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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GIRL enters the Place Sainte-Opportune (aka the one with the Pizza Hut near Les Halles). She is hungry but knows that eating before a three-hour long movie is not advisable.

La Place Sainte-Opportune on the very day our story takes place. The Bagel Factory has a red awning and is to the right of center.

La Place Sainte-Opportune on the very day our story takes place. Bagel Factory is red and to the right of center.


Christ, I could really go for a smoothie right about now.

GIRL scans the Place and her eyes light on a newish awning that says, incredibly, “Smoothies.” SHE heads towards the establishment.


GIRL enters the shop and sees FOUR YOUNGER GIRLS already in line. The YOUNGER GIRLS have never had a bagel and the OWNER and his ASSISTANT are walking them through the steps of ordering. They are taking forever. GIRL looks at her watch, carefully calculating how many minutes she has to spare before she must leave so that she can be first in line to get into the theater. There aren’t many.

Finally, the YOUNGER GIRLS finish their order and sit at a table. GIRL moves to the front of the counter.


What fruits are available today?


I’m so sorry. The smoothie machine is in the basement. It’s new and hasn’t been installed yet.


Oh no!


Yes, it’s true. We have fruit cups —


(realizing how hungry she really is)

No, that’s fine. I’ll have a bagel.

GIRL quickly orders a sandwich off the menu. It takes her two seconds to do so.

The OWNER and ASSISTANT begin to prepare all five bagels at the same time. They do not have a routine established and are making lots of mistakes. GIRL, a former professional sandwich-maker at many mid- to high-end eating establishments, silently judges them, tsk-tsking away in her head.

The minutes tick by.

And then —

Over the RADIO, the familiar opening notes of Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” begin to play. The YOUNGER GIRLS all quickly look at each other over the table. The OWNER and the ASSISTANT begin to sway slightly behind the counter to the music.

And then —

ALL OF THEM start singing.


It’s — oh — so — quiet.
It’s — oh — so — still.

Not realizing that no one else knows the words, GIRL continues to sing


You’re all alone —
And so peace-ful un-til

The YOUNGER GIRLS, OWNER and ASSISTANT all look at the GIRL. There is a noticeable pause, like the space between a lightning strike and a thunder-clap. GIRL is wide-eyed, her ears pulled back, awaiting response.

EVERYONE except GIRL begins giggling and picking up where she left off, joining GIRL singing, mumbling to the song as best they can. Smiles all around as bagels are distributed.

GIRL heads across the Place, ready to face the line at the box office.

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The Rape of Europa, 2006

The notsohot reviews of George Clooney’s all-star THE MONUMENTS MEN prompted me to watch the documentary on the same subject. THE RAPE OF EUROPA is the story of art during WWII — how Hitler coveted it, how the Nazis stole it and how a group of American soldiers were tasked with trying to protect the cultural history of Europe. (The doc is based on a book of the same name which has an excellent website of its own.)

The documentary is really powerful, but the most shocking revelation to me in the whole Joan Allen-narrated thing was just a few seconds long. Hitler only came to Paris once, early in the morning after it fell in June 1940. One of the places he visited was the church de la Madeleine. They show footage of him jauntily running up the steps.

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I took this pic on the same steps.

I took this pic on the same steps.

I have sat on those exact same stairs on several occasions so that I could enjoy an American-style hamburger from France’s first food truck, Le camion qui fume, which frequently parks nearby. According to some theories of spacetime, this means that he and I exist simultaneously on those stairs. Me and Hitler, sharing space, under circumstances neither of us could have imagined.

Living in Europe is incredible. Colonial Williamsburg and Springfield, Illinois can say whatever they want, but History is Alive in Europe and it’s phenomenal.

Other interesting insights from THE RAPE OF EUROPA

→ My opinion that the Nazis are, were and will always be the worst people in the history of all things is unchanged. They make the greatest on-screen villains, but in reality, they were such unspeakably horrible people, committing such tremendously heinous acts, that it’s hard to believe they were human.

→ I hadn’t realized that the Jeu de Paume‎, a fairly innocuous museum tucked in at the end of the Tuileries Gardens and above the Concorde métro station, played an integral part in salvaging important artifacts. I will have to revisit it with this new appreciation for the space in mind.

→ When the Louvre needed able bodies to help crate and cart away the contents of the museum, they employed shop workers, old men and women since all the young men were fighting. The story about the moving of the Winged Victory is one of those human-spirit-triumphs-over-adversity that I don’t usually like but it was one of the times I was moved to tears.

→ Lots of Nazi art and some of Hitler’s original artwork is stored under a building in Washington, DC. (The works are deemed too controversial to exhibit which is probably true, but is still sad as I think it’d be interesting to see them.) I’d never actually seen any of the Führer’s paintings before and was surprised to see that they look exactly like streetscapes people sell in tourist areas. They appear to be accurate representations of things and have no artistic vision, flare or unique technique. The doc makes a pretty compelling subtle argument that much of Hitler’s motivation came from not getting into art school and that his systematic campaign to destroy and ridicule “degenerate art” was really his way of trying to teach people to value his uninspired style.

burt-lancasterFurther viewing

John Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, RONIN) directed a fictional version of this story in 1964. THE TRAIN stars Burt Lancaster as a Parisian station master who helps the French Resistance spirit a train full of French art away from the Nazis. Unlike Steve McQueen, no one needs to tell me why Lancaster was appealing.

I can’t science but I can Google

→ A theory of compressed spacetime was recently highlighted on HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE. I don’t really understand what Matthew McConaughey’s talking about, but you can see if it makes any sense to you here.

→ Apparently, it’s a form of M-theory which I also can’t make heads or tails of.

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Links / Enlaces / Liens

One Link...

One Link…

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

→ France’s continued problems assimilating immigrants into the culture is against the founding principle of the Republic; Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. But, writes Justin Smith in a NYT Op-Ed piece, the French can justify everything:

“…when equality is invoked … it is understood that this is equality *among equals*.”

Other interesting thoughts on the perceptual differences between expats and immigrants in France follow. (Spoiler: one group is welcomed, the other reviled.) 

→ David Crystal is my new Richard Lederer! If either of those names mean anything to you, you are a word nerd and we can be friends. Leonard Lopate reran an interview with the former over the holidays. Crystal’s books The Story of English in 100 Words and Spell It Out are currently top-lining my ebook reader. Tl;dr — the French are to be blamed for everything wrong with the English language (see 1066). 

→ Stefan Stasse, the German co-host of my favorite ASOIAF podcast, posted the second in a series of occasional podcasts he’s doing with a history PhD candidate about different cultural perspectives vis à vis Important Historical Events. In this most recent episode they discuss what Europeans know about the American Civil War and how Americans understand WWII. Asking Germans about the war (even though you’re not supposed to mention it) is a hobby of mine, though you really have to get to know one before you broach the subject. They’re pretty touchy about it. 

→ Speaking of die Deutschen: “Not one frown in the place, which is exceptionally rare for such a large gathering of German people.” The blog Oh God, My Wife Is German is consistently amusing to me.

Two Links!

Two Links!

→ Boston neighborhoods corresponded to their Manhattan equivalents (based on median rent). Interesting to compare the two and see what the locals value most in each city. Freakishly (or maybe totally predictably), my dream neighborhoods in each city are counterparts.

→ Do you ever get totes emosh about something and think, “I can’t EVEN handle this because”? If you have no idea what any of that means, you need to read “A Defense of Internet Linguistics” cuz it’s amazeballz. 

→ Wikipedia “is like walking into a mental hospital: the floors are carpeted, the walls are nicely padded, but you know there’s a pretty good chance at any given moment one of the inmates will pick up a knife.” 

→ My brother, the only other person I know who also loves podcasts a lot, told me that 60 Minutes is available in an audio-only format. I got crazy excited about this since the show was, as the NYT once said, “one of the most esteemed newsmagazines on American television.” The writing is significantly less good than it used to be — any given story has copy filled with clichés or misuses of words like “literally” — but they still report some fun things. 



Things may be different now, but the last times I purged in the US, there was a definite sense of anti-climax. I’d cull a bunch of stuff, stick it in garbage bags and then have to wait days or weeks for some charity to come pick it up.

In la France, one does not have to do this as many charities set up huge mailbox-like containers around neighborhoods so that you can just cart your unwanted items yourself and instantly be rid of them. It’s totally liberating!

Handy instructions clearly illustrated on the front.

Handy instructions clearly illustrated on the front.

The containers themselves are interesting and I’m glad I completely checked one out before I took my first (of four) loads over.

My clothes are going to be worn all over the world!

My clothes are going to be worn all over the world!

It hadn’t occurred to me that shoes might lose their mates, so I made sure to tie up the ones that had laces and bag the ones that couldn’t be tied with string. Things that are sets, like pyjamas or work clothes (those things people call “skirt suits”) need to be kept together too, so I safetypinned those items and felt awesome about myself for being so considerate to whoever is sorting. I am a Samaritan and giving is great!

Plus, I have no problem admitting that the mechanism for dropping the clothes off was totally fun and reminded me of lazy Susans that I used to play with at Chinese restaurants growing up.

It's like the Hokey-Pokey! You put the clothes in here and you spin it all around!

It’s like the Hokey-Pokey! You put the clothes in here and you spin it all around!

You can find your own drop off point at www.lerelais.org


Overheard on the bus

Just after school got out one day, four young guys, probably 14 or 15, got on the bus I was riding. Deviating from my normal routine, I was neither reading nor listening to something, so I couldn’t help overhearing their animated discussion. They were talking about the chemistry test they’d just taken and were doing the type of academic postmortems that I remember from my youth. As they settled into the aisle beside me, they’d all agreed on the answer for the third question and moved on to the fourth. Among them, two had reached the same conclusion but the other two had come up with completely different answers.

All four began arguing for their own answer and it quickly became apparent that they all remembered the question differently. One of the boys suggested that they replicate the question precisely so that they could pose it to “his” pharmacist when they got off the bus. Without a word, they all whipped out their cell phones and started drafting versions, comparing with each other and making corrections.

I got off before their story ended (it would have been really creepy if I’d followed them) but the whole scene struck me as some kind of milestone in my French life. If their conversation had been in English, I would have understood exactly as much as I did in French. This would be a bigger deal if I understood chemistry but I don’t. At all. I’m worse at it than math.

My Guy owned the Sambar Market on Mt. Pleasant St. in DC

My Guy at the Sambar Market in Mt. Pleasant (WDC)

The second thing this story illustrates is how people over here “have” a kind of person for every profession. In the US, there was a Korean man whom I called My Guy (all my friends and family knew him by this name) who owned the corner store nearest my house where I always bought my milk and beer. He was the only person I “had” the whole time I was living in DC.

Now, I “have” a bakery and a green grocer but beyond that, I go to whichever business is most convenient to wherever I am at the moment. Of course, when I went to stock up on cough drops after my recent bout with Near-Death flu, the woman at the pharmacy recognized me from three months ago, so maybe that means that she “has” me and that I’m a local.