Dec 9, 2013

My Husband's French Mistress: Munster


Not too long ago, we are all sitting at the table for a family dinner when Anthony announces very calmly, "I've been interviewing for a French mistress."

Hmm. Equally calmly -- we are, after all, discussing this in front of the children -- I finish chewing my bite. We have been married over twelve years and, like any married couple, we've had our ups and downs, but I certainly didn't think it had come to this. It seems rather coldly systematic -- you might even say sangfroid -- of him: Is he doing this because this is what is expected of a man in France? Has he been collecting resumés? Is previous experience necessary? What, exactly, are these women putting as their mission statements? 

The phrase echos in the room, and by the time I put down my fork, Anthony realizes what he has said. "I mean, I've been interviewing for a French maîtresse," he laughs. Maîtresse, of course, means teacher as well as mistress. Ah yes, Anthony is going to get some French language lessons as part of his Ubisoft affairesAffaires, of course, meaning business. Très bien. Now that we are all clear about my husband's unblemished fidelity record, it's time to discuss faux amis, which literally means "false friends." These are not the women who become your husband's secret mistress but are nice to your face, though certainly they would also qualify as false friends. Rather, a faux ami is a grammatical term for a word that seems like it would mean the same thing in two languages but doesn't. And oh, how it doesn't.

Here is an example of a faux ami:

No, this is not where you get tampons and gifts (cadeaux). Nor is it where you go to buy tampons as gifts. Rather, it is a little stationery store in Normandy where you might go to buy stamps (tampons) and gifts (cadeaux). Got it?

French and English share enough vocabulary that my back-up plan is always this: If I don't know the French word, I just say the English word with a French accent. It works wonderfully quite often: libéral, synthétique, qualité, indépendance, commisération.

But then you mention a costume d'Halloween, and it leads to a very confusing five minute discussion until you establish that "costume" is the word for business suit (and wearing one would, indeed, feel very much like dressing up in a costume at this point in Anthony's every-day-is-casual-Friday techie career). "Déguisement" is what they use to refer to something a child would use to play dress-up/pretend.

A headline asks if a game show contestant is still "en lice". I know that "lice" would be "poux," but it still looks to me like they are asking if he is "in lice." When I look it up, my eye immediately catches the third definition for the French word "lice," which is "hound-bitch." Excellent! But the phrase "en lice" really means "on the list" or, more colloquially, "in the running."

The word "râ" means "grated" (as in grated carrots), "grosse" means "big", and a "douche" is a shower. The teachers call certain children rètardaires, meaning "people who are late." So many words, so many ways to get in trouble. Here's a poster for a movie, "La Taupe," which is not about a paint color but rather "The Mole."

Let us not forget the ubiquitious librairies, which are not libraries at all, but rather book stores, as opposed to bibliothèques, which are what we call libraries. I once conducted a Princeton interview for a girl who was arguably one of the top high school students in all of France (valedictorian at the most famous, selective, competitive high school) and whose English was so incredible, she used the word "polemic" in regular conversation and had the perspicacity to use the word "perspicacity" correctly. Yet even she got confused when she wanted to talk about a library in English.

When my sister was in a museum here as an exchange student in high school, she once asked to see the exhibition, not realizing that an exhibition is an "exposition" in French, and that the French word "exhibition" is used in the sense English-speakers would say "exhibitionist...."

When I was here in college as an exchange camp counselor, I was talking with a Frenchman who was curious about American bread. I explained that we generally bought bread at the supermarket (gasp!), and that it came pre-cut in plastic bags (quel horreur!), usually made with préservatifs. At which point he laughed uproariously and said, "Donc, tu mange le pain et poof! pas de bébés." "So, you eat the bread and poof! no babies." After a few frantic minutes looking in my dictionary, I learned that "préservatifs" are condoms. Preservatives, on the other hand, are "agents conservateurs."  That would be conserving agents, not conservative agents.

By the way: on the vending machine above, the words below the blue triangle are near faux amis. "Tire" and "Relachez" do not mean "tire" and "relax" (both of which would be fine pieces of advice at the point of condom sales) but rather "pull" and "release" (both of which would also be fine pieces of advice at the point of condom sales but in this case refer to how you get the condoms out of the machine).

In closing, I just want to let you know that Anthony has, indeed, selected his French maîtresse. Her name is Caroline, and he tells me she is very, very good...


Munster, as it is called in Alsace (and closely related to Géromé in Lorraine), is a cheese made from raw cows' milk (for the AOC version) or pasteurized cow's milk (more commercially), then aged for two-three months. During that time, it is rubbed by cloth or hand every two-three days with a light brine.

It's a firm cheese, cut in slices from a medium-sized wheel, and has a semi-rubbery texture. But if you keep a piece in your mouth, it will melt eventually. It is strong. Did I say strong? I meant STRONG. We buy a chunk while we are at the outdoor market in Strasbourg, getting it pretty much on its own turf. But then, lacking a home in which to eat it, we figure we'll bring it with us and eat it in the theater, where we are going to a film festival. You know when you get self-conscious about unwrapping a candy loudly in a movie? Well, this is like that, but with smell. We realize immediately -- but too late -- that this is an odiferous cheese best eaten at home, in privacy, or in a hermetically-sealed hyperbaric chamber.

Because it's a mountain cheese, it's often eaten with potatoes, and it's also frequently eaten with cumin. So much so that sometimes it's just made with the cumin already pressed in it. This does not make it less stinky. Just more cumin-y.


Of all the cheeses I know, none is more of a faux ami than Munster. You think you know Munster cheese, because we have a cheese, called Muenster, in the United States, pronounced exactly the same. American Muenster is mild -- so mild you might say it's bland, with a texture somewhere between American cheese and silicone jar-opening gripper pad.

Well, Muenster and Munster sounds like the same word, but they are in fact very different cheeses.


  1. Très drôle !!!! Je suis la "maitresse" d'Anthony !!! (la prof de français, pas de panique !!!!!!!!!! ;) )


Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Customized by Mihai