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I wish I had known about this book when it first came out a few years ago. But I didn’t: so now I just want to make sure that everyone else knows about it as soon as possible. Because WTF?! What the French is a wonderful, I would even say essential, book to add to the list of books about the fascinating intricacies of French culture, society, psychology, and habits—with the wonderful advantage of being written by a Frenchman who has an impressive command of the English language, and the somewhat unusual ability to see his country and his people with the broader perspective of an outsider.
The author, Olivier Magny, is supremely modest about his talent as a writer: “In real life I’m an entrepreneur,” he says. (He was the co-founder of Ô Chateau, which has been recognized as one of the best wine bars in Paris). He refers self-deprecatingly to his “silly writings,” but make no mistake: although this book is very witty, it is far from silly, and it is also extremely well written.
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The book is arranged in short chapters that cover nearly 90 topics—everything from terroir and taxes, to eating, dating, and driving in France, to the French view of Anglo-Saxons; and a host of topics in between. Not surprisingly, coming from a Frenchman it more often draws amused smiles than laughing out loud. But there are also chapters that deal with completely serious topics like immigration, terrorist attacks, and the rise of Le Front National, that are dealt with in a deep, substantive, and illuminating way. And though it falls into the general category of “humor” it is also extremely well documented. When Magny states his opinion (almost always using a sarcastic tone that tends to lighten up his approach to serious topics), he backs it up. Most humor books do not have footnotes, or if they do, the footnote is part of the joke. This book does have serious footnotes: so if you don’t agree with what the author is saying about something political, or economic, or social, or whatever, or if you simply want to know more about the subject, he’s given you the resources to do so.
As a reader with generally left-of-(American)-center instincts and beliefs, I was a bit shocked to encounter some of his remarks about French politics, intellectuals, globalism, and the European Union. But I decided that instead of tuning him out or reeling back in horror, I would listen to what he had to say since, after all, he knows much more about these things, especially from a French perspective, than I do. And in so doing, I learned a lot, and was given much to think about. Most importantly, I think, Magny has given me a way to better understand French opinions about some of these things that have previously been difficult for me to understand. That, I believe, is a wonderful gift.
In addition to being funny throughout, and deeply serious about some deeply serious topics, there are many, many valuable and extremely practical travel tips and cultural insights. Each chapter ends with a “Useful Tip” and a French phrase to “Sound like a French person.” For example, the useful tip at the end of the chapter titled “Nice Things” is: “Nice French wines are not necessarily expensive. Patronizing a good wine shop will help you find fantastic-value wine,” and a chapter on “Slow Food” advises “When picking a restaurant, always make sure there are a few stickers saying the place was recommended by some guidebooks (even if those guidebooks don’t sound familiar to you). It’s a great way to maximize the odds of finding a small gem.”
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There is also helpful guidance for those who really want to dig in and learn more about French culture. One of my favorite chapters is the one on La Chanson Francaise, which provides a quick overview of French singers from the post-war years to the present, with suggestions for songs to listen to on YouTube. This chapter begins with a description of French songwriting as “…a tradition of sung poetry, whose eminently talented lyricists compose timeless texts that strive to touch the souls of the people, reaching beyond social and cultural differences to gracefully narrate the joys, doubts, and sorrows of the human condition.” (See what I mean? Good writing!!) Later in the chapter Magny points out: “Since it is so focused on lyrics, the tradition of la chanson francaise may be somewhat lost on most foreigners, who simply reckon that French music is just as bad as French wine is good. Fair enough.”
See what I mean (again)? Intelligent, insightful, witty, and balanced.
The author is also quite clearly a fundamentally kind and understanding person. A chapter in which he has made fun of his countrymen’s tendency toward “Patriotic Bravado” begins with these words: “When interacting with foreigners, many French people make it very clear that France has the best stuff in the world. Food? French is the best. Style? Nothing beats French fashion. Wine? Seriously, you want to go there?” And it ends with these: “The French, like most mildly annoying people, are just a little broken inside.” The useful tip for this chapter is “Give French people a hug and tell them they’ll be okay.”
See what I mean? Kind, thoughtful, and understanding. But (I would add), please don’t take that useful tip literally. It’s a joke. Kind of.
Purchase a copy for yourself at your favorite independent bookstore, like the Red Wheelbarrow or Shakespeare & Company in Paris, or via Amazon here.
— Olivier Magny (@OlivierMagny) August 21, 2016
Lead photo credit : Photo credit © Dorian Hurst, Unsplash