Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


The expat’s worst nightmare

Anyone who’s lived abroad or been in a foreign country for a long time knows what the worst thing in the world is: making a phone call in another language.

The thing is, it’s not immediately obvious that you are about to do something monumentally difficult. After all, calling someone is a pretty straightforward proposition. It’s something that your average kid has done hundreds, if not thousands of times, so I hadn’t considered it to be a danger zone. I soon learned just how true that old saw about “assume” is: making phone calls became the bane of my existence.

The first week I was in Spain, I called about a clogged sink in my bathroom. It wasn’t until I was actually talking to someone that I realized I didn’t know what to say. I started out strong and then quickly fell apart: “I’m calling about…the place in the bathroom… where you wash your hands. It doesn’t go. The water, it’s there. The water doesn’t go, it stays.”

The woman on the other end of the line was used to foreigners but I was quickly losing her anyway. “There is a swimming pool in the place where you wash your hands!” I finally blurted out which wasn’t exactly true, but it got my message across with the degree of urgency I was going for.

Looking back, it’s laughable that I blanked that the sink is the lavabo and that I didn’t remember that a clog is un atasco, but the longer I was on the phone with her, the more I was consumed with self-doubt. The stress of speaking to someone without any visual cues made my lizard brain take over and I was humiliated and basically shut down.

Of course, the plumber showed up later that day so the story has a happy ending. After that disastrous call, I started to prep for phone calls just like I used to prep interview questions back when I was in the news business. I would try to anticipate anything that might be thrown at me during a telephonic exchange and be prepared with responses. It was incredibly time-consuming and, for a long time, I was still thrown for a loop during every conversation, but I also learned something new every time.

The moral of the story is: you’ve got to put yourself on the line. The worst case scenario is that the person on the other end of the line won’t understand you. Unless you’re having a medical emergency, this will not be the end of the world, so just keep your cool and be persistent and eventually you’ll be able to have an argument over the phone. That’s how you know you’ve won.

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Words to live by

When I was in high school, I worked at an art factory. We built, painted, crated and shipped “art” objects that had been drawn on by “the artist.” The product was terrible, inscribed with the cheesiest, most cliché sayings imaginable, like Dream big or Life is just a bowl of cherries or You Are World Champion.

Items would frequently come across my table with spelling mistakes, serious grammatical errors or they would be totally illogical. Since there wasn’t a Quality Control department, I took it upon myself to “disappear” the most egregious examples.

One day, a round disk ornament came across my table whose border read,

Be a rabbit. Do it well.

For some reason, this little tchotchke spoke to me on some deep level. Intrinsically it made no sense, but I understood what it was trying to say: don’t do something half-assed. If you’re going to something, like being a rabbit, be the best goddamn rabbit you can be.

In the intervening years, this idea has weirdly become one of the tenets of my life and one I use to judge people and things. Are they being rabbits? I’ll ask myself. Are they doing it well? Which brings me to what I want to talk about today: convertible sofas. These things are like anti-rabbits. Continue reading


My first French hospital visit

I was in the hospital last Wednesday and still haven’t gotten over the experience. My visit was to have an out-patient procedure done (nothing serious), so I figured that I’d show up, sit in a waiting room and then go into an exam room and then be discharged. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Partly due to my insane phobia about being late, I got there almost an hour early and checked in with the nurses. I was immediately ushered into a private room with a bathroom much nicer than any I have seen in France (hotels included).

About twenty minutes before my procedure was supposed to start, an orderly pushed me to an operating room and then, once I was done, back to my room in my bed. Almost immediately afterwards, lunch was delivered: leek quiche; a salad with carrot, cherry tomatoes and a hard-boiled egg; a banana and a pôt de crème caramel (French flan). It was egg-taculous.

When I was finally discharged a couple hours later, I had no complaints (other than the long commute back to my house) and I’ve got say that I do miss that awesome bathroom. If this is what being sick in France is like, sign me up!

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“Bilinguals Are Smarter”

Bilingual KidsI just caught up with a NYT story from earlier this month about new research into bilingual people. Recently published reports show that people who can speak two languages are “smarter,” as evidenced by faster and more efficient brain function.

On a personal level, I always feel a weird thrill when I read or hear that something I’ve always done applies to a whole group of people based on some quality we all share. In this story, it was that bilinguals have improved “executive function” whose purpose includes

… ignoring distractions to stay focused, switching attention willfully from one thing to another and holding information in mind — like remembering a sequence of directions while driving.

I’d always assumed that my ability to be completely absorbed in one task or to effectively multitask meant that I was crazy. How else to explain that I was equally adept at two seemingly disparate activities? Also, (what I thought was) my freakish recall of sequences of all kinds turns out to be totally normal.

I’ve never questioned that bilingualism makes someone smarter, but that’s because I was raised in an environment where linguistic dexterity + cultural experience = a better person. The question I do have, which I think it related directly to the findings mentioned in this story, is how much of a roll socioeconomics plays in the relative “smartness” of bilingual kids. Do the children of poor Mexican immigrants who go to school in the US rate as highly as the ones tested?

Some of the research quoted comes from Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University which I happen to know is like an Ivy in Catalunya. Were the test subjects Spanish-Catalan bilinguals? To me, this is different than Spanish-English. When I was speaking Spanish and then switching to Catalan (or vice versa), it felt kind of like driving a car and switching gears. When I go from any language to English, it’s like jumping from a manual transmission car into a moving automatic — big adjustments need to be made almost instantaneously.

I guess I’ll have to wait until another study comes out to see if I’m alone in this or whether there’s a whole other group of people out there to whom I can say, “I’m with you. We’re the same, you and me.

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Spanish: the basics

Spanish is one of the easiest languages to pronounce. The basic rules are incredibly simple, but people still manage to totally mangle it. These offenders fall into two pretentious camps.

The first, I call The Dan Rather Effect. This is where you pronounce a foreign word as if you were from that country, but you actually speak English. Dan Rather used to do this so much that I suspect his favorite thing was to say Nicaragua. Another example of this would be if I were to say, “My parents are from España.” I would never do this because I don’t like intentionally sounding like an asshole.

The second group is comprised of the d-bags who think they’re really smart but prove otherwise by doing shit like call Luis Buñuel “Louie” because they clearly don’t know that Spanish and French are different languages and that Luis [Loo-ees] is not the same as Louis [Loo-ee]. I hate these people the most since the first group is merely exaggerating actual language competence whereas the latter are just totally misinformed ignorant assclowns.


1. Every letter must be pronounced. Exception: the letter “h” is always silent. FUN FACT: The letter “w” doesn’t exist in Spanish. All “w” words come from Anglo-Saxon like “whiskey.”

2. If a word has an accent that’s to indicate — a. that the accented syllable receives the stress EXAMPLE: Almodóvar could be pronounced ALmodovar, alMOdovar, almoDOvar or almodoVAR. The presence of the accent tells us that almoDOvar is correct ***OR*** b. that it is a homophone (pronounced the same but with different grammatical function) which is not important here

3. The stress in most Spanish words (accented ones excepted) fall on the second-to-last or last syllable. Try a word out both ways if you aren’t sure.

And those are the essentials. Of course, there are way more rules (and tons and tons of exceptions), but for the most basic things like pronouncing a Hispanic person’s name right, this is enough to make you sound like you made an effort, but aren’t some kind of jackass.

I’m including a blurb I pulled from Spanish “Vanity Fair” about Terence Malick since it has lots of good words with which to practice. No more excuses!