May, 2014

Save France, Save the World: Sneak peek at Edge of Tomorrow

I’ll be the first to admit that from seeing the trailer, I thought that “Edge of Tomorrow” was going to be stupid. But still freshly drenched in sweat from running to catch the last métro home after an avant-première in Paris, I will now admit that I enjoyed every minute of it—especially seeing Paris in post-alien-invasion mode. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say that the movie reinforces in the most entertaining way possible the idea that the French must always rely on external forces to save their butts in time of war, even in the future.

This morning, I was at the exhibit in the Jardin du Luxembourg that shows press photos from the journal Excelsior of WWI in France. You can see the 175 photos in exhibit on I highly recommend it. Tom Cruise is nowhere to be seen.

You can also see “Edge of Tomorrow” soon, which has Tom Cruise in every scene, and not-so-subtle WWI references with the “Angel of Verdun”—not Rodin’s sculpture, but rather the kick-ass love-interest (thankfully, minimally so) and fighting companion of Tom Cruise, who seems to embody the good old USA saving the world. Have I said too much already?

In a year filled with WWI and WWII retrospectives (at least here in France), it’s nice that we can also honor WWIII (or IV or V or whatever number they’re up to in the future where aliens have once again shown complete disregard for the Eiffel Tower) knowing that France will be quickly overcome by alien forces as they were in WWII, and that only Top Gun Cruise can help.

I’d love nothing more than to report the cynicism of the French audience in the face of another USA-centric Hollywood blockbuster, but the fact is, they ate it up (as they do most Hollywood fare) and so did I. As I ran to catch the métro (at the Louvre station no less), I gave the still-intact Louvre a smug look of American superiority. On behalf of all pearly-white toothed Americans of all future invasions, we, the Americans of Hollywood, would like to say, “You’re Welcome.”

A France that never was

I mostly get my news of France second-hand, from South Pacific sources (and in Polynesian languages instead of French), but as you may have heard, there was some sort of election over there, and the results have some people (mostly the ones who didn’t get as many votes) talking of “full-frontal shock” and an “earthquake”: Le Front National‘s far-right platform (some call it extremist) won an important victory, mostly with votes from the parts of France that aren’t Paris (which is a dichotomy some French people are very quick to point out, it seems).

Well, I’m not in a position to evaluate Le Front National‘s policies or goals, but when their detractors call them racist and fascist, it sends me on a pleasant mental side-track where I’m no longer bound by recent history or the current states of affairs: I think about alternate history, about a France that never was.

Alternate history, if you weren’t aware, frequently begins with an event on our timeline and asks, “What if this had happened differently?” It can be a huge event, like a natural disaster, or a tiny one, like Winston Churchill running too low on booze right before an important speech and just not quite nailing the flow of it. Sometimes, changes like these can ripple out very far in a hypothetical timeline.

So let’s take France, for instance. I’ll include a set of footnotes linking you to sites and forums where nerds are arguing about this stuff with a great deal more historical knowledge than I have, but I’ll provide only the sketchiest outlines of some of the hypothetical timelines I’ve read about:

OK, so imagine we’re in the late 1860s. The Second Empire is pretty awesome, people are psyched to have an emperor and stuff, and unlike in our original timeline (we’ll abbreviate that as OT), the Bonaparte family doesn’t irritate its more republic-minded citizens too badly, there’s much less moaning and groaning, and when Otto VanWhat’sHisStache in Prussia starts rattling pots and pans to freak everyone out, France doesn’t totally freak out, at least not right away. They wait to declare war until they’re good and ready, meanwhile temporarily losing a little territory in the north but then pulling a third-quarter comeback to kick Prussian troops back out and send them home to do whatever Prussians do at home. The Empire doesn’t fall, and there’s no third republic.

Well, what then? Some have called Bonapartist ideas “proto-fascist”, and I could maybe see a fascist France ending the nineteenth century with an even greater emphasis on military might, colonialism, and trains running on time than the OT third republic did. Education might involve a little more training on loyalty to the State, but you better believe it’ll be compulsory and compulsorily public. The artistic achievements of the OT France could still flourish, though again, perhaps with a little more patronage from the State and a reflected focus on state-approved messages.

As for what happens when the imperialist tensions, network of loyalties and pent-up aspirations explode in the Balkans in June of 1914, I’m not at all qualified to say. Does an Imperial France side with the central powers, form a triple entente, or try to sit this one out?

One of the challenges of alternate history is trying to predict beyond the immediate results of a historical timeline deviation, what with all the butterflies flapping their wings all over the place and changing everything up. Could a fascist France have arisen in a later branching off of the OT, for example after a hypothetical Austro-Hungarian-German-Ottoman victory in WWI? Or a Vichy regime that beats Charles de Gaulle and the Free French forces and continues to chill with a hypothetically victorious Third Reich next door?

At any rate, no matter how much some may be upset at recent elections, we probably won’t see a fascist France anytime soon.

If you could change French history at one point on our timeline, what would you change and why? Your reasons don’t have to be charitable; you could just want to poke at the anthill.

Some links:

The myth of the “Love lock bridge”


I am in Paris right now with a bunch of students. When they first arrived a few weeks ago, we took a boat ride on the Seine. As we passed under the Pont des Arts (its real name), the tour guide called it the “love lock bridge” and preceded to explain that lovers come here, put a padlock on the bridge, and throw the key in the river as a sign of their undying love—as if this tradition had been around as long as Héloïse an Abélard. Well, what the friends, it hasn’t. In fact, it hasn’t even been around for 10 years. So let’s just demystify this lovelock thing with a little self-plagiarizing. Here’s part of a post I did (on my neglected photoblog) way back in 2010 when the lovelocks were, if not brand new, well, like, toddler new. In 2009, you would have seen some scattered locks, but nothing like completely parasitic infestation that now sprawls across this and other bridges. And now, some of that post:


When I was photographing a bridge on day 1 of a trip to Paris, I noticed this lock with the words “I love you” attached to the bridge. How romantic, I thought. But also, What an eyesore! Still, you could imagine the scene: two lovers visit Paris, put the lock on the bridge as a symbol of their undying love, and throw the key in the river Seine to show that the bond will never be broken.

Then, I walked to the pont des arts—the artsy, bohemian bridge where artsy bohemian Parisians and groups of young tourists gather nightly for picnics until 1 or 2 a.m.

The pont des arts has a chainlink fence—all the better to hold padlocks. Hundreds and hundreds of them (which you’ll have to imagine, because my photos must have been blurry and hence, deleted). Here, the locks fit the mood of the bridge and felt like the sort of art installation that asks for audience participation. But as expressions of love, I have to say that the aesthetics left something to be desired:

Let’s take Olivier, who heart heart hearts Laura. Assuming he didn’t just happen to carry a padlock around with him in case of a sudden bout of eternal love, he must have taken the trouble to go somewhere and buy a padlock and a sharpie. Is this the best he could do? Why choose a lock with a huge XINLEI brand marking right where the hearts go? Or is this a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a padlock company? Get on that, XINLEI marketers.

Olivier could at least take a cue from the Sid and Nancy aesthetic of Vick and Julien:

Or is it a serial killer aesthetic? A ransom note? Maybe not the best choice after all.

Then there’s more ephemeral choice that I’ve only seen once so far:

A photo that, in all likelihood, will outlast their summer romance.

I overheard a couple of Italian women walking by (this one was near Notre Dame) and wondering if this was some sort of Paris tradition. It’s not! I wanted to call out in Italian. But unfortunately, my spoken Italian doesn’t extend beyond ordering gelato these days. I was in Paris for three months this past fall and there were no locks to be found. So where did it come from?

Google to the rescue. According to an article in The Telegraph, the lock phenomenon is a worldwide one. Locks can be found “on fences and bridges in Moscow, Verona, Brussels, and Mount Huang, China.”

The origin?:

It is unclear who started the fashion. Italians claim it was sparked by a romantic novel called I Want You, by Federico Moccia, in which the hero and heroine attach a padlock with their name onto a lamppost on Ponte Milvio, near Rome, kiss and throw the key in the river Tiber.

Who are these Italians claiming it was sparked by a novel I’ve never heard of? Certainly not the women on the bridge.

For me, what started as an isolated case of quaint bemusement has become an irritation. When I went to photograph the pont Alexandre III, easily the most beautiful bridge in Paris, I saw this:

That’s a whole lot of Photoshop work for me and a whole bunch of ugly for Paris.

If I could talk to these lock loving readers of Italian fiction, I would tell them to use my own personal rule of graffiti: If it is well done and adds interest to an otherwise drab and dull space, then go for it.

But if it defaces something that is already beautiful or has historical significance, then you’re just an irresponsible vandal.

Want to do something romantic on the bridges in Paris? Throw some rose petals in the Seine. It could use a little freshening up.

End of incredibly long self-plagiarizing. To conclude, let’s look at one last photo: Matt’s lovelock proposal to Sarah.lovelockproposal

How romantic, right? Maybe on their first anniversary they can return and see it. Or maybe not. It all depends on how fast the bridge fills up. Because every so often, some poor city employee has the Sisyphean task of playing the love grinch, bolt cutters in hand, ready to weed out the signs of last year’s dreams. Now that’s a photo I’d like to take.

Grammar vs. Glamour

You may have heard that the words “grammar” and “glamour”¹ share the same etymology², and that’s true. Based on the current meanings of the two words, and the images they bring to mind, the connection probably seems pretty far-fetched. After all, there’s no glossy magazine of photoshopped people entitled Grammar.

Well…a google search did bring this up. (Source site credits it to Mignon Fogarty).

But back in the day, words and books were super cool. I swear it’s true. Owning a book meant you were probably super rich, and therefore better than other people, and maybe even a wizard. Seriously. Because what else are they going to put in books, besides gnarly magic spells for turning stuff into gold (for buying more books) and summoning dragons to devour your neighbors?

So the humble word grammatica (Latin, from Greek ‘of letters’) became associated with books in general and then (by the kind of people who, with no access to actual books, came to the obvious conclusion that they were full of sweet magic) with a wizarding education. It entered English, like so many other words, via Old French.

And from there? Well, to get to the word grammar as used in English today, it was just a matter of keeping the ‘education’ part and dropping the magic. To get to glamour, on the other hand, the magic stayed, but peoples’ idea of what magic is got changed around. Sadly, it no longer has connotations of the transmutation of base metals or reanimating the dead, and instead seems primarily focused on people trying to look photoshopped in real life.

Grammar may be a tiring, boring, non-magical task for the modern student (whose books are still super expensive but confer no status whatsoever), but What The French?! can help. And if you, too, manage to make French grammar seem effortless and cool, people might just start to see you as a super attractive warlock. It could happen.


¹(also spelled “glamor” sometimes in the US, but this is one of those extremely rare occasions for me where I feel like it looks dumb without the u)

²(that is, word origin. Not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects)

³(the American Heritage Dictionary online will give you etymologies of words. Pretty “cool”, if you’re into that sort of thing.

in Paris…

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Market WTF?! and earn big bucks (in some other job)

What The French?! flyer


Imagine a career working in the marketing department of What The French?! : Dining with the jet set at Le Meurice, meeting with foreign dignitaries, developing your signature cologne/ mime repellant spray.

Now imagine getting none of those things but instead having the personal satisfaction of helping us find people like you who love French but don’t like expensive stuffy textbooks. Over the next few weeks, flyers might magically appear all across Paris (maybe. not that I would in any way endorse activities such as inserting flyers into free magazines at sandwich shops, posting them next to tawdry ads for massages, or dropping them in the Louvre.) and maybe in your town. What if, say, somebody were to print a flyer from this post, and cleverly distribute it in some legal-ish fashion, perhaps documenting their efforts and sending us a pic for a future blog post with virtually no hope of any reward? Tempting, right?

mime flyer

Meet a chanteur: Manu Chao

I first heard “Le petit jardin” on my car radio on a Saturday morning. The sun was out (in Seattle, so it was unusual) and traffic was light, and I felt shockingly OK with the world around me. In a way, the song sounds almost like Raffi dueling with a reggae band after they’ve all read and discussed Le Petit Prince. When I got home, I lucked out: the lyrics I happened to remember, when googled, led me to the song.

Have a listen for yourself:

Manu Chao, the singer-songwriter, is an interesting mec.


His parents were Spanish, but moved to France to escape the Franco dictatorship. He grew up surrounded by artists and intellectuals, but the eighties happened and he joined a bunch of bands. He’s done a lot of solo work since then, too, singing in, according to Wikipedia: “French, Spanish, English, Italian, Arabic, Galician, and Portuguese and occasionally in other languages.” Some of his music is rocksome, some is punkish, and sometimes the abovementioned reggae influences come to the foreground. The guy has been a huge success over his long career, but never really in the English-speaking world.

Maybe we should change that.

Bonus: the slightly less Raffi-reggae, sort of alternate-version “Dans mon jardin”:

Unglamorous France

Just got back into Paris from Giverny, most famous for Monet’s garden where he painted this:


Now, I could post photos of pretty flowers, but that’s not what we’re about at What The French?! We don’t want to makes posts that fill you with Facebook status update envy, so instead, here’s an unglamorous view of what you would have seen today on the bridge at Giverny:

Unglamorous Giverny

More unglamorous French life coming during the next six weeks or so.

Meanwhile, practice insulting mimes in French by buying our book. It costs less than the entrance fee to Monet’s house and you’ll be in the company of a far more elite group.

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