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: Christmas / Navidad / Noël

Wednesdays, I explore the linguistic origins of the same word in different languages. This week is all about that most rockin’ of holidays, so our WM is clear.

2013 Xmas doorTrue Story

On December 11th of 2013, I walked out my apartment and locked the door. As I pulled the key out and turned to head to the elevator, I saw my neighbor’s door and heard myself say, “Bah!”

Except for the being super-wealthy, miserable and unhappy, I am totally a Scrooge.

EN → Christmas — the annual Christian festival celebrating Christ’s birth, held on December 25 in the Western Church. ORIGIN Old English Crīstes mæsse.

ES → NavidadNatividad de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo. [The birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.] ORIGIN Latin nativĭtas [of Christ, birth, nativity].

FR → NoëlFête de la naissance de Jésus-Christ. [Celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.] ORIGIN Latin natalis dies [day of birth].

English note: how much of a heathen am I that I never put together the Christ’s Mass thing? A really big one. This doesn’t even count as a rabies since there is honestly no way I will ever make religious connections on my own. Hell, I didn’t even see all the Christian messaging in The Chronicles of Narnia until I was a teenager!

Spanish note: I never liked that “lord” and “señor” are equivalents in some instances, but that’s ‘cause I don’t like anyone to think they can lord over me. I’m independent! You can’t oppress me!

French note: logical, inoffensive and not originally all Christ-y. The clear winner. So clear, you could navigate three suspiciously ethnically diverse dudes on camels by its light.

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The thing about dog poo on sidewalks…

We’ve discussed this before and, yes, it’s annoying to step in dog poop and, yes, it’s kinda gross and, yes, it’s pretty rude of the humans to not pick it up…

…But lots of times, I see the poop and I think, “Man, I hope that dog gets to a vet soon ’cause that poop does not look okay.”

[Today’s post is without a photo because you really don’t want to see that stuff that makes me worry about neighborhood dogs.]


And that’s why you always leave a note

Say, for instance, you have information you would like to share with a person unknown to you; how do you do this? I can only think of one way, which is by leaving a note.

Not so in France. Here people just wait until they run into a person who might be the person to whom they want to convey information. The first time this happened, I was legitimately annoyed that Monsieur le président of the co-op I’m living in made such a big deal about how I had been breaking the rules. At the time, I pointed out that I hadn’t known about the regulations but as soon as I was informed, I amended my behavior. Problem solved.

Jump to early this month when I’d been waiting for a package from my mother and there was no sign of it. Correos, the national Spanish postal system (which is a complete joke), had provided her with a tracking number which revealed only that the box had been entregado (turned in/delivered) on the 8th. A week later, my mother filed a claim at her post office and I was set to head to mine and see if I could get any answers on this end. As I was checking the mailbox one last time, a woman rushed me from the opposite side of the street.

“Are you Madame XXXX?” she said, breathlessly.

“No,” I said, “I’m Mademoiselle YYYY, Monsieur XXXX’s subletter. Is there a problem?”

“Oh! I’m so glad to have found you! I check to see if your light is on every time I come home!”

I looked at her blankly because there wasn’t really anything for me to respond to and that’s when she added, “I have a package of yours! I’ve had it for over a week and kept hoping to run into you!”

She went on to tell me that she’d been in the lobby when the mailman attempted delivery and, as they both noticed that the box was insured and “international,” they determined it must be important. It apparently seemed best to them that my neighbor, a woman who’s never seen me, sign for it which she did. But then she didn’t leave me a note that she had it. For over a week. And there were perishable items inside. At this point in her story I got really pissed but I didn’t express it because she had my god damn package and I really wanted it.


This is really funny if you’ve seen Arrested Development.

When I picked it up at her apartment a while later, she told me that she’d been up to ring my doorbell “every night” but I was never home. I told her that I never hear the doorbell and was desperate to add, “If you came by EVERY NIGHT and there was never an answer, WHY DIDN’T YOU LEAVE A GOD DAMN NOTE?” but I decided that it would be more poli to just take the box and get the hell out of there.

Prenez note

French people don’t leave notes. Ever. Even for important things. Connards.

The title of this post courtesy of Arrested Development‘s “Pier Pressure” episode. AD is the funniest American show ever broadcast (UK’s is Fawlty Towers) and is finally coming back this summer (May 5!!!) after being off the air for six years. If you have never seen it, now’s your chance to get caught up. Amusingly, in French the show is called Les Nouveaux Pauvres which is a pun and therefore great.


Basic spy craft for daily use

The bus stop nearest my house doesn’t have a shelter so when it rains, which is most of the time, people huddle under the awning of the bakery up the block or the alcove of a building nearer the route. On a rainy day like the dozens of others I’ve experienced here, I was in the latter spot with an elderly lady and I ducked out and reached the stop exactly as the bus pulled up, hopping directly on.

The lady sat down next to me once she’d gotten away from the protection of the building and hobbled over to the curb. “How did you know it was coming?” she asked. “The window,” I said, generally indicating a storefront receding behind us. Then I said, “La vitrine,” since a shop or display window is not the same as the kind you have in your house. She looked confused, so I clarified that it was the reflection of the approaching bus in the window which I’d seen. Her eyes got wide. “Like spies,” I said, trying to express, in just a few words, that I have read or seen hundreds of spy stories and watching for stuff in reflective surfaces is basic spy craft.

The conversation ended abruptly with a look that I’ve come to know all too well, one that says, “what a fearsome creature you are,” since it’s apparently not nice for young ladies to put classic espionage techniques into use on a daily basis.

I figured that my affinity for spy stories was where this habit came from, but then I heard an interview with novelist Attica Locke which presented an alternate reason.

In America, there is a feeling of always walking through life as a woman with the knowledge of violence around a corner.

And I think this is, while being very sad, more likely to be the source of my spying habits. If I wanted to, I could feel deflated that I grew up in a culture where I was constantly threatened by the sheer amount of violence around me as well as the possibility of violence being perpetrated upon me. But the truth is that, barring the many bikes I’ve had stolen, nothing bad has ever happened to me, so maybe my hyper-vigilance has paid off.

So, here are my basic tips for keeping safe:

  • Check reflections and shadows
  • Keep your back to the wall
  • Always know where your exits are
Can you find me? (Chicago, 2006)

Can you find me? (Chicago, 2006)



The bread is back in town

My favorite bakery finally reopened after their three-week vacation.

On the first day, I happily stood in the line out the door with the rest of the locals. As we got close to the counter, the woman ahead of me blurted out, “I’m so happy you’re back. We’ve missed you! We’ve all missed you!” Everyone nodded vigorously. The guy behind me was picking up his dinner bread on his way home from his run and he elaborated, “You really don’t know how happy we are that you’re back. Life is good again.”

During all this outpouring of customer loyalty, it occurred to me that shops may go on holiday just so that people will appreciate them when they reopen, kind of like a mercantile version of “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I doubt whether John Maynard Keynes or the Chicago School would agree with this economic approach, but it does seem to work over here.