ecently one morning, a friend said to me, “Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?” This is a picture perfect greeting in some cases, but there are a few exceptions. This got me thinking about how elaborate and fun greetings are in France, and I thought I’d help you get ready for your next trip.
LET’S START IN ENGLISH
If you were to meet the Queen of England, you would curtsey, and she might say, “How do you do?” You could answer “Very well, thank you. And you?” May I ask how many times you have said, “How do you do?” in the last month?
Now imagine you pass a friend on the street you haven’t seen for a few years. “Tom? Hello! Is that really you?” And finally, your friendly neighbor would be greeted with, “Hey. How’s it going?” We also have the “Hey, man,” variety and “What’s up” or “S’up,” as they say.
TAKE IT TO FRANCE
The most famous person I met in France was Mme Michelin of Michelin Tires. You can imagine how I greeted her! You have heard of the Michelin Man? If so, here is some trivia for you.
This family also publishes the famous restaurant and hotel guides.
I met Mme Michelin because she kindly invited children to attend concerts in her home in Paris on Wednesday afternoons. I say home. It was technically an apartment, but 100 kids and a few parents could easily fit in the living room. I tried just now to find out more about her motivation for hosting these events, but I came up empty handed. How quickly Google forgets! Her husband, who was head of the family dynasty, died in 2015, so I think her interest in children and music has faded from the public arena.
So let me describe for you one of those afternoons. Young school children have Wednesday afternoons off, which is when the parents enroll them in musical pursuits or sports or foreign language learning. How I got wind of this opportunity, I no longer remember, but off we went and we were greeted by an expert player of the Japanese Koto, one of four traditional Japanese instruments.
BACK TO GREETINGS
Naturally, when I greeted Mme Michelin, I said, “Bonjour, Madame. Comment-allez vous?” Comment, means “how.” Allez is a form of the verb “going,” and vous is the polite form of “you.” The important thing to note here, for your eventual trip to Paris, is that you always include the honorific in this most polite of greetings. Literally you are asking, “How are you going, Madame?”
Now theoretically, if you know someone well, you would change from the formal vous conjugation of the verb, which most always ends in “ez”, to the more familiar form. In that case, the more familiar one, you would say, “Bonjour, comment vas-tu?”
But first for the grammarians among us. Here is the verb “to go,” upon which all greetings are based. This is an irregular verb, right up there with “I am; You are; He/ She / It is.”
TO GO ALLER
Je vais (I go)
Tu vas (You go)
Il, Elle, Ça, On va (He / She / It goes)
Nous allons (We go)
Vous allez (You go)
Ils vont (They go)
But, you know something? People don’t say the tu form of “to go” for a greeting. It’s rare to hear, Comment vas-tu?
READER: Why, oh why? And here I was following along.
ME: Hang on to your hair-doo. It will become very simple.
If you wanted to say, “Let’s go,” you might look up on the little chart and say, “Allons-y.” In French you have to go somewhere, and hence the “y” which is a place holder for God knows where. Remember Beckett was bilingual, having translated his own play from French into English. So he knew full well that in French you have to go somewhere. But his characters don’t go anywhere, do they?
So far so good. But really somebody who wanted you to get a move on, would just say, “Allez, allez.” (Let’s go). Or people will say “On y va.” Let’s go (somewhere). On is a singular pronoun but it can refer to a group. Oh mon dieu! Now listen up. The best way to manage a greeting is simply with ça va?
BEFORE YOU PULL YOUR HAIR OUT
One pet peeve I have with language learning is that we try to figure out from the grammar how something works in speaking. It’s like the way the French have the kids learn music. First, they have to learn what’s called le solfège. This is sight reading. No one wants to learn to play an instrument that way. People, if they’re lucky, learn to play by ear. And the same with speaking. Let’s just listen in!
DOWN WITH GRAMMAR!
Just do this, okay?
If you want to say, “Hello” to an older person or someone you don’t know well, say this. «Bonjour, Madame. Comment-allez vous?» Note: Don’t use vous with children or dogs. Do say “Bonjour, Madame (Monsieur),” whenever you go into a store. Even if the place looks empty, you roam around until you find somebody in the backroom with their nose in a rack of clothes which they are pressing, and you say, “Bonjour, Madame.” This shortened form is enough.
Once I was trying on clothes in a French boutique. You go and get your things, much like in the States, and then you say, “Bonjour, Madame,” to the woman who will give you the number corresponding to the number of your items. You are expected to take them back, by the way, which I did, when they didn’t fit or whatever. I came back to the dressing room with a new armload, and I said, “Re-bonjour.” And the lady said, “Re-madame.” I hope you can see the wit in her response, given the elaborate system of greetings, that she was slyly poking fun at.
BACK TO HELLOS
Say hello to somebody who is a colleague. “Bonjour, comment ça va?” This just means, “How is it going?” and not so much, “How do you do?”
Say hello to a good friend. “Salut, ça va?” This means, «Hey, how’s it going?»
And even just “Ça va?” (“It goes?”)
The beauty of ça va? is in the answer. And the answer is, believe it or not, ça va.
Take a deep breath. Breathe. Your intonation says it all. When ça va is an answer, it means, “It goes.” If you sound chirpy when you say ça va, all is well; if you draw out ça va it’s a bit half and half. If you sound miserable, it means you are trying to put up a good front but don’t believe it. Look at it this way. Once you have the question, you also have an answer. So efficient.
My daughter pointed out that you can have a perfectly intelligent conversation between two people meeting up that unfolds like this, saying “It goes?” “It goes.”
Person 1: “Ça va?”
Person 2 “Ça va. Ça va?”
Person 1: “Ça va.”
GO TO A PARTY
You will have ample practice if you go to a party with a group of French people. Every time somebody arrives, that person will go around to each and every one, saying to the elders and the president of the République, “Bonjour, Monsieur. Comment allez-vous,” shaking hands. To people their age, they will say, “Salut,” kiss you on both cheeks and say their name. And you will say, “Salut” and give your name. If you run across someone you know, but not really well, they’ll say, “Salut, comment ça va?” And your new lover will purr in your ear, ça va? The tone of your answer, of course, depends on whether he or she is in good standing.
It occurs to me that the verb “to go” or aller in French is very much used. It’s true we say, “How’s it going?” in English, but mostly we say, “How are you?” If you don’t feel like playing with ça va, when you are asked how you are in French, you could say, je vais bien. And as the chart above will tell you, that means, “I go well.” And, “I’ll be late tonight,” is Je vais être en retard ce soir. I am going to do something, in this case, be late. Did Beckett put his foot down with all this overuse of “going” in French? “They did not move,” is, after all, how the play ends.
Here’s the Koto