N’importe quoi

“N’importe quoi!” The phrase slipped off my tongue so naturally, it was as if I’d been born saying it. Nonsense! Anything at all!

It was one of the first colloquial expressions I picked up in my early days of learning French. Like most such things, it came out of real-life conversation. I’d heard it said around the table, after someone made a silly remark or pushed a joke to the extreme.

“N’importe quoi,” I smiled, shaking my head. It passed without a raised eyebrow so I knew it was good. I’d always liked ‘quoi’ (what); it was easy to pronounce and could even be used by itself in a pinch as a question: “Quoi?” And the ‘n’importe’, which translates roughly to any, either or no matter which, made perfect sense.

But that was just the beginning. As with most expressions, there are layers of meaning that only become clear over time. Beyond a throw-away phrase, I learned that the words are often used for something much darker. ‘Faire du n’importe quoi’ means to do something any old which way, far from the way in which ‘il faut’ — how things should be done. Aside from a few exceptions, situations in which the French excel at pulling rabbits out of hats, they are rather uncomfortable with things that are improvised and undefined. ‘Du n’importe quoi’ borders the dangerous.

We hear a lot of “C’est n’importe quoi!” these days. In fact, it could almost be a catch phrase for the times we live in. Surely Boris Johnson’s answer to a journalist’s question about his party’s twitter feed is a telling example:

On another, slightly less fraught front, I have recently seen some pretty lively examples of n’importe quoi in my daily life. The postman, who not only never rings twice but generally never rings at all, contenting himself to slip a notice saying you were absent into the mailbox, tried a new approach with my neighbour’s parcel. I watched as he drove up to the gate, rang, saw no one was at home and then threw the parcel towards the door, as if trying to sink a basket. The box bounced once and landed with a thud on the driveway. This takes it up a notch to what we call ‘Tout et n’importe quoi’. Anything and everything.

Thankfully there was nothing breakable inside. Still, when I told her what I’d seen, my neighbour went to the post office to complain about this unorthodox delivery method. “It’s so hard to find people in this area,” she was told, with a sad shake of the head. “All the better ones go and work in Switzerland.”

I’ve been doing quite a bit of online shopping lately. But since we saw the excellent film from Ken Loach, ‘Sorry we missed you’, I’ve had second thoughts about home deliveries.

So whenever possible, I’ve been trying to group my orders and have them sent to a ‘relais colis’, a delivery point at a local supermarket. I go there to shop anyway, so it seems to make sense and be a more environmentally friendly approach.

Unfortunately the system still has a few kinks. The first parcel I picked up at one relay point was somewhat battered looking but it didn’t occur to me to check the contents until I got home. On opening it, I found broken glass and a gooey mess inside: my ‘lot de 3’ jars of peanut butter had been put loose inside the box and broken in transit. I got my money back but gained nothing in my carbon footprint.

N’importe quoi!

My second attempt at having merchandise sent to a different delivery point was no more successful. Although I’d ordered several items at one time, Amazon decided to send them at different intervals. (It seems you can no longer request a ‘grouped’ delivery). The second shipment containing the stuff I wanted most (ie the peanut butter) was supposed to arrive at my local Intermarché last week, where I planned to go and get groceries. But instead I got a message saying that in order to deliver it on time, the company had sent my package to a different delivery point, at least 15 km away and not on my route to anywhere. Needless to say, I refused to go and pick it up. After a couple of weeks, it will be returned to sender and I’ll get my money back.

Du grand n’importe quoi.

In the meantime I went to a local health food store and found some peanut butter (organic, crunchy, just peanuts!) for a price only slightly higher than the online shop.

I suspect that such things are not just happening here in France. Have you recently experienced any examples of ‘n’importe quoi’?

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?

L’apéro

One of my favourite French abbreviations is also a backbone of life in France: l’apéro. In its longer form, ‘apéritif’ sounds stiff and formal. Shortened to apéro (pronounce: a-pay-ROH) it becomes something easy and friendly. One that goes down as lightly as a quaff of champagne on a summer’s evening.

I was reminded of this when we visited old friends and neighbours in Lyon last weekend. It was nothing fancy. We were in the area and wondered if anyone would be around if we stopped by? This is when the true stuff of French friends comes out. From a quick visit it became an evening event that our former neighbours organized on the fly during an otherwise busy weekend. A family reunion in the afternoon, a job that requires being on-call all weekend. Peu importe. We came for drinks and stayed till midnight. The apéro was ‘dinatoire’, meaning it took on the proportions of a meal, with plates of simple nibbles being passed around the big table. We’re talking pâté en croûte, squares of quiche, various dips and breads, chunks of melon, cherries and an apricot clafoutis.

I’ve been to fancier events that have been designed to literally mimic a 5-course dinner: starting with nuts and ‘verrines’ (small glasses) of chilled soup or layered salad; followed by canapés of smoked fish and meat, mini-quiches, etc.; then a platter of various cheeses with bread and finally, fruit pieces and small cakes. At such parties, even the wines follow the usual order: champagne, white or rose, red with cheese and more bubbles with dessert.

Interestingly, the French have a few habits that tend to stick regardless of how fancy the fête: generally, everyone arrives before you serve the first drink. In Canada, we have the habit of getting the guest a drink in his or her hand the instant they walk in the door. In France, we wait until most everyone is assembled, then serve a drink and have a toast, clinking glasses before anyone imbibes a drop. Needless to say, it is best to have friends who arrive on time!

The other thing is the French don’t like to remain standing or even sit in individual conversation groups, as is my preference. Even if it’s only an apéro, everyone will be seated around a common table and a general conversation begun. Once the ice is broken, and especially after a second or third top-up of drinks, the conversation will break into smaller groups. I dislike sitting in the same place for long and so usually find an excuse to get up and move about (and optimally adjust the position of my good ear to be able to hear what is being said.)

We don’t host many parties these days, but we did our share when we lived in the old neighbourhood. It made me smile when one of our friends noted on Saturday that all we were missing was ‘la sauce de Mel’. For the French, everything is a sauce. Salad dressing, dip, you name it. Yet I had no idea that my dip (borrowed from the Best of Bridge) had become a local favourite that bears my name. It’s basically a sun-dried tomato and cream cheese dip with garlic and basil. Very easy and fresh and extremely popular with the French! Recipe here if you’re interested.

Apéro hour is approaching so I’ll wrap this up with a ‘bonne santé’ and ask the essential question: what are you drinking?

Les saints de glace

We had snow the other day. Not precisely in our village but just a few hundred metres above on the foothills.

This seemingly surprising meteorological phenomenon is not as unusual as it seems. The French hold great store in old proverbs and folklore when it comes to the weather. Les anciens, the old timers who have been around long enough to know better, will not take sayings like ‘En Mai, fais ce qu’il te plâit‘ too much to heart. They will rather think of ‘Les saints de glace’ and be wary of planting or ‘uncovering by a thread‘ until after they have safely passed.

Les saints de glace, or the ice saints in English aka St. Mamertus, St. Pancras (or Boniface) and St. Servatius, are the saints whose birthdays fall from May 11 to 13, dates which are thought to correspond to a time when the weather often gets colder. This is why popular wisdom has it that you should never plant your tomatoes before mid-May.

We are certainly experiencing the proverbial early May cold snap this year. After an early, hot start to spring back in April, when I foolishly put away all my winter sweaters and dusted off the garden furniture, we are freezing again. It is hard to imagine that in a few weeks we will be back in sandals and bathing suits, complaining about the heat.

This year’s late cold weather can also be explained by a phenomenon known in France as ‘la lune rousse’. This is the lunar cycle that follows Easter, which came late this year. In agricultural terms, it does not bode well. “La lune rousse sur la semence aura toujours mauvaise influence,” goes one proverb, meaning: “Red moon on seed will bad influence bring.” Another says, “En lune rousse, rien ne pousse” or “Moon of rose, nothing grows.” (I am using poetic license here but I did read that the translation of this moon can be red, pink or rose).

We will survive but it could be touch and go for wine growers. I heard on Sunday that some were taking drastic measures like spraying, heating and smoking to save the crops in wine-growing regions at greatest risk of frost. Here’s an interesting article that explains some of the techniques.

For now, the weather can only be described as ‘maussade’, meaning damp and miserable. Cold and rainy with low cloud cover. Only the birds relentlessly chirping outside my window remind us that summer is just around the corner.

What’s your weather like?

A l’hôpital

I had to go to the hospital the other day. Rest assured that I am well (she says, knocking on brain).

It was a routine check-up with my ENT. That’s ORL in French, for the barely pronounceable ‘oto-rhino-laryngologue’. Imagine the mental gymnastics I have to go through every time I have anything to do with this particular medical specialist. E=ear which translates to O=oto; N=nose translates to R=rhino (think: rhinoceros); T=throat translates to L=laryngo. Just as we add ‘ologist’ to any specialty in English, in French you just add ‘logue’.

It’s a mouthful in any language.

Our closest hospital is a 30-minute drive in theory, but I have to allow an hour for traffic and for the fact that I inevitably get lost. It’s not that hard to find the actual hospital but it takes at least ten minutes to navigate the parking lot and figure out where the entrance is. The parking lot is built into a hill (well, we do live near the Alps after all) with four tiers of open-air parking spaces. There are many steps and winding paths leading down to a central drive with tiny signs showing how to access different departments. How practical for patients, I always think, many of whom are about to give birth, presumably not 100% mobile or not quite feeling up to a hike.

I almost always go in the wrong door. This usually leads to the Emergency entrance where I panic and run in fear of seeing someone in death throes or alternatively catching some fatal virus. This time I remembered my last visit two years ago and knew that the main entrance was up and down a series of valleys across which I cut like Heidi.

Arriving at this thriving hub of French culture, where the usual welcoming committee of huddled smokers by the door greeted me while holding on to their IV units, I noticed the new innovation of a welcome and orientation desk. There was no one there and anyway I remembered from my last time that I had to check in at the area called ‘Consultations externes’ just to the left of the main lobby. I was delighted to see only two people ahead of me and took a number. Two minutes later my number came up and I approached the person seated at one of the cubicles. “Ce n’est pas ici,” she said, shaking her head with a rather pleased air and directing me to the other side of the building. A different waiting area for a different set of consultants and services.

Off I went, still on time as for once I’d arrived a few minutes early. I successfully avoid the ER for the second time and arrived at the correct reception area. Here there was no number system but a longer lineup of people waiting to be triaged towards an admin cubicle for check in.

Having determined that I was in the right galaxy, the woman directed me to a zombie whose charm began with a ‘Je vous écoute’ (‘I’m listening’, not the nicest greeting but not as rude as it sounds to English ears). Eyes trained on her screen as she typed in my details, she continued a conversation with her colleague at the next workstation, complaining about some ongoing IT issue. I was invisible until she handed me a paper and told me to proceed to waiting room number 4. “And the waiting room is…?” I asked, having no idea where to go next. “Just behind the divider,” she said, as if the question was absurd. “We have several waiting rooms…”

Seeing the number 6 on the wall, I almost turned around and went on a dangerous tour back to the ER when I realized that the large room had several smaller areas, confusingly labelled ‘salle d’attente’ (waiting room), each with its own number. I found mine and squeezed into a seat. The place was packed. 45 minutes later, eyeing the ladies’ room with increasing envy but afraid to leave in case my name was called, a tiny white-coated nurse came and called out the name of the fellow sitting opposite me. Up he jumped, clearly ready to dance in joy and followed her to the door.

As she left, I heard her mumble something vaguely resembling my husband’s name. Not wanting to risk missing my turn, I grabbed my stuff and ran after them. At the door I asked her if she had in fact called my name. Yes, she confirmed, although admitted she hadn’t said it very loudly. I nodded and joked that thankfully I have good hearing for a deaf person.

She laughed. The ice was broken. Away we went.

The ENT, whom I saw after another 15 minutes in yet another waiting area, confirmed who I was and why I was there. Agreed it was good to get my hearing checked again and asked me to sit in his examination chair.

Before I could ask him what was next he had shoved a metal object up my nose. “It’s ORL,” he reminded me when I acted surprised. I couldn’t help but be grateful he was not my gynecologist.

A quick spin around my upper orifices and off I went back to my seat to wait for the soft-spoken nurse to come and perform the hearing test in a sound-proof booth across the hall. I passed with flying colours. While my left ear is completely deaf due to a surgery for an acoustic neuroma several years ago, my right ear is still going gangbusters.

How I hate hospitals. I say that with all the humility and gratitude of someone who has had the opportunity to take advantage of their services and to come out alive and well. All without having to mortgage my life away to pay for it.

I left with a spring in my step, along with a prescription for an MRI to check that all is well (more on that nightmare later), having paid a grand total of 40 euros. Which princely sum will be entirely reimbursed once I send in the paperwork.

Still. French hospitals. The less I have to do with them, the happier I am.

What’s your best or worst hospital experience?