L’esprit de l’escalier, spiral staircases and faux-amis

As I have asked mon prof Marie-Hélène many times, Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?

The answer: literally, “wit of the staircase” — I’m picturing a spiral one —  or, a repartee thought of only too late, such as (often, for me) on the way home. Unlike my quick-witted husband, who has a talent for the perfect comebacks and quips, I get caught up in over-thinking and am slow unable to respond, normalement. That is, until the moment has passed, l’individu is gone and verbal victory is impossible. The stairs have already been climbed.

Like my fear of heights, my tendency toward l’esprit de l’escalier has never changed. Naturellement, when I came across l’expression quite by accident (par hasard) — in a tweet — it caught my attention, I duly noted it and added it to mon vocabulaire français.  

Which brings me to the French term for spiral staircase: escalier en colimaçon, one of my all-time favorite things. In the Parisian home that my husband and I visited this summer, a beautiful wood spiral staircase, slimmer than the miniature one in the above photo, stood in a corner of the living room, le salon. I’ve always wanted a spiral staircase in my house and lobbied to get it when we added on some rooms a few years ago. Alas, the combination of architecture and budget wouldn’t permit it, so I had to settle for a small, decorative one.

Enfin, another recent addition to my French vocabulary, thanks to Marie-Hélène: faux-amis.

Ça veut dire: French and English words that look similar, but have different meanings. Par contre (on the other hand), vrais-amis are words that look similar and do have the same (or similar) meanings. Évidemment,I just used some of the latter, above. Since many words in the two languages have the same roots, it’s not that suprenant (unusual).

Voici some examples of faux-amis that I have learned in class (or en France) and their meanings in French — pour moi, il faut les apprendre:

Car: bus (coach)

Cave: cellar

Confidence: secret

*Distraction: amusement

Figure: face

Grand: tall

Grave: serious

Habit: clothes

Pain: bread

Sensible: sensitive

In my novel, out soon, the main character climbs many an escalier en colimaçon, including a famous one en Italie and a very old one (of course) in Montpellier, France — even though she’s not fond of crumbling ones and also suffers from acrophobia.

But she does know her faux-amis, and her (very witty) amis, aussi.

*This week’s faux-ami 

Le verre est a moitié vide

I’m a glass-half-empty person, so no wonder I like the French.

France is a nation of pessimists, deux amies françaises averred to me this week. I asked both of them (who don’t know each other) just after I read the recent NYT piece by Jane E. Brody, A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full.

My husband, however, is a glass-half-full person– not surprising, since in many cases, opposites attract. I’ve always admired his persistence and motivation, two qualities Brody says that optimists usually exhibit. He tackles problems with a focus on solutions, looks for the good in stressful situations, and believes that somehow, everything will work out. Over the years we’ve been together, some of his positive attitudes have rubbed off on me — but not all.

I’m not always “No-we-can’t,” but of the two of us, he’s the idealist and I’m the realist (and, being me, I don’t mean that I’m a realist in a good way). I’m a worrier and always have been. Unlike Brody, I haven’t fretted over the social, political and societal issues that I couldn’t do very much about. I have fretted about family issues that I could do little or nothing to solve, plus all those other things that I could change or fix. And yes, rather than looking on the bright side, I have focused on the worst that can happen.

After reading the article, though, I decided to evaluate whether I’ve evolved from my natural negative tendencies — whether I’ve fait de progrès. As my children grow into adulthood, I think I have, at least as a mom. As a writer, I believe that I have, as well. It’s still sometimes a struggle. I’m not always inspired, but I keep trying, keep writing and keep reading. Developing habits and a routine has helped, which I’ll explain in a future post. Watching and trying to emulate my husband’s work ethic and attitudes has helped a lot, and so has stepping back to focus and re-focus on my goals.

Can I change into a glass-half-full person? I’m working on it. Optimistically, I googled the phrase and discovered a new restaurant to try the next time I’m visiting Chapel Hill: Glasshalfull located in Carrboro, N.C., the town next door. What a nice surprise — and maybe a way to pursue that richer life.

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