Oh My God

All too often, I’m put in the position of being an ambassador between several cultures, spending a fair amount of time explaining and defending the practices of each one to the other. For me it’s become part of life, since there’s a certain amount of stereotypes that people make about foreigners that are, or aren’t, true

I had no idea, for example, that Americans were well-known for uttering the words “Oh my God!” at each and every opportunity possible. I never really thought about it until French friends started saying it to me, half-jokingly in English. (And a waiter in Lisbon said it to me as well…it was the only phrase he could recite in perfect English.) I don’t think I ever uttered those words all that much before I moved here. But now, unfortunately, because of all my French friends saying it to me (in English), I’ve picked it up and now I find myself saying it all the time too.

On the flip side, people have an image that French people aren’t particularly clean and are, in fact, smelly. Having lived on both sides of the Atlantic, I wouldn’t say that the French are any more- or less-washed than their overseas counterparts.

Sure, I’ve gotten stuck on the métro with some dude’s hairy, rank armpit dangling centimeters from my face. And I have noticed people avoiding seats next to certain riders as well. (And when I dive in quickly to get one of the vacant seats, self-satisfied, I realize my victory is short-lived as my nose quickly discerns why all the nearby seats are empty.)

Closer to home, just few weeks ago I’m waiting for the elevator to arrive outside my apartment door. Since I live on the top floor, seven flights up, the elevator is a necessity. When the elevator arrives and door opens, two young men come springing out.

Oh my God!

What the hell was that?

A horrible, vile, gut-wrenching stench trailed them out. And when I get in the elevator, push the button and the door closes behind me, I realize too late that I’d made a mistake by getting in after them and had no choice but to quickly exhale and hold my nose until I get to the bottom where it was safe to inhale again. Fortunately no one waiting down there at the bottom since I didn’t want anyone thinking it was me that was so foul-smelling.

But I was thinking, if I was with a friend who reeked of bo, I would certainly tell them. Just like the tag on the back of someones shirt that’s sticking up, of course you’d tell a friend that, wouldn’t you?

And this wasn’t just the smell of someone not taking a shower that day, or coming back from a vigorous jog around the park, but a full-on odiferous assault—nostril-burning, eyeball-piercing, throat-closing, bile-building, deeply-ingrained in-his-pores kinda body odor. Even if he doesn’t have a shower his apartment, which some people don’t, the city of Paris kindly provides les bains-douches publiques in various neighborhoods. So there’s no reason not to get in touch with at least a little bit of savon and water at least every couple of days for God’s sake.

A few days ago, I was just inside my apartment entryway, when I started to smell something wafting through the door. A fetid mix of smells, like wild mushrooms that’d been left to rot in the cat litter box mixed with decaying chicken carcasses, all wrapped up in soiled baby diapers. And left to sit for three-and-a-half weeks in the trunk of a hot car. I opened my door, and Oh my God!, the hallway reeked of that vile stench. I quickly closed my door, sealing off the aromatic assault, and threw open every window I could. Good God!…can you imagine having body odor so bad that it has the ability to pass through walls? So I decide, hmm, maybe I outta wait a little bit longer before heading out.

Then just the other day, I’ve left my apartment and am waiting absentmindedly for the elevator, minding my own business.

I’ve pressed the little black plastic button and someone’s on their way up. But since a lot of people live in the building, I don’t really give much thought to who it might be. Then the elevator arrives and as the red metal door creaks open, this fellow comes out and…holy-mother-of-God!…the smell of him wafting out of the elevator is enough to almost knock me over. Like he smeared camembert all over himself and sat basking in the sun for a couple of days. Then got dressed. It was just God-awful. I considered walking down the stairs but since I just had leg surgery there was no way I’d be able to navigate all those stairs. So in I go, fingers deeply plugging-up my nostrils, realizing that I’d have to take one last stink-filled inhalation if I was to make it to the bottom without my senses recoiling and me passing out.

So I’m finding that sometimes stereotypes are indeed based in reality.

And I definitely do find myself saying Oh my God! all-too-often these days.

But I think you’ll agree—I have good reason to.

Never miss a post!


  • Jim in Holland
    May 28, 2007 3:12am


    Having just had a great few days in Paris in March, I know exactly what you mean…turning the corner at Sacre Coeur, even in a brisk wind, I caught the scent of some greasy, hairy dude in a black coat that, I can only presume, started life beige. OMG, like fresh stilton soaking in butane; I thanked God that I didn’t smoke.

    Before I get too high-falootin’, the sound of American college girls spouting “Oh My God”-this and that, at every turn, certainly rang true throughout the trip as well. I’ve been living abroad for a few years now – has this become a vowel or something?

  • My (Italian) husband think it’s pretty funny to hear OMG – mostly from our trips back to the US. Now he’s started saying it sometimes but in his exaggerated way…oh my GAAAWWW-DUH. :)

    BO is here, too. Luckily I’m walking to work often.

  • May 28, 2007 6:22am

    The stench is to hide the smell of pot!

  • May 28, 2007 6:29am

    I’m dreading summer here in Japan, all the B.O. on the trains and elevators..p.u.–too bad they don’t have “stick-ups” here, I think if I get desperate enough I may have to take out my Lysol can and spray away…

  • thekevinmonster
    May 28, 2007 7:25am

    My ex is swiss, and he says that europeans aren’t unwashed, but they don’t wear deodorant.

    I think that’s fine. Washing dirt off is good. Covering yourself with all kinds of weird chemicals so you don’t smell like a normal person? ….

    Obviously, it’s just a matter of taste and culture, since you think it’s gross when you go there, but people who were born there think it’s perfectly acceptable.

  • Kami
    May 28, 2007 9:19am

    Sure, deodorant is kinda weird (I still use it, though!!) but a stench like that isn’t just a lack of deodorant… that’s a badge of honor, or an armor, or something. Some people do seem to CULTIVATE the stench… shudder. In the U.S. in my experience (disclaimer) it’s usually guys with dreadlocks (usually white guys…go figure) who have the stank. Yuk. And no, patchouli doesn’t cover it, it just adds to the stench!

  • May 28, 2007 9:39am

    In college I worked at a French restaurant in Salt Lake. It was run by a lovely family who moved to the U.S. from France, and they did indeed seem to be suffering from a lack of deodorant on many occasions. I never really thought about why, but I certainly noticed it.

    As for saying “Oh my God,” here in Utah most people would raise both eyebrows and open their mouth very wide if you uttered those words in public. It would mark you as a godless heathen or worse if you were caught saying it. (Ok, I’m kidding a little. Actually less than 50% of the people in Salt Lake City where I live are Mormons, but even here not many people would say it.)

  • May 28, 2007 10:41am

    Just so you know, the Flickr link isn’t working. Found it, though. Hope you are feeling better! I had knee surgery in December–it’s no fun. :(

    I agree that there are plenty of stinky pinkies in Paris, but it’s not everyone, so I don’t think it’s necessarily cultural anymore. I’ve seen French people complain about others more than Americans, who are afraid to offend (but then regale their friends at home with stories of how everyone smelled horrible. Which is so not true.) There are plenty of reekers in the US–it’s just that the average American doesn’t spend a lot of time on the trains in the big cities–they drive their SUV’s to the mall in the burbs. And like Kami said, some people like to stink–they think it makes them cool or more granola or something. My husband had a brief period of liking this. Then he met me and that was OVER, but quick.

    My worst encounter was in the Louvre. A woman in front of me on the stairs, and she really did make me throw up in my mouth a little. She was not French, though–Italian or Romanian or something. My eyes were watering, the bile rose, it was bad. I ran the other way.

    As for the OMG–you’re right, and I’m so sick of that. There are so many dumb phrases that Americans say like a tic. But I’m sure I’m guilty of plenty of them, and the French have their own as well. But at least few people in Utah would be offended!!!

  • May 28, 2007 11:28am


    Rampant, mutant BO is something that just makes me hurl. I’ll admit it–I’ve always held the opinion that the French are tres stinky–but not without good reason! When I was in high school, we hosted a French exchange student who did not bathe for almost 8 weeks. We literally had to get rid of the mattress she slept on after she left. Nice girl, just really, really ripe.

    I’m a big fan of soap, water, and deodorant. Raise your hand if you’re SURE!

  • sam
    May 28, 2007 12:19pm

    SF is seriously afflicted by “The Oh-Em-Gees” as my French Friends and I call them. Recently I went to a rather fine and old fashioned but recently refurbished restaurant in a San Francisco hotel where everything was white and crisp and hushed and elegant. I remarked to Fred – Hooray – we are not going to encounter any OMGs tonight. But unfortunately some people were getting slowly drunk in the adjacent bar and before the evening was through one of them tumbled into the restaurant shrieking OMG OMG OMG. I was incredulous. With a heavy heart I sighed and realised nothing is sacred.

  • sam
    May 28, 2007 12:21pm

    PS – My own, personal Frenchman couldn’t be better dressed or smell more delicious.


  • May 28, 2007 4:01pm

    Jim: Sometimes the smoke (or perfume) is better than what’s lurking underneath…

    Sam: Really? Next time I’ll have to take a closer sniff. Hope you, or Fred, doesn’t mind.

    Krooie: I don’t think they’re necessarily any more stinky than anyone else, at least in my experience. It’s just my neighbor. And unfortunately, that’s something I do have to experience.

    His bo is a full-on, multi-sensory, noxious assault that hangs in the air like nothing I’ve smelled anywhere before. And I’ve been to a lot of places.

    La Reveuse: Maybe it’s because the AC in America keeps everyone cool (although a bit too cool if you ask me…)

    I was at the Pharmacy today and we got into a long political discussion and I was sweating all the while under my heavy raincoat so bad that by the time I got home, I had to change my clothes. They were soaked!
    But I didn’t stink, by gosh.

    (And thanks, the broken links are fixed. $%#& html codes!)

    thekevinmonster: In a unofficial survey, my French friends don’t wear deodorant but none of them smell the least bit funky.
    How do they do that?

  • May 28, 2007 4:03pm

    Ouch – every once in a while one of these people shows up in a yoga class here, amazing how bad the smell can get! Hope your leg surgery went well. The photo looks like you’re about to be butchered!

  • May 28, 2007 4:15pm

    p.s. you might be amused to know that the google ad that shows up to match this post is for “lady speed stick.”

  • May 28, 2007 5:31pm

    Just had to let you know I tried another of your recipe, Fresh Apricot Ice Cream….delicious!

    I also made your Strawberry Sour Cream Ice Cream again and my friend couldn’t stop exclaiming over how good it was : )

  • May 28, 2007 7:05pm

    The OH MY GOD arrived on French shores along with DESPERATE HOUSEWIFES I’m told by a reliable source. I got a major dose of it by the sales person when I tried to return a book still in it’s cello wrapping to Galliani’s next to Angelina’s. I was a little taken aback but now I know to just chalk it up to Wysteria Lane.

  • Mlle Smith
    May 28, 2007 8:55pm

    When I began living in Germany, I had the same perception of Germans (including my then German boyfriend), that they just did not share the same…”obsession” with cleanliness that Americans often share. My then German boyfriend said they simply don’t need to bathe as much because their cities are not as polluted as ours (and I’d totally agree with this). The funny thing is, they (Germans) had the same perception of Frenchmen: that they did not bathe as often as others would appreciate…that they were “smelly”, etc.

    And based on my experience with the French, thus far, I’m inclined to agree. I don’t know if they smell any more than any other group of people (I’ve never tried sniffing), but they certainly don’t have the same appreciation for once/twice-daily bathing as I’m accustomed to. Birdbaths seem to be more acceptable in between days spent bathing.

  • Connie
    May 28, 2007 10:50pm

    A fetid mix of smells, like wild mushrooms that’d been left to rot in the cat litter box mixed with decaying chicken carcasses, all wrapped up in soiled baby diapers.

    You are such a poet and always make me smile. Hope the leg is on the mend.

  • Mai
    May 28, 2007 10:55pm

    Here’s the asian perspective: I live in a tropical asian country, where it’s too hot 6 months out of the year not to bathe at least twice. When I used to work for an agency which received new graduates from the US for research projects, we’d always sigh in frustration because so many of them (especially the men) would smell unwashed. Like 5 day old socks soaked in garbage.
    I’ve also had good friends from Germany, Japan and Australia who’d arrive in the tropics and within a day start to reek of BO. I’d give them a natural deodorant made of a talc which seemed to help. They seemed happier knowing people weren’t walking in wide circles around them.
    But there’s nothing like landing in Mumbai and needing to rub vicks vaporub against the underside of your nostrils to survive breathing through the “fragrant breeze”. Ugh.

  • Mai
    May 28, 2007 11:12pm

    eeks, that should have read “at least twice a day” lol

  • Cookie
    May 28, 2007 11:59pm

    i agree with the granola-white men-with-dreadlocks stereotype.i go to a hippie college and all the granola-looking white guys just smell soooo bad. i don’t understand the need for that behavior. it just bothers me. then again, i was born and raised in a tropical country (where its summer 9 months out of a year) and it’s absolutely necessary to bathe 3-4 times a day.

  • May 29, 2007 1:18am

    good luck for a quick recovery from the surgery!

  • seta
    May 29, 2007 12:18pm

    i have now been in paris for 9 months….and though i have the horrid, putrid memories of NYC metro rides, NOTHING has compared to the daily, nearly fainting or wreching, experiences i get here in Paris – mostly on the metro but sometimes in the wide open streets…i have to take the line 4 up to work everyday and i shudder to think what it will be like in the coming months!!!! One comment made from a rather smelly acquaintance/neighborhood handyman when we kindly suggested that he should take a douche: “but i washed last week!”

  • May 29, 2007 12:21pm

    LOL- I just had abdominal surgery and it’s not at all nice of you to make me laugh so hard!

  • Terrie
    May 29, 2007 1:31pm

    Eewwwww, just reading about these odors is making me feel sick. Question on the OMGs David, when they aren’t making fun of you saying OH MY GOD :-), what is the French equivalent when they really want to say, OMG…do they say Mon Dieu, oh la la?

  • Carl
    May 29, 2007 2:05pm

    It is sad to sometimes hear Christians use the words “Oh My God”, as it is one of the 10 commandments in the Holy Bible that God’s name should not be used in vain.

  • May 29, 2007 2:08pm

    David, I sincerely hope your leg feels better soon. Do you have to use French crutches? They are so medical and official. I took one look at that picture and said “Good Lord”. This is a phrase I have also taught to co-workers. I tell them that the “Oh my God” is passe and that they have to say “Good Lord” to really speak the up-to-date lingo. It comes out somewhat like “Gooot Looohrt” with an emphasis on the last t and watching them repeatedly say it especially when they are exasperated, upturned lip and all is something that fills my happy reserves. They have in return taught me to call sn unhelpful person a “pauvre tache” so I suppose we may be even.

  • blimeylimeyo
    May 29, 2007 6:19pm

    haha…this post reminds me of an episode in will & grace when they exit from a cab and will goes “that wasn’t just BO…that was “B-Oh my god!!!” I think that perfectly captured the 2 strands of your entry =)

  • AngAk
    May 29, 2007 7:15pm

    It’s not only being unwashed, but the clothes are also unwashed—with the BO clinging firmly to every strand. I have an uncle in Germany with the ripest BO. We cannot sit within 10 feet of him. Yes, he believes it is natural and completely normal—but offensive none-the-less.

  • May 30, 2007 3:51am

    AngAk: Ok..so what I don’t understand is if no one in the family can stand it, he must know it’s a problem.

    Doesn’t he, or anyone else, want to do anything about it? I mean, if I had a friend or family member like that, I would insist…and I would imagine for them, the sight of others fleeing in horror and disgust would be impetus to wash up.

  • May 30, 2007 4:45am

    I couldn’t stop laughing at your descriptions of those odors!! But I so know what you mean, I’ve had my share of sitting beside people who reeked of camembert, chicken carcasses, kitty littler and soiled diapers AND some type of alcohol seeping out of their pores all at once while commuting in and around London on the tube and bus. It’s no carnival.

  • May 30, 2007 8:25am

    How funny. In Spain, the french are known as stinky too. They call them “cabachos que heulen”. P.S. I know what you mean about defending different cultures ;)

  • hannah
    May 30, 2007 4:30pm

    My husband lived in Venezuela before we were married, and the biggest insult that the Venezuelans
    could toss at an American was to call them Smelly Germans (in spanish).
    After WWII quite a few escapee Nazis and germans fled to SO America. And the Vene people think they smell horrible.

  • AngAk
    May 30, 2007 8:10pm

    David, I guess the rest of the family in Germany accepts it. When he visits here or in Canada, he is told to bathe more frequently and that it is plain offensive. When he goes back to Germany, it’s status quo.

  • L
    May 31, 2007 12:29am

    Did he smell of rotting eggs or fish by any chance? I think it’s likely the genetic disorder trimethylaminuria, also known as the “fish odor syndrom” (I’m a biology major if you’re wondering, we learned all about this in genetics). It has to do with a missing enzyme that is supposed to break down the compound that causes the smell. A google search will turn up lots of information. Unfortunately, showering and/or putting on lots of perfume won’t make the smell go away. And usually the disease isn’t diagnosed (or diagnosed wrong) for years. So, it’s probably not the poor guy’s fault. Or… maybe he is just really really really really really really REALLY dirty. =

  • May 31, 2007 1:04am

    That’s kind of funny, because I always think of French people in a striped shirt with a beret and a baguette and a cigarette, saying “Mon dieu!”

    Perhaps we really aren’t so different, after all!

  • Janet
    June 1, 2007 2:42am

    OMG! c’est quoi du deodorant?

  • Sue
    June 2, 2007 1:17pm

    I just heard a song from the Broadway show “Legally Blonde” in which OMG is sung all the way through. I missed the title of the song, but I’ll bet it is also OH MY GOD. If it isn’t it should be…it is almost an anthem to that phrase. I couldn’t believe it.

  • June 3, 2007 7:51am

    This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where the parking attendent had a certain odor. No matter how much Jerry tried, he couldn’t get it from his car, and as a matter of fact, after spending time in the car, he found the odor had attached itself to his clothes. So I wondered, Dave, after you left the elevator did the odor linger with you and now some other blogger writes about the smelly American :)?

    OMG – absolutely but you have to do it with the full NY/NJ accent mentioned above Gawd.

  • mimi
    June 4, 2007 9:03pm

    Here in Boston, i hear mostly “Really?”

  • winny
    June 4, 2007 9:32pm

    I have to emphasize what everyone else has been saying, if you’re in the tropics, shower at least twice a day. When I’m really busy (or just lazy), I just showered before I sleep and wash my face/brush teeth etc. in the morning before dashing to my too-early morning class. I know a lot of my tropical friends would be disgusted if they know I didn’t shower before going in class, even though I don’t reek at all (quite the contrary, I smell of Gucci dah-ling)

    A lot of people here (in the tropics) use deodorant and most wear perfume as well, but when it’s a hot afternoon in the summer… good god.

  • June 5, 2007 9:20am

    Judging from my recent week in the states, I think the new replacement for Oh My God! is now

    “Shut! Up!”

    I think I prefer omigod…