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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EXT. RUE CHAMPOLLION – DAY

I derive a lot of pleasure from writing my Spanish screenplay, but I realized that so much negativity should be countered by something positive, so here’s my French screenplay about real things that happen to me which make me love France.

La_Filmothèque_Quartier_Latin

GIRL arrives at the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin an hour before the screening of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. She is the only person outside the closed cinema and pulls out her ebook to wait for the box office to open.

Three-quarters of an hour later, GIRL‘s still at the front of the line, now with ticket firmly in hand. There is a GAGGLE OF PEOPLE behind her, including one very distinctive OLD LADY, shoulders hunched, wearing a long teal wool coat. GIRL is still reading.

OLD LADY

What I like about Westerns is that the men are so handsome.

GIRL looks around to see who the woman is addressing and, seeing no possible candidates, thinks it might be her.

GIRL

Excuse me?

OLD LADY

The men, the men! There’s something about these men in Westerns that’s so… evocative of… men.

GIRL

Uh, yes. The men in Westerns are men.

OLD LADY

It’s not that other men aren’t available.

OLD LADY juts her jaw in the direction of the other line that’s formed, one for THE SOUND OF MUSIC. OLD LADY rolls her eyes.

OLD LADY

But some kinds of men just can’t be in a Western. I don’t have any use for those kinds.

GIRL

Well, you can’t do much better than the two in this movie. Newman and Redford were better looking in other pictures, maybe, but they’re almost perfect in this one. And it’s funny.

OLD LADY

Comedy! pftt! It’s THE MEN I’m talking about. The men!

GIRL

Well, I am not disagreeing. I agree with you. The men are something special.

The OLD LADY finally relaxes her shoulders and directly addresses GIRL for the first time.

OLD LADY

Yes! I’m glad you agree.

The matter settled, the OLD LADY smiles and gazes off into the distance. GIRL looks down and smiles too, but this time it’s the OLD LADY she’s appreciating, not the men.

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The Diner Experience

My brother had a Spanish girlfriend who, on her first visit to the US, freaked the hell out when he took her to a diner. It was way too much for her. She’d never seen a menu with so many pages listing countless options of things and then, when she actually ordered, there were so many other choices to make that she hadn’t anticipated. And then the portions were so big and numerous that she was totally overwhelmed.

If you’ve been to a decent diner, none of this will come as a surprise to you because this is just how diners operate, but she’d never experienced such a thing.

For the first time since I left the States in 2005, being in a diner reminded me of her, not because the story was funny, but because I totally empathized with her position. The menu in diners *is* way too long. Several pages of small print listing hundreds of combinations, covering all possible meals, usually supplemented by a “daily specials” list is more than one person can handle. New Yorkers think the rent’s too damn high? Their menus are too damn long.

Anyway, I thought of this story when I went to a diner for my last dinner in New York and had a mini-breakdown while ordering something totally simple off the chalkboard so that I wouldn’t have to open the opus of edibles on offer.

Me: I’ll have the roast turkey special with a seltzer please.
Waiter: What kind of soup? Matzo, chicken noodle, vegetable, onion —
Me: Matzo!

1. Diner matzo ball soup
Waiter: What kind of dressing? Italian, thousand island, French —
Me: Ranch!

[I didn’t take a picture of the salad because it wasn’t in any way exciting.]

Waiter: Two vegetables; mashed potato, French fries, green beans, corn —
Me: Ah! Mashed and beans!

Canned beans haricots verts.

Canned beans ≠ haricots verts.

At this point in my head I was thinking, “Christ, please go away because I can’t make any more choices and you’re totally stressing me out,” but then he asked if we wanted bread and an extra bowl of gravy and I just yelled, “Yes! Yes!” and he ran away because I looked crazy.

The meal was good and totally worth the trouble, but I can tell you that I am very happy to be back in a place where you get two, maybe three, options for each course and that’s it. Too much choice is paralyzing.

2. Diner turkey dinner


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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.


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Tour de France 2013

The 100th Tour de France ended in Paris this past Sunday. Normally, I would avoid going to see the race since doing so involves many of my least favorite things, namely crowds, standing around, waiting, being hot, sweating profusely and having other people sweat profusely on me.

But my beau-frère is a big cycling guy and this was the 100th Tour and they were changing up the route so we went and I had an incredibly good time. Generally, I don’t follow sport (as my BBC friends call it), but I have been in places where there’s a big sporting event or a collective reaction to physical excellence and I do admit to getting caught up in the frenzy just as much as anyone.

I have almost 200 pics from the afternoon that we spent around the Arc de Triomphe (which the riders circled ten times during the final leg of the race), but I’ve selected just a few to give you an idea of what was going on there. [Click on the first photo to launch the slide show with bigger pictures.]

Thing that amazed me: it took less than 20 seconds for the group of 198 riders to whiz past a fixed point (me). On TV, it just looks like they’re going fast, but I can not express to you how quickly they’re moving when you see them live. There’s a WHOOSH and then they’re gone.

Thing that amazed my brother-in-law: In the thrilled voice of a little boy, he smiled and said,

“There’s so much smoking going on! It’s exciting!”


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Fashion Forward

Finding a bench that wasn’t being rained on, I decided to wait out the storm and take a break. I was happily listening to a podcast when an approaching woman caught my eye. She was wearing sensible shoes, bright purple jersey cotton pants, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a fleece shearling vest. “I wanna be like that when I’m an old lady,” I thought, respecting that she didn’t give a damn about the weather and was clearly dressed for comfort.

In retrospect, she was more like this.

In retrospect, she was more like this.

She sat on the bench next to mine and we were both sheltered for a time. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that she was moving animatedly and I dared turn my head a bit to see. She was talking and gesticulating wildly, not caring that I couldn’t hear her and had made no move to acknowledge her. I held my ground and didn’t engage her because talking to crazy people is one of the worst things you can do. You will spend the rest of your day trying to get away from them. I know this from experience. Do not engage crazy people.

After a few minutes of rambling, she abruptly stood up and strode across the street, entering the corner bar. I saw my chance, leapt up and ran away, heading down another street towards home.

I need to reconsider my life goals and role models.