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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Mon pied-à-terre

Only once in my life has anyone actually referred to a pied-à-terre in my presence. The setting was an informal getting-to-know-you lunch between the people I was obliged to spend several hours a day with and the new hotshot guy the network had brought in to spice up our programming.

Before we’d even ordered, he corrected my pronunciation of “forte” to French which started us off on the wrong foot. I argued that if I actually pronounced half of the French words regularly used in English in the French manner, no one would understand me. “When in Rome…” I said and his eyes glazed over as he turned to speak to the person on his other side. (I still contend that this is the correct way to communicate with people and is the way to least appear to be an asshole.)

During the course of the meal, he frequently mentioned, as some types of New Yorkers do, various street intersections and shops that indicated that he lived in a very nice neighborhood and he also dropped the name of the expensive school his kids went to. As he was so clearly devoted to the City That Never Sleeps, I asked how he was managing the transition to living in DC.

“Oh,” he snidely replied. “I don’t live here. I still live in New York. I have a pied-à-terre in town.” It was my turn for my eyes to glaze over because I am not capable of absorbing so much pretension in one session without having primed my body in advance.

I thought of this jerk recently when I made a joke at his expense. (I am the best at amusing myself.) “My pied-à-terre is in Paris,” I mumbled as I closed the door to the cave I’m renting in the center of town. “Beat that.”

ma cave

Uniform boxes is the key to good stacking.

A non-murder cave

Caves are French personal storage spaces, typically found in the basement of buildings in cities. Generally, each unit in a building has a corresponding cave and the residents store all their extra stuff there. The cave I’m renting is part of a vast system of tunnels under a building near République. Many years ago, a Spanish woman had lived in the building and when she got old and decided to return to Spain she put her apartment on the market. When she turned in the deed to the agents in advance of the sale, it turned out that she also owned all the caves as well as all the unused space under the building. She promptly sold the apartment but kept the cave system for herself and leased it out to a management company that specializes in such things. She’s back in Spain and getting monthly income from schmucks like me who can’t figure out where to live. Some people have all the luck.

It turns out

That guy, the pretentious ass? Over the course of the time that the company was under his influence, my best friend and I joked that he was the Devil since he was all about flash over substance and seemed not to care at all about actual journalism. Any time his name would come up, we’d imitate an Albert Brooks bit of business from BROADCAST NEWS where Brooks jokes that a character is the Devil.

In 2004, we met the woman who was the inspiration for Holly Hunter’s character in BROADCAST NEWS and after introducing ourselves she quickly made the connection that we had worked under the guy in question. “Did you know that XXX was based on him?” she asked us. We hadn’t actually known, but somehow, we’d sensed it all along.

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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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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.