French Friday: Living the Year in Which You Were Born

On the morning of his birthday my husband woke up announcing that this was an exceptional birthday since he was the age of the year in which he was born, an event that could only happen once in a lifetime. And maybe not for everyone, he added, already calculating. Anything about math puts him in a good mood. I’m the other way around. But you know what we say about the irresistible attraction between opposites?

By the time the smell of fresh coffee, golden biscuits, and breakfast quiche – birthdays call for special treats – wafted through the house, my husband had already asked our friend Google for more information.

“So,” he said, reading from his phone, “I’m celebrating my Beddian birthday.”

“Your what?”

“Beddian. When your age matches the last digits of your birth year.”

“But, why Beddian?”

“This is a pretty cool story. Sad too. Still cool.”

And cool it is. Sad too.

In 2007 an artist who had also some interest for math was walking her grandkids in Manhattan. As often, she stopped by the neighborhing firestation, so the kids could admire the fire trucks. That day, Bobby Beddia, one of the firemen, announced that today was a very special day since he was turning the age of the year in which he was born, adding it could only happen once. The artist had never paid attention to the possibility and told the fireman that he should contact a mathematician to share his discovery. In fact she was already planning to approach one of her friends and surprise the fireman with the idea. Unfortunately, a few hours later Beddia and another fireman died extinguishing a fire, near Ground Zero. To honor his memory the woman continued her investigation. The result is a theorem called the Beddian theorem.

As I said les maths et moi ça fait deux or maths and me make two. So this is what I remember after reading the theorem: A Beddian Birthday can only fall in an even-numbered year and doesn’t happen to everyone of us.

My husband being my husband was very much into this Beddian theorem and called our kids to inform them about their own Beddian birthdays. The sad part, I realized, is that we won’t be with them to celebrate. The saddest part is that maybe they won’t even still be alive.

For the complete story about the Beddian theorem, the Beddian birthday, and of course fireman Bobby Beddia, read this 2007 article in the New Yorker. It’s the first article written on the topic. It’s short, compelling, totally worth reading.

Neither my husband nor I had ever heard of a Beddian birthday until now. When I searched for a potential photo to illustrate this blog post, however, I bumped into this greeting cards website.

Even young kids can celebrate Beddian birthdays

The American website Zazzle makes Beddian T-shirts and has a French version, although the message on the T-shirt is in English and the event doesn’t seem to be particulary celebrated in my native land.

Mes amis français, célébrez-vous? Et si oui, comment appelez-vous cet unique anniversaire?

At home, Beddian birthday or not, I had already planned a day of cooking and baking anyway, so all was good.

My husband has still time to prepare my own.

 

Did you know about the Beddian theorem?

Have you already celebrated your Beddian birthday?

Is there a chance you will?

 

 

 

French Friday: Pipi in Paris … and Elsewhere

 

So many cultural facts jumped to my eyes when I moved to the USA from my native France!

However, when last week my husband forwarded me a link about newly installed public urinals in Paris he not only gave me an idea for a French Friday post but he also pushed my memory button on. I suddenly remembered the top cultural difference that I immediately noticed upon my arrival in California.

Wow! I thought. There are so many places pour faire pipi. And they are free and clean. They even have changing tables and are handicapped accessible.

I kept raving about the fact that toilets in the States were no longer a place to avoid and no longer a daily challenge. And our numerous French visitors confirmed my first impression, even if they were initially shocked to see that most stalls didn’t have full-sized doors and that it could be possible for someone to peek. At first, I was surprised, too. Years later, I can attest that no one has ever peeked. In fact, I’ve stood in long patient lines in women’s restrooms, everyone of us assuming that each stall was occupied while in fact some were not. No one peeks in American restrooms. Only visitors do 🙂

Back to the early 90s. Yes, doing number #1 in the U.S. was far easier than in France. French public restrooms were fewer, rarely free, and sadly much dirtier.

For more true stories on the subject, scroll down to read about our family toilet adventures in the City of Lights.

Despite the dire situation for all Parisians, men, though, had an advantage, thanks to urinals found in most metro stations and also in public spaces. My husband argues that they were filthy and that as a boy and teen he felt uncomfortable using them. I totally get him.

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Still, men had an edge. French girls and women had to learn one lesson: hold it.

Things changed in 1981 when the first sanisette was installed in Paris.

Kiosque à journaux et sanisette à Paris le 20 octobre 1984, France. (Photo by Mohamed LOUNES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

It cost one French franc to use them, but they were clean and private.

Fast forward to 2018. Has the French pipi scene improved?

Sanisettes are free, but many close at 10:00 p.m. since they can be used for drugs and prostitution deals. Cafés still forbid their restrooms to anyone who’s not a paying customer.

So it remains a challenge to find clean free restrooms throughout France, including in Paris.

No wonder alleys, building entrances, and street corners have turned into Men Restrooms. Women still hold it.

Which explains why men were on designers’ mind when they invented the uritrottoir, a noun created from urinoir and trottoir, which mean urinal and sidewalk in French.

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The French company based in Nantes installed the first uritrottoirs in Nantes in May 2017 and their arrival didn’t trigger vehement reactions.

In Paris it has been another story.

This summer a few uritrottoirs have been placed in the city.

From the Ville de Paris’s twitter account

This what CNN wrote about it.

A quick linguistic note: French people may contradict me, after all I’m not an expert on male toilets, but I never used or even heard of pissoir. In French urinals are called urinoirs, pissotières or vespasiennes.

Here and there are two additional articles, if you read French.

Residents in Île Saint Louis, one the most posh Parisian neighborhoods, argue that they spoil the look of the historical landmark.

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Visitors to the area, though, applaud the idea.

When I browsed through the articles, whether pro or con, I quickly noticed that almost every person interviewed on the topic was a man.

Of course, they love the uritrottoir.

The idea answers a need. Neither the pungent smell of urine wafting around nor the vision of men using the street as their urinal is particularly interesting. Also the uritrottoir is environmentally correct since there is no need to flush and yet odors are neutralized, thanks to hay placed inside the red metallic containers. They even come with flowers grown on top. How bucolic!

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But, I wondered, what about us? Where is our female uritrottoir?

It’s not men’s fault, of course, that nature has provided them with a handy way to relieve themselves in public. But I was still a bit upset to witness the absence of comments about a pretty huge gender-based inequality. This is why I was happy to find this humorous and so right-on post on the topic. I wish you all read French.

 

To conclude on the important topic of faire pipi in France:

*Two family bathroom adventures in my homeland, back in the early 2000s, with our little kids.

Soon after lunch, the girls asked for a bathroom. That would be a challenge. Paris closed most of the few public WC or water closets in the city, the cafés and restaurants forbid the use of their facilities if you are not a customer and the stores have no public restroom. Your only hope is that the public restroom called sanisette will work.

I dug in my pockets, emptied my purse, searching for the precious French francs the sanisette would accept. I felt my youngest daughter tensing. “I don’t really need to go,” she said. After three lemonades, I didn’t think so.

“I’ll go with you,” her older sister offered.

“That’s nice,” I said.

“You can’t,” my middle daughter announced. “It says one person at a time.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s just if you are too big and can’t fit inside.” Then a horrible thought came to my mind. You can be too small for a sanisette. I remembered a horrible story about a young child who drowned in one of them.

“Anyway,” the big sister went on, “it’s out of service.”

She was right. A sign had been hastily hung but in polite French asked messieurs and mesdames to look for another pipi room.

We took the car and slowly drove across the city, detectives on the look for a restroom. We saw a few more sanisettes out of service and more, which for some strange reason didn’t accept my change. After fifteen minutes of unsuccessful search, we decided to go to a café.

When the waitress came with our orders, I asked for “les toilettes, s’il vous plait?”

“Downstairs.” She pointed with her chin in direction of a dark stairway.

My three girls stood up as one and dashed to the toilets. They came back as fast as they went down.

“It’s locked,” one said.

“Maybe someone is inside,” I offered.

“No, we knocked. Come on, Maman,” they begged me.

I followed them down the narrow, poorly lit stairway, to a small closet at the end of the hallway. I turned the knob. The door didn’t budge. I knocked timidly and then louder. “Il y a quelqu’un?”

Nobody answered and I returned to the same waitress. “With all the homeless people,” she said, sweeping an invisible crowd of vagabonds with her opened arms. “We have to reserve the toilettes to our customers.” She handed me a key.

Why didn’t she give it when I asked for the restrooms? Wasn’t I a customer? Did we look like a homeless family? Anyway, homeless people need restrooms too.

The toilets scared my six-year-old and I walked in with her. It was smaller than a plane’s restroom, if such a thing is possible. With my back squished against the door I felt a puddle under my feet. “Just water,” I told my little girl whose big eyes searched for comfort in this unusually dark and smelly closet. I was glad the light was dim so I wasn’t able to check the nature of the liquid on the floor.

We hurried to the exit and found with relief the cozy café with its sophisticated waitress behind the counter. I had never paid so much attention to the French toilets than now.

Not representing the café where it happens 🙂

A few days later, we decided to take the children on a tour of Versailles and the Petit Trianon. A thin permeating rain fell on the French kings’ residence and we ran to the entrance to seek harbor. We bought our tickets, left our coats and umbrellas, as it was required.

“La salle de bains, s’il vous plait?” asked my daughter in her best French and most polite tone

Les toilettes,” I whispered. “Not the bathroom.”

Les toilettes sont dehors,” announced the lady behind the booth.

“Outside?” I said. The lady only nodded. “Then, can we get our clothes back?”

With another nod, she handed us our coats and tickets. Outside, the drizzle had intensified. More menacing clouds circled above us and we hurried before it poured across the paved courtyard, following the toilettes sign. We reached the door, drenched and freezing, wondering why the most famous French historic landmark had no restrooms inside the château. I took the girls to the ladies section and bumped into a woman whom I quickly identified as the dame pipi. I had forgotten about the ladies who govern the few French public restrooms. I searched my purse for a few coins.

“What are you doing?” whispered one of my daughters.

“I need some change,” I said, as if I had known all along that paying to go to the restroom was the most normal thing. Happily, I found one euro which I handed to the lady.

“That will be four euros,” she said. I must have looked puzzled since she specified, “Aren’t you all going?”

“Yes,” I said, hoping that perhaps I would get a package price. After all, France is one of the few countries that offer all kind of discounts when you have children. However, it didn’t seem to work for the toilettes since the lady insisted, “Then, you owe me four euros.”

I handed her the money and we all went to the restroom. The girls hurried. Did they think that it would be more expensive if they stayed too long? I wondered if I should try to explain my daughters why in France you have to pay four euros to go to the restroom when you visit Versailles. I wasn’t enough French anymore to find a justification and I felt sorry that my daughters might remember more about their restrooms experiences in France than the richness of Le Louvre and the grandeur of Versailles.

 

*Away from home, toilet breaks present challenges. For outdoorsy people, even more so.

Yosemite, the National Park I know best, has installed some toilets, flushing or not, even in remote spots. And when I camped in Havasupai, Arizona to hike the Havasu Falls the rustic eco friendly toilets amazed me. Not the case at the top of Mount Everest, it seems.

Now I’d like to hear from my blogger friend Curt, currently on a thousand mile hike on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail).

Curt began his hike in Ashland, Oregon and travels south to Mount Whitney, California. A seasoned hiker and a nature lover he writes from the bottom of his heart, with serious knowledge, humor, and humility, too, about the extraordinary landscapes of the west of the United States and about his numerous adventures as he explored them and keeps bumping into nice people, like these two French hikers.  The raging fires in California had the potential to impact his current plans. But he remains a real trooper and his most recent post shows him in good spirits.

If you have a minute, pay a visit to Curt’s blog. Through his posts and photos you’ll get the chance to follow a rare trip along the legendary PCT.

Seriously, I wanted to acknowledge Curt’s 1000-mile hike since a while. You may remember that in French we have an expression to describe something ridiculously easy: c’est du pipi de chat (it’s cat’s pee). Well, what Curt is doing is certainly NOT du pipi de chat.

If you are just reading this post or returning to it, this is an article posted on August 31, 2018 in the New York Times about the uritrottoirs being vandalized.

 

 

 

RESPECT

La Reine de la musique soul est morte.

The Queen of Soul Music has died.

Je n’ai réalisé qu’hier que je connaissais toutes les chansons d’Aretha Franklin.

Only yesterday did I realize that I knew each of Aretha Franklin’s songs.

Pas les paroles dans leur intégralité, mais leur mélodie et refrain.

Not every single word of the lyrics, but the melody and the chorus.

Ce n’est pas souvent qu’une chanteuse laisse une telle empreinte musicale.

It’s not often that a woman singer leaves such a musical soundtrack behind.

J’ai aussi réalisé en entendant les chansons d’Aretha Franklin passées sur toutes les chaines de télé et les stations de radio que je les avais toutes entendues alors que je vivais encore en France.

I also realized, listening to Aretha Franklin’s songs, played on all TV channels and radio stations that I had heard all of them while I still lived in France.

Il y a eu aussi bien sûr la comédie musicale des Blues Brothers en 1980 qui l’a fait davantage connaitre de notre côté de l’Atlantique. Un succès phénoménal en France.

There was of course the musical comedy The Blue Brothers in 1980 which gave even more visibility to Aretha Franklin on the other side of the Atlantic . A blockbuster in France.

Il y eut aussi une amie de campus qui n’écoutait pratiquement que des chanteuses. Quand je lui rendais visite, on sirotait nos cafés en écoutant Patti Smith, Annie Lenox, Pat Benatar, Rickie Lee Jones, ou bien encore Janis Joplin.

There was also a girlfriend on the campus who listened almost exclusively to women singers. When I paid her a visit, we sipped our coffees listening to Patti Smith, Annie Lenox, Pat Benatar, Rickie Lee Jones, or still Janis Joplin.

Et il y eut ce fameux duo Aretha Franklin Annie Lenox Sisters Are Doin It For Themselves.

And there was this infamous duet Aretha Franklin Annie Lenox Sisters Are Doin It For Themselves.

De toutes les chansons d’Aretha Franklin, j’ai toujours préféré I Say a Little Prayer and Respect.

Of all her songs I’ve always prefered I Say a Little Prayer and Respect.

I Say a Little Prayer est une telle consolation quand rien ne va plus.

I Say a Little Prayer is such a soft consolation when things go down.

Quant à Respect la chanson ne m’a vraiment donné la chair de poule qu’après des années de vie aux États Unis.

As for Respect it’s only after many years spent in the U.S. that the song gave me goosebumps.

Le mot Respect s’écrit et se traduit de la même façon en français et en anglais.

The noun Respect is spelled and translated the same way in French and English.

Le sens n’est sans doute pas tout à fait le même dans les deux pays.

The meaning is probably not exactly the same in both countries.

Un demi-siècle plus tard la chanson Respect a encore la même pertinence. Je ne sais pas ce que ressens à cet égard.

Peut-être juste du respect.

Half a century later the song Respect has still the same relevance. I don’t know what I feel about it.

Maybe only respect.

French Friday: Avoir une Autre Langue C’est Posséder une Deuxième Âme

I have some serious competition. My daughter is discovering French expressions à la vitesse grand V or at a very high speed. Even though, I still have une longueur d’avance sur elle or I’m still ahead of her, once in a while she reminds me of an expression I no longer use. The only reason being the limited number of people I speak French with.

It’s a little bit my fault since I did everything I could to avoid French people in my first years in the USA, knowing they would keep me away from improving my English. Then I moved too often to even have time to reach out beyond school, work, and neighbors. And let’s be frank: although there are quite a few French people in the States they don’t really form a community as other foreign-born people do. So in the end, my only regular French interlocutor remains my husband. I lucked out since his French is stellar. But the two of us cannot use an entire dictionary on a regular basis.

This explains how my daughter forwarded me a pretty crude French expression the other day and I had to admit that I had forgotten about it. However, it did remind me of an equivalent, almost as vulgar. I try to exemplify the best of France on my blog, so I will skip them 🙂

Yesterday the same daughter forwarded me a BuzzFeed article about France. There were a few mistakes, mostly due to translation. I sent her a link to the French newspaper Libération, so she could get the facts right.

As I read the French article I noticed the noun amende, which means a fine.

Its homophone amande, spelled with a A, means almond.

A few words then rushed to my mind.

Un trombone in French is both a paper clip and the musical instrument.

Baguette designates both the infamous French bread but means also chopsticks or still a magic wand in baguette magique.

Aïe means ouch, while its homophone ail means garlic.

Un tourniquet can have so many different meanings in French. It can designate a turnstile, a medical tourniquet, a sprinkler that rotates, a revolving display or still a merry-go-round on a playground. The other merry-go-round is also called a carousel from the French noun carrousel. But that’s for another post titled What Happens to French Vocabulary Abroad?

The French Emperor Charlemagne – the one who supposedly created school for French kids – is also supposed to have said that speaking another language is to possess a second soul.

It sounds so pretty in French: Avoir une autre langue c’est posséder une deuxième âme.

Based on my modest experience, I simply wonder if we start paying attention to our native language only when we know at least another one and start to understand our native land only when we’ve left.

In homage to Yosemite and to my kids, who still teach me so much, a photo from the magical park

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