Chicken Soup à la Française

In the course of my life I’ve been sick very few times—actually sick: bedridden and feverish, I mean. I’ve tried to be sick many times at 6 am before going to school; unfortunately, my mother was too smart for that! Then there’s the time I spent two weeks in hospital after having my appendix removed. ‘It was almost peritonitis’, the doctor said. That means it was about to burst and cause all kinds of purulent mayhem inside me. And, of course, there’s the couple of kidney stones I passed and hope to never pass again. But if I were to say I used to fall ill only once every two years, even with something as mild as the common cold, that would be a fair estimation. Sniffles and the few allergies aside, or even the odd irritated throat from that bad habit of breathing through my mouth, I could safely say that until quite recently I’ve always been, if not a poster child, at least a fat rosy Victorian postcard babe of good health. That is, until I came to live in Europe, whereupon everything just fell apart.

As it stands, I now count myself very lucky if I manage to go through six months without getting actually sick at least once: bedridden, feverish—Normally it’s the change of season that does it, if nothing else. But, then, there’s the chronic throbbing sore throats and coughing bouts, and the head colds in midsummer, which baffle me greatly. The sore throats I can somewhat control through large quantities of vitamin C, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less aggravating. I’ve never really learnt to blow my nose, so a runny nose is generally just another use for my sweater sleeves. And head colds are a real pain—literally—but there’s always caffeine and aspirin. It’s the coughs that get on my nerves. They’re basically the worst, for there’s no way of getting rid of them and they usually come about at night, when everything is silent and bleak, so your drama really feels Dickensian. 

They start off innocently enough, the coughs, like a cold engine turning over, once, twice, then a bit of respite; but in no time they ascend in glissando to a real consumptive hack. The coughing is bad enough and it runs you down eventually if it stretches out but perhaps the worst thing about it is that usually at some point it devolves into hiccups. To my mind, the idea of hiccups and the idea of God are mutually exclusive. No world in which the hiccups exist could possibly be the design of a conscious, benevolent, all-powerful being. A bumbling one perhaps, one who slaps together some mud, twigs and dried leaves to make man, then forgets his car keys in there, too. 

I don’t expect anyone likes the hiccups but normally you suffer them a couple of minutes and then they go away and you can laugh about it now you’re smugly hiccup-free. But then there’s us: people like my father and I, for whom a spell of the hiccups means we have to clear our schedules. Every time I get them I think to myself: This is the time they won’t go away and eventually you’ll be featured in a daytime morning special on people whose lives were ruined by having them unceasingly for 20 straight years! Fortunately, that time hasn’t come… yet. For now I normally get released from them in a couple of hours, when they’ve left me completely exhausted and depressed, frustrated, also, because none of the ‘remedies’ bandied about the internet have worked, and I feel as if a ruthless dictator has conquered and trundled his tanks over me, and now all I want is to lay in my bed and be absorbed by its fibres.

I take it back: hiccups are the real worst. 

Perhaps they compete with parasitic worms. Fine, I’ll admit parasitic worms are the real, actual worstbut not by too far. Parasitic worms, repulsive though they may be, don’t just pop into people’s eyes for no good reason, just for kicks: they do so to survive. Whereas the hiccups—what’s the point of them? Except for the fact they tend to give mild amusement to people around you, they’re seldom if ever anything but a clamp on joy to the one personally involved. A tumble is also good for a laugh but unless you break your hip you can normally brush yourself off and be in on the fun, too. Whereas having the hiccups is like being a mangy broken-down gorilla in a cage with a group of school brats chucking banana projectiles at your face—and you also have the hiccups! Schadenfreude aside, except for some shot-in-the-dark hypotheses, no one truly knows why we get the hiccups but it is pretty much unanimously agreed that they respond to no real practical function and there’s absolutely no benefit to be got from them. To my mind, the most convincing explanation is that they’re a pointless remnant from when we were amphibians and had to close off our air-breathing lungs to gulp in oxygenated water through our gills. Meaning they’re a lousy prank 370 million years in the making.

All of this is a moot point to me, however, for until they’ve found out the way to get rid of them, once and for all, this topic is about the only thing I care to know nothing about! I’ve been scared, tickled, had my tongue pulled and heard the most absurd remedies you can think of, like the clichéd drinking water from the opposite side of the glass—which is not only impossible to do but also adds humiliation to your current ordeal—all to no avail. Even my father, the man who can predict a political coup and, at the same time, defeat his allergies by wearing his Y-fronts on his face, is entirely helpless when it comes to the cruelty of the hiccup.

A fit of hiccups, in my case, chiefly comes about amidst a volley of severe, dry coughing, and, in the best of times, those are fairly infrequent. But then there’s that little nagging ahem I have every day, all day long. It’s more of a frog in my throat than anything, really. It never amounts to much and one could even assume it’s a tic, a rather innocuous trifle when compared to the things I’ve just described. Nonetheless, someone recently told me: ‘That little cough of yours, you should get that checked: that’s probably some fungus that’s latched onto the lining of your lungs’. A fungus? Latched onto my lungs? Could that sound any more like something out of Alien? When I hear these things people often say to you off the cuff, like they’re telling you ‘it’s raining outside’, I’m sure glad I’m not a hypochondriac, like my sister and mother, or I’d be constantly checking myself for lumps in the shape of heads ready to burst out, teeth gnawing!

Many of these things are souvenirs of our four-year stint in Paris. And I believe they’re all more or less linked to the reliable decrepitude of the common Parisian habitation. Indeed, the more ramshackle our place and its surroundings, the more commonplace were the ailments. From our bedbug-infested apartment in rue Faidherbe to our mouse-infested apartment in rue d’Avron to our spider-infested apartment in rue du 19 mars 1962, all suffered from a general neglect that seeped through the walls in the form of toxic black mould that ripened into an especially unpleasant Rorschach: one of those murderous imps, blood-thirsty vampires or ravenous dark gashes. So to be fair to my friend’s Alien theory: I can readily imagine this black slime creeping in through my mouth at night and renting a flat in my lungs, making it dingy and foul, just like home.

Once upon a time, my mother worked as a clinical psychologist, so very early on I got into her medical books and found this marvellous one titled Pharmacological Vade Mecum, which had a colourful picture of assorted pills and tablets on the cover, and looked like real fun. It was essentially an encyclopaedia of all drugs: brands, generic names, uses, misuses, side effects. At ten I shouldn’t have but I was enthralled. Soon, I was hooked on the freeing power of self-medication. Clearly, I never was against using chemicals to stop my suffering. My motto in this sense is and always has been: If it hurts, there’s a pill that’ll make it better. At ten, like at thirty-six: I feel something; I look it up; I get the pill that fixes it; end of story. 

However, when we arrived in Paris, it got complicated. We had no access to their convoluted health system, which meant no doctor would see us and no medicines could be prescribed, and there was very little that pharmacies were able to sell you over the counter that did not fall into the category of a lozenge. Self-medication was, therefore, completely out of the question. We had to rely solely on the power of our hardy 21-century immune systems. But a cosmopolitan city has very exotic and fancy viruses and bacteria, and being the bumpkins we essentially were, we were ill-prepared for the wonderfully weird strains that hailed from all corners of the globe. Some elegant, some unremarkable and neat, but all very novel to us and very much lurking behind piss-stained corners and in long, glaucous métro corridors. We soon fell ill with what surely felt like a panoply of diseases.

Often, we had no choice but to stew in our flu-infested airs. We putrified in this manner for weeks with no improvement. Nor did we thankfully get much worse, for—it must be admitted—we humans are not as clean as we like to think ourselves: we tend to sit and simmer in our own personal Petri dishes as a habit, which makes us resilient. (Case in point: how far from that faecal-matter-atomiser, ie the toilet, do you keep your toothbrush?) Still, when one thinks of sickness these days—that is, before a pandemic comes about and skews our perspectives a tad—, one tends to think it not such a big deal. Well, in Paris one time we spent almost two months getting each other sick, my wife, Tatiana, and I, for what seemed like the longest and most boring tennis match involving mucus and phlegm, as well as sweat and grunts. As we wallowed in our ‘chic’ Parisian 14 square metres of matchbox real estate, around the corner we had a perfectly well-stocked pharmacy that might as well have been across the Acheron for all the good it did. Instead, we drank steaming murky infusions of lemon and cinnamon and honey designed to burn the evil from our throats and swill out our insides of all things corrupt and rotten. And we existed on what amounted to chicken soup à la française, as we called it, because it incorporated the expected ingredients, plus puréed ginger and Middle-Eastern spices, as much crushed garlic as would kill Dracula ten times over, and a dash of apple cider vinegar that, under the circumstances, burnt your throat like hydrochloric acid. All followed by a shot of paracetamol—that wonderful, universally over-the-counter panacea—and a tepid sodium bicarbonate gargle-water chaser.

I’ve never been an alarmist with these things. I mean, I did once think I’d got the bubonic plague. But that was mainly because I’d been reading Camus and, in his novel, he does go into rather a lot of detail, which coincided with me feeling particularly wretched one day. I was tired and I was heavy, the way that makes you feel like you’re slogging around life in soggy socks. And a pain in my groin and armpits had me waddling like a sack of potatoes on stilts. Of course, I couldn’t know for sure what I had and, when I noticed the egg-sized swellings—well, perhaps you’d think of pestilential putrefaction, too. In my defence, I was probably also feverish and semi-delirious, and because up to that point we’d come down with really quite the weirdest things, there was nothing to guarantee that the plague bacillus couldn’t still be dormant somewhere in Paris. Nonetheless, after the right amount of time to succumb to fear of having plague, I was back watching videos on YouTube of tiger cubs befriending baby orangutans, as any sensible sick person does. 

Normally, though, I can slice halfway through my hand with a kitchen knife and then just run it under a cold tap and carry on, as I did a couple of weeks ago, cutting meat for a steak and ale pie. Never a thought of infection, or that I might need stitches or it won’t heal up properly. My body’ll cope, I think. It’s not that I feel in any way immortal, it’s that at all times I expect this imperfect machinery to get a flat or to spring a leak and snap a belt, so I’m seldom surprised. And just as we carry spare tyres and the tools for changing them in the boots of our cars, I expect my body has the necessary resources to take care of most any such issues that aren’t immediately life-threatening. Likewise, I know full well this life inevitably leads to one and only one outcome. This isn’t like one of those ‘Create Your Own Story’ books I ate up for a short while in my teens, where you could choose the ending that best suited you. Life is more like Romeo and Juliet: even if for some reason you’ve never read it (like you’ve tied to a rock in a dark basement, for instance), you know that they both pop off in the end—still, you want to read it. In any case, what surprises me is I’m still running quite so well after 36 years.

I sometimes get the odd notification on social media: ‘So-and-so’s got a new job: CONGRATULATE HIM!’ My first thought is always, Why should I? When has so-and-so ever congratulated me about anything? Then, I look at so-and-so’s chosen profile photo—and I congratulate him about the new job.

‘Do I look as run-down?’, I ask Tatiana.

I show her the photo so-and-so’s consciously selected, amongst all other photos as defining of himself. In it he’s fully committed to that ‘I’m not bald, this is an aesthetic choice’ look. This includes the dark glasses that say, ‘Were I not at a company team-building retreat, I’d be surfing right now’. And the khaki cargo shorts, the kind that has enough empty pockets that you start to notice how many pockets it has and ask yourself, ‘Why so many pockets?’. Finally, it invariably has so-and-so pictured on a boat or very near one, probably even standing in front of a sunset, all seemingly configured to convey the message: ‘I’m youthful and I’ve made it, and I’m as happy as you can only truly be happy on or near some body of water’. 

‘I don’t think he looks that bad’, she says, having recently taken up the spiritual quest to try and not say negative things about people. 

But I know she’s thinking the exact same thing I am.

And it’s not that I believe I’m Benjamin Button. A couple of years back I got a very real reminder that I’m incrementally growing older, not younger, when I had to spend a weekend in bed after a couple of herniated discs made even sitting upright excruciating, and standing and walking, an impossible feat without Tatiana’s help. As I shambled the long 5 or so metres from the bed to the bathroom, holding onto her shoulders as if we were walking through a dark maze, I remember thinking that this is roughly what I imagined old-age would be like. Except in my imagination the arms that reached out of me would be polka-dotted and crumbly. What I hadn’t imagined is that my back would play up so early on, as I’m barely over a third into my life expectancy. Thankfully, though, my body did what I expected it to: it popped open the boot, took out the spare and diligently reabsorbed the hernia, eventually fixing itself up with no need of intervention. But there was that couple of days when my defining photo would’ve certainly prompted so-and-so to congratulate me on whatever else social media said I had going for me.

Another thing I was hoping to stave off for at least another decade or so was having to go to the proctologist. But then one day in mid-2013, just before we moved to France, I stood up from the john to find its insides tinted entirely red. Cooly, I thought, If I were bleeding internally I should think I’d feel something. As I described the crime scene to Tatiana, she was less inclined to brush it off and promptly got me an appointment to see the doctor. 

‘Well, it’s nothing to worry, Mr Pucci’, said the doctor, as she rummaged around with her index finger. ‘I do feel you need to incorporate some fibre into your diet.’

Then she went on to explain stuff about stool consistencies and told me I should always aim for the puréed-baby-food kind, which, we’ll agree, is always an unfortunate image, but somehow not made more palatable when it’s being explained by someone currently inside you.

‘A drop of blood can go a long way’, she continued, once outside. ‘That’—pointing her pen towards my lower half, but first raising her eyebrows as far as they went to indicate that my attention should go above my shoulders first—‘works just like your lips: if it dries up it cracks and then it bleeds. You need to moisturise.’ 

I was imagining twisting out the tip of my coconut butter-scented ChapStick and—

‘Here, this a prescription for a special ointment’. 

Yes, that makes more sense, I thought. 

What had surprised me more than her being so businesslike: smiling when I came in, then immediately telling me to ‘bend over, right over there’, was the fact that she was rather attractive and very young. This somehow didn’t make much sense. For some reason, to my mind, only a middle-aged man would choose to spend his day putting his fingers inside people’s rectums. This made the experience feel completely different than how I’d imagined it. Not more awkward or unpleasant, on the contrary, it somehow made it all seem less of a discomfiting procedure and more like something I should then confess to my wife. I was left feeling that going to the proctologist wasn’t really that bad after all.

‘So I’m not dying, then.’ I said, as I gathered my things, smiling a smile that was meant to communicate: I honestly didn’t want to come but I was made to.

‘Well’, she said after finishing writing something down in my file, ‘you don’t have colon cancer, let’s put it that way.’

At length, and after much comings-and-goings, we were finally able to slip ourselves into the French health system. Immediately, one thing I noticed about French doctors is that they have a wider threshold when it comes to what is urgent, important or just nothing to worry about—in other words: a complete waste of their time. This last seems to be their natural inclination and French doctors seldom think anything is really very serious as to warrant any kind of further attention. This, I tend to like. 

In other countries, doctors will go through a list of the ways that funny-looking rash might perhaps kill you before telling you: ‘Or it could be nothing—that’s always a possibility’. Not in France. Here they tend to purse their lips and raise their shoulders a lot and say something like: ‘Tragedy is inevitable. If it’s the case, we’ll see soon enough. But for the moment, we wait’. 

Especially when you’re in considerable pain, they seem to think that the first step is always to wait a day or two, really make sure you’re doubling over, that you can’t walk or even stand, that you can’t even sit down or lay on your back, the pain is so strong! When this happens, they’ll ask you to return: ‘Oh-kay, monsieur Pucci, how you feel?’ You’ll be curled up around the legs of the doctor’s desk, thinking, How do you think I feel!, but actually mouthing a plea for, ‘Painkillers… quick!’. They’ll tilt their heads like a quizzical, curious animal and try to judge whether or not it’s worth giving you any painkillers at this point if you’ve managed to make it to their surgery. Finally, if moved at all by your whining, they’ll say: ‘Well, I can prescribe some paracetamol but I can’t give you anything stronger unless it’s really very serious’. 

This, I do not like at all.

Therefore, even after we’d been granted access to French healthcare I only went once or twice to our doctor, and even then, again, urged by Tatiana, who didn’t want a repeat of the months of illness we’d had in previous years.

‘Go’, she would say, followed by a reminder of what a French friend had recently told us, ‘and if you want to get a prescription, you have to really exaggerate.’

Urgency staff, on the other hand, will pump you with everything they’ve got without you even realising. They get things done! When one day Tatiana got a throbbing migraine that had her seeing double, we first tried with the doctor. On the phone, after telling me she had an opening for next week, I could see Tatiana desperately mouthing: ‘Exaggerate!’, so told her Tatiana was curled up in a ball and had now gone blind. (The ball bit was not far off.) When a half hour later we were at the surgery’s waiting room, a quite unkempt room with subdued lighting in the heart of the 5th Arrondissement, a couple of minutes from both the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Panthéon, the doctor asked: ‘Are we not feeling well, Mme Lucena?’ This time, however, the doctor didn’t seem as confident and perfunctory, she asked a lot of questions and performed a lot of prodding, in a way that seemed like she hadn’t a clue what was going on. And when finally she told us: ‘I don’t have a clue what is going on’, she referred us to a hospital specialising in Neurology. 

Before we left she told us to go directly to Urgencies, and just as we were going out the door she quickly asked if my wife had recently travelled to Africa. 

‘Why?’, I asked. 

‘I don’t know’, she said, pursing her lips and raising her shoulders almost over her head. ‘It just occurred to me’. 

And she closed the door, leaving me wondering what on Earth she’d meant by that.

We were directed to the Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière, which is located on the boulevard de l’Hôpital, meaning ‘the boulevard of The Hospital’. It’s immediately reassuring to see the place you’re going to is the most important thing located on its street. It was dark by the time we got there. The place had been both a gunpowder factory, and a hospice for poor women and prison for prostitutes, at different points in time, and it retained the dour solemnity of the latter, made dourer still by the dark. It was also the place where Diana, Princess of Wales, died in 1997—of course, while we were there we tried not to think of that, only that it would all turn out to be nothing, just a waste of everybody’s time. Fortunately, the night was slow and Tatiana got attention quite fast. They had her lying in observation until around 3 am, knocked out by the wonderful opiates administered. At that time of night, the Urgencies waiting room seemed to draw in drunks and bums of all descriptions. It was as if the streets of Paris had concertedly tipped, causing al the tottering, loitering individuals to tumble down onto the hospital’s doorstep. As I was focusing on one particularly grim-looking drunk who seemed to have been attacked by a werewolf, one of his trouser legs tattered to shreds, a small pool of blood forming behind his mud-crusted, talking shoe, a very young and kind doctor came out to tell me I could go in and help my wife gather her stuff, that she was free to go, that it had indeed been nothing, just a very serious migraine, probably due to stress. 

It was then I noticed—perhaps due to the stark contrast between the bedraggled lurching of the middle-aged bunch waiting their turn and the sprightly tripping step of the youthful staff—that everyone working the Urgencies ward was so young. Later I learned it was because the Pitié-Salpêtrière is a teaching hospital, meaning most of its staff at the ward are probably students who’ve recently graduated, or even who’re finishing training. 

French older doctors tend to do their job well but always as if it were a personal favour, and always as if you’d woken them up from a very enjoyable nap. But here they were, at the beginning of their careers, energetic and even seemingly loving every second of it. I often observe young doctors, like most nurses—no matter their age—, seem to be more committed with the actual needs of the patient and not just the requirements of the condition. Perhaps it’s the fact that they’ve not yet suffered great defeat in their efforts to conquer weakness and death, so they’ve not yet grown weary. But as weakness and death inevitably do get the upper hand, with time this spark will become dim and eventually they must feel—as did Camus’s Dr Rieux—that they’re just plugging holes in Swiss cheese.

I wonder why this doesn’t seem to happen to nurses. In the end, it was one of these very kind and obliging nurses that told me that, all the while, there were free hospitals in Paris one could simply go to and get the attention and medication one needed, gratis and Sécu-less, even if it wasn’t an emergency or even something urgent, just a common head cold or a lowly sore throat. Are you kidding me?, I thought, as I recalled all those times we withered inside musty apartments like unpicked, wormy fruits, suffering pain and discomfort for no good reason at all. 

Naturally, once you know this, everyone else seems to know it, too; to have known it all along and, for some bizarre reason, never thought to mention it when you really needed it. As much of the intelligence one eventually gets from friends and acquaintances in France, it comes accompanied by a ‘bah, oui!’, basically meaning ‘Duh!’, as if it were the most self-evident thing in the world. Often, the very person now churlishly bah-oui-ing is the same person who, four years back, told you that seeing a doctor without having a la Sécu, ‘C’est impossible!’. 

Things are always obvious once they’re done being impossible. 

The worst part of it all is that I’ve never got to live the real sick-person experience. I basically missed out on it in my pre-Europe life, by being essentially too healthy and by having a mother for whom, like the French, any temperature shy of 39 degrees Celsius is nothing at all—just a waste of everyone’s time. Then, after Paris, any bug will undoubtedly pass back and forth between Tatiana and me before it is taken seriously and got rid of; and one can hardly demand attention from another sick person. So I think when once again there’re sensible mid-level virus and bacterias to be had out there, I’m going to get an elegant one, one that doesn’t kill me but that lays me low for a couple of weeks. One that’s bad enough even that my mother decides to travel 15 hours over the Atlantic to help out. Then, I’ll tuck myself in bed, with my sweater sleeves at hand, and lay faint all day, whinging about my many aches and torments, giving everyone as much trouble as I possibly can.

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