Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


Great Word: friolera

ES → friolero, -ra — Muy sensible al frío. [Very sensitive to cold.]

Friolera is a good word. One of the things I like about it is that the English equivalent doesn’t do it justice. You could say “temperature-sensitive” or “a wimp about cold” which are close, but friolera has a dose of “always complaining about the weather and/or temperature” in the word too. It’s not a compliment or a neutral adjective by any means. It’s the nice way of expressing that someone is a pain in the ass, temp-wise.

I am friolera; hear me shiver!

I am friolera; hear me shiver!

I am friolera of a special caliber, “special” in the Spanish sense which is yet another way of saying “pain in the ass.” On the Fahrenheit scale, I am comfortable between 74 and 78 degrees (23-26 C°). It’s not a very big range, but anything above that leads to me sweating profusely, getting over-heated and eventually Hulking out, rage-wise. Below that and I start doing things like wearing fleece hats and scarves indoors and sometimes I’ll get a chill up my back which will park itself along my spine and I’ll shiver sporadically and not be comfortable all day.

In early November, I was talking to my mother about the weather locally where she lives in Spain compared with mine and I told her that I was already sleeping with the fleece blanket under the duvet and wearing long sleeves and pants and socks to bed. She said something dismissive like, “You always did get cold easier than everyone else” but I didn’t take it personally. My mother is Spanish and I think we’ve clearly established that Spaniards are assholes, just by their nature. (I am not exempt from this rule.)

The weather has gotten nice enough that I’ve moved the fleece blanket from inside to outside my duvet, but I’m still in that window of time where I am regularly wearing a hat, scarf and gloves while the lunatics around me are in shorts. I get a lot of strange looks from people but I just smile at them and walk on because I know something they clearly don’t: adults look like idiots in shorts.

For the record

You can call someone friolera in French too: frileux, frileuseQui témoigne d’une grande sensibilité au froid. [One who claims a great sensitivity to cold.]


Great Phrase: To be the milk

I generally give the Spanish people/culture/language a hard time in these virtual pages, but they have been known to do and say extraordinary things like coming up with saying that someone or something “is the milk.”

ser la leche [sehr lah leh-cheh] 1. loc. verb. vulg. Ser extraordinario. Este chico es la leche, siempre se queda dormido [colloquial verbal expression. To be extraordinary. “This kid is incredible; he’s always falling asleep.”]

The example provided by the Real Academia Española (the OED of Spanish) gives you a sense of how it can be used in a variety of ways, from genuine incredulity to ironic detachment. Like most expressions, there isn’t any one translation that really captures what is expressed, but let me throw some examples at you.

Things which are the milk

  • Lance Armstrong (both before and after his recent revelations)
  • The Duke boys
They just are.

They just are.

Things which are not the milk

  • Hamsters
  • Fran Drescher
Milk not The-Nanny

I honestly couldn’t think of anything worse.

Things which may or may not be the milk, depending on your feelings

  • U2
  • The Hobbit
I say no but other opinions are available.

I say no to Tolkien but other opinions are available.

Got it? Good. Start referring to things as the milk and see how your respective dairy level rises accordingly. And please let me know what you deign to be the milk!


Introducing Word Enemies!

“False friends” are similar-sounding words in different languages that have different meanings. “Word enemies” are what I call words that exist in multiple languages but have different meanings. These feisty foes are out to get me because it’s totally hard to keep them straight and I am always second-guessing myself when I use them.

First, an example of false friends, if you’re not familiar with the term. Before I moved to Spain and got good at the Spanish talking again, I went to a pharmacy in Madrid to get some drugs. Because I was constipated I told the pharmacist I was constipada. He came back with anti-histamines and I was pissed and told him that “No, no puedo hacer caca” which was something I really didn’t want to have to say. “Ah. Estreñida, no constipada” he corrected.* It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

And now, word enemies: What do you think these things have in common?

They are both called portable! In Spanish, a laptop is un portátil. In French, a cell phone is called un portable. Both of these things come up pretty often in modern life and I find that I’m always getting them wrong, frequently calling a cell phone un móvil since that’s what they are in Spanish and then people don’t know what I’m saying and my brain starts to shut down.

*Of note is that my mother was with me at the time, knew my malady and didn’t instruct me in the proper word to say. Spaniards = assholes.


Great word: mapache

My nephew was wearing this sweet sweater the other day, reminding me of the equally sweet word for raccoon in Spanish: mapache [mah-pah-tcheh].

Raccoons don’t exist in Spain (they’re native to North America), but they were common where I grew up. I remember one night watching an enormous raccoon just chilling on our back porch in the moonlight, gnawing on something that he really liked. They also regularly showed up as road kill since the area we lived in was kind of wooded.

While teaching English, raccoons would come up sometimes and since mapache is a word that’s hard to remember, I would always tell students that it’s the animal usually depicted as a burglar in cartoons due to their distinctive mask-like face fur. On more than one occasion, my students would express surprise that this was a real animal. They thought that the cartoon animals were foxes wearing masks, which, of course, is patently ridiculous.


One of my roommates in Barcelona was going out on a date one night and asked if I had any rímel. My first thought was of Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, because I have clearly seen too many WWII movies. We were standing in the hall between our rooms and I was frantically trying to figure out what she could be asking for and came up with absolutely no connection between desert warfare tactics and a night out on the town. Like those who faced Rommel, I accepted defeat and asked her what rímel was. Turns out she was talking about mascara…which, when said with a Spanish accent, is actually mascara (mask) which is what raccoons look like they’re wearing. Boom! Full circle!

UPDATE: A story in one of Spain’s national papers last week was about how raccoons that were originally imported as exotic pets and then abandoned have been encroaching on native wildlife. It’s disappointing that people continue to introduce animals into places where they don’t belong just because they want something cute and original. Has The Simpsons (not to mention the entire continent of Australia) taught us nothing?

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On speaking Latin*

Having as good of a memory as I have, it’s incredibly disappointing that I don’t remember the whole of one of the defining anecdotes of my life. I’ve thought about it so many times, trying to piece it together TV-crime-procedural style and I just can’t see the figurative smoking gun. But some facts remain.

The events took place on the very first day of junior high, when I was almost 12. It was in Mrs. S’s science class. My junior high was fed by four or five elementary schools so there was a range of proficiency and she wanted to see where we were at, academically. She was feeling us out and asking general questions to test our knowledge.

This is where my memory is tainted by the roar of blood rushing to my head, and things get a little blurry: I do remember that I was confident enough to raise my hand at one question she asked. I was, however, too dumb to realize that no one else had and that this simple act had a Social Implication. She called on me and I said REDACTED IN MY BRAIN, which was correct and she rocked back on her heels a little bit and asked me how I knew the answer. “It’s Latin,” I responded and Mrs. S was positively bemused. When pressed a little further about how an 11-year old in Flyoverville would know about Latin, I said the immortal words, “I speak Latin.”*

Mrs. S was a newer teacher and hadn’t heard of us before. “Us” here refers to my family which was known, some would say infamous, for many things, one of which was being too damn smart for our own good. Later that week, another teacher who had taught my older siblings and therefore “knew” about us said something to me in the halls like, “I heard you made quite an impression on Mrs. S. Can’t wait to see you in my class.”

I think the notoriety that my little Latin stunt brought me both with teachers and students is why I blacked out the crucial bit in my memory. The lesson I learned from it stayed with me forever though and it’s science-related to boot, basic Darwinism when you get down to it; if you stand out in a crowd, you’re likely to get called out. Sometimes, it’s best to just mingle with the plebs.

[*Of course, I didn’t then, nor do I now, speak Latin. But I knew about Latin and Latin roots to words and I knew that a language I did speak, Spanish, was Latin-based. I figured that was close enough and it was a much simpler answer than, “In my house, we talk about where words come from and often refer to a dictionary at the dinner table to settle linguistic questions.” I will also mention here that when I recounted this story to my mother later that day, she almost passed out from laughing so hard. “I speak Latin” continues to be used by my family as shorthand for “hubris”…which I know is Greek.]