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  • Emira Tufo

Iron Ladies

This one’s about a species of woman that one frequently encounters in the Quebec landscape and that one must be weary of lest one wishes to be crushed or steamrolled. Having obtained her popular moniker through the merging of the French verbs “gérer” (to manage) and mener (to lead), the so-called GERMAINE does these things precisely, whether she might be the head of an enterprise, a couple, a kindergarten, her cubicle, or your condo association of co-owners.

Let there be no mistake. Having an official leadership position does not a germaine make. Title is irrelevant; attitude is everything. Even in the absence of any matter or undertaking of any importance, the germaine will assert her dominance by beating every little thing up into a foamy frenzy, as she presumably does with egg whites when she’s at home baking cake.

It is not easy to spot a germaine, but I have noted through years of careful observation that, in Quebec, she is nearly always sinewy and thin-lipped. Her physiognomy, moreover, frequently resembles that of a bird, and those who do not approach her with due care routinely risk having their eyes pecked out. The germaine also often wears tights, and boots naturally follow, but behind closed doors, house slippers make her no less potent.

The germaine is not a figment of my imagination but a recognized cultural phenomenon. On his linguistic blog, L’Oreille tendue (The Attentive Ear), Benoît Melançon, Professor in the Department of French Literature at the Université de Montréal, clearly identifies the species and goes on to say that the two preferred verbs of the germaine are a) opérer (operate) and b) regarder (look).

La germaine opère, according to Prof. Melançon. « C’est une fonceuse, une proactive plus que proactive, une de celles qui font ce qu’il faut pour obtenir ce qu’elles veulent, et qui le font vite. Qui opère n’aime pas perdre son temps. » And as far as looking is concerned, Prof. Melançon explains that the germaine always uses this verb in the second person imperative, usually starting with “Garde… (Look…”), then introducing an explanation (Je vais t’expliquer.../ I will explain it to you… ), followed by a veiled threat (Mais t’a intérêt à comprendre… / It is in your interest to understand…).

I was recently accosted by a germaine exactly in the manner described by Prof. Melançon, but fortunately had the presence of mind to put up no resistance. I had, for some months, been leaving my washed dishes facing upwards to dry in the office kitchen, instead of turning them face down onto the plastic tray intended for this purpose. One day, having done this yet again, I was, unbeknownst to me, followed back to my desk by the office germaine. As our professional duties intersect in no way, I was surprised to find her standing in my door, clearly about to make an important announcement.

Garde…” she began.

I leaned in and learned that the germaine had, for some months now, been trying to track down the individual responsible for leaving their dishes facing the wrong way. I confessed immediately that it was I. The germaine went on to explain that this was not a good practice because this unconventional positioning made it unclear to other users of the kitchen whether the dishes in question had, in fact, been washed. I nearly succumbed to my lower instincts and told the germaine that the plastic tray was not always clean and that my choice was guided by the interest of hygiene, but I stopped myself. I thanked the germaine for her instructions and confirmed that I would, from now on, do what is normally done. The germaine was obviously satisfied with this encounter and departed in good spirits.

It must be said that no culture or land is free of the germaine who comes in many different guises. In my part of the world, she is usually a plump and physically overbearing creature with either obviously dyed hair or strikingly painted fingernails - war colors, as it were. A friend from the Middle East says it's quite the opposite over there: the germaine is the innocuous middle-aged aunt or grandmother who covertly surveys the neighbourhood’s comings and goings from her balcony or window, thus gathering valuable private information to be deployed in the vein of 1984, as the need arises. There is also the mother-in-law, of course.

What all germaines the world over have in common, however, is that they forget this simple and important fact: that we are all going to die. This thought struck me with painful force once the office germaine had departed to resume her surveillance activities. We’re all going to die, people, and who gives a rat’s ass which way the dishes are facing in the office kitchen - or in your own kitchen, for that matter - or whether the neighbor seems to be having an affair! Time is short. Enjoy yourselves, for God's sake.

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