Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tu, Vous, And The Bread Lady

Last weekend I mentioned the Bread Lady and our adventure with half baguettes. I didn't tell you everything. The next morning she came by and while we were exchanging bread and coins she asked me a question.

Me and the Bread Lady. Her name is Roseline, but it's more fun to call her the Bread Lady.

I was embarrassed because she talks so fast that I often don't know what she says and this was one of those times. It's a nice compliment that the people we interact with here make no accommodation for our being foreign. They just talk to us they way they talk to everyone else. Simply smiling and nodding only works when I hear most of what she says and miss a word here and there. But I can't pull that off if I understood nothing. That would be so wrong.

So I had to ask her to repeat her question. It sounded like "daddy poh tow ?" Both times.

I said I was sorry, but I just didn't understand. She repeated once again, v-e-r-y slowly. "Tu t'ennuies pas trop ?" I felt like a fool. A very simple question. You're not too bored, are you ? She knew that I was home alone with the dog while Ken was in Paris.

Oh no, I said, there's plenty to do. Then it hit me. She used the familiar tu instead of the formal vous. She's done this before, and says mostly tu to Ken, but I've always stuck with vous since she's around my age and I'm the foreigner. But the ambiguity is kind of weird. Going back and forth between tu and vous is a strange thing to do and some people can be offended if you say tu to them and then revert back to the formal vous.

So I just blurted it out. "Est-ce qu'on se dit tu ou est-ce qu'on se dit vous ?" Do we say tu or vous to each other ?

She looked me right in the eye and replied, "Je. M'en. Fous." I added the periods because she pronounced each word as if it were its own sentence. I. Don't. Care. Then she smiled.

Then I don't either, I said, and we both laughed.

"You know," she said, "that I know some people who get very upset if I don't say vous to them. Mostly older people. Then there are the Portuguese people I know, real from Portugal Portuguese, whose children say vous to each other."

I asked if they did that in Portuguese or in French. It was in French. Children usually only use vous for adults who are not immediate family.

So now I'm officially on familiar terms with the Bread Lady. Glad we cleared that up.


  1. You have now broken that special barrier that English does not have. Congratulations.

  2. have you ever had someone ask you or tell you to use tu? i have several people i "know" that i use vous with and i keep waiting for them to tell me to use tu, but maybe they're waiting for me to say something? hmm.

  3. I have been enjoying your blog since our visit to France last month. The whole thing with tu and vous was new to me as I unfortunately only speak one language. Glad you and the bread lady are on good terms!!!
    I still rave about your apple pie when telling folks about our trip to France!!!

  4. Another milestone in your assimilation into French society. Congrats.

  5. Sometimes I wonder if I would say tu or vous to people I only speak English with...
    I say tu to almost everyone, unless they are really intutoyable ;)
    It's a good thing you asked her, though, isn't it? Now you know where you stand!

  6. claude, what a great word, intutoyable ! I love it.

    conn, you're welcome back for another pie any time !

    cara, yes, often people will decide that we should now say "tu" and say so. It's really cool when that happens.

    john and susan, it's a very strange thing for us anglophones to get, so we have go slowly so as not to offend anyone !


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