The most important words to know when traveling to France are many. Merci, bonjour, s’il vous plait and toilettes will definitely be in your repertoire, but the absolute most important phrase to know when coming to Paris is, without a doubt, this: Ce n’est pas possible.
It is the end all and be all of French-ness, the pièce de résistance of the Gallic language and the one, as a foreigner, and perhaps more specifically an American, you will be on the receiving end of everywhere you go.
When I first began to hear this phrase uttered in response to just about everything, it was a bit off putting. Saying anything is impossible in the epicenter of customer service (‘Murica) would be blasphemy. Happy servers, helpful employees and energetic operators- it’s the trifecta of American business with the public. Par example, did you know employees working at Disneyland and Disney World are not technically allowed to tell guests, “no”? Instead they are encouraged to say, “I’ll check on that,” or “I’m sorry but…” Hop across the pond to Disneyland Paris and the “pas possible‘s” flow like vin rouge.
Ce n’est pas possible can be translated to it is not possible, but it also kindly extends to it is not possible right now, I don’t want to do it, we don’t have any, we have some but I’m not going to get them, we are going on lunch break, I’m too tired, you’re American, it is raining, the list goes on. It is the cousin of the almost as equally amusing, “pas ma faut,” which basically means it’s not my fault, it’s my fault but I’m not going to admit it or in short, tough shit.
Ce n’est pas possible is a kind of blanket statement, a catchall for getting oneself out of any situation, anytime, anywhere. On the phone: I’d like a reservation for this evening. Pas possible. At the market: 1/2 pound of clementines, please. Pas possible. At le poste: I’m here to pick up my mail. Pas possible. At the restaurant: I’d like the rotisserie chicken. Pas possible.
It’s also commonly used as a response for things to which you’d never think it would apply. For directions: Can you tell me how to get to this place? Pas possible. At your local Tabac: Do you sell these stamps? Pas possible. At the department store: Do you have any more of this shirt in a size small? Pas possible. Basically what they mean is, it is impossible that you are speaking to me at this very moment.
Once we were walking through a hotel hallway that was, apparently, for higher end guests only and we were stopped by a member of staff. After explaining that we were simply taking a look around, we were met with an immediate, ce n’est pas possible. Well here’s the thing though, it is possible. I’m physically standing here, in this hallway, living and breathing and talking to you, so it is actually possible. But monsieur, I know what you mean and will take my poor self away from the important people, merci.
Because we heard this French-ism day in, day out, we began to use it in our every day conversation just for fun…for everything (read: ‘please pass the butter.’ ‘pas possible.’). After a while it became one of our favorite phrases too- and then we understood. You hate to be told it, but man is it fun to use. It’s an apology, an explanation and a conversation ender rolled into four tiny words- two if you’re really short on time.
Ce n’est pas possible is as French as a crusty baguette or smelly cheese. It is so ingrained in French society that there really is only one way to explain it: Napoleon.
That’s right, the origins of this beloved phrase can be traced all the way back to the most popular Frenchified French person of France (side note here: before I lived in Paris, I had absolutely no idea just how much the French love Napoleon).
A brief history of pas possible: During the Spanish War, Napoleon was blocked from taking Madrid- some might even call it impossible to do so. And in fact, that’s exactly what a lieutenant said when good old Nap decided to send in Polish Lancers to get the job done. Impossible! he was told, to which Napoleon replied (and I paraphrase): “Impossible! I do not know that word! It must be Polish because nothing is impossible!”
His famous words made their way through to French society and later, when a Duke told Napoleon that problems with a Russian Tsar were impossible to solve, he gave something along the lines of a “ditto” to what was previously said in Spain. “I should have remembered that Your Majesty taught us that the word impossible is not French,” was the Duke’s reply. Finally, when Napoleon received word from the General in command of Magdeburg that the city was under threat of attack and it would be impossible to fend off invaders, he wrote and said, “Ce n’est pas possible that you write me. This is not French.”
Boom. Napoleon mic drop.
Balzac would later write about these events and even further down the line, the cashier at Carrefour would quote the man in the large hat himself when I asked for change, staring into her drawer of coins. So, while it may not be possible to get a straight answer about when the wifi (pronounced weefee) in my apartment will be fixed (you can’t rush these things and also, was I aware that Friday is a holiday so perhaps I’ll hear back on Tuesday, no point in not taking Monday off as well, no one likes Mondays…) or getting the visa office to accept my paper work with that size paper clip, what is possible is to channel your inner Frenchy, shrug it off, head to your local cafe, and complain about l’impossible to anyone that will listen.