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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Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon

paristothemoonAdam Gopnik lived in Paris from 1995 to 2000. Paris to the Moon is a collection of the essays he wrote for THE NEW YORKER during that time. Reading it now, over a decade removed from the Paris he knew, it’s interesting how the stories chronicle how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same.

Here are some of the things I’ve liked so far:

» All cultural prejudices seem like practical facts to the prejudiced. (p. 52) [I explore this idea in both my Foreign To Me Now and Euro Adapter posts.]

» Every French man and woman is engaged in a constant entanglement with one ministry or another, and I have come to realize that these entanglements are what take the place of going to a gym where people actually work out. Three or four days a week you’re given something to do that is time-consuming, takes you out of yourself, is mildly painful, forces you into close proximity with strangers, and ends, usually, with a surprising rush of exhilaration: “Hey, I did it.” (p. 67)

» The French believe that all errors are distant, someone else’s fault. Americans believe that there is no distance, no difference, and therefore that there are no errors, that any troubles are simple misunderstandings. (p. 99)

It’s incredibly frustrating how true the last thing is. When I ask people to explain how they arrived at a particular conclusion (their thought process) to better identify where a misunderstanding started, they look at me like I have three heads. This was true in Spain as well and is something that I didn’t realize was American (though I must point out that Gopnik is Canadian, so, what does he know?).

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My invisible tattoo

“You should get that tattooed on your forehead,” my BFF said.

What she was suggesting I get inked on my person was “Fuck. Off.” since, by her estimation, I was saying that a lot.

Some 15 years later, I still remember the particular morning I was telling her about when she made that offhand comment. It had been an incredibly hot and sunny summer morning in Boston, just before 10. I was walking to work and was suffering from what a friend called Infantile Head*. I’d run out of cigarettes during the night, so I stopped by the convenience store that was on my way and they were out of my brand. This increased my bad-temper tenfold. Some guy approached me as I was leaving the store and started to say something to me and I just yelled, “Fuck! Off!” and stormed across the T tracks to the video store where I worked.

Strangers approaching me for reasons other than directions totally puts me off. My basic feelings about dealing with other people are

  1. I’m not interested in meeting you unless I already know you**.
  2. If I wanted to be talking to you, I would be.

I’m kinda like Audrey Hepburn in CHARADE (although totally unstylish). (How she pulls off sunglasses over her scarf and hat I’ll never know.)

Sometime after college, I stopped actually saying “Fuck. Off” out loud when guys approached me, deciding to go with a simple “No.” This went over even less well than my original approach but was decidedly less aggressive.

Guy: Hi.

Me: No.

Guy: I just said “hi.”

Me: No.

Guy: What’s your problem?

Me: No.

[repeat ad nauseam until he goes away]

After doing this for a few years, I decided to use a Leave Me Alone face all the time when I wasn’t with friends. Basically, this is a neutral expression that doesn’t invite any advance. One must practice to get it right as it involves relaxed face muscles and distant eyes to send subtle body language cues that the wearer does not have time for you.

Most of the time, this works. Sometimes, people react poorly, thinking that I’m being a bitch or intentionally ignoring them or think I’m too good for them. What people don’t realize is that none of these things are true. I just genuinely have no interest in strangers and want them all to leave me alone. Again, if I’m not already talking to you, I can assure you that I don’t want to be.

Further thoughts

→ Despite having written most of this post in July 2012, Elizabeth’s comment that she has a City Face she wears so that people don’t bother her finally pushed this story up the queue.

→ “Queue” is the only word (in English, I think) that, if you remove all but one of its letters, is pronounced the same as the whole word. Thank you to the French language for making this possible (and really annoying).

→ I’ve gotten a lot of angry responses to my LMA face, but no one has ever found it funny, unlike this video which details the plight of women who suffer silently from Bitchy Resting Face.

→ The second season of Jerry Seinfeld‘s webseries is much better than the first. Sarah Silverman, a comedian whose brash style is usually too much for me, has a funny bit in a recent episode where she notices a teen girl’s unpleasant expression and says, “I’m going to change your life forever. That’s your default face? Put a smile on there.” It’s good advice, especially if your resting face is unpleasant.

Bringing this post full circle, Dame Helen Mirren, one of the more imposing ladies currently in existence, thinks that all girls should learn to say “fuck off” early and say it frequently. All hail the Queen!

* Infantile Head — like a baby’s head i.e. when you feel that any jostling, loud noise or bright light could cause permanent brain damage.

** Yes, I realize that this is impossible. THIS IS THE WHOLE POINT.