Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad

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Des Légumes et Des Herbes

sand carrots

Sand Carrots – 21 May 2016

Grocery shopping varies by country, of course.  Mostly it all makes sense, but sometimes it’s over the top.  The “Carrotte des Sables” (sand carrots) look like they were just plucked from the ground. What are they for?  With the lovely ordinary carrots below, do shoppers buy them to eat?  Are they decorative? Is there some “Fête des mères” ritual (as I write, it is French Mother’s Day) that they’re a part of?  Is it in honor of the Paris-Plage?  Central Paris isn’t exactly farm country or I’d speculate about animal feed.  Part of the oddness is that it’s a small store with limited selection … yet they use a good bit for, uh, sand carrots. Huh. (Scratches head.)

With a bit more care I might have captured more in the photo.  You can see the celery; lots more of the leaves left on here.  Can’t see the cauliflower (choufleur) is super leafy; half the take-home ends up in the trash.  Same with the leeks (poireaux) to the right. When I’ve bought leeks at the outdoor markets, the vendor will typically ask if you want the tops cut off.  Someone must occasionally say “no?”.  Leeks, as well as shallots, are available pretty much anywhere, even at the tiny epicerie (“7/11”) 50 meters from our front door.  Some unexpected options, like the celery root (celeriac upper right).  On the other hand, usually just one kind of hot pepper.

More pre-packaged options are available than our 2010 trip. Better cHerbesleaned and trimmed than the unpacked stuff, maybe 75% of a US expat’s ready-to-eat expectation.  Occasional grit or pebbles or “des mauvaise herbes” may turn up, as with this packet of “epinards” our gardienne (who we hire to do our main weekly shopping) brought home from the big Monoprix kitty-corner to the Abbey of Saint‑Germain‑des‑Prés.  Hmm,  come to think of it, “des Prés” means “of the meadows,” and it was estalished, you know, just 1.5 millenia back when what’s now Central Paris was basically farm land. Fairly likely that for 75% of the history of parishioners, the local markets offered “sand carrots.”  So maybe I should show a little respect?




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Douze & Dont of Chicken’s Milk


Le Hibou, at 14 Carrefour de l’Odeon, Paris 6th

For many reasons, learning to speak French (and understand spoken French) is difficult for English speakers. Leaving aside grammatical things like word gender, 24 verb tenses (of which “only” 6 or 8 are commonly used), verb conjugation and the distinction between formal “you” and informal “you”, etc, etc, I’ll just comment on some challenges with pronunciation.  BTW, I should mention that although I think I’ve got most of these rules right, I half-expect my son, who is far more fluent than I am, to point out some error in this post.  Potential corrections notwithstanding, here are several items that conspire on this front to make understanding (and being understood) difficult for English speakers:

  1. French has several vowel sounds that are unfamiliar in English
  2. French has no pattern of syllable emphasis to signal where words begin and end
  3. Consonants at the end of words, such as a pluralizing ‘s’, are often silenced
  4. A silent consonant is often spoken if the next word starts with a vowel
  5. Spoken French uses lots of contractions
  6. The French ‘h’ may be ‘aspirated’ or ‘mute’, affecting contractions and liaisons

3365440316560_100_l-homme-yves-saint-laurent-eau-de-toilette-vaporisateur_Alt1You can see the difference between the aspirated and mute ‘h’ in some titles.  The restaurant above called  “Le Hibou” (“the owl”) shows the aspirated ‘h’; you pronounce the name with three syllables: “luh eeboo”.  If the ‘h’ were not there (i.e. mute), then you would use the rule that applies when a single noun starts with a vowel: you would contract the article with the noun.  The image on the left shows the Yves Saint Laurent scent titled “the man”.  The ‘h’ is mute, so instead of ‘le homme’, you contract to L’homme.  It is pronounced as one syllable, between “lum” and “loam” (or, if they feel like vocalizing the final “e”,  LUMMuh.)

Most English speakers learning French (myself included) tend not to notice the distinctions between the French vowel sounds, hearing instead one of our familiar vowel sounds. Consider the following French words and contractions:

  1. Douze
  2. Deux
  3. D’Eu
  4. D’eux
  5. D’œufs
  6. De
  7. Doux
  8. D’où
  9. D’houx
  10. Dieu
  11. Du
  12. Dont

The words above are rather easy for the newby French speaker to confuse.  It’s not helped by the fact that several of the words are actually supposed to be pronounced exactly alike, and some will vary depending on whether the following word starts with a vowel or a mute ‘h’. So, “douze” (“twelve”) is said like “dooz” (or “do’s”).  “Deux” (two) is sorta between “duh” and “doo” (to me, it sounds like the German “ö” that I learned in high school).  The “x” is not pronounced… unless the next word starts with a vowel or mute ‘h’. When you say “Deux heure” (2 o’clock), the “h” is mute, so the “x” is said like a “z”, so it can easily sound like 12 o’clock. So if you’re not careful, someone may say 2pm, but you think they mean noon or vice versa.  One way to avoid confusion on the times is to use the words “midi” (noon) or “quatorze” (14) for 2pm.


Le Chateau d’Eu (wikimedia user:Alex1011)

The word “de” (“of” or “from”) is also pronounced basically the same as “deux” except generally shorter in duration.  “Doux” (soft or mild), “d’où” (from where) and  “D’houx” (mistaken contraction of the two words “of” and “holly”) are all pronounced like “dew”. “D’houx” is a mistaken contraction because the “h” in “houx” is “aspirated”, and thus I should not have contracted it. Instead, it should be written “de houx” and pronounced, roughly, “duh oo”.  So, sorry, trick question.The words “d’Eu” (“from Eu“, really), “d’eux” (“of them”) and “d’œufs” (of eggs) are all pronounced the same as “deux”.  Note that the “f” in “œuf” is pronounced when singular, but not when plural.

“Dieu” (God) is pronounced roughly like “d’yuh”.  “Du” (“of the” replacing “de le” but not “de la”) and “dû” (past tense of “devoir”, that means “to have to”) are pronounced the same. The vowel sound is close to the German “ű” (as in űber). Shape your lips to say “oo” then make an “ee” sound. Yeah, learned that in high school, too. (Perhaps I should mention that the circumflex mark on the “û” is now optional, so both forms can now be written as “du”.)   “Dont” (“which”) is pronounced “doh(n)” and only included cuz it’s in the title.

Of course, these are only the words that start with “d” and have a sound that, to “Laze Americah(n)”, resembles “oo”.  Similar challenges arise with other consonants and vowel sounds especially when the trailing consonants go silent.  “Lait” (milk) and “Les” (plural “the”) both sound like “lay” to me.

Last year, when Kiddo was already fluent, Nilofer and I would ask him to use his French so we could practice.  Once he said some sentence that we couldn’t follow and asked him to repeat it more than once.  We were stuck… Could kind of make out “puh” or “poo” (could be “peut”, or “can” or “peu” as in a “bit”) and “lay” would could be “lait” or “les”?  Could be “poulet” (chicken meat) Or, maybe we were splitting the words wrong!  “Poule” is a live chicken… maybe, um, “Poule lait”?  Yeah, I actually said “chicken’s milk” out loud in case, he might have said that. Turns out, no.  This was frustrating, but at least some hilarity was had at my expense.  I have no memory of what he actually said but we continue to say “chicken’s milk” whenever we horribly mangle an interpretation.

By the way, learning to write well in French also turns out be rather difficult for other reasons than understanding and speaking French.  Sometimes it is best to think of French as two languages; one spoken, one written.  Which of course just adds to the joy!  Butt, two bee fare, wee dew no that learning English is naught a peace of cake four others.

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Thump thump thump

Paris has a rhythm and a musical tradition.  You can hear the music in the birds singing their pretty message with a sense of urgency.  That’s kinda cute and uplifting.  And there’s music in the 5pm car horns when folks want to get somewhere but a van has parked not-quite-far-enough onto the sidewalk. Early thump thumpcars slip past but the first good-sized truck must stop and wait, typically with patient kindred sympathy for the delivery guy.  Now all traffic piles up behind the truck, and those folks are not nearly so sympa. This traffic music is not entirely pleasant, but tolerable, coming once or twice a week and lasting only a few minutes.

For the last 2 weeks, we have been getting a new tune that is very heavy on the bass, and even less endearing than car horns.  Our apartment is next door to (roughly) the Office of Veterans Affairs.  This institution has a biggish courtyard that, apparently, is soon going to be home to a whole new building.  This means a near-constant jack-hammering with other ground-shaking instruments chiming in on a regular basis.  At first we shrugged it off… probably just some big plumbing job. After all, they’re always upgrading gaz pipelines or whatever.

Uh, no.

To me, the first hint of a longer term project was the appearance, earlier this week, of vertical posts in the roadway, as shown in the above picture.  This portends the construction of a kind of semi-permanent elevated project management office such as the one shown below (I cropped from this image on Google StreetView) on Saint Dominque across from the Dominos Pizza (did they cleverly pick the STemporary proj mgmt officet Dom’s address?) near the Esplanade des Invalides. If I’m right about the elevated project office, then the thumpa-thumpa construction disco beat will probably continue right up till our departure. <sigh>

One amusing thing (hey, I’m easy)… the temporary yellow-striped crosswalk in the first photo is in the exact same spot as the temporary yellow crosswalk that was removed 3 months ago.  That came in after our apartment tour but before our arrival, necessitated by a massive building renovation across the street which finished up late last year.  Temporary is the new normal in Paris.  Wonder when they will finish.  We’ll check in on it in future visits (how could we miss a quick peek at our former grounds?), or maybe just text our soon-to-be-former gardienne for an update.