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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The Pentagon Papers

I’m pretty sure there’s a file on me at the Pentagon. It may not have my name on it, but for the years I lived in DC, I’m certain that someone was tracking my movements. If they weren’t, they should get fired ‘cause I was totally asking for it.

I was still a heavy smoker back then and a serious cyclist and a person who likes to get good deals on stuff. (I am still two of these things.) These three character traits meant that every two weeks, I’d ride from my Northwest DC neighborhood to the Costco in Virginia to buy cartons of cigarettes.

Look how close they are! They were clearly asking me to bike from one to the other by being so close.

Look how close they are! They were clearly asking me to bike from one to the other.

I did this because it was cheaper, Virginia tax being much lower than the District’s, and partly because it gave me a clear destination for my ride and was a good hour-long trip each way.

I’d start in Rock Creek Park, one of the bigger urban parks in America, and cruise along the bike trails through the trees and over streams and around joggers, yelling “On your left!” every once in a while so people would get the hell out of my way. Then I’d jump onto the bike path that ran alongside the major roads, passing the Watergate and thinking of Nixon and Forrest Gump, and then past the Kennedy Center and I’d completely skirt the Lincoln Memorial to cross the Potomac, avoiding Arlington Cemetery entirely and getting to my favorite part of the ride: crossing through the Pentagon parking lot.

I’m not gonna lie; every time I did it, I was anxious I’d get stopped and questioned but that was part of the fun. This is where my file comes in: I’m sure someone somewhere in the building noticed me and I suspect that there was a log of my regular trips around all the barriers they had set up because I was the only cyclist I ever saw there, and I did look a little suspicious. Keep in mind that this was all Post Terror (after 9/11) and I had a black pannier on my bike and was usually wearing wrap-around reflective biking glasses and singing along loudly to my iPod.

An hour later, I’d come back through the parking lot, my pannier filled with 40 packs of cigarettes I shouldn’t technically have as well as other weird Costco items like a 2-lb bag of dried mango slices or a bunch of blank VHS cassettes. (Even before DVRs existed, I time-shifted all my TV-viewing because I don’t like people trying to sell me crap.)

I’ll never know if there really is or was a file on the girl who used to show up on odd days of the week, cruising at top speed through the parking lot of one of America’s most secure buildings, but I like to think that I at least amused some security guards who wondered what the hell I thought I was doing. If I had ever been stopped, things could have gone badly for me, but I wasn’t and I live to tell the tale of defying the US Department of Defense right to its face. ¡Toma!

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INT. DIVE BAR, HAPPY HOUR, WASHINGTON, DC — NIGHT

This very bar.

This very bar.

GIRL is at a dive bar with many of her coworkers. It’s the birthday party for GIRL’s BOSS.

Boss’s GIRLFRIEND approaches GIRL, beaming hugely.

GIRLFRIEND

You must be Maya! I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you!

GIRL is momentarily confused. MAYA is an Indian girl who is on the same staff. Then GIRL remembers that GIRLFRIEND is a Midwesterner and therefore not used to people who aren’t variations on milk-colored.

GIRL

No, I’m the *other* brown girl on staff. I’m Spanish. From Spain. Not Indian.

GIRLFRIEND makes a face like she swallowed half a lemon.

GIRLFRIEND

Oh — no — I didn’t mean — It’s — I —

GIRL

Clearly, Boss hasn’t mentioned me. It’s good to know that he favors Maya, even at home.

GIRL is patient. GIRLFRIEND will need a few moments to understand what’s been said, to glean the subtext. GIRL waits.

GIRLFRIEND

Oh. Wait — what?

GIRL sighs. GIRLFRIEND is too dense or simple or trusting or blind to figure out what GIRL is saying.

GIRL
(indicating across the room)

Maya’s over there. She’s the Indian-looking one. Like from India.

GIRLFRIEND continues to look stricken. Suddenly, she spins around and races across the bar to GIRL’S BOSS, her body language suggesting she is near tears.

GIRL
(to herself)

Jesus Christ. I can’t deal with these people anymore.


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The Rape of Europa, 2006

The notsohot reviews of George Clooney’s all-star THE MONUMENTS MEN prompted me to watch the documentary on the same subject. THE RAPE OF EUROPA is the story of art during WWII — how Hitler coveted it, how the Nazis stole it and how a group of American soldiers were tasked with trying to protect the cultural history of Europe. (The doc is based on a book of the same name which has an excellent website of its own.)

The documentary is really powerful, but the most shocking revelation to me in the whole Joan Allen-narrated thing was just a few seconds long. Hitler only came to Paris once, early in the morning after it fell in June 1940. One of the places he visited was the church de la Madeleine. They show footage of him jauntily running up the steps.

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I took this pic on the same steps.

I took this pic on the same steps.

I have sat on those exact same stairs on several occasions so that I could enjoy an American-style hamburger from France’s first food truck, Le camion qui fume, which frequently parks nearby. According to some theories of spacetime, this means that he and I exist simultaneously on those stairs. Me and Hitler, sharing space, under circumstances neither of us could have imagined.

Living in Europe is incredible. Colonial Williamsburg and Springfield, Illinois can say whatever they want, but History is Alive in Europe and it’s phenomenal.

Other interesting insights from THE RAPE OF EUROPA

→ My opinion that the Nazis are, were and will always be the worst people in the history of all things is unchanged. They make the greatest on-screen villains, but in reality, they were such unspeakably horrible people, committing such tremendously heinous acts, that it’s hard to believe they were human.

→ I hadn’t realized that the Jeu de Paume‎, a fairly innocuous museum tucked in at the end of the Tuileries Gardens and above the Concorde métro station, played an integral part in salvaging important artifacts. I will have to revisit it with this new appreciation for the space in mind.

→ When the Louvre needed able bodies to help crate and cart away the contents of the museum, they employed shop workers, old men and women since all the young men were fighting. The story about the moving of the Winged Victory is one of those human-spirit-triumphs-over-adversity that I don’t usually like but it was one of the times I was moved to tears.

→ Lots of Nazi art and some of Hitler’s original artwork is stored under a building in Washington, DC. (The works are deemed too controversial to exhibit which is probably true, but is still sad as I think it’d be interesting to see them.) I’d never actually seen any of the Führer’s paintings before and was surprised to see that they look exactly like streetscapes people sell in tourist areas. They appear to be accurate representations of things and have no artistic vision, flare or unique technique. The doc makes a pretty compelling subtle argument that much of Hitler’s motivation came from not getting into art school and that his systematic campaign to destroy and ridicule “degenerate art” was really his way of trying to teach people to value his uninspired style.

burt-lancasterFurther viewing

John Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, RONIN) directed a fictional version of this story in 1964. THE TRAIN stars Burt Lancaster as a Parisian station master who helps the French Resistance spirit a train full of French art away from the Nazis. Unlike Steve McQueen, no one needs to tell me why Lancaster was appealing.

I can’t science but I can Google

→ A theory of compressed spacetime was recently highlighted on HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE. I don’t really understand what Matthew McConaughey’s talking about, but you can see if it makes any sense to you here.

→ Apparently, it’s a form of M-theory which I also can’t make heads or tails of.


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“Amazing” Americans

“The Amazing Race” is the only reality show I really enjoy. The premise is that eleven teams of two compete against each other in a race around the world for a $1 million prize, but the show is actually about different kinds of Americans showing varying degrees of ignorance or competence in foreign lands. If I were in charge of marketing it, I’d call it “Travel Schadenfreude” and edit it to maximize people doing awesomely idiotic things like yelling “rapido, rapido” to cab drivers in China which is a thing that regularly happens.

I love the show so much that when I went to Berlin a couple months after the city was a featured stop, I reenacted one of the races to the finish line, just ’cause.

Running to "meet Phil" at the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin (2006)

Running to “meet Phil” at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (2006)

Recently, the long-running series had its 22nd season finale, with the finalists landing in Washington, DC and chasing clues around places I knew pretty well. One of the challenges involved one member of each team running around the Tidal Basin, approaching men dressed as “secret agents,” hoping to elicit the correct counter-response to a code phrase. One of the questions was “Where can I get a good half-smoke with chili?” which elicited a response from me, sitting on a couch outside Paris. “BEN’S CHILI BOWL!” I yelled at my screen.

Ben’s is an iconic luncheonette-type place in the (now historic) U Street corridor in NW Washington. Famous people associated with the place include Nat King Cole, Stokely Carmichael, Bill Cosby and President Obama. You should go there if you’re in DC. The chili cheese fries are among the more ridiculously good things I’ve ever had.

For the record, the producers of “TAR” chickened out and gave this half-assed response to the half-smoke question.

Lame

Lame


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Overheard on the bus

Just after school got out one day, four young guys, probably 14 or 15, got on the bus I was riding. Deviating from my normal routine, I was neither reading nor listening to something, so I couldn’t help overhearing their animated discussion. They were talking about the chemistry test they’d just taken and were doing the type of academic postmortems that I remember from my youth. As they settled into the aisle beside me, they’d all agreed on the answer for the third question and moved on to the fourth. Among them, two had reached the same conclusion but the other two had come up with completely different answers.

All four began arguing for their own answer and it quickly became apparent that they all remembered the question differently. One of the boys suggested that they replicate the question precisely so that they could pose it to “his” pharmacist when they got off the bus. Without a word, they all whipped out their cell phones and started drafting versions, comparing with each other and making corrections.

I got off before their story ended (it would have been really creepy if I’d followed them) but the whole scene struck me as some kind of milestone in my French life. If their conversation had been in English, I would have understood exactly as much as I did in French. This would be a bigger deal if I understood chemistry but I don’t. At all. I’m worse at it than math.

My Guy owned the Sambar Market on Mt. Pleasant St. in DC

My Guy at the Sambar Market in Mt. Pleasant (WDC)

The second thing this story illustrates is how people over here “have” a kind of person for every profession. In the US, there was a Korean man whom I called My Guy (all my friends and family knew him by this name) who owned the corner store nearest my house where I always bought my milk and beer. He was the only person I “had” the whole time I was living in DC.

Now, I “have” a bakery and a green grocer but beyond that, I go to whichever business is most convenient to wherever I am at the moment. Of course, when I went to stock up on cough drops after my recent bout with Near-Death flu, the woman at the pharmacy recognized me from three months ago, so maybe that means that she “has” me and that I’m a local.