Lapsus Linguae at a Paris Dinner

My son and I got back a week ago from a hectic, two-week trip to Europe. It was a wonderful trip overall- very busy, with lots of sightseeing, particularly of historical places. Our son T (who turned 13 this spring) loves history, so visiting London, Paris and Cambridge seemed like a perfect itinerary. I am hopeful that I can do something similar with each of our kids, treating them to a special adventure during the summer after they become teenagers.

In reviewing the trip mentally, one avoidable slip-of-the-tongue stands out as a “I should have NOT made that mistake!” moment. If only I could go back and correct myself . . .

In Paris, we stayed with a dear friend whom I’ve known since my college days. Back then, she and I worked together in the cosmetics section of a now-defunct department store; a few years later we would both be living in LA, where we became closer friends. We have stayed in touch all this time, and I’m grateful for the friendship. While it is always great to meet new people, new friends simply can’t know us the way that old friends do.

When my friend found out when we would be visiting, she and her husband delayed a holiday break by two days so that they could spend some time with us. Then they allowed us to stay in their flat after they had gone away. They even arranged for T and I to attend a dinner out on Bastille Day with their friends and their friends’ friends, including two Americans visiting Paris. It seemed a perfect plan.

Earlier in the day, T and I attended the Bastille Day military parade along the Champs-Elysees. To launch the festivities, the French President rode in an open car, surrounded by troops on horseback. As we watched the President go past, I noticed that he didn’t turn to the left or to the right or wave at all, but sat stiffly in his vehicle as he went by.

The group at dinner that night (there were ten of us) was a mixture of French, Swiss and American citizens, all sitting at a long table at what turned out to be a fabulous meal. We chatted in English and French, drinking wine, laughing, talking. It was a lively group. We were having fun. And I was doing well. I had read enough news about the Eurozone crisis with Greece to have some opinions about the situation. (I knew that it was less important to agree with others than it was to be prepared to defend those views.) I had seen the occasional news article on the French President to know that he had been caught meeting a mistress, traveling to her place on a scooter.

My lapsus linguae occurred during the discussion about the morning’s parade. I observed that the President was very stiff as he went past the crowds. (What was his name? I thought to myself. “Mitterand” popped into my head.) “Mitterand looked very stiff as he rode by,” I blurted out. At that moment, I watched the man across from me and I could see his demeanor change. I knew immediately that his opinion of me worsened, it was clear (although I didn’t discover my error until the next day). I had become the Uninformed American. He continued to be polite, but I could tell that our conversation was different now.

Speaking with my old friend on the phone the next morning, I found out my mistake. “Heather, the President of France is Hollande!” she said with a touch of exasperation in her voice. Doh! I knew that at one point. Just not the night before. Time to feel like an idiot, particularly since Mitterrand ended his presidency twenty years ago. Oh, well. I guess I gave that group something to chuckle about later.

One thought on “Lapsus Linguae at a Paris Dinner

  1. Hi Heather:

    You shouldn’t feel foolish, the other person should. Any “gentleman” knows that the essence of courtesy is to make the other person feel at ease. You were a guest in a foreign country and were doing your best to engage with your hosts on their grounds. The proper response to your slip up should have been “you mean Hollande?” Anyone who knows you and Joe knows you are both terrific people that are well traveled and informed. Sorry we missed you in NYC and hope to see you soon!

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