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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My first expat Christmas

My roommate's attempt at making me feel at home. He didn't know I hate Christmas. (Please note that the boxed jamón at left is almost as tall as the tree.)

My roommate’s attempt at making me feel at home. He didn’t know I hate Christmas. (Please note that the boxed jamón at left is almost as tall as the tree.)

I was in Barcelona and had no plan. I didn’t yet understand that EVERYTHING closed on holidays in Spain. I didn’t realize that even if people hated their families, they spent ALL NIGHT with them. I wasn’t prepared to deal with the total desolation of my neighborhood as everyone I knew went to their pueblos [hometowns].

I spent the evening with a couple friends, one of whom had a car. We drove up to Tibidabo, the small mountain range behind the city that seems like it wants to push Barcelona into the sea. There’s an impressive-looking church there, the Templo Expiatorio del Sagrado Corazón.

Templo Expiatorio del Sagrado Corazón, Dec 2005

Templo Expiatorio del Sagrado Corazón, Dec 2005

My friend, who is a professional photographer, offered to take my picture but didn’t like where I’d chosen to pose. I tried to explain that I wanted to be hidden. I told him that people who knew me would recognize the outline of my Russian-style hat since I’d had it for ages. He really didn’t want to do it, but it turned out perfect.

I can totally tell what clothes I'm wearing too.

I can totally tell what clothes I’m wearing too.

Everything was closed down, but the merry-go-round was creepily lit up and running. There didn’t seem to be anyone minding the place, so my thoughts immediately went to Scooby-Doo type scenarios. (There were probably two kids smoking pot in the bushes and watching the wheel go round and round.)

Maybe it was meddling kids who'd turned it on?

Maybe it was meddling kids who’d turned it on?

It was a weirdly peaceful evening. Excepting the lack of food options, it was pretty nice as far as Christmases go.


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Coke racist

Someday, I’ll write the really good, salacious stories that illustrate how racist Spain is, but for today, here’s a little something to whet your appetite.

Sitting with a friend at a bar in Barcelona on a hot, hot day like all the others I spent there, I order a Coke Zero and she a regular Coke. Our drinks arrive a little while later and as the waiter is putting them on the table, her back goes rigid and her temper, aggravated by the heat, flares.

“I didn’t order this! I’m in Spain and I want Spanish Coca-Cola! Take. This. Back.”

The waiter starts to say that this is the only Coke they have and she gets up from the table, dragging me along.

Polish Coke 1

Even better than the real thing.

“Then we are leaving!”

Looking back longingly at my Coke Zero sweating it out on the table, I saw that her Coke had weird lettering on it, indicating that it came from somewhere close to Russia.

Later, drinking locally-sourced Cokes, I told her how in the US, Mexican Coke is highly prized because it tastes better. (It’s made with real sugar, not high fructose corn syrup.) She was horrified by this information but recovered quickly, making disparaging remarks about Mexicans and their relative levels of cleanliness.

I let the topic drop since convincing Spaniards that they’re racist jerks is a futile endeavor and I just don’t have the energy to engage with them on every big and little thing they do that’s offensive.

But I do think of her every time I get Coke that “fell off the back of a truck” as is sometimes the case when I order food from a local place. I don’t understand how the economics of this works out, surely the transport alone negates any savings, but it all tastes good to me. (And it’s always still better than US Coke, so I’m still winning.)

 


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Mayday, May Day!

Ha! I actually remembered a holiday! This is BIG NEWS around these parts.

Thoughts on May 1

Another great Midwestern invention.

Another great Midwestern invention.

1. My mother always called the local classical music station to remind them of the date and request they play some version of the Internationale. It was mortifying to hear the smooth-voiced program host mention her by name and play the track. I don’t think my mother has any real Communist leanings, but this is another true story: she totally hung out with Fidel Castro in Cuba one time. Spaniards around the world, unite! [Ed. His parents were from la patria, making him a Spanish national, just like me.]

2. Where I grew up, there was a local tradition of making May Day baskets and “anonymously” delivering them to your friends’ houses. We’d take things like SOLO cups (later used for other things), poke holes in them to thread pipe cleaner handles, decorate them in a spring theme and then fill them with candy. Then you’d have someone drive you around and you would drop the basket at the door, ring the bell, and run like hell. The recipient was supposed to guess who each basket came from so everyone would try to throw their friends off the scent by putting weird things in theirs. It was the definition of good, clean, wholesome American fun and almost seems like an idea Norman Rockwell and Grant Wood cooked up together.

3. In France and Spain, this is a federal (bank) holiday. I love that the way to honor workers is by not working. Such a concept wouldn’t really be able to take hold in the US — to wit, Secretary’s Day where they get flowers but still have to work. In America, workers are a dime a dozen and worth even less. Also, the streets are paved with cheese.

4. My crazy-rich student in Barcelona was eventually slightly impressed by the vast scope of my knowledge. She had taken the exam to be a licensed boat captain (they had a yacht!) and asked me to explain many of the terms she’d learned. I know very little about nautical things but I did know that the international distress call of “Mayday, mayday!” comes from the French for “Come help me!” [Venez m’aider !]. This was a rabies I put together on my own while reading a French novel when I was younger and I was crazy pleased with myself. Little did I know that there would be so many other things in life that would puzzle me.

So much weird knowledge came from PEANUTS

Couldn't find one of WWI Flying Ace yelling "Mayday!" but I'm pretty sure they exist.

Couldn’t find one of WWI Flying Ace yelling “Mayday!” but I’m pretty sure they exist.


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I’ll be taking my business elsewhere, thanks

I actually walked in here one day and told them their sign was wrong and they told me to get lost since they knew better.

Bussines Center


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The Day The Bastards Got Me Down

If you’re a person in need of letting go or just relaxing a bit, I have a solution for you. Allow yourself to be completely broken down and then build yourself up again. This advice may seem counterintuitive, but, having gone through it personally, I can tell you that becoming a shell of your former self and having all your ideas about what is good and true beaten out of you can be totally liberating.

This happened to me on June 21, 2007. I’d been in Spain for almost two years at that point, butting heads with people over just about everything and getting nowhere. I wanted to finally have all of my Spanish IDs issued properly (nat’l ID, passport, health card, etc.) but everyone in every government office was dead set on hindering my progress.

My American go-getter attitude wouldn’t stand for this kind of run around, so I quite literally spent all of my free daylight hours in federal buildings, waiting for my number to be called so that my paperwork could be rejected based on a technicality or have the teller windows close on me or be told, after sitting for hours in non-air-conditioned spaces, that no more people were being seen until the following day.

The bastards beat me that hot June day, but I lived to tell the tale and the whole nightmare taught me that, even though I may want to, I can’t control most things in the universe.

INT. GOV’T OFFICE BARCELONA— EARLY AFTERNOON

A GIRL wearing bicycle gloves runs in. She is sweating slightly. She looks excited. She approaches the main desk.

GIRL

(fumbling with her bag, extracts several sheets of PAPER)

Sorry, um, I, ah, was here last week to pick up these papers…

GIRL hands PAPERS to WOMAN behind the desk.

GIRL (cont.)

… but when I went to get my ID across town, they said it was missing a stamp, so, I, ah, want to get it stamped.

GIRL smiles. The WOMAN has tightly permed orange hair and red wire-rimmed glasses. Despite the heat outside, she is wearing a sweater that began to pill several seasons ago.

WOMAN

(looking over the papers)

Right. OK. They should have done that before. Hmmm, that has to be done in Madrid.

WOMAN turns as if to leave, though the office is scheduled to be open for another 35 fucking minutes.

GIRL

(clearly tense)

Wait, what? What do you mean? I requested these papers for the specific purpose of obtaining my ID and you’re telling me that they forgot to stamp it?!

WOMAN

(not giving two shits)

Try Door 8 upstairs.

INT. MAIN AREA, SAME GOV’T OFFICE. GIRL is looking around at signs, many handwritten, trying to find Door 8. GIRL sees an elevator and gets on.

INT. ELEVATOR. GIRL is now sweating more heavily than before. Theme music from “BRAZIL” begins to play softly in her head.

INT. GOV’T OFFICE, 2ND FLOOR. GIRL continues to follow all manner of signs promising the proximity of Door 8. GIRL turns a corner and is, no shit, confronted with this:

You can't make this shit up.

You can not make this up.

GIRL laughs quietly under her breath, though she is not amused.

INT. ERROR CORRECTION OFFICE. There are several CIVIL SERVANTS sitting at desks and standing around a coffee machine. As soon as the GIRL enters, they all scatter off into corners like the cockroaches they are…except one rather portly OLDER CIVIL SERVANT. GIRL approaches his work area.

GIRL

(trying to sound casual, but not succeeding)

Ha, I have an “error” I’d like “corrected” please. You see, it appears that a stamp I need on these documents wasn’t put on and I’d like to have that done now.

OLDER CIVIL SERVANT

(gives a cursory glance to the documents, flipping each one over carefully in a studied manner)

Yes, I see. Mmmm-hmm. Ah. Well. Yes. You need to fill this form out…

OLDER CIVIL SERVANT pushes a practically blank piece of paper at GIRL.

OLDER CIVIL SERVANT (cont.)

… and then send it to the Madrid office for the stamp.

The GIRL‘s body sags, as if suddenly under an enormous weight. GIRL begins to tremble slightly. GIRL inhales sharply, as if gaining strength from an unspoken mantra (“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”) and then…

GIRL

(speaking very slowly)

There must be some mistake. I have waited for one and a half years — that’s eighteen months — for these papers. It is not possible that they have to go back to Madrid. That is just not possible.

GIRL shakes her head forcefully, refusing to accept what has been said to her. The theme from “BRAZIL” becomes a roar in her ears.

OLDER CIVIL SERVANT

Well, it may not be “possible,” but it is so. Should take. . .

At this, OLDER CIVIL SERVANT looks off into the middle distance, feigning the act of thinking.

OLDER CIVIL SERVANT (cont.)

… six months to process. You should have your stamp in six months.

GIRL

(visibly shaking)

No, no, no, no, no. These papers. . .

GIRL flaps the pile of PAPERS she brought.

GIRL

… were supposed to take six months and they took three times that. I can’t wait another year and a half. I can’t.

OLDER CIVIL SERVANT

(not a care in the goddamned world)

If you go to Madrid it won’t take as long. Maybe a month.

SMASH CUT TO: GIRL running out of GOV’T OFFICE building towards a bicycle. When she reaches it, she begins to take great big gulps of air but there is not enough oxygen in the Milky Way to calm her. She collapses on the ground next to her bike and starts sobbing. “BRAZIL” theme swells as camera FADES OUT.