03 April 2010

Learning to Just Shut Up

A few days ago, my chérie and I went to her mother's lovely old house in Neuchatel. There, with my sweet belle-mère (mother-in-law) and her partner (these two 84-year-olds have been living in sin for 22 years), we had a simple but elegant 3-course European lunch -- paté with hard-boiled egg and salad followed by veal stew over mashed potatoes (my long-time boycott of veal momentarily suspended in the interest of international relations), accompanied by a gulpy-great Nuits St. Georges burgundy. Dessert was a swirly meringue mound surrounded by whipped cream with a dollop of raspberry jelly in the middle like a beckoning nipple. Such a mid-day repast is nothing special for my wife's mother. She prepares a 3-course lunch for her and her man almost every day.

Everything was utterly delicious, and all of it well seasoned with the bright, non-stop commentary and story-telling of my belle-mère, who could talk any filibustering U.S. Senator under the table with her charming tales.

We ate this marvelous lunch at the very same table where, in 1975, I had my first meal with the 19-year-old girl who I would then promptly lose to the world until just 3 years ago. But that's a story for another time.

My mother-in-law and I have quite the mutual admiration society going on. She loves Americans, having almost married one many years ago. And she can see that I'm devoted to her daughter.

I just hope I didn't ruin it all the next day.

She came to our house, ostensibly to look at the progress the tradesmen had made, but really I think to satisfy that atavistic mother-in-law instinct to bring food to the brood. In this case it was a casserole dish with the makings of a cheese soufflé, and a custard tart.

As she was leaving, I tried to tell her something important that I'd been wanting to for some time: that we are nearby now, and they absolutely must not hesitate to call on us if we can help them in any way. She said yes, yes, yes, but she didn't want to bother us. It's often hard to get a word in edgewise with this gal whose synapses are always snapping, so I chose a bit of French slang to interrupt her and try to emphasize my point. I thought this expression -- ta gueule -- was only somewhat rude, and, when said with an exaggerated, ironic tone, was the affectionate equivalent of "shut up." My mother-in-law is no prude, but the shock in her eyes when I said this was my first clue that I had crossed the line. My wife later told me that I had basically told my sweet, 84-year-old belle-mère to "shut the fuck up."

Now I'm mortified of course, and wondering how to apologize. But you know what's really scary? I know this is only the first of such embarrassing faux pas I'll make in the coming months.

Tomorrow we go to the house for a big Easter family feast. After apologizing, I think I'll just keep my mouth full of food.


  1. For the next year, you should walk around with one of those sandwich board signs (front and back) that simply says
    "Sorry if I offend."
    In French, of course.

    Ok, I'm all caught up now. 8 posts in one sitting.

  2. Bill, I think your faux pas ranks up there in the very upper tiers of culture/language red facers! I announced in a Japanese fruit store with clarity and confidence that " I am a persimmons" and once ordered a "fast running chicken" in a restaurant in Okayama.Paul proudly ordered "frog mochi" in a Chinese restaurant in Japan and the hostess and waitresses were laughing so robustly that they could barely serve him his take out order.Yours, however, excels in faux pas expertise! That is damn funny!!