Amuse-Bouche: A la nage (Swimmingly). Do you swim like a monkey wrench?

Do you swim like a monkey wrench?

Le mois d’août ! In France it’s synonymous with holidays, for August is vacation month, and gives us words for the two pests of the season, aoûtats (chiggers) and aoûtiens (August vacationers). When it’s 36ºC (97 in the shade) on the Côte d’Azur, I avoid both plaies (literally, wounds—unbearable people or things) by heading to the neighborhood piscine (from Latin piscina: fishpond: swimming pool). There I’m in my element—heureuse comme un poisson dans l’eau. Backstroking in the deliciously cool water, I gaze up at the sun sparkling through the needles of the huge pins d’Alep (Aleppo pines) towering overhead. These native conifères cling tenaciously to the dry sol calcaire (chalky soil) of our Mediterranean hillsides. Today the air around them is heavy with the fragrance of vaporizing resin and shrill with cigales (cicadas).

Sated, I plop down dripping near our maître nageur (master swimmer, i.e., lifeguard). Although I have trouble remembering how to say lifeguard, I have no trouble remembering his name, which is Djellel (he’s of Tunisian descent), because he gave me un truc (trick, gimmick). “J’ai l’aile,” he said to me, “et vous avez la cuisse.” Think KFC: I’ve got the wing, and you have the thigh.

Miky and Yves arrive and set up their transats (deck chairs, originally designed for paquebots transatlantiques—ocean liners). My seagoing neighbors usually prefer la plage (the beach) at une station balnéaire (a seacoast town), but today they have pris le large (literally gone out to sea—escaped, given it a wide berth) for the pool. Pourquoi ? Parce qu’il y a des méduses !(jellyfish). Second only to pyromanes (arsonists) who set the tragic forest fires that periodically beset the region, the thing people in the Midi fear most is méduses. Even a stray tentacle can give you a lesion that will destroy your summer.

Although my friends are en nage (sweating like pigs—a misnomer, since pigs, apparently, don’t sweat), they seem to have some doubts about the pool. “Est-ce que l’eau est bonne ?” (Is the water good?), they ask suspiciously. Why does everybody always ask that? At first I didn’t have a clue what the question meant. Is the water clean? Cool? Drinkable? Finally a local informed me that it means “Is the water warm enough?” Southerners are frileux (cold-sensitive and/or hesitant) and don’t like to go in until it’s at least 20ºC (68ºF). Of course, if the water is too warm, “C’est une soupe !

Miky and Yves love to feed me new expressions. “Je nage comme un fer à repasser” (I swim like an iron), announces Miky. “And I,” adds Yves, “swim like une clef anglaise” (a monkey wrench). Djailèle and I both laugh. “Did you know only 30 percent of words in French are really French?” he volunteers. “The rest come from Latin, English, German…qui sait ?”(Who knows?). Well, that’s not news—virtually all words in most languages come from somewhere else. In fact the French language only really began to be codified in the Renaissance. Seventy percent of words in English, I point out, are similar or identical to French words. Which doesn’t keep us from having trouble understanding each other.

J’admire ton bronzage,” I remark to Miky, who has a beautiful tan, year-round. Her husband cackles, “C’est du trompe-couillon!” Quoi ? “It’s fool the idiot??” (Tromper = to deceive; couillon—from couilles, testicules—means imbécile.) Literal translation has tripped me up once again, but my friends are delighted to explain. Generically, trompe-couillon means makeup, and in this instance, sunless tanning lotion—what historically, and sometimes today, is called “Man-Tan” in English. In other words, Miky’s tan is fake!

This gives Yves a pretext to launch into a detailed explication of the word couillon. For beginners, in the south of France,couillon is not considered vulgar or an insult. A couillon is just a guy, or affectionately, a dummy. Paradoxically, it has a feminine form: couillonne. He adds another expression: attrape-couillon (sucker catcher) which means a scam. Like when you receive a letter telling you that you have won dix millions d’euros which you will get…if you send a small chèque to a firm in the Cayman Islands.

Now Yves is on a roll. “Rien de tel qu’un bon bourre-couillon pour donner du goût,” he declaims, totally out of context. Again I try literal translation: “There’s nothing like good rotgut (literally: something to make a sucker drunk) to add some taste.” But it doesn’t make much sense to me. “Naturellement. C’est une contrepèterie !” (literally: “a back-fart” — spoonerism) he chortles. Dutifully I invert the syllables, and come up with a cooking truism: “Rien de tel qu’un bon court-bouillon (broth made with vegetables and herbs) pour donner du goût.” Contrepèteries, preferably obscene, are so beloved by the French that Le Canard Enchainé, a political satire weekly, publishes a column called Sur l’Album de la Comtesse devoted to them!

But back to trompe-couillon. Since this argot for makeup literally means to deceive the unwary, implicit in the expression is that one can “make up,” i.e., disguise or cover up anything: politics, ideas, values, whatever. Still, most often it refers to a woman who stoops to rouge/ruse to charm some poor innocent guy. As our discussion turns to feminine wiles, a stunning blonde, dressed in nothing but heavy makeup, gold chains and her bikini bottom, spreads her serviette de plage (beach towel) nearby. “Voilà du trompe-couillon !” confides Miky en aparté (in a stage whisper). “Elle est maquillée comme une voiture volée,” made up—i.e., disguised—like a stolen car.

Est-ce que cela vous dérange si je bronze seins nus ?” (Do you mind if I go topless?), the beauty says, turning to me.

Pas du tout,” I answer. “Do you mind if I DON’T?”