Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures


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Just don’t call them hobos

During a dinner conversation in French one night, the word “bobo” came up and I asked what it meant. Turns out it’s a portmanteau of “bourgeois” and “bohemian” used by David Brooks in his Bobos in Paradise, published in 2000. The term wasn’t familiar to me, so I needed further explanation.

My companions said that a bobo was a person who spends money without wanting to seem like they do; who buys organic ’cause it’s cool AND it’s the right thing to do; who is vociferously involved in global issues.

My first thought was that the best English version of this was a pretentious asshole, but that seemed harsh. The second thing that came to mind was the targets of Stuff White People Like and that’s when I hit upon “hipster” as maybe the most polite version of bobo. The New York Times backs me up here. In an article I read the day after my perplexing conversation, there was this little gem

[T]he quartier has attracted more and more artists and writers, young couples and hipsters (or bobos — “bourgeois bohemians” — in Parisian parlance).

What’s kind of funny (in a sad way) is that Brooks had initially intended the term to be used for people who would now be in their 50s, but it was totally co-opted by Europeans to mean something else. So, we’re talking about a term coined by a Canadian to describe post-baby boomer Americans, used by European media to describe the newest young professionals and then made mainstream.

One of the problems with being a native English speaker in an international world is that you’re often confronted with meanings and uses for English words that don’t match the original definition. This phenomenon is both interesting and incredibly frustrating.

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Queso cheese, please!

There is a really bad Tex-Mex restaurant in DC called the Austin Grill that my boss would sometimes take the staff to after work. I hated going, partly because I wasn’t fond of spending additional time with my coworkers, but also because the place insulted my intelligence and my taste buds.

As an example, on one visit, the waiter told us about the specials of the day, including something that came with “queso cheese sauce.” I was perplexed. “Is that double cheese sauce?” I asked. “No, it’s queso cheese.” “But queso is cheese,” I said. “It’s Spanish… for cheese.” He didn’t get what I was saying and I realized that continuing this Abbott and Costello farce wasn’t going anywhere.

I thought of this prime example of idiocy when I read about fossils being found in the La Brea tar pits in LA. It wasn’t till I was living in Spain that I realized that this holdover from the time of the dinosaurs is laden with linguistic problems.

  • The La — an obvious redundancy, but much like “the hoi polloi” where “hoi” is Greek for “the,” repeated use has trumped syntax
  • Brea tar — “brea” is Spanish… for “tar” so here we have another redundancy

What we’re left with is the equivalent of, say, New New York City City. It’s ridiculous.


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Le mot juste

I think the future of language will be a fusion — not necessarily based on dominant world powers, but a naturally evolved amalgamation of the best sounding words and expressions. There is a word or expression in some language that perfectly encapsulates the idea of the thing it describes and I hope that term will be the one that’ll stick.

I am in the vanguard of this movement since my inner dialogue is already a jumble of English, French, Spanish and Catalan. Some words and phrases are empirically better than others, like imperdible — Spanish for “safety-pin,” literally “un-lose-able,” which I just love like crazy.


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Shoulda got vaccinated

Nat'l Lampoon EuropeRobbie Williams’s song “Tripping” came on the radio the other day, reminding me that it’s the official theme song of my European Adventure.

Prior to moving to Spain in 2005, the only thing I knew about Robbie Williams was that he’d done a version of “Something Stupid” with Nicole Kidman and I only knew that because the video had been played over the end credits of whatever celebrity news show aired before Jeopardy! while I was living in DC.

In my second apartment in Barcelona, one of my roommates was a French guy, Hugo, who’d gone to boarding school in England and couldn’t believe that I didn’t know all about British stuff. One comment of his prompted by watching a music video channel was “You’ve really never heard of Take That?! Are you joking?! They were only, like, the biggest group EVER in England in the 90s! How could you not know who they are?!”

I really hadn’t heard of them, so Hugo became the first person to hear my justification: the US is really really really big. Massive quantities of entertainment are produced there every year. We don’t really need to import a lot of pop culture since there is already so much made indigenously. I could probably have named dozens of recent bands that he’d never heard of that sold more records than a lot of UK groups had. As I tried to explain to him: A crab in a terrarium may look big, but you put that same crab on a beach and he suddenly isn’t even worth noticing.

Hugo didn’t particularly care for my analogy, but that damn Robbie Williams (who’d been a member of boy band Take That before he went solo) had crafted an incredibly catchy tune and, much like the rhythm, it eventually got me. The damn song was played on the radio all the time and was also a big hit at dance clubs (discos) and on the beach, so it was impossible to get away from it all that long summer.

Of course, once colder weather started setting in, it didn’t receive as much radio play and I actually started to miss it. A lot. On the rare occasion that it would come up in the rotation, I’d get so happy that I realized I had to have it available at all times.

So, I downloaded it. Robbie Williams’ “Tripping” was the first Euro song that I liked, nay, loved so much that I had to have it, officially inducting me into Euro culture.


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Everyday Cheese

I’ve always had an Everyday Cheese; a cheese which I’d eat plain, with crackers, in a sandwich. The first one when I was little was muenster. I flirted with pepper jack in high school, experimented with havarti with dill in college, and had just about decided on cheddar, before I settled on cojack as the perfect cheese.

When I got to Europe, I realized that cheeses of the same name were vastly different and that nobody had heard of cojack (not even its parent cheeses, colby and monterey jack) and I was basically screwed. One of the many things I consciously realized while searching for a good substitute was that cheeses often carry the name of where they were produced and most American cheeses are similar to their British ancestors in much the same manner as an American is related to a Brit.

In Spain, I had to settle for weird cheddar-like cheeses, some of them even baring the name “cheddar” without actually being it. I usually ended up buying packs of a thing called Blend of French Cheeses for Salads which were cubes of white and yellow cheese, giving the effect of cojack, without actually being cojack. Since I couldn’t get an actual block of the stuff, I would melt it to make quesadillas, put it in salads, toss it with cold pasta. It was close to what I was looking for, but didn’t have the universality I needed.

Imagine my surprise then when I found actual American-style cheddar cheese in one of my local markets. This has made my life awesome. Really. It’s the simple things that make me happy.