Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures



Updates on stuff I’ve written and your comments.

Simply the best (game).

→ I stopped playing Candy Crush. I got to level 169 without paying for any upgrades and, after a couple days stuck there, I decided I was out. Additional proof that I’ll never be a bona fide nerd: I don’t really get into video games. (N64 GoldenEye and Tetris excepted.)

→ Benedict Cumberbatch offers the famous person’s version of “Leave Me Alone” face:

“If you pick a point far behind [people on the sidewalk] they perceive you as not seeing them, and you’re the obstacle they have to get around. The greatest disguise is learning how to be invisible in plain sight.”

→ This year when I finally found a copy of the Oscars online to watch, I already knew all the good and bad moments, significantly lessening my enjoyment. Maybe next year I’ll try to play The Knowledge and just wait till I can see the whole thing for myself.

An episode of RADIOLAB made me “Rabies!” at my iPod since they mentioned that “right” also means “correct.” Another way that “left” is demonized.

→ Google Translate continues to be the worst and to do more harm than good. To wit, when it’s used to translate menus.

→ Complaining about lack of editing on the Internet is a bit like being angry at the sun for emiting light. That I’m not the only person to poke fun at those who don’t right the write word makes me feel better.

I will always love you.

→ An interesting take on why some of my favorite retailers went out of business from THE NEW YORKER. It wasn’t my fault and is instead due to Americans wanting to buy high-end goods in a luxury environment and low-end goods in a warehouse. Huh.

→ On a related note, I realized why I liked those stores so much: there were no salespeople. I hate being asked if I need help, if I’m finding what I want, if I’d like to see another size. This is another way in which I’m well suited to life in France.

→ More ways to clear out your life. I especially agree about the microwave. “Science ovens” aren’t worth the counter space they take up and make your food taste worse.

→ Elizabeth recommended I read the comments on that NYT article about tortilla and I did. Many were very angry, which amused me, but I’d like to think that part of the ire came from a translation misunderstanding. Spanish doesn’t allow for the distinction between must / should / have to. In English we know that these are degrees on the same spectrum, but Spaniards have a hard time with them, thus, when they give instructions in English, they often sound like commands. More on modal verb forms here.

Topics -> Hot Topic -> Hot Probs -> poor little Heather (McNamara).

→ But the person who was railing against “TOPICS!!” regarding Spanish people and their cooking was digging their own grave. They meant “clichés” which are “tópicos” in Spanish. Sigh.


Not in a pickle

Boar's Head pepperoni sandwichOne of the few items that made it into my bag on the way back from the US was this little pack of Boar’s Head pepperoni. As I was back in France, I had to class it up a bit, so I lightly spread butter on some good bread layered with cornichons and it was spectacular. Pickles are too big for me to enjoy, but a cornichon is a wonderous creation.

Learn something

Boar's head logoBoar’s Head meats are the best you can get in the US [site]. The company’s been around for almost 100 years and they somehow cure, roast and smoke the most incredible stuff. They also make cheese that’s equally delicious. If you’re ever looking for a good deli, check to see if they have the company’s logo in their window.

Learn something else

Pepperoni is an entirely American salami. (I’ve mentioned this before.) Snobs will tell you that since it’s not Italian, it’s a) not good or b) shouldn’t be on a pizza. As usual, snobs are wrong. Among the sausage’s many attributes are its consistency (no globs of fat), its slight spice and its perpetual eatability. I love other sausages too, but I would never be able to eat a quarter pound of, say, spicy soppressata in one sitting but I could totally do that with some ‘roni. This last thing is also part of what makes it American.

Be amused by something

Even though the appearance of the artisanal pickle was one of the early signs of the current Hipster-pocalypse, it can still be the source of comedy. Last year, “The New Yorker” published a four-part story by Simon Rich called Sell Out which is really funny and a clever indictment of everything that I think is wrong with America today. (Conversely, if you love what’s happening in the culture, you will also find your beliefs vindicated.) The story is *not* behind a paywall, so you can read it and then decree that everything “Is fine” in a knowing manner. [ETA: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.]

Last thing

“To be in a pickle” is a phrase that means “to be in a messy or difficult situation.” I imagine that being in a vat filled with vinegar and salt would be both of those things.


Word Mystery: flip-flop / chancleta / tong

Every Wednesday, I explore the linguistic origins of one word in different languages I speak.

My brother sent me this funny video which is as good of an inspiration for a Word Mystery as any other.

EN → flip-flop — a light sandal, typically of plastic or rubber, with a thong between the big and second toe. ORIGIN mid 17th cent. from “flop” this from “flap” this from Middle English imitative [: onomatopoeia].

ES → chancleta — Chinela sin talón, o chinela o zapato con el talón doblado, que suele usarse dentro de casa. [Backless slipper with folded-over heel, generally worn indoors.] ORIGIN Disputed, but possibly from chanca denoting the Chanka people of Peru and their footwear, diminutive form.

FR → tongChaussure de plage, formée d’une semelle et d’une bride en V. [Beach show formed by a sole and a v-shaped strap.] ORIGIN English “thong” [a narrow strip of leather or other material, used esp. as a fastening or as the lash of a whip].

→ Wikipedia says that this type of footwear originated in 5500 BC. That’s a long time ago.

→ Thinking about this reminded me of a great piece in The New Yorker about the shoes of a Stone Age man, called Otzi by archeologists. The story is behind a pay wall, but it’s a really good one.

→ More about the shoes, the oldest of their kind in the world, is here.

Tough one today. All entries have their merits, though I think the win goes to English since I love onomatopoeias almost as much as puns.

Leave a comment

Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon

paristothemoonAdam Gopnik lived in Paris from 1995 to 2000. Paris to the Moon is a collection of the essays he wrote for THE NEW YORKER during that time. Reading it now, over a decade removed from the Paris he knew, it’s interesting how the stories chronicle how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same.

Here are some of the things I’ve liked so far:

» All cultural prejudices seem like practical facts to the prejudiced. (p. 52) [I explore this idea in both my Foreign To Me Now and Euro Adapter posts.]

» Every French man and woman is engaged in a constant entanglement with one ministry or another, and I have come to realize that these entanglements are what take the place of going to a gym where people actually work out. Three or four days a week you’re given something to do that is time-consuming, takes you out of yourself, is mildly painful, forces you into close proximity with strangers, and ends, usually, with a surprising rush of exhilaration: “Hey, I did it.” (p. 67)

» The French believe that all errors are distant, someone else’s fault. Americans believe that there is no distance, no difference, and therefore that there are no errors, that any troubles are simple misunderstandings. (p. 99)

It’s incredibly frustrating how true the last thing is. When I ask people to explain how they arrived at a particular conclusion (their thought process) to better identify where a misunderstanding started, they look at me like I have three heads. This was true in Spain as well and is something that I didn’t realize was American (though I must point out that Gopnik is Canadian, so, what does he know?).


The One About The Deaf Lady

The most amazing conversation I ever had was with a woman at a bus stop in Barcelona in October of 2007. I was waiting for either the #43 or the #44 when she showed up. We started chatting as people do while they’re stuck together late at night, and when I turned back to her from a glance down the street, she asked me to repeat myself because she was deaf and hadn’t been able to read my lips.

I was a little surprised because I hadn’t noticed anything in her voice to indicate deafness, but didn’t think much of it. After about 15 minutes, she asked me where I was from and then I was very surprised. I quickly realized something and got so excited that my skin started to tingle because I had unknowingly been looking for this exact woman for two years. In case you missed the Life Changing Moment, it was this: a woman who could only read lips knew I wasn’t raised in Spain, even though she couldn’t hear my voice.

Prior to this, people hadn’t been able to put a finger or a name to what about me was de fuera [from outside; foreign], but there was definitely something and this lady was going to have The Answer.

At this point, she and I are finally on the bus and I ask her how she knew I wasn’t from around there. Sadly, she went with the obvious answer first: “You don’t look like you’re from here.” This statement is patently untrue, as she was looking at my face which is genetically 100% Made in Spain and I was wearing glasses that were “totally Euro” according to a friend of mine.

I asked again, saying that couldn’t be right for the reasons I just cited, and she said that while my diction was perfect (she had no problem reading my lips), my face was somehow ‘other.’ Pressed further, she said that maybe it was something about my cheeks but she couldn’t say what.

And then I knew. I realized that my English-speaking facial muscles were too pronounced and that my face wasn’t making smooth enough movements when connecting different Spanish sounds. This may sound crazy to you, but imagine how English speakers imitate the French, by pursing their lips and stretching the cheeks down and out. This isn’t just a stereotype, it’s the shape your face needs to be to make lots of French sounds. English requires a lot of upper-cheek work (feel your own face when making a long “e” sound like “cheese”).

I used ASL a lot in teaching ESL. I must have learned it on SESAME STREET.

I used ASL a lot in teaching ESL. I must have learned it on SESAME STREET.

Deaf thoughts

JEOPARDY! knowledge: The football huddle was invented by the Galludet team to prevent their opponent from reading their hand signs. Galludet is the world’s first all-deaf university.

→ ASL (American Sign Language) is not signed English — it has its own grammar and is only called that because it was developed in the States.

→ SWITCHED AT BIRTH, a show with a main character who’s deaf and attends a deaf school, is pretty damn good. I first heard about it in The New Yorker, and am glad I checked it out. The premise is that two girls were switched at the hospital and grew up rich/poor, white/Hispanic, nuclear family/single-mom, hearing/deaf and how they come to grips with what their lives should have been. Last year, they did an episode that was almost entirely devoid of spoken dialogue which was mesmerizing and fascinating.

→ While on the bus with that lady, I told her about an interesting study I’d read about in the Times. Scientists determined that babies were able to distinguish between spoken languages on videos without sound.

→ A Standford student, deaf since birth, describes the process and pitfalls of lip-reading.