Urgences

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to the ER this week. More than half of the hospital emergency services in this country are on strike, a movement that’s been building since March. They want more staff, more hospital beds and better conditions. Not so much for themselves as for their patients.

Of which I was one, however reluctantly. My belly-ache hardly seemed worthy of a trip to the ER. But the first available doctor’s appointment was over a month away. It was probably nothing but what if it wasn’t? So off I went.

Here in France profonde as we call it, ‘les Urgences’ are the first and last resort for both the seriously injured and the walking well. We live in an area with few doctors. Hardly surprising, given the proximity of Switzerland where medical professionals earn twice what they do here. We’re too far from the big hubs of Lyon and Paris, where medical care par excellence is readily available. Our local GPs are few and far between; they are over-worked and under-paid. There are no walk-in clinics and basically no options other than the hospital.

Being of a squeamish nature, I avoid such places like the plague (and for fear of the latter). So when I arrived at the hospital, I went first to the general reception desk, hoping that the medical appointment side of the ER might be removed from the one with the helicopter pad. No such luck. Off I went.

I arrived before the set of solid double doors that said ‘Emergency – Push Hard’ and paused. Then I took a breath and pushed. Instead of bloody accident victims and George Clooney running alongside a gurney, I saw a waiting room with people that looked like they might possibly have a pulse. Eyes glazed over with either pain or boredom, possibly both, it was hard to tell. No one spoke. Waiting rooms are silent places in France.

Behind another set of doors was where it was all happening. I took a number and was heartened – 256 and they were currently serving 253! After several minutes I realized that this was the line for paperwork. Another ten minutes went by before I was registered and the real wait began. One of the many signs on the wall informed me that the order in which patients would be helped would not necessarily be in the order of arrival, depending on the nature of their affliction. Fair enough.

I had plenty of time to observe what was going on. The ER was on strike, but that didn’t mean they weren’t taking care of patients. It is more of a symbolic strike, a gesture aimed at raising awareness of the untenable conditions in our hospitals. A bunch of hand-made posters included one that said: “It’s not because we’re on strike that you have to wait so long, it’s because you have to wait so long that we’re on strike!”

After a two-hour wait, I was better informed about the issues surrounding the strike. It’s not just a matter of throwing money at the problem. The system is broken. The health minister Agnès Buzyn wants to fix it with a plan that will take pressure off the emergency services, developing other medical services rather than increasing ER resources. The striking ‘blouses blanches’ (doctors and nurses) aren’t happy with this solution. Clearly it is not the shot in the arm they were hoping for. I feel their pain. But I also believe that a bigger healthcare reform is needed and that the current plan is a step in the right direction.

When I finally saw a doctor, he prescribed two weeks of meds and advised me to follow up with my regular GP when my scheduled appointment finally comes up. I am grateful that this option was there and for the hard-working people who provide urgent care. But I had no business taking up space in an ER whose resources would be better spent helping urgently ill patients.

What’s your experience with the ER?

Carte de fidelité

“La carte du magasin?” the cashier asks dully, mustering all the enthusiasm of someone required to ask the same question of every customer, day in and day out. But it must be asked. He — or more often she — cannot process my purchase without an answer: do I have a store loyalty card?

Oddly, this is the only question anyone in a French store ever asks. Not “How are you today?” or “Are you satisfied with your shopping experience?” or even, “Can I help you?” No, we are sadly limited in our exchanges as to whether or not I have a store card. Mostly I say no, even though I do have a collection of such cards. At home, in a drawer where I keep the massive wallet with all my papers. Mostly the drawer is where it stays.

These days I travel light with just a small change purse and a couple of cards. I know I should carry my ID or at least my drivers license, but I can’t be bothered. In 30 years of driving in France, I’ve only been stopped once and that was by les douaniers, the border control, because I had obviously (from the boxes in my back seat) been shopping in Switzerland and not stopped to declare anything. What can I say? Our closest Ikea is in Geneva. They let me go with a warning. I’m not sure they even asked to see my big, pink French drivers license.

Carton rose

There is something about the term ‘carte de fidelité’ or loyalty card I find oddly endearing. I’m not sure why. I have no loyalty to any store, nor any other sentiment other than gratitude that such places exist within a reasonable drive. Ours is a relationship of convenience. And there is little convenient about such cards.

First is the fact that you need a physical card. You can’t just say your name or give a number, with the exception of a few smaller shops, which means carrying around a lot of plastic. This is especially true if, like me, you are not the faithful type. I confess: I shop around. Fast and furious. Based on my mood, to-do list and whatever a particular store has to offer: a better fish counter, fresh produce or selection of beer or wine.

Then there’s the fact that most of the reward programs require you to go online, log in to your account, and interact with them in some way to get your bonus. Only one store near me offers a simple ‘cagnotte’ or jackpot system in which you cumulate a bonus amount every time you shop that you can apply to future purchases whenever you choose. They even gave me a mini-card that attaches to my key ring. It takes little effort and adds up to a few euros off here and there.

Smaller places like hair salons give you a paper card that they must stamp each time you go. After a dozen services, you get a freebie. Usually I forget the card and start a new one several times, then change to a new place before it’s full.

I wish that store owners would understand that it’s service, not a little bonus after hundreds of euros spent, that wins my loyalty. How about a suggestion book, where I can let you know what’s missing on your shelves? A friendly cashier who actually says hello? Or even tapes that partially open container shut so that what’s inside doesn’t spill everywhere?

Happy staff create happy customers, so give your employees a reason to smile and that will earn you all the loyalty you need.

Do you have any store cards?

A la pesée

A heavy subject is weighing on my mind this week. Let me share some thoughts on fruit and vegetables, or more specifically, the purchase of said foods in French supermarkets.

I do try to buy direct from the producer or at the open-air markets, preferably organic and in season. But the choice of fresh produce is rather less bountiful where we live in the Haute Savoie than in Lyon, for example, or Paris, and the fact is that I often find myself buying fruit and vegetables at the supermarket. Not ideal but ‘pratique’ as we say in French, to be able to get everything in one place. At least in theory.

Items are sold either per unit, ‘à la pièce’, or more often by weight, ‘au poids’. Very few stores do this for you at the checkout so you find yourself jockeying for position in front of one of the few weighing stations in the fruit and veg section.

First, you grab yourself a plastic bag (easier said than done as it is usually on a roll that must be carefully peeled off) or, if you are ecologically inclined, you bring or buy a reusable cotton bag. Fill said bag with chosen product and then approach the scales. If there is no line-up you can be sure that one will form after you immediately, thereby adding to your performance anxiety upon facing the screen.

As a non-native French speaker, albeit one who knows her way around a supermarket (They don’t call them ‘les courses’ for nothing!), I find the touch screen with its instructions challenging. First you must select the category: ‘fruits’ or ‘légumes’. So far so easy. Although sometimes there will be a third category here already lending confusion: ‘éxotiques’.

Being less of a picture person than a word person, the label is essential. But once I get to the next screen, confusion reigns. A new set of categories, grouping the produce by type, has been introduced, often leaving me perplexed. There is no apparent rhyme or reason in the way this is organized.

A few weeks back, after looking blankly at the screen for several seconds as other shoppers shot daggers into my back, I asked the guy stocking produce why there was no item for kiwis. “C’est marqué groupe kiwis,” he replied. Ah. I had missed an entire category.

The problems with this system are many. Starting with the vocabulary. It’s all very well to know the word for citrus fruit – agrumes. But do most people actually think of squash as ‘cucurbitacea’? Or carrots as ‘légume racine’? Do you look for tomatoes under ‘g’ for group or ‘t’ for tomato? And then there is the taxonomy. I mean, seriously. Who ever heard of ‘légumes soleil’ for peppers, zucchini and eggplant? And how confusing is ‘salades crudité’? ‘Salades’ means lettuce in French and ‘crudités’ means any fresh veg eaten raw. Do I look for carrots there or as a root vegetable?

Okay, maybe I am overthinking this a little. There are pictures to clue me in after all. But when I am standing at the scales with a queue forming behind me, my brain freezes. Inevitably a kind (or impatient) person will point me to the right category as I stand before the screen, finger waving stupidly. “Voilà!” she will say sweetly, as I feign thanks while wishing she would go away.

Pity the non-French speaker who attempts to shop for fresh produce. Pity the beleaguered shoppers who must wait while they learn to think in French. Pity the fruit and veg guy who must think up strange new categories in order to fit hundreds of items on a screen.

I can’t help but note that the Swiss have it all figured out with their usual efficiency. Each item in the fresh produce section is numbered. All you have to do is enter the correct number on the scales. It even trains your brain a wee bit to go through the section thinking, “Carrots 101, broccoli 129’.

How do you get your fruit and veg?

La Petite Ceinture

Did you know that you can explore history and discover the secret green spaces of an old Paris train line known as ‘La Petite Ceinture’?

The little belt, as it was called, circled Paris long before the métro. A rail line built in the second half of the 19th century, it was designed to link the different train stations and provide an efficient way of transporting freight around the French capital’s fortifications. It began serving passengers in 1862 and the complete rail loop, 32 kilometres all around Paris, was completed in 1869.

Le Métropolitain de Paris, built at the turn of the century, brought about the decline of the Petite Ceinture. From 39 million passengers in 1900, during the Exposition Universelle, the traffic fell to just 7 million in 1927. Le métro soon became the preferred way to get around Paris.

The old line closed down in 1934 and entire sections of the railway were left to decay for many decades. Access was forbidden but the old ‘chemin de fer’ became a kind of ‘secret’ greenbelt enjoyed by graffiti artists and those seeking a haven of calm within the city.

In recent years stations and sections of the old line have been restored and transformed, some as modern links in new transit lines like the ‘RER C’ at Courcelles-Levallois. Other sections have been taken over by restaurants, cultural centres and urban green spaces. Full history and a chart of all the sections here on Wikipedia.

Today, you can access 6.5 kilometres of parks and cultural activities on the restored Petite Ceinture line at different spots all around Paris.

This Saturday, August 31st is the ‘Fête de la Petite Ceinture’. Entry is free with fun and games, nature walks, concerts and workshops happening at different times and places. Visit the City of Paris website for details (in French only 🧐😠).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Paris this weekend, check it out!

Do you know La Petite Ceinture? Have you ever walked along the old train line?

Né quelque part

I was born in Toronto, at St. Michael’s Hospital, somewhere in the wee hours of the first day of August in the middle of the last century. I did not ask to be born but I’m glad I was. I am grateful to have been born at a time and in a place that has allowed me to live, to be safe and have enough to eat, to grow up and get an education and be able to go out and see the world freely.

We are all born somewhere, as Maxime Le Forestier evokes so beautifully in the song that provides the inspiration for this post. I was happy to find this cinematic gem of a music video from 1988.

I remember the song well. It was on the charts shortly after we’d married and before our son was born. We were travelling back and forth between Canada and France a lot back then, with families on both sides. Ultimately we chose to live in France but we can still go back to the country I still think of as home and live there if we choose. How lucky we are, and our children too, to be able to choose between two countries, through accidents of birth.

I was struck by this when the story of the ‘Open Arms’ broke last week. The hundreds migrants packed on board the NGO rescue ship just a couple of hundred metres from Italy’s nearest shores on the island of Lampedusa. Waiting for nearly three weeks while a political battle waged over their right to disembark. Growing increasingly sick, impatient, angry. In desperation, some jumped ship and tried to swim ashore. The saintly people who kept them safe until finally, after the Italian government collapsed, the order came to allow them ashore. Their joy at finding themselves alive and on terra firma.

They are there and I am here because of being born somewhere. Né quelque part. An accident of birth, of time and of place.

Yes, I am white, privileged, rich by some standards. Yes, it is easy for me, a bi-national, with enough food on my table, to be liberal in my thinking. I have not had to fight for a place, or my beliefs, or my rights as a human being. Yet all of those things only make me more convinced that we are all the same. None of us deserves more than any other to be here. Or there.

I recently watched a drama on the BBC called ‘Years and Years’. It brilliantly explored this theme along with that of the future we are living in, today and tomorrow, within a xenophobic political post-Brexit context that was frighteningly real. Emma Thompson was entirely credible as  the populist Prime Minister. It made me think: what is this world we have created in which we scroll through our newsfeeds and skim over the real-life horror stories of human suffering to giggle over cute animal memes and admire each other’s holiday photos?

I am glad to have been born, to have lived through so many changes and hopefully continue to do so for many years more. Yet I wonder: would I feel this way, would I even be here at all, if my parents had lived somewhere else?

So tell me: where were you born? How has it affected your life?

Bonus: Here are the lyrics (with a rough English translation)
from ‘Né quelque part’ by Maxime Le Forestier:

We do not choose our parents, we do not choose our family
On choisit pas ses parents, on choisit pas sa famille

We do not choose the sidewalks of Manila
On choisit pas non plus les trottoirs de Manille

Or Paris or Algiers to learn how to walk
De Paris ou d’Alger pour apprendre à marcher

To be born somewhere
Être né quelque part

To be born somewhere, for one who is born
Être né quelque part, pour celui qui est né

It’s always a coincidence
C’est toujours un hasard

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

There are farmyard birds and birds of passage
Y a des oiseaux de basse cour et des oiseaux de passage

They know where their nests are
Ils savent où sont leur nids

Whether they return from their trip or stay at home
Qu’ils rentrent de voyage ou qu’ils restent chez eux

They know where their eggs are
Ils savent où sont leurs oeufs

To be born somewhere
Être né quelque part

To be born somewhere is to leave when you want
Être né quelque part, c’est partir quand on veut

Come back when you leave
Revenir quand on part

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

Are people born equal in rights
Est-ce que les gens naissent égaux en droits

Where they are born
À l’endroit où ils naissent

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

Are people born equal in rights
Est-ce que les gens naissent égaux en droits

Where they are born
À l’endroit où ils naissent

Whether people are born that way or not
Que les gens naissent pareils ou pas

We do not choose our parents, we do not choose our family
On choisit pas ses parents, on choisit pas sa famille

We do not choose the sidewalks of Manila
On choisit pas non plus les trottoirs de Manille

Or Paris or Algiers to learn how to walk
De Paris ou d’Alger pour apprendre à marcher

I was born somewhere
Je suis né quelque part

I was born somewhere, leave me this landmark
Je suis né quelque part, laissez-moi ce repère

Or I lose my memory
Ou je perds la mémoire

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

(Name’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)
(Nom’inqwando yes qxag iqwahasa)

Are people born equal in rights
Est-ce que les gens naissent égaux en droits

Where they are born
À l’endroit où ils naissent

Whether people are born that way or not
Que les gens naissent pareils ou pas

Are people born equal in rights
Est-ce que les gens naissent égaux en droits

Where they are born
À l’endroit où ils naissent

Whether people are born that way or not
Que les gens naissent pareils ou pas

Source: LyricFind

Songwriters: Bruno Jean Bernard Le Forestier / Jean Pierre GuignonNé quelque part lyrics © Salut Ô Éditions, SO2 Édition, Quatryo Éditions