A month after I had started to learn French at school, some sixth formers put on a production of a 1673 satire by Molière called La Malade Imaginaire. At that stage, with only minimal exposure to French culture, I had no idea why the French should be characterised as a nation of hypochondriacs. Having now spent over a year deciphering the French medical system, I am beginning to have a better idea.
It is difficult to sustain any degree of hypochondria in England for very long. Once, for example, afflicted by a particularly excruciating bout of sinusitis, I lay for two days sobbing in a darkened room, my temperature soaring. Throughout this period various people telephoned the local surgery to try to get me an appointment. What were my symptoms, the receptionist-cum-Cerberus, wanted to know each time. When told, she condescended to point out that I had a headache, and possibly some minor virus, and that I should rest. Could I not have just the shortest of appointments, we beseeched her, as I was really quite unwell. I could not. I was stoic about this, if not ecstatic. It was self-evident that doctors should be left alone to treat the most serious cases and it was the duty of the rest of us to endure uncomplainingly. And after all, I was probably just being pathetic. When the receptionist eventually deigned to give us a slot after our ninth appeal, the doctor seemed genuinely quite shocked that I had subsisted for so long in such a condition.
The above situation would be inconceivable in France: no French person would wait two days in such a condition before seeking medical attention; no receptionist would dare to bar the surgery door; no sinusitis patient would leave the surgery without a prescription for at least five items; and there would be a strong possibility of referral for a battery of further tests. In addition there would be the homeopathic remedies proposed by the pharmacist; the folk remedies proposed by friends, neighbours and passing acquaintances, who had heard news of the affliction fifth-hand; and the frank dissection of every breathing minute of the disease once a sufficient recovery had been made.
Just before Christmas I queued in our local pharmacy for twenty-five minutes whilst the six people ahead of me in the queue (a novelty in itself) were dealt with. One of them was obviously a malingerer as he had only three items on his prescription, which I now know to be a brush-off. Another was a mother of a child of about four who appeared to have a mild cold. He had six prescriptions, including one for a Ventolin inhaler (“in case” he developed “a touch” of asthma), an antibiotic syrup (“in case” his chest was infected), another antibiotic for his eye, some Doliprane (French Calpol), one suppositoire (things inserted into this orifice sound less upsetting in French) and some sort of sterile wash for his nose. I donned my puritanical Englishwoman garb and watched these transactions with incredulity and mounting horror.
And yet, this week one of our daughters has been running an alarmingly high temperature and, worried by her lethargy and protests of a sore ear, we took her to see the doctor. The doctor examined her very thoroughly and pronounced that she had a forte grippe (violent bout of ‘flu). I have always sneered at people claiming to have the ‘flu, most of whom clearly have nothing but an unpleasant cold. In this case, whilst obviously I retained my high-minded British attitude to the diagnosis, I found myself drawn against my better judgement towards that word, grippe. Somehow its pronouncement by the doctor leant legitimacy to our concerns and gravitas to our daughter’s suffering. It is with something approaching pride that I have been into school each morning to announce that our daughter will be absent with a real illness, a grippe. And it was with an air of self-importance, too, that I collected her prescription for the five items that confirmed her status as a certified invalid. This week I have had a real status in French society: I am the mother of someone who is suffering from the grippe, and for that I am due a sizeable portion of reflected sympathy and interest.
Give me a month and I’ll be malingering with the best of them.