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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Why is this man smiling?



Upon closer inspection, he isn’t smiling at all, is he? In fact, his face is properly sinister, made up as it is by two curved lines and two square eyes. What is initially happy becomes properly creepy. When you add in this second image, my mind starts heading off in all kinds of crazy directions.



This guy is signaling the emergency exit in one of the lower levels of Le Forum des Halles in central Paris. In case of an emergency, there is NO WAY I’m going through that because it looks like on the other side, there’s “bum-bum-bum-buuuum, certain death!

Also, this humanoid is child-sized and therefore exponentially scary.


E-readership and expatery

Random House Ency

It was a beautiful book.

In college, a guy I was dating bumped my bookcase really hard, dislodging the Random House Encyclopedia my brother had given me for Christmas in 1990. It weighed 11 pounds and landed squarely in the middle of the guy’s forehead. I ran over immediately and picked the book off the ground, running my hands over its surface to check for damage.

“You ripped it!” I accused him, as the dust jacket was partially damaged. “I’m bleeding” he responded, and he was, but I shot back, “You’ll heal but the book will be ruined forever.”

The moral of this story is that I like books more than people. These are my bona fides which is why you should take me seriously when I say that, if you like to read, you should get an e-reader. Second only to the iPod in the list of Things Which Made My Life Better, an e-reader has meant that I can read more, both quantity and variety, in a way more convenient way. As someone who generally has four or five books going at once, being able to carry them all with me all the time is among the best things ever.

This being said, I still love books, but as an itinerant person, I can’t justify carting physical copies of stuff around with me. Now I only keep books that I use as reference materials, like dictionaries or history texts, or ones that are my absolute favorites (of which I have plenty, thankyouverymuch). All the other stuff I read doesn’t need to follow me around for the rest of my life, nor would I want it to, considering that I will read almost anything (except poetry and short stories). I really love fiction, but the vast majority of novels I read never need to be revisited again, so why keep them? Better yet, if I do need to pull a quote or an idea from one, all I have to do is search the whole text. It’s the best of both worlds.

And to be honest, I still remember when I was leaving the US in 2005 and I took a lot of my books, including that beloved, slightly torn RH Encyclopedia, to sell at a second-hand book store in DC. The guy at the counter didn’t care that I’d loved those books, had carted them over a thousand miles to five different addresses, had caressed their spines sometimes as I walked past them. He just saw piles of stuff they could maybe sell and other stuff they couldn’t. The titles he kept he put away behind him and when I walked out, feeling like I’d abandoned my children, I looked back and saw them there, all out of order, not snuggled between their similarly themed brethren, and I was so sad.

Today’s lesson: if you like reading, get an e-reader. They are perfectly adequate at providing many of the pleasures of reading with few of the drawbacks. If you like books, don’t be a nomadic expat.

→ Author Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) has a few good reasons for keeping physical books, all of which are totally valid and which (I hope) are supported by what I say above.

→ My version of hell is either some place filled with god damn hippies and their non-stop Grateful Dead music, or ending up like Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone episode (“Time Enough at Last“) with the library. The former would certainly be more torturous in a Prometheus-y way, but the latter would just be tragic and cruel.

Random thing

Two things finally pushed me to get an e-reader in 2008. The first was the realization that, considering all the books I had to carry with me every day in my capacity as a private English teacher, I couldn’t really justify the added weight to my bag for something that was just for my pleasure. The second was watching a teenage girl sitting opposite me on the bus finish one of the Twiglet books, sigh contentedly to herself, and then pull out the next one. She was carrying over 1200 pages of books with her! I was pissed because, despite those books being genuinely terrible, I was ashamed that she was a more dedicated reader than I’d become. And that just could not continue.


Word Mystery: sales / rebajas / soldes

Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages.

A coworker approached my cubicle and stood in my line of sight. When I glanced up at her, she said, “I need your help buying a computer because you’re cheap.” I sighed and said, “I suggest you rephrase.”

Take two: “You know what I mean. Do what you do.” I blinked at her. “As a member of the editorial team, you should really choose your words more carefully,” I countered.

Eventually, she got to where she needed to be. “You,” meaning me, “always seem to get good deals on stuff. I” meaning her, “always seem to be paying more than I want. Will you please help me buy a new computer?” Twenty minutes later, she’d received the confirmation email that her purchase had been processed. And she got three different rebates on her first iBook.

She never did thank me but knowing that I had a reputation as a person who paid the right price for stuff made me happy. Today, I can begin to pay closer to what I deem appropriate because the government-sanctioned summer sales have begun.


EN → sales — an event for the rapid disposal of goods at reduced prices for a period, esp. at the end of a season. ORIGIN from Old Norse selja [sell].

ES rebajasVenta de existencias a precios más bajos, durante un tiempo determinado. [Sale of existing stock at reduced prices during a set period of time.] ORIGIN Noun form of verb rebajar [reduce] from verb bajar [lower] this from Latin bassus [low, base].

FR soldesconsistent à vendre avec une réduction (braderie) sur le prix, les invendus de la saison venant de se terminer. [Consists of a sale with a reduction in price (discount) of the unsold stock of the previous season for a set period of time.] ORIGIN Latin Soulde, the payment/salary made to soldiers, possibly referring to a small, set amount of money.

What? I wasn’t expecting Odin to be all up in this Word Mystery! English wins for bringing the Scandinavian down from Asgard.


The $20 Rule

“What’s in your wallet?”

In high school, my mother would always ask me if I had money when I went out. She wasn’t offering, mind you, but she wanted to be sure that I had at least $20 on me when I left the house. Her theory was that most any scrape I could get myself into could be resolved with that much cash.

And she was right. I never got into any kind of trouble that required more than $20 to get out of, but having that cash on me meant I was always able to cover whatever minor expense came up.

In college, I learned the hard way when I was sick once that it paid to keep $20 at home too, for emergency food delivery. I stuck to that rule after college and spread the word to friends who agreed that the word was good because there are always times when you’d rather order a pizza than pick one up.

In Europe, I keep to the 20€ + 20€ rule. I usually have at least 20€ on me, but I also keep 20€ in a secret compartment of my wallet. This is because many places won’t accept bank cards for less than 20€ and most of my purchases don’t tally to be that much. Also, the number of small shops I come across that only take cash is relatively high, so if I do lay down some dough somewhere, it behooves me to always have the amount on hand, just in case.

Plus, my mother also taught me that money is always money. Credit cards are good and well for lots of things, but people will always take cold hard cash.

Just for fun

SNL’s “First Citywide Change Bank” is a sketch I think about a lot as it has math I can handle. In the US, you can watch it here or refresh your memory with the transcript here. Jim Downey, a long-time writer on the show, kills me whenever he appeared. (Another great Downey moment is in the Eddie Murphy-goes-undercover-as-a-white-man sketch. I still think, “Go ahead, take it” in Downey’s voice.)


Caveat emptor

Sometimes, things call out to me. I’ll be walking down the street, minding my own business, when something will cause me to stop and turn my head. Usually, the feeling leads me into a store, but sometimes, it’s down a street I might not have noticed. The other day, as I was weaving through the old-lady-with-carts traffic jam near the open air market in my town, I felt the call again. It was this

Bread top

I brought it home, filled with anticipation at what I was going to eat it with. Chocolate? Cheese? Eggs? Soup? There were so many possibilities and I was still weighing them in my mind when I pulled the loaf out of its paper bag and placed it on my cutting board. The trick to not smushing bread is to flip it over and slice from the bottom with a bread knife using smooth sawing motions. When I repositioned it, I saw this

Bread bottom

And all my hopes were dashed because burnt bread is the worst and crusty bread with the crust cut off is just one step up from the worst. The good news is that I’ll make breadcrumbs and will probably have some delicious meatballs in a few days.