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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Bête noire might be my new bête noire

Writing up my thoughts about the first season of NCIS gave me a good post topic for today: bête noire.

I probably first came into contact with the phrase when flipping through my brother’s albums in the late 80s. If anyone told me what it meant then, I don’t remember, but I wouldn’t have understood its connection to post-glam rock anyway.

Here’s the thing: literally, a bête noire is a “black beast.” According to my French dictionary, it’s also the common term for a wild boar. In the figurative sense, according to the same source, it’s the thing that someone hates most in the world. In my Oxford American, it’s “a person or thing that one particularly dislikes.” An online French-English dictionary says “pet peeve.” None of these are the same thing, unless you’re a really sarcastic teenager.

Confounding matters, the episode of NCIS that brought this on titled itself “Bête Noire” and within the show defined it as “nightmare” which is just wrong. One could argue that they were using the secondary definition of the term, but it’s clear from the context that they meant “frightening dream.”

So, what’s a person to make out of all these varying interpretations? First: don’t believe everything you hear on TV, even on the former Tiffany Network, which is too bad since TV is actually a great way to pick up random trivia. Second, the nuance of some words or phrases is just too subtle or culturally specific to find a good equivalent in another language.

Here’s a fact you can file away though: jabalí is the Spanish word for “wild boar.” I first heard about them on the news when there had been a string of sightings. It turns out that in mountainous regions of the Iberian Peninsula like Catalunya, boars will try to break into people’s garages, run out in the road, attack small animals, etc. I thought it was a joke: wild pigs chasing people off their own property seemed too silly. Then I thought of deer and moose crossings and how those things can total a car and still keep running and I found it less funny. The Catalans deal with surplus population the only way they know how: they make a special sausage out of them. It’s mighty tasty.

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Chocolate donut, take two

This donut is from the bakery in a Monoprix, which is like a giant high-end grocery store with a mini Target attached. Most of their bread products are hit and miss — the baguettes are actually just badbadbad — but I thought I’d give these a try anyway.

The look is right; that kind of waxy frosting that may or may not flake off, and the size is also pretty dead on. Continue reading

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Fashion advice from Patricia Highsmith

Alain Delon played Ripley in Plein soleil (1960) but this is Le samouraï (1967)

Alain Delon played Ripley in Plein soleil (1960) but this is Le samouraï (1967)

Just finished reading The Talented Mr. Ripley and came across this:

He had a sudden whim for a cap and bought one in the haberdashery, a conservative bluish-grey cap of soft English wool. He could pull its visor down over nearly his whole face when he wanted to nap in his deck-chair, or wanted to look as if he were napping. A cap was the most versatile of head-gears, he thought, and he wondered why he had never thought of wearing one before? He could look like a country gentleman, a thug, an Englishman, a Frenchman, or a plain American eccentric, depending on how he wore it.

While I’m sure a cultured person could have divined Ripley’s nationality and socioeconomic status by the cut of his suit, the observation is still pretty astute. Most European countries have some kind of national head wear (just find a bunch of old men and see what they’ve got on), but the cap is pretty universal.

I wish men still wore hats, and not just in an ironic way. Sigh.

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Reading the Expat Experience

Strangers in strange lands is an oft-visited well in the literary word. (This very blog drinks from those same waters.) It’s like science fiction, but real; instead of an alien from another planet, the genre explores aliens from other countries. There are fictional takes, like Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, non-fiction stuff like Bill Bryson and outright memoirs like David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day.

For my money, one of the best is George Mikes’s How to be an Alien, which may also be the first of its kind, as it was published in 1946. I happened to pick up a copy at an airport when I was kid and have loved it ever since. It’s less than forty pages long and is illustrated, which explains why I chose it as I was probably 6 or 7 at the time.

Mikes was a Hungarian who moved to England and wrote a book making fun of the Brits, comparing their habits and attitude to those of “the Continent,” but the English didn’t get the joke and instead embraced its mockery as flattery and proof of their superior society. If books were movies, I’d program it as a double feature with some P.G. Wodehouse and spend the day laughing my ass off.

Sadly, not everything can be Mikes (or Wodehouse for that matter) and finding decent culture clash stories that actually inform is tricky. In every foreign language book shop, there’s a pretty goodly sized section devoted to this kind of fare, but just ’cause someone published it doesn’t mean it’s any good.

I got lucky when I picked up A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi by Charles Timoney, though I fear I was tricked into doing so by the publisher. Both this book and Mikes’s are Penguin Books and feature the same kind of simple line drawings.

I’ll be posting some reactions to Timoney’s entries occasionally since inspiration can’t be found on every street corner. Even in Paris.