Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Error of my (Parisian) Ways

At the risk of beating a dead cheval, I had an experience this morning I had to share. It sums up so much about what it's really like to live here: to educate our kids in French schools, to eat in their restaurants, shop in their stores, partake of their services. So here goes.

Every year, the schools offer after-school enrichment courses in activities like chess, theater and ping pong. (The array of choices is perhaps a subject for another time. Ahem.) Called les ateliers bleus, enrollment is limited, closely regulated and happens only once a year. Miss that one day to submit your application and sorry, you're s.o.l. After being convinced that what they call "mime" (think Marcel Marceau) is actually what we think of as theater or drama for six and seven-year-olds, I convinced Cole to give it a try. Some of his pals had enrolled and the additional hit of French vocabulary and grammar couldn't hurt.

So I dutifully completed the registration form, submitted it as instructed to the school director personally and assumed all was well for Cole's future on the French stage. Mais non, madame. Not so fast.

A morning check of the updated enrollment list revealed no "Cole Frost" among the participants. And yet there were clearly slots remaining. Merde. So I steadied myself, threw my shoulders back and approached the school director.

"Good morning, monsieur. Excuse me for disturbing you but I wondered if there were still places available for mime on Thursdays?" (I knew there were, of course.)

"Ah, non. I don't think so madame. And it is much too late to enroll. Did you submit your form?"

"Well, yes, in fact, I gave it to you personally on Tuesday and from the list it appears that there are still a few spots available...non?"

Hmmm, paper shuffle, paper shuffle. Having not found my enrollment form, he leveled me with a look. "You wrote the wrong day on your form. That must be it. Is that possible, madame?"

So here I had a critical choice to make: Insist I had written the correct date, thereby implying that the error was his or, fall on my sword, agree that the mistake was entirely my own and probably score a spot for Cole in the class.

I did the latter. Why? Because there's no use in arguing with a Parisian. A Parisian is always right. And unless you're game for a serious verbal joust (which they adore), it's easier just to admit defeat, claim errors you didn't make and leave it at that.

"Well, yes, monsieur, it's quite possible that I wrote the wrong date. Forgive me for my mistake."

"Bon! Pas de probleme, madame!"

Cole starts mime next week.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Le Malade Imaginaire: Is France Making Me a Hypochondriac?

If you've ever been to Paris, you probably recognize this.

 The ubiquitous French pharmacie. Like fresh baguettes, crottes de chien and striped marinière tops, they are literally everywhere in Paris. In fact, the website says there are 1,059 pharmacies in the city alone. That's about 50 pharmacies for each arrondissement. That's a lot of pharmacies.

Why, you ask, do the French need so many pharmacies, most of which peddle the same products by the same manufacturers for the same price? To answer this question, one need only visit a doctor in France for an ailment as mild as dry skin. Or the common cold. Because for these -- and for almost any other affliction you can imagine -- you will receive a prescription for medication. In fact, you will receive multiple prescriptions for multiple medications often for ailments you hadn't even considered when you hopped up on that examining table.

The French love them some pills -- for everything from dry coughs to seasonal depression brought on by low clouds and la pluie. In fact, the French are the world's preeminent mood-altering pill-takers, consuming between two- and four-times as many tranquilizers and anti-depressants as their British, German and Italian counterparts. And yet the French are not any sicker than the rest of us.

They do, however, suffer regularly from a range of debilitating maladies (of dubious medical veracity) that any French man or woman will insist are absolutely, 100% genuine. Look no further than the national malady, la crise de foie, or "crisis of the liver." French medical journals (and increasingly doctors) are attempting to educate the public about the truth of this ailment (better known as bad gas complemented by a hangover). But any (ailing) Frenchman will insist that it is absolutely real and requires medication. (Never mind that the lead ingredient in said Pepto Bismol-esque "medication" is alcohol...) Ahhh, the French.

They have a deeply ingrained fear of germs (les microbes) and cite them as the cause of all manner of sickness, from headaches to cancer. (See LePoint article linking germs to malignant tumors). When my kids came home from school extolling le danger of les microbes, I knew we were headed for trouble and an ever expanding medicine cabinet. A recent attempt to organize ours offered stark proof of our increasingly French ways. Herbal suppositories for the kids' coughs? (yes, really). Prescription body lotion for dry skin? Vogalib, Fluvermal, Humex, Prednisolone, Smecta...Where had all this stuff come from? And what was any of it for, anyway? Hmm.

For a foreigner accustomed to month-long waits for doctor visits and skilled in the art of self-diagnosis courtesy of WebMD, this can be confusing -- as well as entertaining. My trips to the doctor in the U.S. were always precipitated by something serious like say burning strep throat. Or pregnancy. But here? Not so. I now find myself on a first name basis with our doctor's staff and have started to feel a bit sheepish when I make what now feel like regular office calls. Granted, most of these are for the kids (we see a family practitioner here) but truth be told, not all. Ailments I would have previously ignored now find me sitting in the doc's now-familiar waiting room, catching up on the latest issue of People and Us Weekly. (She imports them.) Seasonal allergies? Maybe I'll just pop into the doc. The low back pain that's been dogging me for a while? Maybe the doctor will have a useful suggestion..or perhaps a prescription?

So what gives? One obvious explanation is France's superior (and super cheap) health care system. I can go to any doctor I like and virtually anytime, without the need for a referral. Appointments can usually be had within a week (if not that day) and it's almost completely covered by our health insurance. Of course all this great health care appears to have a dark side -- the fact that the French consume too many meds and seem to believe they're sicker than they actually are.

In an 2003 article from The Guardian, one French doctor put it this way. "Has the French approach to illness and the body brought about a health system that panders to le malade imaginaire, or has the efficiency and popularity of the system itself bred a whole nation of hypochondriacs? Either way, it's something we should worry about urgently."

But about those microbes...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Vive la Rentrée! Paris Comes Back to Life

Bonjour, my Francophile friends! After a lovely summer holiday, we're back in Paris and ready once again to embrace la vie en rose. La rentree -- the post-vacation period in early September when the French go back to school, back to work, and back to normal life -- is in full swing and the energy on the streets is palpable.

How to know when la rentrée has arrived? (Aside from the date on the calendar, of course.) Overly tanned and smiling Parisians fill the streets, cafes and shops; streets that were eerily quiet just days ago now buzz with scooters and the bleating horns of French drivers. Tourists are no longer quite so ubiquitous and those that remain are a tad older and wiser. (September may be the very best month to visit.) Our little ones went back to school this morning, full of excitement to see the pals they've missed since July. As I walked Adele into la maternelle (grande section, her final year of preschool), I couldn't help remembering their first days of French school and how nervous we all were. (Perhaps moi, more than anyone else). Speaking not a word of French, Cole and Adele braved those early days more easily than I ever could have imagined and taught me a thing or two about resilience in the process. Of course, we had our share of tears and plenty of cultural adjustment (no daily preschool "sharing sheets?" No quarterly "parent-teacher conferences?"). But within a matter of weeks, my two Boston babies were quickly becoming a little bit French. What a difference a year and a half makes! Here they were this morning on our way to l'ecole.
                                                     And fun with friends in the neighborhood...
It's been a family adventure in the truest sense, forcing each of us to reach well outside our comfort zones. The steely stares in the preschool halls that greeted me those early weeks (and months...) were replaced this morning by warm embraces from friends and fellow parents. I was quickly reminded that I really live here -- that we're part of a community and not just foreign visitors. With the kids safely tucked away at school, Greg and I stole away for lunch at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, Au Pied de Fouet, where we celebrated  la rentrée à deux over roast chicken and tarte aux fraises. Yum.
In another hour, it will be pick-up time when I'll hear the full report of the day. Which friends are in their classes, what are the new teachers like? Just like parents everywhere, I'll await the sight of their little faces as they come barreling out the school door. Smiles? Tears? What new adventures will this school year bring? Only time will tell.