I’ve met my fair share of French doctors. This is unfortunate not because they are particularly awful but because I’ve had to see them in the first place. For someone who only lived in France for nine months, I spent an inordinate amount of time in bad health and navigating the healthcare system.
You start to pick up on cultural clues when you interact with the same type of person or bureaucracy over and over again in a relatively short space of time.
Here are a few experiences I found illuminating:
The first time I visited a French doctor, I made an appointment online and showed up a few hours later. The office was on the ground floor of an apartment building. A woman came to the door and told me to sit in a living room-like waiting area. When that same woman came back and led me into another room ten minutes later, I assumed she’d then leave and get the doctor. But she was the doctor. Her exam area was a converted sitting room. Between the fireplace, the crown molding, and the oil paintings in gilded frames, the exam table seemed a little out of place.
The doctor told me to take off everything below the waist, and then she stood there. I was afraid I had misunderstood her French and would scandalize her if I proceeded to strip in front of her. So I confirmed – everything? Yes, everything. She continued to stand there. I pulled first my pants and then my underwear off, not knowing exactly where to hold my gaze. Then I awkwardly scrambled onto the exam table. She did a quick exam, made a diagnosis, and sat down at her desk to do the billing while I put my clothes back on.
As this was happening, a call came in. Someone wanted to have a discussion about lab results but the doctor said she was busy and told her to make an online appointment to come in. Then she hung up and told me apologetically that because I didn’t have any social security coverage, the charge would be 30 Euros. I shook my head in wonder, and as I handed over the cash, I couldn’t help but gush about how the French health care system is humane and wonderful and a million times better than the American one, which the GOP was attempting to dismantle that very week.
Then the phone rang again. It was the same woman as before, insisting on a phone consultation. The woman raised her voice and the doctor lost her patience. The two started shouting at each other while I sat and waited. Suddenly, the doctor hung up on the woman, turned to me, and muttered, “The United States, huh? I would LOVE to be a doctor in the United States. You see the way we get treated here?”
Later I visited a GP who got into a screaming match with a patient because she came in for an emergency appointment but didn’t have an official emergency. He told her she had to wait for a regular visit like everyone else and she refused to comply. He, too, did not have a receptionist and had to handle the dirty work himself. He, too, seemed to be operating out of a dedicated area of his own apartment. And he, too, told me to take my shirt off for the exam and then stood there looking at me expectantly. While I found it a little unnerving, it did made me wonder why it matters if a doctor walks out of the room and gives you privacy while you’re changing, if in the end they see you naked anyway.
Then there was the psychiatrist at a reputable hospital who, after advising me to leave France (I had not asked for his advice), told me that I’d have to be crazy to want to live in a country where x, y, and z were wrong. I pointed out that things weren’t much better in the United States and he conceded, “Well, yes, of course Donald Trump is completely insane.” If he had been joking I would have found it funny, but he was 100% unaware that he was taking liberties with his profession’s terms of art. I thought about all the American psychiatrists who have steadfastly refused to diagnose Trump’s mental health from a distance, and I was suddenly thankful for this one’s lack of tact.
There are lots of other differences between French and American healthcare workers that I noticed, but my friend’s story is the one I like best:
She hadn’t had a teeth cleaning in more than two years and felt gross about it. When she went to the dentist, he looked in her mouth and told her that her teeth were fine, and he flat out refused to treat her even though she expressed a strong desire for a cleaning. I can imagine him explaining in a very dignified way that he could not possibly accept her money for a service that wasn’t necessary. On the contrary, I could not in a million years imagine an American dentist refusing my money – or thinking that two years’ worth of plaque buildup was no big deal. In fact, the last time I went to the dentist he tried to convince me that I urgently needed $600 worth of veneers. (I didn’t.)
I will let you draw your own conclusions about these interactions, if you’d like. I prefer to keep mine to myself, because if I’ve learned anything during my travels it’s that just when you think you have enough evidence to come to an understanding about a foreign culture, your assumptions are upended and you feel like a fool for judging too soon.
[The beautiful garden in the photo above is in the courtyard of the oldest hospital in Paris, founded in the 7th century, though the current building is from the late 1800s. Not your average NYC hospital.]
It started with this article, which described an initiative to sell houses in the Sardinian town of Ollolai for 1 Euro:
…which led me to this website, with information in Italian about the sale:
…which led me to realize that a. between my advanced French and rudimentary Spanish, I can decipher quite a bit of Italian, and that b. there are similar initiatives for other Italian towns, including one in Tuscany:
…which led me to realize that my destiny is to buy a 1 Euro house in breathtakingly stunning Montieri, spend $25,000 renovating it, and let the rest of my life fall into place around this one pivotal act.
…which led me to second-guess my ability to learn Italian and wonder whether there might not be a similar scheme in France, which led me to discover that yes, there is, but of course it’s in the dreary North:
…which led me to google “cheap property South of France” and find this charming “fixer-upper:”
…which led me here:
From 1 Euro homes to 31 million Euro (price reduced!) French chateaux in under ten minutes.
I cannot tell you how many times over the past nine months I was about to quit Paris. I was only originally supposed to stay for a month, and then one month morphed into two after I was given an amazing Montmartre house-sitting offer I couldn’t refuse. And then two months turned into four when I had no better plans and found a cool place to stay in Belleville. And then four turned into five when the house-sitting opportunity came up again… And so on and so forth, and now here I am on month nine. It feels like an eternity since I arrived.
Back in the day, i.e. around month three, I would joke about the probability that in 30 years I would find myself still living in a country I never really liked and never really chose, through stasis alone. As it turns out, the universe had a different ironic twist in store: I fell in love with the city I hated just as I realized I would soon be forced to leave. Continue reading
Last night I walked ten minutes through the nearly empty streets of Montmartre to experience midnight mass in one of the oldest churches in Paris. Paroisse Saint-Pierre de Montmartre dates from the 12th century and is about 870 years old, which never ceases to amaze me.
I’m not Christian nor a believer in general, but there is something about the loftiness, beauty, age, and cool stone of cathedrals that quiets my mind. And there’s something about midnight mass that I find particularly cozy.
As the organ echoed through the space and the singer’s voice rose to the heavens, I finally felt calm and self-possessed about leaving Paris in a week. The memory of the day I arrived popped into my mind and tears – of wonder, not of sadness – sprung to my eyes. Then an elderly, hard of hearing couple a few rows behind me started muttering about the service.
I moved on to Sacré-Cœur Basilica next door. I noticed camo-clad soldiers with machine guns patrolling the cobblestoned streets, and I had to show the contents of my purse before going inside. There’s the romance of Montmartre and then there’s the reality of life in 2017.
While Saint-Pierre was loosely filled with almost 100% locals, Sacré-Cœur was overflowing with both devoted churchgoers and gawkers like me. It was a lot less hushed and still, but when the choir sang “Silent Night” the voices filled the space with as much peace as in the parish church next door.
I tiptoed out early so that I could have the streets all to myself on the way home. I caught snatches of revelry from open windows here and there. There was a spirited French-accented singalong to “Hit the Road, Jack” that I found particularly adorable.
And then I was back at my apartment that is not really my apartment, in a country that’s not my country, on a holiday that is not my holiday, feeling like a zen ethnographer rather than a lonely stranger. And that was really alright with me.
Merry Christmas / Joyeux Noël to all those celebrating today!
Since writing my blog post about French new wave music, I must have listened to “Paris” by Taxi Girl a hundred more times. Sometimes I hear it in my head when I’m walking through the streets of Paris and I smile so hard I start to laugh.
I’ve been reflecting upon why I love this song so much, and I think I’ve figured it out. This understanding in turn feels like the missing piece to the puzzle of why I had such a hard time falling for France. Continue reading
Such is the ubiquity of epic cathedrals, chapels, and churches in Paris and its environs that after eight months here, it has become hard for me to keep track of all the ones I’ve seen. They have started fading together into one massive mental image of stained glass, limestone, and flying buttresses. I am loathe to admit it, but I have started abstaining from stopping in if I happen upon one unawares and it is more than, say, 100 feet from me when I spot it.
It’s not that I take them for granted – quite the opposite, in fact. The more of them I see, the more I want each visit to be special and unique and not at all rushed or an afterthought. With that in mind, here are images of some of my favorites, including Sainte-Chapelle, the most overwhelmingly beautiful manmade space I have ever been lucky enough to set eyes upon. And guess what? Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur are both great, but they don’t even make it into my top ten… Continue reading
It makes sense that the first (and let’s be honest, probably the last) poem I ever wrote in French was inspired by drinking Sancerre in Sancerre:
C’est clair, si je vais boire un verre,
Mon vin préféré, c’est sancerre
Maintenant je suis sûre,
Que la joie est plus pure
Quand on boit le sancerre sur sa terre.
(I’ll leave the translation to you.)
My first taste of Sancerre was during the spring semester of my senior year at college.
I went for drinks with other soon-to-be-graduating friends at a French-style bistro just off campus. We sat around a small outdoor table in the fresh April air of a faux Parisian terrace, eked out of a Manhattan sidewalk. I had only recently crossed over the divide into legal drinking, and the freedom of choice was thrilling. When a friend of a friend who seemed to come from a glitzy background suggested we order a bottle of Sancerre – her absolute favorite, she said – I was incredulous she could remember the name of a wine, annoyed that a 21 year-old claimed to have a specific wine preference, and even more annoyed that it just happened to be the most expensive one on the menu. We were college students, not college professors.
Still, when the bottle of almost-white rosé arrived and I took my first sip, I had to admit there was something special about this wine. It was crisp and refreshing, with a hint of sparkling grapefruit, and for the first time, I truly enjoyed drinking a glass of wine. I am not sure whether it actually tasted sophisticated or whether I simply read sophistication into the experience, but from that moment on I linked Sancerre with both exceptional taste and understated elegance. In the more than 15 years since that spring evening, it’s the only wine whose taste my ridiculously forgetful palate can identity, the only one I get excited to see on a wine list, and the only one I’ve ever splashed out for at a wine shop.
So, when I realized that the town of Sancerre was less than three hours from Paris, an idea inevitably took shape. How amazing would it be, I daydreamed, to drink a glass of Sancerre in Sancerre?
The answer is: incredibly amazing, especially if it’s a perfectly bright and crisp autumn day, your friend Simona is in town, and your only ambition is to wander around the countryside sipping wine and eating cheese.
Some more pictures, after the jump… Continue reading
I had a bunch of links I wanted to post here yesterday but I never got around to it because I went to a very fun fashion show (pictured above) instead. 🙂
I need to get into bed to wake up super early for my train to Luxembourg tomorrow, so without further ado here are the links:
Butter shortages are hitting France, a country that eats three times as much as the United States (and where the butter is three times as delicious.)
Have a good weekend!
It is an especially happy Friday for me because my friend of almost 25 years is coming to visit on Sunday, AND she is bringing my winter coat from New York, AND we’re going to visit Sancerre together.
I also bought a ticket tonight for a day trip to Luxembourg in mid-November. At some point over the past year I realized that I was 37 years old and had been to 38 U.S. states and 37 countries, if you count Puerto Rico, England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland individually. I decided that I’d attempt to keep my country and state counts up to or ahead of my age for as long as possible. I turned 38 this week, and I haven’t been to a new country since I left Senegal in March… so no time like the present. I have heard there are lovely fall colors in Luxembourg and I’m hoping the leaves stay on the trees long enough for me to appreciate them.
In the meantime, I’m continuing to love Paris in the fall, and I’m filled with even more joy knowing that in two short days I’ll have a puffer coat to hide out in as soon as the temperature drops.
I leave you for the weekend with some interesting things I read this week:
Some useful French idioms. Avoir le cafard (to have the cockroach, i.e. to be sad) is my favorite, obviously.
Want to travel around the world for a full year, writing for the New York Times? So does like half the planet.
The official guardians of the French language have a problem with gender inclusive writing, not surprisingly (since they are textbook fuddy duddies).
Even on our own, we’re always in translation. (A beautiful letter of recommendation.)
An ‘accidental dictionary’ explores how errors created the English language.
Have a lovely weekend!