As he applied for French nationality, Stephen went through a ‘phrase’ during which he discovered an expression that must be said at the right time in order to sound properly French.
A very useful French expression that often doesn’t get taught in schools is bon courage. It’s a cross between the English phrases ‘chin up’ and ‘good luck’, but it’s not the same as either.
‘Chin up’ sounds to me like an old-school English nurse implying that there’s no aspirin left, but she’s sure the pain will go away soon. Meanwhile, she’s fed up of all that whimpering.
‘Good luck’, on the other hand, is amply covered by the French bonne chance: “You’ve bet your whole bank account on the French winning all the gold medals at the Paris 2024 Olympics? Bonne chance!”
Becoming a citizen
Bon courage is neither of those. There’s no luck involved, and it’s much more empathetic than ‘chin up’. French courage isn’t bravery – it’s more like inner strength or resilience. Recently a friend went to clear out her dear departed mother’s apartment. Before she set off, everyone wished her a heartfelt bon courage.
French people love to use it with a touch of irony: “You’re driving to Marseille on July 1, during a heatwave, leaving Paris at rush hour? Alors, bon courage!” In other words, I can fully imagine your suffering, and share it with you, though only in my imagination, pauvre imbécile.
I heard the phrase a lot when I was applying for French nationality. Despite my deep-seated sense that I’m really not French – except in the way I’ve assimilated the Parisian habit of ignoring any queue I deem unnecessary – I have now become fully français. It’s a self-defence mechanism that almost all my British ex-pat friends and acquaintances have adopted since B****t. “Bon courage avec la bureaucratie française,” my French friends said when I announced my intention to become a Marseillaise-singer. The French are always more critical of themselves and their institutions than any foreigner can ever be, and they imagined me camping outside official buildings and hiring a crane to shift my pile of forms.
In the event, the process of applying for citizenship was relatively painless, though there were a few times when I needed all the courage I could muster. Like when I went to fetch the officially stamped translation of my birth certificate (cost: €50, or about €10 per word) and, arriving back home, saw that the translator had misspelt the name of my birthplace.
I emitted, I admit, some choice French obscenities. All she had to do was get the names and the date right. (Well, at least she had headed the document “certificat de naissance” – birth certificate – and not “certificat de nuisance”.)
Not trusting the postal system with such a valuable document, I went all the way back to get a new copy. My own fault, of course – I should have read it before leaving the office.
A test of patience
The most ardent cries of “bon courage” were aimed at me just before my citizenship interview. People were sure it was going to be a brutal test of my knowledge of French culture: “You don’t know how many cigarettes a day Sartre smoked? Leave France immediately!”
However, it turned out to be a delightfully friendly chat, probably thanks to the fact that I can speak grammatical French – a sure passport to a passport. The only sticky moment came when I was asked my favourite part of French history. I started blathering on about the period just before July 14, 1789 when a peaceful transition to democracy was being negotiated in Versailles, and I saw the poor lady’s eyes glazing over. “On second thoughts,” I said, “Impressionism.” She sighed with relief and ticked the relevant box.
As we left her office, I saw her wince slightly at the queue of applicants sweating in the waiting room. “Bon courage,” I wished her. She smiled, and I was sure I’d clinched it. If you know how to time a bon courage, you thoroughly deserve your French ID card.
From France Today Magazine
Lead photo credit : © Shutterstock
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