Autumn in France: What’s Going Down This Fall

The French, of Course, Have a Word for It

September 13, 2016By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
ParisUpdate CestIronique-RentreeCollage
What’s this “tree” thing that everybody keeps talking about?

As anyone who has studied linguistics, or read this sentence, knows, every language contains words that cannot be translated directly into other languages with a single-term equivalent. For example, the French have a seven-letter word, frileux, that means “sensitive to the cold.” And in English we have the term “Trump,” which can only be translated into French as “Qui? Lui? Vraiment? Vous êtes stupides ou quoi?”

I’m no linguist, but I imagine that these small words that pack in so much meaning represent the things that are most important to the culture. Consider the French culinary term terroir, which (no kidding) means: “The entire array of interdependent natural factors, including soil, climate, sunlight, etc., that lend a given wine or food product its distinctive flavor and character.”

Given my adopted country’s (laudable, exemplary) obsession with high-quality food and drink, it’s no surprise that they cooked up such a word.

And, of course, there are other concepts that can be expressed in a single word in French but require a whole phrase in English. While searching my brain and the Internet (mostly the Internet — the brain’s still in beta) for such terms, I couldn’t help but notice that, cherry-picked and placed in order, they read like a checklist for a hot date:

Endimanché: dressed in one’s Sunday best.

Décolleté: low-cut neckline.

Baisemain: a kiss on the hand.

Roucouler: to bill and coo.

Amoureux or amoureuse: person in love.

Galocher: to engage in French kissing.

Bander: since Paris Update is a family-safe publication (especially since March 17, 2014), I will merely explain here that bander is a verb, only men can do it, and you can’t say it in English in less than three words. And it is frequently preceded, if not induced, by galoche-ing.

All this from the language in which the word for “ninety” is quatre-vingt-dix — literally “four-twenty-ten” (again, no kidding).

But there’s another short, implication-filled word that, in September, looms larger in the French collective consciousness than even food, wine and sex: rentrée, a noun meaning “the return to work and/or school after vacation.”

Since almost everyone in France takes the entire month of August off, the resumption of routine in early September is seen as the biggest turning point of the year, accompanied by even more anxiety, stress and, I am willing to bet, alcohol abuse than New Year’s.

This, needless to say, is a boon for journalists. (Not the alcohol abuse, but the turning point.) (Well, actually, both.)

Always happy to have a readymade topic handed to them by God or the Gregorian calendar, just about every newspaper and magazine weighs in at this time of year with an article on “what’s new for the rentrée.” From one of them, I learned that as of September 1, 2016:

• A regulation goes into effect requiring new apartment buildings in France to be equipped with a fiber-optic hookup. My guess is that this is in response to skyrocketing real-estate prices: fiber-optic Internet access will be a necessity for streaming virtual-reality content when the average Parisian apartment shrinks to the size of a pod in a Japanese capsule hotel.

• Another regulation goes out of effect that used to require schoolchildren to have a certificate from a doctor to allow them to participate in physical education classes. This is one of the many things that make me wish I had grown up in France instead of the United States, where, when I was a kid, you needed a doctor’s note not to participate in physical education, of which I hated every nanosecond.

Of course, if I had been in France, my doctor would have given me a participation certificate, but I hear that they are printed on very slick, glossy paper and can easily slip right out of your hands when you least expect it, especially around sewer drains.

• Speaking of school, the amount of time that French high school students spend in the classroom has been shortened this rentrée to 26 hours per week. That’s five hours and 12 minutes a day, Monday through Friday. Which is about how much time I used to spend dreading P.E.

• The nationally fixed price of natural gas has gone up by 0.1 percent for households that use gas only for cooking — about nine cents per month on an average monthly gas bill of €92. It’s a good thing they announced this, because otherwise who would have noticed?

Since I already have a fiber-optic connection, an all-electric kitchen and no plans to go back to school (even though I really miss towel snapping), none of these changes affect me at all. But there is one more new rentrée development that has definitely been making a difference in my life since September 1:

• French spammers have gone insane.

I say this because, instead of the slow but annoying trickle of one or two spams per hour that I used to get, now I’m getting massive salvos of unsolicited ads with multiple messages arriving all at once and — get this — at least two, but often three or four, identical messages bunched together.

Here’s what my inbox has looked like since the beginning of the month:

ParisUpdate CestIronique-Inboxwithmultispams

What is the logic here? I always thought that the whole point of salesmanship was to imagine what goes on in the potential customer’s mind. But if that’s true, then the French marketing wizards must imagine that we’re all thinking like this:

“The problem with spam isn’t that it bombards me with irksome advertisements for stuff that I’ll never buy — it’s that I just don’t see enough of it! A single isolated message makes me hate spammers for wasting my life and bandwidth while increasing my risk of mouse-induced RSI, but seeing the same spam three times puts me into a euphoric trance that makes me want to buy 10 of whatever they’re selling. Just like I finally realized that ‘Walk much?’ is a really clever, witty thing to say after the 2,000th time I heard it.”

Still, there was one silver lining to this particular mushroom cloud of marketing gone mad: at least the multi-spams weren’t from La Boutique du Plaisir.

Any reader with a French e-mail account knows what I’m talking about: for the past two years or so, the most annoying, and annoyingly persistent, spammer of all in France has been an online store called La Boutique du Plaisir — “The Pleasure Shop.”

Since Paris Update has not changed its family-friendly policy since I started writing this article, I cannot describe in detail the kind of wares that this retailer specializes in, but they are decidedly not family-oriented. Which might seem paradoxical since they are intended to incite the particular kind of activity that leads to the creation of families in the first place.

According to French law, every e-mail ad has to have an opt-out option allowing recipients to take their addresses off the mailing list. And indeed, virtually all of them comply, usually by burying a link marked “click here to unsubscribe” in the small print at the end.

I usually do click there when I receive a French spam, and it usually works — except for La Boutique du Plaisir. I have unsubscribed from this titillation mill no fewer than 68 times (yes, I kept track), but the ads for their “sexy” products — crotchless Métro-driver uniforms, Nutella-flavored massage oils, performance enhancers and, ah, what you might call “performance replacers” — just keep coming.

Sort of like the people depicted in their… Oh, never mind. As I said, when the spamstorm started in early September, at first I consoled myself with the comforting thought that at least I wasn’t seeing a barrage of sex toy ads every five minutes.

Call it fate (because I’d hate to think it’s karma), but finally, on September 9, I opened my inbox and saw this:

ParisUpdate CestIronique-Boutique-du-Plaisir-Five-Spams

Yes, five identical messages from five different “senders” (the addresses are all machine-generated variations) so I have to unsubscribe from each one individually. As though it would be any more effective than their pheromone air freshener.

Judging from their steadfast refusal to leave me alone, La Boutique du Plaisir must think that there’s something missing in my life. Actually, they’re right, but it’s not the products they offer. What I long for is a single French word that means “Delete me right now from all of your mailing lists forever or I’m going to take your Emperor-Size Double-Wide Cordless Orga-Enhancer and shove it right up your…”

Oh wait — bad idea. I wouldn’t want to give them the pleasure.

Footnote: My thanks go out to Alex Wynne Hauet, whose French vocabulary expertise proved pivotal in the preparation of this article.

Shoesolenote (or whatever comes under a footnote): The next C’est Ironique will appear on September 28.


© 2016 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

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