As I come up on nearly six months of living here in Lyon, I'm reminded of the various expressions I used to hear in Montpellier, plus a few new ones. I'm not quite as immersed in the language this time around so I definitely have to seek out the opportunity to practice. Still, I manage to pick up a saying or two that makes me smile. The best part about expressions is that more often than not, you can't translate them directly, or if you do, it just sounds silly. On a semi-related side note, I find that the more I work on improving my French, the worse my English gets. Does anyone else know what I'm talking about? A classmate will ask me how to say something in English and I either a.) can't remember/don't know or b.) take a few minutes longer than a native speaker should to respond. Oh la la, c'est compliqué!
1. C'est compliqué. I first heard it on the train when I was moving here last August. It was a million degrees and there was a line of people pushing behind me as I struggled to lift one of my 50-pound suitcases onto the upper shelf. The man behind me watched as I wrestled with the bag for about 5 minutes before finally offering me a hand, giving an exasperated "Oh la la, c'est compliqué!" Hmm, I thought to myself, that's weird. There are many words I would use to describe trying to hoist a suitcase weighing nearly half as much as I do above me head. "Difficult" and "feat of super human strength" come to mind, but not complicated. Expressions like this one that don't translate directly are confusing at first and then mostly funny. Really it's just the fits-all response given when the situation is hard/awkward/delicate or you don't know how else to respond. When Kara was here, we went on a weekend ski trip where we were outnumbered 7:2 by Frenchies. Let's just say there were a lot of oh la las and c'est compliqués. Right, Inham?
2. Chanter en yaourt. I came across this expression in a French magazine. Apparently it refers to singing a song where you don't really know the words but you pretend like you do. Translated directly it's singing in yogurt. I guess it kind of makes sense when you think about it?
3. Bon [fill in the blank]! You've heard of bon appétit, bien sûr, but what about bon film, bon marché or even bon musée? That's right. No matter what the activity, you can be sure that there will always be someone wishing you well in your endeavors. This is one of my favorites.
4. C'est pas faux. This one comes from a popular French comedy series set in medieval times called Kaamelott. In one of the episodes, two of the characters are having a conversation when one of them realizes that the response "c'est pas faux" works in almost every conversation, even when you don't understand what's being said. This is particularly useful for non-native French speakers. Lost in the conversation but sense a response is needed? Just say "c'est pas faux" and 99 percent of the time it works like a charm.
5. Tu m'étonnes! Literally translated, it means "you surprise me." I soon realized that the speaker often means it ironically, in response to a statement that is more or less obvious. As in, "Avoir trop de travail me stress." "Tu m'étonnes!"
Honorable mention goes to any number of statements constructed in the negative, but with a positive connotation. Like:
"Comment ça va?" "Pas mal." // How's it going? Not bad.
On the other hand, if you use terrible in the negative, it actually does mean bad, as in:
"Le café est bon?" "Il est pas terrible" // Is the coffee good? It's nothing special.
Most people will tell you this is a classic French tendency, but I notice the same thing in Minnesota. If you ask someone how it's going, there is a good chance that person will reply with some variation of "Oh, ya know, not too bad." So maybe some of the expressions do translate after all.