We’ve got a young Frenchman staying with us at present and I’ve been having a number of conversations with him about the often perplexing differences between our countries. This week, when driving through Hungerford, I started trying to explain Hocktide and Tutti Day to him. I found this increasingly difficult to do in French but then realised I couldn’t have described this extraordinary ceremony in English either; indeed had tried to do so the week before to one of my sons. “Oh, it’s a sort of party,” he’d said when I’d finished. I’d nodded and decided to leave it at that.
One issue Marco and I have discussed is that of our respective health services. He was amazed to learn that here you can go to a doctor or a hospital and not have to pay anything. You mean, he said, that you pay and then get it all back? No, I explained, you don’t pay anything. It’s free. It took a moment for this to sink in. In France, he said gloomily, we pay lots of tax and still have to pay for everything else on top.
Having described something that we Brits hold to be self-evident I suddenly felt rather proud. France’s system is pretty good but the simplicity of our NHS is remarkable. Whether we can afford it in its present form is another matter and one our new masters in Whitehall will soon be grappling with again after 7 May. It’s certainly hard to imagine life without it.
This set me thinking of some of my experiences with France’s medical system. Only three stand out but they’re all in their own way truly bizarre.
The first was the result of my being thrown through the windscreen of a car. I was seven at the time. The hospital seemed to be entirely staffed by Irish nuns (this might just have been a nightmare caused by the anaesthetic). However, the real nightmare didn’t happen until a fortnight later when the eleven stitches under my eye had to come out.
This appalling event took place, for some mad reason, not in a hospital or surgery but in the dilapidated house of some friends of my parents in a village in the Alpes-Maritimes. It was a bleak, haunted January evening. A violent thunderstorm raged against the shutters. Every so often the lights would go out and then as unexpectedly come back on. Each time either of these things happened, and at every peal of thunder or flash of lightning, our hostess – an alcoholic drama queen – would let out a piercing shriek. Her husband growled, and their dogs howled, more or less constantly. Amidst this bedlam the local doctor, who only had one arm, started to go to work on me. All the adults were a bit drunk but none more so than him. He swayed around with his instruments, muttering to himself in an inebriated patois no one could understand. With each flash of lightning the keen edge of his scissors shone like mercury: at other times he was sunk into gloom. My father, whose face had been alarmingly bruised in the accident, stood behind him in the half-light, none too steadily holding a candle which occasionally dripped hot wax onto my head. All of this was just as disconcerting as it sounds.
The doctor reopened the scar at least twice. There was a fair bit of blood. My father kept saying to me ‘there’s only one more stitch’. I don’t think anyone knew how many there were. After he’d finished – and it seemed to last for ever – the doctor threw himself into a chair and burst into tears.
Next up, after a pause for refreshment, was an examination of my mother, who’d been badly bruised round her neck and chest. She took off her jumper. I don’t know what bras were made of in those days but, just as the doctor reached forward to touch her, a dazzling flash of static electricity jumped from her bra to his hand. He leaped back and crashed into a dresser. Our hostess let out the loudest scream so far and flung herself on my mother, perhaps thinking that the doctor had assaulted her. Her husband, who’d always had a bit of a thing for my mother, roared at the doctor. Outside, the storm raged on but could not possibly have been making more noise than we were inside the house.
Eventually the moment came to pay. In those days some older French people still reckoned in old Francs. As these were worth 100 times less than the new ones the resulting confusions were considerable. This was eventually cleared up: then the doctor burst into tears again and announced he wasn’t going to charge at all. Of course you must charge, my mother insisted. Still wearing above the waist only her alarming bra, she thrust some money at him. Our hostess, who hated not being the centre of attention in any drama, wailed that it was all too much and in any case some particular form was needed. The doctor had no such form. The strange wrangling continued, my mother eventually giving the doctor more than she wanted to but less than he had initially asked for. More drinks were poured. Everyone (except me) started embracing each other. I remember remaining quiet on the couch throughout this mawkish charade, glad that no one was paying me any attention. Were I to have burst into flames – quite possible in the circumstances – I doubt anyone would have noticed.
I’ve no idea how many other people have seen lightning coming out of their mother’s breast. Artists, psychiatrists and religious leaders have built entire careers on such moments. I count myself lucky the only scar I have from the incident is the one under my right eye.
I don’t want to suggest this was a typical example of French healthcare. The atmosphere in the house that night was in every way too highly charged for medical procedures. However, I do want to know (but never asked) who decided on the timing and the venue.
The tales of the wobbly Dachshund and of the dislocated jaw will have to wait for another time. This story is perhaps enough for you: re-living it certainly has been for me. I’m not sure what its moral or message is. All I know is that if I needed any stitches taken out now, in England or in France, things would be done differently. Mind you, we get storms and power cuts round here and it’s rumoured that doctors still take the odd drink. Maybe things haven’t changed that much after all. All I can be sure of is that were this farrago to be repeated in England I wouldn’t have to pay for it, whereas in France I still would. That’s one thing we have to thank the NHS for. Long may it continue.
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