Archive for the ‘language translation’ Category

Health Care, Part 2: The Fickle Finger of Fate

May 25, 2010

On a rainy Sunday in late March, I open the refrigerator door and a jar of applesauce falls out and breaks on the tile floor. “Drat.” I clean it up, dump the broken glass into the garbage, and continue on about my cleaning of the kitchen and our tower apartment. An hour later—applesauce forgotten, I open the garbage can to empty a dustpan full of dog hair, dirt and dust swept from the floor. The garbage bag is nearly full, so I put my hand on top of the garbage to smush it down… and slice my right index finger open behind the second knuckle on the broken applesauce jar.

“Drat!” My hand under cold running water, I call Susan to help. The finger keeps bleeding. We wrap it in a clean paper towel, and I sit at the table while Susan runs downstairs to get Rosie for a second opinion. Rosie and Susan agree that it might need a stitch or two, and so the kids pack up some toys and snacks for the waiting room, and we head off to Rangueil, about forty minutes away on the outskirts of Toulouse, to the emergency room. The hospital itself is easy to find—atop a hill above a large city park and recreation area—but the emergency room is mysteriously hidden, with the parking some distance away once we find it. Through a maze of dim and empty hallways—me with my finger still wrapped in the paper towel, feeling a little queasy, and James and Izzy disgusted that they have to sacrifice a day off from school for a trip to the hospital waiting room—we wind our way to the E.R., where we stand in line in a room about the size of a small living room, surrounded by a half-dozen gurneys on which lie clearly sicker folk than I.

I feel a little ridiculous. The ambulance drivers glance curiously at us, and the desk clerk ignores us for a long time. It’s a Sunday, remember. A number of senior citizens seem to be sleeping on their stretchers, a girl hobbles in with a Sunday sports injury, the medics wheel in a young man who appears to have been in an auto accident. We send the kids into the adjacent waiting room, and stand behind the red line, Susan to act as my interpreter.

After about five minutes, the clerk summons us to the desk, where Susan explains my injury and our status as Americans abroad. I unwrap my finger and bleed a little on the ER floor. He explains that we will have to pay for the visit, and that the consult will cost at least €100. “Fine, fine,” we say. We’re here; we might as well have someone look at it, though I do have half a mind to forget it and go home. The desk clerk makes copies of my insurance card and passport, and gives Susan a form to complete, after which we are directed to wait. One of the kids needs to go to the potty, so Susan takes both of them off to find a restroom and the snack bar we passed on the way in. A half-hour later, a nurse or aide comes and takes me into a consulting room, where I explain again what happened. She is very nice, but she doesn’t speak much English, and, of course, my French is terrible. She tells me to wait and returns in a few minutes with another nurse, who speaks English well. They look at my finger on an examining table, soon joined by a young man who tells me that he is a medical student in his fourth year. His English is good, and he and the nurse clean the wound carefully, look into it, and wrap it lightly in gauze. A supervising doctor will be in soon, they say. Other patients are brought into the room—a young man with a gash on his head, a woman in athletic shorts with a hurt ankle. Each is treated by a rotating group of nurses and medical students and residents. I’ve been at the hospital for about two hours now, and I haven’t seen Susan and the kids for an hour. I wonder at how they are getting on. I’m still thinking that eventually someone will just put a stitch or two into my finger, give me a bill and send me on my way. I feel like a dope for not being able to speak French. A woman doctor returns with the medical student, unwraps my finger and opens the wound a little to look inside. She frowns, shows something to the student, and then tells me—in English—that the tendon might be damaged. A surgeon will need to see it. My medical student escorts me to be x-rayed to make sure there’s no glass in the wound. I add another hundred Euros to the bill in my head. I am returned to my table in the examining room where I sit and try to understand the French conversation between the guy with the gash in his head and the young woman who is stitching it up. Fifteen minutes later, the med student, the woman resident and a nurse return with the surgeon, a nice officious man of about forty-five, who takes a quick look at my finger and tells me that they will need to cut it open and fix the tendon.

There’s no consultation with me—the patient—no questions, no second opinions, no hesitations. This is what needs to be done, and I shall take his word for it and follow directions. They ask me when and what I last ate. A Diet Pepsi in the waiting room, nothing else since breakfast, pancakes. It’s now about three o’clock. Have I ever had surgery before? Tonsillectomy when I was twelve—the only night in my life I’ve spent in a hospital—and colonoscopy (as an outpatient) last summer. Have I any allergies? Any problems with anesthesia? Is there someone here with me?

Susan and the kids come in. Izzy and James are crying, worried now, and Susan’s eyes are wide and amazed, which is basically how I feel. For goodness sake, it’s just a little cut on my finger from a broken jar of applesauce!

The nurses have told Susan that it’s unlikely that I’ll be released until morning and that she should go home. I put on a brave face for the kids, laugh and say, “I’ll be fine! It’s nothing. They’ll take good care of me here, and I’ll be fine. Nothing to worry about. They just need to fix my finger,” I tell the kids. “I’ll be home tomorrow, no problem.”

I kiss each of the three goodbye and send them on their way, despite Susan’s worries. “I feel like I’m abandoning you here,” she says. I ask her to write our telephone number on my hand, since all my clothes and belongings have, by this time, been taken away. There’s nothing else to be done. The kids need to get home. The surgeon will be waiting in the O.R. I’m alone with almost no language skills in a French hospital, about to go under the knife! I can’t believe it.

Suffice to say that it was, indeed, all fine. I was wheeled through the endless dim hallways in the weekend-empty hospital to the orthopedics wing, where the anesthesiologist and O.R. nurses—one of whom spoke English—asked me all the same questions again and prepped me for the surgery. They all sympathized about the stupidity of the injury—accidents happen to everyone. Clearly, they thought, any of them might have forgotten the broken jar and tried to smush the garbage down as I had.

It was decided that I would not have a general anesthesia because of the Diet Pepsi, but they gave me something to relax me and then numbed my right arm from the shoulder down. We chatted about why I was in France, my job as a writer—and the necessity of being able to move the index finger to type—and the book on which I was working. Eventually I zoned out, and the surgeon arrived and set to work on the lump of lead behind the drape that was my arm and injured finger. I tried not to think about the cutting, tried not to listen, and eventually heard, “Voila!” from the surgeon.

Soon thereafter, he left me to the care of the nurses, who sent me on to the recovery room, and then, after I was more awake, on to a room, where a kind and funny English-speaking fellow took down all my details and called Susan on his cell phone, using the inked number on my palm. I assured her and the kids that I was just fine and told Susan to just come in the morning after she’d dropped the kids at school.

So I’ve experienced French health care from the inside now. The hospital—like any city hospital—was a little frayed at the edges, but clean and relatively efficient. The quality of the staff was excellent. Every nurse and aide I met—from the gurney-pusher to the food-service staff to the O.R. nurses to the night nurses and nurses’ aides—were intelligent, kind and friendly. Everyone went out of his or her way to find a way to communicate with me. I genuinely felt safe in their hands in what might have been a terrifying situation.

I never saw a doctor after the surgeon’s Voila! in the O.R. It’s clear that doctors have a kind of authority in France that is different from their authority in the U.S. Maybe it’s a kind of trust for their expertise, or maybe it’s just a more traditional patriarchal attitude toward medical authority. Part of me wonders if this is partially the result of having the element of expense and payment removed from the equation? Do we Americans demand more options, more information, and more control in a situation such as mine because we suspect that the doctor might be padding his paycheck with an unnecessary surgery? Do the French, on the other hand, assume more readily that the medical professional is their employee, paid with their tax dollars to attend to their well-being with nothing to gain from giving different care? It’s an interesting question, and one for which I have no answer.

In the morning, I was released with a prescription for pain-killers and a wound-care kit, and extensive instructions for the visiting nurses. Visiting nurses? we asked. What a concept. These wonderful women came to the chateau every other day for two weeks to clean my wound and change the bandage. I had an appointment for follow-up with the doctor, but as it quickly became clear that United Healthcare—my U.S. insurance company, who had sworn they would cover all emergency care abroad after the deductible—were going to make it as difficult as possible for me to collect on my claim, we decided that I could wait until I returned to the States. The hospital bill came to €1600, about $2000 at the current exchange rate, the prescriptions to about $80, and the visiting nurses to about $100. Had we been French, of course, all of this would have been covered. As it is, United Healthcare “might” reimburse me for about a third of the cost three or four months from now, and we are surely going to have to spend a lot of time fighting them for it. The bill itself, for instance, must be translated from French into English by “expert translators” at our insurance company, an expense that we will, no doubt, have to foot ourselves.

And my finger? It works fine. It bends most of the way at both knuckles, though it seems a little stiff. It occasionally gets sore after I’ve been working with my right hand (hammering, gardening, etc.). And, as one of the nurses pointed out, I’ve also got an excellent mark-of-Zorro scar.

Accidents happen: anyone can cut a finger on a broken jar of applesauce on any rainy Sunday morning. In the U.S., the emergency surgery to repair it will likely depend, in part, on your ability to pay. After all, do you really need to bend your index finger if you’re not a concert pianist? In the old comedy sketch on Rowen and Martin‘s Laugh-In, the “fickle finger of fate” was awarded to government boondoggles or famous people for dubious achievements. This year, I win the literal fickle finger of fate, but the winner of the prize should be those U.S. politicians determined to let insurance companies control the debate over whether that index-finger surgery is really necessary regardless of your ability to pay.

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LÉcole, Part Three

May 21, 2010

At mid-term, just before the two-week April school vacances, James and Isabelle receive their first report cards. These are not the typical U.S. kindergarten report cards noting such things as “plays well with others” or “satisfactory progress.” French report cards, even in CP (the equivalent of kindergarten) students are given letter grades of A, B, C, D, and F in about twenty-five different categories. These are serious scholastic assessments, and the kids are doing serious academic work. We are delighted, of course, and James and Izzy extremely proud to discover that they have both earned nearly all A’s and B’s.

By this point, school has become for the kids better than being at home with the mothers. When we pull into the parking lot in the morning, the other kids rush the fence, waving and shouting “Bonjour, Isabelle!” and “James! James!” At the end of the day, they march out two by two with the other children, holding hands with their best friends, laughing and smiling. They all call “à demain” to Madame P. as they file through the gate, and James and his pal, Pablo, burp “au revoir” to each other as Pablo heads for the bus. Madame P. herself tells us that James and Isabelle’s reading and math and language skills are excellent. “They are just like my other French students now,” she says. “No difference.”

Primary education in France is much more rigorous, we think, than the equivalent grade level in most U.S. schools. Certainly, different skills are emphasized, and the methods of instruction are different.

Math work

We are particularly impressed with the mathematics work that James and Isabelle are accomplishing, including (as we near the end of the school year) the addition of four or more three-digit numbers in a column, basic geometry, and measurements and weights. They will, of course, have to learn inches and feet and quarts and gallons and pounds and ounces when we return to the States, but they’ve got the metric system down. According to “Trends in International Math and Science Study, 1995,” France ranks 13th in the world in math education (U.S. is 28th), and we believe that the primary school foundations we’ve seen have a lot to do with that achievement.

Cursive cahier

Both children have learned to write in cursive, which they call “French writing,” and which is hardly taught at all in American schools these days. They are allowed to play educational computer games when their work is done, so they have also learned some basic keyboarding skills.

Vocabulary instruction is a phonics-based program, and we’ve all learned a lot of new words from the worksheets of sounds and words that are our homework nearly every night. There is also an emphasis on memorization, both of poems and songs, which the children then recite in front of the class.

The reading curriculum is where we find the only flaw in French education for our kids, though it is certain that both James and Isabelle have developed excellent French accents and pronunciation, and that they can sound out almost any word. The whole class goes to the school library every Friday, where each child can check out one book for the week to take home, but the class reader is a Xeroxed text from which we read about two pages every night, repeated in school over and over again. It takes an eternity to finish one book, long enough that we’re all completely bored by the time we finish it. Of course, we’re book people, and we’ve been taking the kids to the library (including the public library over in Samatan here in France) weekly to check out a stack of books heavy enough to require a shopping bag almost since they were born. The kids certainly know those three or four books they have read in class, and those books do include some difficult vocabulary. At home, we’ve continued to read books in English as well. We can’t complain too much since now James and Isabelle can read in two languages at only six years old!

One of the many poems we have all memorized...

When we look back at the first days of l’école in Saint Araille, it’s almost impossible to believe the adjustment James and Isabelle have made. Their teachers and support staff at the school have been amazing and wonderful, very supportive and just tough enough. Both of our children adore Madame P. and work hard to please her. If we were able to stay on here, she’s already said that they are ready for the next level. School is both fun and challenging in France (and in French), and we hope this experience has given James and Isabelle even more important lessons in living, making them open to adventure, ready to take risks and confident in their abilities to make new friends and learn in new ways (including speaking in burps!). We hope they have learned to be brave and a little excited in the face of the new and different… even—back in the U.S. next fall—first grade!

La Grippe

December 29, 2009

It’s a much better word for the flu, isn’t it? La grippe. Spooky. Dangerous. Exotic. Something that grabs you and holds you tight, maybe never lets you go. In this year of pandemic panic, we crazily took off with two small children for a year abroad. We left Vermont in October, just before the H1N1 “swine flu” vaccine became available in the U.S., just as the whole health care reform debate got into full swing, and traveled to that most dangerous of foreign lands: France. When Susan talked to the pediatrician before we left, he teased her, saying, “Oh, you’re not just afraid of germs; you’re afraid of International Germs!” France, according to the World Health Organization, has the best health care system in the world. Universal coverage. Great research facilities. Doctors who even make house-calls. As the U.S. Congress debates how to improve or fix the American health care system, we have had the opportunity to observe, first-hand, a different—and maybe better—way of taking care of the health of a nation. Our experience in the shadow of la grippe seems instructive, not only in the basics of so-called socialized medicine but also as an insight into the ways the French—and, by contrast, the Americans—see health and government and medicine in general.

Before we left the States, we did everything we could to be vaccinated against the H1N1 virus. We did get the regular seasonal flu shot, but the vaccine for H1N1 was not yet available before our departure date. Not only did we call our doctor but I went on the Internet as late as the day before we left Vermont to search for places to get the shots. James, our six-year-old son, often develops breathing difficulties at the end of a bout with the common cold or a flu, twice requiring Albuterol treatments. He’s prone to bronchitis and pneumonia. With all the reports we read about the H1N1 being especially hard on children like James, we thought that his risk factor was high. Alas, no vaccine was available. We decided we’d probably be able to find a way to get it in France. At that time, Europe had had only spotty outbreaks of the virus. Vaccinations weren’t really even a priority for most people.

We arrived in October to gorgeous, summer-like weather. Paris was blazing hot. Our friends there, who are doctors, met us at the airport with la bise—the traditional French greeting of kisses on both cheeks—all around. We asked them about the H1N1 pandemic. The government had not yet outlined the plan for vaccination, they said. In fact, they would attend a required meeting in Paris that night for general practitioners (les generalists). They acknowledged that doctors were concerned. But the vaccines were being made in France. It will be fine, they said. There will be plenty of vaccines. Not to worry. It’s not really here yet anyway, they assure us. And so we visit the Eiffel Tower, hand-sanitizing at every turn, and boarded the train south to Toulouse and Saint Araille.

After we settle into our long-term lodgings in the château, we ask our hosts, Pete and Rosie, who are preparing to go to Australia, if they have had any word about the H1N1 vaccine. They laugh. “Is that the swine flu?” they ask. I tell them about how serious it seems in the U.S., about the college freshman from Boston who went off to school and died within a couple of weeks. I explain that we are concerned about James’ lungs. Rosie says that with the regular vaccine one might get it at the pharmacy oneself and have a visiting nurse inject it, or even inject it oneself at home. She assumes it will be the same with the swine flu “jab.” But the pharmacist has no information. We ring Rosie and Pete’s (and soon to be our) doctor, Doctor T. He seems rather cranky about our questions. He explains that les generalistes will have nothing to do with the vaccines, that they will all be administered at newly created “vaccination centers.” We Google “H1N1 vaccine France” nearly every day for updates. The news reports that la bise is no longer recommended by the government, a hotly debated political topic, but everywhere we go, this is still the greeting. In early October, the government rolls out its vaccination plan: everyone will be able to get the shot from an official centre de vaccination in turns in order of risk. The French health care system, the Ministère de la Santé, will mail a letter—a bon—to every citizen in France with his or her place of vaccination and the date when he or she can receive the vaccine. No one will be required to get the vaccine, it is assured, but everyone in the whole country can be vaccinated before the end of January.

In France, everyone is covered by health care centralized in the government social security (Securite Sociale). The medical card each citizen carries is imbedded with a microchip that records all medical history centrally. Since the French decided that the H1N1 vaccine for children should be given in two doses, both of which should come from the same “batch,” this centralized system would not only assure that the vaccine was distributed according to relative risk (rather than to Wall Street bankers or professional hockey teams) but that both doses came from the same batch. General practitioners would be free to care for the sick rather than swamped with vaccination requests. The government revealed a complex, stratified plan that provided the vaccine to health care workers first, in October, and thereafter to pregnant women, children three and under, and to those with chronic conditions that placed them at a higher risk. School children and everyone else would be vaccinated after that. The government website opened, listing the vaccination centers—assigned by postal code—and their open hours. Everyone should bring their social security card and their bon when coming for the vaccine. The steps that would be carried out upon arrival at the vaccination center were detailed. Volunteers were signed up to administer the vaccines and process the paperwork. (Have I mentioned the French love of bureaucracy?) The plan was ready. The doors opened at the vaccination centers.

No one came.

The French are typically skeptical of their government, oddly not unlike the conservative right in the U.S. Conspiracy theories were trotted out. The vaccine had been developed too quickly. It wasn’t safe. Lawsuits were filed charging the government with an attempt at mass poisoning. The H1N1 was not, after all, much to worry about. Only a few French people were even sick. In the first week of November, a poll shows that only 20% of the citizenry plan to be vaccinated.

At the same time, I search the Internet every day, trying to discover how we—non-French citizens, non-holders of a social security card or a medical card, folks for whom a bon will not appear in the mailbox—might get the vaccine. We Americans—right next door to Mexico where the virus first appeared—are clearly more concerned than our French neighbors. Pete and Rosie depart for Australia without being vaccinated. We ask new friends with small children if they know where or how we might get the vaccine. They shrug. Not important. Clearly we are over-reacting. The American Embassy (in Paris) issues a statement that Americans who are part of the French social security system (working for French companies) will get their bon in the mail, and they list English-speaking doctors (in Paris) who might prescribe a bon that one can take to a vaccination center. Nothing for us. We find the vaccination center assigned to our postal code—Rieux-Volvestre, open only on Wednesdays from 3-7. Should we just show up and see what happens? We look up the French word for asthma (asthme). If he were French, James would be in one of the higher risk categories. We have our medical records. Should we call our pediatrician in Vermont and ask for a letter to support us? The news reports that several centers have had to throw out vaccine because no one—and these are the medical professionals who were first on the risk list—has shown up to be vaccinated. Our doctor friend in Paris emails to say not to worry; there will be plenty of vaccine for everyone who wants it. The government opens the vaccination centers to those in the next risk category: pregnant women, babies, and those with chronic diseases. Still no one goes to the centers to be vaccinated. A few schools near Paris close due to outbreaks of H1N1. A young woman dies in Toulouse. One of my Google searches reports the order in which people will be vaccinated with “homeless people and foreigners in their turn”; our turn, it implies, being at the end. Another Wednesday passes. And then two-dozen people in France die within a week from complications of H1N1.

Up in the tower, we all become sick with something that seems flu-like—the kids vomiting a few times, then each of us with sore throats and coughing. But none of us ever runs a fever over 100. The kids and I are well within a couple of days, though Susan’s symptoms seem worse and hang on longer. We aren’t sure whether we’ve had the swine flu or something else. James breaks out in a bizarre rash of welts, but by then he has no fever or other symptoms. And another Wednesday passes. By the end of November, 240 schools are closed around the country and nearly one-hundred people have died. Suddenly, the formerly deserted vaccination centers are jammed. In Lyon, they have to call out the riot police to control the crowds. When we cancel a birthday lunch with our friends with the baby because we are all still sick, they get in their car and drive to the vaccination center and stand in line for two hours. The government drafts all medical and nursing students. They call upon the military to assist in meeting the need. That Monday, in the children’s Cahier de Correspondance (the little book in which the teachers and parents communicate) a Xeroxed notice has been pasted in—school-aged children are the next group to be vaccinated, if the parents so wish; we are to go to our appointed vaccination center with the bon we should have received in the mail. We decide it’s time to just show up.

On Wednesday, December 2, at 3 in the afternoon, we drive to Rieux-Volvestre, about 25 minutes from Saint Araille. We bring our medical records, passports and visas and some cash, just in case. It’s a cool bright day. We arrive twenty minutes after the center opens, and the line already snakes through the parking lot. We have to park far down the street. I take the kids to the playground—one structure swarming with about thirty children (I have hand-sanitizer at the ready)—and Susan stakes our place in the line. We wait. Everyone waits. A lady hands out numbers like those at the deli counter; we’re number 162. It’s a cross-section of French society. The vaccination center is the only place to get the shot. Everyone in our area has to come here. There are well-dressed retirees, an Asian man, many young women with strollers, a whole extended family of farmers with mud on their shoes, some of James and Izzy’s classmates with their parents, and, as the afternoon drags into evening, office workers still in their suits arrive to join their families. Line cutting is rampant, people coming and going, but though people are disgruntled, no one is really angry or ugly. This is just the way things are done here. People chat with their line-neighbors. The parents of toddlers whip out snacks, but the rest of us are unprepared. We all look up to watch a distant hang-glider. As we creep closer to the front, the method becomes more clear. The rec center doors open and about twenty people are allowed in. One of the officials comes out and asks for pregnant women and mothers with babies, setting up a second queue for these special groups. Their line moves no faster than ours. I go to the car and gather all the library books and markers and activity books from the backseat. James sits on a curb and reads Garfield in French, a small throng of other children looking over his shoulder. Finally, after two hours, the sun beginning to set, we reach the door, still unsure if anyone will give us vaccinations at the end of this long wait.

Inside, we are crammed into a lobby and hallway, herded, eventually, into the bleachers in the gymnasium. The children clamor to the top row in a rowdy pack. Susan and I sit, clutching our number, with the other forty or so adults. One of the young mothers has to leave her infant with strangers again and again to chase down her toddler, who we deem “the escape artist.” We all pitch in to block his assent to the rafters. Every five minutes or so, a man calls out a few numbers, and those folks hurry down the bleachers, along the hallway and into a small room. After awhile, they come out and pass along the front of the basketball court (barricaded off—Aucunes chaussures de rue premises!—no street shoes allowed!) again to stand in line in another hallway under the bleachers to enter, finally, through a set of double doors. We wait in the gym for a half hour before our number is called.

In the small room, we are directed to stand in line at the first of three tables. There are perhaps twenty people crammed into the room, attempting to move from station to station. Susan steps forward for our little family. They ask for our health cards and our bon. Susan explains that we are Americans and do not have such things. What? No health card!? The volunteer is shocked. “Tell them James has asthma,” I say. Susan launches into James’s issues with asthme and the fact that we are living here for a year and the children are attending public schools here. The Frenchman in charge shrugs. The woman official with whom he’s consulting makes the same gesture. He says, well, in principal, we vaccinate “tous” (everyone), n’est-ce pas? Well, of course, they must be vaccinated. Papers shuffle. Susan hands over passports, visas, documentation of health records. The volunteers are unsure how to fill out the forms for us, the strangers, the foreigners. Meanwhile the escape artist and his mother and infant sibling are behind us, the infant fussing, the mother trying to talk to the officials at the table. I open one of the children’s library books and show the baby pictures. He smiles. He wriggles in his stroller straps. I show him another picture—Une girafe? I ask. And another. “Un chien?” The baby laughs. His brother, the escape artist, and a couple of other kids turn to watch the book. Susan gathers her documents, papers and forms—two for each of us. We’re to proceed to the next table to fill them out. Susan gives me one for James and one for myself. “Just copy everything I write on these,” she says. I can read enough of the French to fill in our names, dates of birth, address, phone number. I recognize the usual list of questions: allergies, cold symptoms, etc. We finish our paperwork and proceed to the third table, where we stand in line for a few moments before sitting down to discuss our answers with what I assume to be a medical student, a nice young woman. We are released to the next step.

Out of the small room, back through the gym, we join the line in the next hall. The children are very hungry, and tensions are rising among all of them—vaccination time is near. I open one of the children’s books from the library and try to figure out what it’s about, holding the book open and reading the French words, asking the kids questions about the pictures. “Prout de Pompier,” I read from the cover. “I wonder what that means?” The kids shrug, but they’re interested, distracted from the needle-moment at hand. The elderly couple beside me look over, eyebrows raised. I open the book and we look at pictures. “What do you think is happening here?” I ask, pointing to the bright illustration of a firefighter with a wisp coming from his pants. I read the French words aloud. The couple behind me smiles a little. I turn the page and read again. The double doors open and we all move through. Susan whispers to me over my shoulder, “You know that book is about farting, right?” I did not know. I’ve learned a new word in French: prout. Fart. The mother of the escape artist thanks me. This is enough.

At last, we enter a large room—a cafeteria in other times—set up with screens manned by nurses and medical personnel in white coats. But we—the foreigner family—are ushered through this room and into another small office, here to meet with a regular doctor. I have written on one of the forms that I am allergic to Thimerosol, a common adjutant in vaccinations, and Susan has confessed to cold symptoms. The doctor is very nice, very professional. The vaccine does not contain Thimerosol. Susan isn’t feverish. We are finally cleared for la piqûre (the puncture) and returned to the line in the other room. The children take their markers to a cafeteria table to draw. We all take off our coats in anticipation. We’ve been at the vaccination center for well over three hours. A kind man—a volunteer—comes in and dumps a bag of candy into a basket. The children, who are starving now, spot it right away. We’ve promised them anything, everything, in exchange for their cooperation with this ordeal, and they’ve been remarkably good, even though now, all around us, babies are screaming behind the little curtains. Everyone is exhausted. Even the kids seem relieved when it’s finally our turn. James and I go together, and Izzy and Susan go to another little curtained booth. The nurses are kind and efficient—though James’ nurse has to show mine, who is much younger, exactly where to give me the injection. As soon as we’re done, I grab a handful of bon bons and pass them to James. He deserves it. We all do.

Even after the vaccine, there is another line, everyone putting on their coats and the children eating unlimited sweets. At the final station, more forms are completed, stamped, and the children’s bons for their second injection three weeks hence (two days before Christmas) issued, along with paperwork detailing the shots we’ve just received. We leave the vaccination center well after dark, starving, exhausted and sore in the shoulders, but somehow elated. It’s as if we’ve passed some kind of test.

Does the French system work? Yes. We paid nothing for our vaccinations. We saw people of all classes in the line, everyone getting the same fair though tedious treatment. Was it efficient? Absolutely not. All those papers, all those stations. But the French seemed to take it in stride. Remember, the word “bureaucracy” originates in the French. And it wasn’t just a glitch caused by a last-minute unexpected rush; we go through almost exactly the same process when we return for the kids’ second vaccine three weeks later. The only things that have changed are that more people come prepared with blankets and food and entertainment, we have bons for les piqûres this time, and the vaccination volunteers provide sweets at almost every step rather than just at the end.

In our other encounters with the French medical system so far, Susan decided, finally, to get treatment for her lingering sinus infection. She went to Dr. T., our local generaliste, who will not prescribe antibiotics without an x-ray. The offices here have no staff to speak of—no receptionist, no phalanx of billing clerks trying to negotiate the myriad levels of insurance company rules and regulations. One person answers the phone and sets up appointments. You arrive and sit, and the doctor him- or herself comes out to fetch you at your time. That medical card with the imbedded chip is scanned and the information about the services you’ve received, your medical condition, and prescriptions are automatically recorded in the state database. If, like us, you are foreign, you pay a set fee for the visit—€22, about $30—and pay the pharmacist and radiologist in cash as well. The medicines are pricey, of course, but cheaper than they would be for the uninsured in the U.S. The x-ray of Susan’s sinuses costs €48, about $60; in the U.S., the same x-ray costs $120. We will attempt to get our U.S. health insurance provider to reimburse us, but we know it will be a nightmare of paperwork and negotiations.

The price of health care is lower here, and the anxiety we all feel in the U.S. when we are uninsured or if we become ill with some catastrophic illness that may or may not be covered by the insurance we do have is non-existent here. You need a vaccine; you get a vaccine. You’ll stand in line for awhile, but you’ll know that no wealthy person paid to jump ahead of you. You’ll know that you won’t be bankrupted should the doctor find a cancer when she grabs your arm for la piqûre.

From across the ocean, it’s hard to invest a lot of energy in trying to understand the various permutations of the health care bills being debated in Congress, but we try to keep up. The French system is also complex—not exactly a single-payer system, but close to one, funded both publically (by government) and privately (by employers). Citizens can choose their own doctors, go to as many specialists as they want, and pay out of pocket if they want to go to private hospitals where waits for surgeries may be shorter. But those out-of-pocket costs will be much lower than bills for the same procedures in the U.S. because the government caps prices. According to a (very good) report in Business Week, “France spends just 10.7% of its gross domestic product on health care, while the U.S. lays out 16%, more than any other nation.” Doctors earn less here, but all medical school is paid for by the state, malpractice insurance costs are negligible, and French doctors don’t pay the income tax themselves. The French system is also expensive, paid for by taxes at 20-40% of income, and most people buy supplemental insurance (about €200 a year for a family of four) to cover gaps between government reimbursement and costs (such as for glasses and dentistry), but the French are mostly satisfied with their health care, far more so than are Americans.

We strangers in the village are certainly satisfied. While on sabbatical, our family of four existing on a substantially reduced salary from the university in Europe with a decidedly unfavorable exchange rate, about $600 is deducted from my salary each month for our family’s (required) health insurance coverage in the U.S. We pay out of pocket for all our medical expenses here in France and must apply to our American health insurance company for reimbursement. Frankly, it’s probably not worth the effort; between our $500 deductible and the $20 co-pay for each visit, full price for doctor’s visits and medications in France are cheaper. And for the H1N1 vaccinations, there was never even any question that the benefit to the society of a fully protected citizenry far outweighs the price of the shot. Money never entered the discussion. After all our worry about la grippe, this new peace of mind about our health and its protection while in France is priceless.

Le Haut/Up

October 27, 2009

This won’t be a movie review, because the movie was in French and, as I think is clear by now, my French is pretty weak. I now warn those of you who haven’t seen the film that I will be spoiling the entire thing by relating the plot as I understood it. Some things need no direct translation: the pursuit of a life dream, the discovery of the essential life adventure, kindness, love.

From the day we arrived in Saint Araille, the children have been seeing flyers for Le Haut, or Up, the animated Disney film, which was scheduled to play as the community center’s once-a-month feature on a Tuesday night. (Remember, there’s no school here on Wednesdays.) James, having been traumatized last year back in Vermont by a very scary preview that was completely inappropriate for an audience of small children waiting to see Ratatouille, has since been afraid to go to any movie in a theater and chooses to stay at the château with Susan and watch a DVD. Izzy and I have a date.

After school on Tuesday afternoon, we play outside with the dogs, then go in to dinner, clean up the dishes and take our showers. The movie doesn’t start until 9 p.m., late even for me. I keep offering Izzy the chance to opt out, to stay home and watch the DVD with James, but she—our night owl—is determined to go out. Even though children seem to stay up later in France than the States, I find it hard to believe that there will be many at a 9:00 movie on a Tuesday night. I remind Izzy that the whole thing will be in French so we won’t understand many of the words. “I’m ready to go,” she says, dressed in her leopard-print skirt and black leggings, buttoning her favorite sweater. We tromp down the ancient wooden stairway, pick up a flashlight, unlock and take the key out of the door, and leave it with a note for Pete on the bottom newal post, as usual: Pete, Izzy and I have gone out to the movie in the village. We have our key. Don’t lock us out! T. The door won’t open from the outside if there is a key in the lock inside.

Clouds block the stars and a warm wind rustles the drying leaves. We crunch down the long white-stone driveway hand in hand. “Mom,” Izzy says, looking up at me, “it’s fun to have you to myself for a change. I almost never get to do things just with you.” I squeeze her hand and thank her for coming on a date to the movies with me. We can see the lights at the community center in the village on the next hilltop. “I like France,” she says, “a little.” I think about her tears at the school drop-offs. “It’s fun to be here with you,” she says.

“Me too,” I reply. “I’m glad to be here with you, on an adventure.”

We cross the main road, hug the shoulder for ten yards, then turn downhill into the shortcut to the village. We speculate about the movie. “Do you think we’ll be able to understand it?” I ask. Izzy shrugs. “Sometimes the pictures are enough to figure out the story,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “Like that library book you read us.” It had been in French, something about a little girl named Manon who fancied herself a detective and whose cat loved marshmallows—choumouloo. The three of us had memorized that word. I had understood about a tenth of the words, but I still read the whole thing aloud, stopping at the end of each page to try to figure out what had happened with the kids. “Sometimes you can guess from the words and sometimes the pictures,” she comments. She pauses. “Mom, do you think they’ll have candy at the movie?”

I laugh. “I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know what it will be like.” We reach the bottom of the gully and start climbing to the community center, joining the lane that leads to the village. “If there are treats,” I say, “we’ll get some.”

“Yum!” Izzy laughs with me.

Ahead of us, a single torch bobs in the darkness, someone else walking to the movies. Cars pass us, slowing when I wave our light. We can hear laughter at the top of the hill.

“Did anyone in your class talk about going to the movies tonight?” I ask. “The cinéma?”

“No,” she says, then pauses. “Well, I don’t exactly know. I don’t really understand them.”

We can see about twenty cars in the parking lot. The steep drive makes us breathe harder, or maybe it’s the anticipation of the movie. I silently rehearse my bon soir and un enfant, un adult. I wish I had asked Susan the word for adult. I check my pocket for my money.

We enter the same building where the fête was held, the big room now set up with the plastic chairs in rows facing the stage where a large white screen has been lowered into place. At the entrance is a table where a woman I recognize from the village or the school or the fête—I can’t remember—is selling tickets. The snack bar is open to my left, and a small group of adults are buying espresso or cups of wine. Bon soir! The ticket seller smiles at me. Bon soir! I put my hand on Izzy’s head, gesture to myself, and hold out my money. “Un enfant a un adult,” I say with a little shrug, an apology for my English, and she smiles. “Oui. Huit,” she replies. I hand over ten euros and glance down.

A small pack of little girls are standing at the table, grinning at Izzy. “Bon soir, Isabelle,” they say. One, a girl I recognize from Mme. P.’s class holds out her hand to Izzy.

Izzy stares, then looks up at me.

“This girl is from your class at school, isn’t she?” I say. “Bon soir! I greet the girls, who all say hello. I bend and put my hands on my knees. “Say bon soir, sweetie. Say hello.” Izzy mumbles bon soir. The little girl is still holding out her hand. “I think she wants you to come play with them,” I say. “Why don’t you go along? I’ll just get a seat right over here.”

And so she smiles, shrugs off her jacket, gives it to me, and runs off with the pack. They race in a circle around the chairs, across the front, around the empty back of the room. I see a couple of other children I recognize from the schoolyard. A couple of boys jump off the bench seats that line the walls over and over again, laughing. There are more three- and four-year-olds than I expect to see at such a late hour. Izzy comes back to sit beside me for a few minutes.

“That was nice,” I say, hugging her. “Did you have fun?”

“Yes,” she says. “But I don’t know what they’re saying.”

“Did it matter?” I ask. “You knew they wanted you to come with them. They seem very nice.”

Izzy shrugs. “Yeah.” We watch them running around the room. We identify a boy sitting with his mother a couple of rows up as Max, a big boy in Mme. P.’s class. There are perhaps thirty adults and twenty children in the hall. A young man sits alone in the row behind me. A group of youngish mothers sit together, laughing. Men lean on the snack counter. Couples chat. Kids roam and play. The girls return, holding out their hands to Izzy. She looks at me.

“You can go play if you want,” I say. “So long as you stay in the hall.”

And so she goes again. The man behind me smiles. I sneak glances back now and then, and see them talking animatedly to her, gesturing, introducing her to other girls. She nods now and then. They hold her hands and lead her to the glass window in the back where the camera operator is setting up. Finally, the lights dim, and the children all rush to the front, to a large open area in front of the stage, and sit on the floor. Izzy returns to me. “Do you want to sit with the other kids?” I ask.

She shakes her head no. “I’m on a date with you, Mom,” she says. She climbs into my lap to see better.

An animated short precedes the feature. In it, storks deliver babies—human and animal—to earth from the clouds. There are no words at all. The story doesn’t need them. Each stork flies up to a anthropomorphized cloud, puffy and funny-faced, who whips up an infant shape from cloud puffs and brings it to life with a little lightening flash. One stork seems to be stuck with a cloud who keeps making difficult babies: an alligator baby that bites the stork; a porcupine baby whose quills poke through the diaper; an electric eel baby that shocks the stork. Our poor bedraggled stork looks longingly at other clouds—those who make kittens and puppies and baby chicks—for their storks. One cloud creates a football-playing infant, complete with a ball, helmet and pads. Another creates a giraffe whose neck and legs sprawl out of the blanket. Finally, our bedraggled stork flies off to a different cloud. Our cloud grows dark and weeps rain, rejected. But what’s this? The stork returns, wearing football pads and a helmet, protective gear! Of course he remains true to his own cloud, even though he creates difficult babies. We all laugh. No language needed.

I know the basic idea of Up (translated into le haut, literally “top”) from previews in the States, as does Izzy. A man decides to pursue his life-long dream of going to South America by tying a zillion balloons to his house and floating there, along with a small boy.

The movie begins with a boy, Carl Fredrickson, at the movies, watching a news-reel about a famous explorer who travels in a zeppelin with his dogs, making important discoveries. The boy in the theater idolizes the explorer, who, it turns out, is disgraced when one of his discoveries is announced to be a fraud. The explorer disappears and is presumed dead. The little boy is devastated. We get all this, of course, from the visuals. The film is in French. There is no lip reading of the original English in a dubbed animated film. But it’s not a problem. Whenever I whisper some explanation of a plot point to Izzy, a word or phrase that I can translate, she shushes me. “I know, Mom.”

The little boy, with his favorite balloon, meets a little girl who shares his passion for the explorer. She shows him a scrap-book she’s made titled Mon Livre d’Aventure. I forget that livre is “book” (“My Adventure Book”) and mistakenly translate this as “My Life’s Great Adventure,” which I continue to think throughout the movie. In it, the girl, Ellie, has pasted a picture of a house on top of a Peruvian mountain next to a dramatic waterfall. The couple grow up and get married, Carl becomes a balloon salesman and Ellie a zookeeper, and they buy a little old house, which they paint to look like the picture in the scrapbook. A doctor tells them they can’t have children, and they are sad, but they determine to redirect their goals toward the trip to South America, the house on top of the Peruvian mountain. They save money in a jar toward the goal, but, as for us all, little life crises—a broken car, a tree falling through the roof—intervene. Carl wakes up one day to discover that they are old. He buys tickets for long-delayed trip to South America, but Ellie falls ill and eventually dies before they can fulfill the dream of her scrapbook, Mon Livre d’Aventure. It’s a sad moment. Soft-hearted little Izzy sniffles and hugs my neck. “Why did she have to die, Mom?” she asks. I don’t have to answer; she knows: it’s the final destination of life’s great adventure.

This is a Disney film, so the tone turns quickly. Mr. Fredrickson seems lonely. His house, still exactly as his wife left it and filled with memories of her and their life together, is gradually surrounded by skyscrapers, a huge construction site. We all laugh at the old man’s daily routine, the stair climbing elevator that gets stuck, his walker with the yellow tennis balls on the feet. A little boy in a Scout uniform, Russell, shows up at the door, trying to earn his last merit badge. He has no father to help him, we understand, but he’s trying hard to be a good scout. This is a common theme in movies for children—fatherlessness. It’s especially poignant for James and Izzy in their special situation—two moms, no dad. I’ve learned to anticipate this theme in popular culture, and I often wonder, as I do watching Le Haut this night, if fatherlessness is one of those commonalities of life that crosses cultures. Do we all fear it? Why does the loss of the father, the missing masculine in our lives, mean so much to us? What exactly is missing? Could it be, rather, that this absence itself is a fact of life with which we must all learn to live? Maybe it’s a kind of love we all instinctively seek because it is not assured in the biological way of a mother’s love. Maybe learning to father ourselves and learning to find love are part of life’s great adventure.

The old man turns the little scout away, but he’s persistent, returning to his door again and again. When one of the construction vehicles pushes over the old man’s mailbox, still hand-printed by his wife’s palm, Mr. Fredrickson pushes the driver, who suffers a cut on the head. The evil construction people—clearly the villains, even in French—sue. The adversary—modernity or progress in Up, the thing that inspires us to change and get going—is necessary in life’s great adventure, is it not?

Mr. Fredrickson is summoned to the courts, where he is ordered to vacate his home and move into a retirement village. But when the orderlies show up to cart him away, he shuts the door in their faces, goes to his fireplace and releases a giant bunch of balloons through the chimney, which pull the house up off its foundations and into the city sky. He’s off on l’Aventure. Rebellion! Flying (literally) in the face of conventional wisdom, refusal to accept the easy path, the desire to buck the status quo. This story surpasses language. It is, I think there in the dark, the hero’s journey to take on the challenge.

A knock on the door. What’s this? Mr. Fredrickson hoists himself from his easy chair with his walker and opens the door. Beyond the porch are clouds and blue sky. He looks left, he looks right. The little scout, clinging to the windowsill. Of course Mr. Fredrickson must invite Russell inside; he has no choice. Rebellion meets persistence. Need meets need; lack meets lack. It’s not an easy alliance, but they are stuck with each other, le haut, floating to Peru. Mon Livre d’Aventure.

And then the reel runs out. The lights come up, adults stretch, and the children at the front of the room rush the snack bar and restrooms. Izzy’s little friends return, hold out their hands, and, in a daisy-chain, shepherd her to the back of the hall where they can watch the camera operator change the reel through the window. I see the man behind me smiling at the girls. I wonder if Izzy wants an Orangina. The woman who sold the tickets and couple of pre-teens circulate through the room with trays filled with sweets, offering them to everyone. I take one. Merci.

The girls materialize beside me, drawn by the treat tray. Izzy, confused, I think, doesn’t take one before the woman moves on. The girls follow her. “Don’t you want a treat?” I ask.

“Well,” she says. “I would like to try those ones that look like berries.”

“Okay,” I say, “come on.” We track the sweets trays to the snack bar window, and the woman there, smiling, lifts one down for Izzy to choose from. She selects a berry treat, then at the woman’s urging, a wrapped toffee and a chocolate and mint layered petit four.

“Merci,” she says to the woman, meeting her eyes. “Merci beaucoup!” My heart swells.

The lights dim and we make our way back to our seats. “Wow, Izzy,” I say. “You said that so well.”

“Yeah,” she says, shrugging. “That’s what you always say when somebody gives you candy.” Of course.

The rest of the movie is more exciting. After a harrowing thunderstorm, the house lands (what a coincidence!) within site of the exact mountain-top with waterfall in the photo pasted into the scrapbook. There aren’t enough balloons to re-launch the house, so Mr. Fredrickson and his Scout friend, Russell, must drag it by its tethers through the jungle and up. They encounter a strange huge bird being hunted by a pack of dogs that seem to be able to speak (French) through devices attached to their collars. Most of their dialogue is completely lost on me, but the important fact is that the leader is a Doberman whose collar translator makes his voice squeaky and silly. Everyone laughs. A silly voice is silly in any language.

One of the dogs—not a hunter, a misfit obsessed with the tennis balls on the feet of Mr. Fredrickson’s walker—befriends the boy, old man and bird. The pack of dogs corrals them into a cave where (what do you know?) the missing disgraced explorer idolized by the old man, with his zeppelin, have been living all these years, apparently trying to track down the strange, huge bird, which is almost the last of its kind. The dogs are his.

What happens? Well, the scout refuses to abandon the bird to the explorer, who turns out to be our second villain (first villain, the capitalist builder; second villain, the ruthless anti-environmentalist explorer—Up is a decidedly 21st century film). Mr. Fredrickson and Russell part ways, cranky old Carl determined to see his dream to its fruition, dragging his house held up by balloons toward the top of the mountain. He takes another look at Mon Livre d’Aventure, his departed wife’s scrapbook. Pages fall open that he’s not noticed before: pictures of the life the couple had together. And she’s written him a final message at the end: Thank you for being my life’s great adventure. Mon Livre d’Aventure . Well, of course Mr. Fredrickson gets it—he lets go of the house, which floats off into the clouds, grabs some balloons and drifts off to the rescue of the boy and the bird from the evil explorer in the zeppelin. Some hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat antics, the explorer plunging to earth, the bird reunited with his mate, a batch of chicks scurrying into the jungle, and the clouds part to reveal the little house, settled of it’s own accord in the very spot Mr. Fredrickson and Ellie imagined it. Voila! In the final scene, our little scout stands on stage alone next to the other scouts with their dads, who pin on their merit badges. Mr. x shuffles in from the wings, the stand-in for the missing dad. In the final credits, we see photos of Carl and Russell doing things together, a new Mon Livre d’Aventure. Izzy turns on my lap and hugs me.

In Saint Araille, everyone stays for the credits. After all, there’s only the one movie every month. The lights come up. It’s after 11 p.m. We get our jackets and flashlights and exit, bidding each other au revoir. Izzy and I head down the hill. The fellow who was sitting behind us, thirty-something, dark curly hair, walks beside us with his own torch. He smiles and says something in French.

I shrug apologetically and respond: “Je ne comprends pas.

He laughs. “It’s nice that there is someone else walking home in the dark,” he says in English.

And Izzy and I agree. “Yes,” and, “the stars are beautiful here.” He peels off at the first left—Au revoir!—and we walk on up, toward the château.

“Merci, Maman,” Izzy says. “Thanks for taking me to the movies. That was fun.”

I squeeze her hand in the dark. “Merci, Isabelle,” I respond. “Thank you for going with me.”

Epilogue: My Life’s Great Adventure, or, This is a Fine Pickle

The château is locked, the key is in the lock inside. Izzy and I are locked out. It is after 11 on a Tuesday night. The ground-floor doors and windows are shuttered and grated, all locked from the inside. The walls are stone, a foot thick, rising up five stories overhead. We step back into the driveway and look up. There is one light on at the top floor of the tower, occupied for the month of October by a nice couple from New Zealand, Jo and John. At least it isn’t raining.

First, I knock gently on the big wooden door. We listen. Nothing. The wind rattles the dry leaves.

“I guess we’ll have to wake someone up.” I ring the bell once, long enough for someone to hear, I think. We can hear it ring inside the wide stairway that goes up to the tower past Rosie and Pete’s wing and our wing. No dogs bark. No one comes to the door. I ring the bell again, three long times. We wait. It would take someone a bit of time to get down the stairs, I think. “This is a fine pickle,” I say to Izzy. I explain the idiom while we wait on the doorstep, listening.

“No Mom,” Izzy says, laughing. “It’s an adventure.” This is what we always say to the children when we’re lost on the road, or when we set off for an unfamiliar destination or when a plan goes awry.

There’s a pretty good semblance of light-heartedness in my laugh, I think. I ring the bell again. And again. It’s probably nearly midnight.

“I’m tired, Mom,” Izzy says. “I don’t want to have to sleep out here.” She looks around. “The chickens always poop here,” she notes.

I chuckle, pounding on the door with my fists now and ringing the bell in long bursts. “The chickens poop everywhere.”

We step out and look up again. The light at the top of the tower goes out. “Hello!” I shout. “Open the door! We’re locked out!” I flash the light at the windows, waving it around to attract attention. No one comes to the door. The windows above stay dark.

Izzy takes a turn on the bell while I pound harder on the wooden door. The fortifications of the château are pretty good, I think. We both stand back and yell, Izzy screaming and laughing at the same time, “Open the door! I’m sleepy! I want to go to bed!” Not a sound inside.

I’m getting a little worried. I don’t even know the phone number here, not that it’s likely that I could find a place from which to call. The lights at the community center in the village on the next hilltop have been turned out. The cars will be locked, and I’m not sure how we’ll fare if we have to sleep outside. It’s chilly. There are fox and wild boar and weasels here.

I imagine the marauding infidels or crusaders trying to get into the castle, the monks and peasants huddled inside with the sheep and cattle and grain stores, praying. Or sleeping. Apparently, they wouldn’t even hear the invaders at the door….

“Okay,” I say. “Come on. We’ll throw stones at Mommie’s window until she wakes up.” I’ll break one if I have to, I think. Izzy follows me and the flashlight around the side of the château, past the wooden doors, closed and locked, over the French doors that lead to the patio, down the steps toward the back room where I know Susan is sleeping. I start by flashing the light on the big window with a little balcony railing. It’s about thirty feet up, but maybe she’ll see the light on the ceiling, in the rafters. Maybe our wall-mouse will be gnawing, keeping her up. Izzy and I yell. “Hey, Susan! Wake up! We’re locked out! Hey!”

It works! The light comes on. Susan opens the window and looks down, back-lit and pale. She’s never looked more beautiful to me. What a relief. What a pickle. What a great life adventure.