Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


Word Mystery: cash / efectivo / espèces

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

I was right receiptThe cashier at my new local grocery store doesn’t like me. I suppose this is my fault, but I’ll explain what happened and you can judge for yourself.

She rang me up on one of my first visits, a total of 19,67€. Using the one math trick that I know, I gave her a 20€ bill and 17 cents.

“What’s this?” she asked, indicating the 10-cent piece.

“That gives me 50 cents back,” I told her.

“What? No it doesn’t! I don’t want this!” and she pushed the coin into my shopping bag, making it impossible to reach since it fell underneath all my purchases.

“Yes,” I insisted because this is the one math thing I can do right. “I give you 17 and you return 50.”

I may have pushed this point a little too hard. I should have taken her disproportionately angry initial response as an indication that she was in a bad mood.

“Don’t you tell me how to run my register!” she yelled at me. Yelled. In the middle of the store on an otherwise normal day. I backed down immediately, but the receipt proves that I was totally right, something she realized as soon as she counted out my change.

Today we went through the same thing; I was counting out the 33 cents that would give me 50 back but she changed up the operation and grabbed a one-Euro coin from my palm and, in a flash, gave me 17 cents in 1- and 2-cent pieces. I’m fairly sure that she did it just to piss me off, which worked, but she also made the rest of her shift impossible.

As a former cashier and person who had to cash out registers at the end of the night, I know that you want MORE denominations of coins so that you can easily make change. If you give all of your 1-cent pieces to someone out of spite, then you’ve screwed yourself by not being able to spread out their dispersal over your shift. Her behavior makes no sense to me and only results in both of us being penalized for her bad mood and inability to grasp mathematical concepts that even a complete idiot (me) can master. Makes no cents at all.

But dealing with surly cashiers is one of the disadvantages of paying in cash, today’s Word Mystery. I’ll ring you up below.

EN → cash — money in coins or notes, as distinct from checks, money orders, or credit. ORIGIN Old French casse [box] from Latin capsa [box].

ES → efectivo4. adj. Dicho del dinero: En monedas o billets. [4. Money term, in coins or bills.] ORIGIN Latin effectīvus [of practical implementation].

FR → espèces4. monnaie ayant cours légal. [Legal tender.] ORIGIN Latin “species” but its evolution is unclear. Possibly from the sense of “commodity” but even that seems a stretch.

English note: I’m disappointed that I never made the connection between “cash” and “caixa” before. The latter is a term seen in lots of places all over Spain as it’s commonly used in bank names, like Caixa Galicia.

Spanish note: Effectivus for the rest of us, I guess?

French note: In my mind, espèces was related to “spices” which made sense as they were used as currency. That it’s related to “species” makes no sense to me.

Today’s Winner is Spanish since it both confounded me the first time someone said it to me (“You want me to effectively do what, exactly?”) and, because of the three options, it’s the least annoying.


FreshDirect to my heart

FreshDirect is one of the big groceries-delivered-to-your-home services in the US. I’ve only ever used it in New York as I was an early and loyal Peapod customer while living in DC. FD seems a little fancier than Peapod (which was run in conjunction with big grocery chain Giant) as they don’t carry a lot of products I wanted like Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, but they’ve got seltzer and really, that’s all I need to keep going.

Fresh Direct


  • 2 flats of seltzer (24 total liters)
  • 32 cans Coke Zero
  • 3 large boxes plain Cheerios
  • 1 large box Rice Chex
  • 1 cinnamon Pop-Tarts
  • 1 Honey Maid cinnamon graham crackers
  • 2 Reduced Fat Wheat Thins


Word Mystery: grocery / épicerie / supermercado

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

Clearly, the title was captivated me when I saw it in my Scholastic book order catalog.

Clearly, the title captivated me when I saw it in my Scholastic book order catalog.

Grocery stores are some of my favorite places. I love prowling through the aisles and looking at all the stuff. I love the weird foods you can find in little ethnic groceries. I love the vast differences in quality, price and selection you get between any two locations. When family comes to visit, a trip to my local store is almost always on the agenda as being into food stores is apparently genetic.*

But I also just love the word grocery because it’s got good mouth-feel. (Let it roll around for a while and I’m sure you’ll agree.) Another part of my fondness for the word is connected to books I read as a kid where the town grocer was a character the kid protagonists interacted with a lot. I’m pretty sure J. D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series had a person like this in them and I loved those books to pieces. Literally, the covers fell off and everything.

EN → grocery — the store of a person who sells food and small household goods. ORIGIN Middle English (originally ‘a person who sold things in the gross’ from late Latin grossus [gross].

ES  supermercado — Establecimiento comercial de venta al por menor en el que se expenden todo género de artículos alimenticios, bebidas, productos de limpieza, etc., y en el que el cliente se sirve a sí mismo y paga a la salida. [Business where goods of all kinds are sold to the public in which the customers help themselves and pay at the exit.] ORIGIN English “supermarket.”

FR  épicerie — Commerce, magasin où l’on vend des produits de consommation courante. [Business or shop where commonly used items are sold.] ORIGIN From épice [spice].

Clarification #1 — In English, a supermarket is defined as “a large self-service store selling foods and household goods.” The things which are interesting to me are “large” and “self-service” because I hadn’t really ever considered what made them “super.”

Clarification #2 — This may be an American thing, just as we prefer “stores” to the UK’s “shops,” but I use “grocery store” and “supermarket” interchangeabley. Most people I know just say they’re “going to the store” meaning, the place for food-buying. This could be a Midwesternism too, but I don’t think it’s limited to just the Central Time Zone.

Clarification #3 — That the Spanish word is the newest of the lot isn’t that surprising. It’s still very common to buy your food at multiple specialized shops and people generally go to supermarkets to stock up on shelf-stable goods like cereal and drinks. You’re always better off buying your meat, fish, fruits, veg and baked products elsewhere.

Today’s shocking verdict: English wins because this is my blog and I make the damn rules around here.

* To be fair, this may have all started when a brand new 24-hour StarMarket (Stah-Mahket) opened up in my first Boston neighborhood. The place was amazing. It had a whole made-to-order food court area inside where you could get stir fry and sushi and pasta and pizza and roasted meats with all the fixings prepped for you while you shopped. And the aisles were endless and often filled with me and my friends running up and down them having shopping cart races in the middle of the night. Now it looks totally dated and rundown, but when it was new, my she was yar.

It's hard to believe this was once a new temple at which I worshipped the food gods.

It’s hard to believe this was once the temple at which I worshipped the food gods.


Bombing in French

I still haven’t cracked the code on what is funny to an average French person. This actually bums me out a bit since I like to make other people laugh (intentionally).

So, what happened was there were these tomatoes at the grocery store and since I’m a sucker for fruit that’s grown in a weird way, I had to get them.

They're inherently amusing, non?

They’re inherently amusing, non?

At the checkout, the cashier was as charmed as I had been. “Look at this,” she said to me. “How often do you see something like this?” She called across the front of the store to her colleague. “When’s the last time you saw two tomatoes connected like this? Never, right?”

Her level of amusement had quickly surpassed mine, but she’s a friendly person and maybe these tomatoes had made her day, so I continued to play along. “They’re brothers,” I said. “Twins.” It was enough for me that I’d remembered how to say twins in French, but she went the way I’d been heading. “Siamoises!” she cried. “Or maybe they’re in love!” she continued, looking at me since it was my turn to say something.

And this is where things fell apart because I was thinking about how I was going to prepare the tomatoes when I got home which would necessitate separating them and I said, “They’re Romeo and Juliet; together, but destined to be apart. Because I’m going to cut them.”

And that was the end of fun times at the grocery store for the day.

1 Comment

Zen and the art of good change back

One of my most enduring (and possibly endearing) characteristics is that I am hopeless at math. If I can’t do a calculation in my head and/or use my fingers, my brain shuts down. Ask me to add seven and six and I picture holding up seven fingers which means there are three left to ten, three = one half of six, so then plus those leftover three, must equal 13. This process takes about half as long to do as it did to read, which is way too long.

It’s pretty hard to go through life hindered this way, but I’ve developed lots of workarounds to compensate. In the US, I know that I can leave 20% on a bill by moving the decimal of the total to the left one digit and then doubling the number that’s created. Thus, a tab for $47.65 becomes $4.76; 4 x 2 = 8, but there’s the 76 to consider so I’ll just add another dollar, rounding the tip out to $9. That 9 + 48 (round up after .5 my teacher told me) = 57. I’m usually splitting the bill with someone (always going halfsies), so we’ll end up leaving between $57 and $60. And I can walk away feeling good about the transaction without having to do anything more strenuous than dividing 57 (which I have to do by adding 3.5 [half of 7] to 25 [half of 50] since even something so simple must be broken down into its corresponding pieces.)

When paying for something at the register, my sister long ago taught me a trick so that I could get “good change” back. This usually involved getting quarters instead of coins of lesser denominations or fives instead of singles. I’m bad at math, so I can’t explain how it works, but the principle is this: if something costs $18 and you want a five back instead of two ones, give $23.

In France, cashiers are very good at math and will ask you to make up the difference, sometimes with crazy amounts of coins just to avoid giving back a more insane amount. I usually preempt such requests by always using my sister’s trick when I can.

Recently, the checker didn’t see where I was going when I handed her 24,06€ on an 8,76€ total, but when she entered the numbers into the register and got my change back total, her eyebrow raised and she looked at me and nodded in respect.