All families have their expressions, household memes that no else would understand. Some are odd, some peculiar, some downright weird. Odder, more peculiar and weirder still are where they come from – and how they endure.
Two of ours are “Avec, avec!” and “Le qué pouf!” The first might not seem so unusual, given the linguistic nature of our family: One fluently bilingual francophone, one francoanglophone (two mother tongues), and one fluently bilingual anglophone, all of whom also speak bits and pieces of up to half a dozen languages more.
So “Avec, avec!” (literally, “With, with!”) might seem normal. Except that it is meaningless. “Avec, avec” has as much meaning in French as “with, with” in English. No literal meaning, no metaphoric meaning, no idiomatic meaning. None. “Le qué pouf” is even odder, since not only does it lack meaning of any kind, it isn’t even remotely grammatically sensible. Leaving aside the fact qué isn’t a French word, the closest literal translation would be “The what puff”. Hmm….
If you recognize these at all, you were raised on Pépé le Pew. This is more or less Warner Brothers mock French – mock-fake, not mock-mocking: My blatant assertion is that they loved France, French, and the French, likely as a result of some of their more pleasant experiences in and around City of Lights ’round about WW2. No freedom fries for the WB.
And yes, we – well, two of us – are big Bugs fans. “We are the boys in the chorus”, “Hello my baby”, and “Quit steamin’ up my tail” are also common currency. But they don’t have the meaning, the power, the visceral oomph of “Avec, avec” and “Le qué pouf”.
For that, we need a side trip to Wisconsin via the Carribean.
Several years ago we took our first and only cruise. We learned a few things. First, we’re not cruise people – too regimented, too planned, too organized. We like to make sure we have places to stay then wing it. Much more interesting getting inland, eating with locals, riding in frightening taxis.
Second, who you dine with can make or break your cruise. We were lucky. Our family of three was seated with a family of five with whom we got along fabulously. So well, in fact, we went to visit them in Wisconsin a few months later. (Dinners are set: You get a table, a seating time, and that’s that. Perhaps you can change if unhappy with your arrangements, but we never even considered inquiring, so well did we get along. Breakfasts are general admission, sit where you can with whomever. And some of the whomevers were pretty dim. Call me an elitist pig, but being able to switch languages made for pleasant isolation.)
Third, politics and religion don’t matter squat if there is a heart connection. Let’s just say that when we got to Wisconsin and I noticed the Bush-Cheney sticker on the back of John’s brand-new black Suburban, I whispered to Sylvie “don’t talk about the election!” It wouldn’t have mattered, I’m sure. We just got along.
So how do we get from Wisconsin to mock France? John’s Dad didn’t speak a lick of French but “Avec, avec” and “Le qué pouf” were two of his expressions. And John’s telling of how that came to be and how funny it was that they now had real French-speaking friends so marked us that they entered our vocabulary. (It’s John story to tell, so no more soup for you.)
These expressions mean much more to us than Pépé, as adorable as he may be. Heck, Sylvie gave me a Pépé doll a while ago that says “You are the corned beef to me, I am ze cabbage to you” and other expressions when you squeeze his little paw. Adorable.
But not enough to account for the popularity, the meaning of “Avec, avec” and “Le qué pouf”.
As funny as the frog is, “Hello my baby” are just words. But “Avec, avec” is history. Its meaninglessness is sometimes the most meaningful possible response. Sort of a warm fuzzy combination of “duh” and “whatever”. Or sometimes “hurry up you and I both know I don’t need to tell you that because you are hurrying but you’re stressing me out and I know that you know but we’re going to be late… Avec, avec!”
That’s a lot of weight for meaningless words. With them come stories and shared experiences and happiness and memories one of the most pleasant vacations we’ve ever had, one that just happened to involve a cruise but wasn’t because of the cruise. Weightier still.
To “Avec, avec” and “Le qué pouf” we now add “I kiiilll you”, “Holy Crap”, and “You racist bastard”.
This trip isn’t quite as interesting. In fact, you can take a good part of it.
Then watch this.
Then watch this space for part 2.