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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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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Word Mystery: hug / abrazar / étreindre

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

Click me.

Click me.

One of the more American things about me is that I do not like physical contact very much. I have my dance space, you have your dance space. If I’m in line for something, I have an invisible bubble around me that I don’t want to share with you. When I meet someone for the first time, I want them to be satisfied with a handshake or a nod.

None of these personal desires count for anything over here. There is so much touching all the time. If I actually think about it, I feel a little sick because people just do not wash their hands enough and I don’t know where anyone’s mouth’s been and it’s just too gross to actually think about.

Everyone is so hell-bent on physicality that they even sign off written correspondence with assaults on your person. Initially, it was too much for me. Reading a message from someone I barely knew that ended un abrazo made me recoil a bit because I felt like they were invading my space through the screen.

Now, let me encroach upon your personal space by spreading my digital arms around your brain and massaging some knowledge into your gray matter.

[General note: these are only the verbs forms and not the nouns or more colloquial ways of expressing this idea.]

EN → hug — hold someone tightly in one’s arms, typically to express affection. ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: probably of Scandinavian origin and related to Norwegian hugga [comfort, console].

ES → abrazar —  ceñir con los brazos. [Encircle in/with arms.] ORIGIN Brazo [arm] from Latin brachĭum [arm].

FR → étreindreserrer quelque chose, quelqu’un, le saisir fortement en l’entourant de ses membre, empoigner. [Hold something or someone, hold tightly in one’s arms, grasp.] ORIGIN Latin stringere [draw tight].

English note: “Hugga” should be the name of some cozy brand of clothes, like the OnePiece which I just learned about and am in love with.

Spanish note: I am surprised to learn that brazo has no connection to “branch” or “bronchi”. In my mind, they were all kind of related in an abstract way.

French note: I don’t speak Latin, so I’m not sure how one would pronounce stringere properly, but it bears commenting that Stringer Bell was wont to draw things tight.

Today’s Winner is English, since it’s the only one that’s kinda fun.

Not all hugs are terrible

Shel Silverstein, the writer and illustrator, bears mentioning here for his poem “Hug O’ War”. I’ve always loved his books and am pleased that there are no dark secrets in his life to taint the memory of his work.


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Word Mystery: slipper / zapatilla / chausson

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

Last summer, my sister bought me these slippers while she was in Paris.

FLASH slippersShe did this because everyone in my family loves slippers, they were on sale (we love good deals) and when I saw them, I said, “FLASH! Ahh-ah!”

Flash tweetI’m not the only one who does this last thing (see tweet at right), but I may be the only person who does it who doesn’t like Queen and who can’t remember having seen FLASH GORDON (1980), the movie whose theme song‘s chorus I repeat every time I see lightning bolts.

You know what else is like a flash of light? Realizing that I wear a Word Mystery every day.

EN → slipper — a comfortable slip-on shoe that is worn indoors. ORIGIN From Middle English slip [move quickly and softly].

ES → zapatillaZapato de comodidad o abrigo para estar en casa. [Comfortable or warm shoe for use in the house.] ORIGIN Diminutive of zapato [shoe] from Turkish zabata [shoe].

FR→ chaussonChaussure d’intérieur, souple et légère. [Light and flexible indoor shoe.] ORIGIN Variation on chausser [to put on shoes] from the past participle of Latin calceare [to put on shoes].

Spanish note: The Spanish verb calzar also comes from the Latin and has the same meaning as the French. Interesting that all the related words, like those for “footwear” [calzado] and “bare foot” [descalzo] and “sock” [calcetín] in Spanish share the same root tree as the French, but that it strayed so far in one instance.

Man, I’ve got to hand it to Spanish for fairly consistently coming up with crazy origins (that’s why it’s Today’s Winner). This is the first time Turkish has appeared in a Word Mystery and is probably the first time I’ve ever thought about the language of the Ottoman Empire.

About those slippers

The ones pic’d above have been made in France since 1947 by a company called Collégien. On the packaging, which is basically a cardboard hanger from which the slippers are suspended, it says that these are a classic indoor shoe worn in schools since forever. I figured they were being hyperbolic but a visit to a friend’s house over the holidays suggested otherwise.

terminator2thumbsup

All five people who were staying there had their own pair and there were a few for guests as well. They’re really comfy (though they offer zero arch support) and nice and toasty and are also good for doing yoga since they have soft spiked soles. They don’t get this site’s highest award, but I’ll give ’em the ole T-800 salute.


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I am the Benjamin

UN CONTE DE NÖEL posterI finally got around to watching UN CONTE DE NOËL over the holidays and because of it, I figured out why French people don’t understand me when I say I’m the superbaby of my family — they’ve got a whole other term for that: benjamin(e).

FR → benjaminLe plus jeune des enfants d’une famille. [The youngest child in a family.] ORIGIN Benjamin was the youngest son of Jacob (himself son of Isaac, son of Abraham).

I don’t know what to think about this Jewish term being in such common usage in modern French. Despite having a visible presence and a well established neighborhood (the Marais), actually *being* Jewish in Paris doesn’t seem to be a thing that is very tolerated here. If I come across any more on this, I’ll report back.

Just in case you missed it

All of this could have been avoided if someone had just told me that this word existed and was used in such a manner but that’s not the French way. One must earn the knowledge before one can have it. And I respect that.

Cultural confusion

In American, “a Benjamin” is a $100 bill, as Benjamin Franklin is depicted on its face. There’s a cool brief history of the bill on the Wall Street Journal’s site which you can read here.

The new (2013) Benjamin

The new (2013) Benjamin

Further learning

I’d only come across the city of Roubaix, where UN CONTE DE NOËL is set, after watching the Danish documentary A SUNDAY IN HELL [En forårsdag i Helvede, 1977] not too long ago. The film centers on one year of the Paris-Roubaix spring classic bike race. I think you have to really like cycling to enjoy the film, but there were several other elements that might make it a good watch. The style was reminiscent of The Maysles Brothers’ work and many of the scenes of the riders off their bikes seemed to have inspired LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE since the men actually behave like horses (one of the gags in the animated film).

On the conte

UN CONTE DE NOËL stars a bunch of people, as you can see from the poster (above), but my favorite part in the movie was a pseudo-ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT joke. The mother, played by Catherine Denueve, makes a disparaging comment about her daughter-in-law, saying something like, “I never liked her much anyway.” The meta-joke is that the daughter-in-law is played by Chiara Mastroianni, Denueve’s real life daughter which made me think of this:

arrested-development Lucille I love all my children equallyarrested-development Lucille I don't care for Gob


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A lovely day in the park — wait, what?

Walking through the Bois de Vincennes, Paris’s biggest park, I had one of those moments that sometimes happen when you just take a deep breath and think, “Falling leaves and crisp air and the sounds of a pétanque game are so wonderful. This is a nice moment.”

And then you realize that you’re in France and that there’s a guy pissing right in front of you.

IMG_2362

Sigh.