Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Observations rhônalpines

It was wonderful to go away to France again the other week.  It had been two years since my previous trip, and I had been missing it!  A friend from school and I cooked up a plan to split a week between Grenoble and Lyon, and to take the new Eurostar service which runs directly from St Pancras station in London to Lyon Part-Dieu (Or did we go to Lyon just in order to use the new Eurostar service?).

Grenoble depuis la Bastille
We looked down on Grenoble from the Bastille fortress to see how the city is set among the Alps ; in Lyon we saw the cathedral, took the funicular up to the basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière (an old devotion re-invigorated after Lyon was spared violence in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870), wandered at will around the Roman ruins and met a friend who is just beginning a year teaching at the ENS.  We also made a day trip to Pérouges, a remarkable medieval village perched neatly on a hill-top like a board-game.  (It even sounds like a board-game - 'who fancies a game of Pérouges?').

Your turn... up the stairs or down the street?
As well as great monuments there were also smaller things to see: lesser elements of ordinary French life which struck me as being (sadly) absent from Britain.  There was the quite calm, quite relaxed, quite sensible, quite self-unconscious group of young Grenoblois, about twelve or thirteen years old, on their way somewhere on a warm afternoon; there was the six- or seven-year-old boy perched on a climbing-frame in the Jardin Public, reading a bande déssinée (comic book).  There was the game of boules in progress in the same garden.  There was the man carrying six baguettes home on the funicular from Vieux-Lyon.  There was the children's library in Grenoble which, though adjacent to the main library, is advertised as a distinct 'bibliothèque de jeunesse' with its own clientèle.   

Another aspect of French life unavailable in Britain...
This reverie might have been brought to an abrupt halt by the concession to pragmatism of new automatic checkouts in the local Monoprix, but then I saw an assistant directing the customers to the nearest free machine, steadfastly observing the old custom by which about shopkeepers and 'chers clients' greet each other in shops with a 'Bonjour, Monsieur' and – more significantly still – part with a 'Merci, Monsieur, bonne soirée, au revoir'.  I went on to see quiet but sincere patriotism in the Musée des Troupes de montagne (Museum of French Alpine troops), where the explanatory notes refer to these troops' defence of 'notre patrie' ('our homeland').  And sincere faith, too: I found out about the 'pari sur une confiance totale' made by the bishop of Grenoble, Guy de Kerimel, who has put a great effort into revamping his diocesan youth service.  Isèreanybody (a pun on Isère, Grenoble's département, and a slightly literal English translation of the French 'il y a quelqu'un?', 'is anybody there?'), provides students and young professionals with their own chaplain and parish church, and maintains a vibrant presence on the new media, exactly as Benedict XVI asked.

There was the language too, of course: though they miss out on hearty Anglo-Saxon words like 'stealthier', 'brought' or 'haven', it is almost music.  Here are the beginnings of a list of some of my favourite French words:
  1. gourmandise (f) – greed, gluttony, a plump and well-fed word.
  2. orgueilleux – proud (in the sinful sense), a word that is puffed out like the chest!
  3. fierté (f) – pride (not sinful!), a dignified, defiant word.
  4. grenouille (f) – a frog.
  5. plouf – splash (a different sound, but you end up just as wet)
  6. pamplemousse – grapefruit... a luscious, juicy word.  Letters will run down your chin if you are not careful!
  7. moelleux – no translation!  Soft, gooey, dark, molten, mellifluous.  The best definition is the moelleux au chocolat (not to be clicked on during Lent).
  8. mie (f) – no translation here either!   Bread's doughier interior, which in France contrasts with the crumbling golden crust...
  9. veiller – to keep watch.  A lovely, quiet, unobtrusive but steady word.  There is a beautiful concision to the reply given by Frédéric Langlais, the hero of Paul Berna's 'Le Carrefour de la Pie' ('Magpie Junction'), to his father when asked what he is doing up in the middle of the night: 'Je veillais, chuchota Frédéric' ("I was keeping watch", whispered Frédéric).  That is more poetry than prose.  Paul Berna, a French children's author who wove befriendable characters into realistic and beautifully-written books, ought to be much better known.
  10. lugubre – bleak, dim, gloomy, dismal.
  11. s'introduire (dans) – simply 'to enter', 'to let oneself into', but the French has a deliciously surreptitious and stealthy undertone.  The subject of the sentence is definitely up to no good... 'S'introduire dans les lieux'... to let oneself into the premises...
Do any French or Francophile readers have favourite French words of their own?  You are welcome, as always, to comment...

Un individu s'est introduit dans les lieux...


  1. Completely agree with you on the 'smaller things to see', as you put it: from my own (admittedly anectodal, entirely un-empirical) observations, people seem to sit and read a lot more in Lyon that I've ever seen in the UK. Smartphones haven't quite reached the same degree of ubiquity here - or if they have, they're not being used all the time. As for Grenoble's library, I can echo the sentiment of value attached to it by mentioning the rare books room at the Bibliothèque Diderot: it's a resource that's sadly under-utilised, but is looked after the most amazing people who really care for their books. When I went in to ask for a couple of manuscripts, they had to spend two days looking for them as no-one had requested them in so long ... Your point about the « patrie » echoes an interesting difference between medieval archives in the UK and France, actually: the term « patrimoine », usually used when referring to the « salle du patrimoine » and to « documents patrimoniaux », is very rarely used in the UK. A question of collective national consciousness, perhaps ... ?

    And the words ... oh, the words. I hadn't thought about the difference between « fierté » and « orgeuil » before, but it is a very interesting question. Other favourites of mine include the classic modulation (« défense de fumer » =, and yet also ≠, 'no smoking'); « émargement » ('registration', as in « feuille d'émargement »); and « diffuser » (as in « diffuser un message »).

    Perhaps the best (and most French) email I've ever received, though, was in fact not from Lyon, but from the organisers of the medieval summer school in Poitiers: « Le soir, nous vous convierons à un buffet pique-nique dinatoire (à partir de 20h). Nous pourrons ainsi partager un moment convivial et placer, sous le signe de la bonne humeur, ces deux semaines à partager. »

    Oh, and I actually approve of the self-service checkouts. Admittedly, that might just be because of the wonderful phrasing used by the automatic voice when you're scanning your items: « passez vos articles devant le lecteur ».

  2. Thanks for the comment and sorry for the slow reply! Yes, all your examples be added straight to the list. 'Diffuser' is interesting because it doesn't, to me, seem to match 'broadcast', which I think is such a good word I devoted a whole post to it! (

    What a beautiful sentence that is from the Poitiers summer school. More poetry! It could not have come from any nation on earth - particularly the 'Pique-nique dinatoire'!

    Yes, 'passez vos articles devant le lecteur' is, how shall I say, somewhat easier to listen to than the excruciating 'Unexpected Item in Bagging Area!! Please await attendant!!!!'

  3. I am more a Teutonophile than a Francophile, but I do like French words where there are a succession of vowels or soft consonants; like "merveilleux' or 'boulangerie'.

    I also like their propensity (or penchant?) to designate things as 'grand'; Grande Chartreuse, grand vacances, and (not the same qadjective but the same feeling) or Les Trents Glorieuses.

    A bit embarrassed to be posting this comment at twenty past four but I am lying up late sick. By the time you read, I will be dead (or, more probably, feeling better.) Thanks for the distraction!

  4. Thank you for commenting! Yes, French is good for delicate words and for describing majestic and dignified things. Even 'Président de la République' sounds impressive to this hopelessly fervent monarchist.

    Sorry that you are ill - I hope you are better now, rather than the other thing! Unfortunately this blog has no known medicinal properties.


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