I had been to a pharmacy in Apt for toothpaste and suntan oil, two innocent and perfectly healthy purchases. When I arrived home and took them out of the bag, I found that the girl who served me had included an instructive but puzzling gift. It was an expensively printed leaflet in full color. On the front was a picture of a snail sitting on the toilet. He looked doleful, as if he'd been there for some time without achieving anything worthwhile. His horns drooped. His eye was lackluster. Above this sad picture was printed La Constipation.
What had I done to deserve this? Did I look constipated? Or was the fact that I bought toothpaste and suntan oil somehow significant to the expert pharmacist's eye-a hint that all was not well in my digestive system? Maybe the girl knew something I didn't. I started to read the leaflet.
"Nothing," it said, "is more banal and more frequent than constipation." About 20 percent of the French population, so the writer claimed, suffered from the horrors of ballonnement and g?ne abdominale. And yet, to a casual observer like myself, there were no obvious signs of discomfort among the people on the streets, in the bars and caf?s, or even in the restaurants-where presumably 20 percent of the clientele tucking into two substantial meals a day were doing so in spite of their ballonnements. What fortitude in the face of adversity!
I had always thought of Provence as one of the healthier places in the world. The air is clean, the climate is dry, fresh fruit and vegetables are abundantly available, cooking is done with olive oil, stress doesn't seem to exist-there could hardly be a more wholesome set of circumstances. And everybody looks very well. But if 20 percent of those ruddy faces and hearty appetites were concealing the suffering caused by a traffic jam in the transit intestinal, what else might they be concealing? I decided to pay closer attention to Proven?al complaints and remedies, and gradually became aware that there is indeed a local affliction, which I think extends to the entire country. It is hypochondria.
A Frenchman never feels out of sorts; he has a crise. The most popular of these is a crise de foie, when the liver finally rebels against the punishment inflicted by pastis, five-course meals, and the tots of marc and the vin d'honneur served at everything from the opening of a car showroom to the annual meeting of the village Communist Party. The simple cure is no alcohol and plenty of mineral water, but a much more satisfactory solution-because it supports the idea of illness rather than admitting self-indulgence-is a trip to the pharmacy and a consultation with the sympathetic white-coated lady behind the counter.
I used to wonder why most pharmacies have chairs arranged between the surgical trusses and the cellulite treatment kits, and now I know. It is so that one can wait more comfortably while Monsieur Machin explains, in great whispered detail and with considerable massaging of the engorged throat, the tender kidney, the reluctant intestine, or whatever else ails him, how he came to this painful state. The pharmacist, who is trained in patience and diagnosis, listens carefully, asks a few questions, and then proposes a number of possible solutions. Packets and jars and ampoules are produced. More discussion. A choice is finally made, and Monsieur Machin carefully folds up the vital pieces of paper that will enable him to claim back most of the cost of his medication from Social Security. Fifteen or twenty minutes have passed, and everyone moves up a chair.
These trips to the pharmacy are only for the more robust invalids. For serious illness, or imaginary serious illness, there is, even in relatively remote country areas like ours, a network of first aid specialists that amazes visitors from cities, where you need to be a millionaire before you can be sick in comfort. All the towns, and many of the villages, have their own ambulance services, on call 24 hours a day. Registered nurses will come to the house. Doctors will come to the house, a practice I'm told is almost extinct in London.
We had a brief but intense experience with the French medical system early last summer. The guinea pig was Benson, a young American visitor on his first trip to Europe. When I picked him up at the Avignon railroad station, he croaked hello, coughed, and clapped a handkerchief to his mouth. I asked him what was the matter.
He pointed to his throat and made wheezing noises.
"Mono," he said.
Mono? I had no idea what that was, but I did know that Americans have much more sophisticated ailments than we do-hematomas instead of bruises, migraine instead of a headache, postnasal drip-and so I muttered something about fresh air soon clearing it up and helped him into the car. On the way home, I learned that mono was the intimate form of address for mononucleosis, a viral infection causing considerable soreness of the throat. "Like broken glass," said Benson, huddled behind his sunglasses and his handkerchief. "We have to call my brother in Brooklyn. He's a doctor."
We got back to the house to find the phone out of order. It was the beginning of a long holiday weekend, and so we would be without it for three days, normally a blessing. But Brooklyn had to be called. There was one particular antibiotic, a state of the art antibiotic, that Benson said would overcome all known forms of mono. I went down to the phone booth at Les Baumettes and fed it with five-franc pieces while Brooklyn Hospital searched for Benson's brother. He gave me the name of the wonder drug. I called a doctor and asked him if he could come to the house.
He arrived within an hour and inspected the invalid, who was resting behind his sunglasses in a darkened room.
"Alors, monsieur . . ." the doctor began, but Benson cut him short.
"Mono," he said, pointing at his throat.
"Mono, man. Mononucleosis."
"Ah, mononucl?ose. Peut-?tre, peut-?tre.
The doctor looked into Benson's angry throat and took a swab. He wanted to run a laboratory test on the virus. And now, would Monsieur lower his trousers? He took out a syringe, which Benson peered at suspiciously over his shoulder as he slowly dropped his Calvin Klein jeans to half-mast.
"Tell him I'm allergic to most antibiotics. He should call my brother in Brooklyn."
I explained the problem. Did the doctor by any chance have the wonder drug in his bag? Non. We looked at each other around Benson's bare buttocks. They jerked as Benson coughed painfully. The doctor said he must be given something to reduce the inflammation, and that side effects from this particular shot were extremely rare. I passed the news on to Benson.
"Well . . . OK." He bent over, and the doctor injected with a flourish, like a matador going in over the horns. "Voil?!"
While Benson waited for allergic reactions to send him reeling, the doctor told me that he would arrange for a nurse to come twice a day to give further injections, and that the test results would be in on Saturday. As soon as he had them, he would make out the necessary prescriptions. He wished us a bonne soir?e. Benson communed noisily with his handkerchief. I thought a bonne soir?e was unlikely.
The nurse came and went, the test results came through, and the doctor reappeared on Saturday evening as promised. The young Monsieur had been correct. It was mononucl?ose, but we would conquer it with the resources of French medicine. The doctor began to scribble like a poet in heat. As prescription after prescription flowed from his pen, it seemed as though every single resource was going to be called into action. He passed over a wad of hieroglyphics, and wished us a bon weekend. That too was unlikely.
The Sunday of a holiday weekend in rural France is not the easiest time to find a pharmacy open for business, and the only one for miles around was the pharmacie de garde on the outskirts of Cavaillon. I was there at 8:30, and joined a man clutching a wad of prescriptions almost as thick as mine. Together we read the notice taped to the glass door: Opening time was not until 10:00.
The man sighed, and looked me up and down.
"Are you an emergency?"
No. It was for a friend.
He nodded. He himself had an important arthrose in his shoulder, and also some malign fungus of the feet. He was not going to stand for an hour and a half in the sun to wait for the pharmacy to open. He sat down on the pavement next to the door and started to read chapter one of his prescriptions. I decided to go and have breakfast.
"Come back well before ten," he said. "There will be many people today."
How did he know? Was a Sunday morning visit to the pharmacy a regular prelunch treat? I thanked him and ignored his advice, killing time with an old copy of Le Proven?al in a caf?.
When I returned to the pharmacy just before ten, it looked as though le tout Cavaillon had gathered outside. There were dozens of them standing with their voluminous prescriptions, swapping symptoms in the manner of an angler describing a prize fish. Monsieur Angine boasted about his sore throat. Madame Varices countered with the history of her varicose veins. The halt and the maimed chattered away cheerfully, consulting their watches and pressing ever closer to the still-locked door. At last, to a murmured accompaniment of enfin and elle arrive, a girl appeared from the back of the pharmacy, opened up, and stepped smartly aside as the stampede jostled through. Not for the first time, I realized that the Anglo-Saxon custom of the orderly queue has no place in French life.
I must have been there for half an hour before I was able to take advantage of a gap in the m?l?e and give my documents to the pharmacist. She produced a plastic shopping bag and started to fill it with boxes and bottles, rubber-stamping each prescription as she worked her way through the pile, a copy for her, a copy for me. With the bag at bursting point, one prescription remained. After disappearing for five minutes, the pharmacist admitted defeat; she was out of stock of whatever it was, and I would have to get it from another pharmacy. However, it was not grave, because the important medication was all there in the bag. Enough, it seemed to me, to bring a regiment back from the dead.
Benson sucked and gargled and inhaled his way through the menu. By the next morning he had emerged from the shadow of the grave and was feeling sufficiently recovered to join us on a trip to the M?nerbes pharmacy in search of the last prescription.
One of the village elders was there when we arrived, perched on a stool while his shopping bag was being stuffed full of nostrums. Curious about what exotic disease the foreigners might have, he remained seated while our prescription was being filled, leaning forward to see what was in the packet as it was put on the counter.
The pharmacist opened the packet and took out a foil-wrapped object the size of a fat Alka-Seltzer tablet. She held it up to Benson.
"Deux fois par jour," she said.
Benson shook his head and put his hand to his throat.
"Too big," he said. I couldn't swallow anything that size.
We translated for the pharmacist, but before she could reply the old man collapsed with laughter, rocking perilously on his stool and wiping his eyes with the back of a knobbly hand.
The pharmacist smiled, and made delicate upward motions with the foil-wrapped lump. "C'est un suppositoire."
Benson looked bewildered. The old man, still laughing, hopped down from his stool and took the suppository from the pharmacist.
"Regardez," he said to Benson. "On fait comme ?a."
He moved away from the counter to give himself space, bent forward, holding the suppository above his head, and then, with a flowing backwards swoop of his arm, applied the suppository firmly to the seat of his trousers. "Tok!" said the old man. He looked up at Benson. "Vous voyez?"
"Up the ass?" Benson shook his head again. "Hey, that's weird. Jesus." He put on his sunglasses and moved a couple of paces backwards. "We don't do that where I come from."
We tried to explain that it was a very efficient method of getting medication into the bloodstream, but he wasn't convinced. And when we said that it wouldn't give him a sore throat either, he wasn't amused. I often wonder what he told his brother the doctor back in Brooklyn.
Shortly afterward, I met my neighbor Massot in the forest and told him about the suppository lesson. It was droll, he thought, but for a truly dramatique episode there was nothing to touch the story of the man who had gone into the hospital to have his appendix out and had woken up with his left leg amputated. Beh oui.
I said it couldn't be true, but Massot insisted that it was.
"If I am ever ill," he said, "I go to the vet. You know where you are with vets. I don't trust doctors."
Fortunately, Massot's view of the French medical profession is as unlikely to reflect reality as most of his views. There may be doctors with a taste for amputation in Provence, but we have never met them. In fact, apart from our brush with mononucleosis, we've only seen the doctor once, and that was to combat an attack of bureaucracy.
It was the climax of months of paper shuffling that we had gone through in order to get our cartes de s?jour-the identity cards that are issued to foreign residents of France. We had been to the Mairie, to the Pr?fecture, to the Bureau des Imp?ts, and back again to the Mairie. Everywhere we went, we were told that another form was required which, naturellement, could only be obtained somewhere else. In the end, when we were convinced that we had a full set of certificates, attestations, declarations, photographs, and vital statistics, we made what we thought would be our last triumphal visit to the Mairie.
Our dossiers were examined carefully. Everything seemed to be in order. We were not going to be a drain on the state. We had no criminal record. We were not seeking to steal employment from French workers. Bon. The dossiers were closed. At last we were going to be official.
The secretary of the Mairie smiled nicely and passed over two more forms. It was necessary, she said, to have a medical examination to prove that we were of sound mind and body. Doctor Fenelon in Bonnieux would be pleased to examine us. Off to Bonnieux we went.
Excerpted from Toujours Provence by Peter Mayle. Copyright © 1992 by Peter Mayle. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.