Friday, July 26, 2013

Three words I love in the French language

What I love about French, is that there are certain words and phrases that simply don't translate squarely and adequately into English. Here are three of my favourites:

1. Bon appetit

When I'm dining in the company of French people, we will always say to each other "Bon app!", before eating. Sometimes they will ask me what the equivalent words are in Australia. Perhaps "Enjoy!", "Dig in!" or "Let's eat some bloody fuckin' tucker!" could be considered as similar, but I'm always disappointed to admit that no single expression is widely used to start a meal in Australian culture.

This is one of my favourite phrases because when you wish somebody "Bon appetit", you are saying to that person "I hope you have a good appetite", or to put it more simply, "I hope that you are hungry." And it seems a fairly odd thing to want for somebody, doesn't it? As if you are wishing somebody ill, for them to suffer, almost. Because in my personal opinion, to be hungry (particularly when your fridge is empty and the supermarket is closed) is to endure unbearable suffering.

But this little expression holds the secret to enjoying food. You cannot enjoy eating if you are already full. You cannot experience the satisfaction of feeding your hunger if you had none to begin with. You are wishing that person a good appetite so that they will enjoy their experience of eating all the more.

And in a similar way, life is nothing unless you are empty in some way. It is the emptiness, the hungriness, that makes us search for what we lack, that makes us move and grow and discover what we've been missing. And when you find what it is you've been searching for, it tastes a thousand times sweeter, because you were hungry for it.

2. Tu vas me manquer

It makes me cringe to think about how many times I intended to say, "I will miss you!" to a French-speaking person, but actually said to them: "You will miss me!" in my first few years of learning the language. In English, the verb "to miss" is comes before the object of the verb. For example:

"I miss you."

However, in French, the order is reversed. This is because the verb "manquer" translates into "to be missing", like the way a jigsaw piece is missing from a puzzle, or a man with a missing leg. You have something that is complete, and the component that you take away is missing. So, the above phrase in French would be:

"Tu me manques."

Which directly translates into: 

"You are missing from me."

In a week's time, I will be leaving France, and I won't be coming back for a while. I actually thought I had left for good three weeks ago, when I left for Italy. I spent two weeks there, and had intended to continue on from Pisa towards the capital, when I met someone who was going in the opposite direction to me, towards Spain, passing through the south of France. And just like that, I scrapped my plans to see Siena, Rome and Naples and took a 12-hour long train journey with him, back to Toulon.

Even though I was loving Italy, even though I was meeting amazing people, having a blast, even though I was eating pizza, pasta and gelato daily, something was missing. I didn't just miss France. France was missing from me. It had become a part of me - the culture and the people and the food and the language, all of it. Everything about France had gotten under my skin, and because I wasn't there, I felt hollow. And it will stay that way when I return to Australia and struggle to find a good baguette, cry over the price of cheese and realise that I am very, very far away from all the lovely French people I've met this year.

This is where the third expression comes in.

3. Au revoir

If you look up this word in a dictionary, it will show up with the English meaning: "Goodbye". However, a direct translation would be more like: "Until the next time that we see each other."

I like this. I like the thought that even though it might be the last time two people see each other, the words that they are uttering imply that some time in the future, they will meet again. The English word "Goodbye" seems so abrupt, so final, so sad.

So next week, when I cross over the border between Italy and France near Ventimiglia, I'll look out the window of my train carriage, but I won't be saying "goodbye". I will look back as the train continues on and say "Au revoir", because I know that one day soon, I'll be back.

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