Texas Hoof-in-Mouth Disease

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

I have long suffered from Texas Hoof-in-Mouth Disease. Susceptibility to the illness is a genetic trait passed down from generation to generation in my family. Some people may confuse our illness with the cattle disease, but I am speaking of a more virulent strain of the common foot-in-mouth disease.

Texas Hoof-in-Mouth Disease has caused me such pain and embarrassment in the United States that I simply will not describe all of its horrors. However, I don’t mind giving you an example of its tragic effect on another family member.

My mother’s manifestation of the disease sometimes resembles the symptoms of Turret’s Syndrome, causing words to come flying out of her mouth before she has a chance to consider them. For example, once when she looked at the protruding belly of a woman at church, the disease caused the words “I thought you had that baby already!” to leap out of her mouth. Just before walking off, the woman responded, “I did.”

I have learned, since moving to France, that in a foreign country the symptoms of this pernicious disease can remain undetected until the damage is irreversible. For example, I learned belatedly that I had been stricken by the blight while declining dessert in restaurants and second helpings at dinner parties. Plein means “full” in French, and I thought I told my host or server “I am full.” The French don’t say that, however. They say “I have eaten well.” Plein is used to refer to a pregnant dog. So I guess I was saying, “No more for me thanks. I’m about to litter.”

I also experienced the effects of the illness on my very first trip to Paris. Due to my inadequacies with French, the hotel reservations were mixed up, and my sister and I found ourselves without a hotel room for one day right in the middle of our stay. For one night we moved to a tiny hotel around the corner, dragging our suitcases behind us on rollers.

Those rollers don’t work on stairs, however, and my bag was heavy with all the weight a vain and inexperienced traveler can create. Gasping for breath as I lugged the bag up the stairs, I struggled to ask if there wasn’t an elevator hidden away somewhere. The manager spoke almost no English. I felt desperate. Suddenly I remembered that on every floor at my original hotel I had seen a sign beside the elevator with the word pompier. So I asked in my best French, “Aren’t there any pompiers in this hotel?”

The manager looked at me very strangely and responded slowly, “No-o-o.” I couldn’t believe I had to drag that leaden bag up four flights of stairs. I asked again and again, thinking perhaps she couldn’t understand my accent. She looked more askance each time, until I thought we had better get to our room before she changed her mind about renting it to us.

Later I discovered I had been repeating, “Aren’t there any firemen in this hotel?” Perhaps when I got home, I should have sent her a copy of the Houston firefighters calendar, so she would understand my persistence.

Brandon, my teenage son, is already showing signs of this family illness. He complained to me about how suspiciously a French shopkeeper eyed him when he asked if she was closed. It was getting to be lunch time, and he knew how risky it is to block the path of a French shopkeeper ready for a meal. Upon ascertaining what he had said to her exactly, I informed him that he had asked, “Are you a farm?”

The Texas Hoof-in-Mouth disease is so contagious that it infected a total stranger who just came near me. I got confused in an underground walkway, and asked in French for directions from a passerby. The disease struck, and she panicked. She replied, in English with a native-born American accent, “I don’t know. I don’t speak English!” and hurried away.

Another American woman at a cocktail party caused a group of French men she approached to snicker like schoolboys. Fluttering the lapels of her blouse to create a little ventilation, she tried to say in French, “I’m hot.” To their delight, however, she said, “I’m in heat.”

My friend Stan caught it, too. He was surprised that his neighbor burst out laughing when he reported that he had just returned from E. Le Clerc, a local grocery store chain. A very slight mispronunciation of the name had resulted in him saying he had just returned from the whorehouse.

I can always find someone less fortunate than me. This insidious disease can be even more devastating for the French, such as Claudine, a very capable English-speaker.  When she heard that her acquaintance’s mother-in-law had passed away, she promptly responded, “Congratulations.” The stunned look she received caused her to realize the appropriate expression was “Condolences.”

And then there was my French friend who met me weekly to engage in a language exchange over lunch. For the first half of lunch we spoke French so I could practice, with her correction. Then we switched to English, so she could practice with my help. One day she had to curtail our visit. She explained, “My son has a job interview, and I have to go home to iron his sh*t.”

I don’t expect a cure in my lifetime. I just hope to remain in remission for as long as possible.


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