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.


Deux Tweedlee Dee

I was in a place the other day and the 1950s song “Tweedlee Dee” started playing and I almost fell over. A combination of the sheer American-ness of the song, the incongruity of hearing it in Paris and the palpable sense of nostalgia that rushed over me actually made my body sway for a moment. I probably hadn’t heard the song in 20 years since “oldies” stations stopped playing music from the 50s a long time ago.

The version I heard was the original by LaVern Baker

I was hopping and a-bopping along to the song but at one point, I had a competing memory. It wasn’t till I got to googling later that day that I realized I had two versions of the song in my mind. Released, as it was, in the early 1950s, Baker’s version was “black” and was therefore covered by another singer to make a “white” version for television and radio play. The second one was by Georgia Gibbs. (The video is worth watching for the Wurlitzer vinyl juke box alone.)

I wonder if people in France, with their appreciation of Josephine Baker (she has a pool!) and general embracing of all kinds of black American culture know things like this happened all the time before the Civil Rights Movement. Or if today’s American yutes are even aware of stuff like this. Between this and temporarily idolizing old ladies, I feel like I’m turning into one myself.


Buh-what now?

Word enemies are words which are bastards. This is one of them.

A happy/sad thing about being an expat is realizing one day that something that was impossible when you first arrived is now old hat. Take Bouygues, for example.

When I got to France with the intention of settling here, I’d been living in Spain, a country where every letter in a word is pronounced (except “h”). Within the first week, I’d seen dozens of signs that read Bouygues and could do little more than stare at them, dumb faced. (It’s a huge company that has mobile phone, Internet, construction, real estate and media divisions, so they really advertise a lot.)

Like a child, I sounded it out: Buh-ó-ewh-ee-g-ewh-eh-s. That didn’t sound right. Boy-geez? Boo-ee-goo-ee-z? I sheepishly asked a French friend how to say it, but I couldn’t remember how to spell it right (all those vowels still looked crazy to me), so she was of no use.

And then I had one of my “JIIIIIMMMMMAAAAAYYYY!” moments where I was in the shower and, for the first time, understood one of the commercials on the radio. It was for “Bweeg Telecom” which is how you pronounce Bouygues. Bweeg. Go figure.


Giant condoms on the radio

A recent discovery is France Inter‘s “La séquence du consommateur” which is a short consumer news segment that airs on the radio and is then sent out as a podcast. It’s almost tailor-made for me since it features kinda silly business news, often from or about the US since no one does silly like Americans.

Part of the appeal is the vocabulary and language usage as well as the French perspective on things. Last week, the presenter introduced the reporter who began by saying something like, “You know when you walk into those big American stores and you see the huge condoms and you think, ‘That’s so nice of them to provide one,'” and the host assents and then the reporter went on to talk about how the stores aren’t being nice, they’re protecting themselves from litigation… but if you’re like me, you’re still stuck on the huge condom bit.

She clearly said “préservatifs géantes” which I was certain I had translated correctly, but it turns out that what she was referring to was those umbrella bags that magically appear when it’s raining. The idea is that you feed your wet and closed umbrella into a kind of long sleeve with a closed-off end to prevent it from dripping all over the floor as you make your way through the mall or the department store or wherever. Which, when described like this, is kind of like a condom, but giant-sized.

The point of the report was to discuss the general state of American litigation where everyone sues everyone for everything. She cited the 1994 case of the woman who sued McDonald’s because her coffee was too hot as an example of how the US courts allow people to take advantage of the system and she and the presenter tut-tutted about how Americans are clearly too dumb to take care of themselves. This reminded me of an anecdote I read in a book about moving to France from the US: the wife of an executive is being taken around to look at apartments. The woman tells the agent that this place won’t do as the windows don’t have screens and she has children. The agent is confused by the non sequitur but tells the woman that she won’t find screens on any windows in any apartment. “How do you keep the children from falling out the window?” asks the American. “You tell them not to jump,” replies the Frenchie.


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C’est pour ça qu’elle danse

French music has always been a part of my life. One of my earliest favorite songs was Jacques Brel’s Les flamandes because it’s totally upbeat and bouncy (despite having terribly sad lyrics). When my mother would play it, I would go crazy dancing around and shaking my arms trying to play air trombone. (This is extra funny since the lyrics specifically remark that the women are dancing without quivering/shaking [frémir].)

In later years, my taste in French music was heavily influenced by the songs we sang in my high school French classes once a month. Joe Dassin’s Les Champs-Elysées still resides in my Best Songs Ever playlist purely out of nostalgia.

When I got to France, I found a ton of stuff that’s really good and right in line with my general musical taste. Gaëtan Roussel’s first solo album came out around my arrival and I basically lost my shit over “Dis-moi encore que tu m’aimes” [Tell Me Again That You Love Me] because it embodies everything I love about pop music (including hand claps!).

Recently, I’ve been going deeper into the archives and coming up with amazingly awesome 80s French pop music. I vehemently disagree that the 80s was the worst decade for music — sure there was a lot of crap — but there were also incredibly enduring bass lines and beats that won’t stop till you’ve had enough.

I was in the shower recently when I heard a French New Order-ish song and I got really excited. I had a “Jiiiiimmmmmaaaaayyyy!” moment because it’s fantastic when these things happen, and they always seem to do so in the shower.

The song is Indochine’s 1985 hit, “3ème sexe” which sounds an awful lot like another track that resides in my Best Songs Ever, New Order’s 1987 “Bizarre Love Triangle.” Hear for yourself.

UPDATE: RIP Henry Hill. You were the kind of guy that made us root for the bad guys in the movies.