Some French friends asked me whether I find the French to be râleur.
“You know, grognon,” they said. I didn’t know that one, either. “Ronchon, bougon, grincheux.”
They were asking whether I find that people here are never happy, and I carefully said I imagine that depends on the person, and whether or not he or she frequently grapples with the bureaucracies of his or her country. But as my friends rattled off synonyms for an adjective I have trouble translating — grumpy? — I began to reconsider.
Eskimos have many terms for snow and the Breton regional language has lots of words for rain. Rolling terrain that we call hilly is described by the French in terms of its valleys: vallonné. The French favor litotes. “C’est pas evident,” someone will say wryly, “It’s not obvious,” after royally butchering some maneuver. Ladies will criticize something by archly saying: “It’s not too normal.” I was walking in Brittany with a man who was barely audible under the hood of his parka, under February rain. “It’s not too hot,” he said.
When people say “pas normal,” they seem to mean it negatively. On the other hand, “original” is usually complimentary, if a touch condescending: “Oh, an American who is studying squatters? How original!” Meaner is “special.” Something truly out-there is “pas banal,” not banal.
I spent a long weekend in Brittany on a Fulbright travel grant, talking with a middle-school class in Dinan and exploring the coastline. More regional notes to come! I stayed with a family in Pléguien who served home-brewed apple cider and blackberry syrup, calling the cocktail a kir bréton. Normans also grow apples, making apple cider as well as pear cider, and call the same drink a kir normand. The Breton family finds this Norman pretension vaguely silly. Normans are always trying to compete with Bretons, they said, mentioning some conflict over Mont-Saint-Michel, the celebrated abbey on the coast in Normandy — but at the Norman-Breton border.
“Of course it is in Normandy,” said the innkeepers in Dinan, where I was their only guest. “Mais bon, it is very close to Brittany.”
I decided to ask some more about a Brittany-Normandy rivalry. The whole thing seemed very exciting and feudal. I had just heard that a few Bretons, like the Basques, want to separate from France. Some of these radicals exploded a bomb at a Dinan McDonald’s, which they consider a danger to the local culture. I was clutching a tisane and perching on an old and uncomfortable chair in the innkeepers’ living room, which was covered floor-to-ceiling in mirrors, deer heads, and dark portraits of severe-looking ladies in gilded frames.
The innkeepers looked startled. “You mean besides Mont-Saint-Michel?” they all asked.
Madame broke the silence. “No, no, no,” she said. “Not at all. The Normans make very good cheese and good cider. We also make cheese and cider.” She adjusted the dog on her lap. “My grandmother was from Normandy,” she said.