Say what?

In today’s fast-paced, politically unstable, shallow, social media-obsessed times, breaking news in the linguistic world rarely garners much mass interest. Often a whimsical nugget might slip through, able to hold the attention of those outside the word-nerd circle like myself, and this month, you lucky, lucky people, is one of those occasions.

The French take their language extremely seriously, so the release of the new 2020 Larousse dictionary on 21st May is pretty high-adrenaline stuff, in a country where an ultra-strict council rules the linguistic culture with an iron fist. The Academie Française is that quite terrifying authority, though what they think of Larousse’s 150 chosen new recruits  – including slasheur (someone exercising more than one profession), bigorexie (addiction to sport), divulgâcher (to divulge TV show spoilers) and the growing cult of adulesence (adults stuck in the teenager phase) – we don’t yet know. Their official dictionary (the ninth) isn’t released until 2021, expected to be an extremely mighty tome, given they began edits of the old one in 1986. They won’t be releasing a pocket version, surely…

Now you may have an idea of a bunch of university professors chugging back the coffee into the night trying to decide on which words on the whiteboard get to grace the hallowed pages. No friends, the reality is far, far fancier than that. Springing from an informal 17th century literary group, the council of words officially came into life in 1635 when bossy-boots chief French minister Cardinal Richelieu decided to create an organisation to protect, preserve and promote the French language. And so the academy began, enjoying unimpeached regulation of grammar, spelling and literature until 1792, when the French Revolution stopped it in its tracks. Napoleon Bonaparte and then Louis XVIII soon restored the good work when the ruckus was over, and since 1816, it has been smooth sailing ever since.

Part of the wider Institut de France, from the original nine members, there are now forty ‘immortals’, as they are officially known (or at least forty available seats; numbers fluctuate due to deaths and new elections). Potential candidates have to apply or be invited, and are then subject to a vote, may be from any profession, and not necessarily a French citizen. Don’t be thinking just knowing a few big words and moving in the right literary circles is enough to get you accepted; some of France’s best minds never made it in (for various reasons) like Sartre, Balzac, Decartes, Molière, Proust, Baudelaire, and Zola, who tried and failed to join a record 25 times. Tough gig. Lucky winners on the other hand counted Voltaire, Hugo, Dumas (fils) and Pasteur, amongst other intellectual heavyweights.

If battling over grammar rules hardly sounds like a good reason to join, then perhaps it’s the uniform that’s tempted so many adroit brains (average age 81, apparently). L’habit vert, worn for formal ceremonies, officially comprises of black trousers or skirt, complete with black tailcoat richly embossed with elaborate green leaf motifs. Those not members of the clergy also get an individually-commissioned ceremonial sword, though with the uniform alone rumoured to be around €50,000 (paid by for the candidate themselves), you’ll have to be rich and brainy to make the cut (ha).

But it’s the metaphorical sword of control that ultimately makes these linguistic guardians so powerful in their secret deliberations (hence no photos of the natty get-up – us mere ‘mortals’ aren’t allowed in). Now meeting every Thursday, they reverentially do battle with French language traditions being threatened by various invaders, most notably those pesky Anglicisms, regional languages and dialects (decisively batted away in 2008) and more modern gender-inclusivity pressures. With Macron pushing for French to overtake English on the worldwide stage, it looks like there won’t be time for the crossword for any of these fine minds anytime in the future…

Institut de France, 23 Quai de Conti, 75006. For more information, click here.


Gut instinct

Kim Brass 3If you’re currently in Paris in this hazy last gasp of July, I’d bet the last slice of Raclette that you’re relaxing languidly in a rattan chair on a terrace somewhere, watching the people go by (and for the uninitiated, at this time of year, they’re not actually Parisians – they’ve all buggered off down south for the holidays, which is probably why you got a chair on the terrace in the first place). If you’re not currently semi-horizontal in France’s capital lazing with a glass in your hand, then I’d raise you my dessert that that’s where you’d actually rather be.

Kim Brass 6And mon dieu haven’t you got a job on your hands trying to decide which particular one to spend your hard-earned euros in? In rattan chair terms, Paris has provided wannabe loungers with an embarrassment of riches (a termed coined by a Frenchman don’t you know), and as many an inhabitant and visitor knows, trying to pin-down the specific markers of establishment quality is as difficult as avoiding a sun-splashed terrace in the first place. Hell, they can’t even seem to decide amongst themselves what names to go under, meaning the capital’s many awnings are stamped with the seemingly interchangeable terms restaurant, café, brasserie and bistro(t). 

Assuming each establishment offers relatively the same thing is as foolhardy as assuming that you’d experience the same level of warm welcome in Paris as you would in Provence (erm, nope). There’s a fine art to this thing, and you’re lucky things that I’m here to give you a hand in negotiating it all.

A restaurant is much the same as you’d expect from most countries in the rest of the world; the most formal of the bunch, with menus depending on the food type and chosen price range of the place. If you’re sucking up to/trying to score with/grovelling your heart out to someone, a restaurant is where you’d head to. If you know what’s good for you.

Kim Brass 4Don’t confuse a café with the greasy spoon type you get in the UK. Easily identified most of the time as there’s often a tabac (peddler of cigs and lottery tickets) attached, here is where you stop for a quick coke-and-toilet stop or a swift espresso before work (and FYI order just a ‘coffee’ and that’s what you’ll get as standard). Beware – prices are cheaper standing at the bar and take a leap higher if you choose to sit (often higher still if that’s on the terrace), and if you’re after more solid refreshment, the most you can hope for is a menu of lighter meals and snacks like omelettes and croque monsieurs.

Kim Brass 2A classic French brasserie used to be a place that brewed its own beer on site, but is now known for its professional service, printed menus, tablecloths and waiters in penguin-esque outfits. Here you’ll find a static menu of classics like steak tartare, confit de canard and andouillette (only for the brave, you have been warned). They tend to serve food all day, and here’s one thing that will BLOW YOUR MIND – some of them are called Le Such-and-Such Café so you’ll have to make sure you pay attention. Stand at the bar waiting for an espresso like a lemon in a brasserie, and you’ll be waiting a very. LONG. TIME. And just to confuse you, there’s a fledging beer scene in France which means that you might also stumble on a micro-brasserie, which doesn’t mean short waiters and tiny portions, but a (hopefully) great selection of Paris-brewed craft beer.

Kim Brass 5Finally, if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, then try a bistro(t), a smaller type of restaurant, often with just one owner or family in charge that specialises in moderately-priced French home cooking like traditional cassoulet or blanquette de veau. Bistros were originally thought to originate from basement kitchens in Parisian apartment blocks, but these days they serve to be some of the quaintest eateries in the city. And if you’re still furrowing your brow in dissatisfaction, then the only places left to go are salons du thé for tea, coffee and cake, or bars for hardcore liquor to toast the highs and the lows of your holiday/afternoon/life.

And if you’re still not content after all of that, then I, nor Paris, can help you…

To be, to do, to have

IMG_3062Dear old January. A vacuum of celebration (and skiing opportunities apparently), where only good intentions and quiet reflection can attempt to fill the void. Most people dream of the path of 2016 paved with virtuous objectives, reflecting on hopes and wishes for the year ahead in a cloud of wide-eyed optimism. Well, I’m not like other people. At the close of this particular festive period, my thoughts have turned towards grammar.

Woah, woah, woah, don’t touch that dial! There’s an awesome point coming I swear it. See normally the differences between my home land and adopted country are blindingly (and mostly) endearingly obvious, but when it comes to auxiliary verbs (i.e. ‘helping’ verbs that are used to make other tenses for those allergic to grammar), we’re like two peas in a pod. Both languages use the duo to be and to have (‘I am writing’ and ‘I have written’ for example), though in the true spirit of English oneupmanship against our ancient Gallic rivals, English also adopts to do to form a happy trio of conjugation.

IMG_3061Seriously, do bear with me, this is going somewhere, I promise. Not just handy linguistic tools I surmised one tropical December day. No, no, no. Delve deeper into the inherent meaning of these three grammatical building blocks and you just might find the meaning of life itself (and it may be hard to believe but no wine was responsible for fuelling these musings). To be, to do, to have – isn’t that what forms the basis of our existence? (As I later discovered in research breaks during pauses in Grey’s Anatomy binges, that’s precisely reason why they’re auxiliary verbs in the first place…)

But somewhere along the line, the batting order has all gone a bit awry in the journey through modern life. Whereas ‘being’ and ‘doing’ used to feed the soul, now ‘having’ is all most of us can think of. Or at least the true nature of having, in that you can feel contented and fulfilled with the things that you already have. That’s been replaced with an insatiable compulsion to fill our lives with more and more, as if possession and consumption are the only ways to measure value.

IMG_3064So top of my 2016 resolution list (yes, I’m not at all embarrassed to admit I still make a ton of these) is to concentrate my efforts on more being and doing, leaving ‘having’ closed up in a static box, like an overused credit card battered and bruised after Christmas spending. And I’m exactly in the right place to do it – maybe one of the reasons the French stuck with an auxiliary twosome is because the concept of ‘being’ is such a huge part of the cultural fabric that an extra recruit wasn’t needed. Sitting in rattan chair on the terrace of a café in Paris watching the world go by? You couldn’t ‘be’ harder or happier than that if you tried.

Sure, have fun, have a bath, have dreams, have hopes. Have sex. Have that extra macaron. But I hope that 2016 brings you memories and experience with presence, appreciation and activity at the core. Take a moment to cast an eye over what you already have and you’ll no doubt realise that you probably already have everything and more that you really need (c’mon, be truly honest here). If you can take care of the being part, I’ll provide you with plenty of things to do over the coming year that will hopefully brighten your time in Paris, whatever your reason for being here. Happy 2016 one and all.

???????????????????????????????Ok, philosophical reflective moment over. It’s 2016, time to get wrestling with that to do list..

(PS. I sincerely promise this will be my last EVER blog post on auxiliary verbs. Brownie’s honour.)

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

IMG_2971For me, Paris has always been a paradox. And one of the reasons why I started this blog was to address exactly that, exploring both the city’s magic and contradictory grit, trying to find both the rough and the smooth in its inner soul. But no paradox can, and I hope never will, be as painfully stark and heartbreaking as what the world saw on Friday 13th November, just a short and life-changing week ago. How can something so horrific have happened in a place so beautiful? How can there be forces so dark at work in the City of Light?

I also started this blog to explore my passion for words, but on this particular occasion, there really are none to employ. I simply don’t have the vocabulary to negotiate the reality, and barely have the feelings to reconcile my mind to the fact that such a heinous act took place in my home city, some of the tragic sites merely 300m or so from my previous addresses, on pavements I used to frequently tread. I can’t imagine there are many who have the cognitive function to even process the events, let alone attempt to comprehend any rhyme or reason behind the tragedy.

'I hope the music's good up there!'

‘I hope the music’s good up there!’

But France has provided us with three words at least, that can begin to offer the faintest glimmer of hope that together the city and the wider community can find a way to suppress the evil and find strength again in grief. Along with an awakening to the true nature of our enemy and of the courage to defeat it, that national triptych ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ helps to lift us through our heavy place of mourning on the path to a future unhindered by such blind hatred.

The seeds of the sentiment were first sown by Robespierre during the French Revolution, when the country only had to look inside itself to find a bloody and destructive enemy. It took two more revolutions for the maxim to be adopted again, but semantic arguments relegated its importance until after the liberation of France post-WWII when it became incorporated into subsequent constitutions. Up until last week, it silently and officially encapsulated the national spirit on the faces of postage stamps and the backs of coins.

Kim motto 2Now it has been immortalised once again as the symbol of unity in the face of a new, modern terror. But it will hold fast as it always has, and infuse our anguished hearts with its message of ‘Freedom, Equality and Fraternity’ and give us the strength to conquer, just as it so powerfully ignited conviction in the past.

They say luck comes in threes. So I’m going to find faith and comfort in France’s semantic trinity, that channels the national spirit through fortune’s chosen number to deliver it’s defiant message. Vive la Republique. Vive la France. Je suis Paris.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Nick Alexander, the dear friend of a dear friend, who will never be forgotten.



(W)all you need is love

Sorry for the late post this week loyal readers, the ‘flu virus I’d been running from finally found me this week, and as we all know, creative juices and evil germs just don’t get on. But Granny Flat has proved herself as an excellent nursemaid, and the clouds of poor health are happily beginning to lift.

Kim wall 3When we’re poorly, all we need is a bit of loving (of the non Fifty Shades kind, steady on). So kudos for all of us who have either ended up in, or been at least once to this most romantic of cities. With Valentine’s day just a cupid’s arrow away, you can be sure that a huge proportion of the world’s most ardent lovers have descended on Paris to make sure their heart’s allegiance is declared loud and clear in the most appropriate and sentiment-saturated of settings.

Kim wall 1It used to be that attaching a padlock to one of Paris’ most charming bridges was the only acceptable way for any Casanova (or Casanov-ette for that matter) to prove his ardour (and even I was guilty of promoting the trend this time last year). But now we’ve all learned the error of our ways and seen just how the burden of so much collective sentiment can actually be hugely damaging to the city’s architecture, not to mention a massive pollutant for the famous River Seine. Joy Division proved to be an oracle for the future in addition to being a kick-ass 80s band, with their right-on assertion that ‘Love can tear us apart’. They were right on the money, in terms of ‘us’ being a bridge, anyhoo.

Kim wall 2So maybe macaroons are the order of the day. A box of chocolates perhaps. Or even stick with tradition and thrust a bunch of roses under your lover’s nose. But with street sellers walking past with blooming bouquets for sale what seems like every five minutes, that idea now seems about as romantic as the Dropkick Murphy’s attempt at a love song, ‘Kiss me I’m shitfaced’. And you’d better be five sheets to the wind if you think buying a rose for your cherie in that fashion spells top Valentine’s points.

Kim wall 7Instead take a tip from me and take a walk to a part of the city I love, Abbesses, in the arrondissement I’ve been having a love affair with ever since my first trip to Paris, the 18th, and visit a whole wall dedicated to sweet, delicious amour. You can take your sickly pink desserts and romantic mood music, I’m a writer, so nothing is more important to me than words, pure and simple. And here nestled in the small and perfectly formed Square Jehan-Rictus just near the metro, is a whole wall dedicated to the linguistic profession of undying affection.

Kim wall 5Le mur des je t’aime or ‘wall of I love yous’ contains 311 examples of the same phrase written in 250 different languages, printed on 612 squares of polished blue lava tiles, forming an extraordinary monument to love itself. It was the idea of Frédéric Baron, a wannabe traveller who wanted to travel the world to hand-collect his texts, but instead achieved his goal through his network of friends, family and foreign acquaintances.

It was artist and calligrapher Claire Kito and mural specialist Daniel Boulogne who made his dream into reality, and this year the wall celebrates its 15th birthday, the age at which most of us are taking our first forays into love as nervous teenagers and testing our fledgling hearts for the very first time. So this year, give the padlocks a wide berth, and plant a smacker on your loved one’s lips in front of this 40m² expression of love. Paris will love you back for it.

What’s your langtitude?


Ah, learning a new language. Communicating with the locals is just a question of talking a bit louder in your own language, right? They’ll understand, eventually.

Well, not quite. If you want to live a fulfilled life in a foreign country, then you’d probably do well to pick up a few more words than just your favourite foods, and ‘two beers, please’. And especially in France, given that attempting to complete any kind of paperwork is a lesson in jumping through the smallest, weirdest-shaped hoops in the world, and ones that keep on moving or just plain disappearing to boot. And that’s just if you speak perfect French already. With language skills under your belt, life just gets that little bit easier. And just, well richer.

Now I’m not a master of French in any sense of the word (I’m intermediate at best), though I’m a very willing student, constantly looking for ways to make those foreign words stick in my head. Piles of cash and endless hours of free time would make the process easier, and I could pay for one of those intensive courses, or luxury of luxuries a month-long home stay with a French family in rural France where I’d be forced to speak nothing but the lingo as I bonded with my hosts as they taught me to make goat’s cheese.

But my pockets just aren’t that deep. I’m looking for the resources that don’t cost the world, hell, don’t cost even a solitary bean if preferable. And the good news is, there is plenty out there. Super! (That means ‘really great’ in French. See, learning already!)

1. Motivation

In the language game, you don’t get every far without this. Putting a copy of 1000 French Verbs under your pillow at night and expecting the words to magically leap into your head just isn’t going to happen. Regardless of whether you’re one of those sickening people who has a freakish aptitude for languages, learning French is hard. It will take work. And your accent will suck constantly. But so does mine, so we’re all in the same bateau. (See? Another one!)

2. TV or not TV…

Yes, yes, French television isn’t the greatest in the world, but it’s an important resource all the same. If you have a TV at home, work out how to put the subtitles on (in French is better), and get watching. Have a pen and paper handy and note down any new words that crop up, grab your dictionary (or the dictionary app if you’re a slave to your smartphone) and find out the meaning. If you’re a higher level, just watching programmes in French is a great way to get your ears dancing to the right linguistic rhythm. Bizarrely, the French seem to adore game shows, there’s heaps on the box, and programmes that play with words and ask questions are language learning gold in my book.

2b. Touch that dial

Plus most satellite boxes have radio channels too if you fancy going more old school. You can choose the talking ones if French pop music gives you the heebie jeebies.

3. Be a slave to the page

Or, even more than that, words in general. They’re everywhere – on billboards, menus, signs telling you not to do things, chock-full in those free papers you get on the metro… Read them all. Get to know what they mean. If you want to chance a full novel, you can pick them up at many a second hand bookshop for next to nothing (or even at Guerrisol, they normally have a few hanging around). Be random if you want, or better, choose something you’ve read before and enjoyed. Even if it’s ‘Arry Pott-air (as the French would say). Though the word for the spells will probably be the same.

4. Find a friend

Maybe you have a collection of French friends already, which is great. Talk to them in French. A no-brainer. If you don’t, find some. Interacting with the locals is a great way to boost your language skills. For those who already have more friends that they can count, head to craigslist or the FUSAC website and see if you can find a conversation exchange buddy. The idea is that you find a French speaker in need of some English practice, and you sit in a cafe (or a on a park bench if you so wish), and speak for an hour or so, half in English and half in French. Though it pays to be a bit cautious – some folks see this is a good way of getting a date. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5. Be curious

TV’s not your thing. The background buzz of a radio annoys you like an errant fly. You’re allergic to making friends. It’s important to find something that you’re into, if not the whole thing becomes a chore and you’ll get nowhere. You like cooking? Then find recipes on the internet in French and boost your skills that way. You’re mad about the cinema? Then try a French film once in a while. Celebrity gossip your thing? Then do it in French and learn what horribly pointless things Miley Cyrus is doing these days, in French (so they’ll probably sound a great deal more exotic than they really are). Easy!

All that remains for me to say is, bonne chance! (Now you’ve learned four new words, you could practically write a French essay!*)


*If it was called ‘good luck really great boat’.