Say It with Flowers
by Julia Frey
But don’t give a friend chrysanthèmes !
“Comme c’est bizarre,” says Colombine, “every year for la fête des mères (Mother’s Day: in France, the last Sunday in May) ma belle-mère (my mother-in law) gives me a cactus!”
“C’est peut-être symbolique,” I answer. The arid cactus, with its prickly defense system, makes me craindre le pire (fear the worst). Symbols can be thorny subjects. We peruse my 1845 dictionary Le Langage des Fleurs and discover “cactus: symbolise l’amour maternel.” Colombine looks relieved. “Dites-le avec des fleurs ! ”
I bought the antique dictionary right after the first time Colombine invited me for dinner. It was late October, and I, an impoverished and clueless foreign student, arrived with a huge bouquet of chrysanthèmes jaunes. Her face fell. Oups ! What have I done now?
“Oh là là ! ” she said, “tu commémores ma mort ? ” Quoi ? I’m commemorating her death? Blessedly inexpensive, in the fleuriste’s window at twilight, the mums had seemed luminous. But for Colombine, my gift had an unfortunate connotation funéraire.
Luckily Colombine and I are still friends. How could I guess you offer chrysanthemums en souvenir des défunts (in memory of the deceased)? People put them on tombstones for la fête de la commémoration des fidèles défunts, (literally, the defunct faithful, All Souls’ Day). Generally known as le Jour des Morts (the Day of the Dead), for Roman Catholics it’s officially Nov. 2. In practice most French Catholics visit le cimetière and clean up their family’s graves on la Toussaint (All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1) which has the advantage of being a holiday.
I must digress. The American tradition of Halloween (Oct. 31) has been something of a flop in France. It was introduced in the mid-1990’s by commerçants (retailers), always interested in creating new occasions for people to buy things they don’t need. They provoked une mode (a fad), which persists somewhat, since kids everywhere like free candy. But kids bore easily. “Cobwebs, witches and pumpkins?… J’ai déjà joué dans ce film (been there, done that).” This year on Oct. 31, although there were a few 20 year-olds wearing costumes in the Paris metro, they were speaking English. Colombine thinks Halloween hasn’t caught on because it’s alien to French secular (Catholic/atheist) tradition. One big difference between Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures is that historically, the French have no truck with ghosts, fairies, or the seven dwarfs. Merlin and Harry Potter are exotic Englishmen. Here, houses are never haunted, not even Medieval châteaux with douves (moats). Although whispered talk of witchcraft may still be heard in some small hamlets in Touraine, it’s kept secret from des gens raisonnables (reasonable people). Besides, nobody knows how to carve a jack-o-lantern, or can tell the difference between une citrouille (our hard-stemmed carving pumpkins) and un potiron, the soft-stemmed winter squash called pumpkin in the UK. And Colombine is not alone in thinking the idea cooking either of them in a sweet pie is disgusting. Potiron is pretty much only used in soup around here, and la citrouille is off transporting Cendrillon (Cinderellla).
Back to “le langage des fleurs.” Nowadays, it’s practically forgotten. People only know a few symbols: des roses rouges for passionate love (buy pink ones for your hostess at dinner). Les marguerites are for “loves me, loves me not…” and les chrysanthèmes are only offered to the dead. Even that may be changing. Basically nobody cares, and everybody loves to get flowers.
In the old days, however, you could really get into trouble. Your gift of flowers would be deconstructed like a poem, so you needed to know what you were saying. Just for fun, let’s make a bouquet. Wandering through the garden, you start with marguerites (daisies). They mean innocence, grandeur, fidélité, estime and “je t’aime.” Add some oeillets (carnations) to signal amour sincère, ardeur, finesse, affection. Now pick une pivoine (peony) to promise sincérité, régénération, transformation spirituelle, abondance and pouvoir protecteur (protective powers). On your way past the pond, a nymphéa or nénuphar (water lily) catches your eye. Good choice! They not only suggest your qualities: intuition, créativité, pureté du coeur, éloquence and amitié, they promise surprises, heureux bouleversement (head-over-heels happiness) and, ambiguously, to unleash les passions les plus déraisonnables (the most unreasonable passions) while inciting one to s’élever au-dessus des voluptés sensuelles (rise above sensual pleasures). On the way home, add a few boutons d’or (buttercups, ranunculus) for la joie.
But what if your beloved has a different dico (dictionary)? It turns out there’s a lot of disagreement on symbolisms, which can make the garden into a linguistic minefield. Here’s the same bouquet, version Fleurs du mal. It doesn’t exactly conter fleurette (make sweet talk). By this book, marguerite means adieu, and ‘oeillet porte malheur’ (brings bad luck): jalousie, exigence, caprice, dédain (disdain), refus, oubli du coeur (lost love). It says “Vous avez une rivale.” La pivoine signifies amour inassouvi (unfulfilled love), and the nénuphar represents froideur (cold-heartedness) and désespoir (despair).
No wonder in Boris Vian’s novel L’Écume des Jours (1963), the heroine’s “nénuphar dans le poumon (lung)” is fatal. Beware the buttercups (renoncules or boutons d’or) as well. It turns out they’re potentially poisonous, full of reproches and impatience. They say “danger, vous êtes ingrat/e (graceless and/or ungrateful), vous méconnaissez (misunderstand or underestimate) mon amour.” Even the lowly pissenlit (literally, “piss in bed”, dandelion), whose puff-my-head image is well-known as the logo for Larousse dictionaries and encyclopedias: « Je sème à tous vents », (I scatter my seed in all directions) is also used in the expression “manger les pissenlits par la racine” (literally, “to eat dandelions from the roots up,” equivalent to “pushing up daisies,” i.e., dead). But as Colombine remarks, “Mostly we just eat pissenlits en salade.”
And does Colombine mean columbine? Nope. Columbine in French is ancholie (symbolically, “sweet madness”). My friend Colombine was named after Pierrot’s beloved in Italian Commedia dell’Arte. To my horror, I discover that in French, colombine (an uncommon word) means fiente de colombe (pigeon droppings)! Fertilizer, quoi.
© Julia Frey 2011