How to beat the system – ‘winging it’ in France

A month or so ago one of my friends was in the playground feeling very pleased with herself because she had organised all her son’s appointments for the following year. I was a bit bemused as it turned out that the appointments she had arranged were for the opthalmic specialist, the paedatrician, ORT (ear nose and throat) specialist and various others. Bemused because her son is probably the most well adjusted, athletic child that doesn’t miss a trick and has twenty/twenty vision!

I put it down to what I consider to be the French neurosis regarding health and their terror of microbes. After all, no-one can quite beat my relaxed approach to illness, and the French mamans were understandably horrified when it turned out that my number three son had been wandering about with a broken finger for three weeks before I actually got down to sending him to ‘urgences’ for an xray.

Number two son came to me the other day, after a rather large amount of pestering on my part for him to buckle down and read his ‘set-book’ , intimating that it might be a good idea to get some glasses. He had, in his earlier life worn them, but long since ditched them in an effort to be ‘cool’.

So it was that we headed off to the local optician to have a test only for a short sharp

‘Mais NON, Madam’ to bring all our very pro-active appointment seeking to a grinding halt!’ ‘A child cannot be tested by an optician, but must be seen by an Opthalmologiste’.

We were sent away clutching a list of 50 opthalmolgists in the ‘alentours’ (region).

The next morning I picked up the phone, choosing the most convenient opthalmologiste only to discover that their first appointment was in 9 moinths time. Braving the phone for the second time I had even less success, and by the time I was three quarters down the list, I was giggling in a slightly hysterical/ slightly embarrassed way as I spoke to the receptionist who clearly agreed that it was madness to even consider that it would be possible to find an appointment before next Christmas. In the meantime, there was the little issue of number two son’s inability to read.

As it started to dawn on me why my friend had been so delighted to have booked all her son’s appointments on a ‘just in case’ basis, I started to realise that perhaps she wasn’t quite so neurotic as I had so blazenly thought. And then came the phonecall from school…

‘Would Madame please come and collect her son who was suffering from a severe headache – they were very much afraid he had…LA GRIPPE (the flue) and we all know how neurotic the French are about  that particular microbe!

Once my son had sucessfully evaded school for the afternoon, and I had deduced that there was no raging fever, but in all probability he had spent a morning squinting over very small print, I decided it was time for radical action. I charged him off to the hospital eye department, armed with his very old English glasses prescriptions and invented a very convincing and exceedingly dramatic tale of how he had broken his last remaining pair of glasses on an Alpine slope. I empathised wholeheartedly with how no self-respecting French optician could possibly trust an English prescription, and how the poor child’s educational future was looking very bleak for the next 12 months since all the children that didn’t need glasses had booked up all the available appointments just in case they might at some future date require glasses and be unable to get an appointment because some children who didn’t need glasses had booked appointments ….. need I go on!

Within five minutes I had an appointment for the following week!

And that, my friends is how you beat the French system, or as my son says – ‘wing-it’

But a word of advice to the french maman’s. Perhaps if you would all stop making ‘just in case’ appointments, there would be appointments when you really need them!

It seems clear to me!

The Great French Hospital Food Tasting Experience.

Just last week I was invited to sample hospital cuisine. I was very excited. I had heard all about French hospitals and their meals were legendary.

To make the visit authentic, the hospital decided that it was mandatory also to undergo a minor operation, but insisted that being asleep all the way through It would be a minor disadvantage. In light of the prospective lunch, I willingly agreed.

I could write pages on French hospitals, I have, in our short time in France, seen inside many and  usually the x-ray department, but that’s another story.  What I find the most interesting is how such a huge and complex system that makes up the French health system functions, in my experience so seamlessly.

Having agreed that in order to taste the delicacies on offer from the French hospital canteen I should submit to the ‘intervention’ (operation), I found myself sitting in the specialists ‘bureau’ with my diary open whilst we discussed a suitable date. “Could we fit it in before half-term and whilst ‘husband à l’etranger’ was in France” I asked. A quick phone call down to the operating theatre and my chosen date was booked – just three weeks away.

Stage two was to book an appointment with the anaesthetist and reserve my bed.  Within the fortnight I had enlightened the anaesthetist to my total phobia of anaesthetics and been reassured (somewhat) that ‘ambulatoire’s’ (day patients) were so-called as they did actually leave the hospital at the end of the day on their own feet and not in a coffin. For 50€ I could reserve my bed, 38€ of which was paid for by the state and the rest by my ‘mutuelle’ if I had one; for a little extra I could buy ear-phones and access to a  TV.

The night before the ‘great French hospital food tasting experience’ I received a phone call stating I was first on the list, and would I arrive at 7am, and at 7.15am I had pushed my cheque of 120€ for my operation under the door of the Specialist’s bureau. No matter whether I made it through the experience, the specialist earned his bread and butter!

Disappointingly my hospital bed did not ‘cut the mustard’. No wider than a coffin, I lay on it in a state of total discomfort, and I hadn’t yet arrived in the operating theatre. On the ‘wheelie-table’ in front of me, Alice in Wonderland style lay the smallest of tablets labeled ‘Eat Me’.  Reassuringly the nurse advised me that this was a ‘calmant’ and that once swallowed I shouldn’t make any attempt to move around since I might find myself a little ‘woosie’. Rather alarmingly the bed around me appeared to shrink such that any form of movement at all threatened to catapult me from the bed onto the floor. I clung grimly to the metal side rails.

When I awoke next, I was disappointed to find myself still in the tiny bed still in fear of falling off. I was relieved to hear that in less than an hour I was going to be introduced to my long awaited ‘French dejeuner’, the operation had apparently taken place without my noticing.

Lunch arrived at last. It was a long time since midnight the night before and I had been long anticipating my glass of ‘vin rouge’. Imagine the betrayal at the arrival of a white plastic tray containing, not Confit de Canard et Pommes Dauphinoises, but sandwiches! Anyone who has lived in France for even a significantly short space of time will know that the French do not eat sandwiches, a crusty baguette maybe, but definitely not sandwiches in white sliced bread. The French have no idea how to make sliced bread, which is at it’s best long-life, tough, tasteless and dry; add in sections a few slices of soggy tomato and processed ham in ‘Clingfilm’ and one arrives at some sort of culinary hell.

So here below the menu:

Ham and tomato sandwiches in white sliced bread

Tin (with peel-back lid) of pear compote baby food

Natural yoghurt

Bottle of water.

When ‘husband à l’etranger’ arrived to collect me he was quickly dispatched to the nearest boulangerie to pick up a ‘Tarte au Citron’. After several hours of clinging onto my hospital bed, restorative sugar was necessary.

For future reference,if I am to benefit from the legendary excellence of French hospital food I have to identify which illnesses classify me for the superior cuisine!  As we drove speedily away from the hospital ‘husband à l’etranger’ spotted a group of kitchen ladies hanging round an open door dragging on their cigarettes.

“That’s who made your sandwiches” he said.

I shot them a glare,

“From now on” I said “I’m going to eat at home!”

18 Aout – Isolement cellulaire – solitary confinement

I had always heard that France shuts down in August, but took little notice! Shame on me! The first clue that things were going to get a little rough was the sign on the door of the boulangerie stating that they were closed for the entire month of August. A litttle disgruntled by this I quickly shrugged it off since our next favourite boulangerie is not so very far away!

I have to digress a little here because I feel I need to explain the importance of the boulangerie. When we first arrived a year ago we were used to the bread served up by Asda and Sainsbury’s bakeries, and at the time thought it wonderful. Occasionally we would go as far as buying a baguette, especially if we had guests for lunch and wanted to play at a “french lifestyle”. In their turn, we thought them delicious! Something has happened to us over the course of a year and we have become connaiseurs of the humble baguette. No two are the same!

For the past year we have had a baguette (or three)  every lunch, and sometimes the children will pop in for another after school. French mothers turn up at the school gate with long chunks of baguette with bars of Milka chocolate stuffed inside. We have discovered that our local boulangerie sells reputedly the nicest baguettes this side of Rouen. The crust has the right level of crustiness without breaking teeth, its centre is soft and tasty, and the crust to centre ratio is perfect – too much crust and it becomes a jaw breaking ordeal, too little and one might as well eat an unbaked ready-to-bake baguette from the supermarket! With a little more linguistic skill,  the next step is to ask for a baguette “moin cuite” and ensure that you receive the perfect golden crust; and to receive excellence, being a habitual frequenter of only one favoured boulangerie will ensure that the boulanger will reserve the best for you, remember your daily order, have it waiting and pass the time of day. All this makes for the perfect baguette buying experience.

Consequently, after a year of munching the most perfect baguettes, we were devastated to hear that the boulanger was leaving for his annual holidays (congé d’été) for the entire month. Anabel had already declared that it would be very difficult to return to live in the UK since she has transformed from bread loathing to bread-loving thanks to the french bread! It was therefore a double disaster to discover that boulangerie number two was also closing for the same weeks. When I expressed my dismay at the situation an english friend sent me a muffin receipe! No matter how hard I try, my home made bread is not a patch on tat of our boulangerie. The place of the boulangerie is fundamental to day to day life. It is simply incomprehensible to  the non-french to make such a drama out of a crisis. But in what other country could you double park with abandon, clogging up the entire city traffic circulation, and get away with it – so long as you return to the car carrying a baguette. After all, surely Marie Antoinette was beheaded for suggesting that the peasants resorted to cake, when the bread supplies dried up? The french solution to the their boulanger’s congé d’été is to take their annual holidays at the same time! There-in lies our second dilemma!

One of the little known facts about working for a French organisation is that the employee must build up holiday entitlement. The result of this is that for the first year in an organisation there is no entitlement to paid holiday. The employee pays into a “Mutuelle des Congées”, a sort of savings plan for holiday pay, and the organisation that the emplyee actually works for only pays for the days worked. Therefore, a two week holiday will reduce a monthly salary by a half! At the end of the first year the payment plan becomes active and pays during the second and ensueing years the missing salary directly into the bank account, at the same time adding a 30% bonus for those essential holiday “extras”. Before the end of the first year, any holiday taken will leave you broke, and is probably better not taken. Consequently, after a year without holiday, as soon as the mutuelle kicked into action, we took off on holiday. It was July! We had a wonderful time but arrived back to Rouen just as all of the Rouenaise took off to other places!

Still on our French learning curve we discovered that the mutuelle had paid our holiday pay at the end of June, and having not “cottoned-on ” to the fact that this money was to supplement the July paycheck, spent a little more than we should have! When the “Bulletin de Paie”  from Harry’s organisation arrived on the last day of July we were aghast to learn that only 162 euros had been credited to our bank account (once social security, rent and health allowances had been deducted at source). It was going to be an extremely meagre month!

Being penniless and friendless and baguetteless for a month was not quite what we had anticipated when we moved to France. It was time to come up with some clever ideas! We were then devastated furthermore when Harry’s sister rang at the last minute to cancel their trip to visit us thanks to the UK economic situation, and to hear that the UK government, in all its “wisdom” had cancelled all the “Building Schools for the Future” programme, which made up a large part of Harry’s UK office’s workload. Since Harry’s role was overseeing the financial planning of these projects from the financial team’s office in Rouen. Things were starting to look unsettled.

With a lack of french friends on the horizon, we opened our doors to our english friends. Anabel benefitted from  the stay of a long-term girlfriend for a week. Her arrival augmented the necessity to find a solution to the bread problem since being Coeliac, she was unable to consume any form of wheat product. Having produced a reasonable variation on pastry, using gluten free flour and ground almonds, we rustled up a variety of quiches supplemented with baked potatoes and chips and frangipane tartlets.  The arrival of a second girlfriend with her family who were holidaying near-by necessitated a double sleep-over which roller-coasted me into a contact lense/missing bag scenario, never to be  forgotten!

Being new to contact lenses, Anabel’s friend came down that evening (about midnight) to tell me she had only been able to remove one of the lenses and the second stayed resolutely in her eye. I am completely clueless when it comes to contact lenses, but her eye was becoming increasingly red and sore from all the prodding and poking around trying to grab the edge of the wayward lense. Eventually after a brief call to her mother to ascertain whether the lense would end up on the far side of her eye-ball, and being midnight, we decided that she would have to sleep with it in. Expecting a disturbed night I was amazed to find the girls following true teenage form with a spectacularly long “lie-in”. The following morning, after some chivvying, I managed to get them downstairs dressed and ready for a visit to the optician. It was necessary to arm myself with some fundamental vocabulary, and I was delighted to find that contact lenses translate as “lentiles”, and since the child in question was vegetarian, it was spectacularly easy to remember! Being a monday it was necessary to make a reluctant phone call to find an optician that was actually open, and having arrived at our destination we were disappointed that the optician declared it more than his “jobs-worth” to touch her eye before redirecting us to “urgence” (casualty).

At the mention of Clinque de Cédres, both he and I sighed a sigh of relief, he, for not having to give directions, and me, because I was on familiar ground! Five minutes at the Clinique  however and we were back in the car heading for the CHU (Centrale Hopitale Universitaire) where there was an eye hospital. Having unloaded the girls from the car and made our way to the security barrier we were assured that we had reached the wrong CHU, and needed to head into the centre of the city. From this point on the trip took a more complicated turn, firstly as I had no idea where I was heading, and secondly that there is one major issue with my car, and that is parkability! It was Anabel who got me out of the first scrape when she began to recognise her surrroundings before declaring that this was the route to the school sports stadium and that they always passed a hospital en-route.We succesfully negotiated the busy traffic only to arrive at the multi storey hospital parking, the roof of which was 50 mm too low for my people carrier to pass below! There was nothing for it but to sweet-talk the security barrier guard to gain access to  the doctors’ open air parking. He did not give in without a struggle, but after several minutes of gesticulating over the height of my vehicle, interspersed with unhelpful comments from Rory over the Britishness of my accent, we were through. After parking haphazardly “á la francaise” in a semi-bay we tumbled out of the car again in search of the “urgence” department. A few wrong turns later we arrived at the accueil and settled in to complete the mounds of paper-work before being directed to the eye department. The receptionist was extraordinarily helpful – “C’est midi” she declared – “all the opthalmic staff are on lunch – come back at 2.30” It was midday, there was no earthly point in waiting whilst the doctors consumed their four couse meal. With a sigh of utter frustration we made our way back to the car clutching all our papers and headed home for lunch!

As afternoon approached we set off back to the hospital, inwardly groaning at the necessity of a further conversation with the Doctors’ parking security guard. Having explained the issue of lunch, and cringing under the long-sufferingly sympathetic eye of the guard that surely we should have known that ALL the french stop work at midi, we found ourselves once more parked up and heading for the eye department. This time the receptionist let us through to the “salle d’attente” with a benevolent sweep of her hand, informing us of an hour long wait. The seven children that i’d had the dubious pleasure of bringing along with me emptied my purse into the snack machine in the corridor to dispel boredom, and as it approached four pm the optician took us off to the examination room. After some prodding around and a rather unpleasant turning inside out of the poor girl’s eyelid, the optician declared that there was no contact lense in the eye, and sent us on our way clutching several prescriptions for antibiotics and eye lubricants, in the overzealous and slightly neurotic way that defines french healthcare. It was 4 o’clock.

The girls had planned a shopping trip into town rather than a close up view of the french medical service, and were delighted when I reminded them that all was not lost, as french shops close at 7pm. It was a shortish run into town from the hospital , and once close enough I pulled over to drop them off for the city centre. It was at this minute that the friend who had not necessitated hospital treatment came close to requiring it by declaring  – “oh, I must have left my hand bag in the hospital waiting room. Its got 70 euros in it”. I am supremely proud of my restraint! I solemnly got back into the car and headed back the way i’d come – safe in the knowledge that I would be required to chat to the doctors’ parking security guard one time too many. This time he regarded me through his glass screen with a look of utter disbelief and raised the barrier without a word, leaving me to scurry through the hospital corridors to retrieve the bag, thankfully still intact. Needing a few minutes “chill-time” I made  a call to Harry to pick up the girls from town when he finished work and bid a retreat for home!

The following day, the second friend was collected by her parents after a lazy lunch and some guided sight-seeing around the historic quarter of Rouen. We visited the Joan of Arc museum which the children found hilarious, if only for the accent of the electronic guide to the waxwork exhibition, and for the coloured waxwork soldier who had at some point had his hand replaced by a white one. How much of the story they absorbed I do not know but every visitor with children should visit it! We passed under the Grosse Horlodge and to the Cathedral, putting in a quick trip down to the River Seine to visit the extraordinary orange “stick sculpture” representing the flames of Joan of Arc’s funeral pyre.  Our final stop was in the beautiful collombage antiques quarter and the Ecole des Beaux Arts, with its mummified cat, before walking back up to the top of the hill and the Station where we had left the car. Suddenly a voice piped up beside me – “oh, I think I’ve left my bag back at the fountain in the antiques quarter – its got 50 euros in it”  Needless to say, I was speechless!

The end of the month is nearly up. We managed to squeeze a three night camping trip to the D-day beaches, and were amazed by the beauty of Omaha beach, and profoundly moved by the war footage at the 360° cinema at Arromanches and subjected to the onslaught of rain during the night that forced many campers to evacuate.

School term is but a week away, along with fresh injection of salary. There’s a world of jobs to do before september. “Yellow pages” rang to see if I was prepared to deliver the next batch of “annuaires” and my weekly delivery job will start up again next week. My car needs new brakes, the kids need the last few items on their “liste des fournitures” for school. This is the second time round and I hope we are  a little better prepared than last time. Let’s hope the results come more easily too!

13. Mars – Hopital á la Francaise – French Hospitals

A few weeks ago: three to be precise, Theo whacked his hand against the wall during a tennis game on the wii. He received a huge bruise for his trouble, and initially it swelled up and we had lots of tears. However he seemed to be able to bend the finger in question so after a cold compress I gave it little more thought until he came out of school one lunchtime complaining that it still hurt.

 I decided that the French medical system was a question for the mamans, and turned to a group of them to ask what they would suggest! It might be a little hasty to say that the French are a little more neurotic about illness than the English, but since they had spotted the bruise some weeks ago, they felt that I should quickly be brought up to speed and advised a hasty trip to the  x-ray department at the local Clinique de Cédres. Arrive immediately after lunch, they advised, when there would be no queue; and I duly did.

 Negotiating my arrival was complicated enough, having finally found a parking place I made it to the Accueil (welcome desk) and basically explained my son’s condition, only to be redirected to the secretary’s office. It was necessary to check in, and to give my details, address, phone number and so on and receive some paperwork before being passed back to the Accueil. Having waited a further minute or so we were asked to make our way to the x-ray department on the next floor.

 We had been issued our all-important “Carte Vitale”, the French medical/social security card, and so at the X-ray Accueil we duly checked-in and handed it over. Our details were once more taken, but not having our own private medical insurance, we were asked to pay 8 Euros on the spot, 30% of the total x-ray bill. We were seated mere minutes before being called in for the x-ray, and were back at the main Accueil within ten. After a further 5 minutes we were called in to the doctors office where it was explained to me that Theo had broken his finger and that it was necessary to put it in a splint for two weeks. There are times when vocabulary needs to be learnt very quickly, and this was one of them. I quickly realised that I didn’t know the words for bone, growth, or splint, and that “fracture” in French means “a bill” and not a break! Fortunately the doctor, who spoke no French was able to get a translation of the paper work, though I was mortified to see that Theo had been considered “neglected”. I was asked to bring him back in two weeks, since it had already been three weeks since the break. On leaving I was presented with my “fracture” – a bill for 22 euros, which I was expected to pay immediately and claim back the 70% from the Department of Health. Despite being under the roof of the same hospital and using the Carte Vitale, the different departments had different systems for payment with no obvious reasoning for the differences. What impressed me hugely was that our total hospital turn-around had been in under 45 minutes. In England, the minimum waiting time before x-ray never seems less than 3 hours, and often more!

 We duly returned two weeks later, confident of the removal of the splint, only to go through an identical process, paying identical amounts of money, but unfortunately receiving the news that no healing had taken place to the finger. Having got bone, growth and fracture firmly installed into my vocabulary, I was now missing growth-plate and calcification! Another splint was fitted, and Theo was banned from all sport; with a further instruction to come back in two weeks.

 Two weeks passed again and we followed the same process, a small amount of healing had taken place, but there was a likelihood that the finger might not grow straight or in size as he himself grew due to the position of the break. This time we were instructed to visit a specialist in a fortnight’s time.

 Having now paid out a fairly large sum for the broken finger, I judged that it was time to take out private medical insurance since I was aware that the Accueil staff were always slightly astonished that we didn’t have any. I had also in the meantime met another English couple who within weeks of moving to France, and within weeks of each other suffered a nearly fatal case of blood poisoning, and then pregnancy complications. Despite being practically at death’s door, they were required to pay the ambulance driver by cheque on arrival at the hospital (since ambulances are private) and the costs for intensive care and dialysis without private medical insurance, which ran into the thousands. I considered that with four children, the odds on a serious illness leading to bankruptcy were not worth taking the risk!

 The visit to the Specialist was a jovial one, with the finger now mended, if slightly crooked, and with every chance of normal growth. A pleasant conversation regarding the weather followed since the need for further advice was minimal, and I paid 60 euros for the pleasure!

 Theo, needless to say, was delighted with the result of the consultation since the very next day his class was booked on a residential “classe poney” to a equestrian centre 20 km from Rouen. His teacher had refused to take responsibility for him, and I had had to sign a variety of papers taking full responsibility for him in the case of an accident. Finally, in my hand I held a specialist’s certification that he was medically sound to ride a horse and he was “good to go”!

 The Carte Vitale was, I am glad to say, true to its promise, and within a couple of weeks 70% of all the costs paid within the hospital were safely back into my bank account.