Train of Thought

I seem to be in front of this ad at least once per day on the subway, being often squeezed into positions that force me to stare at it blankly until inevitable absorption. After so much face time with it I decided to share my observations, if not to inform and entertain then at least to get it off my freaking chest and commute in peace next time my pelvis gets unwillingly pressed against it.

First, what’s up with the milk? No way he’s enjoying that bowl of cereal and enjoying the good living of having a bottle filled to the brim. That’s just crazy talk. Am I to believe he’s eating dry granola with a future milk chaser? Or that he finished off the old bottle for his cereal and now has a fresh one prepped in case of a flake-moistening emergency? Come on Brian!

Ahh, I’m feeling better already.

The second thing that rubs the wrong way is maybe just me being a graphic design snob, but I guess if I’m already a milk-logic snob then I’ll stick with the theme. This sign advertises English classes, and the page layout is vague enough that if you wanted to (and I do) you could read the blue box on the left which proudly states a 97% success rate, immediately followed by the red box that says “Students: -15%”. Hahaha…Brian, you may be a milk wizard but your layout skills are crap.

Ok maybe I’m not exactly winning any Noble Prizes with this sort of Mensa-grade internal dialogue, but what can I say—it’s the doldrums of public transportation. We all need some sort of distraction from that unwanted pelvic action I mentioned earlier. Let’s move onto something more compelling that may, with any luck, pull this post out of the “not worth the 15 kilobytes it’s printed on” category.

This ad is for a popular English-teaching company called the Wall Street Institute, but it has no real connection to New York or the stock market. There’s a clever marketing strategy in France wherein courses offer not just English but a special version called “Wall Street English”, giving the impression of prepping you for the world of American business and in turn countless other markets like the UK, India, China, etc. This is an enticing way to package it because as much as we’d like to think Frenchies learn our language for the glamour and beauty of it, one of the biggest reasons is often an economic one. There isn’t a French job seeker out there who wouldn’t mind slapping English fluency in big letters on the top of the first page of the resume.

We Anglos can be proud of our far-reaching influence, but before getting too cocky we might be reminded that in parts of medieval England French used to be the language to learn, being described in one text as the best way for ambitious students in politics, business, and law to “secure their futures”. And the planet’s official international language of diplomacy was French until as recently as the mid 1900’s. So although the current domination of English is undeniable, history would suggest we’re simply getting our turn…for now.

The last station stop on this slightly B.O.-scented subway ride through my random reflections brings us back to the dairy sorcerer himself. Why this name in particular, Brian? And why is he in the kitchen? It seems random enough, but it’s actually designed to communicate with the French public in an extremely specific way that would’ve gone way over my head a year ago. Apparently the previous generation (Charlotte’s parents) were all taught English in school using the same book with the same character doing the same things. A boy named Brian would be seen hanging out in various rooms of the house to help teach vocabulary and grammar, and one of the phrases everyone seems to joke about is “Where is Brian? Brian is in the kitchen”.

This sentence is now synonymous with useless classroom indoctrination, and in this ad the red letters written beneath it say “Let him stay there!” as a way to distance the Wall Street technique from the silly antiquated one. Brian and his exploits in this fictional house are so engrained in older French people’s brains that I’ve even heard about tourists of the same name getting the occasional chuckle when introducing themselves.

There’s one other sentence everyone seems to remember from the old system, one that seems like such a bizarre one to teach to a rookie English speaker: “My tailor is rich”. Talk about being unprepared for a trip abroad. It reminds me of my own French class in high school and how even with a friendly and enthusiastic teacher we rarely learned anything that would get us out of a pickle in the real world, barring a real world made up entirely of libraries, green pencils, red houses, and conversations limited to variations of je m’appelle.

So those are my random thoughts on a random part of a random day in Paris. Try finding that in the next Frommer’s or Lonely Planet guide! That’s why this blog sells millions while those so-called valid publications barely eke out a profit. Or something like that. At least I’ve been able to work out all of my Brian issues so I can move on to more productive—wait a minute, what’s up with the banana and the apple in front of him? Were they really on the table or just superimposed afterward…

Sigh. Where is Corey? Corey is in a vicious circle.


  • Really enjoyed this post this morning—got my first laugh of the day from you, so thanks! As a (very picky and very observant) graphic designer, I enjoyed your observations. You mentioned graphic design—I didn’t know you were a graphic designer (are you?). Is that what you’re doing for work in France?

    • Wow, first laugh of the day? I can’t ask for more than that, thanks Cindy! Any eye I have for layout or composition came mostly from being a painting major in college, and it’s the sort of thing that kinda sticks with you I guess. As for graphic design in particular I’ve never pursued it as a career but I’ve recently done a bit of freelance which is probably why I’m more sensitive to stuff like this lately. As always thanks for the great comment!

  • You. Are. HILARIOUS! Thanks for starting my day with a big laugh. (More like 10 of ’em, actually.)

    • Aw thanks munro. The way the time zones work out I’m usually posting new stuff early in the morning for you guys. Glad to see the humor’s not getting lost in that morning drowsiness!

  • J’entre dans la salle de classe…

    That was the first thing that popped into my head from my long ago French classes. We all have our Brian stories, I guess. I loved learning the history behind something so ordinary. Thanks.

  • What I’m reminded of is an early sentence in beginning Spanish: “Arre, burro!” which I believe means giddyup, burro. This presumably would have been very helpful on venturing into Mexico. These days, more likely to be culturally insensitive.

  • As a wannabe French speaker, which I am failing at miserably, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I laugh at these ads every time I see one. I thought “Wall Street English” might be where they teach you to bilk the government out of billions to save your company’s derriére. And I have used “Learn French in Your Car” tapes. They were not so useful. I could speak it in the car, but when I got out, I floundered. I did learn how to say, “She fell down the stairs” and my favorite, “He is going to live a long time”.

    • Ha, I like your take on what Wall Street English means. As for learning French by tape or CD, the sentence examples you gave show just how useless it can be in the end. My approach to learning to play music was to always start with the songs I liked the most; knowing that I’d get all that future enjoyment out of playing them kept me motivated. Same for language — learn the sentences YOU want to learn, the ones you expect to get the most use out of. It takes a bit more work but you’ll last longer and the journey will be your own. Thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed the post! Take care.

  • I know this is really late, but I’ve just read your article on dear Brian! What I wanted you to comment on throughout the article, but didn’t see, is an answer to this one “how big is the bottle of milk in this photo?”. I’m guessing about 350-400mm high!! Have you ever seen a bottle this big except in Brian’s kitchen?? Yeah, leave him there until he’s finished his milk!

    • No such thing as too late around here John; your comment is appreciated all the same. Guess I didn’t notice the size of the bottle… although I’m fond of your idea of forcing him to drink all of it in one sitting. Not sure what that says about me…

  • You should try searching about the french humorist Gad Elmaleh…
    Look for a video called “Where is Brian ?”

    • I love that comedian! And I’ve seen the bit you’re referring to, it’s very funny. I think he recently did an American comedy tour in English. He may still be over there! Thanks for your comment. 😊

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