen to the audio file: Download MP3 or Wav

Le collier de Nan a été apprécié par tout le monde.
Nan's necklace was appreciated by everyone. 

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

We met up with our friends Charles and Martha in Alsace last month. They said they had a special present for me, un cadeau that had not left their care during their multi-city périple (beginning in Florida) prior to our meet-up in Colmar.

The gift, Charles explained, was from Nan. I had not met Nan before--not en personne that is. Charles had introduced Nan to my Word-a-Day newsletter a few years back and, since, Nan and I have exchanged a few emails. I have a picture of Charles, Martha, Nan, and Jean-Marc taken, I believe, at a wine-tasting in Florida. Their smiling faces greet me each morning as I walk past our postcard rack, headed for the coffee machine.

The night that Charles and Martha presented me the gift, we were in a rush to make it to a wine dinner in honor of Jean-Marc. 

"I think it is best that I open the package after dinner..." I hinted to Charles. I didn't want to rush the experience (from the way Charles and Martha spoke of the gift, in hushed, reverent voices, I had a hunch that whatever was in that box would merit full concentration).

Currently my undivided attention was on the clock: we had a matter of minutes to shed our sweaty vêtements de long voyage, shower and dress for the dinner.

"Now's the time," Charles insisted, and something inside of me yielded, in time to trust my friend to put my priorities in order. Dinner could wait.

Meantime, we waited patiently until Martha and friends Kim and Bill could join us for le dévoilement, or unveiling. The honorable opening-of-the-gift ceremony would require an audience. 


Kristin & Jean-Marc
                                           Kristin & Jean-Marc 

When we were all gathered around the box, anticipation was so thick you could cut it like a satin-bowed ribbon! In that moment I was reminded that part of the pleasure that a gift brings is in the gift's opening! No longer feeling rushed, I took the time to open the box, carefully lifting the lid....

                                  (picture by Tante Michou)

Un Collier!

And what a necklace! To fully appreciate the handcrafted oeuvre--an intricately beaded neckpiece--you would have to be familiar with our life... a life of vines & vocabulaire.

The magnificent neckpiece paid tribute to both une vie en prose... and a life in vine rows! Never before had my husband's and my own passions been united in one precious link... le grand collier!

                     Pictures by Charles McGrath and Martha Melvin


The words read "perles", "syrah", "vivace", "dentelle", "carignan", "mourvèdre"....

On studying the necklace, I wished I were a bead artist or an artisan de perles--so as to not miss one precious detail! But soon enough I would see the necklace through the eyes of others. In the weeks to come, during wine tastings and family visits, I presented le collier to all our guests...


It was Aunt Michou's response that most touched me. She noticed the neckpiece immediately, pouring over each detail... She declared the collier "une oeuvre de l'esprit... une oeuvre d'art extrêmement émouvante qui vient du coeur et qui parle au coeur tout en comblant le regard." 

I could not have said it better, and so I listened, as les tantes appreciated this grande oeuvre de l'esprit et du coeur:

"Regarde!" said Aunt Marie-Françoise, "there is even a (little beaded) moon next to "lunatique". The necklace was partly made up of tags, or flaps, each beaded with French words symbolic of our work: many of the words came from my stories (trésor, vivace, sieste...) , and others of the mots represented the varieties of vines growing on our vineyard (Morvèdre, Syrah, Carignan), or the wines that came of them ("Dentelle", "Mistral", and "Lunatique").

(And I have so far failed to mention the colors!... in reference to our vineyard's name: Domaine Rouge-Bleu!)

"'Merci' est un des plus jolis," The 'merci' (flap) is one of the prettiest! Michou remarked, more than once. Aunt Michou pointed out how certain letters were punctuated by spheric perles (notice the "i"--of Mistral on the second photo below...).


                       These pictures are by Tante Michou...


      "Une intelligence de coeur et d'esprit" -Aunt Michou, praising the neckpiece.


A tongue-in-cheek detail was the blue and the red corks (from our Dentelle wine). Nan had thoughtfully included them in this thematic, truly dramatic neckpiece. Every detail, down to the silver "grapes and leaf" clasp on the back whispered our lives, lives entwined with vocabulaire and vines....

Charles remarked that it must have taken two years to complete the piece. Martha added that so much care had been taken....

But how to thank the artist? Comment la remercier? This is the question! Perhaps I could share with Nan this compliment, coming from our art-savvy aunt, Michou in Paris: C'est un bijou de haute couture. On imagine même que Christian Lacroix créerait une robe tout exprès pour ce collier! It is a work of haute couture. We can even imagine that Christian Lacroix would create a dress especially for this necklace!

And, while racking my brain for a proper thank-you, I'll borrow Aunt Michou's words (whispered while admiring the various beaded words of the collier): "'Merci'... est un des plus jolis"....

Meantime, while waiting for Mr. Lacroix' attentions... I'm pairing the neckpiece with a trusty pants-and-top combo. Many, many thanks, Nan! And thanks go to Charles and Martha, who did a wonderful job transporting le collier!

                                (Kristin, with daughter, Jackie, right).

Le Coin Commentaires
Comments, corrections, and stories of your own are welcome here, in the comments box. P.S. While rushing to finish today's edition, I have not checked the French words or written the vocab section. Any help is appreciated. Sorry for any French mistakes! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this "piece" in the comments box

 => Check out Nan Heldenbrand Morrissette's site at Art4Life.

Thank you very much, Newforest, for creating this enriched list of words and definitions

un cadeau (des cadeaux) = present(s), gift(s)
un périple / grand voyage = a long journey, an adventurous trip
en l'honneur de = in honor of
vêtements de voyage = travelling clothes
le dévoilement = the unveiling
soulever le couvercle = to lift the lid
Quel collier! = What a necklace!

une oeuvre / un ouvrage = a work
une oeuvre d'art = a work of art, artwork
un chef-d'oeuvre = a masterpiece

une perle = pearl (jewelry)
une perle = bead (made of glass)
une perle 'fine' (en bijouterie) = a 'real' pear

    a person you qualify as:
        "une perle" = a gem, a real treasure!
        "une perle rare" = a real treasure

    in a literary sense:
        une perle (de sang, de sueur) = a drop (of blood, of sweat)
        les perles de la rosée = dewdrops

    but... (fam) une perle / une erreur grossière = a howler

un artisan = a craftsman
combler le regard = to satisfy/ to please the eye
tout en comblant le regard = (while) pleasing the eye at the same time
l'esprit = spirit, mind.

le vocabulaire = vocabulary
mots = words
la vigne = vine (here used in the plural)
    (but the drink -> vin = wine- is masculine! :-) )

un(e) des plus joli(e)s = one of the nicest / one of the prettiest

Related story: Read more about the delighful Aunt Michou in the story "cachette" and learn a favorite word she taught me, in the story chouia.

And, whatever you do, don't miss this post about aunt Marie-Françoise, who passes down the family tradition of lavender weaving

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue creating this French word journal and its newsletter, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site humming along, please know your donation makes all the difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
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   "The Boy I was. The Man I'm Becoming". Our 16-year-old, Max.

le pantalon (pahn tah lown)

    : (pair of) pants, trousers

le pantalon de costume = dress pants
le pantalon à pinces = pleated pants
le pantalon battle = cargo pants
le pantalon cigarette = straight-leg pants
le pantalon 5 poches = 5 pocket 

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

"Plants in My Pants"

It is especially quiet in my office when a sudden bruit has me practically leaping out of my chair. What was that?! My mind quickly replays the sound... a ripping? ...a scratching (like the opening of a velcro wallet)? Then again, I wonder if what I've heard... is the sound of seams splitting.

I study the pants that I am wearing: hand-me-downs from my son. I'd bought Max the handsome pin-stripped pantalons to wear to a family wedding last year. They were a little pricey, or chérot... so I had my doubts about buying them for a growing boy (one who'd just turned 15). Only, standing there, outside the dressing room, admiring the young man in the mirror in front of us, I was spellbound. How dashing he looked in the dress pants and the tailored, wide-cuffed chemise!

Max didn't seem to recognize himself... only after a little strutting back and forth did his movements match up with those of the confident stranger in the mirror. "Mom, please," Max pleaded. "I've got to have these!"

"Alright," I answered, adding one stipulation, "Just don't grow out of them too quickly! Promise?"

(Max a juré....)


Sometime last week, Max broke his oath--having grown several sneaky centimeters in the last three seasons! I knew I had to put the pants into the giveaway pile.... a reality that gnawed at me (he'd only wore the pants once! You could still see the stringy fibers from the price tag!).

A light went off in my head: maybe I could be the lucky pants-recipient? I pulled off my gypsy skirt and stepped into the pantalons....

The pants fit! Next I knew I was mimicking my son, strutting back-n-forth before le miroir. Could I? Could I wear them?! I wondered. There appeared to be only one problem: that little "flooding" action around my ankles. Though I tried to deny it--pulling the pants down low on my hips--the pant legs were un cran too short....

And then I had another revelation! Reaching down I rolled up the pant legs. Voilà! I could wear the pantalons as capris!...

...and I have done just that, for days now, as one wears a uniform. Everything was going smoothly until, one evening, while working at my computer I heard that troubling sound... Yes, the sound of seams... seams splitting!

I leaped out of my chair and searched my pants for any accidental openings.... When no rips or splits were to be found. I breathed a sigh of relief, a little prematurely....

Just then, it happened again: ccccccrrrrriiiikkkkkk!

Instantly my hands flew back, to the seat of my pants. I felt along the vertical seam. My neck strained as I tried to see over my shoulders... The stitches seemed to be intact. But no sooner had I reassured myself than CRRRRIIIIICKKKK!

This time my hands landed on my front pockets, where the smooth surface was found to be bumpy. Now what?!...

My hands plunged, automatically into my pockets and that is when I discovered the source of all my souci: SEEDS!

I remembered back to the walk I'd taken earlier that evening, through the vineyard and out to the wild garrigue. My friend Toni had helped me collect seeds from the dried branches of the broom bushes, their licorice-scented yellow flowers now shriveled and feeding the earth beneath us. I'd stored the dried, closed pods in my front pocket for safekeeping....

...And now, hours later, those seed pods were springing open! Pop! pop! pop! P-p-p-p-p-POP!

I looked into the palms of my hands at the open shells and the liberated seeds--and shook my head, appreciatively. I had to give them credit--they sure fooled me with their humbling cacophony! Meantime, I'd get to keep the pants! The seeds could continue splitting and, with a little water, grow up into bigger things, just as my dashing son is doing.


 Le Coin Commentaires

To respond to this story or to comment on any item in this edition, click here.


Related stories

That gypsy skirt makes another appearance in this story.

And the fun word saperlipopette is featured in this missive.

Discover the joy of seed collecting, in this tribute to the Dirt Divas.

View a picture of that Scottish broom (the seeds of which I collected in today's story).


French Vocabulary - (under construction)

le pantalon = pants

chérot = pricey

la chemise = shirt

Max à juré = Max promised

saperlipopette = oh my goodness!

le miroir = mirror

un cran = a peg a notch

le souci = worry

la garrigue = wild Mediterranean scrubland 

Seed eaters in the town of Orange.

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Max at 5 years old and at 16. Mom found the hat in an antiques store. GDF stands for Gaz de France. I wonder whether the hat was worn by a post war government worker. More on GDF from Wikipedia: Gaz de France was created with its sister company Électricité de France (EDF) in 1946 by the French Government. After the liberalisation of Europe’s energy markets, Gaz de France also entered into the electricity sector, having developed combined natural gas-electricity offerings.

Featured Story from the archives:

"Le Mot Juste": a story about a mysterious man I met in Croatia. Click here to read it.

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue creating this French word journal and its newsletter, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site humming along, please know your donation makes all the difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
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Pro riders in the stage race Le Dauphine. Gary, who sent me the photo & wrote today's story, notes: You can't pick him out in the photo, but this year's Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans is in this peloton, along with Alberto Contador, who won the previous three Tour de France races.


Paris apartment for rent. St Sulpice. 

215 euros per night (min.  3-nights rental)
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le peloton (peuh lohtohn)

    : a large group of bicycle riders in a road race

Also: Peloton is also a military word referring to a group of soldiers.  Examples would be peloton d’instruction and peloton d’execution. (Thank you, Bill Blank, for this info)

Audio File: Listen to Jean-Marc: Download MP3 or Wav file

Le peloton est un terme sportif qui désigne un groupe de coureurs qui demeurent ensemble au cours d'une épreuve. "Peloton" is a sporting term that designates a group of racers that remain together during an event.

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Cycling: Unwritten Etiquette and Rules of the Road
..... Gary McClelland

Le Mont Ventoux, or le géant de Provence, beautifully on display for wine tasters at Domaine Rouge-Bleu, attracts bicyclists from all over the world who want to challenge themselves on the hors catégorie climb used 14 times in le Tour de France.  They also enjoy the gentler rides cycling past the purple lavender, yellow sunflowers and brume, green vineyards under blue skies, while listening to the chanting cigales and smelling the natural perfumes of Provence.  French is at best a second language for the visiting cyclists so except for bonjour, bonne route, and allez, there often is not much verbal communication.  However, good cyclists know the unwritten etiquette and rules of the road.  In biking around Provence on a recent trip with my friend Tim, I experienced a number of examples of the unspoken etiquette.

When I stopped for a minor roadside adjustment, a lovely French women rode into the gap between Tim and me as we climbed over a little col.  When I passed her to catch up with Tim, elle a pris ma roue (she "took my wheel”, or rode closely behind me) in the universal request to be paced if I were willing.  I nodded agreement and wordlessly we were off on a brisk but not frantic ascent to the col.  On a climb the wind drafting advantages are not substantial, but the mental benefit of having someone set a good pace can be enormous.  Using the retroviseur attached to my sunglasses, I adjusted my pace to maintain a constant gap between us.  As we arrived at the summit sooner than either of us would have alone, she said, “Merci beaucoup, vous êtes très gentil.”  (I try to collect très gentil compliments when I’m in France.)  I briefly considered continuing to ride with her but that would have violated the important etiquette that riders who start together finish together.  As I slowed, I told her that I needed to await mon copain.  Later we encountered her as we biked in opposite directions and she threw me a warm smile, a big wave, and a cheery bonne route that gladdened an old man’s heart.

One evening climbing the same col from the other direction, on a short, quick ride before dinner, I rode up behind two local racers, who were, according to their jerseys, sponsored by a plumber in nearby Caromb. They were chatting during what seemed to be an after work ride.  I knew the etiquette that trying to pass them would be challenging them to a race.  But I wanted to get back to fix my appetizer of melon halves from Cavaillon filled with muscat from Beaume de Venise.  I tried to ease by with a calm “bon soir” but the flag was immediately down and we were flying up the col.  I edged out the 3rd rider to finish a distant second to the faster rider.  Then we said hearty bonne soirées and went our separate ways knowing proper etiquette had been followed.  The melons were delicious.

Un peloton looking for refreshment in Bedoin. Gary admits: "I wouldn't try to pass these guys on ride!"

Riding north one morning into a strong mistral wind, I taught Tim the etiquette of drafting.  Following closely in the slipstream of the lead rider reduces the effort by as much as 30 percent.  Drafting is just because the riders getting the benefit take all the risk—touching tires can send the trailing rider to the ground but not the leader.  There is a fine art to being close enough but not too close.  The important etiquette is realizing that when the leader flicks his elbow he is asking the follower to take a turn leading into the wind. By switching leaders at each elbow flick, a peloton can slice through the wind amazingly quickly.

 Gary notes, "my friend Derek fixes a crevé below the castle of Le Barroux"

The most important etiquette is that a bicyclist in dépannage knows that other riders will soon stop to help.  When I was on my first ride with the local Bedoin Randonneurs bike club, j’ai crevé.  Not wanting to slow them down, I urged them on but they wouldn’t think of violating the etiquette that we would all finish together.  However, Roger was not happy with my slow tire-changing pace so offered to take over.  Another rider told me to just let him do it, “he changes all our tires.”  In the blink of the eye, my tube was replaced and we were on our way to a beautiful ride in the Provençal countryside.   And we did finish together.  Knowing proper etiquette makes a cyclist part of an international community biking in Provence.

Gary's friends biking, au peloton, through the plane trees of the winery Chateau Pesquié.

Le Coin Commentaires
Did you enjoy Gary's article? Please help me to thank him, now, by leaving "un petit mot", a little word, in the comments corner. You might also share your own bike-riding stories. Click here

Gary McClelland is a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Colorado, who became a Francophile while spending a summer as a student in Paris in 1967.  

Photo credits: The cycling photos were taken by Gary or by Gary's wife, Lou, or their friend Terry Mattison. Read another story by Gary (about Pétanque" : read it here.)


Gary notes: one of my favorite places to bike for its color and scenery is the Dentelles... note the yellow and fragrant genêt, or broom. Besides me, the people are Lily Welch and Terry Mattison (this note corresponds to the third photo, below left). The village is Suzette.

 Click on the following photos to enlarge them.

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French Vocabulary

le géant de Provence = the giant of Provence (synonym for Mont Ventoux, or "Mount Windy")

hors categorie = beyond categorization

le Tour de France = an annual cycling race in France and other countries

la cigale = cicada

bonjour = hello

bonne route = have a good ride

allez! = come on, let's go! get a move on! go for it!

le col = pass (geography)

le rétroviseur = rearview mirror

Merci beaucoup, vous êtes très gentil = thanks, very kind of you

le copain = buddy, friend

le bonsoir = hello (used in an evening greeting)

bonne soirée = have a nice evening

le dépannage = fixing, repairing

j'ai crevé = I have a flat (tire)

6a00d834515cae69e2010536f40e5b970b-500wiRelated StoryVélo: Mom talks me into buying a bike "for the endorphins it will bring!".... read the story here.

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Provence Dreamin'? Maison des Pelerins, Sablet. A Vacation Rental Dream in the heart of the Côte du Rhone.


  Green Window (c) Kristin Espinasse
So much to love about this Alsatian window, if you're a fenêtre freak as I am! Let's begin with the green façade! Next, a terra-cotta pot (in a wonderful red contrast against the wall) with is "grapes" bottom! Beneath the grapes-bottomed pot, the blue flowers (lobelia?) and the lavender are country charm incarnate! Up above, we have an outdoor blind (do you see it?... there, above the angel!)

Do you have a moment for one more story? It is a recipe-missive: a slice of life followed by a slice of tomato pie! Read it here. (Fire up your oven first!)


The Greater Journey : Americans in Paris

The Greater Journey is the story of the adventurous American artists, writers, doctors, politicians, architects, and others of high aspiration who set off for Paris in the years between 1830 and 1900, ambitious to excel in their work. Order The Greater Journey here.

  Capture plein écran 03082011 102921 French Stories: A Dual Language book. Improve your French comprehension and build your vocabulary: read the side-by-side text in these classic stories.

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue creating this French word journal and its newsletter, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site humming along, please know your donation makes all the difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
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You can also support this journal by purchasing our book-in-progress, click here.


Musical Shutters (c) Kristin Espinasse
The melody of flower seeds, in today's story.... Why not forward this edition to a green thumb, or main verte?

une semence (seuh mahnce)

    : seed

Audio File: Listen to Jean-Marc: Download MP3 or Wav file

En agriculture, une semence est une graine sélectionnée pour être seméeIn agriculture, a seed is a grain selected for sowing. --Wikipedia

Improve your French now: buy a copy of The Ultimate French Verb Review and Practice  

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

The Significant Matter of Seeds
(or, for a more soulful title, how about "Inner Growth" or, simply, "Seed Junky"?) 

I recognize it as a little bit obsessive, the manner in which I've been stalking our flowers... especially the Belles de Nuit, or Beauties of the Night. I can't seem to leave them alone! It isn't that their yellow or fuchsia blossoms and their long confetti-tipped tongues have a hold on me... No. My infatuation, these days, centers on those inky, grenade-shaped seeds! 

But the Belles de Nuit aren't the only graines that stir up these feelings. Have you seen what the hollyhocks put out? Or the coquelicots or the morning glory? Whether flat as a disk (indeed, some seeds resemble mini-CDs!) or tiny as a grain of sand--their forms are as fascinating as the flowers that come of them.

And have your ears ever experienced a seed jamboree? The larkspur are quite the melody-makers! Encased as they are in fluted coques all it takes is bumping into a dry branch-gone-to-seed to set the tiny "tambourines" drumming. I love to stand in the garden, shaking a stem of dried delphinium husks. Inside, the tiny black seeds ricochet off the dry walls and, now more than tambourines, I wonder whether it is cymbals I'm hearing?... the effect is jazz, blues, soul-stirring... 

Of all the pleasures of seeds, freeing them is the most thrilling. Pinch certain pods and they'll burst! Drop a dried, boomerang-shaped husk of a California poppy (the shell so different from that of the Provençal variety).. drop it into a sack and it will explode on contact! Others (read Amaranthus) come out of their furry hideouts only after a good thwacking against a stone murette. The powdery black seeds are tiny as spider teeth!

Not all seeds are visible to the eye and with certain flowers you wonder where their offspring are hidden. The little yellow faces framed by white petals of the feverfew are perplexing and the idea of a seedless flower is distressing... Unsure of how to proceed, I collect the dried blossoms and trust that, once in the paper bag, they'll break down in time to release some sort of powder-fine progeny. 

On the subject of storing seeds, I do it haphazardly, saving up paper sacks or stealing envelopes from my husband's home office... I enjoy marking the packages "Mixed flowers" or "artichokes" or "sunflowers" or "rose trémière: noir!"... before storing them in the kitchen armoire, where they vie for shelf space with the pastis and the pasta. I'll eventually move the sacks, emptying the dried contents into great glass jars (that's the plan, anyway)... For now I enjoy the close proximity of the seeds, which literally put the "campagne" in our country kitchen.

If I'm feeling reckless, I might forgo the drying and the classifying of the seeds -- in favor of scattering them willy-nilly. Chances are they'll be eaten by granivores... Risking this, I'll toss a handful of just-picked hollyhock seeds next to the clothesline, or spray poppy seeds over near the beehive mailbox, or send off a jet-stream of delphinium seeds in front of the telephone pole...  in my active mind's eye I see Jack's Beanstalk rising and I am filled with awe... at the potential of a tiny inert speck of organic matter! 

Yes! Of all the reasons to marvel before a humble seed, the thing that most inspires me... is a seed's sacred mystery. I am reminded of a favorite passage in The Door of Everything:

Let us return to the tomato seed and look at it more closely. Is it strictly a seed, a little collection of molecules that cling together in a certain way to form a certain kind of matter? If you had never seen a tomato seed, and had never heard of a tomato, the seed probably would appear to be no more than an insignificant bit of matter capable only of a short, unproductive existence followed by decay. 

However, if someone told you about the tomato seed, explaining that within those apparently inactive molecules a divine pattern was held in waiting, eager to come forth, a pattern for a fragrant, leafy plant which would flower and bear delicious fruit, you would find it hard to believe. Knowing nothing at all about the reality of tomatoes, you probably could not visualize such an impossible thing as a big green plant with red fruit growing out of an uninteresting-looking seed. You would, no doubt, laugh uproariously at the quaint idea that all you had to do was bury it under the dirt, then keep it watered, and the forces of nature would co-operate with it to bring about its amazing change of form.


This post is dedicated to Malou and Doreen. Read the story "Altruism in the Garden" about the Dirt Divas backbreaking efforts to raise a flower bed from the concrete ashes of our garden. The fruits, or seeds, of their labor are, truly, an eternal gift. 

Le Coin Commentaires 
Ever harvested seeds? Understand that giddy feeling? Share your thoughts, here, in the comments box.


Re the "tomato seed" passage above, it is from a book that my mom gave me. "I was a little hesitant to share it with you," Mom admitted, "it's a little new-agey...". I'm so glad Jules took the risk and shared The Door of Everything with me! Click here to order the book.


 French Vocabulary
(under construction. Check back soon for the translated terms, or offer your own in the comments box.) 

Pictured: The Artichoke seed harvest. It was messy, sticky, and scratchy! Can't wait to plant the seeds!

In French music: Putumayo Presents: Paris
My sister-in-law enjoyed the Persepolis book. There is also the French film: Persepolis 

Thank you very much for reading! Do you know of anyone else who might enjoy French Word-A-Day? Please pass it on! A sign-up form can be found here. (Photo taken in Alsace, in Colmar, last month).

"Caked On"read a bilingual story written by our 13-year-old daughter "On The Right To Wear Makeup!" (The English version follows the French text).

Ongoing support from readers like you helps me continue creating this French word journal and its newsletter, now in its 18th year! If you enjoy these posts and would like to help keep this site humming along, please know your donation makes all the difference! A contribution by check (click here) or via PayPal (below) is greatly appreciated. Merci!
♥ $10    
♥ $25    
♥ Or click here to send the amount of your choice

You can also support this journal by purchasing our book-in-progress, click here.