Le cul entre les deux chaises

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

Basic spy craft for daily use


The bus stop nearest my house doesn’t have a shelter so when it rains, which is most of the time, people huddle under the awning of the bakery up the block or the alcove of a building nearer the route. On a rainy day like the dozens of others I’ve experienced here, I was in the latter spot with an elderly lady and I ducked out and reached the stop exactly as the bus pulled up, hopping directly on.

The lady sat down next to me once she’d gotten away from the protection of the building and hobbled over to the curb. “How did you know it was coming?” she asked. “The window,” I said, generally indicating a storefront receding behind us. Then I said, “La vitrine,” since a shop or display window is not the same as the kind you have in your house. She looked confused, so I clarified that it was the reflection of the approaching bus in the window which I’d seen. Her eyes got wide. “Like spies,” I said, trying to express, in just a few words, that I have read or seen hundreds of spy stories and watching for stuff in reflective surfaces is basic spy craft.

The conversation ended abruptly with a look that I’ve come to know all too well, one that says, “what a fearsome creature you are,” since it’s apparently not nice for young ladies to put classic espionage techniques into use on a daily basis.

I figured that my affinity for spy stories was where this habit came from, but then I heard an interview with novelist Attica Locke which presented an alternate reason.

In America, there is a feeling of always walking through life as a woman with the knowledge of violence around a corner.

And I think this is, while being very sad, more likely to be the source of my spying habits. If I wanted to, I could feel deflated that I grew up in a culture where I was constantly threatened by the sheer amount of violence around me as well as the possibility of violence being perpetrated upon me. But the truth is that, barring the many bikes I’ve had stolen, nothing bad has ever happened to me, so maybe my hyper-vigilance has paid off.

So, here are my basic tips for keeping safe:

  • Check reflections and shadows
  • Keep your back to the wall
  • Always know where your exits are
Can you find me? (Chicago, 2006)

Can you find me? (Chicago, 2006)


Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

109 thoughts on “Basic spy craft for daily use

  1. ‘The Bean’ is great. Was there in 2009 and wish I could go back!

  2. Kinda wonderful and creative architecture…! I am desperate to stand below it.

  3. Enjoyed learning about the craft, thanks! Somehow I feel safer now. Coming back to my mindful breaths for letting go of unwarranted fear is a regular occurance in this new, uncertain age.

  4. Violence against women is not unique to any one culture; it is sadly endemic everywhere. Humanity has a long way to go before it is grown up.

  5. I will ALWAYS try to sit with my back to the wall in restaurants, coffee shops, etc. and I just thought it was a weird anxiety tic of mine. You present an interesting point, though–is it a result of our particular culture? Does my gender have something to do with it? Either way, I think it’s important to have a general awareness of our surroundings. It seems that it’s actually going the *opposite* direction, though–people are constantly on their smartphones, etc. while walking down the street. I feel like I’m always hearing about accidents caused because someone was looking down at their iPhone instead of paying attention to the world around them.

    • Yes! I forgot about the smartphone people! They are an *extra* reason to always be alert since they needlessly cause so many sidewalk accidents.

      After living abroad for seven years and coming to understand better what “American” means in many ways, I really do think crime awareness is cultural. Think of the hundreds or thousands of murders you’ve seen on TV/movies. I know that I’ve internalized a lot of the info both on the crime-solving end and the crime-committing.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Very true! For the most part I’ve stopped watching crime dramas like CSI and Law & Order because all it takes (for me) is a few episodes in a row of those shows before I feel like “Oh geez–it doesn’t matter where I live or what I do…someone’s eventually going to murder/kidnap/rape me.” A little dramatic, but you’re right–when we’re constantly witnessing stuff like that, we do internalize it.

  6. The photo of the bean drew me in.

    The other thing that spies always do is stop and light a cigarette so they can see if they’re being followed. This is harder to do these days (except maybe not for you in France) because now about 20 % of the US population smokes, compared to 75% in James Bond’s heyday. A possible substitute for this might be stopping to text or look at your phone, except that nowadays people text while walking and driving, so why would they need to stop to do this? We need a modern-day substitute for the smoke-stop!

    Congratulations for being Freshly Pressed.

    • What I do, now that I also no longer smoke, is “pull over” near a building and pretend to look at my phone (which people should do instead of dead stopping on the side walk!). That way, people who make me uncomfortable can pass me without my causing offense.
      Thanks for visiting. Please come again!

  7. Excellent! Reminded me of a book: Handbook of Practical Spying, published by the International Spy Museum. Super fun, interesting, and useful!

    • One of the coolest perks of my last job in the US was that I got to tour The Spy Museum before it opened to the public. Obviously, I was REALLY EXCITED and was constantly telling my friend more stuff about each featured person or spy technique. The museum guide gave me the “fearsome creature” look too. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Enjoyed your thoughts! Entertaining.

  9. Now I just want to describe everything I do to people with the response “like spies” just to gauge their reaction.

  10. Everything is more fun if you pretend to be a spy, or a ninja. While it may be a survival instinct, it’s also fun to sneak around planters and lean into doorways while walking between the car and the grocery store. Also, some of thsoe skills may come in handy.

  11. We all are spies. What separates us is who we report to. Unfortunately in these times we must assume always that we are being observed. You are able to spot in the photo. You’re in the upper left corner disguised as a crane on top of a skyscraper. That was easy. You got the photo using a nice telescopic fish eye lens (not possible I know so now I also know…you’re good) and got the effect by bouncing off the eye glass lens of the man in the foreground and I assume (no, that’s been verified) you took him out with a new miniature laser pen milleseconds later. Then you walked by casually as if to offer CPR and you slipped the cyanide or radioform pill in his mouth. After that you walked home and watched a gardening show on TV and began planning getting even with me for this comment because you just can’t shut down your powers of clarivoyance and remote viewing. But you don’t let any of this affect your sleep cause you’re a pro. You’re also cute and have a small dog who sleeps in your bed.

  12. A very helpful and wise precaution. Your childhood experience had helped you become strong enough and wiser. Nice post and very informative!

  13. Reblogged this on Hunter's Writing and commented:
    Writing, women and spies

  14. Not really much need for those three tips up here.

  15. Thanks for asking our thoughts. Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

  16. could you be the one in the center point reflection in the bean?
    anyway, good piece, congrats for being freshly-pressed!
    I think I managed to pick several tricks from le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy & Brad Pitt & Robert Redford’s Spy Game.

    • You found me! My favorite tip from Spy Game is that Miles from LOST is a doctor/spy. Does that count? The whole movie is so distracting, having, as it does, three things I love a lot: Robert Redford, Brad Pitt and Tony F-ing Scott. Thanks for coming by!

  17. Perfect music to your anecdote: coldplay “spies”: “…how do you live, as a fugitive…”

  18. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reminding us of the reality that women continue to be targets of violence – a tragic societal flaw and vender bias that must be addressed by us all.

  19. I’ve also applied some of Sherlock’s spying methods and I usually try to spot a snatcher in the streets… sometimes, it works I think. Kudos on the FP! :=)

    • My brain totally works like Sherlock’s re: maps in the first episode where I see possible routes mapped out and then potential obstacles. But I do it just to avoid walking any longer than necessary, not to catch killers. Thanks for reading!

  20. I never thought of us as hyper-sensitive to violence, but you know, we are. But, unfortunately now, we have to be. Some people will go a whole lifetime without seeing violence face-to-face -which is a good thing. But these persons still are affected by what happens to others. Thanks for the article and food for thought.

    • It’s hard not to be glib about it, but I do think that women should always be aware of possible dangers. As a gender, we’re smaller and less strong so we have to use what we have more of (our brains) to protect ourselves. Plus, it’s honestly pretty fun to consider how to get out of any situation. Thanks for your thoughts.

  21. Whoa, I really laughed at this. The exchange with the old woman is hilarious. I didn’t take it too seriously, though, until I remembered that I never sit with my back to a door. Any door. Ever.
    I’m a boy though, so it’s probably the spy flicks.

  22. Danger against women has multiplied in America under the feminist regime of the last 50 years …..


    Be safe, always know your surroundings.


    • I’m not sure to which “regime” you are referring, but would counter that there has always been violence against women and that the “multiplication” you mention is perhaps due to there being processes and systems in place to address such violence now which weren’t around 50 years ago.

      I’ve seen this to be the case in recent years in Spain and France where domestic violence is something that people finally talk about and which women finally feel comfortable reporting. For generations, physical violence was the norm in Spain and was not a crime.

      Now there are public health campaigns to inform men that hitting a woman is not okay and that if they do, there could be charges pressed against them. Things are changing (legally) but men have always attacked women and I think that the incidence rate is probably going down, though the reporting rate is rising.

  23. Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:

    You know I have blogged about the decline in America.

    Now, I even read 20 somethings writing about the decline ….. sad.

    It is truly sad.

    50 years ago, the USA had one third as much violence against women …. That is a terrible change.

    What do you think?


    • I think that your previous comment asserting that “danger” to women has multiplied under a “Feminist regime” is interesting. Aside from the first part of that assertion, I am most bewildered by where you point the blame. What do you mean, exactly?

  24. Women! Learn self defense. it is actually fun and may one day just save your life. If anyone has questions regarding martial arts I am always available for answering.

  25. Great way of turning something simple that happened at the bus stop into something deeper.
    Perhaps if there was a higher level of public trust and lower levels of tolerance of violence in the U.S. then you would be able to use your spy techniques for fun instead of protection.

  26. I think you should write a spy novel.

    • Thanks, but while I’m a voracious consumer of fiction, I am crap at writing it. However, if you ever need someone to bounce your “perfect murder” off of, I’m your girl. I can tell you all the ways it’ll go wrong.

  27. Women make great spies. They have an advantage that men do not. They are better able to charm a subject, since men are not instantly suspicious of a woman, and seldom view them as a threat.

  28. shape, shine, shadow, silhouette, sound n movement;
    these are the things that i was taught to look out for :)

  29. Good advice. I lived many years in NYC and you either learn the basics of street smarts or you become a victim.

    • I too think that women who aren’t aware of their surroundings are asking for trouble but then that puts the onus on us to protect ourselves which I don’t believe is right. My solution has clearly been to think of life as a game of tag where I don’t want to be it. Thanks for commenting.

  30. Love this.

    My parents brought me up on a phrase heartily enforced by my grandfather: “shhh, the walls have ears”. He used to talk about the KGB (in the 60s) which given his line of work would be understandable, but 50 years later, my family still stick by the phrase!

    Great post!

  31. Pingback: Basic spy craft for daily use | TKS Digital Media Site

  32. I like your post, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. My mum taught me to carry a zipped bag with the zipper at the front so no one can get in your bag easily. I used to go to London from quite a young age and if I wasn’t sure where I was going I would get out my trusty A-Z in a public toilet cubicle! – So I didn’t look lost.

    • Looking lost is something I’ve managed to get around by pulling out my pocket map, looking at it, looking around, and then nodding confidently as if saying, “I am exactly where I thought I was.” Usually this is the case anyway, but there is an element of if-anyone’s-watching-I-don’t-want-to-look-lost too. I wish I knew if any of these silly things I do were actually responsible for never having been pickpocketted (for example) or if I’m just being totally crazy and weird.

      Stay safe!

  33. I regularly use a shop window reflection to keep myself safe as well. That is, too keep me/my car from being plowed into on the driver’s side as I make a turn, right or left, at a blind corner near my house.

    • Reflections are essential when biking in cities too. I can’t imagine navigating busy streets without looking in every reflective surface. Maybe other people do it differently, but I can’t think of another way to avoid crashing into stuff.

      It’s been really interesting to read about the “tricks of the trade” that other women use to keep safe. I wonder if men even bother with this stuff?

      Thanks for commenting!

  34. As a current and former spy I can tell you the number one thing to do to be safe. Always be aware. ALWAYS. Don’t get lost in a book or in music or thinking, day dreaming etc. Do a personal security scan every 10 seconds when your in public and Always be aware. Appear to be whatever you like but be aware.

  35. I really love this place which is in center of downtown Chicago, and I like spying around too and this is a wonderful article, Thanks for sharing and reminding Chicago

  36. I’ve always used shadows and reflections to see people coming or to just see where things are, and I’ve always found it very helpful. No one is able to creep up on me since I always have a way to see or hear them coming. I’ve always had a great passion for spy movies and books since i was a kid. It intrigues me a lot, and I’m glad to know I’m not the only person out there like this.

  37. Checking the situation by sighting the reflections became a habit ever since I first started observing fellow commuters in the train/bus by staring their reflection. Knowing my exits, on the other hand, developed from my obsession of watching disaster documentaries, and I make a conscious effort not to find myself getting caught not knowing where’s the way out when there’s only a split second to save my life. I’ve always thought I’m some kind of paranoid, now here you are giving me the idea that what I’ve been doing is fine!

    • We are not crazy, we’re just ready! I too know all kinds of ways to get out of a life-or-death situation, like, if you’re drowning, release some air to see which way the bubbles float and swim that way. Learned that watching “An Officer and A Gentleman” if you can believe it.

  38. Having raised four beautiful daughters, I would have to admit that I instilled at least a minimal amount of being aware of your surroundings along with the people who inhabit that space. Good job using the brain your were blessed with!

  39. Thanks for sharing. I love blogging – taking an idea for a walk. I’m looking forward to reading more

  40. Reblogged this on AshbourneVoice and commented:
    This is what blogging should be about – taking an idea for a walk and having some fun with it

  41. Cute post — definitely worthy of being Fresh Pressed. And I love that you’ve seen the Bean!

  42. …and never let anyone get between you and the exit!

  43. I already do these 3 things b/c I try to be aware of my surroundings. But what I like is approaching this as if I am a spy. A much more fun way to do it!!! Reminds me of a friend with whom I traveled who would always look at the fellow passengers and make up stories about them. We had a blast traveling with would-be spies, serial killers, famous actors undercover and many others. Thanks for a good laugh and give that old lady a flower next time you see her!

    • I play a version of that game too, where I try to figure out (through body languages and Sherlock-Holmes-y deduction) what’s going on with people around me. It kills the time, keeps me sharp and amuses companions, so everybody wins!

  44. nice post, thanks

  45. I’m obviously a lot further behind than I thought, I didn’t know you had been FPd! Congratulations!! You’re so right about the basic “techiques” about being aware of your surroundings. Women are trained to do this from a pretty young age in the US, aren’t we. Because you just never know. Sure, some people might view it as hypersensitive or paranoid, but I’m so used to it that it doesn’t even occur to me that it might be considered peculiar.

    • Don’t worry about being behind — I post five times a week so it’s a lot to keep up on. Thanks for the congratulations though!

      How do you think we’re trained “from a pretty young age” to protect ourselves in the US? I don’t remember it being a part of the Kotex-sponsored class for girls that I had once in elementary school and can’t think of another time when boys and girls are separated (since it sure as shit didn’t happen in gym class).

      • Yeah, no kidding. I just remember my parents teaching me how to be aware of my surroundings, to not talk to strangers and to be particularly be aware of suspicious people lurking around me. But then again, I live in NY, so there are always suspicious looking people around. It’s hard to tell sometimes…

  46. great post! congrats on the FP, as i said on my own blog. great advice on keeping safe – i just realized that i do all three of those things instinctively, but now i get to think of them as acting like a bad-ass spy. NICE.

    • Where did you learn to keep safe? From the feedback I’ve gotten, it seems mostly that women do these kinds of things a lot, but I haven’t gotten the sense that many men do it. Maybe you’re just man enough to admit it?

  47. Congrats on being “pressed.”

  48. Reblogged this on Ready For Anything Preparedness Store and commented:
    Good tips.

  49. Pingback: Who is Kenneth Lau? And could Sean Connery sell foreign languages? | Expat Lingo

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