Bidules, machins and trucs from a year abroad: Montmartre

posted by Madeleine Chalmers

Montmartre is a legendary part of Paris – a maze of twisting cobbled streets, trees, squares, that leaves you breathless, and not just from the steep climb.


Tucked away discreetly in a side street behind the Sacré-Coeur, the Musée de Montmartre keeps the memory of the area’s heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries alive. Set in beautiful gardens overlooking the Montmartre vineyards, the museum’s collections are displayed in the house of artist Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice Utrillo, a building which played host to the most dynamic and innovative artists, painters, and composers of the day. A zinc-topped bar counter, a battered piano with yellowed keys, photographs, paintings, and sketches all conjure up a time when Montmartre was the centre of an extraordinary creative ferment, and a lodestone for artists from across Europe, who would arrive with no money and no French, confident of a generous Montmartrean welcome, with kindness and credit freely given.


Alongside the Moulin Rouge, two iconic cabarets loom large in the museum’s collections: the Lapin Agile and the Chat Noir. Lithe, mischievous, and living by their wits, the nimble rabbit and black cat which form the Montmartre menagerie perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the area. Opened in 1855, the Lapin Agile still offers a nightly dinner and cabaret show 160 years later, although the atmosphere is somewhat different. In the late 19th century, you would step into a spicy fug of tobacco smoke and sweat, the aniseed burn of absinthe hitting the back of your throat. Ears ringing with the plaintive wheeze and rasp of an accordion, and the sound of bawdy, full-throated laughter, you would take a seat at one of the sticky tables, scored with the initials of your predecessors. You never knew who you’d be rubbing shoulders with: wealthy Parisians slumming it for a night, artists’ models, dancers, political radicals, ladies of the night, local eccentrics of every stripe, penniless poets with inkstained fingers or hungry artists still spattered with paint, come from unheated attics and studios to warm themselves with drink and friendship, and to listen to the chansons réalistes of poets such as Aristide Bruant. As their name suggests, these were songs which told the truth about Paris and the seamy underbelly of its nightlife, in a distinctive slang. They were tales of poverty, prostitution, violence, heartbreak, hopeless love, but also bawdy, innuendo-laden or just downright filthy sing-a-longs. They’re emblematic of gouaille – a uniquely Parisian trait, a blend of bolshy straight-talking, cheek, and bravado, with an underlying hint of vulnerability. It’s tempting to sanitize or romanticize the sordid reality of life in Montmartre, but these songs express the extremes of existence there – all human emotions and situations, from joy to misery, expressed with equal intensity.

Montmartre has retained its strong sense of identity: its inhabitants are still defiant outsiders and unrepentant eccentrics, helping each other out and fighting to preserve their traditions. Looking down from the gardens of the museum and imagining summer evenings heavy with the smell of ripening grapes and raucous with the din of the Lapin Agile, it’s easy to fool yourself into hearing the clack and swoosh of the windmills which used to dot the Montmartre hillside – and feeling the breeze of anarchy.


And if you’re interested…

… here’s a flavour of Montmartre’s cultural output during its heyday.


With their exuberant colours, effervescent energy, and startling shapes, these are definitely worth a look:


A larger than life figure, Guillaume Apollinaire was an experimental poet and the father of Surrealism. In his collections Alcools (1913) and Calligrammes (1918), he uses words which are simple individually, but puts them together in surprising combinations. He plays with the layout of his poems on the page to form verbal flowers or fireworks.

A particular favourite of mine is Le Pont Mirabeau (here in the original French, with English translations, and musical French versions).


  • ‘Milord’ – In this rambunctious number, Edith Piaf, the ‘Sparrow of Montmartre’, encourages a broken-hearted lover to drink and dance away his sorrows:



  • ‘Rose Blanche (Rue St Vincent)’ – an iconic poet from the Lapin Agile, Aristide Bruant here sets his pen to tell of a woman’s tragic end at the hands of her gangster lover, on the Rue St Vincent in Montmartre (here in a rendition by variety star Yves Montand)


  • Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001)
    • A modern take on the area, but which has an unmistakeably quirky Montmartrean charm. The director Jean-Pierre Jeunet lives in Montmartre and is a familiar face in its various restaurants and bars.

The Musée de Montmartre can be found at: 12 rue Cortot, 75018 Paris


Madeleine Chalmers

I’m a 3rd year French student at St John’s, currently on an Erasmus study exchange at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. I have been known to give the odd rendition of a chanson réaliste on my accordion.

Bidules, machins, and trucs from a year abroad: why I love my degree


posted by Madeleine Chalmers

I’ve often been asked why I chose to do a degree in French. My answer is, because it constantly surprises me. The novels, poems, and plays I read for my course at Oxford make me laugh, cry, and think. They might puzzle me occasionally, and always challenge me, but they never leave me indifferent.

Literature, which we read in the original French, forms the backbone of the French course at Oxford. This might sound absolutely terrifying, and not very appealing. Reading in French is a long hard slog, but if you stick with it, it will reward you in ways you couldn’t imagine. I read my first French novels at school with a dictionary balanced on my knees, impatiently deciphering every other word. It was tiring, frustrating, and extremely slow, but absolutely addictive. Reading in English, my eye would skip easily across the page. In French, it felt like I was having to fight for every word, and so, strangely, each word really seemed to matter.

I’ll always remember the rush of joy and pride I felt when I finished my first French book without a dictionary. All of a sudden, I felt as though I had gained access to a whole passionate countryful of new stories, feelings, and ideas – a country I no longer wanted to leave. Reading is an intensely personal experience. Your mind and your feelings come into contact with the mind and feelings of an author who may have lived and died centuries before you were born. He or she offers you his or her vulnerabilities, sense of humour, and ideas about the world – and they collide with yours. The more you read in French, the more fluent you become and the easier it gets, but I promise that you’ll never lose that original thrill of recognition, when, across time and language, an author’s message comes through loud and clear, and it feels as though they were speaking only for you.

A French degree is the experience of other voices and other perspectives. As such, it’s incredibly varied. ‘French literature’ at Oxford encompasses everything written in French – from the earliest Medieval writings to books published last year, from mainland France to French-speaking countries across the world. Options in film, philosophy, and art allow you to get to grips with French culture through approaches which you may not have studied before, while translation and linguistics will make you see language in a whole new light.

One of the distinctive features of a language degree is the year abroad (the 3rd year of the 4 year course). For me, it’s felt like a chance to bring everything together: the French language and culture I’ve studied at Oxford, and French language and culture as they are spoken and lived in France today. It’s the year when a country that has seemed foreign really becomes home.

I’ve always been fascinated by France at the turn of the twentieth century – a period when certain districts of Paris became hubs for innovation by bold new artists, writers, and all-round eccentrics. My year abroad has given me the chance to see exhibitions and museums which celebrate these revolutionaries, and I’ve been able to visit their old haunts and homes. These are moments when the literature, music, art, and atmosphere of a whole time and place slide into focus – and they make all those hours flicking through dictionaries worth the effort. Over the next few months of my year abroad, I’ll try to pinpoint some of those moments – the reasons why I love my degree. First stop (in next week’s post): Montmartre!

Madeleine Chalmers – I’m a 3rd year French student at St John’s, currently on an Erasmus study exchange at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

Love in a foreign language


posted by Simon Kemp

The Guardian had a helpful guide recently on what to do if you find yourself falling in love with someone who speaks a different language. The original article is here, but I thought I would share some of it with you, in case you should ever find yourself in that situation:

Dating can be confusing enough in your mother tongue, let alone when your date speaks a foreign language. From dealing with embarrassing mistakes to surviving arguments, Erica Buist shares some tips on how to get by.

Are you dating someone in a foreign language? It can be an amazing language and cultural exchange, but it can also be tricky. Whether you’re celebrating Día de San Valentín, Saint Valentin or Den’ sviatogo Valentina, here are a few tips on how to maintain a relationship without the comfort of your mother tongue.

The first date: don’t try to escape the language barrier

Writer Gary Brooks arrived in Siberia as a linguistic “full-grade ignoramus” and met Masha in a cafe. “She overheard me receiving a Russian lesson over some awful Baltika beer. We did the whole ‘You are Britain?’ horror, with my teacher interpreting for me. Lord of the Rings had just been released, and after we established I had never seen the film we arranged to meet and watch it together (in Russian), and so a first date was born.”

 A film seems like a great idea for a date when you can’t say much to each other, but Gary points out you have to talk about the film afterwards, and suggests you instead use the language gap as material for a date. “Meet up for a coffee date and give a mutual language lesson,” he says. “Go for a long romantic walk, pointing out trees, ducks and strange men in anoraks and tell each other the name in your own languages. It’s relaxing and fun.”


When words fail, body language and charades will be your friends

 Will Henderson dated Marianne from Montpellier for three years. When he arrived in France on his Erasmus year, he had only a GSCE in French and a few catch-up lessons: “My level of French was not great. I had some formulaic phrases, such as ‘My name is William’ and ‘Where is the cathedral?’”

Will and Marianne met at the student bar. “It was a good way to get together – because the music is too loud to hear anyway, so you use other ways to flirt, like body language, buying her a drink, or making sure you’re going out for a cigarette at the same time.”

They were together for four months before Will had to resort to charades. All he wanted to do was put up some shelves, but he didn’t know the French words for drill, tools or hole. “I was completely without context. I was pointing at the wall saying, ‘I need a … it’s the thing you use to make a … a bit of not-wall.’ She looked confused; I’d resorted to charades for random nouns before, but this was an entire performance. I pointed my finger like a gun and made drill sounds, at which point she understood and taught me all the words I hadn’t known.”

Treasure the inevitable cultural clashes

Gary says that rather than language barriers which could be “easily overcome with gestures, dictionaries and hurried phone calls to friends”, he and Masha found out more about each other and their backgrounds, by often embarrassing and always revealing cultural differences. “Our third date was at a restaurant and I was puzzled by her insisting on eating every course with a spoon – apparently a knife and fork was ‘posh’ and unnecessary. That memory sticks with me a lot, if only because eating game with a spoon is very difficult.”

Etiquette in other situations were even more baffling. “Manners and interaction, both socially and especially in the bedroom, were – amazingly – determined by the content of classic Russian novels,” says Gary. “If it wasn’t in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, one simply didn’t do it. If it was rude in Chekhov it was rude in life and if Gogol said something was a good idea then you ought to do it.”

Cultural clashes can be awkward and even embarrassing – but treasure them. They’re not just great for getting to know each other: with every faux pas you get to know your partner’s culture a little better.

Arguments: prepare yourself for an uneven playing field

It can take ages to shake your susceptibility to misunderstandings when you communicate in a second language. “Marianne and I would have blazing rows,” Will recalls, “before realising I’d misheard or misunderstood something.” There are words and phrases that appear to have a simple, direct translation, but the meanings can change in ways dictionaries don’t flag up. You can’t be too precious about your point, advises Will, because you will have complete breakdowns in communication.

Your brain may never work as fast in your second language – but that shouldn’t doom you to lose every argument. Lilia Esperón Delaney from Mexico speaks only English with her Canadian husband, Dan, and finds making arguments the most frustrating part of being in a relationship in a foreign language, even after 14 years together. “You always end up sounding like the more stupid person in the fight – because you have an accent, because you can’t make a point as well, because the perfect word in Spanish has no English equivalent, so you’re definitely at a disadvantage. It can be quite frustrating.”

Embrace embarrassment, it’s good for your vocabulary

Embarrassing stories are useful for remembering words. The first time Gary made Masha laugh was a slapstick moment of slipping on ice and falling over, Norman-Wisdom style. “Instead of warm sympathy I got giggles and a breathy ‘Eto skol’zko, eto skol’zko!’ (It’s slippy, it’s slippy!). In the intervening years I’ve worked all over the place and my Russian has decayed, but I never ever forgot skol’zko.”

“Prepare to be embarrassed on a very regular basis,” says Kate McDermott, reflecting on her time dating a Frenchman. It’s true for all language-learning that you’re likely at some point to mispronounce words and be occasionally unintelligible, but you’re at your most vulnerable in terms of your self-confidence when you’re in the company someone you fancy. The solution? “Get over yourself, basically!” says Kate. And as someone who was once almost tricked by a friend into mixing up the terms for “back of the neck” and “a***hole” during a romantic moment, she should know.

Fun With Grammar: Here’s to you, Mrs Vandertramp


posted by Simon Kemp

Some verbs are special. Learning French, you soon get to know about the small list of verbs that don’t behave like the others when you put them in the passé composé. They conjugate with être instead of avoir, and their past participle agrees with the subject of the verb. So rather than ‘ils ont donné’ or ‘elle a fait’, you get ‘ils sont partis’ or ‘elle est tombée’. They are the Mrs Vandertramp verbs, and they are these:

Monter (elle est montée)

Retourner (elle est retournée)

Sortir (elle est sortie)

Venir (elle est venue)

Aller (elle est allée)

Naître (elle est née)

Descendre (elle est descendue)

Entrer (elle est entrée)

Rester (elle est restée)

Tomber (elle est tombée)

Rentrer (elle est rentrée)

Arriver (elle est arrivée)

Mourir (elle est morte)

Partir (elle est partie)

Good old Mrs Vandertramp, the helpful mnemonic-lady made up of the initial letters of all the special verbs. Except… something about her has always bothered me. Why is there only one ‘D’ in the name, when both descendre and devenir are on the special-verb list? Presumably it’s because devenir is just venir (which is in the name), plus a prefix. But in that case, why does the mnemonic include both entrer and rentrer? And if it includes rentrer, why not revenir, remonter, redescendre, redevenir, retomber, repartir, ressortir (note the extra ‘s’ in that one), and renaître? Adding in Mrs Vandertramp’s husband to make ‘Dr & Mrs’ (as in the image at the top of the post) is hardly going to solve that problem.

No, if you want a mnemonic that covers all the subject-agreeing être-conjugating verbs, you’re going to have to memorize this one:

Arrrrrrrrrrr, Stamp DVD Men !

…which, funnily enough, is also the official motto of the International Association for Video Piracy.

video pirate
A video pirate yesterday


There is another version of the Mrs Vandertramp mnemonic which I learned at school: the less memorably named Mrs Daventramp, who just includes a letter for each of the thirteen basic verbs, missing out any which are the same with an added prefix. It means you don’t have to include any of  the endless ‘re-‘ prefixes, but also means you still have to be careful not to forget about devenir and redevenir (to become again or turn back into), which are included in the V for venir. Alternatively, if you want to strip out all the ‘re-‘ prefixes and leave in all the rest, you could acquaint yourself with Mr D. M. Vaderpants, who has descendre and devenir in his name, but none of the superfluous ‘re-‘ derivatives.


Vaderpants (2)
Mr D. M. Vaderpants yesterday.


The problem with all of these mnemonics is that in some ways they actually make things more difficult than they really are. The special verbs naturally form into groups, either by being opposites in meaning or by adding prefixes, and the mnemonics split up these groups and shuffle everything around randomly. In fact, with a bit of fiddling about, we can reduce the Mrs Vandertramp verbs to a simple list of five, plus the related verbs to each of them. The verbs are Naître, Sortir, Partir, Aller and Monter. Behold, the N-Spam verbs!

Naître, plus its opposite, mourir, and with a prefix, renaître.

Sortir, plus its opposite, entrer, and their prefixed versions, ressortir and rentrer.

Partir. What’s the opposite of depart/leave/go? Obviously, it’s arrive/return/stay. The three verbs arriver, retourner and rester are all opposites of partir. Plus, there’s the prefix version, repartir (to set out again, not to be confused with répartir, to share out).

Aller, plus its opposite, venir, and the two prefixes, devenir and revenir.

Monter means to rise or ascend, and also has two opposites: fall (tomber) or descend (descendre), plus a prefixed version of all three: remonter, redescendre, retomber.


N-Spam. Like N-Dubz, but with spam.

Really though, unless you’re going to carry a piece of paper around with you and refer to it whenever you need to say something in the passé composé,  these lists are only useful to get you started. What you need to do is keep speaking, listening, and reading in French until ‘elle est tombée’ sounds right and natural to you, and ‘elle a tombé’ sounds weird and wrong. Once you get to that point, you’re thinking like a French person. Mrs Vandertramp has become a part of you, and will live somewhere inside your head for evermore.



To finish with, a few extra notes and complications, as Mrs Vandertramp is never quite as straightforward as people might like her to be.

1. All the Vandertramp verbs are intransitive, meaning they don’t have an object: you can go, but you can’t go something, in the way that you can do something, eat something, see something. Some of the verbs on the list in fact have a transitive version. ‘Monter’ can be used intransitively as a Vandertramp verb, ‘elle est montée’ (she went up), but also transitively, meaning either to go up something, or to take something up. In that usage, it’s no longer a Vandertramp verb, but conjugates with avoir: elle a monté l’escalier;  elle a monté les valises dans la chambre. You can also use five other verbs from the list in the same way: (re)descendre quelque chose (go/bring down something), remonter quelque chose (go back up something/wind something up), rentrer quelque chose (bring something in), retourner quelque chose (turn something over), and (res)sortir quelque chose (take something out).

2. Retourner gets a proper place on the Vandertramp list, unlike rentrer, revenir, remonter, redescendre, redevenir, retomber, repartir, ressortir and renaître, which are optional extras. That’s because the others are all Vandertramp verbs even without the re- prefix, but not retourner. The verb tourner does exist in French, but it’s conjugated with avoir: elle a tourné la clef/la clef a tourné.

3. There’s one more Vandertramp verb we haven’t mentioned. Décéder, a more formal synonym for mourir, is not as commonly used as the other ones, so often gets overlooked, but it works in just the same way as the rest of them.

4. There are four other verbs in French, which, while not actually being part of the Vandertramp list, might perhaps be described as Vandertramp-ish. Accourir (to rush up) and apparaître (to appear) can take être or avoir, as you prefer, with no change in meaning. The same goes for passer (to pass), which is more often treated as a Vandertramp verb than not. (The exception is the phrase ‘passer pour’, to pass as or be taken for, which always takes avoir: ‘il a passé pour intelligent’ – ‘people believed he was clever’.) Lastly, demeurer is a Vandertramp verb when used in the sense of ‘remain’ (elle est demeurée fidèle), but not in the sense of ‘live (somewhere)’ (elle a demeuré à Marseille).

5.  Oh, and one other thing about monter: as well as taking avoir when used transitively, it can also take avoir when it means that the level of something has risen: le fleuve a monté; les prix ont monté. In this sense, it’s being the opposite of the non-Vandertramp verb, baisser, rather than of descendre.

6. Lastly, there are no other Vandertramp verbs. Reflexive verbs  take être in the passé composé too, but they don’t agree with the subject, as we talked about here. Also, you may occasionally think you’ve come across an extra Vandertramp verb in a sentence like ‘la ville est tout à fait changée’, but that’s because past participles can sometimes be used as  adjectives, just as you’d say ‘la ville est tout à fait différente’. In the passé composé, changer takes avoir and doesn’t agree with the subject: elle a beaucoup changé récemment. 

Mrs Vandertramp yesterday.