Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


Watched from on high by TJE’s eyes

T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes follow me. If that name doesn’t immediately bring an image to mind, it’s on a billboard in The Great Gatsby. Here’s how F. Scott describes them

“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens.”

I first read Gatsby in a high school English class and as part of our final project, I convinced my friends to make a short film version of it. While we were shooting our movie, we found a huge, old, hand-painted sign of a pair of eyes wearing eyeglasses in a friend’s house. His grandparents had run an optometrist’s shop and the family had thrown the sign into a corner of their storage room.

We edited our movie in my basement over a weekend, daisy-chaining three VCRs together and when we needed to make a tough transition or imbue a preceding scene with capital-I Importance, we’d cut to our Eckleburg eyes. Our movie was glorious.

Over the years, I’ve thought about Eckleburg a lot — both in terms of what his faceless eyes represented in the novel (as well as in Life) and also as just a giant pair of eyes because it turns out that they’re everywhere.

One of my earliest neighborhoods in Barcelona was around Plaça Tetuan and as I was crossing a tricky intersection one day, I thought of Eckleburg and looked up, up, up to the top of the highest building at the crossing and there he was.

Avinguda Diagonal amb Passeig de Sant Joan

Avinguda Diagonal amb Passeig de Sant Joan

(The logical explanation was that I’d subconsciously seen the sign before, possibly while day-dreaming on the bus, but it’s much more fun to think of T. J. always being just out of sight.)

Learn something

Keepin' it real since 1925. Art by Francis Cugat.

Keepin’ it real since 1925. Art by Francis Cugat.

The original cover of the novel is iconic, famous and controversial. No less an ass icon than Ernest Hemingway thought it was crass. Pot : kettle : Hemingway.

There’s always been backlash against movie tie-in versions of books, but the new Gatsby cover has elicited a write-up in the paper of record. Personally, I’m against putting a poster on a book because the posters are almost always tacky and aren’t as thoughtfully designed as the book art.

The trailer for the newest filmed adaptation of Gatsby features a shot of Baz Luhrmann’s take on T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes (@1:01). Will his be as good as the one me and my buddies spent over a month putting together? Doubtful.

Ma version du Gran Gatsby en français decided to change the cover (bad form!) but at least they kept with the spirit of the story. The dedication is the best, though, as it reads “À mon old sport.” In Franglish. Genius.


Buh-what now?

Word enemies are words which are bastards. This is one of them.

A happy/sad thing about being an expat is realizing one day that something that was impossible when you first arrived is now old hat. Take Bouygues, for example.

When I got to France with the intention of settling here, I’d been living in Spain, a country where every letter in a word is pronounced (except “h”). Within the first week, I’d seen dozens of signs that read Bouygues and could do little more than stare at them, dumb faced. (It’s a huge company that has mobile phone, Internet, construction, real estate and media divisions, so they really advertise a lot.)

Like a child, I sounded it out: Buh-ó-ewh-ee-g-ewh-eh-s. That didn’t sound right. Boy-geez? Boo-ee-goo-ee-z? I sheepishly asked a French friend how to say it, but I couldn’t remember how to spell it right (all those vowels still looked crazy to me), so she was of no use.

And then I had one of my “JIIIIIMMMMMAAAAAYYYY!” moments where I was in the shower and, for the first time, understood one of the commercials on the radio. It was for “Bweeg Telecom” which is how you pronounce Bouygues. Bweeg. Go figure.


Saved by Stephen Fry

Pangloss, Candide‘s teacher, may have posited that I live in the “best of all possible worlds” because my world has Stephen Fry in it. Fry is the best at just about everything, but this week, he and his punnery pulled me out of my funk.

I’m watching “Stephen Fry in America,” a 2008 BBC documentary series that’s a companion to the book of the same name (which I’ll read later). In it, Fry travels across the great United States in a modified (for US driving) London taxi cab and explores what each state has to offer.

The first episode is set in New England, as geography and history dictate it must be, so it was simultaneously rough and reassuring to see so many familiar places. The scene that saved me is when he’s driving through Newport, Rhode Island and says, “This is the dead center of town,” indicating out the window.

Stephen Fry approaching the center of Newport, RI.

Stephen Fry approaching the center of Newport, RI.

Stephen Fry giving global positioning commentary.

Stephen Fry giving global positioning commentary.

Of course, he’s passing a cemetery, which he realizes moments later and starts cracking up. Because it really is the Dead Center. It may sound macabre, but it was delightful and was the first time I’ve laughed in ages. Thank Leibniz for Stephen Fry.

Stephen Fry tickled by his own (inadvertent) wit.

Stephen Fry tickled by his own (inadvertent) wit.

UPDATE: An email I got today prompted me to dig through my In Case of Emergency bookmarks folder to send something to a friend who is down. And lo! More Stephen Fry goodness.


Healing through snacking

I can’t bake. As a skill, it combines two of the things I’m bad at (math and science). For the past few years, I’ve also literally not been able to bake since I haven’t lived in a place with an oven. Both of these facts posed significant obstacles when I was looking around for ways to cheer myself up and kept reading about how people were making cookies or cakes after being shaken up by the Boston bombings. I still wanted to do something for myself, so I fell back on my default position: make some variation on peanut butter cups.

Choc pb pretzel 1

Chocolate covered pretzels with peanut butter (for dipping) was the result. Added bonus: they take very little time to prepare and are quickly ready to eat.

Le cul’s Sweet Carolines (they’re “so good, so good“)

  1. Melt baker’s chocolate in the microwave. (I lined the bowl with wax/parchment paper to lessen mess-factor.)
  2. Dip, dredge or drizzle chocolate on pretzels. Place on wax/parchment paper.
  3. Sprinkle with good salt. (None of that table salt business.)
  4. Place in freezer until chocolate has hardened to your taste.
  5. Slather with peanut butter.
  6. Smile quietly while licking fingers (bowl licking optional).

Choc pb pretzel 2 Choc pb pretzel 3


Word Mystery: armor / blindaje / cuirasse

Monty Python Black Knight

The conclusion to this is significantly less funny in light of recent events.

Word Mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

There are currently 48 sets of words in my Word Mysteries doc, but only two were semi-appropriate for a week in which I’m still really sad and in mild shock. On another week, I would have introduced this triplet with an amusing anecdote but I just don’t have it in me today.

EN armor — the metal coverings formerly worn by soldiers or warriors to protect the body in battle. ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French armure [protective metal item of clothing].

ES blindaje — Conjunto de materiales que se utilizan para blindar. [Combination of materials used to armor.] ORIGIN French blinder [fortify, reinforce].

FR cuirasse — Arme défensive qui couvre la poitrine et quelquefois le dos. [Defensive armor that covers the chest and sometimes the back.] ORIGIN Latin coriacea [leather item of clothing].

The historical through-line (Latin to French to English; leather to metal) is pretty interesting. Spanish wins for most ridiculous sounding word.