Get a grippe

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.

Paper mountains

In England we have faceless bureaucrats and are regularly menaced by the overbearing bureaucracy of Europe. Whilst I have frequently had cause to resent these absurd and unfair tabloid labels, at least they demonstrate that, in England, it is understood what administration should be: a means to an end. It is only the excess of paperwork, or the excessive zeal of people employed to administer it, that we dislike.

In France, however, the thicket of papers that you have to negotiate to do anything at all is so dense that it is very easy to lose sight of your goal in the process. Indeed, it is my impression that many French bureaucrats have indeed forgotten the point of the administration they are involved in, and for them it has become an end in itself. I could give you many examples of this here but in most cases, my account of the tortuous processes I have followed just to register my existence here would, like the processes themselves, send you to sleep. I give you, therefore, a relatively tiny example from daily life.

Near me, as in most communes in France, there is a wonderful thing called a “centre de loisirs”. This is an association that provides children with short, flexible, interesting courses, or “stages” to occupy them during the school holidays. In the winter break one of my daughters will do five afternoons of rock-climbing whilst the other does an art course. Such stages are remarkably inexpensive, and many people pay for them with vouchers provided to them by their employer. The association is unquestionably a good thing.

The whole purpose of the association is to make busy parents’ lives easier during the lengthy school breaks. By logical extension, therefore, registering for a stage should be a straightforward thing for busy parents to do. Such was my naïve thought as I embarked upon the process (yes, yes, after an entire year here, you would have thought that I knew better…).

At first I was impressed: registration took place online. Being organised with a slightly competitive streak, it came naturally to me to find myself at the computer at the specified hour (9am) on the specified day (a Tuesday) to register the girls for the courses that they had chosen. It was a good thing that I did so because, even as I rushed to click the buttons for the appropriate choices, I watched the number of places available melting away before my eyes. By the time that I’d completed the right number of clicks there were just two places remaining for rock-climbing and one for art. I heaved a sigh of relief: at least I had got the places that I wanted, even if there had been one or two heart-stopping seconds along the way.

But if I thought that I had completed the process, I was sorely mistaken. Just as I was congratulating myself on my efficiency, I was sent an email confirming the choices that I made. At the bottom of this email was a list of 18 points to which I needed to place close attention because, unless I did so, the places that I had cyber-bashed everyone else out of the way for would no longer be mine. I had to print out the email that I had been sent. I had to await a further email containing a bill for the total amount payable, and that, too, needed to be printed out. I then needed to assemble a proof of address dated within the last two months, two cheques (one for each child, of course), and a passport photo of each of the girls. Once I had assembled all this material I had to render myself to one of three named locations (I had to check the lists to find out which location was suitable for a person living in our village, because I would not be received at either of the others) on one of three specific named days between 4.30pm and 7pm. I had to take the entire “dossier” of papers that I had accumulated with me. If I did not show, or did not show with the correct paperwork, the places would be given away to someone else.

Needless to say, when I rendered myself and my bulging dossier to the appropriate location at the correct time on the first of the correct days (I had learnt something from my time in France after all), a woman, who was far from friendly, looked me up and down, perused my papers at some length and then practically barked the word “certificat” at me. It transpires that what she wanted was a doctor’s certificate (costing 40 Euros, a cost the French state would have to bear, presumably for thousands of children across the country wanting to do stages in their holidays) stating that my oldest daughter was fit to do rock climbing. No, this could not be provided at a later stage. So I had to take my deficient dossier away; obtain a doctor’s appointment; take my daughter to it; obtain the (meaningless) certificate; insert the certificate into the dossier; return to the specified location within the specified hours on one of the two days immediately following with the dossier; and start the ratification process all over again.

Oh, I’m sure those stages will be worth every single calorie of energy that I burned in securing them.

Guillotines

France is no place for vegetarians. Even hardened British carnivores may find themselves blanching at the prospect of cooking their Sunday roast chicken when it arrives complete with head, legs and innards. For a start, your kitchen needs to be equipped with some suitably sharp implements if you don’t wish to find yourself desperately hacking at the neck of a bird in order even to be able to contemplate cooking your meal. Fish are no better. They come complete with reproachful eyes which stare glassily at you from the pan.

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Of course, you can always ask your boucher or poissonier to do the dirty work for you. This is, however, not an option if you are anything like me and a) too polite and too repressed to ask for anything out of the ordinary, and b) overly determined to do exactly as the locals do. All of this means that, as I stoll up to the butcher at the market, dizzy with trying to remember the correct French for my order, he now greets me with “ah, est-ce que l’anglaise (me) voudrait son poulet avec ou sans jambes cette semaine?” My usual tactic is to chortle gently whilst trying to ignore the old ladies, all of whom presumably keep a selection of meat cleavers in their bedside tables at home, and who are sniggering into their shopping baskets…

About Lostinlyon

In my experience, British people tend to think that they have France nailed. Many of us have been here on holiday at least once in our lives; and almost all of us have learnt French (badly) at some point in school. The channel may put a reassuring obstacle between the two countries, but on a clear day we can eye each other across the water, and France is not so far away that we can’t pop over for the day to stock up on wine, beer, cheese and chocolate. Failing all of that, the French, with their diminuative stature, their fondness for baguettes and garlic, and their irascible striking habits, feature regularly in our newspapers and on our screens. The French may be different, but that difference is reassuringly quantifiable, familiar, and well-documented.

This familiarity meant that, when I moved to France with my young family in January 2013, I was not overly daunted. It would be novel, of course, to go to the boulangerie each day for a baguette, but what middle-class English person has not secretly dreamed of having croissants on tap? And yes, the prospect of regular transport strikes was hardly enticing, but surely the French tendency to down tools had been exaggerated by the tabloid press and, in any case, I had it on good authority that it went hand-in-hand with an admirable tenaciousness with regard to long lunch breaks (with four courses and wine) and month-long holidays in August. Lyon was further from London than Manchester, to be sure, but that distance was what gave the move its exotic charm.

Since our arrival we have all worked extremely hard at integrating ourselves into local French life. Some of the differences we feared (driving on the right, and the strange school hours, for example) have melted away; and some of those we looked forward to (the wonderful food) have turned out to have their drawbacks. Broadly speaking, French culture is as we expected it to be but, even a year on, it is in the minutiae of daily life that we find ourselves, suddenly and regularly, completely lost.

This blog is intended to chart our navigation of the millions of tiny cultural differences and the joy, frustration and insight that they bring to us.