Collecting words and phrases

While most French today no longer speak in patois (local dialects) like they used to, each region and city have several words, figures of speech or expressions that reflect their unique identities.

Just like their culinary diversity from the North to the South is distinct, their speech is equally flavourful from the East to the West. And these expressions can be picked up in the most bizarre places.

For instance, the Turtle first came across the phrase ça tombe comme à Gravelotte from Grandma Lapin in the Northeast of France. It referred apparently, to the great casualties of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 but today it means heavy rain. Elsewhere the French say c’est la fête des grenouilles (the festival of frogs).

Also while most people may know the polite answer to thank you is de rien, the Turtle recalls in a sports shop in Nice, the salesboy responding with “il n’y a pas de quoi”.

Confused, she asked him what exactly of what was there nothing of? The phrase, translated literally, amounts to something like: there is no what, which frankly, sounded more like a question to a query rather than a response to her merci beaucoup.

Once again she has found a new expression, this time in Nantes. Despite having been placed under quarantine in hospital for the entire duration of this trip (she was hospitalised before she even got to start having fun), she’s already sampled some local delights, if only linguistic and not gastronomic.

Given her small size she’s already been described as a brindille (twig) by Lapin and a petite bichette (little foal) by her favourite merchant at the farmers market in Lyon, but here in Nantes in the hospital she has been nicknamed petit gabarit (small template).

A template for what? she enquired. No one seems to have the answer. So she hit up Google which brought up no satisfying explanations either, but when she did a reverse search for a gros gabarit she got this:

Go figure.

Stories, Travel

Reflections on China

Prior to the Ninja Turtle’s visit to China, she had certain preconceptions about the place. Having only visited the country once – and this was way back in 1999, on a primary school trip to Beijing – her knowledge of China was vague at best. Sure, she knew the country had made progress in leaps and bounds, but when one is stuck with the memories of a public schooling system with too many hyper-disciplined, super-enthusiastic students crammed into a tiny classroom fighting to answer every single math question, and public toilets in a brand new state library with no doors on the cubicles, it’s hard to know just what to anticipate.

First and foremost, the infrastructure is pretty well established. There are certainly a lot more cars than bicycles on the roads now, which also explains the constant curtain of grey that hangs on the horizon. Let’s just say those aren’t rain clouds.

Since it has been over 10 years since the Ninja Turtle has lived in a Mandarin-speaking environment, her confidence was initially shaky. Sure, she occasionally speaks Mandarin with Mother and Papa Turtle, but mainland Chinese will very quickly point out that the Chinese diaspora speak bastardised versions of proper Mandarin.

This is especially so in Singapore, where the people arguably speak a creole. What some people take pride in as bilingualism is in fact, generally a substandard ability to faintly grasp two languages just enough to get by. To the Singaporean-Chinese ear, mainland Chinese speakers have a very strong accent when speaking in Mandarin.

After a day or two however, the Ninja Turtle got accustomed (thanks perhaps in part to her 4 years of Chinese-school education… yes yes, she went to a Chinese-education school, no need to point and laugh hysterically). She even got complimented on her Mandarin skills by a few people, which is not so different from when the French back in France compliment her for speaking English really well…

Another pre-trip concern was the food. Shameful confession of the week: the Ninja Turtle loves food, but food doesn’t always love the Ninja Turtle. This is especially the case in Singapore, where the Ninja Turtle lives like royalty – she eats a plethora of exciting dishes in food courts, hawker centres, restaurants, and inevitably, spends a lot of time the following day sitting on the throne… So there were questions as to just how well her guts could handle food in China (Mother Turtle could offer no real helpful advice in this area) and also, whether she’d get used to the taste.

A quick word on the standards of service in China: it is AMAZING, and the Turtle isn’t just measuring this against shoddy French service standards. The hotel staff were almost creepily efficient at their job, and it took the Ninja Turtle until the end of her stay to appreciate and get used to it. On day one, she requested a quiet corner, and was given a very comprehensive explanation of how buffet breakfasts worked while shown to her table.

Ironically, when she asked where the coffee machine was, she was told that the coffee would be brought to her table. Now the Turtle likes her coffee in a very particular way, so she said no worries, she could serve herself, it was a buffet after all. The service staff gave her a very injured look, as if the Turtle had challenged her very purpose of existence by cheerily suggesting self-service at a buffet breakfast. A few back-and-forths of insisting who would get the coffee later, the Turtle relented.

Day Two onwards, everyone on the team seemed to know everything. She was greeted warmly each morning, no repeating her room number, automatically shown to a quiet corner, served her coffee and glass of water, and checked upon every 15 minutes to see if the meal was up to standard, and the coffee topped up like magic. As she left, she was waved off by no less than 5 people, wishing her a pleasant day. It felt like these wait staff were customer service angels, and the hotel restaurant Customer Service Heaven.

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There was one thing the Ninja Turtle was looking forward to in China, but sadly, it did not eventuate. Not often does the Turtle visit a new city and not take the opportunity to run in it, exploring the sights. Sadly, the quality of the air was enough to make this asthmatic Turtle think the better of it. After all, running is meant to improve one’s health, not compromise it. And truly, it’s not fun at all when one is wheezing like Darth Vader after 500m.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she's ever used in her life.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she’s ever used in her life.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water. It was the one and only time on her trip she feigned complete ignorance of the language and pretended she didn’t understand a damn word that was being yelled in her face.

So there you have it, some reflections of China. A vibrant and exciting country that’s straddling two worlds – developing and developed – with most of its ancient history and culture still thankfully preserved despite the Maoist regime, and a culture of keeping up with the Joneses driving its domestic consumer spending (although that is probably still peanuts in the grand scheme of its economic growth). Five days isn’t enough to go by, but this simply means one thing: the Ninja Turtle will definitely be returning to China for more.

Arts and Culture, Running, Travel

Running Along the Thread of Time

My shadow and I went for a run today
I said “Christopher, come out, let’s play!
It’s been too long since you last ran
You look quite tubby in fact, my man!”
Christopher nodded, so off we went
To tackle the first of many ascents
He broke no sweat, and kept up with ease
While my breath was visible as I wheezed

A silent world on a Saturday dawn
The sun kissed us as a new day is born
While the earth lay dormant, gefroren und weiß^
Encrusted in a shell of sparkling ice
Lone witnesses to such glorious beauty
Our hearts sang in silent harmony
Our feet shuffling to a joyful dance
Through a lost village in a corner of France

The winding road rose up to meet us
We tackled each hill with minimal fuss
Passing the ghosts of Quatorze-Dix-Huit*
Des cimetières, monuments et villages détruits **
How much of our lives we owe to the fallen
In this hour of peace, may they not be forgotten
We bowed our heads in respect as we passed
These little reminders – dead hands of the past

Four hours and forty minutes later
26 miles, we’d also run out of water
I was cramping badly in both my thighs
While the sun had vanished in the skies
The headwinds reached 50kph
A windstorm was slowly starting to rage
Christopher’d vanished, I was now alone
To make the final stretch back home

So I did the sane and responsible thing
I gave my better half a ring
“Come pick me up!” I shouted into the phone
While all around, the angry wind moaned
That night in bed, all stiff and sore
I thought of my shadow, I thought of war
I thought how I’m so undeservingly lucky
To have been born in the 21st century.


Montfaucon d’Argonne, in the footsteps of the fallen of 1914.

^ frozen and white
* WWI (also known as The Great War, or 1914-1918)
** the cemeteries, monuments, and destroyed villages