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: construction / obras / travaux

zona de obrasEvery Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages.

The first time my best friend came to Europe, it was with me on a mini-tour through Spain, France and Italy. We met up with my mom in Madrid and tried going to lots of places that interested him but were frequently met with signs that read OBRAS.

“Obras, obras. What the hell’re obras and why are there so many of them?” he asked, extremely annoyed that so few establishments wanted to take our money to let us look at stuff.

At the time, I tried to explain to him that things in Europe work or they don’t, are open or aren’t, and that losing money is seldom a consideration. Now, after nine years of Continental living, I can say that it’s more surprising for things to be open and not under construction since Europe is both old and falling apart.

And now that the weather’s turned not-horrible, the obras are back in town big time. Recently, the part of the Line 1 metro that’s in the center of the city has been closed, leading to me being trapped underground for ages. Being stuck under layers of earth with a bunch of idiots who don’t know where they’re going is one of the few things that still makes me Hulk-out, rage-wise, but I just thought of my friend and how he ended up spending much of our holiday mumbling “Obras, obras, obras,” under his breath and how that made me laugh.

EN → construction — the building of something, typically a large structure. ORIGIN late Middle English: via Old French from Latin construere [heap together].

ES → obras — Edificio en construcción. [A building in/under construction.] ORIGIN Latin operāri [to work].

FR  travaux — Ensemble des opérations de construction, d’aménagement ou de remise en état d’édifices, de voies, de terrains, etc. [All construction operations, development or remodeling of buildings, roads, lands, etc.] ORIGIN Common Latin trepaliare [to torture] from Low Latin trepalium [instrument of torture].

Three scoops of Latin today! I have to admit that so much Latin is starting to make me want to study where those words came from, but this impulse could go one of two ways: I don’t understand anything or I become totally obsessed. Neither of these is appealing.

English note: BO-RING.

Spanish note: Poco interesante.

French note: BIG WINNER! In French, “work” actually comes from “torture”. I love this country so much, it hurts sometimes.

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Work to live, live to work

I kind of felt like this the whole time I worked for this guy. (A favorite comic from explodingdog.)

I kind of felt like this the whole time I worked for this guy. (A favorite comic from explodingdog.)

Once upon a time, I walked into my boss’s office and asked for his permission for my summer vacation. It was six months before I planned on going on holiday.

“Depends. Where’re you going?” he asked me.

“Does it matter?” I asked.

“Well, I can’t have you going far away. If I need you, I’ll have to pay for your return flight from our budget, so I’ll only okay it if you’re staying close.”

I was momentarily speechless. In the privacy of his office he had said aloud what both of us knew: I did a lot of his job for him and he depended on me to make things run smoothly. This was a tiny victory for me and about as much recognition as I was going to get since he sure as shit wasn’t going to use that budget to pay me more.

I recovered pretty quickly from my momentary elation to address the next issue, namely that he had no right to deny me and I knew it, even if he didn’t.

“I haven’t planned it yet,” I lied. “Besides, according to the employee handbook, it’s against company policy to deny a vacation request if it’s made within a reasonable time period to find a replacement. Half a year should be long enough to line someone up, I think.” I let that sit there. Watched as he slowly started to realize that I had that handbook almost memorized.

“Well, try to stay close anyway,” he mumbled as he signed the form.

My best friend and I went to Europe for just over two weeks and I didn’t even leave him hotel contact information, despite his repeated “casual” and “humorous” mentions that I do so.

***

This story prompted for your reading pleasure by the news that some French labor unions are moving to prevent some workers from being required to answer email after work hours.

There was a ton of misinformation online about this, apparently started by those French-hating bastards over at The Guardian* but cooler heads prevailed at places like the NYT. FastCompany went crazy with the specious headline but NPR actually did some of their own reporting, coming up with a better researched post.

* The bastards I’m referring to are les rosbifs, generally speaking. I actually like The Guardian and read a lot of their entertainment coverage which is quite good.

The funny (sad?) thing is that many of the English-language stories cited the same data point about how American productivity levels are 400% higher than those in France. Even if this is true, so what? No mention is made of how low American health, happiness or well-being levels are, nor how high the stress, obesity and heart disease rates are. Joe Walsh sang it best: There are two sides to every story.


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I Want The Same!

Walking down a section of the rue des Petits Champs in the 2è, I comment to my New York companion that it’s like Canal Street because there are a lot of shops that sell knock-offs. At that precise moment, we pass this, one of my favorite places in town.

I Want The Same

I Want The Same

I sometimes go out of my way just to pass it because it makes me smile every time.

Related to me

On a road trip through southern France with my best friend in 2003, we stopped in a small shop to buy some water. There was a British family in there getting supplies too. The father was losing patience with his two kids and told them to just choose one thing and head to the register. The daughter hadn’t made up her mind yet, so her dad grabbed one item near her and turned away. Very primly, she pulled on the bottom of his shirt and with a little frown, said, “No, daddy. I don’t want _that_ one. I want this one” as she indicated a different thing. Maybe you had to be there, but that little girl still makes me laugh.


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The Postman Rang Twice (with the loot)

Because I am an experienced traveler and have developed a keen sense of when a suitcase is overweight, I took the precaution of sending myself some things from the US. As usual in such cases, I chose wisely as the package in question weighed 13.25 lbs. (6k) and my luggage allowance was 50 lbs. (23 k).

Here’s what the mailman came twice to deliver (really! He left a note the first time and the package the second):

2013 Loot from USA

→ Envelopes filled with the few actual photographs I still have. Many of them will be scanned and then shredded because I don’t believe in keeping lots of stuff.

→ The only love letter I probably won’t ever throw out. In keeping with my own twisted logic, it’s not from anyone I actually dated, nor does it contain any declaration of love but that’s why it’s my favorite.

→ A whole stack of my original Super López comics, including my favorite issue! You can tell they’re the real deal because they cost 395 pesetas! (That was just over 3 bucks back in the day.) These books have traveled more than many people.

→ An Italian phrasebook I bought in 2003 as my one defense against the rudest people on earth. It didn’t make them any nicer to me, but at least I knew I was being polite to their asshole faces.

→ On Writing Well, William Zinnser. I’m gonna master this whole expressing-with-words-on-pages thing.

→ The Big Screen, David Thomson. Books about movies are two of my favorite things in one! The only way to make them better was if they were edible.

→ Mythologies, Roland Barthes (2012 translation). I will most likely not understand anything, but I’ll try.

→ Complete Works, William Shakespeare. It is possible I have three different versions of this but I won’t know for sure until I finally unpack all my belongings and take stock.

→ My name tag from college when the locally owned video store I worked for got bought out by a chain. A friend of mine called me Brain and that’s his crappy writing on the tag.

One night, a young guy and his girlfriend came up to the counter and he looked at me, then my name tag, then to his companion and finally back at me and smirked, “Hi, ‘Brian.’ Do you have [some stupid movie I didn’t bother to register in my memory]?” To which I had to say, “Actually, it’s Brain,” and I very condescendingly ran my finger under each letter so that he could see how un-Brain he was. “And we currently have multiple copies of [whatever Hollywood crap fest] on the New Release wall. It’s that huge wall that runs the length of the store. With a neon sign. That says ‘New Releases.'” And then I smirked right back at him. God, that was the best job.