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I arrived in France five years ago with over 40 years’ experience of learning and using the French language, including a first class degree (if you discount the literature, history and other bits and pieces which to me were superfluous to learning the language but which turned out to be essential for understanding the French mind). I signed up with Papillon Properties because they sold me my house and I liked their setup.

I soon discovered that whilst I could communicate perfectly adequately with the French I could not always understand what they really meant in their responses and that there was a totally different subsidiary language which I had not been taught, so I am working on an alternative dictionary which hopefully will be helpful to other expats. I have recently set up as an “autoentrepreneur” to assist people in their dealings with the often (always?) difficult French administrative bodies and I hope my experiences with them will prove helpful to others. I will give a few examples of what I mean as a “taster”, the full Monty will take a little longer – see below under “quart d’heure”.


The French have various concepts of time depending on the activity involved. You must have seen the road signs indicating “Leclerc à 2 minutes” or some such similar poster which in reality cannot possibly be achieved without having the skills of a Lewis Hamilton or Jenson Button – I’m afraid I cannot quote a French counterpart as, ironically, having some of the fastest road drivers in the world they do not have a F1 driver in that class, with apologies to Sébastien Bourdais.

However, despite their speed en voiture, there is a totally different mindset when it comes to shopping. Once at the till it is obligatory to pass the time of day with the caissière, never get your money out before reloading the trolley, and always pay by cheque if you have only bought a baguette.

Even worse, the concept of time in the field of administration makes a tortoise capable of challenging Husain Bolt. I always understood that the Spanish invented procrastination but the French seem to have usurped the principle and applied it to their administration. Nothing can be done quickly “il faut patienter”. So here are a few definitions of some of the phrases you will encounter. More will be provided in the eventual tome.

Patientez s’il vous plait Hang on until the money runs out

Un petit quart d’heure Anything between 30 mins, over 1 hour, or the 12th of never

Tous nos conseillers sont occupés As in England, we are all at the pub, so do not bother us until this afternoon, or preferably not at all.

Un conseiller va vous répondre See above


Whatever they might really be thinking I have rarely come across really rude French people – look at the way they sign off in letters, or the fact you are addressed as Monsieur, short for “my lord”, or Madame “my lady”. So here are a few examples of their polite way of getting rid of your enquiry


Merci de votre compréhension We know you are about to blow a gasket but we do not understand the system any more than you do

A priori From Latin, means literally “in principle” but in practice it is unlikely ever to happen

Nous sommes désolés We are devastated (but cannot help)

Votre dossier est en train d’être traité We have lost your file


Many words/phrases in French appear obvious to us in their meaning but there are serious dangers of embarrassment or worse if you do not know the “false friends”


Préservatif Absolutely not jam = condom !

Terrible Great, fantastic

Isolé(e) usually means insulated rather than isolated

Déviation Diversion of the route, rather than anything naughty going on in the area

Je suis pleine (of females) I am pregnant, not full in the alimentary sense

Je suis chaude (ditto) I am randy – not hot in the temperature sense

There is much more in the pipeline, watch this space. It is not intended to denigrate the French or their institutions. I would not have settled here if I did not like them, but it is necessary to have an idea of what they really mean, and I would appreciate any feedback from people who have had similar experiences, bad or preferably good.

Michael Owen - absolutely in no way connected with that footballer

Papillon Properties Home

Michael Owen
April 2009

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