Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


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.


Word Outlier: lata

You are now entering a place… where one strange word… lives alone… separated from its sibling signifiers. This is The Outlier Zone.

Daylight saving time was yesterday meaning that 1) I am now only 5 hours ahead of EST and 2) anything that could be considered “nice” weather will no longer appear on the forecast. No matter, really, as I love bundling up and have already been rocking some Thinsulate™ and hats and gloves for the better part of two weeks.

It does bring to mind happier, sunnier times, though. Times when I’d hanker for a nice cool beer to quench my thirst. Times when my beer would be so cool, it’d wear sunglasses.

cannette Hoeg

Both the English can (a cylindrical metal container) and the French cannette (Contenant métallique cylindrique pour les boissons. [Cylindrical metal container for drinks]) come from the Genoan dialect’s cannetta [reed] but the Spanish differ, as they seem to make a habit of doing.

In Spain, you get a lata (Envase hecho de hojalata. [Container made of tin.]) but the word origin is, according the REA, “disputed” so I can’t tell you where it comes from.

Huh. Now I’m miffed. I don’t like having unanswered questions. I guess I owe you 25¢ for your time. Put it on my tab.

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Updates on stuff I’ve written and your comments.

→ In case you missed it, expatlingo asked me to expand a recent Word Mystery and I did. More about ways to bandage wounds here.

→ I frequently joke that the US started to go to shit after I left, but I do suspect that the lack of my patronage directly led to the end of Linens ‘n Things and Filene’s Basement since they were both stores that I went to monthly and rarely left empty-handed. Now, there’s a new building going up where the original Filene’s used to be in Boston’s Downtown Crossing and I wonder if the guy who ran a cart called Boston Red Dogs (the only grilled hot dog cart in the area) went out of business too.

→ I haven’t read any Junot Díaz yet (Pulitzer winner for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), but his place on my list moved up several notches when I saw this:

Junot Diaz quote

→ For the record: this motherfucker will not read a book that’s in Elvish because that shit is BORING. Also: We’re totally taking over.

→ Mavis Gallant is apparently going to be an annual thing. The destitute divorced Canadian writer who lived in Franco’s Spain and who I first heard about last summer is worth another look. Someone quoted in an Atlantic story about her work said,

“The first story I read is called ‘The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.’ It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it changed my reading life forever.”

Even though I don’t generally like short fiction, I’ve picked up a couple of her books. The mentioned piece appears in a collection called Paris Stories, so I’ll clearly be starting there.

→ Coming across “jejune” recently, something struck me about the word and I dug a little deeper. Turns out that the modern meaning of “naive, simplistic, and superficial,” comes from the Latin jejunus [fasting] and that “without food” became “not intellectually nourishing.” There’s my old rabid friend! You won’t get by me so easily anymore! I’m onto your tricks.

→ Presented without comment: this Buzzfeed list of things that you love about America after you’re not living there. I will say #1, #5, #13 and #34.

→ While I was offline, so many fun things happened on the Internet, including this gem which will have me laughing forever:

the ham is melting, the turkey is suspended in midair, the salami is hatching from its own egg. why did we even come to the salvador deli.

→ After lots of soul searching, I have definitively decided that my favorite activity is sleeping because I can do all my favorite things while dreaming, like watch movies, eat yummy things and go on adventures. Imagine my astonishment at learning that sleeping could be even better! If I were, say, a sea lion, I could sleep with only half my brain while the other half was awake. This ability is called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep and I would do almost anything to have it. I could sleep while actually being productive which is what I will dream about tonight because that would be AMAZING.

→ Possible evidence that everything in the US really did go to shit after I left: nowhere I’ve ever lived ranked on this beer consumption index. Had I been around, I would have certainly impacted the results. New Hampshire may come as a surprise to people who don’t know that it was illegal in Massachusetts to sell alcohol on Sundays (boo, Puritans!). When I lived in a house full of men, someone always made the drive up to get provisions, so, in a way, I’m pretty sure that I *can* claim that first place ranking. [Ed. This blue law was changed in 2004 (yay, libertines!) so I’m back to being confused.]


Great word: pyjamas

Bananas in Pyjamas is a thing that makes me & my BFF laugh.

Bananas in Pyjamas is a thing.

I was sitting at an outdoor bar near the beach in Barcelona on a sunny day like any of the hundreds I spent while living there. This particular day I was staring intently into the pint of beer in front of me, willing myself to drink it before it got warm or I threw up.

I was achingly hung over. My head hurt, my liver ached, my kidneys were screaming in protest and the air was starting to heat up like an oven. Throwing up was a very real possibility. Instead, I took a sip. It stayed down, so I took another. Feeling no additional ill effects, I gulped the rest of the beer down and felt many degrees better. Hair of the dog always does the trick, if you can stomach it.

Feeling the world come into focus again, I looked up from the table top and saw that Franc, my friend’s husband, was staring at me oddly. I met his look with my own contemplative one and he finally exploded: “Are you wearing pyjamas?!”

I was and I didn’t care who knew it. “I barely slept, I’m hungover, it’s hot as hell. It’s a miracle I showered today, so, yes, I’m wearing pyjama pants.” I considered the matter closed, but when my friend Melissa returned from the bathroom, Franc incredulously told her I was attired in sleepwear. “Oh, that’s a good idea. I wish I’d worn pajamas,” she said. Franc is South African and sometimes misunderstandings cropped up between our cultures. “What’s with you American girls?” he asked us. “You’re never embarrassed about anything!”

The truth is I’m not embarrassed very often, but it’s not because I’m American. It’s because, like Rhett Butler, I just don’t give a damn.

Think about something

Pyjama (my preferred spelling) is a unique word because it’s the same in my main languages: pajamas (US), pyjamas (UK), pyjama (FR), pyjama (ES). ORIGIN: early 19th cent.: from Urdu and Persian, from pāy [leg] + jāma [clothing.]

And, just for fun


Word Outlier: cerveza

You are now entering a place… where one strange word… lives alone… separated from its sibling signifiers.

This is The Outlier Zone.

(Inspired by a comment made by Madame Weebles on last week‘s Word Mystery, I’ve decided to do the Bizarro version of that recurring feature and look at why sometimes one language has a different root word when the others I know share the same one.)

Very similar to my high school experience.

Very similar to my high school experience. @Anders Nilsen for NYT

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I really like beer. My infatuation started when I realized that, consuming as much liquid as I do, I needed something with a lower alcohol content than, say, vodka, which I also love but can’t realistically drink unless I want to be hospitalized for alcohol poisoning. (Which I don’t.) I’m also a fan of the communal aspects of beer (it was the only reason anyone socialized in high school) and when I got to college, I discovered something that those wily New Englanders had been keeping to themselves: craft beer and bars with hundreds of beers on tap. It was glorious.

After college, I had disposable income to spend on really good beer, and I went nuts for Weissbier, Hefeweizen and Belgian blondes. When I told people I was moving to Europe, I joked that I was going to find a Belgian beer prince to marry and get drunk with for the rest of my life. (The joke was on me, of course, as Belgian beer is typically made by monks, a subset of the population little-known for their procreation.)

The word “beer” has basically been the same for ages, all over the Western world. In Old English, they had bēor. Latin biber was ‘a drink’; the Dutch guzzled bier and the Germans, with their crazy capitalization fetish, have Bier.

But the Spanish have to be difficult. Instead of accepting a perfectly good word, they stick it to everyone by having cerveza.

ES → cervezaBebida alcohólica hecha con granos germinados de cebada u otros cereales fermentados en agua, y aromatizada con lúpulo, boj, etc. [Alcoholic beverage made ​​with germinated grains of barley or other grains fermented in water and flavored with hops, boxwood, etc.] ORIGIN Celtic cerevisĭa.

'Tis true!

‘Tis true!

There is a very long history of Celtic presence in Spain (as far back as 900 BC according to some), especially the part closest to former Celtic lands. It’s odd that in a country still trying to learn to like beer, they should exclude themselves further from the fun by defying convention. They’re the worst.

Final thoughts

A few months ago, the NYT published a story proving what I already knew in high school.

In Spain, a Corona beer is called una Coronita. “Corona” was already registered to a wine company when the Mexican brewer came to set up shop. (It tastes like watered-down carbonated urine in both countries.)

Jacques Brel, that paean to la chanson française, has an ode to beer unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. When I first saw Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, I thought, “That Gaston song is totally a Jacques Brel rip off,” and I stand by my opinion.