It’s all in how you say hello
Or to be more precise, it’s all about the humanity in taking a moment to properly greet one another. A year ago, I wrote two posts about saying hello and saying goodbye, although those were really stories about interacting with people who crossed my path. In this post, I’m going to address the language itself.
Before I delve into my own take on this, I recommend reading another description, to be found in the opening chapter of a book titled “The Bonjour Effect,” by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoit Nadeau. The whole book is excellent, and I consider the first chapter to be required reading for anyone who is planning a trip to France, for its explanation of the extreme importance of that one little word. And in using the word extreme, I do not exaggerate.
In both English and French, there is a long list of ways to greet another person you encounter on the street or at work, or just about anywhere. In the U.K., you might hear someone say good day, but it’s becoming more rare and antiquated. More often, we hear hello, hi or hiya. In Australia, you might hear the friendly g’day. In the U.S., hello is generally the most formal method of greeting, while the long list of casual greetings includes hi, hey and yo. In France, one says bonjour most frequently, and definitely in more formal settings. Casual greetings include salut and coucou.
For this article, I’m going to focus on hello and bonjour.
In both English and French, our rules for using these words are based on social convention rather than pure linguistics; our guidelines come from what we learned at home, the boundaries of civility, regional dialects, and how much the speaker wishes to rebel against social norms.
Let’s begin with English, where hello is a simple acknowledgment of the other person’s presence, a bland word that is otherwise rather devoid of meaning. To me, that very lack of meaning turns the word into a bit of a throwaway: sometimes it’s used, sometimes it’s not used, sometimes it’s shortened or replaced. The social guides in American and Australian English are different from the social guides in British English; history definitely plays its role. (The etymology of hello is complicated, but it is widely considered that this form of the word was first used in the United States.) Generally, hello is used in formal settings like business meetings or when introducing a future son-in-law, but can completely disappear when a harried traveler arrives at the airline counter after his flight has been cancelled.
Let’s switch to French, where bonjour translates directly to good day. When someone says bonjour, it’s not simply to recognize the other person’s presence, it is truly to express the desire that the other person enjoys a good day. And in France, bonjour is absolutely a fixture of social civility; it is not optional, it is required. It is used in formal settings, and it may also be used in a more casual setting; it always works.
When I walk down the street in my town and pass a group of teenagers talking excitedly about teenage things, they stop their conversation to say “Bonjour, Madame” as we pass. When two ladies step into a clothing store, they toss out a musical bonjour to the proprietor, who sings bonjour in reply. When that harried traveler arrives at the airline counter, he darn well better open with a deep breath and “Bonjour,” or he won’t receive the service he desperately wishes for.
Bonjour is the opening to every social encounter in France, and not saying it is considered downright rude. It’s an unquestioned and basic truth.
… et au revoir
Saying goodbye isn’t quite as fraught, but there seems to be a definite order to the things that are said. I’m still trying to figure this one out, but I’ll take a stab at it.
As in other languages, French has a variety of ways to say goodbye. Au revoir is by far the most common; its literal translation is “until we meet again.” I have never heard adieu used, probably because it means that it will be a very long time until you meet again, perhaps never. On the other hand, we frequently hear the more casual ciao, borrowed from Italian.
In France, the safest way to part ways is to simply say au revoir.
But what if you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store, and you’d like to thank the cashier at the same time that you say goodbye? What if you already know the cashier and want to also wish her a good evening?
Oh, my, the order of the wishes does seem to be important. I don’t know about the U.K. or Australia or other English-speaking nations, but in the United States the order doesn’t matter, nor does everything need to be said. Thus it would be just fine to say any of these things to the cashier:
“Have a good evening. Thank you.”
“Thanks. Have a nice day.”
Here in France, especially in that cashier’s line, the words fly quickly. I often hear the cashier say au revoir before I open my mouth to speak, and I’ve found it ever so easy to mix up the order of things. There don’t seem to be any rules around this, but it appears to me that the main thing is to finish with au revoir. Thus, my string of phrases usually goes something like this: Merci. Bonne soirée. Au revoir. (Thank you. Have a nice evening. Good bye.)
Late summer deliciousness
It’s early September, and with slightly cooler temperatures, I’m enjoying more meals out on my terrace. Breakfast is something I really look forward to at this time of year. The ripe, juicy flavors of late summer are making their appearance in melons that taste of honey, sweet-tart peaches, and soft, delectable figs.
France is famous for its Charentais melons, and this seems to be a particularly good year for them. This morning’s melon fits neatly into my cupped hand; it is not large, so I’m eating half of it in one sitting. I’m adding a few of the local succulent figs and a perfect peach.
There are fig trees along many of my walking paths, and since I am definitely not the only one who knows about them, I often buy them from a fellow down the road. At another shop, I found a small display of wine peaches; have you ever seen one? I hadn’t heard of them, so I bought one to try. The color inside is the most sublime deep red, just like a nice glass of wine; however, I’m pleased to report that it did not taste like wine at all. Instead was bursting with the flavor of sunshine in August, just as peachy as one could wish for.
I’ve never before been in a situation where I was looking straight into a wildfire. Thankfully it was across town, and also thankfully, legions of firefighters and other emergency responders were on the scene. My brain knew all that, yet the primal fear of fire was still there. Fire is at once fascinating and terrifying, so to still the scary part, I took out my camera.
I’d been out on the terrace, doing some work on photographs, and must have been lost in the process. I finally came into the present when I realized that I’d been hearing the buzz of low-flying aircraft for a little while. I looked out the living room window and saw the view above, left. I didn’t notice the time, but afternoon was becoming evening.
And then, like so many others, I watched in fascination as the four Canadairs swooped low to drop water on this or that hot spot, then fly off to reload with water. At one point, those four left and eight others arrived almost immediately. I remember that moment quite clearly, because it felt like things suddenly became more serious and urgent.
Let me say this: these pilots can fly. And bless them for it. From my vantage point, partway up the hill opposite, I watched as the planes came in very low over the hill and then dropped down so low that I lost sight of them. There is not much distance between what I can see over the shorter hill in front of me, and the buildings of town. This was a new kind of fear, as concern for my town and my friends grew stronger. I later learned that people on the other side of town were packed and prepared to evacuate; the fire was close, but in the end they didn’t have to leave.
On our side of the hill, there were small puffs of smoke dotting the hillside, and those planes kept returning to drop water on them. But then a shift—perhaps the wind changed—and the planes started putting more effort into the other side of the hill, where there was suddenly a lot more smoke. And then with the darkness came stillness, no more planes.
Dark, of course, brings its own issues. Because now the flames on the other side of the hill, clearly near the top, were growing larger and becoming more visible in the falling darkness. For the first time, I could see flames shoot up into the air, maybe 20 feet. If you can look closely at the second and third pictures above, you can see hotspots of flame on our side of the hill, but of course what catches the eye is the glow of fire reflected in the towering smoke. In the last photo, those blue lights are the firetrucks, which slowly but steadily worked their way across the hill, dowsing small fires as they went.
The fire was human-caused, a spark from a power tool. It was an error, and the man’s quick emergency call likely helped prevent even more damage. But with our extremely dry summer, the small fire quickly jumped both the river and the road, racing uphill and torching tinder-dry trees and shrubs.
Here’s what remains: on our side of the hill, there is one large visible patch of blackened trees and bare rock; otherwise, most of the brush and trees are intact. But the other side of the hill took the brunt of the flames, and that is a much sadder view. The next day, the planes returned to that side, and the trucks, and the men and women trained to do this work. They were still battling when I drove by in the early evening of the second day.
It wasn’t the biggest fire this region has seen, but it was the closest I’ve ever been, and that was plenty for me. I am so very grateful for all the men and women who worked to minimize the damage, to save two towns and as much property as possible. For that matter, this is a great time to say that I’m grateful to all the firefighters and emergency responders everywhere, for the amazing job they do on our behalf. Thank you all.
I try to end each post with something funny or witty, although there are moments when it’s time to post and I ain’t got nuthin’. But today I have a short story for you that I was involved in.
Two friends and I were planning a dinner party for the next day, and we needed some things at the store. As we entered the store, Kelly reached for a large shopping cart. Seeing this, I thought we could use the easier-to-navigate smaller cart, and wondered aloud if we needed the bigger cart. At this precise moment, a group of four emerged from the store, the young man in the lead pushing an empty smaller cart. He overheard my question and kindly offered this: “Ladies, if you prefer, I have a short one.”
At which the woman behind him nearly spit out whatever she was drinking, and then she burst out laughing, as did the three of us. I wonder how he tells the story…