Neighbors fence

ExpatCH: French lesson vis-a-vis horrible neighbours

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'Tu' vs. 'vous' jumps out of the classroom and into Bill Harby's backyard.

Some readers of my blog probably think I'm being paid by the Swiss Tourism Bureau to write positive reports from here in Chocolateland. If only! I get paid nothin' by nobody to write these blogs, which is only slightly less than I've so far been paid by Swiss publications. I'm still trying to figure out why salaries here for regular jobs are about double what they are in the U.S., while freelance magazine writing pays about half what I get for U.S. publications -- plus they expect you to throw in your photos for free.

But that's not what I meant to write about today. I want to write (again) about the mysterious nuances of the formal and informal "you" in the French language. I'm still struggling along with learning French. My Swiss and French friends tell me I've progressed a lot in the last year -- at least I think that's what they're saying, but I'm not sure because my comprehension is still on the level of a dog listening pitifully to his master. The upside is that I've become more proficient at reading body language. If someone smiles or laughs or brightens their eyes while speaking, I become jovial. If they furrow their brow, I try to show commensurate concern.

But that's not what I meant to write about either, so why don't I get to the point.

French teachers explain that when we first meet someone, we always use the formal "vous" form for "you" and continue with that until the two parties have achieved some mysterious level of intimacy that is usually signaled by the native French speaker -- and which we foreigners will probably miss. But once we get it we feel blessed and begin to use the more intimate "tu" form of "you" with that person.

What our teachers never tell us is that sometimes "tu" must be abandoned and we must return to the more distant "vous." Sadly, my wife and I have experienced this ourselves.

When Maïf and I first moved in here to our country cottage in the gorgeous sprawling farmlands above Neuchâtel, with the lake below and the Alps beyond, we were in bliss, especially after meeting our neighbors on either side. With the couple on one side, we quickly became friendly, and in no time "tu" and "toi" filled the air. Today we are evermore affectionate friends.

The neighbors on the other side ... not so much. The day we arrived there was a gift of fruit from them on our front step. Sweet! We went to their front door, met them, and gave them a little gift too. Soon we were greeting each other with smiles, waves and a few words here and there. They seemed to tolerate my hilarious grammar and my blank looks in response to their comments. So of course we went from "vous" to "tu."

Then came the dispute they have with our landlady, who also happens to be my darling mother-in-law. On Christmas day it was clear from the icy stare and perfunctory greeting we received from monsieur that, to him, we were tainted. Later that morning he refused our Christmas gift to the family, even though we explained that we had no say in the dispute he had with my mother-in-law (though she's clearly in the right). His wife continues to wave and venture a smile when she isn't with him.

And so I found myself confronted with a French language situation never discussed by any of my able teachers: going backwards from the warm "tu" to the frosty "vous."

It was actually easy. I've made up my mind to keep greeting my ******* neighbor with a smile and a wave and pleasant greeting in hopes he comes to his senses. Except now, instead of "Comment va-tu?" I say "Comment allez-vous?"

Next week at French class I'm going to present this thorny situation to the class. Who knows how they will react? The current class members are from Bosnia, Portugal, Brazil, Germany, Lebanon, Turkey, Afghanistan and Italy -- places where notions of land, government involvement, and neighborly intimacy vary widely. We've all been on the "tu" level for months. We'll see how it shakes out.


By Bill Harby.

Reprinted from ExpatCH.

Bill Harby is anBill Harby award-winning writer, editor and photographer based in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and Volcano, Hawai‘i. Yes, he loves chocolate and fondue, but raclette and Heidi make him nauseous.






Header photo credit: neelaka

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1 Comment To This Article

  • Joan Card Redemer posted:

    on 4th May 2012, 09:49:06 - Reply

    When we moved to Bonn, Germany in 1999, we had almost the same experience. The neighbors to our left became almost instant friends and have remained so. The neighbor on the right, will always be Herr B. Every time he saw me, I was greeted by, "Frau R, you are not allowed to ...."
    Upon our move to Brasschaat, Belgium, we found the same thing with left and right neighbors.
    Now that we are permanent and own our house (in Antwerp city) those problems have disappeared. Now I just have to make time to greet and kiss each neighbor who is outdoors as I pass by their house.