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 Outlier: helmet

helmet — a hard or padded protective hat, various types of which are worn by soldiers, police officers, firefighters, motorcyclists, athletes, and others.

ORIGIN diminutive form of an Indo-European root meaning “to cover or hide,” adopted by the German as Helm, by the Dutch as helm and Old French as helme.

RIP my bike helmet.

Helmet 1I bought this helmet at a “start of season” sale in the Hamptons in 2005. My sister and I were visiting my brother who was working there in advance of “the season” which is when all the swells and husband-hunters descend on the area from New York and its environs.

I loved it instantly because of the cool design which looked Mayan or Ancient Egyptian but was actually funky animals like octopuses, crocodiles and cats. (The design is fun because it’s a child’s helmet. Adult helmets are boring.)

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We were going to be walking around all day, so I did what I thought was the most reasonable thing: I put the helmet on my head so that I wouldn’t have to carry it. What happened was that all the shop keepers thought I was a person with special needs and everyone was incredibly nice to me and spoke to me as though I was a child. Another classic case of Americans erring on the side of caution so much that they fall off the cliff at their backs.

When I pulled the helmet out of storage recently, I noticed that the foam lining (which cushions your head from the hard shell) was crumbling and making a mess so I emailed the manufacturer to see how I could get replacements here in France. They told me they stopped making this model in 2001. Unwilling to part with one of my favorite things to look at, I dug around some and found the original packaging (always keep the instructions, the packaging and the inserts, people!) and there were spare foam parts there. Hooray!

I asked a guy I know who’s a bike expert to help me place them correctly and he asked how old the helmet was. Sensing this was going somewhere bad, I told him that I’d had it for “a while.” He asked if it felt heavy and solid and I said yes. This was the wrong answer. It turns out that after a few years, the plastic foam the helmet is made of starts to degrade and becomes unified into one piece and that you’re supposed to replace them every five years, especially if you’re riding in the city as accidents are more likely.

So, I have to say goodbye to my old friend and go shopping for a new helm for my noggin. I’ve found a promising place near République but their business hours are 10h – 18h45 (vive la France!) which means I have to wait until next Saturday to go and see what cool kids’ business they’ve got going on.

Another purging tip

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer” isn’t just some snappy thing to say to someone who stares too long. It’s also a way to “keep” something without actually keeping it. I’ll be able to remember my helmet for years to come by clicking through the pics I took and think back on the good times we shared without having to have potentially toxic fumes in my nostrils and crumbled bits of plastic all over my hands.

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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.


While I was away…

fox_force_fiveI’ve been away from the Internet for over a week and none of you even noticed! Mwah-ha-ha! This offline period was not unexpected, unlike so many others, so I scheduled tons of posts to cover my potential absence. My over-estimating ended up being totally-nailed-it-estimating so those posts ran out just as I got back online.

Since I’ve been away for so long, I’m hoping that you all will let me know which of your recent posts I should check out. Please put the links in the comments below and I’ll be able to jump right to them. If something cool happened elsewhere online that you’d like to share, let me know about it in the same way as I’ve decided that I can’t possibly catch up on everything. (Use TinyURL to make life easier on everyone.)

As an aside, my WordPress homepage is kind of acting up / looks different — did they update something or is this a problem only I’m having?

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Word Mystery: box / caja / boîte


I own one chair. That's all the furniture I've got.

I own one chair and a helluva lot of boxes.

Wednesdays, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages.

It’s moving time again, so my life has become about boxes and packing and rediscovering things long forgotten. (Someday I will share with you how many brand new spatulas I own. You will be as shocked as I was unless you also have more than a dozen of the same unused kitchen item.)

EN → box — a container with a flat base and sides, typically square or rectangular and having a lid. ORIGIN Old English, via Latin from Greek puxis [small box].

ES → cajaRecipiente que, cubierto con una tapa suelta o unida a la parte principal, sirve para guardar o transportar en él algo. [Container which, open or with a lid (separate or part of its construction) is used to keep or transport something.] ORIGIN Latin capsa.

FR → boîtecontenant rigide en bois, carton, métal ou matière plastique, avec ou sans couvercle, dans lequel on met des objets ou des produits divers. [Stiff container made of wood, cardboard, metal or plastic, with or without a cover, in which one puts things or various products.] ORIGIN Latin buxeti [grove of boxwood trees] from Greek puksis [small box].

What? I have no idea what’s happening here. It’s a truly baffling day when the Spanish word is the most logical of the bunch.

Additional confusion: the English and French both come from the same word but are spelled differently. This is apparently acceptable, I’d guess partly because the Greek alphabet doesn’t have a 1: 1 with the Roman one, but also maybe because there weren’t standard spellings of things in Ancient Greece. (At least, that’s the impression I get from books like David Crystal‘s which feature cabals of academics / priests deciding how things will be written.)

Botanical note: I am very bad with plants and don’t know the names of most green growy things, so I never considered that boxwood trees are trees with good, hard wood that people used to make boxes out of. Sometimes, if you don’t look too hard, English is totally easy. Other times, not so much.


More adventures in Parisian real estate

Do you think you’re efficient? Are you able to keep an eye on your breakfast while taking a shower? I didn’t think so, but now you can! For only 699€ a month, you can do everything in one space instead of wasting all that time walking across rooms. Toilet sold separately. (Really. It’s in the hallway.)

Appart Adventures kitchen shower 699€

Do you ever take a bath and wonder, “Man, I really wish I could look at the lower half of my body while I’m wet and naked”? Well, now you can! This bathroom comes equipped with the latest in vanity technology — a mirror at crotch level!

Appart mirror

Ladies and gentlemen, look at this kitchen! It’s a chef’s dream! The completely renovated space has all-new appliances including a dish washer, oven with electric cooktop and a full-size fridge! There’s ample storage for all your gadgets and culinary tools. It’s a perfect space! Except the living area is the size of a full mattress and a twin mattress squeezed together. (That is to say, there is no space for actual living.)

Appart Parfait 2

This one may be a personal choice as I don’t like humanoid anythings — dolls, puppets, mannequins, clowns, etc. — possibly due to mean tricks my asshole siblings pulled on me when I was little … but this poorly translated ad totally bothered me for days since I couldn’t stop imaging the horror of what it depicts: a puppet greeting you at the door every day. It’s like some sick Stephen King business.

Pantin is a town outside Paris…and a kind of articulated shadow puppet thingy.

Pantin is a town outside Paris…and a kind of articulated shadow puppet thingy.

Finally, two places that actually have many things going for them. In the first, sadly, one of those features was not an elevator (it’s a sixth floor).

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In the last, the problems are that I can’t afford it and I also hate spiral staircases, but man, those windows are something.

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