Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


The One About The Deaf Lady

The most amazing conversation I ever had was with a woman at a bus stop in Barcelona in October of 2007. I was waiting for either the #43 or the #44 when she showed up. We started chatting as people do while they’re stuck together late at night, and when I turned back to her from a glance down the street, she asked me to repeat myself because she was deaf and hadn’t been able to read my lips.

I was a little surprised because I hadn’t noticed anything in her voice to indicate deafness, but didn’t think much of it. After about 15 minutes, she asked me where I was from and then I was very surprised. I quickly realized something and got so excited that my skin started to tingle because I had unknowingly been looking for this exact woman for two years. In case you missed the Life Changing Moment, it was this: a woman who could only read lips knew I wasn’t raised in Spain, even though she couldn’t hear my voice.

Prior to this, people hadn’t been able to put a finger or a name to what about me was de fuera [from outside; foreign], but there was definitely something and this lady was going to have The Answer.

At this point, she and I are finally on the bus and I ask her how she knew I wasn’t from around there. Sadly, she went with the obvious answer first: “You don’t look like you’re from here.” This statement is patently untrue, as she was looking at my face which is genetically 100% Made in Spain and I was wearing glasses that were “totally Euro” according to a friend of mine.

I asked again, saying that couldn’t be right for the reasons I just cited, and she said that while my diction was perfect (she had no problem reading my lips), my face was somehow ‘other.’ Pressed further, she said that maybe it was something about my cheeks but she couldn’t say what.

And then I knew. I realized that my English-speaking facial muscles were too pronounced and that my face wasn’t making smooth enough movements when connecting different Spanish sounds. This may sound crazy to you, but imagine how English speakers imitate the French, by pursing their lips and stretching the cheeks down and out. This isn’t just a stereotype, it’s the shape your face needs to be to make lots of French sounds. English requires a lot of upper-cheek work (feel your own face when making a long “e” sound like “cheese”).

I used ASL a lot in teaching ESL. I must have learned it on SESAME STREET.

I used ASL a lot in teaching ESL. I must have learned it on SESAME STREET.

Deaf thoughts

JEOPARDY! knowledge: The football huddle was invented by the Galludet team to prevent their opponent from reading their hand signs. Galludet is the world’s first all-deaf university.

→ ASL (American Sign Language) is not signed English — it has its own grammar and is only called that because it was developed in the States.

→ SWITCHED AT BIRTH, a show with a main character who’s deaf and attends a deaf school, is pretty damn good. I first heard about it in The New Yorker, and am glad I checked it out. The premise is that two girls were switched at the hospital and grew up rich/poor, white/Hispanic, nuclear family/single-mom, hearing/deaf and how they come to grips with what their lives should have been. Last year, they did an episode that was almost entirely devoid of spoken dialogue which was mesmerizing and fascinating.

→ While on the bus with that lady, I told her about an interesting study I’d read about in the Times. Scientists determined that babies were able to distinguish between spoken languages on videos without sound.

→ A Standford student, deaf since birth, describes the process and pitfalls of lip-reading.


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Updates on stuff I’ve written and your comments.

→ I’m not the only person who likes vegetables that grow in unexpected ways. It turns out that carrots hugging is a thing people document.

→ Mark Bittman also like artichokes. He makes a good case for them being easy to prepare, despite how unfriendly they look.

→ FYI: European festivals are designed to confuse foreigners. Octoberfest? Happens in September. La feria de abril? It’s in May. Mark your calendars accordingly (which is to say one month early or one month late).

→ Reading about the root of the word owl reminded me that in Spanish, “hoot” is ulular (FR : hululer). This is a crazy-fun word to say. Eew-luu-lahr. Makes me want to yodel from the mountaintops.

→ I’m not the only one who prefers Samsung products to Apple’s iPhone. Sales of phones at the Korean company are through the roof. Somewhere, the ghost of Steve Jobs laments that he can’t haunt his successors Jacob Marley-style. I’m sure he’s pissed.

→ Gatsby-love abounds, at least in all the parts of the Internet I frequent. I wouldn’t mind except that it seems everyone has a T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes thing. I thought he could only see into *my* soul!

→ What would it have been like if someone else wrote The Great Gatsby? According to The New Yorker, if Theodore Dreiser had taken a stab at it, the novel would have focused on the years when James Gatz became Jay Gatsby. I would have read the hell out of that.

→ I had to search through my inbox to find my Zappos password recently and was surprised that I signed up back when I had an Earthlink account. God, remember when you had to pay for email? Turns out that Microsoft sure does as they killed their Hotmail service recently. Fun fact: I had dial-up Internet access when I left the US. My reasoning at the time was that I sat at a computer nine hours of the day, why the hell would I at home?

→ Falling down an Eddie Izzard YouTube worm hole, I came across another gem (truly, the man is almost as pithy as Stephen Fry) where he talks about multilingualism:

I think the whole world should be a big melting pot, like Manhattan, a massive Manhattan. This is my simple idea for the future of the world.

Yeah, what he says! This is where I mention that my nephew, who lives in Brooklyn and goes to a bilingual school, pronounces the best borough as mahn-há-tán, with a weird accent. It’s very funny but not très sophisticated.

→ Finally, there’s always money in the banana stand dance:

Banana challenge



Updates on stuff I’ve written and your comments.

In the day after being Freshly Pressed, there were over 1200 clicks on my blog. Which is nuts. If you commented or “liked,” I’ll be checking your blog out eventually but there’s a lot to get through. #FreshlyPressedPeoplesProblems

Responding to all the comments on the post about spying, I started to wonder if American men have defensive tactics that they employ whenever they leave the house. Anyone care to comment?

More proof that the pop vs. soda debate is the defining schism in the US: Tweets reflect the rift.

After reading about my drinking problem, my mother suggested I may have potomanía, an ailment described as “excessive and uncontrollable drinking of water.” I’m adding it to the list of things that are wrong with me which I will blame on her.

I learned why Japanese master chef Jiro pointed to his nose. Turns out the Japanese for “I” and “nose” are similar so people touch their noses when they talk about themselves.

I was right about children not needing to identify with fictional characters and Harvard academic Maria Tatar proves it. According to something AS Byatt cites (which I can’t find), Tatar

has observed wisely that children do not usually ‘identify [with fictional children]’ – they stand a little apart inside the fictional world and intensely observe the people and the action.

I only listen to one podcast from Spain, “180 Grados” (which plays really good music). They didn’t broadcast between Dec 21 and Jan 7. This reminded me that many of the businesses in the country, including state-run radio, close down between those dates for the winter holidays. In the US, having two weeks off for Christmas is called “being in college.” It’s no wonder Spain’s in the shitter.

According to the most recent “Freakonomics” podcast, I may owe Winston Churchill money which is concerning.

Speaking of prolific famous English guys, if you want to listen to Alastair Cooke’s “Letters From America” (which I recommend) but don’t want to deal with iTunes, you can download them directly from BBC4.

Don't be such a pillow case

Don’t be such a pillowcase.

A while back I asked bilingual readers if they could do things simultaneously in two languages. I think I asked the wrong question since everyone said they can, proving nothing. I guess the question should be posed to monolingual people, so I’m going to try again.

What I want to know is if you can do two things at once in whatever language you speak (presumably English if you’re reading this). For example, can you read while listening to the radio? Please answer ONLY if you speak ONE language:


Lunchtime (multilingualism) poll

“You’re beautiful.”

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you are a person who is multilingual and/or interested in language learning/acquisition. If this is you, please read on because I need your help understanding something. If you got here because you also think that the tattoo in The Grey wasn’t clearly explained, move along.

Assuming you identify yourself as multilingual (I don’t care how fluent you are), my question is this: Can you do things in two different languages at the same time?

To be painfully, explicitly clear, I would like to know if you can, for example, read a newspaper in one language while listening to the radio in another language. I am NOT asking if after engaging in these activities you are able to accurately report back what you have heard or read. And to restate, that was an example. Maybe you listen to the radio in one language while driving and talking in a different language. I don’t know. You tell me.

So, here’s a little poll thing to measure your responses. Once I’ve collected some completely non-scientific data from you guys and done some more research, I’ll post about my conclusions down the line. And please tell me about your experiences in contemporaneous consumption of communication. I’m very interested.

Please vote ONLY if you ARE multilingual (two or more languages).

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Bilinguals understand made-up language better

In a shocking announcement, Northwestern University researchers revealed that bilinguals learn other languages faster. Apparently, people who already speak more than one language are better at “inhibiting” which here means the skill of

blocking out outside thoughts and distractions and a better overall ability to focus.

I buy that. There’s something about the bilingual brain that’s bifurcated so that we can alternately compartmentalize or combine things as necessary.

My sister recently asked me what “steering wheel” was in Spanish and I said “manillar” which I immediately knew was wrong but I also knew it was close somehow. A manillar is the handlebar to a bike which is my way of getting around. It actually took me reading “volant” in a French magazine later that afternoon to remember that a steering wheel is un volante.

I don’t know how other bilinguals sort information in their brains, but to me the above anecdote signifies that, somehow, things used to control the direction of modes of transport are related in my head on a more basic level that I understand. This idea seems connected to the work being done at Northwestern’s awesomely named Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Lab, which I hope will be the secret lair of a generation of bilingual superheroes.