Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


Links Day

On this day, God said, “Let there be links!” and there was much rejoicing.

→ The most miserable US states, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. I admit that I’m disappointed that the state I grew up in is not number 1. Makes me think they didn’t collect enough data ’cause that place is the worst.



→ What would the world be like if ads were replaced by art? Pretty great, I’d say after looking over Etienne Lavie’s “OMG who stole my ads ?” project.  [h/t]

→ Apparently, everyone else in the world is washing their hands wrong. If I were still as germphobic as I was when I lived in the US, this would seriously disgust me. As things stand now, I’m just disappointed in you.

→ People have always (weirdly) been drawn to me, and Mike White (actor / director / screenwriter / AMAZING RACE contestant) may know why. He says he wants people to see him and think,

“Oh, he seems like he’s having a good time. Maybe he has the secret to something that I haven’t figured out.” 

(I’m totally not telling you the secret.)

→ National flags made out of each country’s typical foods. Warning: this will make you hungry. 

→ Jenny Lawson, blogger extraordinaire and author, is someone you should be reading. She’s funnier and more foul-mouthed than I am though we feel the same way about the Important Things In Life, like The Princess Bride.

“I used to think that it was a small sin to waste time rereading silly books you’ve already read. . . but then I grew up and realized that those things were the only things that mattered. . . I’ve decided to give up on caring about wasting time and, in doing that, I’ve suddenly saved so much time I would have spent hating myself for reading The Princess Bride for the 89th time.”

Amen, sister. 

→ British actors with fantastic voices reading aloud. They make even the poetry palatable. 

desmoinespolice→ Buildings that used to be Pizza Huts were featured on the great 99% Invisible podcast. I ate so many free pepperoni personal pan pizzas in buildings just like the one pic’d at right as RIF / Book It! rewards. I wish I could still get free stuff just for doing things I like. 

→ I don’t have tattoos because I think they’re a bad idea. My friends who have them all regret the decision to varying degrees, the most mild being, “I don’t really mind this one too much.” A column in the NYT Magazine nailed my issue with scarring yourself with colors:

“Getting a tattoo is a way for your past self to exert power over your present self.” 

Your past self is always an idiot compared to your now-self. Knowing this when you’re younger helps prevent mistakes in the future. This is the reason I’m not on Facebook.

Next Week

In honor of the Academy Awards (which are this Sunday), I’ll be doing all movie-related posts next week. I can’t keep track of basic holidays (or even my birthday) but I mark the Oscars and the BAFTAs in my calendar because those are important (to me). Priorities, people. We’ve all got them.


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.



Updates on stuff I’ve written and your comments.

→ My mother says that the Spanish aguacate [avocado] comes from the Nahuatl (pre-Spanish Mexican language) word ahuácatl, which also means testicles. Quoth she: “which, if you think about it, gives a new dimension to eating it.” It’s a wonder I make such weird connections to stuff sometimes.

handeggElizabeth mentioned that the term “handegg” had been proposed as a replacement name for that dumb sport hulking Americans play. I approved the change and then found Internet evidence that suggests this may catch on someday.

→ For a show that had elements of many of the things I love, namely 80s music and spy stuff, FX’s THE AMERICANS left me pretty underwhelmed. The highpoint of the first season was during the finale when the big moments were scored to Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers.”

→ James Cameron’s movies are horrible. Excepting ALIENS (which was based on pre-existing characters), all of his films feature terrible dialogue, worse plotting and zero character development. Given that I have such strong feelings about him and his œuvre (hi Ethel!), it may be surprising that I vociferously criticize the Spanish translation of “Sayonara” over “Hasta la vista, baby” in T2, but that line actually makes sense. The Terminator has spent the whole of the movie bonding with a young John Connor in Southern California where Mexican and surf cultures collide and where “Hasta la vista, baby” is a thing people actually say. Side note: I think about movies too much.

Actual names are the last thing I get to when considering a thing, but it turns out that there may be inherent qualities to some words that affect how we perceive the things being named. Gods, the last thing I need is more things to think too much about.

→ Oh, man. I didn’t think I could like Brooklyn less. After writing about how there’s a concerted effort to train the French to pick up their dogs’ poo in public, I read about New Yorkers who are now teaching their children to poop “on the ground or behind a tree.” It’s like Americans are becoming Spanish! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!

→ I swear I’m going to stop thinking about rabbits soon but all my mental energy has finally cracked a life-long mystery. The Easter Bunny’s chocolate eggs look like rabbit poop. The Easter Bunny is leaving poop-substitutes for children. They aren’t eggs at all. They are turds. I find this sooooo upsetting, I can’t even tell you.

→ To cleanse the palette, here’s David Sedaris’s great story about American Easter and learning French. (Scroll down to “Jesus Shaves.”) I clearly remember the first time I read this in Esquire (my boyfriend), lounging on my sofa in my fourth-floor walk-up in Chinatown. How could it have been 13 years ago?


Word Mystery: girdle / faja / gaine

Word Mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

Click for the real story about 1960s Mad Men.

Click pic for the story behind the ad.

Back when I lived in the States, my best friend and I usually got together at my place on Sunday nights to make dinner and watch whatever good TV show was on. It quickly became a joke that I wrote everything on TV because I could say a line of dialogue before the characters did. In terms of special skills, this isn’t really one I can list on my résumé, but I do have a good understanding of narrative structure and can generally guess where a storyline is going.

This predictive ability is why I stopped watching “Mad Men” after its fifth episode. (It’s 67th was recently broadcast.) Sure, the production and costume design were phenomenal, but I wasn’t surprised by the storytelling. (If you don’t know, the show is set in 1960s New York and is about advertising executives who work on Madison Avenue. It also supposedly explores What It Meant To Be An American Man and How We Became Who We Are Now but if that’s your interest, save time and read a John Cheever story.)

So, I don’t watch “Mad Men” but in the ramp-up to each season, the press goes crazy reporting every new development in the characters’ lives. (Or, as is the case this year, how reporters agreed not to reveal what’s happening. Yawn.) All of this hoopla over nothing reminds me of what a Big Deal was made initially about how the actresses wore period-appropriate underwear. (Now, that practice is apparently being enforced across the board.)

Unlike the show, women’s underthings are actually interesting. There are so many different kinds and they all have weird names and there are many opportunities for confusion. For example, in Spanish, un panty is a pair of pantyhose and panties are tangas. Go figure.

Let’s get under some stuff and get on with today’s Word Mystery!

EN → girdle — a woman’s elasticized corset extending from waist to thigh. ORIGIN Old English gyrdel, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch gordel and German Gürtel.

ES → faja —  Prenda interior elástica que ciñe la cintura o la cintura y las caderas. [Elastic undergarment which cinches the waist or the waist and thighs.] ORIGIN from Aragonese (Spanish regional dialect) faxa, this from Latin fascĭa [“a band, bandage, swathe”].

FR → gaine — Étui de protection et de rangement, étroitement adapté à la forme de l’objet qu’il est destiné à contenir. [Protective or storage casing, tightly adapted to the form of the object which it is destined to house.] ORIGIN Latin vagina [sheath, scabbard].

Wow, I did not see that one coming. I think French wins today, if for no other reason than I was genuinely surprised. Take that, Hollywood TV writers!

Further reading


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.