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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Great Word: cogombre

One of the things I’m always thinking about is James Bond, mostly the movies, though sometimes I’ll compare and contrast the novels from the films and, on occasion, I’ll have a think on Ian Fleming. As GAME OF THRONES‘ fourth season was approaching a few weeks ago, that program was also stewing around my brain pot and, while waiting in line to see a 35mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON, I started cross-referencing actors in my mind.

The cast of GoT is mostly young so there isn’t much overlap that I could think of while idling on the sidewalk. Sean Bean is the most memorable of the three I came up with (also Diana Rigg & Charles Dance) and I got to ruminating on how he was a hero-protagonist in GoT but he was a really great villain in GOLDENEYE, one of my favorites, in fact.

Having already spent copious amounts of time thinking about both Sean Bean and the best of the Brosnan Bonds, I started ranking the other recent villains, wondering who I’d put behind Bean’s Alec Trevelyan.

This is where I need to cut in on my own story to remind you, dear reader, that I was minding my own damn business, standing on a side street in Paris on a Monday afternoon, just thinking about Bond villains as I’m wont to do, when this guy stepped right in front of me and stopped less than two feet from my face.

Amalric quantum_of_solace

This guy is Mathieu Amalric. He’s a big-time French actor. He also happened to be the villain in QUANTUM OF SOLACE, the least-good of the Craig Bonds (through no fault of his own).

Amalric had just come out of the cinema I was going to enter and was enjoying the patch of sun that I’d strategically placed myself in. It was a really good spot and he stayed there for maybe half a minute during which time it’s possible I wasn’t breathing because I felt like my brain had summoned him from the ether, Stay Puft Marshmallow Man-style.

Again, I feel I need to mention that I was in line at a revival movie house to see a 35mm print of a 40-year old movie in Paris with a bunch of people who were interested enough in movies to seek out such a screening and spend a lovely sunny afternoon watching it instead of being outside…

… and no one reacted to seeing a really famous French actor right in front of them. This is a guy with two César Awards (French Oscars) and NO ONE WAS REACTING. I spun my head around, trying to catch someone’s eye to verify that Mathieu Amalric was rightthere, but no one was paying attention. And it wasn’t even the New York kind of not paying attention where everyone is pretending not to notice the famous person but there’s still a frisson in the air of people looking / not-looking. No, this was a genuine French moment of people just not looking because they were all too involved in what they were doing to notice a Bond villain right in front of my face.

I blinked a bunch of times and breathed in and out and I can tell you for certain that he was definitely there (the appearance of an effortlessly beautiful woman by his side moments later clinched it) and that I’m pretty sure I made it happen by sheer force of will.

What’s this whole story have to do with today’s Great Word? Well, cogombre is Catalan for “cucumber” and, as I made my way into the theater, all I could think to myself was, “Man, these French are as cool as cogombres.”

Learn something

“Cool as a cucumber” is an expression that means untroubled, calm, relaxed.


It was one of the few Kubrick films I’d never seen because the most noteworthy thing about it was how it was supposed to be screened. The persnickety director famously wrote a letter to projectionists about how, exactly, it was meant to be shown.

The film is set in the 18th century and the indoor scenes were filmed without electric light. To be clear, Kubrick and DP John Alcott shot the movie mostly with candles using film stock developed by NASA, as it worked best in low light. You know, like you’d find IN SPACE.

As for the movie itself, it’s not going to join a list of my favorites. Ryan O’Neal plays an Irishman (poorly) and the plot follows the same beats as other picaresque tales like Candide or Tristam Shandy. But it sure was beautiful to look at.

Just ’cause

This is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time but it’s not for everyone. My mother, for instance, will have zero concept of what this is, what it depicts, to whom it’s referring or why it’s funny.

The Internet is my peeps.

The Internet is my peeps.


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


Great Word: snicker

snicker — give a smothered or half-suppressed laugh; snigger.

ORIGIN imitative (: reproducing a natural sound).

My post-college best friend and I got to know each other because, like so many before him, he was drawn to my total lack of interest in just about everyone around me. (As we’ve discussed before, this is because I don’t like strangers.)

Back when I was employed in the US, I was temporarily assigned to the cubicle next to his. He quickly found himself trying to see what I was doing since, to hear him tell it, there was a steady stream of snickering coming from my side of the particle board. Whenever he was able to casually figure out what I was reading, he’d try to find the same article and see what was so damn funny. Most of the time, he couldn’t understand what was so entertaining in the A-section of the New York Times but he marveled at my consistent amusement.

A perfect example of something from the NYT that makes me snicker.

This pic and its caption is a perfect example of something from the NYT that makes me snicker.

Once we got to know each other better, he learned that the mystery of my mirth is that I find the funny in everything, a variation on that all-time great whistling anthem. (C’mon! It’s been ages since I mentioned the Python boys!)


Pretty Good Word: hopscotch

“Not to be naïve, but trying to connect with different languages and cultures is a way to change your perspective on the world as a whole.” — Cédric Duroux in The New York Times

HopscotchForeign Language Hopscotch is basically speed dating but for languages. I’m into this concept, especially the idea that in 30 minutes, you could learn just enough phrases and polite call-and-response exchanges to improve your menu-ordering skills. Because most things I think about are food-related.

My dictionary says

hopscotch — a children’s game in which each child by turn hops into and over squares marked on the ground to retrieve a marker thrown into one of these squares. ORIGIN early 19th century hop + scotch [prevent  from moving or slipping by placing a wedge underneath].


Great Words: seemly / unseemly

seemly /ˈsēmlē/ — conforming to accepted notions of propriety or good taste; decorous.

unseemly /ˌənˈsēmlē/ — (of behavior or actions) not proper or appropriate.

I like them both, though unseemly might be better because it just sounds so dirty. For some reason, when I came across it recently, my mind immediately jumped to the Sesame Street character Lefty, who is every kind of unseemly.

When I was a kid, it never occurred to me how inappropriate it was that a show for children featured a creepy guy in a trench coat, trying to trick beloved characters like Ernie into buy stolen merchandise. (That “8” totally fell off a truck.) I also never realized that for the rest of my life, whenever anyone talked about a plan, I’d think or say “riiiiiiiiiiiiight” and then muse for a few seconds about Fran and Stan without remembering exactly why, but I won’t forget anytime soon.

Sesame Street was a totally weird show back in the day. There were so many segments that I remember fondly that were clearly the ideas of people who were stoned out of their minds. I mean, “Milk” which was a favorite of mine, is literally several minutes of narration-free scenes depicting how milk travels from a cow into a glass in your kitchen. [Turns out that one of the people behind “Milk” recognizes how unconventional this short film was, even at the time.]

It’s a wonder more people who grew up on the show aren’t more messed up. I can safely say that I was only partially warped by it, though it’s probably the parts of me that were led astray that are the most interesting.