I’m lying on a chaise lounge on the terrace of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo. Surrounding me are chic European men and women, gauche American insurance salesmen and their ill-at-ease wives. I’m 36 years old, reading today’s issue of the French newspaper Le Figaro, basking in almost perfect bliss. (You encountered me in this same spot, on the same day, in Toying.)
Except that I’m thirsty.
In my peripheral vision I spot a white-coated waiter. He can change my state of almost bliss to complete bliss. I turn my head in his direction, smile and say, “Monsieur.”
He returns my smile, heads in my direction and says, “Madame.”
I smile again. He, in true gentlemanly fashion, does not make note of the fact that I am spread out before him almost naked, wearing only the bottom half of the yellow bikini I
purchased the week before at Galeries Lafayette in Paris. Such is the custom on the terrace of L’ Hotel de Paris, much to the discomfiture of the American wives around me.
I say, “Monsieur, je voudrais un citroën pressé, s’il vous plait.”
He responds by nodding his head ever so slightly, smiling charmingly and saying, “Oui, oui, bien sûr, madame. Comme vous desirez.” He turns and walks away.
A wave of heat surges through my body, starting at my toes and heading up to my face. I’m blushing.
For those of you unschooled in the etiquette of L’Hotel de Paris and who don’t speak French, let me parse this exchange for you.
My first word to the waiter is, “Monsieur.” The gauche Americans are snapping their fingers to get his attention and calling out in their boorish ignorance, “Garçon, garcon!” which means, “Boy, boy!” This is no way to address an adult professional going about his job.
I instead sweetly say, if you translate literally, “My master, “ or “mon sieur”, the ancient origins of the word. Much more gracious, don’t you think?
His first word to me is, “Madame,” or “ma dame.” Again, in the mists of history, this means, “my lady.” I wonder if all this “my master” and “my lady” spoken to everyone and their brother has to do with the liberté, égalité and fraternité of the French revolution.
Next I say, “Je voudrais.” As they order their beers, the Americans are making demands upon the harried waiter, saying, “I want, I want.” I refine that into a delicate request by saying, “I would like.”
What is it that I would like? What will slake Georgia’s thirst? I’ve requested a lemonade. Not just any lemonade. This is lemonade a la francaise. In time, the waiter will return carrying a silver tray. On that tray will be a glass pitcher of freshly squeezed lemon juice, a silver pitcher of water, a silver bucket of ice, a crystal sugar shaker with a silver spout for pouring out the sugar, a crystal glass and, finally, a silver spoon for stirring the concoction that I have mixed to suit my own taste. Perfection!
My last words to the waiter, “s’il vous plait, “ translate as, “if it pleases you.” Once again, I would never dain to order the man. I only ask, if he finds it suitable, would he please bring me a lemonade.
He reassures me that he does find it suitable by saying, “ Yes, yes, my lady, of course. As you desire.”
Now we get to the heart of the matter. Why I am blushing? Why have I hit my own forehead out of mortification?
Because in the midst of my burst of smug sophistication, I have made a major linguistic faux pas (false step).
The word for lemon is, “citron.” What I wanted to order was a citron pressé. Instead, in my superciliousness, I added an extra vowel, making the word Citroën. This is the well known French automobile.
I just ordered a smashed car!
That wonderful waiter, bless his heart, did not react at all to my stupidity. He showed true gentility and sophistication by smiling and graciously responding, as if everything I just said was correct, “Yes, yes, madame, of course.”
Guess Georgia the snob got a bit of a lesson, huh? One that I haven’t forgotten in all these decades.