Stupid Boy

One of the hardest things about living in any foreign country is, of course, the language. Seriously, learning any language is really hard I’m sure, but anyone who can master French, who wasn’t pushed from the womb and spent their lifetime in an all-French speaking environment, I take my chapeau off to you. For the rest of us, it’s a challenge. Even the most mundane task, like writing a check, often requires a consultation with le dictionnaíre.

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English ain’t so easy either. And perhaps, inadvertently, they’re closer to the truth.

Last week, for example, I was looking for hand lotion (sans le dictionnaíre). As I combed the aisles at Monoprix, I finally found the moisturizer aisle, lined with lots of pretty pink and white bottles. So I picked a few up, reading the labels. After a careful reading and I finally found one that seems like what I was looking for, “Hmmm, that seems about right,” I thought to myself. As I go, I notice I’m getting some strange looks from the women milling around me, but assume it’s because they’re not used to people reading the labels of moisturizers as if they were Camus. As I make my way to the caisse, the cashier, while standing in line, I re-read the label, picking up a line on the label noting the lotion I’m toting around was intended for cleansing, um, shall we say, ‘intimate areas’. And presumably not for men.

(And even if I was, do you think I’d share that with you here?)

So it was no wonder that I got a few strange looks going back, trying to be non-chalant, and returning it to the shelf avoiding eye-contact with anyone in the process.

I’ve gotten in so much trouble mangling the language it’s no longer funny (well, actually it is…) One of my most infamous stories, that I think I may have recounted here before, I was at my favorite épicerie and I wanted red currant, or groseille jam.
So in my picture-perfect French, I said, “Je voudrais le confiture de gros selles (which I pronounced as ‘gross sells’), s’il vous plait.” She looked at me, her eyes incredulous that she couldn’t possibly believe her ears.
It was after a moment, I realized I meant groseilles (pronounced ‘gro-zay’).
I had asked for Big Turd Jam.

But even the French have trouble with their own language. I was at the Petit Palais museum recently with a gal pal (see video above), and came across a Nature Morte, which literally translates to ‘Dead Nature’, but actually means ‘Still Life’. There was one Nature Morte ‘aiguière’, a still life of a peeled orange. So I asked the attendant what an ‘aiguière was, and she was stumped. So she asked another attendant, who didn’t know either. It’s not even in my dictionary, which boasts 120,000 traductions. (Béa…help!)

About a year ago, I had just returned for leading a tour to Italy. My group visited Biella, a city famous for its mountaintop convent. One you’ve made the climb up to the majestic mountain, ensconced in the convent is a Madonna, made of black wood. She’s known, of course, as The Black Madonna (not to be confused with the Jewish Madonna, in America.)

At a dinner party back in Paris, I was recounting how exciting it was to climb this mountain in Italy, to see the ‘Verge noir’.
“It’s amazing, so beautiful to see,” I continued, “and people came from all over to see and worship the verge noir!”

Meanwhile, everyone’s looking at me with a bit of shock, and panic. As I keep talking, I’m explaining the beauty and magnificence of le verge noir. “It’s fantastic. Really a magnificent work of art”, until a friend leans over and says that he thinks I mean the magnificent ‘vierge noir’, the black virgin.

Not the magnificent ‘verge noir’, the black penis.

Ahem!

So I took it with a grain of salt when a French friend started calling me “Stupid boy!, which I told him was somewhat impolite. Then I realized what he meant to say, perhaps, was “Silly boy.” Or I hope he meant to say that.
Now to Anglophones, they are two very different things, but to a non-native English speaker, they’re rather different in meaning. “Don’t be stupid” is far different than “Don’t be silly.”

And, yes, sometimes even I am a stupid boy. For example, I know very little about some things, like Armagnac.
But the great thing about being a wonderful, giving, and caring person, is that occasionally you get rewarded for it and lavish gifts get bestowed upon thee.
Or me.

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The Best Armagnac in the World

After leading a Paris Chocolate Tour last spring, some of my guests bestowed upon me these lovely bottles of Armagnac. Of course, I was thrilled especially since the packaging revealed they were from Michel Chaudun’s chocolate shop and one had a lovely box of his superb chocolates discreetly hidden inside. But I wasn’t aware of how truly special those bottles were. When I wrote Kate about them, who lives in Gascony (the epicenterfor Armagnac), I could hear the gasp all the way to Paris, and she told me that I didn’t just have “the best”, but that I had “the best of the best”.

Living in France, I like to try a new cheese, wine, or whatever I can get my hands on (except tripe, which I don’t feel any great need to familiarize myself with), tasting new things while mulit-tasking and expanding my vocabulary. And although I thought my precious bottles of Armagnac might remain on my Too Good To Use shelf, they didn’t for very long.

So I may be a ‘Stupid Boy’, but I do know about baking and chocolate. And so you’re not a ‘Stupid Boy’ (or girl) you might want to know that Champagne Chocolate Truffles don’t contain any Champagne, but are made with Cognac. I got into an online tiff on eGullet with someone who insisted I was wrong (and some of those eGullet folks get real nasty). She had seen a New York-based French chocolatier on television pour Champagne into his truffle mix. When I went to look at his recipe, sure enough, he did use true Champagne. He also called for a specific brand, and after some checking, I found out…surprise!…the Champagne company is one of his many sponsors.

But for the most part, Champagne in truffles means Cognac and derives from the old French term champaigne which means ‘open-field’, according to the Bureau National Interprofessional du Cognac.
(If that woman from eGullet is reading this, take it up with them, girlfriend…)

Both Armagnac and Cognac are distillations made from grapes, varieties which are generally not used for making ordinary table wine. Like Cognac, Armagnac is a region in France. It’s closely associated with Gascony and it’s cuisine (prunes and Armagnac, for example) and produced in the Pyrenees.

Cognac is farther north, on the Atlantic coast, near where oysters are farmed off the Ile de Ré. The salt from the region is famous as well. Armagnac is distilled once, while Cognac is distilled twice and I find when tasting the two, Armagnac feels more rugged to me, which is part of its appeal. Its flavors seems to be fuller and more complex while Cognac is more delicate and refined. It’s been said that “Cognac is the girl you can bring home to meet your parents, while Armagnac is the one you keep hidden away.”

So if I was making chocolate Champagne Truffles, theoretically I’d have to use fine Cognac. But if I had a choice of what to drink, I’m working my way through these bottles of Armagnac, which I’ve decided I’m not going to let sit on the self for too long.

What do you think I am…stupid?

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Parisian Culture, Whining

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33 comments

  • With all that armagnac, you should start carrying a flask. It would make trips to the museum even more fun, non?

  • Of course you are not “stupide”! Language is a great way to have good laughters, isn’t it? I get my share in the Shakespeare language. Sam ( yes yes the very Sam from Becks&Posh) made a lovely one yesterday, when she commented on a pic of mine on Flickr. SO CUTE. Talking about lemonade, she wrote “sans boules” (which is what she would have said in her cute English accent speaking French, you know the problem of the “u” sound that becomes “ou”) instead of “sans bulles” (non-sparkling). I loved it!

    And to come to your rescue my dear David-boy, une aiguière is a “water vase” (vase for water), most of the time made in a precious metal, with a handle and a spout.

  • And I forgot to mention that “sans boules” means “without balls”.

  • Me again! By “vase” I meant “jug”! &^^%&^%^& English!

  • Thanks for another great posting!

    Who was the artist and what was the song on that fun YouTube video?

    Thanks!

  • Michele: I did have a flask. Didn’t you see me sneak some into our coffee?

    Béa: If that what Sam’s putting in her lemonade, no wonder Fred likes her so much!

    Deb: Don’t know…you’ll have to ask the director herself.

  • David, the word aiguillere is from the verb aiguiller. You can see the translations into English at the page below. None of them made any sense to me in the current context, but maybe you can figure it out.

    http://www.wordchamp.com/lingua2/Word.do?wordID=118160&pronunciationID=223935

  • Back from vacation today to see your site is brimming with inspirational posts! I guess I should tell you about having asked a butcher (whom I no longer frequent) if his sausages were made with preservatifs… It was an innocent mistake but I will never forget how red his ears became and how his double chin lurched forth and trembled as his face twiched ever so slightly to the side. Hmm, no it does not translate directly, preservatifs are not those chemical agents we sometimes see added to preserve the freshness of food products, in French the word translates to condoms. Imaging asking a butcher if he uses condoms in his sausage production. He had no sense of humor either. But that was my first year here and I have left him behind.

    Soon after that, we were preparing a move, and my mother in law asked me if we were finished with the preparatifs, meaning the preparations, and I felt a twinge of embarrasment and fear and as if something naughty had been said and I completely lost my ability to speak at all. She just wrote it off as one of those ‘foreign daughter in law moments’ but for days I was complexed about it.

    On to reading – I have another day of vacation and I will catch up with all of your beautiful and interesting posts since I’ve been down on the beach.

  • Aiguillère. Nope, this was my incorrect assumption that you had goofed on the spelling. Actually, yes, there is a verb ‘aiguiller’, which appears to be unrelated, but there is no word ‘aiguillère’ – my bad.

    In any event, I wasn’t satisfied with my own non-explanation above, so I actually pulled out my old Harrap’s.

    Aiguière, as you correctly spelled it, has its own listing and means ‘aiguière’ in English. (No, really.) That was the first meaning given. The second is ‘(silver or crystal) ewer’. In English, a ‘ewer’ is a vase-shaped pitcher or jug. (I didn’t know that!)

    Oh! Here’s the French Wikipedia entry! http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aiguière

    Excerpt: “Une aiguière est un récipient doté d’une anse et d’un bec destiné à contenir de l’eau et à la servir. Ce mot ancien est surtout utilisé de nos jours pour désigner des objets d’art. On utilise plutôt les termes de cruche, de pichet ou encore de carafe pour désigner nos vases à eau contemporains.”

    Literally it’s a carafe, but apparently it connotes ‘art object’.

    And oh, what one will find with Google. There is a restaurant in Paris called L’Aiguière. http://www.l-aiguiere.com/

  • One more post on the subject, I couldn’t resist.

    Etymology of ‘ewer’ is a cognate of ‘eau': Middle English, from Anglo-French ewer, ewier, from Latin aquarium water source, neuter of aquarius of water, from aqua water.

    FWIW.

  • FWIW.

    Aiguilère also has the same source as ewer, I’d bet. (The Latin aqua.)

    Please file this under ‘Vitally Important Facts’.

  • It’s good you have a great sense of humor to 1) go through of these awkward situations and 2) to right them down on your blog, in front of many more witnesses!! I was wondering, though, did you speak/write French before you came to Paris?

  • I have one thought: Prune and Armagnac Ice Cream. Lots of it…..

  • Just so you know, it is “crème pour les mains”, as simple as that!
    You never stop to make me smile in your notes, thanks for the read and please, stay as silly as you can, this is sooo cute :)

  • Hello,

    Im a brazilian girl who has laugh a lot with your story about how difficult its to learn a new language (pardon me, if i make so mistakes..Im still learning..). I lived similar situatins when I was in England, and I must say, this are the things that make us remember for ever how good it was pass thru all of that.

    I hope you dont make any more silly mistakes, but if you do, please let us know! You will do lots of people smille.

    Kisses,

    Patricia

  • Hi David
    Really enjoyed your post again…
    Love the little video! =)
    It’s only logical to make mistakes when you’re trying to speak a completely different language (and a bit funny…)
    I think you’re very brave; when I was in France I didn’t get much further than bonjour, merci and sil vous plait…=) (!)

  • David, green is MY coloUr too. (I see that you might have the same shirt on in the video that you do on your website photo). Tee hee.

  • You could make some vanilla armagnac ice cream ala barefoot contessa( my best gay male friend calls her Ina Vagina). What made you decide to move to France and are you there for good?

    We’re lucky here in Canada, I’ve learned french just by reading product labels.

  • When I lived in Bordeaux I stumbled into a hardware store after a hellish night being kept awake by mice in my apartment literally running across my bed.

    I meant to ask the clerk if she had anything to kill mice (une souris) and instead asked her if she had anything that could kill a smile (un sourire).

  • Hi David,
    I absolutely don’t think you’re stupid. I just wanted to say thanks for visiting my blog. Truly I’m honored. It’s been finding your things on the netscape food site. This post reminds me of some experiences I had in China where I observed quite a few signs translated into fractured english.

  • Loved the video, the vase caught our attention, proportioned, pleasingly balanced in form.

  • That is HILARIOUS. I love stories like that. I teach college French and always tell my classes about when I was a young student in France and told my family I didn’t want any more to eat because I was “pleine”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t “knocked up”, I was “full” and was translating it perfectly from English. Live and learn…

    There are great stories like yours in David Sedaris’s “Me Talk Pretty One Day”.

    Lesley

  • Thanks so much for the Armagnac primer. I have a good friend from college whose brother is (seriously) named Armagnac. They call him Army for short, by the way. I always knew it was a brandy, but that’s about it. Now I’ll have to try a sip or five. My friend (Armagnac’s sister) is named Strawberry (also serious). Their sister is named Cream. And yes, I’m telling you the God’s honest truth. You can’t say their parents didn’t appreciate a nice dessert. Fortunately for these kids, they grew up in Bolinas, CA in the 1970’s (big surprise) and so their names didn’t elicit stares or teasing when the teacher called roll every day: “Lotus Blossom?” “Present.” “Morning Star?” “Present.” “Strawberry….” You get the idea.

  • If I recall, there is also delicious foie gras from Armagnac, aussi!

    I can recall multiple faux pas from my year in France, oh so many (25) years ago! I heard the word “degueulasse” used frequently to refer to unpalatable things, and I thought that it sounded much more elegant than “degoutant”. I learned quickly that it was not so elegant, since the verb degueuler basically means to barf!

    But what made my fellow “lyceens” laugh the most was my pronunciation. I remember attempting to pronounce the word “statue” in the following manner: “sta-CHOO”, the English pronunciation with a little French flair (emphasis on the last syllable). After gales of laughter ensured, I realized the the CHOO would have be replaced by a sharp “TU.” And I needed to work those vowels over and over again; very different from the English post vowel shift ones!

  • I once asked for a ‘dozen Thursday’s’ in Spanish. The words sound so similar and yet the blank looks are so common… A friend had a similar experience looking for a ‘virgin’ for his house (you know, for the little nook over the door) I actually think the other translation would have looked better….
    The sad thing is I don’t even know how many amusing (or shocking) stories I have provided the neighborhood….but I keep trying…

  • Oh man, this makes me think of many a story from French class. One of my friends accidentally got the words for sweatpants and pantyhose mixed up and said that he jogs in pantyhose. Also, for the record, the song in the video is “Title And Registration” by Death Cab for Cutie, which is also one of my favorite bands. I was lucky enough to see them live on Friday in Berkeley!

  • This post made me laugh a lot! Your “infamous stories” were really awesome, although I can understand how you must have felt after understanding the real meaning of your misspronounciations ;-)!!!

    Being a French speaker (In Switzerland), I know what you mean when you say that this language is quite difficult (even for me!). I also have to use my dictionnary quite often… So don’t worry, because I’m sure that you are getting on very well considering the complexity of the language.

  • Just discovered your blog,which is phantastique. I enjoy it immensely, particularly so since I lived in Paris for many years and miss it so.

    Just a comment on a post from November last: the Kugelhof cake is actually a Gugelhupf, an Austrian/German classic.

    Tremendous congratters and don’t stop blogging please.

  • David-
    This reminds me of an old pal who, when he first moved to Paris, went into a health food store looking for beet juice. He innocently asked for “jus de ‘beets'” which came out as “jus de bites” not realizing that “bite” is the word for the male, er, appendage. Fortunately, the owner thought it was hilarious and through his choking laughter called his son from the back room so that my friend could repeat his request.
    And I once went into a men’s haberdashery looking for suspenders but mistakenly asked for a garter belt…
    Cheers– haapi

  • My “Petit Robert” says that the origin of “aiguière” lies in the Provençal word “aiguiera” (14th century) and the latin “aquaria”.

  • You’re not not nuts! I agree with you! (although I am nuts! LOL)

  • David, I am neophyte to this blogging world but I have arrived at your venerable site via farmgirl Susan,I am a relative of her farmguy. My wife and I are planning a trip to Paris in Sept and the info contained in your Paris section seems that it would be invaluable. We will definitely be checking it out, and I will keep reading.Thanks Vince

  • David, I haven’t laughed so hard since I read Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One day, mentioned above!! Your language run-ins are really the best I’ve heard in a LONG time!

    I’ve enjoyed visiting your site over the past few months, and I think this is the first time I’ve commented. I just had to say something… I live here in France, just outside Paris actually (for the time being anyway) and I work in the city. Even as an expatriate living here, it’s good to get tips and hints of new places to visit for culinary, gastronomical experiences — or just for sheer pleasure!

    I just wish I wasn’t such a novice in the kitchen myself… I hope someday to be able to cook a bit better, but one has to start somewhere, right?

    Merci mille fois !