Tag Archives: Comédie Française

Friday’s French – merde

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When kids start to learn a foreign language, the first thing they do is to find out how to say all the four (or five) letter words they know. They’re called gros mots or coarse words in French.

I never say “shit” in English but I do occasionally say merde because for some unknown reason it isn’t nearly as vulgar in French as it is in English. I guess that explains the English expression “excuse/pardon my French”.

The equivalent of “sugar” is mercredi (Wednesday) and a softer variant is merdum with the emphasis on the last syllable.

Buren columns with the temporary Comédie Française theatre on the left
Buren columns with the temporary Comédie Française theatre on the left

But that isn’t actually the subject of this post. Merde is what you say to an actor or singer before a performance pour conjurer le sort, just as we say “break a leg” because wishing someone good luck might bring exactly the opposite.

It seems that the use of merde in French comes from the time when people drew up in front of the theatre in horse-drawn carriages, thus littering the pavement with horse dung. Since the amount deposited was directly proportional to the number of people attending the play, it was the done thing to wish the actors beaucoup de merdes.

And while we’re on the subject of superstition and actors, you can give an actress roses but never carnations. It seems that when actors were employed permanently, the director used to give a bouquet of roses to the actresses whose contracts were renewed but only cheaper carnations to the others.

You’re not supposed to whistle on stage or in the wings either as it could bring bad luck. There are two possible explanations for this. Back in the old days, stage hands used to whistle instructions to each other when changing scenery which meant that if the actors started whistling too, it could create confusion.  Or it could come from the time when gas lighting was used in the theatre. If the pilot light went out when the lights were dimmed, gas could escape causing an explosion. The escaping gas made a characteristic whistling sound which could be overridden by any other kind of whistling.

Another word you can’t use is corde (rope) which is replaced by guinde. Depending on the time and place, saying corde was considered “fatal” and could lead to death while in others, you had to buy drinks for everyone within hearing distance. It seems it’s a navy superstition where a rope is considered to be an instrument of torture. The only corde present in a theatre is a corde à piano which has nothing to do with music but is made of steel and used to open and close the curtain.

Which brings me to rideau which is the normal term for curtain and is prohibited in the theatre because it’s supposed to bring bad luck. Pendrillon is used instead or the more recent term taps. I don’t know why.

The colour green is considered bad luck too, except for clowns. There are several explanations here: green was not an attractive colour under 19th century lighting; the copper or cyanide oxide used to dye clothing is poisonous; and Molière, one of France’s most famous actors/playwrights, was wearing green at his last performance at the Comédie Française before he died.

Thank you, French Wikipedia, for all these little tidbits.

Buskers in Paris and Prague

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When I came up out of an overcrowded metro the other day onto Place de Valois at 6.30 pm (now why didn’t I take the bus like a real Parisian? because there’s no direct bus to uni so I’d have to take two), there was this fellow playing the piano. Isn’t that amazing? A real piano! Not like Vienna, which I used to think was the music capital before I went there. Not a single busker the whole time we were there. Lots of expensive concerts, ALL playing medleys and there’s nothing I dislike more. I like to choose the music I’m going to listen to in a concert hall.

Prague on the other hand was full of musicians. Everywhere you turned there was a band or singers. It was wonderful! Prague remains one of my favourite destinations, despite the food, but the Italian restaurants saved the day. What I particularly like is being able to go right down to the river banks to have a drink or a meal. You can’t do that in Paris though they’re in the process of doing something about it. All sorts of things are in the making for the banks of the Seine.

Paris has a good share of buskers. You often find them in the metro, though the quality of their performance varies. Around our area there are a few regular musicians. Often on a Saturday afternoon around 3, a full orchestra comes to the Place Colette in front of the Comédie Française. They appear to be eastern European and probably students as they change from one year to the next. If you get there at the right time, you can sit and have a drink on the terrace of the Le Nemours. They have their favourites of course (medleys are fine outdoors) and cater to the tourists but they usually play pretty well. On Sunday there was a very enthusiastic brass band on Place du Palais Royal which made a change.

We used to have a very mournful saxophonist over the other side of the Palais Royal gardens. He always played the same thing and it used to drive me spare. So one day I went to see him to ask if he could play something else. He turned out to be a Pom and told me regretfully that he only knew one tune. Fortunately the weather improved and he took his saxophone somewhere else. Another regular on a Sunday afternoon is an opera singer down near the music box shop. She draws a huge crowd.

A long long time ago, when we lived in the suburbs (almost seems another lifetime now), Black Cat and I used to play the piano and Leonardo played the clarinette. I used to hold musical afternoons with the neighbours. We had a cello, a violin, another clarinette, some other pianists and a singer, plus a few triangles and other things of that ilk. But any ability to play has long since left me I’m afraid. I couldn’t even remember where middle C was recently when I had the piano tuned. But now that we have our Aussie exchange student, Brainy Pianist, we have our own private concert before dinner on a Thursday. I love it!

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