This is going to be a long read, so grab a coffee and a biscuit. Go on, a break will do you the world of good! All settled comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
This morning, my cat blew up. I found what was left of him on my son’s bed. The staircase and wall were splattered with something nasty (P.F would say it can’t be brains, because the cat doesn’t have one). I’ve just been to the vet’s, and I am waiting for her to stitch the rest back together. Poor pussy cat.
To keep my mind off poor old Murphy, I’m going to tell you about a typical bad day in our household. Take the one I had a few weeks back. A Friday. It had started off at 6.30 with an ominous “there isn’t any left” when I stumbled past Bigfoot muttering “I need a coffee”. I had a feeling that things were going to go pear-shaped form that moment on, and I was right….
Waking Little My for school was dangerous business. The night before, she had gone out with P.F and Bigfoot to a friend’s “quick” birthday drink whilst I provided aspirin, comfort and Kleenex for a miserable and feverish Rugby-boy.
I had wrongly presumed that P.F would be exhausted by his day, and would return home after a beer and a chat…. After all, the invitation was for an apéritif. Error. I should have faced the facts: the French are happily incapable of stopping the fun after a Pastis or two, whatever the day of the week. Invariably, enough food to feed the five thousand suddenly appears from nowhere along with a crate of wine. Before you’ve had time to say “Bob’s your uncle” (or your father, in my case), you are filled to your back teeth with victuals and staggering your way home at one in the morning.
After machine-gunning P.F with increasingly threatening text messages, he had finally rolled in with Bigfoot and Little My at 11 pm, all three doing Tigger-style bounces and telling stories of the biggest tielles they had ever clapped eyes on.
(A tielle is a local speciality, a pie filled with a spicy, seafood filling). Bigfoot had raved on about what appeared to be the Desperado beer equivalent of J.R’s crude oil stock.
Little My doesn’t do so well on eight hours sleep, and was inches from biting my head off when I ventured under her quilt for a morning kiss the next morning. Once my grouchy daughter was dropped off at school, I had to negotiate my way home. Somehow, every car in the universe had converged on one narrow entrance at the same time. Our cul-de-sac was blocked off, littered with badly-parked cars as insurance experts, lawyers, builders, decorators, electricians, plumbers and neighbours waved paperwork in the air and made Gallic sounds of desperation. Our neighbours had accidentally set light to their kitchen nine months before, and getting money out of the insurance company was turning out to be about as easy as convincing Marine Le Pen to go team building in the Amazon with Martine Aubry and Segolène Royale. The temperature and the tone of voice started rising. To add a little spice to the equation, the postman careened into the fray with his battered yellow excuse for a van, swearing and flailing his arms in the air. He shrugged his shoulders dramatically, did a clumsy three-point turn and disappeared at speed with all our mail.
Rugby-boy and I toddled off to the doctor’s, where we made our contribution to the ever-expanding hole that the French are digging underneath the bank in terms of public health spending. In Britain your visit to the doctors for sinusitis generally involves meeting a nurse and then getting the appropriate treatment, i.e. the antibiotic needed to zap the resident bacteria into oblivion, the recommendation to drink lots of water and get lots of rest, and a sympathetic clap on the shoulder.
In France, things are different. The patient is invited into the doctor’s office, and is carefully inspected from all angles before a huge list of medication is carefully typed and printed out. The ensuing visit to the local pharmacy results in a plastic bag full to the brim with various magic pills and potions, half of which your child will refuse to take without putting up a good fight first. Just in case you don’t know how to read the prescription, the chemist kindly writes the instructions on the packet, however small it may be, tutting angrily at a pen that won’t work on varnished cardboard boxes. Then she shouts the instructions out loud for the benefit of anyone in the queue who is curious to know what you’ve caught.
This lines up perfectly with the French health profile: I have a suspicion that the term “hypochondriac” was invented with the French in mind. Health is almost a religion over here. I remember a colleague telling me that her little boy was sick, so she was taking her afternoon to get him to the doctor’s. Not just any old doctor, the pediatrician. Or rather her pediatrician. The French love specialists, and the possessive adjective “my” generally precedes the name of the specialist (important to know if you should ever make the beginner’s mistake of asking a French hypochondriac how he or she is). Hence, cardiologists, dentists, urologists, obstetricians, physiotherapists and so on all actually belong to their patients. When she returned from his surgery, I asked her how it had gone. After waiting a good two hours, he had checked her son from every angle and gravely given his verdict: “une rhinopharyngite”. I shivered anxiously; this latin name no doubt hid some terrible illness. It conjured up pictures of rhinoceros horns; added to “-itis”, it must be bad news. I hurried back to my desk and pulled out a dictionary, where I found out that it is just what we English commonly call a cold.
Anything that is even vaguely related to breathing systematically results in a nasal spray, whilst coughs, colds or temperature are treated to that great old French tradition, the suppository. Hands up all the expat English parents who have stared in terror at their GP as he announced this form of medication? The worst ones are those containing eucalyptus. I remember the embarrassment when I queued in the local supermarket with baby Bigfoot in the ventral baby carrier. The old lady waiting beside us with her tin of cassoulet and her washing-up liquid found him very cute, saying that he was a little like a baby koala, all snuggled up against his mummy like that. Bigfoot obligingly let loose with the only koala-like thing he had in his possession: a pungent eucalyptus fart, which no doubt worked wonders for the respiratory system of everyone else in the store.
Back home, the legal battle was drawing to a close in front of the house. I got on with my next mission: getting my head around the correction of a long legal document in English. Rugby-boy was boosted by cortisone, but bored and in need of salvation, whilst not being sick enough to opt for the “crawl under the quilt and sleep” option. I set him up in bed with the “tellysitteuse” (yup, I am a bad mother from time to time… et alors?). The afternoon sped past, ending with two hours in the pool with a delighted Little My as Bigfoot freestyled his way through his four daily kilometres of chlorine. I congratulated myself on my efficiency, then remembered that I hadn’t ordered the pizzas. I called, dripping and frozen, from the changing rooms.
On the way home in the car, I sneezed. “Bless you!” said Bigfoot. “Thanks, I need all the blessings I can get”, I observed darkly. “After all, just imagine what will happen if I have a rhinopharyngite….”