Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures


Ampule me once, shame on you

Here in la France, I’ve seen people taking pills at restaurants and in bars, something which I’m not sure I have seen in the US. I’m just speculating here, but it’s possible that for Americans, having to take any medication is a fraught topic. If I were having lunch with someone and they popped some pills in between courses, I’d certainly ask what was wrong with them. The wording of that question (“What’s wrong with you?”) is aggressive in the extreme, implying (or hoping for) weakness on the other person’s part. I think it’s the natural reaction any American would have and the most likely way they’d express it.

On the occasions that I’ve noticed people ingesting medication here, no one seems to find it comment-worthy which makes it note-worthy in my mind. The good news is that such blasé attitudes means that I’d actually seen people interacting with ampoules before, so I had a vague idea of what to do when I was confronted with this:


But, to be honest, seeing people from afar ain’t the same as actually knowing what to do, so I thought of movies where I’d seen people with ampoules and tried to remember what they did. In WWII movies like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, morphine addicts and nurses always had a tool like a file to saw through the marked ends to get to the drugs held captive inside. I ended up with a markedly less precise way of releasing the goods, but it got the job done.

Now I know that whenever I get a prescription, I need to request that the medicine come in an easily accessible form and that it not taste vile. Two important lessons learned and all I had to do was shatter an ampule all over myself to learn it! Another victory for expat-ery!


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To the pain

Pain is just like animal sounds, linguistically speaking: it doesn’t translate directly. The first time I came across this communication hiccup was when I was in Spain, suffering from an intense pain in my arm. I made a point of looking up the odd words I needed in the dictionary and merrily went on my way, hoping it would all be over soon.

When I was called into the doctor’s office, I complained of sharp pains in my arm, like I was being stabbed by a cold knife. Both the doctor and the intern stared at me, unable to even come up with a response. Then, the doctor veeeeerrrrrry sloooooowwwwwwly asked, “But, have you been stabbed before?” I laughed and said of course not. “Then how do you know the feeling of being stabbed?”

In his defense, he had a valid point. In my defense, this is the way people talk in English.

“Remember, this is for posterity, so be honest. How do you feel?”

After much back and forth, I told them that I had a repeated pain in my arm. It was rhythmic, so it was related to my pulse somehow. Also, it was an acute pain, so I determined that it was nerve-related. With these clues and some follow-up poking and prodding, the doctors decided that I had a inflamed nerve, probably aggravated by a repetitive motion, stress and the fact that I hadn’t slept well in months (it was summertime).

This all came back to me recently as I lay in bed, unable to move and wondering how in the hell I was going to explain what was wrong with me in French. I’d woken up and, when I tried to spin my body to the side of the bed to reach my slippers, I’d found that my right leg wasn’t cooperating. A cursory inspection revealed that my knee was swollen to the size of a coconut. (Normally, it’s between a nectarine and a small grapefruit.)

Adding irony to injury, since I couldn’t go anywhere, I was listening to podcasts while breathing through the pain and Radiolab’s episode about rating levels of pain came on. Staring at the ceiling and cursing everything I’ve ever known, I came up with some choice phrases to express my level of pain in French as well as awesome new combinations of multilingual curse words.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried about the linguistic issue so much. The source of my pain is clear (seriously, it’s hugely swollen) and the doctor I went to see started off by saying as much. Then she did a sonogram and diagnosed me with minimal weird attempts at explaining myself.

Truth be told, I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t going to get to use any of the many little phrases I’d come up with (the best being how the muscle around my knee felt like overcooked meat), so I’ll just have to wait until I have some kind of injury that isn’t manifest.


My first French hospital visit

I was in the hospital last Wednesday and still haven’t gotten over the experience. My visit was to have an out-patient procedure done (nothing serious), so I figured that I’d show up, sit in a waiting room and then go into an exam room and then be discharged. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Partly due to my insane phobia about being late, I got there almost an hour early and checked in with the nurses. I was immediately ushered into a private room with a bathroom much nicer than any I have seen in France (hotels included).

About twenty minutes before my procedure was supposed to start, an orderly pushed me to an operating room and then, once I was done, back to my room in my bed. Almost immediately afterwards, lunch was delivered: leek quiche; a salad with carrot, cherry tomatoes and a hard-boiled egg; a banana and a pôt de crème caramel (French flan). It was egg-taculous.

When I was finally discharged a couple hours later, I had no complaints (other than the long commute back to my house) and I’ve got say that I do miss that awesome bathroom. If this is what being sick in France is like, sign me up!

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