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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.

Meet a chanteur: Georges Brassens

Georges Brassens was like a singing French hybrid of Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut.

I mean that both visually:






(From left: Twain, Vonnegut, Brassens)

…as well as in terms of his personality.

He wrote hilarious, brilliant songs about the absurdity of society and human behavior. Like his moustached brethren above, his lyrics show a deep understanding of humanity, not always in a pleasant way, but always meaningful and somehow hopeful. Don’t believe me? Listen to this song. Look up a translation if you have to.

But Brassens not only got pictures with his pipe; his portraits also prominently feature cats:

Georges Brassens  June 23  1960

…is that enough? Are you convinced yet? Georges Brassens rules.



How the French see Americans: two videos for your viewing horror

“Le conseil du jour 7 – L’ancien corres’ américain” par Le Conseil du Jour sur

I can’t decide: Is this video simply not very funny or is it funny but so painfully accurate a portrayal of an American in Paris that it’s hard to laugh. You decide.

Next, let’s see what insight “travel expert Kate Thomas” can glean from her real live local friend Elise:

So there you have it: French people don’t hate Americans. If we just treat them like cats all will be well with the world.

We here at What The French?! may never have the kind of astute and nuanced socio-cultural awareness exhibited in these videos, but one thing we do know is how to help you learn French. Buy a copy of What The French?! on iTunes/iBooks, and you too can sit at a café that serves food on giant triangular plates. You too will be able to bombard locals just like Elise with your own needy questions—only you will be doing it in French.

Illustrated idiom: “casser les pieds à quelqu’un”

casser les pieds

“Casser les pieds à quelqu’un” (literally, to break someone’s feet) means to get on someone’s nerves, to annoy them. 

Dress your paper in silk stockings part 2: setting up quotes

photo by Marc Olivier

photo by Marc Olivier

In my post, “Dress your paper in silk stockings,” I gave a starter kit of logical connectors to help make your French papers have better flow. Here, thanks to my colleague, Corry Cropper, I’m going to share some advice given to [his] 300-level French students on setting up quotes in a French research paper. The fact is, writing isn’t all poetry and inspiration (especially academic writing). A lot of it is formulaic, and if someone would just give you some recipes (which they never seem to do, for reasons I won’t explain in this post), you can knock out a pretty decent paper. I’ve added rough translations in italics to help you make sense of this useful list:

• Selon Bouvard, “____” (453).

According to Bouvard, ”  “

• Comme l’explique l’historien Pécuchet, “___” (15).

As the historian Pécuchet explains, ”  “

• Dans son livre ____, Brulotte maintient que “____” (168).

In his book [title of book], Brulotte asserts, ”  ”

• Dans un article publié dans la revue ____, Bouvard se plaint que “____” (87).

In an article published in the journal [title], Bouvard contends [note: “se plaindre” is generally translated as “to complain,” but here, I would say it means something more akin to “argues” or “contends”] ”  ”

• Pécuchet s’aligne avec la pensée de Bouvand quand il écrit “___” (15).

Pécuchet’s line of thought corresponds to that of Bouvard when he writes ”  “

• Brulotte complique la situation encore plus lorsqu’il écrit, “____” (168).

Brulotte further complicates the situation when he writes, ” “

• Bien que Foucault soutienne que “____,” le texte de Bourdieu semble suggérer le contraire

en ces termes: “____” (436; 221).

Although Foucault maintains that ” ,” Bourdieu’s text seems to suggest the opposite in the following terms: ” “

• Minou évoque ce phénomène dans son livre ____ lorsqu’elle écrit “____” (725). Cependant,

cette théorie ne colle pas avec celle élucidée par Binette qui ironise, “___” (xiv).

Minou evokes this phenomenon in her book [title of book] when she writes ” “.  However, that theory is not consistent with Binette’s explanation  when she ironically conjectures, ” “

So, that last one is a bit over-the-top, and my translation is not verbatim, but you get the idea.

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