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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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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INT. DIVE BAR, HAPPY HOUR, WASHINGTON, DC — NIGHT

This very bar.

This very bar.

GIRL is at a dive bar with many of her coworkers. It’s the birthday party for GIRL’s BOSS.

Boss’s GIRLFRIEND approaches GIRL, beaming hugely.

GIRLFRIEND

You must be Maya! I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you!

GIRL is momentarily confused. MAYA is an Indian girl who is on the same staff. Then GIRL remembers that GIRLFRIEND is a Midwesterner and therefore not used to people who aren’t variations on milk-colored.

GIRL

No, I’m the *other* brown girl on staff. I’m Spanish. From Spain. Not Indian.

GIRLFRIEND makes a face like she swallowed half a lemon.

GIRLFRIEND

Oh — no — I didn’t mean — It’s — I —

GIRL

Clearly, Boss hasn’t mentioned me. It’s good to know that he favors Maya, even at home.

GIRL is patient. GIRLFRIEND will need a few moments to understand what’s been said, to glean the subtext. GIRL waits.

GIRLFRIEND

Oh. Wait — what?

GIRL sighs. GIRLFRIEND is too dense or simple or trusting or blind to figure out what GIRL is saying.

GIRL
(indicating across the room)

Maya’s over there. She’s the Indian-looking one. Like from India.

GIRLFRIEND continues to look stricken. Suddenly, she spins around and races across the bar to GIRL’S BOSS, her body language suggesting she is near tears.

GIRL
(to herself)

Jesus Christ. I can’t deal with these people anymore.


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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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Work to live, live to work

I kind of felt like this the whole time I worked for this guy. (A favorite comic from explodingdog.)

I kind of felt like this the whole time I worked for this guy. (A favorite comic from explodingdog.)

Once upon a time, I walked into my boss’s office and asked for his permission for my summer vacation. It was six months before I planned on going on holiday.

“Depends. Where’re you going?” he asked me.

“Does it matter?” I asked.

“Well, I can’t have you going far away. If I need you, I’ll have to pay for your return flight from our budget, so I’ll only okay it if you’re staying close.”

I was momentarily speechless. In the privacy of his office he had said aloud what both of us knew: I did a lot of his job for him and he depended on me to make things run smoothly. This was a tiny victory for me and about as much recognition as I was going to get since he sure as shit wasn’t going to use that budget to pay me more.

I recovered pretty quickly from my momentary elation to address the next issue, namely that he had no right to deny me and I knew it, even if he didn’t.

“I haven’t planned it yet,” I lied. “Besides, according to the employee handbook, it’s against company policy to deny a vacation request if it’s made within a reasonable time period to find a replacement. Half a year should be long enough to line someone up, I think.” I let that sit there. Watched as he slowly started to realize that I had that handbook almost memorized.

“Well, try to stay close anyway,” he mumbled as he signed the form.

My best friend and I went to Europe for just over two weeks and I didn’t even leave him hotel contact information, despite his repeated “casual” and “humorous” mentions that I do so.

***

This story prompted for your reading pleasure by the news that some French labor unions are moving to prevent some workers from being required to answer email after work hours.

There was a ton of misinformation online about this, apparently started by those French-hating bastards over at The Guardian* but cooler heads prevailed at places like the NYT. FastCompany went crazy with the specious headline but NPR actually did some of their own reporting, coming up with a better researched post.

* The bastards I’m referring to are les rosbifs, generally speaking. I actually like The Guardian and read a lot of their entertainment coverage which is quite good.

The funny (sad?) thing is that many of the English-language stories cited the same data point about how American productivity levels are 400% higher than those in France. Even if this is true, so what? No mention is made of how low American health, happiness or well-being levels are, nor how high the stress, obesity and heart disease rates are. Joe Walsh sang it best: There are two sides to every story.