December, 2013

Meilleurs Vœux

I didn’t really notice the end of 2013 approaching until I started seeing “Meilleurs Vœux” posts from my francophone friends on facebook. Although the expression can be used any time to mean “best wishes”, I wouldn’t be surprised if it saw 90% or more of its use in the weeks before and after a new year.

In fact, I barely saw a peep from my francophone friends about Christmas, but they’re going nuts for the new year. And a number of them belong to various Christian denominations, so it’s not that they didn’t celebrate Christmas. But from my own experiences and interactions with (some) French people, Christmas in France is, if celebrated, more a family thing, and therefore more private. Compare this to the good old US of A, where 81% of non-Christians celebrate Christmas (according to the Pew Research Center) and where the holiday is a public event.

Christmas may be more personal and private for the French, but the new year is universal and secular (yes, I know there are culture-specific calendars as well, such as the Hijri, but the Gregorian is used everywhere in some capacity or other) and perhaps that’s why we often send and receive Christmas cards in the US, while the French equivalent is the carte de vœux

voeux 2014

Google it, and you’ll see fine specimens of e-cards like these. Perfect for your facebook walls.

Bonne année et meilleurs vœux à vous tous!

What to do with an iTunes gift card?

I have to admit, I have an embarrassingly first-world problem: I get more iTunes gift cards than I can use.

itunes giftcard

Poor me.

When I say “too many”, that’s approximately one $10 gift card per year for the last few years. My account currently has $45.12 in it, and although I have various devices I could use that money for, nothing ever seems to jump out at me as a good use of it. With internet radio and YouTube, my music-listening needs are met, and the apps I use most are the free ones like Dropbox and Google Drive. Maybe you have this same “problem”, or maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.

But hey, you know one thing you could buy with a single $10 iTunes gift card? It shouldn’t surprise you that I recommend What The French?!what with this entire site being designed to get you to buy the book. But in case you weren’t aware, consider the following 5 reasons to use that $10 on What The French?!:

  1. What The French?! is not just for iPads anymore. With the Mavericks OSX update, you can read it on a Mac desktop, laptop, iPad or iPad mini. The features remain the same.
  2. Speaking of features! This isn’t just a wall of text with bad Eiffel tower clip-art. What The French?! contains interactive exercises for every concept, allowing you to practice what you learn as you go, get immediate feedback, and evaluate what you need more practice on.
  3. What The French?! covers French grammar, from the very basics to the end of a second-year course of study and beyond. Most textbooks treat grammar like a dirty secret that’s too hard for students, but What The French?! believes in you.
  4. Although it covers a lot of ground, the book is organized in a way that lets you go at your own pace and focus on what you need to know. For example, if you’re just starting out, it’s easy to learn the basics about articles, but wait until you’re further along to study the finer points of relative pronouns.
  5. What The French?! was written for real people. It’s not dumbed down, but it is accessible to first-timers, monolingual English-speakers, and non-linguists. And because grammar isn’t always everyone’s idea of a good time, this book is full of humorous examples, as well as relevant cartoons and illustrations from

Not convinced? Or have you already bought it? Well, you could always buy and gift 10 downloads of Rebecca Black’s sophomore effort Saturday (follow-up to her viral “hit” Friday). It would be a great way to make 10 friends question their friendship with you.

Christmas past in France

Scenes from Christmas in France (courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale, Gallica)…

Christmas trees for sale on the banks of the Seine in Paris

Christmas trees for sale on the banks of the Seine in Paris, 1920

French soldiers cut down a Christmas tree, 1914

French soldiers cut down a Christmas tree, 1914

A French soldier chases a goose for Christmas dinner

A French soldier chases a goose for Christmas dinner

proto-hipster swimmer prepares for the annual swimming race in the Seine, 1911

proto-hipster swimmer prepares for the annual swimming race in the Seine, 1911

Christmas swim is not just for men

Christmas swim is not just for men

tough guy ready to win the Christmas swim, and bathing cap dude in his mom's bathrobe

tough guy ready to win the Christmas swim, and bathing cap dude in his mom’s bathrobe


Kids at the actinology institute get their Christmas gifts, 1933

Kids at the actinology institute get their Christmas gifts, 1933

Kids at the Actinology Institute getting unhealthy doses of UV rays for Christmas

Kids at the Actinology Institute getting unhealthy doses of UV rays for Christmas

And there you have it—a very What The French?! tour of Christmas Past.









Smelly Sexy French People vs. Soapy OCD Americans

The French do have a bad reputation in America when it comes to body odor, but why? Is it because they don’t notice the smell?—Perfume capital of the world? Unlikely. Too much stinky cheese in the diet?—I don’t think Americans are in a position to compare eating habits. I would argue that the French appreciate a wider range of odors than their air freshener-consuming American counterparts.

Let’s use a food analogy: A typical American may enjoy steak (probably overcooked by French standards) but not brain or intestines. In general (and you, dear reader, may be the exception), we Americans have a relatively narrow palette when it comes to both food and smell. In other words, one person’s body odor might be another person’s alluring (or at least more bearable) scent. As for the French palette, Napoleon’s legendary letter informing his beloved Josephine of his return from Italy says it all: “Home in three days. Don’t wash.”

Yep. We Americans tend to like things squeaky clean and soapy fresh, while the French supposedly stink. Or so goes the stereotype. And yet, other than during peak-hour métro rides, I can’t remember the last time I’ve grimaced at the smell of a French person. I have, however, had to hold my breath to avoid inhaling the nauseating scent of some popular American fragrances. There’s one in particular, which I have yet to identify, that reminds me of the rest home where I once worked. It smells like old lotion, dusty sachets, and sadness. One of these days, I’ll have to brave the mall perfume section just to solve the mystery of the hideous scent. I’m just afraid it will be like this:

Anyway, in spite of my post title, I’m not here to decide whether Americans smell better or worse than the French (but since we’re talking about it the answer is, it’s a tie: The French know how to use scent better, but they smoke too much and consequently let the cigarette smell destroy their advantage.) Instead, let me say a few words about the art of appreciating perfume.

Perfumes are generally classified according to family. The family names have changed over time, but a few of those you are likely to encounter in France include:

  • les floraux: floral scents, such as, jasmine, rose, and lily. Test Chanel Nº5 or Joy by Patou.
  • les ambrés: ambery scents usually based in ambergris and vanilla, such as, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s J.P. Gaultier or the men’s fragrance le Mâle by Gaultier.
  • les boisés: woody fragrances, for example, Guerlain’s Mitsouko or Dior’s Dolce Vita.
  • les frais: fresh, often citrus-based fragrances, such as, Un jardin en Méditerranée or Eau d’Orange Verte by Hermès.
  • les fougères: an herbaceous scent more common in men’s fragrances usually based in lavender and moss. Try XS by Paco Rabanne or Hugo by Hugo Boss.
  • les gourmands: scents based in food smells, such as, Thierry Mugler’s Angel and A*Men.


The family classification is not an exact science because of the complexity of perfumes. Further complicating matters, a scent changes over time, like a play in three acts. Immediately after applying the scent, you have the notes de tête (literally translated head notes, but it is known as top note in English. Try, for example, Un Jardin sur le Nile by Hermès for an exquisite top note of green mango.). A common mistake among busy shoppers is to consider only the top note of a perfume. Just minutes after application, however, the scent begins to move into the notes de coeur (heart notes, commonly called middle note in English) and stays there for several hours. Finally, the lingering notes de fond (base notes or bottom note in English) remain when all else is gone. In keeping with our theatre metaphor, remember to experience the whole show before forming your opinion. What may start out looking like a comedy in the first act, may become horrible tragedy by act three.

If you want to explore something probably not found at most local malls, try l’Artisan Parfumeur or Serge Lutens. Both parfumeurs have interesting lines with unexpected scents. Do you want to smell like the sweat of Mali warriors? Neither do I. But that you gives you an idea of how experimental some of the boutique brands can get.

If you want to educate yourself about the art of perfume, the blog Perfume Shrine is a great place to start. I first came across the site when reading an interview with perfumer, Isabelle Doyen. Explore the site, and you’ll find primers on perfume families, “how-to” guides, essays on aesthetics, and more.

Don’t like to read? Well, then first, thanks for reading this far. And second, check out these videos:

The short video above will help you appreciate the work of the perfumer.

If you want to invest an hour or so, check out the BBC series about perfume. It has three parts. Start here to get hooked and continue to Youtube to view the other episodes.

Once you’ve read up on things, you can now go to the mall and quiz the poor person at the perfume counter so they can hate their job even more.

The Rudeness Tax

I’ve written before about the ongoing War on Rudeness in France. While awareness and education are great, the newest weapon in the anti-rudeness arsenal may just be the most effective yet: a rudeness tax.

rudeness tax

Go to La Petite Syrah in Nice, and you’ll find that ordering “a coffee” sets you back 7 euros, while adding a “please” to your order saves you 2.75 euros and a bonjour on top of that brings your total down to just 1.40. At this one café, at least, it pays to be polite. And as for those determined to be rude, they can still do so– for a price.

Is a hit to the wallet enough to change such deeply-ingrained behaviors as habitual rudeness? Was Voltaire right when he said, “When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion”? Do you think a small-scale policy like this has the power to change anything? Let us know, either in the comments here or on our facebook page.

One hour of conversation…

One hour of conversation

“One hour of conversation is better than 50 letters”  If epistolary genius Mme de Sévigné says it, it must be true.

Win a free download of What The French?!

It’s the holiday season and we’re feeling generous, so it’s time for our first ever giveaway. Just go to our Facebook page and leave a comment under the link to this post about why people should learn French. On December 10, we’ll announce the randomly chosen winner. You will win a code for a free download that you can either use yourself or give to someone. The code must be redeemed within 30 days of us sending it to you. The download is from Apple’s iBooks, so this will only work on iPads or desktops running Mavericks. (sorry, no non-Apple version just yet.).

If we get a lot of comments, we might even give away two copies (or more if we get completely reckless).

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