French Connections

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THE OTHER Josephine appeared with A Bisto de Nas, a book by sombody called Bernard Vavassori. You'll probably recognise that A Bisto de Nas isn't French, and you might have a job deciding what language it is, if it isn't s

THE OTHER Josephine appeared with A Bisto de Nas, a book by sombody called Bernard Vavassori. You'll probably recognise that A Bisto de Nas isn't French, and you might have a job deciding what language it is, if it isn't something to with gravy browning.

In fact it is a dialect of French, the one spoken round Toulouse. The title means 'As Seen from the Nose' meaning from close up, and it's really a dictionary of dialect words. Some are very rich and expressive indeed, although not of the greatest practical value if you're contemplating a holiday in the Midi (accommodation booked through this website, of course). Here are a few examples, and if you manage to work any into your everyday conversation this summer I wish you joy of it.

Tute = a dark place, a windowless shed
Trapanelle = old banger
Sécade = drought, by extension absence of strong drink
Pimpous = an imaginary place, like 'blazes' in 'you can go to blazes'
Mirgue = a mouse, particularly a mouse-like child
Gnico-gnaco = any old how, in a sloppy manner
Digus = no one. Y a pas digus, there's nobody here
Despapatchée = letting it all hang out
Bouléguer = to shake it all about, as in the Hokey Cokey or as in a bag of Scrabble tiles or bingo numbers...
...which brings me neatly to the meat of all this, because there on page 151 is the DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO FRENCH BINGO CALLS.

Bingo is known as Loto in French. It's a popular winter entertainment in the villages up and down our valley. They're sponsored by the local fire brigade, school parents'  associations to raise money, the Communist party, the local hunt, and so on. At ultra-smart village lotos you're given a pencil with the sponsor's name on it as you buy your cards. Otherwise you bring your own. At bog-standard lotos they give you a bag of maize: you mark each called number on your card with a grain. In this way the card can be used again and again.

As you might expect, the traditional calls are pretty down to earth. Imagine yourself sitting there in some village hall, cut-throat competition on either side of you. The caller shouts Au bord de la mer (beside the sea) and the cut-throat competition immediately scrubs out - or cancels with a maize seed - the number 2. Why? you wonder. You know the French for 2 is deux, pronounced 'duh'. What's the connection?

The next morning, long after the virgin state of every 2 on your card has ceased to matter, the centime drops: Au bord de la mer-deux. Au bord de la mer-de. Beside the - but if you don't know what merde means you shouldn't be reading this.

Some other samples:

7 : (Sept) Un petit port de pêche, a little fishing port: a reference to Sète on the Mediterranean coast.
8 : Le cacahuète, the peanut
11 : Les jambes de Brigitte, Brigitte's legs. (Bardot?)
13 : Marie-Thérèse ('Thérèse' sounds like 'treize', meaning thirteen)
16 : Le décapité, the man who's had his head cut off - a reference to Louis XVI
17 : La police (you dial 17 in France for the police).
You see the kind of thing? But others are even more obscure and give you no clue at all. I suppose if you want to make a lasting hobby of taking part in rural French bingo sessions you just have to learn them by heart:
46 : Allô Fernande! (goodness knows why)
51: Le pastis ('51' is a well-known brand of pastis, the aniseed-flavoured spirit drunk all over the Midi)
63 : Allô Danièle! (no idea why)
69 : La Tempète sous la couette (delicacy forbids a translation)
75 : Boum! Boum! Ah, maybe we're on to something here? 75 was the calibre of a famous French artillery piece, the ones Napoleon called his beautiful daughters.
77 : Les jambes du Sous-Préfet (the sub-Prefect's legs).
But the cut-throat opposition relents with the final two numbers:
89 : La mamy (grandma)
90 : Le papy (granddad).
And by the time I get to 90 I shall be past caring.

* * *

ONCE THE land this house was built on a couple of years ago had been excavated and levelled the top of it resembled the surface of Mars after several millenia of sécade. It was rock-hard, composed mostly of jagged lumps of schists that had seen no change since quaternary times, infertile as a pair of socks and impervious to water.

There was an area in front of the house which we thought would be quite nice laid to grass. So with agonisingly slow hard labour, attacking the unyielding surface with pick axes - any mechanical digger would simply skitter over the surface - and manual removal of several tons of stones, eventually the site was dug, fertilised, levelled and raked.

The great day arrived, an overcast, humid day with rain threatening, perfect for sowing. I actually waited for the rain to start before broadcasting generous handfuls of the very best grass seed, specially selected for its qualities of resistance to the Mediterranean climate without becoming coarse and spiky and losing its colour, as local natural grasses do. We went to bed conscious of having reached the climax of a great adventure.

In the morning we were puzzled by the overnight appearance of several heaps of a very light brown colour scattered here and there over the otherwise naked earth. We looked more closely. They were still at it: armies of ants, busily collecting up every single grass seed to build their anthills with. Sods.

Sod's lawn, in fact. Ho ho.