le defi


St Paul Pigeon (c) Kristin Espinasse
We've seen this turkey, er, pigeon, before, and we're bringing him back to illustrate today's fun-to-pronounce French word... read on and/or share your favorite French words in the comments box.

la scoumoune (skoo moon)

    : tough or rotten luck, mischance

Audio File: listen to "scoumoune": Download MP3 or Wav file

Oh là là! Aujourd'hui c'est la scoumoune!
Today we're having bad luck!

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

Outwitting Bad Luck

Yesterday, nearing the end of my final visit to the local nurses' station, les infirmières and I had a good guffaw at la technologie: that ever-advancing entity that allows you to cut out the middleman (in this case, the secretary and the accountant) and to be your own boss! ...that is, when technology isn't the boss of you....

Re technology, the time had come to regler, or to account for, the ten "bandage" visits, so I pulled out my handy dandy Carte Vitale: a plastic card that resembles a credit card and that is sort of used like one... only, instead of paying for groceries or clothing or gasoline or conneries with it... one pays for medicine and doctor visits.

Carte vitale

One of the nurses took my health card and inserted it into a handheld accounting machine, or sabot (similar to the ones you see at French restaurants, when the serveur returns to your table with the dreaded addition). 

I listened as the nurse read the tiny screen on the card machine: "Carte muette...." It seemed that the tiny puce, or digital-information chip (see gold-squared example, above), was illisible. This happens when the card is scratched (i.e., by loose change in the cardholder's porte-monnaie) or when dust has collected in the shallow crevices of the puce.... or when your wife uses the card to scratch ice off her automobile's windshield, in winter.

When the machine refused to comply, the nurse yanked out the card, stared at it, and reinserted it into the thin card slot. "On recommence..." "We'll try again," she explained.

"Carte muette," she repeated. I looked over at the other nurse, who had sat down in the chair beside mine, in time to go over her busy schedule for the day. "Essaie l'autre." "Try the other," this nurse hinted, pointing to her own sabot (each nurse has a portable machine, which is handy for registering information during house calls, for those patients who are treated offsite).

When the second machine balked, the card was retrieved just as abruptly. This time friction was used! Rubbing the card against her jeans I recognized the nurse's resorting to a popular "anti-muette" technique used by doctors and pharmacists and other health-care workers turned temporary accountants. It is always amusing to watch these professionals get down to "The Jeans and Sleeves technique". Only, just as predicted, when the jeans didn't do the trick, the card was slapped against Nurse's shirtsleeve and swiftly refrictioned against the soft cotton there.  

"Ah là là! C'est la scoumoune!" the nurse vented, as we waited for the results of this latest attempt to outwit the card or the card reader. Only, la scoumoune? I may be superstitious, but wasn't that a bit risky to mention "bad luck" whilst we were smack in the middle of it?

Superstition and paranoia aside, I had simply forgotten an important mathematical law: multiply two negatives and you get a positive! My eyes looked over, expectantly, to that petite, persnickety machine when, Shazam!, just like that it engaged (and very unceremoniously so: a few "coughs" and a buzzing sound signaled the connection). And mine was the chance to witness, firsthand, the mystery of universal laws and equations... or, simply, less astoundingly, the hiccups of modern technology.


French Vocabulary

regler = to pay

la carte vitale = French national insurance card

les conneries (f) (! = term is a bit vulgar) = non-essentials, damned stupidities

le sabot = handheld machine, used for swiping a credit card (note: un sabot is a clog or wooden shoe. These little card machines get their name from the fact that they are similar in size to a "sabot", or clog.

le serveur = waiter

l'addition = bill, check (l'addition, s'il vous plaît = check, please!)

carte muette = silent card (note: une carte muette is also a menu without prices (given to dates or guests) 

la puce électronique = microchip

illisible = unreadable

essaie l'autre = try the other

Flower steps

Chief Grape and his briefcase. That's my beautiful husband, left, somewhere in Sicily. Voilà, now that I've got your attention... do you have a minute for another story? Please read "Over The Rainbow, Bluebirds Fly" - about the little swallow that was saved, last spring, on our farm.

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety


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Bill in St. Paul

I love the look of the French blue and white enamel house numbers, especially the ones with "bis" or "ter" on them. Years ago when in Cinque Terra in Italy we ran across another numbering system which had the house numbers in blue or red, and for the same house the numbers were different - it almost looked like they had started from the opposite ends of the town when they did the numbering for the two different colors. That picture of J-M in Sicily reminds me of some of the streets in Marseille coming down from Notre Dame de la Garde - tough climbing for a flat-lander.

gail bingenheimer

I thought that was a picture of Marseille too

Bruce T. Paddock

The story is great, and the photo of the pigeon is a delight, but the picture from Sicily is jaw-dropping!

Is my ever-stagnating French failing me, or is a microchip really called an "electronic flea"?

Lori Hotaling

I love to say the word "Arrondisement".....it's just so fun!!! I really enjoy getting your e-mails! So fun to read! Thanks!

Herm in Phoenix, Az

Oui, la scoumoune! I just had an encounter with the “fickle finger of fate” also! Yesterday I went to the local drug store to get my flu shot. Seems the information on my weathered Medicare card, which I have used for over 15 years, didn’t match the information that was in the computer.

After a 15 minute conference call with the Social Security office, we determined that they now use the middle name instead of just an initial. Seems like a minor problem, but the “system” requires a new card to be sent to me before I can get my flu shot! C’est la vie!

Jan in Colorado

Merci, Kristen, for bringing my knowledge of French into the 21st century! These technological marvels didn't exist in the 60s when I lived there. I worked for a computer company in those days and my language skills have remained hopelessly enmired in the world of mainframe computers. It's fun to learn the French equivalent to what are now everyday terms in modern society. I'm fighting obsolescence and I fear I'm losing the battle, even in English! Bonne journee!

Tonya McNair

I love the word for "hardware store", which sounds so romantic!!... "Quincaillerie"!!

...and I LOVE your writing style and stories!

Amy Kortuem

Isn't it true?

I always first try the hissy fit, swearing, swatting the machine/piece of technology, crying, etc. to get the thing to work.

But what ALWAYS does the trick is to call the repair man, the computer tech guy, my Dad. It'll start right up the minute they step in the door.

Jean(ne) P in MN

"La scoumoune" brought me right back to Marseille where I met my sweet husband. He and his brothers had so many provencal expressions. I hadn't heard this one for a long time and it made me smile. Loved the nurse vs techno story.

Kitty Wilson

What a great way to start my day, Kristin, with this fun tale. Aha! So, shove over, pet word "glitch" -- we now have a sassy provencal term instead!

Marianne Rankin

Seems to me that the "puce" on the card is too sensitive and too easily damaged, more so than the strip that's on the back of credit cards. Maybe something bothered it. Years ago, a store clerk set my card on a metal counter and it was immediately deactivated. I'm glad it finally worked, and that your sejour in the hospital has finally ended.

Lee Isbell

French merchants invariably rub my American magnetic strip card on their jeans as well. Wish I had a card with a puce so I could collect train tickets, metro tickets, etc.

Carolyn  Dahm

Bonjour Kristin,

Hope you're scar is healing nicely. I've so enjoyed all of your hospital tales and I'm glad your readers have been a comfort to you at this time. You'll always be beautiful to us!

I love today's word! Pour mon mari et moi, c'est la scoumoune, il y a longtemps! We hope with positive energy and prayers that our scoumoune will change and good things will continue to come our way. Thank you once again, for all the brightness you add to my life. Please give Smokey and Braise hugs and kisses for me and best of luck to all of you during this time of preparing the grapes for bottling.

By the way, we bought a bottle of your 2008 Mistral. When is it best to open it and what foods would you and Jean Marc recommend eating with it? Thanks!

All my best,

Patrick Lee

"Poser un lapin": I'm curious as to where this phrase gets its origin. Can you shed some light on this delightful sounding phrase? I came across the phrase in Navokov's /Lolita/ and while I understand it means roughly "to stand someone up," I'm curious as to the origin of the phrase.

Susan Carter

Love the reposting of one of my favorite pictures - it made me absolutely gasp the first time you posted it and I've imagined what it would be like to live in one of those apartments and look out on those stairs from the balcony every day.

Jennifer in OR

Enjoy these days, Kristin. Look forward to reading again in November. I agree w/ others, that picture of Jean-Marc in Sicily is amazing.


Another trick to use with a card is to put it in a plastic bag and run it through the machine. I have had to do with with cards which are used too often before the renewal card arrives.
One problem which the Americans encounter while in France is that we don't have chips on our cards, therefore, we can't get gas when the stations are closed and other such things.

Sue J.

Kristin -- hope all is going well and that we hear from you soon. miss your posts!


J'aime le chapeau!

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