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: cold / catarro / rhume

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

DOWNTON ABBEY returned to British screens this past Sunday, reminding me that I hadn’t yet addressed the Spanish flu. “Wait, what?” you’re probably saying.

In a 2011 episode of the second season of the popular ITV show, now in its fourth year, several characters contract the Spanish flu and one conveniently dies of it. Once I got over how incredibly dumb and poorly plotted the show had become, I was pissed at how everyone was so casually blaming all these dumb contrivances on the Spanish, when they had nothing to do with the flu (except dying of it, like everyone else).

The reason the 1918 H1N1 flu, which killed between 3 and 5% of the world’s population, was known as “Spanish” was because the most press coverage about the epidemic came from Spain…but not because there was more flu there than elsewhere. It was because the rest of Western civilization was busy fighting in a war and wartime censoring precluded the journalists from reporting anything bad that was happening on the home front. I guess they thought that if everyone was busy with their victory gardens, no one would notice that all their neighbors were dropping dead.

Unless you believe in the coming zombie apocalypse, the chances of you catching such a deadly virus are slim. But the chances of you getting sick in the coming months are high because non-lethal flu season is nigh.

To the WordMystery Machine!

EN → cold — a common viral infection in which the mucous membrane of the nose and throat becomes inflamed, typically causing running at the nose, sneezing, a sore throat, and other similar symptoms. ORIGIN related to Dutch koud and German kalt.

ES → catarroInflamación aguda o crónica de las membranas mucosas, con aumento de la secreción habitual de moco. [Acute or chronic inflammation of the mucus membranes, with an increase in secretion of mucus.] ORIGIN Latin catarrhus [flow, leak].

FR → rhumeInflammation des muqueuses des voies respiratoires, rarement accompagnée de fièvre ou de faiblesse. [Inflammation of the mucus membranes, occasionally accompanied by fever or weakness.] ORIGIN Latin rheuma [flux, flow].

Weird that Spanish and French both come from Latin words meaning “flow” but not the same one. It’s like another Word Mystery incepted this one! Just for that, I’m giving the win to English for being awesome and not knowing whether its antecedent is Dutch or German. (I suggest a paternity test.)

Girl, you know it’s true

DOWNTON is a terrible program (programme). Part of the cultural conversation surrounding television in recent years has been about the division between character driven shows and plot driven ones. DOWNTON fails on both counts. The characters, while dressed beautifully and artfully placed inside gorgeous settings, don’t exhibit the same traits from one episode or season to the next, have no institutional memory and are generally eligible for Upper Class Twit of the Year. The plots, such as they purport to exist, stretch and contract, depending on the whims of a madman (Oscar-winner Julian Fellowes) and don’t occur organically or on a reasonable timeframe. Honestly: how many YEARS passed between Mary and Matthew meeting and that thing that happened at the end of last season? Consider how many other characters DID NOTHING during that whole period. It’s mind-boggling how dumb the whole enterprise is. And now they’ve added a Cousin Oliver! An Oliver, for god’s sake!

But it sure is pretty to look at. Also: dog butt every week!

→ A good account of the likely series of events that led to the spreading of the “Spanish flu” here (spoiler: it probably started in the Midwest).


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O beautiful for spacious skies

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is when something you’ve recently become aware of suddenly appears all over the place. This is an illusion created by the human brain since it’s predisposed to find patterns, even when none exist.

All that fancy neurological science talk doesn’t convince me so I’m sticking to my default explanation on how everything works; it’s either a) the Universe trying to tell me something or b) magic.

American exceptionalism is the thing that’s been following me around recently. Here’s the list of the occasions where it came up, surely signifying Something Important:

  • La séquence du consommateur
  • Culturally Discombobulated
  • Esquire Magazine (US)
  • Life After Top Chef (Bravo)
  • The Hour (BBC)

What does it all point to? I don’t know, but let me break each appearance down and see if we can make any sense of it all.

On La séquence du consommateur, the reporter was talking about how, from infancy, American kids are constantly peppered with “you can do it!” and “you’re the best!” even in places like playgrounds which aren’t geared towards developing excellence. She and the host back-and-forthed about how this creates a society where everyone actually thinks they can do anything and that they really are the best. (I can assure you that most Americans aren’t the best at anything.)

After the election, Culturally Discombobulated (a Brit in the US) wrote about finally coming across it and he wasn’t impressed.

In a post comparing Boardwalk Empire (HBO) and Downton Abbey (ITV), “Esquire” mentioned it in relation to the differences in depictions of contemporaneous lives in the US and the UK in the 1920s. They focused on the issue of the social class system and how part of the fabric of America is the belief that you can rise above the class you were born into. (You can’t really do this.)

Everybody wins! It's America!And then the Internet told me there was a short-run series about former Top Chef contestants and since I actually like that show, I watched Life After Top Chef (Bravo) and there it was again! The most competitive of the chefs, Richard Blaise, got angry after a challenge presided over by First Lady Michelle Obama because she didn’t pick one winner but chose all three teams. “Everybody wins!” she exclaimed to the group assembled in a school gym. “‘Everybody wins!'” Blaise repeated. “It’s America!” he finished. It’s hard to get across with just this image but he was pissed and thought the decision was total bullshit.

I’m inclined to agree with him. American culture coddles people too much and generally creates false hope and a sense of entitlement that I have a real problem with. People who buy into that fantasy are destined for disappointment which could be avoided if only they’d had more carefully managed expectations. You may never be the best at anything. You probably aren’t going to be president. Merit alone won’t get you the job you want. Just because you are American doesn’t mean anyone owes you anything. Suck it up, get over it and move on.

Finally, two great lines from The Hour (BBC) really made me really sit down and trace where all this rah-rah-America stuff had come from recently. The excellent Peter Capaldi (In The Loop), a recent addition to the show, said of my compatriots

In every American there’s an incorrigible air of innocence which in fact conceals a diabolical cunning.

Later in the show, Ben Whishaw says of his time in the land of opportunity

Being a nobody in a country where everyone thinks they can be a somebody is infectious.

So, what’s it all about Alfies?

[For more, check out Tom Junod, one of my favorite magazine writers, on American exceptionalism.


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The Bletchley Circle (ITV)

Ladies who lunch (and break codes and solve mysteries!)

Since Downton Abbey ended a few weeks back, I’ve been sad without a British period drama. Lots of searching turned up The Bletchley Circle, a three-episode series about four women who did “clerical work” at Bletchley Park during WWII teaming up to solve some grisly murders almost a decade later. (Bletchley was where Allied Forces codebreaking happened, most importantly the Nazi Enigma code.*)

She’s Scottish and sassy

It wasn’t until the “previously on” of the last episode that I was able to put my finger on the one thing that had been nagging me. One of the women, Jean, had an accent that was slight but distinctive and I just wasn’t sure what it was. My first thought was Welsh since that’s always a good guess (for some reason, a disproportionate number of UK actors are Welsh) but then I hit on it: she spoke almost precisely like Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper on Downton. Two quick IMDb searches later and I confirm that they’re both Scottish!

This reminded me of the few times that accent-identification has come up with other expats. A German friend of mine was unable to distinguish between Spanish accents and a Venezuelan acquaintance wasn’t able to say which part of the Spanish-speaking world I hailed from. I’m not yet conversant with the French accents, but I can tell if one person speaks differently and when I first came north from Lyon, I noticed a marked difference in speech between the two regions.

Can you differentiate between different accents in your native and foreign tongues? Am I am outlier in this respect?

*Seriously, I know way too much about WWII for someone my age. It’s not normal.