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 Mystery: cash / efectivo / espèces

Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages.

I was right receiptThe cashier at my new local grocery store doesn’t like me. I suppose this is my fault, but I’ll explain what happened and you can judge for yourself.

She rang me up on one of my first visits, a total of 19,67€. Using the one math trick that I know, I gave her a 20€ bill and 17 cents.

“What’s this?” she asked, indicating the 10-cent piece.

“That gives me 50 cents back,” I told her.

“What? No it doesn’t! I don’t want this!” and she pushed the coin into my shopping bag, making it impossible to reach since it fell underneath all my purchases.

“Yes,” I insisted because this is the one math thing I can do right. “I give you 17 and you return 50.”

I may have pushed this point a little too hard. I should have taken her disproportionately angry initial response as an indication that she was in a bad mood.

“Don’t you tell me how to run my register!” she yelled at me. Yelled. In the middle of the store on an otherwise normal day. I backed down immediately, but the receipt proves that I was totally right, something she realized as soon as she counted out my change.

Today we went through the same thing; I was counting out the 33 cents that would give me 50 back but she changed up the operation and grabbed a one-Euro coin from my palm and, in a flash, gave me 17 cents in 1- and 2-cent pieces. I’m fairly sure that she did it just to piss me off, which worked, but she also made the rest of her shift impossible.

As a former cashier and person who had to cash out registers at the end of the night, I know that you want MORE denominations of coins so that you can easily make change. If you give all of your 1-cent pieces to someone out of spite, then you’ve screwed yourself by not being able to spread out their dispersal over your shift. Her behavior makes no sense to me and only results in both of us being penalized for her bad mood and inability to grasp mathematical concepts that even a complete idiot (me) can master. Makes no cents at all.

But dealing with surly cashiers is one of the disadvantages of paying in cash, today’s Word Mystery. I’ll ring you up below.

EN → cash — money in coins or notes, as distinct from checks, money orders, or credit. ORIGIN Old French casse [box] from Latin capsa [box].

ES → efectivo4. adj. Dicho del dinero: En monedas o billets. [4. Money term, in coins or bills.] ORIGIN Latin effectīvus [of practical implementation].

FR → espèces4. monnaie ayant cours légal. [Legal tender.] ORIGIN Latin “species” but its evolution is unclear. Possibly from the sense of “commodity” but even that seems a stretch.

English note: I’m disappointed that I never made the connection between “cash” and “caixa” before. The latter is a term seen in lots of places all over Spain as it’s commonly used in bank names, like Caixa Galicia.

Spanish note: Effectivus for the rest of us, I guess?

French note: In my mind, espèces was related to “spices” which made sense as they were used as currency. That it’s related to “species” makes no sense to me.

Today’s Winner is Spanish since it both confounded me the first time someone said it to me (“You want me to effectively do what, exactly?”) and, because of the three options, it’s the least annoying.


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Heart of Darkness

So, this happened:

Carrefour after dark 1

Oh, what? My crappy iPhone picture isn’t good enough? Try this one:

Carrefour after dark 2

Still not clear on what happened? I was in the supermarket when the power went out.

I’ll be honest, my first thoughts were of the Dawn of the Dead/The Mist variety and I was not happy because I do not like those kinds of movies. The store is open during renovation, so I thought someone tripped a fuse and power would be restored momentarily. After a few seconds, I whipped my phone out and fired up the flashlight app. As I scanned my immediate surroundings, I almost screamed because this old lady dressed in very dark colors was right next to me and that was like something out of Drag Me To Hell and I DON’T LIKE THOSE KINDS OF MOVIES!

I kept my cool though and eventually took it upon myself to help people find what they were looking for since most of the patrons mid-morning are older housewives and grandparents who don’t have flashlights. After a half hour or so, we were all ushered to the front of the store where there was light coming in through the windows and the clerks all got together, waiting for orders.

My cart was loaded up with a few things I needed, but my express purpose had been to buy a rotisserie chicken and some Coke for lunch. Some 20 minutes later, I tore into a pack of gum because I was genuinely hungry. One of the stock boys came up to me all aggressive-like, asking me what I thought I was doing. (I really hate rhetorical/sarcastic questions. Total wastes of time.) In my best French “duh” voice, I said I was hungry, obviously, and he started yelling at me, really yelling, asking how I was going to pay because all the machines were down. “I have cash,” I said and then he actually started flapping his arms angrily, saying that the registers were electric and that he was going to stay right by me to make sure that I didn’t leave without paying.

In the end, I got what I wanted because I’d thought the whole thing through in advance. I paid for the gum, the chicken and a bottle of Coke Zero in cash (€11,96) because the manager was a more reasonable person who understood that money is always money and that, because she had a key, she could open the register. She even gave me change back, which I wasn’t expecting.

I also learned an important lesson that day: the cashier from my peanut story wasn’t an angry person after all; the stock boys she works with are just total dicks.

Weapon of Distraction

I finally stopped thinking about scary movies by singing The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” to myself. I read an interview once with Joe Strummer where he went back to the market that inspired the song and couldn’t believe how small it was. Insert Thomas Wolfe-ism here.


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Cacahuètes aux herbes méditerranéennes

I tried the bacon-flavored peanuts, so I figured I’d try this other kind, marketed by the same company.

herb peanuts 1

It’s way hard to spell Mediterranean in French. Are three sets of double letters really necessary?

When the cashier tried to scan the barcode (barely visible in the bottom left corner), it wouldn’t work. She complained that the product must have been on the shelf too long and that the idiot stock boys hadn’t rotated the inventory. She was clearly pissed about a lot of things and was taking it out on the stock boys. Multiple attempts at entering the code by hand also failed, so she just rang the bag up as a Misc. item and charged me much less than the advertised price.

I was not dissuaded by her assertion that the peanuts had sat in the store for a long time and that no one else bought them. That actually raised my expectations as I’m starting to suspect the French don’t appreciate peanuts as they should.

herb peanuts 2

They look pretty good, right?

And the final judgment is that they actually taste pretty okay. Better than all of the other peanuts I’ve had here, but still not up to the level I’m used to. If there wasn’t any kind of seasoning on them, they might taste good, like normal dry-roasted peanuts, but given that I haven’t come across non-greasy regular peanuts yet, I’ll buy these again. Especially if I can get them heavily discounted.


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Bombing in French

I still haven’t cracked the code on what is funny to an average French person. This actually bums me out a bit since I like to make other people laugh (intentionally).

So, what happened was there were these tomatoes at the grocery store and since I’m a sucker for fruit that’s grown in a weird way, I had to get them.

They're inherently amusing, non?

They’re inherently amusing, non?

At the checkout, the cashier was as charmed as I had been. “Look at this,” she said to me. “How often do you see something like this?” She called across the front of the store to her colleague. “When’s the last time you saw two tomatoes connected like this? Never, right?”

Her level of amusement had quickly surpassed mine, but she’s a friendly person and maybe these tomatoes had made her day, so I continued to play along. “They’re brothers,” I said. “Twins.” It was enough for me that I’d remembered how to say twins in French, but she went the way I’d been heading. “Siamoises!” she cried. “Or maybe they’re in love!” she continued, looking at me since it was my turn to say something.

And this is where things fell apart because I was thinking about how I was going to prepare the tomatoes when I got home which would necessitate separating them and I said, “They’re Romeo and Juliet; together, but destined to be apart. Because I’m going to cut them.”

And that was the end of fun times at the grocery store for the day.


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My drinking (and real estate) problem

No, not this kind of drinking problem

I don’t have this kind of drinking problem

My father once accused my mother of drinking too much. Since this actually happened before I was born, I don’t know whether he said, “bebes demasiado” or “¿por qué bebes tanto?” or some other construction that would be translated in English as “you drink too much.” What I do know, since this anecdote rightly belongs to my sister, is that she repeated it at school and my mother was called in “for a parent conference.” In English, if you say someone “drinks too much” what you’re saying is that they have “a drinking problem” which is just one more euphemism for accusing someone of being an alcoholic.

The circumstances that prompted my father’s comment were that he’d gone to the dumb-waiter where we kept the soft drinks and found that all of the cans of soda (“pop” at the time) were empty, waiting to be recycled. His complaint was that my mother ingested too much liquid, leaving none for him.

As a kid, it became clear that I also drank too much. My father would say that he was going to buy a cow to keep in the fridge because I drank almost a gallon of milk (3.78 liters) every day at home. At school, I drank two pints (0.94L) plus whatever was in my Garfield Thermos which is a lot of liquid for a person who was under 4 feet tall.

And I still drink too much. On a normal day, when I don’t do any extra exercise or am not talking excessively, I put away about three liters of water and a liter-and-a-half of Coke Zero, easy. The downside to all this drinking is that I have to buy and carry massive quantities of liquids several times a week.

The cashiers at my store must have initially thought that I was having lots of parties. Now, when I roll up with my cart and say, “I’ve got eight Coke Zeros,” they don’t even bother checking because they know that I buy a lot of Coke. A couple days later I’ll roll up and say, “Two packs of Vittel” and show them the scannable sticker that Vittel cleverly puts on each 6-pack so you don’t have to remove them from your cart. They don’t bat an eyelash since they know I also buy lots of water. With these two shopping trips, I’m set, liquid-wise, for one week.

My version of a liquid diet

My version of a liquid diet

Why the hell should you care about any of this? You don’t have to, but I’ll tell you that when you drink so much, your priorities shift. I absolutely require that any building I live in have an elevator because there’s no way I can carry all those bottles up flights of stairs.

Which is just a reminder that I’m still looking for an apartment. I’ve narrowed it down to a couple neighborhoods and know that I want a decent-sized studio instead of a one-bed, but finding this combination with an elevator is proving to be very difficult. As they say over here, c’est pas evident [it ain’t easy].