Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


Cold calculations at the cinema

Scanning the list of movies playing in town, I regularly try to guess what their original titles were and am usually right. Confronted with something called COLD SISTERS, I figured it was some little-known B-noir probably starring two women fighting over a man and read on down the list. It wasn’t till I was cross-checking with an actual list of English-language movies that I saw that Alfred Hitchcock’s VERTIGO was playing and had to double back to see how I’d missed it in the French listing.

It turns out that my brain, in its infinite wisdom, had read SUEURS FROIDES [Cold Sweats] as SOEURS FROIDES [Cold Sisters]. It was an easy mistake to make.


Thinking of Madeleine and Judy as “sisters” puts a whole different spin on the story.

Consider something

Translation, something I do on some level every waking hour of my life, is an art not a science. I am frequently frustrated with people whose approach is word-for-word or who don’t appreciate nuance, intention and meaning. As a professional endeavor, it’s not easy work (though it can get easier) but it requires a lot more effort than most people would think.

Douglas Hofstadter, a guy who’s way smarter than me (he’s a cognitive scientist at Indiana University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author), agrees. In a story over at ESQUIRE about what real AI will be like and how many fake AIs are out there, he cites GoogleTranslate (a modern Towel of Babel) for not performing as advertised.

“Real translating involves understanding what is being said and then reproducing the ideas that you just heard in a different language. Translation has to do with ideas, it doesn’t have to do with words, and Google Translate is about words triggering other words.”

Granted, Google wouldn’t have made the same Hitchcock mistake I did, but it would never have been able to puzzle out that 7H58 CE SAMEDI-LÀ [7:58 This Saturday Morning] is BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD which I guessed immediately because I am a human whose brain, while frequently frustrating, is better than a computer swapping words for other words.


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Paris Fashion Week preview: Cinderella style

What was the deal with Cinderella’s glass slipper? As a kid, I never saw the classic Disney movie and as I grew older, the whole princess thing never appealed to me so I never really thought about what was going on in fairy tales.

How much more impractical could a shoe be? Let’s count the ways: inflexible material, heavy, fragile, prone to slipping off. I don’t even want to think about the blisters incurred as a result of rubbing against glass.

Of course, it turns out that like so many things brought over from antiquity, the real meaning was lost in translation.

Learn something

Verre is French for glass (the substance and drinking glass) and is pronounced exactly like vair which is the fur of a Russian squirrel. Since fairy tales were an oral tradition, the mistake is an easy one. Of course, it just makes more sense that Cinderella be clod in shoes made of animal skin than a material that’s very hard to make, fairy godmother be damned.

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Editing the New York Times

Honestly, I find multiple copy errors in the Times every day and each time, I die a little inside. It’s not often I know more than the writers, though. When I do, I get downright angry; if I know something, they should too! It also makes me angry at the editors since apparently none of them bothered to do their damn jobs.

Today’s gripe is about Catalan cuisine. In a blog post about aioli, a garlicky mayo typical in the Pyrenees region, a Times food columnist writes

In Catalonia [aioli]… is traditionally eaten as an accompaniment to grilled spring onions and snails at a feast called the cargolada. It’s also an indispensable accompaniment to paella.

I need to take a few deep breaths here. There are so many things wrong with this statement that I almost can’t see straight.

The grill guys are wearing the typical Catalan hat so that everyone’s photos have that “authentic” feel

In Catalunya, there is a kind of green onion called a calçot [kahl-sot] which is in season the first few months of the year. During this period, people frequently attend calçotadas, a kind of party where the onions are grilled over charcoal and then served with a romesco-type sauce. Romesco is a tomato-based sauce. It is therefore distinctly red and can in no way be confused with garlic mayo.

Second big gripe is that the word “cargol” does not exist in Catalan. There is caragol, which is a snail. Snails are very popular in northern Spain. They are, in fact, most frequently served with allioli, the Catalan way of calling garlic mayo. This duo is so common that it has its own name which is caragolada. There is not a festival or special feast associated with this dish. To claim that there is would be like saying shrimp cocktail is a holiday.

Finally, after living in Spain for five years and even waiting tables at a restaurant that served paella, I never saw anyone eat it with aioli. Perhaps if your mojo (from “wet” ; the spice paste that’s the base of the dish) isn’t very flavorful, you need the extra kick. There are recipes online for this combo, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the dish as the writer suggested.

Grrr. I’m going to grind my teeth for a while longer. Then I may actually make a rice dish since it’s on my mind now.


Learn Something (Else)

Romesco sauce is the only genuinely Catalan recipe to be incorporated into the international culinary world. It hasn’t reached the level of the Five Mother Sauces (the classic French ones taught in cooking school), but it is actually seen outside of Catalunya, so that’s a big deal for them.

Here’s Brendan, from his 2009 trip, showing almost perfect calçot-eating technique. You’re supposed to throw your head back and let the sauce drip into your mouth and then bite the calçot when you’re about to choke on it. It’s much safer to just chew the damn thing.

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Brace for impact

There’s a story in one of Spain’s national newspapers about the possible (first-time) collaboration of Pedro Almodóvar, Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz. The proposed project, called Los amantes pasajeros, is about the hilarity that ensues on a transatlantic flight when all the passengers believe the plane is going down and they’re going to die.

Being an American who experienced September 11 as an adult means that I don’t find anything about this scenario amusing.

The story made me think of a movie that came out in 1999, Pushing Tin. If you’ve heard of it at all, it’s because it was where Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie met¹. Since you probably haven’t heard of it, it also starred John Cusack and Cate Blanchett and was about air traffic controllers in New York City. It was directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings…) and was a “comedy.” I saw it at the time because there was a lot of hype about Jolie as The Next Big Thing according to stuff I was reading. (Her next role won her an Oscar, so I was clearly reading the right stuff.)

Back in 1999, the movie didn’t work on any level for me (everyone seemed miscast, it wasn’t funny) but I tried watching it again and found that I couldn’t even get past the opening. I have a visceral reaction to shots like these that just seem like the beginning of nightmares now.

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So, we’ll see what the El deseo team comes up with. In the story, Almodóvar reveals the English title of his movie will be I’m So Excited since the Spanish title can’t be translated. I’m not filled with confidence by this. Of course, Spain is the country that translated Airplane! as ¡Aterriza como puedas! [Land Any Way You Can!], so why I ever expect anything of them is beyond me.

¹This led to Laura Dern saying one of my favorite things ever, “I left our home to go and make a movie, and while I was away my boyfriend got married, and I never heard from him again.”

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Raisin trees and other mysteries

Back in early 2002, the staff of the news magazine program I worked on was called into the conference room to meet our New Media liaison. This was the person who was going to create additional content related to our stories exclusively for the web. Typing this all out now is making me feel incredibly old, but this was still a new concept at the time.

Anyway, this guy, whose name was David, started on a very rehearsed spiel about what New Media was (seriously, some staff members didn’t get all the fuss) and how he could help us and how his job was to enrich our stories. I was following along but was significantly uninterested in what he was saying until he said “It’s my raisin deetree,” and then I fell down the rabbit hole.

My mind started racing, trying to figure out what a “raisin deetree” could be. Grapes grow on vines, not trees. Raisins are dried grapes. Raisins are purple but they can also be golden and also sometimes reddish. Raisin Bran is a really gross cereal. Raisins look like rabbit poop. Rabbits live in burrows and warrens.

Every raisin thought crossed my mind and I still couldn’t make any damn sense of what he’d said. At some point the meeting ended and I shuffled back to my editing booth and thought about it most of the day. It was many many hours later when it hit me: he’d said raison d’être [rayzon det-re] and that’s when I wanted to just punch someone in the face.

The first time something like this made an impression on me, I was probably in junior high and I’d gone to the grocery store with my mother. She’d pulled up in front of a small strip of stores that were in the same shopping center as our grocery store and we both kind of made a “huh?” sound as she turned the engine off. Right at eye level was a handwritten sign that read, “Bo-kay $12.99.”

Let’s conservatively estimate that we were in the store for half an hour and that it took another half hour to get home (we had to go the long way since my mother hates making left turns) so it was over an hour later that we independently realized that the sign was meant to read “Bouquet.”

Of course, the flip side to these experiences are my own Rabies moments, but the difference is that I don’t inflict my stupidity onto other people, so they’re not nearly as bad.