The usual time to talk about affairs of the heart is around Valentine’s Day, which of course is next month, but first I have something to say about heart that doesn’t have so much to with chocolates, flowers and lacy valentines. As we begin a new year, this January post is a voyage of discovery about other meanings of the word “heart.”

A little over a year ago, I decided to take action on something I’d been pondering for a while: living abroad for an extended time. Somewhat like stepping into a dressing room to try on a pair of pants, I tried on the idea of this new adventure by occasionally checking in with myself to see if the idea still “felt” right, while continuing to live the life I had in Colorado. I started to go public with my plan about the time I realized that not only did I definitely want to give this a try, but also that I might be a little disappointed with myself in twenty years if I hadn’t tried it. My mantra became, “if not now, when?”

As the adventure became ever more real, people began to say things to me like, “I admire you for doing this. It takes such courage.” I was puzzled by this comment, because at the time it didn’t feel like courage to me. It felt like a lot of work, a lot of details to attend to, and a dogged determination to make it happen. But not courage.

When I arrived in France, I traveled and visited friends for a while, and then my friend Katie arrived in time to help me move into the house I’ve rented. I knew she’d be helpful, but her support, ideas, observations, help, and French fluency went way above and beyond the call of friendship. (Thank you, Katie!)

One day during lunch, I mentioned the “it takes courage” comment, saying that I’d been surprised by so many people saying that, and that I didn’t see it that way. Katie’s response was an eye-opener for me. She reminded me that the English word “courage” comes straight from the French; the French word “cœur” means “heart.” Both languages have the same word “courage,” with similar definitions, but the actual usage is slightly different. Let’s explore that a bit.

One of the first things I noticed as I looked at different definitions for “courage” in both English and French is the reference to various body parts (nerves, guts, backbone, spine, stiff upper lip (British), keep your chin up, and of course, heart). Most of the body parts appear in English definitions, while French definitions only speak of heart.

In English, the connotations of “courage” are bravery, valor, and ferocity; extreme danger and risk are frequently mentioned. There is also a sense that courage may be related to physical strength. says this:

courage, n.: The state or quality of mind or spirit that enables one to face danger, fear, or vicissitudes with self-possession, confidence, and resolution; bravery.
In addition, they mention heroism:
1. the state or condition of being a hero.
2. behavior typical of a hero. — heroic, adj.

Oxford adds this:
The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery. Strength in the face of pain or grief.

The English definitions of courage definitely have a sense of masculinity, even machismo (to welcome some Spanish to the party).

In French, the definition is similar but the usage relies more on heart and less on brawn. Confidence, bravery, and fearlessness are seen to come directly from the heart, and courage is seen to be a trait held equally by both men and women. There’s less focus on physicality and more focus on spirit.

One way to get a sense of the words is with these related phrases: “good luck” in English, and “bonne chance” and “bon courage” in French.

In English, we say “good luck” quite often, in wishing someone success on an exam or in a job interview or with a daunting task. The direct translation into French is “bonne chance,” but this term is actually rather different in French, and may not be well-received. “Bonne chance” suggests that what is about to happen is entirely a matter of fate, with the person involved having no effect on the outcome. The French prefer to say “bon courage,” which sends good wishes to the person’s spirit and determination in achieving a successful outcome.

Thus I return to my own adventure, and I can now accept with gratitude those comments about my courage; my heartfelt thanks to all of you who said something like this to me. This adventure has definitely required resolve, confidence (or bold pretense!), a sense of humor, a willingness to look foolish, and being OK with a need to re-learn nearly everything. There has been a lot of alone time and there’s not much of a comfort zone. What there has been is time spent looking into my heart, and a deep knowing that I am doing the right thing.

On the left, that sign reads “The cat is mean and insightful,” a deliciously funny way to say “Beware of Cat.” On the right, “Louise” is the very image of ferocity.
Persistence in the face of opposing forces, seen in “What’s Your Point.”
A car in the salvage yard with chipped paint creating a very human look of haunting loneliness in “Mascara Run.”
On the left: a lunchtime rider in a briefly-deserted Parisian crosswalk in “Your Move.” On the right: “Two Travelers” traverse a snowy forest of towering aspen trees.


Heart Stroke

Sounds kind of painful, doesn’t it? If you type “coup de cœur” into a French-to-English translator, you could well receive “heart stroke” as the translation. You might like to know that it’s a bit more interesting than that!

coup is literally a stroke, as in a hit, or a flash, or a sudden burst. And cœur is, as we read above, heart. So the literal translation is “heart stroke.” But that is not very romantic, is it?

Coup de cœur is a phrase that refers to a sudden passion, a crush, a favorite, although it’s not generally used for people. It’s found in real estate ads and that fancy pâtissière (pastry shop) in Paris; it’s a way of telling your friends about your new favorite restaurant.

If you want to talk about sudden passion involving people (and who doesn’t?), the phrase to use is “coup de foudre,” which refers to that visceral flash that tingles throughout your body when you see a stranger you are immediately attracted to. Coup de foudre means love at first sight.


Four Minute Beauty Break

Begin the year with a deep breath and four minutes of passion and beauty by watching this stunning film by Mike Olbinsky. In the first paragraph of his description, he talks about a coup de cœur!

Nature’s stormy beauty


A sign posted on the gate of a house in Tuscany. “Beware of Dog.”


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