Le Dernier Mot: Complimenting a Frenchwoman

Le Dernier Mot: Complimenting a Frenchwoman

Mom and I are in the village pharmacy, having made a beeline here from the doctor’s office. We’re in luck when one of the three counter stations instantly opens. We step up to the comptoir, where I hand over the scribbled ordonnances.

As the pharmacist studies the doctor’s prescriptions, Mom studies the pharmacist. When the latter turns and disappears into the stock room Mom blurts out her thoughts. “My God. She’s beautiful!”

“I know,” I say.

“She looks as though she could walk right out of this vineyard town and onto the big screen! Did you see her hair?”

I recall the thick curls that fall to the pharmacist’s waist. “Chestnut-coloured,” I guess.

“With golden highlights!” Mom corrects. “And not a stitch of makeup. She is a classic beauty – like Audrey Hepburn – only, she must be 5’11”!”

“I know, Mom. She is gorgeous.”

“Well, haven’t you ever told her that?”

Good question. Tricky answer. I think about the pharmacist. She is what the French would classify as canon. If she is this beautiful she is the last to have heard about it (directly that is…). The French do not exactly dish out compliments. But this isn’t to say that they do not praise one another – they just do so discreetly. Indirectly, to be exact.

How to explain this to my Mom, who is poised to shower compliments just as soon as the pharmacist returns? Mom has already done the unthinkable (by reaching for those chestnut curls!).

“Mom, the French are a little reserved when it comes to compliments!”

Mom is not impressed with this latest French etiquette lesson, which is quickly dismissed and by the time the pharmacist returns I feel the need to explain the goggle-eyed Mom on my right. If I don’t say something immediately, Mom will say it for me – in her own extravagant way! And so I blurt it out. “Ma mère pense que vous êtes magnifique!

As if Mom could understand my French (which she cannot) she looks at me impatiently, until I’ve coughed up the entire compliment:

Et c’est vrai!

And so, our extremely non-French compliment was delivered.

Were we actually French, we would have waited until the pharmacist walked off and, while she was still within earshot, we would have let her hear our conversation: “Qu’est-ce qu’elle est belle cette femme! Oui! Elle est charmante!

But I will, hélas, never be French, and am doomed to such heavy-handed delivery. As for Mom, she’s a citizen of the universe and will hand out compliments as often as she pleases! And, from the bright look on the pharmacist’s face, I see Mom does not need a prescription for French manners.

French Vocabulary

le comptoir: the counter

une ordonnance: a prescription

Ma mère pense que vous êtes magnifique!: My mother thinks you are magnificent

Qu’est-ce qu’elle est belle cette femme!: She is so beautiful, this woman!

Elle est charmante!: She is charming!

From France Today magazine

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The American-born author and photographer lives with her French husband, Jean-Marc, and their two children on a vineyard and olive farm near Bandol in Provence. She's the author of "Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France" and runs the French Word-a-Day blog and newsletter.

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  • Cynthia
    2016-08-31 16:40:10
    Et Kristi est belle et charmante!