Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


No shit, Sherlock

Here’s one of the signs in a new campaign to get French people to pick up after their dogs. (We previously agreed to call this poodle, non?)

The shit doesn't fall from the sky.

“The shit doesn’t fall from the sky.”

As you can tell, this sign is ENORMOUS. What you can’t see is that there are more versions posted every half block to make sure the point is really driven home. We’ll see if it makes a difference.

Cultural Differences

“Poodle” in public walking spaces is a nuisance and should be the responsibility of the canine’s owner. This being said, I never picked up after my own dog when I had one. This is because my dog was the best of his species and would take himself out for walks and return, usually 20 minutes later, and scratch on the door. It helped that I lived in an area where there were practically no fences or sidewalks, but his ability to self-regulate was still unheard of and super convenient.



I coulda been a contender

No only can I spell melocotón, I know where the accent goes. BOOM!

Not only can I spell melocotón, I know where the accent goes. BOOM!

One of the great disappointments of my youth was that I wasn’t ever a contestant in an organized spelling bee. When I first went to public school, I experienced some culture shock as my Montessori school hadn’t cared a whit about spelling, but I quickly got into it and was a spelling star within the year. Plus, I spoke Latin, so determining root words was second nature!

As evidence of what would surely have been my national spelling dominance, I present this story which lists notable words from the most recent Scripps National Spelling Bee, held last week in Maryland. The first is the actual Spanish word for peach (pic’d) and the second is French/Catalan. The rest are things I could have figured out without much trouble and with ease if I’d actually studied a bit. I would have eaten these preteens for breakfast when I was their age.

Learn something, watch something

The Scripps competition is the preeminent spelling bee in the US. It’s a pretty big deal and always gets mentioned in late night TV monologues or morning drive-time radio shows. In 1994, ESPN, an all-sports network, started broadcasting the bee with live commentary. Back when I worked in the news biz in the US, one of my bosses, a British guy, made a snide comment about how pathetic and American it was to congratulate our children on their ability to spell words in their own language correctly. By the end of the day, he was glued to the screen with his knuckles in his mouth, cheering the kids on. Take that, British schooling!

The thing that’s hard to communicate is that the competition is bizarrely compelling. There is an excellent documentary called Spellbound (2002) which follows some of the competitors of the 1999 bee. It’s one of the few films I would say that every person on the planet can enjoy as it’s heartbreaking, touching, funny, weird, educational and amusing. I can’t recommend it enough.


Oh, the places you’ll live!

European real estate is a weird thing. In Barcelona, I arrived at my assigned student housing and found that this was my room.

On Carrer de Sardenya, Barcelona 2005

On Carrer de Sardenya, Barcelona 2005

When I’d lived in a dorm my freshman year in college and had to share a tiny cell with a total stranger I still had more space to myself and certainly had more storage. The photo is taken from the doorway and there were no other furnishings in el cuarto. Notably absent was a place to put my clothes. Or my suitcases. Or my books. Or even to sit down and study. It was a nightmare.

And now in France, I have an opposite problem. Toilets here tend to get their own rooms which makes no sense to me.

My toilletes (and yes, it's plural for reasons beyond me).

My toilletes (and yes, it’s plural for reasons beyond me).

It’s a total waste of space, and from a construction perspective, the cost of an additional door and two walls seems irresponsible. If it were a half bath (toilet and a sink), I wouldn’t object so much, but with this design, you are obligated to touch the handle with dirty hands. It’s both excessive and unhygienic which are words that some people might use to describe the French. (But not me! I aime the French!)


And that’s why you always leave a note

Say, for instance, you have information you would like to share with a person unknown to you; how do you do this? I can only think of one way, which is by leaving a note.

Not so in France. Here people just wait until they run into a person who might be the person to whom they want to convey information. The first time this happened, I was legitimately annoyed that Monsieur le président of the co-op I’m living in made such a big deal about how I had been breaking the rules. At the time, I pointed out that I hadn’t known about the regulations but as soon as I was informed, I amended my behavior. Problem solved.

Jump to early this month when I’d been waiting for a package from my mother and there was no sign of it. Correos, the national Spanish postal system (which is a complete joke), had provided her with a tracking number which revealed only that the box had been entregado (turned in/delivered) on the 8th. A week later, my mother filed a claim at her post office and I was set to head to mine and see if I could get any answers on this end. As I was checking the mailbox one last time, a woman rushed me from the opposite side of the street.

“Are you Madame XXXX?” she said, breathlessly.

“No,” I said, “I’m Mademoiselle YYYY, Monsieur XXXX’s subletter. Is there a problem?”

“Oh! I’m so glad to have found you! I check to see if your light is on every time I come home!”

I looked at her blankly because there wasn’t really anything for me to respond to and that’s when she added, “I have a package of yours! I’ve had it for over a week and kept hoping to run into you!”

She went on to tell me that she’d been in the lobby when the mailman attempted delivery and, as they both noticed that the box was insured and “international,” they determined it must be important. It apparently seemed best to them that my neighbor, a woman who’s never seen me, sign for it which she did. But then she didn’t leave me a note that she had it. For over a week. And there were perishable items inside. At this point in her story I got really pissed but I didn’t express it because she had my god damn package and I really wanted it.


This is really funny if you’ve seen Arrested Development.

When I picked it up at her apartment a while later, she told me that she’d been up to ring my doorbell “every night” but I was never home. I told her that I never hear the doorbell and was desperate to add, “If you came by EVERY NIGHT and there was never an answer, WHY DIDN’T YOU LEAVE A GOD DAMN NOTE?” but I decided that it would be more poli to just take the box and get the hell out of there.

Prenez note

French people don’t leave notes. Ever. Even for important things. Connards.

The title of this post courtesy of Arrested Development‘s “Pier Pressure” episode. AD is the funniest American show ever broadcast (UK’s is Fawlty Towers) and is finally coming back this summer (May 5!!!) after being off the air for six years. If you have never seen it, now’s your chance to get caught up. Amusingly, in French the show is called Les Nouveaux Pauvres which is a pun and therefore great.

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French people are nice

Back when I was hobbling around on my gimpy knee, I was confronted with this staircase into a métro.

Image intentional overexposed so you can see how damn deep this goes

Image intentional overexposed so you can see how damn deep this goes

As I slowly made my way down, a woman coming up saw me struggling and smiled at me and said, “Bonne courage” and continued on her way. Her encouragement helped though it still took me something like 20 minutes to get to the bottom.