The rumors aren’t true

Top 5 reasons Ron Swanson should reconsider about the French

Ron Swanson is a fictional character from a TV show that is now over. At the core of his personality is a rugged individualism, fervent belief in small government, and a powerful dislike of Europe (except maybe Scotland, on account of whisky). And although it’s true that France and much of Europe could be considered a “socialist hellscape”(his words) to someone like him, I think Ron and those like him could stand to take a closer look at the French people and their history. He might find more in common with them than he thought, as I hope to show in this top 5 list.

5: Fine wooden furniture

Ron doesn’t betray emotion about many things, but he’s a passionate woodworker (like the actor who plays him, Nick Offerman). Ron even won the “Indiana Fine Woodworking Association Award for Best Chair”, which may be the only award he ever cared about. But did he know that the French construction of wooden chairs has been a big deal for centuries? I should know– I once had to spend about two weeks studying them in a French history class.

Just look at that chair, Ron! Doesn’t that make you happy?

4: The cultivation of the moustache

The reputation of the facial hair of the upper lip of French men is well known, and this is another thing Ron has in common with them.

Left: famed moustache owner and literary giant Honoré de Balzac. Right: Ron Swanson.

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The resemblance is uncanny.

3: The cooking and consuming of meat

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Yup. I googled “french steak” and this came up. If Ron hadn’t throw his computer in the dumpster, he’d probably spend all day at work drooling over pictures like these.

2: Social standoffishness & general stoicism

While it’s a vast overgeneralization to say that the French people are cold or rude or what have you, there’s certainly a cultural difference between them and the hordes of tourists who descend as locusts upon their lands. As a government employee, Ron knows what it’s like to be hassled. I imagine he’d get a lot of mileage out of body language like “the Gallic shrug”, which would allow him to speak his mind without ever saying a single word.


I’ve got good news for you, Ron. Although many French people will have a simple piece of toast and some coffee for breakfast, they also know their way around eggs and meats, as well as waffles and pastries.

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.

French women (and men, and children) do get fat

You’ve all heard it: French women don’t get fat. It’s the famous “French paradox” that gives us just another reason to hate and envy the French. Here’s a brief report on it from 60 minutes:

So, if we drink wine and eat cheese, but don’t drink milk we’ll be skinny like French people? Not likely.

Well, what then? What are the French hiding from us, and how can we turn it into a pill that we can swallow when drinking our next Double Big Gulp?

According to the smug and somewhat condescendingly titled post “10 Eating Rules French Children Know (But Most Americans Don’t)“, French kids eat real food, don’t snack (except for a traditional 4 o’clock after school snack), don’t guzzle soda, sit down for real meals, and appreciate their food. Their school lunch menus read like the daily special at a whole foods café: first course: lentil salad, followed by roasted chicken and haricots verts, then a cheese course, and finally some fresh fruit for dessert.

I don’t know why we do this, but we “Anglo-Saxons” love to beat ourselves up with tales of French superiority. What we’re forgetting is that Americans didn’t used to be so fat either. We just radically altered our food system with sugar-laden highly processed foods compounded by stupid nutritional misinformation such as the low-fat craze that helped to inject even more sugar (because, hey!, sugar is fat-free!) into our diets. The “eating rules” of the French were once common sense in America. The French aren’t ahead of us in a secret race to the ultimate diet plan, they are a couple of decades behind us in a race to become the humans of Wall-E.


But they’re catching up.

Sure, the French love to attack McDonald’s (or “Mac-Do” if you want to say it the French way), but not as much as they love eating there. The “McDonaldization” of France is helping teach French kids the secrets that every American child knows: food should not resemble any living plant or animal; it should be deep-fried and accompanied by soda and a toy. And for breakfast? Bowls of sugar!!!


Among the most popular cereals in France are sugary gobs of a Nutella-like substance wrapped in a sugary crunchy shell. The French are slowly losing their bragging rights for paradoxical thinness, but they might make up for it in most sugar-laden cereal.

An article in Le Monde in 2012 tries to maintain the French sense of superiority by saying that although obesity is a problem in France, the French are “resisting” better than the Brits and the Germans.



via OECD

According to data from the OECD’s website, France is doing better than most, but the projections don’t look pretty. The BBC recently did a story on “The perils of being fat, female, and French,” which suggests that French women might simply have more pressure to be skinny. The “tyranny of the silhouette.” French women have the lowest BMI in Europe, but they are also second highest in anorexia, according to a 2012 study.

The recent Sundance documentary, “Fed Up” which claims to “blow the lid off everything we thought we knew about food and weight loss,” while interesting enough, basically boils it down to something that should be painfully obvious: eat too much sugar and you’ll gain weight. Duh. The problem for people buying processed foods is that added sugar seems to be inescapable. Look at the shelves of your local supermarket, read the box labels, and you will see sugar in nearly everything.

Part of the secret of paradoxically thin French women is the textbook cliché of going chez le…[insert speciality food shop of your choice]. But who’s got time for that when a massive supermarket with a lot of frozen foods is just down the street?

So to conclude, French people do indeed get fat. So start looking for other ways to mystify and envy the French, because unlike that box of choco-treasures cereal, this French paradox thing is going to have a short shelf life.

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 rumors aren’t true: The French language

I believe it was Rousseau who wrote that the French language was logical and rational (but I can’t find the quote right now- anyone want to do that for me?) at a time when logic and rationality were very fashionable. Learners of French prepositions and personal pronouns (among many other concepts) would beg to differ. Common complaints list the irregularity of forms and spellings, the verbal system, and grammatical concepts that don’t exist in English. So which is it: is French the language of enlightenment and reason, or is it a chaotic mess of nonsense designed to ruin your life?

I’m going to spoil the anticipation and tell you that it’s neither. What you need to understand is that French is just another human language; it’s not particularly special or unique in any way, either in its features or its history. In fact, when compared with languages like Navajo or Arabic, French practically looks like “English with a silly accent”. Or vice-versa.


Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss dude who wrote in French, influenced the field of modern linguistics a ton. One of his best-known and most thoroughly-debated ideas is l’arbitraire du signe (the arbitrariness of the sign). To put it simple, this idea states that, for example, there is nothing naturally dog-like about the word ‘dog’, or chien, or كلب or any word you like that means dog. It’s just sounds which, by the unspoken agreement of speakers of a language, symbolizes the real-world creature which we call ‘dog’ in English.

So there’s nothing logical about most words. How about stringing them together into grammatical sentences? I hate to break it to you, but this is another area in which things appear to be pretty arbitrary. Take the idea of basic sentence order: different languages use different orders for subjects (S), objects (O), and verbs (V). SOV / SVO / VSO / VOS / OSV / OVS— all of these are possible orders for the basic parts of a sentence. There’s nothing more or less logical about any of the possible orders.

OK, so if vocabulary and grammar are arbitrary, what does that say about logic vs. chaos? In relative terms, languages are more or less equal in their chaos. In absolute terms, yeah, they’re all crazy and weird, but in different ways. If languages weren’t adequate for their speakers, they (the speakers) would either change them or pick a different language.

That doesn’t mean that all languages are equally hard to learn. But the biggest factor that changes how hard they are is the language you’re coming from, and how similar or different it is to/from the language you’re trying to learn. English to French? Not so bad, because they have a lot of vocabulary, grammar, and history in common. English to Tshiluba? (That’s a real language, spoken in the Congo, by the way) They’re two unrelated languages with very little history in common. The grammar and vocabulary are very different, and so it’s going to be a bit tougher.

Now you know: everyone is wrong. French isn’t logical, and it isn’t a total mess. Like pretty much all human languages, it does what it needs to do for its speakers. It does OK.

The rumors aren’t true: French Military History

Maybe your mom used to tell you, like mine did, “Every joke is rooted in the truth.” And that may be the case when making fun of family members, but today let’s dispel one myth that’s generated a lot of jokes in the last seventy years or so:

“The French never win anything / always surrender / are a bunch of cowards.”

Belief in this myth has spawned a lot of jokes:

“For sale: French army rifles. Never fired, dropped once.”

“What does Maginot Line mean in French? —’Speed bump ahead’.”

Or the prank by which a Google search of “French military victories” used to yield…well, here’s a picture of it:


If they make so many jokes about it, it must be true, right? Well…

In recent-ish memory, the French did get their butts handed to them by the German blitzkrieg, which was a war tactic no one in Europe was prepared for. Which is why so many other countries in Europe also found themselves either under the Reich or begging to join their club (I’m looking at you, Mussolini). Hindsight is 20/20, right? But what’s remarkable is that even with Hitler doing a little dance under the Eiffel Tower and their country occupied by Nazis and collaborators, over a million French people continued to fight with the Allies, providing pivotal support in such major events as D-day. So yeah, a lot of French people gave a heavy sigh and invited the Nazis in, but many brave men and women continued to resist and helped to win the war.

How about French military history overall? The Wikipedia article on it quotes British historian Niall Ferguson as saying that France has participated in 168 major European wars since 387 BCE, out of which it won 109, drawn 10 and lost 49, making the country the most successful military power in European history.

Granted, France has been around a lot longer than the good old US of A, but it kind of puts things into perspective when you think we have guys running around wearing these:



How about the French military today?

The 2013 French budget for military expenditures is 58.9 billion dollars, excluding their Gendarmerie (sort of like the National Guard). That’s 2.3% of the country’s GDP. For a country substantially smaller than the United States, it’s a lot of people and a lot to spend. France has 469,461 members in its purely volunteer-based military. There are 5.5 active military members for every 1000 people (7.3 per 100 total), compared to the USA’s 4.5 active per 1000 (also 7.3 total per 1000). (And people call them lazy!) There are a surprisingly small number of aircraft carriers in the world, but France has one of them.

I could keep digging up stats for you, but I won’t. If you want to keep making your inaccurate jokes grounded in a poor understanding of history, knock yourself out. As for me, my understanding of France can mostly be summed up by this painting:


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