The two most popular words in the French language are “non” and “si.” For you Spanish speakers, “si” also means yes in French. The other, more common way to say yes is, of course, “oui.” What is the difference, you ask, between “oui” and “si”? A universe, that’s what! “Oui” is used for purposes of agreement. The far more popular “si” is used for what the French love most, next to food, and that’s argument! In other words, if you voice an opinion to me, and I’m French, I will most likely say “non!” And I will say it with vehemence. But you, if you are also French, will not take this lying down! So you will say, “Si!” Which essentially means, “You’re wrong, you fool!” And thus, the battle begins…
No French meal is complete without the cheese course, or the argument that inevitably occurs shortly thereafter. Any subject will do for a good argument. “Ooh, I love a good ‘brie de Meaux’” you might innocently say, commenting on the runny cheese you have just slathered on your baguette.
“Non!” I will say, “That is not a brie de Meaux; it is a brie de Mellun!”
“Si!” you will insist, and so forth. If I persist in my foolishness, you may be forced to double-barrel it with “Si, si, it’s a brie de Meaux!!!” You will probably add that your father came from Meaux and if anyone should recognize a brie de Meaux, it would be you! You get the idea.
The first time I ever witnessed the obligatory after-dinner argument, I was 24 years old. I had been in Paris about six months and was just getting comfortable with the language, although I still missed a good bit of what was going on around me. It was in the restaurant owned by my friend, Patrick, at the corner of the Rue des Ursulines and the Rue St. Jacques. There were about half a dozen of us at the table, including a middle-aged professor and a similarly aged woman. The professor was Greek and had a beard. The woman was French, with big brown eyes. She wore a long braid and a peasant skirt. We had enjoyed a wonderful main dish and were tucking into the cheese course (see my point? Beware of the cheese!) The Greek dude said something about something or other that was political and the braided woman let her cheese knife drop loudly onto her plate. “Non,” she said.
“Mais, si,” said the Greek. But yes!
My brain was tired from an entire evening in that complicated language and by this stage, I had lost the thread of the conversation. They were arguing over some social issue – that much I grasped – and the Bohemian lady was clearly politically far to the left of the professor. Well, they went back and forth, the argument escalated, the volume rose and I could feel my Brie de Mellun (or was it Meaux?) curdling in my stomach. They were like two pit bulls, and it looked as though blood would be drawn. Fearing it might be mine, I tried to make myself inconspicuous. Dessert was served; I don’t know what we had – I was too upset to notice. We then had coffee and a “digestive.” I remember the Bambi-eyed woman putting finality on the discussion by saying, “This is a subject that is as big as the world to me.” And she said it softly, which made it powerful. To my relief, silence descended.
The check was paid in an awkward silence (as I recall, it was the Greek who picked up the tab.) As we rose to leave, my heart was in the pit of my stomach. It always makes me sad to watch people become enemies. By the time we got from the table to the street, however, you’d have thought I’d gotten into the wrong group. I looked at the people who had just been ripping each other’s faces off and they were all smiles, embracing each other warmly on both cheeks and saying, “It was wonderful! We really must do it again sometime!”