Le cul entre les deux chaises

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


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.



Word Enemy: ménage

Word Enemies are words that cause me problems because they’re bastards. Specifically because they either exist in two or more languages I speak and have different meanings in each or because they have multiple meanings which aren’t necessarily obvious to a non-native speaker.

Everyone knows what a ménage à trois is. At least all Americans do and I’m not sure why. I took French for five years in school and lived en famille twice and I certainly didn’t learn the phrase there. Also, since my parents didn’t love me, I never had cable TV so this was clearly something I learned “on the streets,” though my streets were all well-tended and predominantly used by mid-price foreign vehicles.

I bring this up because the first time I heard “Mon manège à moi” I thought the title was “Mon ménage à moi,” which made no sense. “My [something sexual] to me/myself”? Of course, now I’m a total expert in all kinds of ménage-related business because the word comes from the Latin for “house.”

If you’re moving house, that’s déménagement. If you’re cleaning house, that’s faire le ménage. If you’re watching a popular French comedy about different couples and the problems they have, that’s “Scènes de ménages.” (They just had their 2000th episode. Two thousandth. It’s très popular.)


Learn something

Just because you think you know what a word means, you’re not always right. My dictionary lists ten primary definitions for ménage and more than a dozen idiomatic expressions related to ménage and that’s before getting into different forms with prefixes and suffixes. Fais gaffe lest ye make a gaffe yourself.

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French Bandstand: Mon manège à moi

Bienvenue à French Bandstand! This is where I adopt the motto established by Dick Clark on “American Bandstand” and introduce you to French music that’s “got a good beat and you can dance to.”

Last time, I shared with you a disco version of the most well known French song popularized by Edith Piaf. Today, I’ve got another Piaf cover, Étienne Daho’s “Mon manège à moi.”

The title translates loosely to “you make me spin around” meaning, as it does, “my own carousel.” The lyrics follow in the tradition of most songs about love, specifically enumerating “how you make my head spin like a planet,” “how I am always at a party when I’m in your arms” and “how you make me orbit around the Earth.”

Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at a Word Enemy tangentially related to “Mon manège à moi” and Wednesday will have a Word Mystery totally inspired by this song.

You can watch Edith Piaf’s version here.


Word Mystery: eight / huit / ocho

Word mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

Count von Count knows what's up.

Count von Count knows what’s up.

The longer I’m away from 24h 360° exposure to English, the harder it becomes to do simple things. Like spell the number 8 correctly. Because it’s a crazy looking word and when you throw in its ordinal variation “eighth” it becomes almost impossible. How can that combination of letters be correct? There are four consecutive consonants that don’t make any sense together and yet, that’s the way it’s done. I decided to get on the case and see what could be learned. So, here’s the story on eight, including the hilarious definitions. Continue reading


Introducing Word Enemies!

“False friends” are similar-sounding words in different languages that have different meanings. “Word enemies” are what I call words that exist in multiple languages but have different meanings. These feisty foes are out to get me because it’s totally hard to keep them straight and I am always second-guessing myself when I use them.

First, an example of false friends, if you’re not familiar with the term. Before I moved to Spain and got good at the Spanish talking again, I went to a pharmacy in Madrid to get some drugs. Because I was constipated I told the pharmacist I was constipada. He came back with anti-histamines and I was pissed and told him that “No, no puedo hacer caca” which was something I really didn’t want to have to say. “Ah. Estreñida, no constipada” he corrected.* It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

And now, word enemies: What do you think these things have in common?

They are both called portable! In Spanish, a laptop is un portátil. In French, a cell phone is called un portable. Both of these things come up pretty often in modern life and I find that I’m always getting them wrong, frequently calling a cell phone un móvil since that’s what they are in Spanish and then people don’t know what I’m saying and my brain starts to shut down.

*Of note is that my mother was with me at the time, knew my malady and didn’t instruct me in the proper word to say. Spaniards = assholes.