I just want to open today's blog entry with the following: I love France.
I love the natural environment, I love the light. I love the way my younger daughter has started gargling her R's, and the way my older daughter has found a new language skipping off her tongue. I love the fact that being here has brought the four of us so much closer together. And perhaps boringly, like every other American who comes here, I love love love the food.
But tonight, I really really really love the French Republic itself. And their medical system.
To tell you about why, tonight I interviewed Grace and Bill, as we finished an impromptu meal of crêpes, salad, Pink Lady apples, and a quickly disappearing bottle of Taradeau Oppidum, our second-favorite house white.
(Our first-favorite house white is Clara Lua, a somewhat more pricey but smoothly delicious clear white from the nearby winery known as Chateau Miraval. If you follow the tabloids more closely than I do, you will recognize the name, realizing that that is the vineyard where Brangelina have been living with their kids. I wasn't so aware of how close they lived to us until I stumbled over this important fact yesterday during my daily online perusal of the lighter sections of the Huffington Post.
As I discovered, the two Star Parents have gotten themselves into a snit because the nice French people who own Chateau Miraval won't sell it to them. They are so snitty that they are even threatening to leave the South of France, despite the fact that this is the place where they and their children have a "normal life."
American movie stars don't always understand that you can't buy something that is not for sale. But back to Why We Love France tonight. And why Brad and Angelina would be so stupid to leave, particularly since they sell the Domaine's wine down at the Intermarche for 12 euros a bottle. Why buy the winery when you can get the liquid gold almost free?)
Bill: I'd like to state for the record that Grace and I have not had a chance to get our talking points together before this important interview.
(Grace was at this point holding her nose, and laugh-quacking like a duck.)
Launa: Don't worry too much. I haven't really gotten my questions together, either. I've brought you here so that we can talk about vaccinations. Shots. Getting them, not getting them, that kind of thing. And Why We Love France so much all of a sudden, after being so irritable about it just a few days ago.
Bill: Well, as your readers know, I've been trying to get our family vaccinated for a very important reason: because I have been afraid that if we get the Swine Flu…
(Grace interrupted Bill at this point with a sort of swine noise, meaning presumably that if we get swine flu, we will lose the ability to speak normally and have to speak not French, and not English, but Piglish.)
Bill: I've been afraid of swine flu not only because I am a Very Responsible Parent, concerned with the health of the family, but also because by the end of our year, I would like to be able to prove that we have been here legally. I want the papers for which I have worked so tirelessly.
To do that, we have to get chest x-rays. And those of your readers who know the bizarre health problems of our family know that a swine flu can turn into a pneumonia, which can then become a bronchitis, and show up on a chest x-ray, and then that will mean that we won't actually really have been here.
Grace: Actually, bronchitis is a step up from pneumonia. It's what you wish you had when you have pneumonia. I had pneumonia once…
Bill: (in a surprise move, interrupting): I remember that, it was the middle of the night. The doctor heard the panic in Mommy's voice, diagnosed the problem on the telephone, then had us come to her house immediately. It was 3:00 AM, and I seem to remember that the the doctor was wearing her bunny slippers. This sweet and gentle doctor was chatting away, we were standing in her living room, Grace was hysterical, and then the doctor did this kung fu karate move on Grace with an enormous needle and zapped her full of antibiotics. Grace was so surprised that she actually stopped crying.
But to get back to our original topic, Why We Love France So Much, I want to say that pretty much EVERY single doctor, pharmacist, and health care professional is as pleasant, friendly, sweet, knowledgeable and suddenly effective as Dr. Pytlak. They wouldn't be caught dead giving medical care between the hours just after lunch and before 3:00 PM, (not to even mention 3:00 AM,) but during business hours they have all been amazing. Like this one time when I…
(Bill then began to rant about the occasion, early in our sojourn here, when a French pharmacist, confused by his rusty language skills and his urgent requests that he be able to buy a snake bite kit for an upcoming hike, became concerned that he was right at that moment suffering from a snake bite, and started the process of diagnosing whether or not he was in anaphalactic shock.)
Launa (eager to bring the conversation back to the topic at hand, somehow, reminds Bill): This is about the vaccines, honey.
Bill: OK. The vaccine. Right. The difficult thing for Americans to understand: in France, the doctors run the medical system. In the U.S., the doctors have been relegated to the role of these strange puppets who are always being strung up by the insurance companies.
Launa: So you mean marionettes, not puppets.
Bill: Right. Despite the fact that they can do amazing things like save people's lives and quiet screaming babies with a massive injection of penicillin at 3:00 AM, the insurance companies have turned most of them into these weirdly powerless toys half the time, so that they have to rush from one patient to the next, and can't do anything without the right co-pay or referral or something. It's like the insurance companies decide things, and the doctors just have to do what they are allowed to do. This isn't true of the real genius ones like our pediatrician, but lots of the other ones, I mean.
And I can only see this because in France, DOCTORS make all the medical decisions. At first, I thought that the French bureaucracy was going to prevent us from getting swine flu shots, the ones that would help keep our lungs clear and everything so we could get our cartes sejours like I had hoped we would.
When I tried to get the vaccine at first, I was told by the administrative people, by the secretary at the Cabinet Medicale, and by the omniscient people at the town hall, that we couldn't possibly do it.
But then the doctor made it all better.
Grace: Wait, I totally disagree! I think that the doctors at the French hospital were much LESS reassuring than American doctors. Don't you remember that weird poster in the ER of the crying child? And the way the doctor kept talking about how he smokes all the time, and how people think that asthma medicine kills you? I for one was NOT reassured by any of that.
Launa: Hey, you two: the message is getting very unclear here. I think that regular readers of this blog expect an extremely clear opinion that is likely to be completely overturned in a day or two.
So answer the question: Is France Great, or is France Not Great?
Bill: The medical system is AMAZING.
Grace: Except at the hospital.
Launa: (Sarcastically, precisely opposite the way you're supposed to speak to your much-loved and impressionable young child): Do you mean the hospital that diagnosed and then effectively treated your asthma so quickly and efficiently? And then sent us out the door without asking us to pay a centime?
Bill: It's amazing because it's a system designed to protect your health. And the doctors are actually in charge.
Anyway, back to my story. So all the bureaucrats told me, very pleasantly and apologetically, that we could not be vaccinated here because we don't have a letter from the social services administration.
But then, my lovely wife heard that I was going to the Homeopath. And she suggested…
Launa: I'm pretty sure that the word you are looking for here would be "nagged."
Bill: OK, nagged me to ask the Homeopath for a note.
Grace: Homeopath? That sounds like psychopath.
Launa: I'll be sure to tell Uncle Eliot that you said that.
Grace: Is that the doctor who asked me about my dreams during the examination, just like Professor Trelawny?
Bill: He wanted to know how you were sleeping.
Grace: That's easy: horribly. I lie down at night and get absolutely no sleep whatsoever.
Bill: (again, bringing the intense sarcasm): Oh is that what you're doing when you lie there like a log for eleven hours a night? Your life sounds so hard. It's awful.
(Grace wrinkles up her nose and smiles, getting the joke just fine. Whoever said parents shouldn't use sarcasm hasn't met our girl Gracie.)
Bill: So at the visit to the homeopath, I got the note saying we needed shots. "For our health," he wrote. But I still didn't believe I would get us the vaccines. I believed that this would be just another useless trip to an office, the currency of my life.
I was also thinking of it like it was fundraising, which I had to do a lot of in my old job. With fundraising, I could expect one success for every ten failures. So I had to get through my failures on the way to success. I assumed that our visit to the Vaccine Center would be another one of those necessary failures.
Launa: The suspense is just killing me. Even though I know exactly what happened. Because my left arm is a little sore as I am writing this.
Bill: Don't give it away! The ending is so exciting! But THEN, we got to the vaccination center, which is conveniently located in the center of town.
(Grace, bored, starts making little humming noises with clicks in her mouth for percussion, making a waltz that sounds like an old-fashioned carousel.)
Bill, (to Grace) Why did I ever teach you to do that?
(To me): Anyway, When the kindly town matrons greeted me when I walked into the nearly-empty vaccination center, I was really surprised. After all the worldwide furor over Swine Flu, I thought it would be a lot tougher to wrestle an innoculation out of the French government.
Launa: You know, when I followed you all in, I couldn't get over the sensation that I was about to vote. And then, even though I hadn't intended to get the shot at all, and to just tough it out through a little Bacon Fever, they were just so darn nice I suddenly thought, "Aw, heck! Why not?"
Bill: Yeah, it did feel very governmental. But it was government in service to medicine, not the other way around.
The kindly, smiling matrons who worked behind the desk, instantly remembered who I was, and that I had been there before. They fawned over my daughters. Then I stumbled through my lengthy explanation.
"I can't have a social security card because I can't get a carte sejour, because I might not have a clear x-ray, and Grace has to do CNED…"
And they stopped me and said, "Oh my, that all sounds terrible. Maybe there is something we can do."
And THEN I pulled out what seems to be the nuclear option in France:
Launa: You mean nuclear like the way they make over 85% of their electricity nuclear? Or nuclear like "Boom! We're all Dead!" nuclear?
Bill: The second one. I said, "But really I am here because my doctor said it would be good for me." And then I pulled out his note.
When I just showed up the earlier time, everybody was totally pleasant, but agreed that there was nothing they could do for me, since I lacked the proper letter from the social security administration.
But they took the note very seriously. Three different people came over to look at it. They said, "Just a minute, sir" and they got the guy in charge. The man in charge came back a minute later, and Boom! We're all about to be vaccinated!
Launa: So Grace, how were you feeing at that point? Because when I was looking at you, I couldn't get over the idea that you wanted to drop through the floor and never come back.
Grace; I was feeling like there was a 99% chance that I wouldn't get a vaccination. And a 1% chance that I would. But that 1% chance felt like… well, I don't really want to tell you.
Launa: Why not?
Grace: It's not a public answer. Delete that, delete that, OK?
Bill: When you are talking to the press, everything is a public answer.
Launa: Grace, I want to know how you felt about Daddy getting us all those awesome vaccines.
Grace: I felt like I wanted to kill him.
Grace: You know how much I hate vaccines. Everybody should know that. Even people who don't know me, so go ahead and leave this whole part in. I'm a kid, mom. Kids hate shots.
Grace at this point looked for all the world like a teenager, cocking her head to one side with the sort of expression that means "Duh, Mom!" in every one of the world's languages. The Universal Sign for "How Can My Parents Be So Stupid?"
Launa: So Bill, did you care that Grace was sitting on a molded plastic chair quaking with pointless fear?
Bill: No. I felt triumphant. I had earned my family immunity.
Launa: Yes. You should get the credit. But score an assist for the nagging.
Bill: So anyway, this smiling man took me back to his makeshift office. You were right about the voting. It was exactly like going to vote.
Launa: I know why it felt that way: I think it was because the vaccination center was set up in a cafetorium.
(For my non-rural readers, a cafetorium is an ill-gotten hybrid between a cafeteria and an auditorium, generally found only in public schools in places like my hometown. And Aups. Which, if they weren't three thousand miles apart from one another, might as well be the same place.)
They had set up makeshift barriers here and there to make offices, and places to get shots with and without one's shirt on. But as I went from place to place, I had the vague sense that I was doing an important civic duty, and that somebody's Grandmother was being awfully nice to me.
Bill: Right! And everybody was so nice once we pulled out the doctor's note. We were bought from "office" to "office" while we filled out some extraordinarily simple paperwork, with questions like "Name?" "Address?" and "Are you allergic to vaccines?"
Launa: Those forms were so simple that even I could read them.
Bill: And then just before the vaccines were administered, we were greeted not by a bureaucrat with a nasty 'tude, or a secretary with no idea of how a human body works,
Grace, (ironically, even sarcastically, imitating said imaginary silly secretary) "What, we have BLOOD in our veins??? EEEW!!!"
Bill: Not met by a mean secretary, but rather by a super friendly, smiling doctor, who took his time with us. He actually talked to us. He didn't take the paperwork seriously, but when he asked if we had any questions, and I got to joking with him and said, "No, I don't, because I don't speak enough French to ask the questions," he got very serious, switched into perfectly good English, and asked us again. It was the end of a really long day at the vaccination polling station, and he must have been super tired. But he behaved like a real professional, even though we were just being goofy in our gratitude.
And then, just to shock and awe us with the incredible friendliness and kindness of the French system, he said,
"I understand that you are the Americans who were turned away from this center and from the Cabinet Medicale earlier. I need to apologize, sincerely. Please accept my apology on behalf of our entire system when I say, je m'excuse."
Grace: I want to point out that AMERICA didn't give us shots, either. And they didn't apologize. America never apologizes.
Bill: Can you imagine a regular old American doctor ever saying to a patient, "I'm sorry that our office didn't do the right thing for you. How embarrassing to our system."
Grace breaks in, speaking in her Brooklynese, as though she were the New York City health worker in Bill's forinstance: "Bummer that I can't fill youse guyes prescription that is one day out of date! Whoa! Look at the time! Guess I gots to go on break!"
Bill: And then the kindly and attractive nurses administered shots, painlessly and smilingly, without ANY WAIT AT ALL. Please emphasize that to your American readers. No waiting whatsoever.
Launa: So when you actually got your shot, Grace, what happened?
Grace: I was pretty scared when the needle first came into my skin, and then I realized that it actually hurt LESS than the regular flu shot. After seeing all those scary Swine Flu Halloween costumes on You Tube, I thought it was going to be like one of those shots the vet gives Samson, where he has to pee on himself because it hurts so much. Samson, I mean. Not the vet.
Bill: You know, Grace, I felt the same way too before I got used to the way things are here. Here, they are able to give me shots really well! It's like they are trained to do it. Quick! Painless! Professional!
And you know, there was not one cold French face in the entire vaccination center. Can you think of one person who gave us French face?
Grace: OK, I have to point out that the lady with the wild black hair and the woolen arm warmers gave me French face.
Launa: Is it possible that you were just having a fearful freak out just then and were reading her all wrong?
Bill: Is it possible that her face was between conscious expressions, and just relaxed into French face between them? Because she definitely smiled at you after you got brave enough to sit patiently through the shot.
Bill: And THEN they offered candies to everyone, including the adults, without any awkwardness. They specifically looked at me and said, "Would you like a candy? Have some candy."
Grace: Yeah! Tell them about the candy!
Bill: Right. The candy was just before that one scary moment when we thought, oh no! The gig is up!
The vaccines were already circulating in our bodies. And then this man with a white beard spoke up:
He said, "Excuse me, Monseiur. I am so very sorry, but there is one more stage before you leave the building." As though they had been holding us there for hours, rather than caring kindly for us for about 20 minutes.
Of course, I assumed the worst. They would ask for our nonexistent Cartes Sejours. They would want the Document des Circulation Des Enfants Mineurs. At least they'd want some cold hard cash, and we were down to the last few euros jingling around in our various pockets. And if we couldn't produce what they asked for, they would bleed us to get the vaccine back out of our bodies.
But no. Instead, as we were trying to leave, they shouted after us, "Please! I want to give you your documents. In case THEY ask for it, here's the proof that you got your vaccines." Once again, the French bureaucrats siding with us against the other French bureaucrats.
"Oh -- and wait, one more thing, Monsieur! You forgot your final candy!"
Launa: Wow. That is awesome. So Bill, Grace -- any last thoughts?
Bill: The overarching theme here is just how much I feel like the health system here, and the people who work in it, are concerned with my general health, but also with my general sense of well-being when I they are treating me so nicely and well. Here, they assume that if you are in a hospital, going to see the doctor, you need care. And therefore you are upset. So, there is a constant acknowledgment of that with the comfy chairs, the candies. You never have to wait. They care about your privacy.
Grace: My final thought is that you guys are weird. You go to a gym with a bunch of benches, somebody gives us all a shot, and you suddenly think France is great again.
But it's true. France is Great. My arm is a little sore, but now I probably won't have to spend an entire week on the sofa scarfing down Advils whenever Piggy Flu comes our way.
Brad and Angelina might not know it yet, but they are going to miss a whole lot more than the wine when they leave.