Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


The Pentagon Papers

I’m pretty sure there’s a file on me at the Pentagon. It may not have my name on it, but for the years I lived in DC, I’m certain that someone was tracking my movements. If they weren’t, they should get fired ‘cause I was totally asking for it.

I was still a heavy smoker back then and a serious cyclist and a person who likes to get good deals on stuff. (I am still two of these things.) These three character traits meant that every two weeks, I’d ride from my Northwest DC neighborhood to the Costco in Virginia to buy cartons of cigarettes.

Look how close they are! They were clearly asking me to bike from one to the other by being so close.

Look how close they are! They were clearly asking me to bike from one to the other.

I did this because it was cheaper, Virginia tax being much lower than the District’s, and partly because it gave me a clear destination for my ride and was a good hour-long trip each way.

I’d start in Rock Creek Park, one of the bigger urban parks in America, and cruise along the bike trails through the trees and over streams and around joggers, yelling “On your left!” every once in a while so people would get the hell out of my way. Then I’d jump onto the bike path that ran alongside the major roads, passing the Watergate and thinking of Nixon and Forrest Gump, and then past the Kennedy Center and I’d completely skirt the Lincoln Memorial to cross the Potomac, avoiding Arlington Cemetery entirely and getting to my favorite part of the ride: crossing through the Pentagon parking lot.

I’m not gonna lie; every time I did it, I was anxious I’d get stopped and questioned but that was part of the fun. This is where my file comes in: I’m sure someone somewhere in the building noticed me and I suspect that there was a log of my regular trips around all the barriers they had set up because I was the only cyclist I ever saw there, and I did look a little suspicious. Keep in mind that this was all Post Terror (after 9/11) and I had a black pannier on my bike and was usually wearing wrap-around reflective biking glasses and singing along loudly to my iPod.

An hour later, I’d come back through the parking lot, my pannier filled with 40 packs of cigarettes I shouldn’t technically have as well as other weird Costco items like a 2-lb bag of dried mango slices or a bunch of blank VHS cassettes. (Even before DVRs existed, I time-shifted all my TV-viewing because I don’t like people trying to sell me crap.)

I’ll never know if there really is or was a file on the girl who used to show up on odd days of the week, cruising at top speed through the parking lot of one of America’s most secure buildings, but I like to think that I at least amused some security guards who wondered what the hell I thought I was doing. If I had ever been stopped, things could have gone badly for me, but I wasn’t and I live to tell the tale of defying the US Department of Defense right to its face. ¡Toma!

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Monoprix further negates need to go to US

I apologize for the poor iPhone quality of this picture, but I was so excited to find Burt’s Bees products here in France that I was too shaken up to dig my actual camera out of my bag.

Burt's Bees at MonoprixThis Tutankhamun’s tomb (aka KV62) -level discovery happened at the Monoprix near the La Motte Picquet métro stop but I later found the same items at the one off République near the Temple métro station.

If you’re not familiar with the Burt’s Bees family of products, get your hands on some now! The cuticle cream (to which I am obsessively devoted) is wonderful and does miracles for hands in all conditions. Within easy reach of this very computer, I have four different BB hand cream products because they are legitimately the best.


Word Mystery: gos / dog / perro / chien

Wednesdays, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages.

Someone recently told me that I was “very brave” for quitting a good job in the US and moving to Europe. I didn’t want to get into specifics with them, but once the idea was planted in my head by a friend of mine, leaving the US was the only way forward for me.

One of the big reasons was that I realized that my goals in life were 1) to be happy more often than not and 2) to have a dog. Professional accolades and upward mobility and the admiration of my peers are things I don’t care about at all and which consume the American way of life. Having a bigger house, a better car and the most prodigious children are all things I actively don’t want and which a lot of people obsess about.

A handsome perro I used to know.

A handsome perro I used to know.

But a dog would be good for me (requiring me to get up at regular times every day) and having one is something I’ve thought about for so long that I’ve decided on many different names. An early contender was Aslan, but I’m too old for Narnia now. Once in Spain, I thought Huxley would be funny since “H” is a hard sound for them to make, but in recent years I’ve settled on the perfect name for a dog, the only name that should ever be given to one really: Gos.

CAT → gosmamífer domèstic de la família dels cànids. [Domesticated mammal from the Canidae family.] ORIGIN Derived from the sound “gus” or “kus” used to call dogs or when addressing dogs.

EN → dog — a domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, and a barking, howling, or whining voice. ORIGIN Old English docga, of unknown origin.

ES  perroMamífero doméstico de la familia de los Cánidos, de tamaño, forma y pelaje muy diversos, según las razas. [Domesticated mammal of the Canidae family, of varying sizes, shapes and fur, according to breed.] ORIGIN Onomatopoeia from the sound made to call a dog, “perr perr.”

FR → chienMammifère (canidé) carnivore aux multiples races, caractérisé par sa facilité à être domestiqué, par une course rapide, un excellent odorat et par son cri spécifique, l’aboiement. [Canine mammal of various breeds, chracterized by how easily it is domesticated, by how quickly it runs, its excellent sense of smell and its unique call, the bark.] ORIGIN Latin canis [dog].

Catalan note: In many parts of Catalunya, people say ca instead of gos. This is derived from the Latin canis and is widely understood but is technically incorrect.

Spanish note: My BFF had a cat when we were little and I used to beckon her in the only way I knew how, by calling out Psst-psst, michiña which was how we did it on the farm. She taught me that in English, one says, “Here, kitty-kitty.” I don’t see how that makes more sense since cats sure as hell don’t recognize adverbs more than exclamations.

English note: Since I started running this feature, “unknown origin” has become one of my favorite phrases. Mysteries in mysteries! Get Edward E. Nigma on the case!

Today’s winner is Catalan, since it’s among the best words ever.


Versailles like you’ve never seen it

Up until recently, I’d been to Versailles at least three times and maybe as many as five. The chateau is impressive in its extravagance but the manicured garden was always my favorite part. Here’s a shot I took in October 2006.

View with back to the chateau

View with back to the chateau.

Marring the pristine beauty of the space is all the other people and the earth-movers used to swap out the plants.

Now here’s a little triptych I took just the other day.

Versailles Canal 2 Versailles Canal 3 Versailles Canal 1

I’d never seen this side of the property, the so-called English gardens, because they’re quite a ways away from the main chateau and aren’t an easy walking distance… but if you ride your bike, you can enjoy Versailles away from the crowds and pretend that you’re a European princess and that all that you see before you is yours.

Or, you know, you can just eat a really good sandwich that you picked up at Boulangerie Julien, located at 60 rue de la Paroisse in Versailles (the town) just off the market square and enjoy the unimpeded view.

Go somewhere

The visitor’s site for Versailles has an interactive map (I’m a sucker for these things) that’s pretty good.

If you have a bike, it’s an easy ride to Versailles from Paris. You can also take a bike on the RER (lock it to the center pole at the end of the car) during off-peak hours and on weekends. There are also bike tour companies that’ll lead you around the area.


It’s Memorial Day!

Thanks to a practice which really annoys me, I am now going to be able to remember which holiday marks the beginning of the summer season and which one ends it. The key came in the form of a movie I will never see called LABOR DAY. Here’s the US poster:


And here’s the French one:



Can you guess what, under normal circumstances, would bother me about this? It’s changing an English title into another English title. I mean, I get it: no one in Europe knows what Labor Day is but this practice is generally dumb and confusing.

Even before I heard and read the positively dreadful reviews for this movie (notice complete absence of reviewer quotes!), I wouldn’t have seen it for one big reason: it’s based on a book by Joyce Maynard and I don’t like her at all. I was studying writing when her book At Home in the World came out and one of my professors was exactly the kind of hippy-dippy person to eat it up and she made us read it too. I found the whole thing to be in poor taste and indicative of a person who was still not mature enough (then aged 45) to own up to any decisions she’d ever made. Other opinions are available but that’s the nice version of mine. The mean version is quite nasty and includes lots of foul words used to describe women of whom of I have a very low opinion.