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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Midwest domination

A tricky thing when you’re in foreign territory is asking for things you’re used to calling by brand name. The hard part is remembering the actual item name to be able to look it up or at least make a stab at a possible translation.

Kleenex is a bad example since the name is apparently synonymous with the thing (a facial tissue) in most Western countries. Q-tips was one I had trouble with until I had a brain wave and my total recall kicked in and I could see “cotton swab” written on the blue box in my mind’s eye. (In Spanish, Catalan and French, they’re known as “cotton sticks.”)

Given all this, I was pretty surprised when I learned that in French, the verb used to describe taping something or fastening one thing to another is scotcher, from Scotch Tape, one of the thousands of awesome products made by 3M.

Now, if you’re a Midwesterner, I expect you to know that 3M is a Minnesota-based company, but I’ll let you off the hook if you didn’t know that it was originally called the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. They are the people behind one of my favorite things on the planet, Thinsulate™, since I love nothing more than being perfectly the right temperature without the weight of wool. They’re also the geniuses who accidentally invented Post-it Notes, without which the world would be full of things forgotten, documents unintentionally unsigned and reminders unheeded.

This is the part of the story where I’d normally make some crack about how those Minnesotans were able to invent so many things because there is nothing else to do a) in the Midwest and b) that close to Canada, but I’m trying to be more gracious these days, so I’ll refrain.


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Double take

Looking through my iPhoto for a specific picture to illustrate a point I wanted to make, I came across this golden oldie from March 2006. At that point, I’d been in Spain for just over six months and I was still regularly confounded by things. This particular window made no sense to me which isn’t any wonder since I’m pretty sure I only understood one word.

Of course, what caught my eye in the first place was seeing “tampon” written on the glass since that’s a totally weird thing to advertise. It was obvious that it meant something completely different in Spanish, but seeing cliché in the list just increased my confusion.

As a general rule, I totally kick ass on word association questions like the ones on the SAT where there is a series of words and you have to guess the next word in the sequence or determine what they have in common. One of the words is always one you’ve (almost certainly) never heard of, so you have to choose based on only knowing two which was the fun part. (To be perfectly honest, I knew the “impossible” word more often than not since most Latin-based words are very similar to their Spanish counterparts.)

Back to the picture. I’m faced with a series of words I don’t know, but I do know what tinta is and I know what cliché means, so my test-taking muscle memory takes over and I figure that there must be a writing clinic or school inside. Of course, with all the other information factored in, my initial conclusion made no sense, so I had to wait until I got home to figure out what the hell was going on behind that super reflective glass.

Suministro is a word with which I became all too well acquainted in the following years. It means “supply” and is commonly used when referring to what Americans call “utilities,” which is to say, the supply of gas, water and electric into a space. In the photo, they were using it in the sense of “place to acquire a quantity of”

  • tinta : ink
  • tampón : ink pad
  • cliché : stencil

So, the big mystery is that it was a printing and engraving shop. I couldn’t have been more wrong, except about the part where I knew I was totally wrong. Also, note that the Spanish use cliché in the second of three possible French ways. The first is a photo negative (from actual film), then a stencil which is a continuation of the first when you consider that a stencil allows for the uniform reproduction of an image or design. The most common English use is the third most common French one, and it’s another broadening of the original concept since, what is a cliché other than an idea that has been copied so many times it loses its meaning.


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Great Word: abrigar

Spring arrived in the greater-Paris area (called la petite couronne) a few weeks ago, so I’ve been bundling up less which makes me sad. This got me thinking about a Spanish word that I won’t be able to use for a while, abrigar, which means to protect from cold.

While I am the Queen of Bundling (almost everyone I know has made fun of me at some point for my “excessive” use of clothing, hats, scarves and gloves), I prefer the Spanish word since the idea of protection is more precise. A thick coat abriga, but in English it would just be a warm garment. In French, the word used to describe such clothing is chaud, which just means “hot” which I don’t care for at all. The idea is to be, as Goldilocks so aptly put it, “just right.”

So, adios for now, abrigar. I’ll be saying you again soon.


I did a bad, bad thing

One of my great pleasures is giving good directions. I pride myself on the clarity and precision of my directions. Knowing that someone who was lost will now reach their destination fills me with a feeling of accomplishment. I am frequently stopped on the street by lost souls (I must exude a sense of knowing where I am) and have been known to double-back or cross streets to offer assistance to people who look like they have no idea where the hell they are.

Which is why I’m sorry about intentionally misleading some dude the other day. What happened was that I was walking, minding my own damn business (my default setting), when this man asked me in English if I knew where “this” was, as he pointed to a piece of paper with “Forum des Halles” written on it by a French person. Les Halles is precisely where I was going and was practically within sight of where we were.

Normally, I would have said that I was heading that way and he could walk with me, or I’d point him in the right direction and then loiter for a bit so that I wouldn’t have to walk with him or I’d tell him a slightly different way to go so that I wouldn’t run into him, but before I’d made a decision, my mouth said, “It’s straight ahead, about three blocks” which was a total lie.

I don’t know why I did it. Many days later, I still feel bad about it. It’s like I was possessed by some evil navigation gremlin that didn’t want me to help a stranger. Sorry unknown guy. You may have had more luck asking me in French.

French lesson: un halle is an urban food market, the place where people used to go to buy every kind of food from different stalls. In Spain and France, many of the sites of markets have historical or architectural value, so a lot of money is spent on restoring the original structures or repurposing the real estate in a meaningful way. The one in central Paris has been under construction since forever. They’re giving it a total facelift.

The Forum is a hub for 8 different metro lines, has a three-story underground shopping mall, several movie theaters, a swimming pool, a billiard hall, a couple libraries and a police station, among other things. It’s both one of my favorite places (so many movie theaters and books!) and least favorite places (it’s always full of people).

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Spanish names

Someday, I’ll post something a little more detailed about the insanity of Spanish names (those born post-Franco are especially worth discussing), but for the time being, there’s a thing from a story about US visa rule changes that made me laugh. The key word here is “common.”

Embassy officials knew that Pitingo, whose real name is Antonio Manuel Álvarez Vélez, is not a terrorist, and that the real target was someone else who shared his very common name.