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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Word Outlier: helmet

helmet — a hard or padded protective hat, various types of which are worn by soldiers, police officers, firefighters, motorcyclists, athletes, and others.

ORIGIN diminutive form of an Indo-European root meaning “to cover or hide,” adopted by the German as Helm, by the Dutch as helm and Old French as helme.

RIP my bike helmet.

Helmet 1I bought this helmet at a “start of season” sale in the Hamptons in 2005. My sister and I were visiting my brother who was working there in advance of “the season” which is when all the swells and husband-hunters descend on the area from New York and its environs.

I loved it instantly because of the cool design which looked Mayan or Ancient Egyptian but was actually funky animals like octopuses, crocodiles and cats. (The design is fun because it’s a child’s helmet. Adult helmets are boring.)

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We were going to be walking around all day, so I did what I thought was the most reasonable thing: I put the helmet on my head so that I wouldn’t have to carry it. What happened was that all the shop keepers thought I was a person with special needs and everyone was incredibly nice to me and spoke to me as though I was a child. Another classic case of Americans erring on the side of caution so much that they fall off the cliff at their backs.

When I pulled the helmet out of storage recently, I noticed that the foam lining (which cushions your head from the hard shell) was crumbling and making a mess so I emailed the manufacturer to see how I could get replacements here in France. They told me they stopped making this model in 2001. Unwilling to part with one of my favorite things to look at, I dug around some and found the original packaging (always keep the instructions, the packaging and the inserts, people!) and there were spare foam parts there. Hooray!

I asked a guy I know who’s a bike expert to help me place them correctly and he asked how old the helmet was. Sensing this was going somewhere bad, I told him that I’d had it for “a while.” He asked if it felt heavy and solid and I said yes. This was the wrong answer. It turns out that after a few years, the plastic foam the helmet is made of starts to degrade and becomes unified into one piece and that you’re supposed to replace them every five years, especially if you’re riding in the city as accidents are more likely.

So, I have to say goodbye to my old friend and go shopping for a new helm for my noggin. I’ve found a promising place near République but their business hours are 10h – 18h45 (vive la France!) which means I have to wait until next Saturday to go and see what cool kids’ business they’ve got going on.

Another purging tip

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer” isn’t just some snappy thing to say to someone who stares too long. It’s also a way to “keep” something without actually keeping it. I’ll be able to remember my helmet for years to come by clicking through the pics I took and think back on the good times we shared without having to have potentially toxic fumes in my nostrils and crumbled bits of plastic all over my hands.


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French Bandstand: Édition spéciale

quelqu'un-de-l'interieur albumI’ve written at least a dozen different drafts trying to get today’s post right but none of them do the subject justice. Possibly the only way to share all the feelings and memories and emotions I have about this song would be in multiple entries or in a really long list like my Neil Diamond story, but every time I think I’ve narrowed down the salient points, another three things crop up in my mind and I have to start another version.

Instead, I’m just going to say that BROADCAST NEWS is one of the best American movies of all time and you should watch it. I’d probably say that to you anyway as it’s a good piece of advice, but for today, it’s also got to serve as the preamble to one of my favorite French songs.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know which one I’m talking about. It plays when Aaron, Albert Brooks’s character, is getting drunk alone in his apartment in the middle of the day, singing and reading: “I am read-ing while I’m sing-ing. I’m read-ing, I’m doing both!”

A million years ago, I’d copied the name of the song from the end credits on my well-worn VHS copy of the movie. It’s called <<Édition spéciale>> by Francis Cabrel.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I had been looking for the album this song appears on, Quelqu’un de l’intérieur (1983), since the early 1990s. I didn’t actually get my hands on it until 2007 when my sister called from the train station in Geneva on her way to the airport to ask what the name of the album was that I’d just spent the whole weekend trying to track down in that city. They had a copy right there. Just waiting for her to find it and send it into my loving embrace.

The song itself seems to be about a crush on a late night TV presenter, though the only show I come across with the same name started just a few years ago. Regardless, the beginning goes

D’abord y’a cette fille / To start there’s this girl

Dans la boîte de verre / In the glass box

Qui dit “Bonne nuit, à demain” / Who says, “Good night, until tomorrow”

Sur un bout de musique / Over a piece of music

Des bonshommes à l’envers / The dolls [little men?] go upside down

Et puis après plus rien / And then there’s nothing

The last part I’m guessing refers to the “end of broadcast day” image that was shown before the channel shut down for the night, but I can’t find any examples of what that might have been online.

Further appreciation

Since living in France, I rejoice every time Cabrel comes on the radio, which is often, since he’s both prolific and his acoustic guitar + rambling voice style is easily identifiable.


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The Purge

Packing may be my first love, but getting rid of stuff is a close second. The feeling of calm and accomplishment I get from tightly fitting things into a box is different from the slightly weightless tipsy sensation of seeing a pile of things I will no longer be burdened by, but both are very pleasant.

Mid-purge. It ended up taller than me and several feet wide.

Mid-purge. It ended up taller than me and several feet wide.

Inspired by my slightly sad looking towel hanging in the bathroom, I decided to do a mini-purge the other day. Because I am a sinvengüenza, here is a partial list of the things I got rid of in my first pass:

8 pairs of shoes
7 pairs of jeans
6 pairs of pants
5 pairs of gloves
4 scarves
3 dresses
3 jackets
3 belts
2 yoga mats
2 purses
assorted fitted sheets
assorted towels (bath, hand and kitchen)

You might think that it’s excessive that I had all of these things to spare and you would be right, but I do have a legitimate excuse. Being an itinerant expat means that every time I go to a new country or city, I take only the luggage that I’m allowed, usually just one medium suitcase. This means that I’ve had to re-buy most of the things I use every day at least four times in the past decade.

For instance, when I land in a new city, I have a high absorbency towel with me, but I don’t want to use that for the rest of my life, so then I have to go out and buy two new proper towels. (One must always have a spare.) Once all my boxed stuff catches up with me (usually months later), I suddenly have a lot more towels. Ditto yoga mats and big spa bath robes of which I apparently owned THREE. And I’m a person who gets cold easily and I like to bundle so I had SIX full size fleece blankets and three throws. I now have two of each. Add in that US, Spanish and French mattresses are ALL DIFFERENT sizes and the result is that I also owned lots of sheets that likely won’t fit any bed I’ll ever sleep on again.

Purging isn’t for everyone (like my mother who will be pissed that I’m outing her as a hoarder on the Internet) but I do think it’s a good practice and is generally good for society. If you’re daunted by the task, start small, like in the closet and see how it goes.

Le cul’s clothes purging tips

If it’s over 10 years old, OUT
If it’s faded, worn thin in patches or has required repeated button-sewing-on, OUT
If it’s suited to a situation you no longer find yourself in, OUT
If you can only remember one time you wore it, OUT
If you bought it for a specific occasion, OUT
If it was a never-worn gift, OUT
If you have a newer item that serves the same purpose, OUT
If you haven’t worn that size in four years, OUT
If it’s dry clean only, OUT

Following these pretty basic and reasonable guidelines, I think anyone could make a significant dent in the amount of crap they have. Happy sorting!

[Ed.: I haven’t seen THE PURGE because I don’t like scary movies but I know it’s a thing that exists.]


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The Loot Was Left Behind

Traveling in the winter is the pits. Navigating an airport with your coat and all your bundling up stuff is annoying enough, but the real issue is that winter clothes take up so much damn space. Buy two sweaters and suddenly your suitcase is filled up and you have to leave behind most of the food you bought.

The real tragedy here is that I had been counting on that food to sustain me during my first 30 hours back in France and since I didn’t have it, I had to actually get out of bed, shower and go buy things to eat which was rough since my getting-over-jet-lag procedure is very clear and doesn’t allow for any of those things.*

Left behind loot

Pictured (and not consumed by me):

  • 2 cereal containers
  • 2 packages of Reduced Fat Wheat Thins
  • 1 box of Cheerios
  • 1 box of Rice Chex
  • 1 box of cinnamon graham crackers
  • 1 bag cinnamon yogurt pretzels (sounded interesting)
  • ½ Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts (I was able to fit one sleeve into my carry-on)

* For the record, the secret to recovery from a westward-originating flight is to get home from the airport, shower, eat something, then take two bottles of water to bed and crash out until the following morning. Somehow, when I wake up again, the water’s been drunk and I feel ready to face the world.


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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.