How do you say “I’m done” in French?
I forgot how to speak French today.
I was trying to say my phone number. Sitting at a desk across from the first French doctor I have ever met, I recited a number I have said dozens of times. Zero six, sixty two, forty three —
But wait, how to do you say 20? How do you say 20?! “Sorry, I’m so sorry,” I muttered, my eyes closing into my swimming head. It was so hot in there. But up until then I had been shivering. What’s the French word for shiver? Frisson. But first off, how do you say 20?
Let me back up a bit. The day started out normal enough. I opened my eyes to a text from my host mom telling me that I needed to take the girl I watch to the Fnac to get a present for her cousin’s birthday party, and then to take her there.
It was simple enough, but my body was not having it. For the last two weeks, I have been bobbing in and out of a bad cold given to me by the girl’s older sister. As someone who usually only has cold symptoms for two to four days, I was really out of whack. Yesterday, I felt pretty decent, and I was banking on the cold being over by today. But today, instead of disappearing as it should have by now, it got worse.
“I know this place,” the 7-year-old said as she tugged on my hand outside of the Ternes metro station. I started to explain to her that we had been here just a few weeks ago for a similar birthday present excursion, but then I let it drop. It was really cold outside. Wait — that was just me. Watching the girl while feeling like falling over was going to be a challenge.
Another challenge — the Fnac. Situated in a huge fake art nouveau building on Avenue des Ternes, our local Fnac is part of a monstrous shopping chain that sells books, music and electronics. It is like a cross between Target and Barnes & Noble, and the French love their Fnac stores. (What does “Fnac” stand for? “Fédération nationale d’achats des cadres,” translating roughly to, “place that sells a ton of stuff that people buy too much of.”)
Aux gros yeux
The girl and I passed through security and started up the escalators, climbing all the way up to the kids’ section on the top floor underneath a beautiful stained-glass ceiling. We went over to a rack of stuffed animals with huge eyes and, to the girl’s dismay, figured out that there weren’t any in the jumbo size that her cousin wanted. Feeling weak and shivery, I sat on a bench across from the toy rack as she figured out her plan B. She picked a medium-sized seal and a key chain-sized leopard and we made our way to the caisses to pay. Easy enough.
The line was long, and standing was becoming more and more difficult. I snapped at the girl on accident when I told her to move up in the line. It felt like a Minnesota spring in the Fnac — meaning I felt frozen. My head felt heavy, probably like those stuffed animals feel with those huge glass eyes weighing down their faces. We paid — phew — and realized we forgot the girl’s jacket upstairs by the toy rack, so we climbed the mountain of escalators again.
Making our way from the store to the birthday party, I tried to not say anything to avoid saying something mean again. “Are you cold?” the girl kept asking. “How can you be so cold? It’s hot out!”
We took the metro two stops then crossed the park and found our bus stop (the sign wasn’t on; was it out of service? Would that mean more walking?). The bus came (never mind; whoo!) and I basked in a few peaceful moments of sitting down in the hot bus. When you feel sick, the little things matter so much.
And the little walks seem so long. We got off the bus and walked five blocks to the party, and by then I really was not having it. I could not stop coughing and breathing was tough and my head felt so strange and I was so, so cold. I felt heavy and weak.
We made it to the party, taking the elevator up one floor because I did not give a care. I wrapped the girl’s present like a candy, just like she asked me to. “It’s not as good as the last time you did it and the ends are different sizes!” she scolded. “It’s not always the same and that’s how candies are; candies are not always the same!” I tried to explain, blinking back tears. Something was really not right.
I said goodbye to the grandma who was there, who said to pick her up around 6:30. The thought of going all the way back there seemed like an impossible journey that I would not be able to make. Yep, something was not right.
I called my host mom. It was time too see a doctor.
Chez le médecin
Why had I waited for two weeks to see a doctor? First, and more obviously, because this was just a cold, and I do not normally see doctors about a cold. Second, this is France. Nine months into my year-long stay, I had not yet gone to see a doctor. So, to be honest, I was putting it off.
Recently, until today, I have been feeling pretty comfortable as a foreigner in Paris. It has been months since I have had to do anything really new. But going to the doctor was definitely one of those things. Suddenly I felt like I did when I got here: scared, overwhelmed and out of control.
The walk from the metro to home was 10 minutes long but it was painful. My once-chilled shirt and scarf were covered in sweat by the time I made it to my street. I heard a voice: “Ehh-lee!” It was the cook, who was going out to her other job. She came toward me, and I lost it.
“I’m not well and I need to go see the doctor and I don’t even know how!” I cried just like the girl does when she’s sick. I felt like I was about seven years old, or a hundred. But not 22. “Don’t panic,” the cook said. Panicking was exactly what I was doing, and I knew it. “Go call the doctor,” she said, and we parted ways.
By four o’ clock, I had peeled myself out of bed and put a change of clothes on. The walk to the doctor’s office was only 12 minutes long, but I feared it would be like earlier — endless. Luckily, I had the Arc de Triomphe to distract me. The office was just a few streets away from it and I caught a nice view while heading up Avenue Hoche.
The office was in a swanky courtyard with a swanky guardian guarding the door and swanky families getting into swanky cars to go to swanky places. I was not feeling my best, but I was seeing the best insider sight I had in a long time. I pressed a golden button to unlock a heavy painted door and tiptoed into the office.
The waiting room was like most others I have been in, except every time someone walked in, the person would say, “bonjour.” I was told that when you go to the doctor’s office you often have to wait a long time. Maybe this bonjour was a nod to that — we would all be here awhile, so let’s be nice to each other.
I did not have to wait that long, but that might have been because I was expecting eternity and brought a book. A beautiful, young woman doctor called my name and gave me a brisk handshake, “enchantée.” She brought me into a chic office, where she changed from ballet flats to heels before sitting down to talk to me.
It did not start out well. She asked me to spell my name. I did that. Then she asked for my phone number, and I forgot how to speak French.
Maybe it is because I have gotten used to people not understanding me. Maybe it is because Paris is beautiful but I have not been able to enjoy it in the peak of its beauty because of this darn cold. Maybe it is because numbers are hard, and I have never been good at saying French digits above 69 (if you have studied the language, you know what I mean). But for whatever reason, in that moment, it was as if I had not been here for nine months, or even for nine minutes. I felt like I had been shoved off of a plane from Minnesota and had somehow ended up here in this shiny-ass doctor’s office barely remembering my name.
Then, thank goodness, she switched to English.
The switch is something that lots of foreigners I know here hate. It signifies a giving up, or a non-worthiness to be speaking French, the language that the foreigner has worked so hard to learn. Usually, for those reasons, I detest it. But today, the switch was welcomed with open, clammy arms.
“Is your skin always this dry?” she asked me in English as I sat on the examination table. I understood her perfectly and I knew how to answer: “Yes, it is.”
“Would you like me to prescribe you a paracétamol?” she asked. “What is that, exactly?” I asked. “It’s a painkiller,” she said.
I knew how to respond to that one, too: “Yes, please.”
“OK,” she replied. “I’ll prescribe you some vitamin D too because in Paris, we don’t see the sun.”
At the end of the appointment, she took my carte Vitale, the French health insurance card that I have not had to use until now, and slid it into a credit card machine on her desk. Then she had me pay with a credit card. Get in, pay, get out, get reimbursed later — the French system.
I took my list of medicines to the nearest Pharmacie and gave it and my carte Vitale to the pharmacist there. She handed over my gift bag of drugs, saying that I should take the vitamin D after eating a meal “with a bit of oil in it; a bit heavy.”
A medical professional telling me to go eat a heavy meal — I can live with that.
Un peu lourd
Head feeling much less heavy, heart feeling much less panicked, I made my way up to my little room and got to reading about how to take the medicines. I learned that at the pharmacy, the customer is referred to as the “malade” on the receipt, or the “sick.”
Then the cook called asking how everything went. She said that if I wanted to eat, there was a tarte au brocoli et Roquefort downstairs in the over.
If I know anyone who cooks meals that are “a bit heavy,” it is this delightful woman.
I thanked her, crept downstairs, and enjoyed a slice of broccoli pie with Roquefort cheese in it. The girls and I joke about broccoli pie, calling anything that we don’t like that is baked with green veggies in it a “tarte au broccoli.” But jokes aside, this was delicious.
Eat your broccoli and see a doctor when you need to. It may be a bit scary, but it will help.
Photos from healthier days