For our honeymoon, my husband and I spent three weeks in France. We are true Francophiles and love everything French (well, maybe not everything but certainly most things).
For my first marriage, I had wanted to go to Paris on honeymoon, but my husband, a far crazier birder than me, wanted so desperately to go birding in Costa Rica that I just couldn’t say no. Being an enabler by training, I acquiesced, and we spent between 2-3 weeks getting up at 5am with the sunrise and birding until 5pm with the sunset. We experienced one attempted car break in, one flat tire, and saw over half of the species found in Costa Rica, thanks to our bird guide and friend, Nito, who we had met at the national park where we worked in the summers. I called the trip, “Our honeymoon with Nito.” We even managed to spend a few fabulous days with two friends who had sold their home to travel the world for a year. With Nito and our two friends, we walked up a winding road that led to a ranch on the border between Costa Rica and Panama.
We parked our car at an obliging woman’s home at the base of the mountain.
It’s not far, Nito had told us before we began the ascent, and he repeated this phrase for several miles and hours before we arrived in the rain close to midnight.
Inside, we sat on chairs fashioned from the cows the ranchers kept on their property, and they told us about hunting the jaguars that hunted the cows.
The reason I share this story is not to demonstrate how much of a pushover I can be for the people I love. More so, I wish to illustrate the kind of experience I seek while traveling. I want to journey beyond the surface, which can be difficult as a tourist, especially if you do not speak the local tongue. However, the more experiential travel can come with challenging packaging. which leads me back to my second marriage and second honeymoon. They say the third time is the charm, but I am hoping this one sticks.
We planned to faire un tour of France, making a circle by rental car that would begin and end in Paris. The trip began relatively without consequence. Procuring the rental car seemed to take much longer for us than all of the other French people, who seemed to walk in and out of the Hertz store within minutes. But finally, we were on the road and doing our best to navigate with a lagging GPS to get out of Paris unscathed.
We made it to Bretagne and spent several days with friends from my time teaching English to elementary school students in Quimper ten years earlier. We journeyed south to Bordeaux, where the real fun began. While taking a shower, I slipped in the bathtub and dislocated my shoulder. Luckily, my husband was nearby, grabbed my other arm to pull me up, and I was able to relocate (can one say this?) my shoulder. I say luckily as it was a Sunday, and the thought of trying to find a doctor was far from desirable. The cure for my first ailment? Drinking red wine and cognac from afternoon until night mixed with a little shopping.
We continued our journey, spending a beautiful day birding with an ex-pat British fellow who had come to France as a young adult to learn the language and had fallen in love with a Parisian woman (who wouldn’t?). the day was reminiscent of my first honeymoon with Nito, as our guide was set on finding as many species as possible and seemed to have an unending supply of energy with which to accomplish this task. Our final species was a little owl/chouette cheveche, seated atop a small chimney as the sky grew dark all around it.
Parking in Bordeaux was a miniature nightmare, and we were quite happy to quitte la grande ville pour le paysage encore (aka, we prefer the countryside to the city…typically, though our experience in Provence was to temporarily prove otherwise).
A night in Rocamadour at a Bed and Breakfast run by a super friendly British fellow. So far, we were really enjoying the ex-pats. I knew something was up when he opened the door and was super excited for us to arrive. I thought, This guy is French? He’s so happy and expressive! Nope.
Ailment number two came the next morning. We had a lovely breakfast, and I played a couple of songs on the ukulele for the innkeeper, his mother and twin sons, and the French couple sitting at the next table. We asked if we could take a photo with the innkeeper, and while my husband was preparing his camera, I started laughing at something the twin boys were doing, bent forward, and slammed my face smack dab onto a hard, wooden chair. Blood began dripping from my upper lip, which instantly began to swell until it eventually turned into what felt like a puffy beak. I love birds and joked with my husband that I wanted to be more birdlike.
In the end, I decided that I much prefer looking at birds than being birdlike. My beak was not so pleasant, and the pain and swelling brought on ailment number three, a sinus head cold in Arles.
Ailment number three may also have been brought on by the fact that we spent an afternoon walking through the misting rain in the city of Arles and then returned to our apartment and kept the windows open wide to avoid the smell of old cigarette smoke from the previous tenants.
Tant pis. I can survive a cold, and I had brought with me a small, traveling pharmacy.
Each ailment had its way of testing the strength of our bond, though the physical element was mine alone to enjoy.
The third ailment was more of a shared experience.
Despite my head cold, we headed out to look for an eagle owl in a fairly unpopulated corner of Provence. An hour walking around without success, we were tired and hungry and ready for the picnic we had brought along, replete with a nice bottle of red wine.
Instead, we arrived back at the car to find a broken window, open door, and everything but my rock collection, an iPhone charger cable, and a roll of toilet paper taken from the inside.
Again, an ailment on a weekend, the day after Christmas, when everything in the vicinity was closed.
But we persevered. We had planned to head the next day to my husband’s friend from a study abroad program many years ago. Instead, we headed to her home that night, where we were welcomed into a warm home with a beautiful family, fed a traditional French meal, and able to calm our nerves (mine, at least) after driving on narrow, winding roads up to their house in the French alps.
The blessing in strange packaging? We were able to have a truly cultural experience. In order to repair the window without paying 163 euro, we had to file a police report. Suffice it to say, we were thankful for our friend’s incredibly good humor and generosity in offering to act as traductrice/translator for us and helping to figure out where and when to bring our car in for the window replacement.
Somehow, despite potential mishaps along the way, all was well in the end. The gendarmerie was closed when we first arrived, so we went for a walk until it was slated to open (after a long lunch?). when we returned, it was even more definitively closed with a garage type door covering the entrance. Luckily, just as we were about to give up, a single police officer walked by on his way back to the office.
They only have one person staffing a police office in France? Strange, we thought, but we were just happy to have his undivided attention for the time it took to file the report.
Window replacement was set for the following afternoon, but when we arrived the fellow working at the shop told us they had expected us the previous afternoon. Luckily again, for us, he was a kind fellow and offered to do the job that afternoon, even though his colleague had communicated the wrong time to him.
Ailment number three behind us, we headed further north still to the home of another friend. This time, we left our car in their driveway during the visit and not so much as a bird deigned to leave its mark upon it.
It was with great pleasure and exceeding relief that we returned the car without incident. Just a sigh and a quick exit.
The fourth and hopefully final ailment was quite literally and figuratively my husband’s to shoulder. His shoulder went into spasm shortly after our arrival in Paris, despite my wish to the river Rhone that our journey should continue without incident. Perhaps, the rocks I wished upon, gathered at the site where our car was vandalized, had been cursed? Or maybe, we were just destined for the full cultural experience so there would be no illusions should we decide to spend a sabbatical year living in France.
After two nights with little to no sleep, we decided to find a doctor. Thanks to monsieur Google, we found a Centre Medicale located a three-minute walk from our Airbnb apartment. Navigating via GPS once more, we found the center, though not without effort. There was only a small sign beside a set of tall dark green doors that my husband noticed after we walked past.
Once we found the doors, it was unclear how we were supposed to get in. we pushed on the door, but it only gave a little under pressure before settling back into its track.
Maybe we call them? my husband suggested.
I pushed on the door again. Nothing.
He picked up his cell phone to find the number when someone opened the door from inside. Relieved, we stepped inside and followed a sign that told us the center for health was on the first floor (in france, the our first floor is the ground floor and is called the Rez de chaussée; our second floor is their first floor, if that makes sense). We headed up a winding set of stairs and entered the strangest health center I have ever seen.
The inside was lit up with lights and décor akin to the makeup section of a department store, with neon and pink and white lights. We stood in line. On our left stood a tall white counter with five staff seated behind it. As each person was helped and stepped aside, they would call out la suivante (next in line), and the next person would walk up. To our right was wall with with sets of jeopardy like design. On the left was medical and the right dental, both sides with rows squares that were all lit up in different colors, each with a different form medical care written inside. Traitement de la douleur, radiologie, acupuncture, etc.
When it was our turn, we explained the problem and proceeded to pay 23 euro for a visit with one of the on-call doctor. The woman seated behind the counter told us there was an open appointment at 11:15am. It was then 10:47am, so we decided to wait. There is always a long wait for an appointment in the states, so what was a half an hour.
She gave us a piece of paper and told us to place it in the file box outside of Cabinet C. We were then instructed to sit and wait in the sale d’attente. Being from the United States, where people are germ-crazed, I have somewhat of a phobia of germs but nothing too irrational. I think more so, I was still recovering from being recently ill, and from the sound and sight of the people waiting, I was afraid we might both catch another variation of the current French plague—the woman standing next to me was pale and sweating and literally looked like she about to pass out and keel over—so we walked back down the winding stairs and sat in the windowsill of the ground floor.
We headed back up about fifteen minutes before the appointment and proceeded to wait another half hour. At half past eleven, a woman small in stature, with short brown curly hair, a long white coat, and loafers that would be sensible but for their high heels walked out of Cabinet C, down the hall, and called out: Monsieur Lewis (Lou-wheese).
She gave me not a first or second look, but I followed behind just the same. When we reached Cabinet C (and it didn’t take long), she ushered Rich inside and followed him. I think she would have shut the door on me, but I interjected that I was his wife and needed to help translate.
Comme vous voulez (As you wish), she said, shrugging her shoulders, lifting her hands up as if to express defeat, and rolling her eyes.
I speak English, she said with a heavy French accent.
Rich sat on a traditional hospital bed, and I was instructed to sit in the chair on the far side of the desk, closest to the door. (I guess that way, if I pulled any funny stuff, she could get me out pretty quickly.)
Questions were asked, and my husband replied. When he didn’t reply quickly enough, I would interject. At one point, the doctor snapped at me to essentially sit down and keep my mouth shut.
I wanted to shake her and yell out, that’s my husband! But instead, I sat down and took a deep breath.
The entire experience was in many ways both ridiculous and hilarious. This was a no nonsense doctor. Maybe, this is how it is in the French healthcare system, or maybe it was her personality. She was clear on her opinions and on what needed to happen next, which included an x-ray that we would need to get at yet another healthcare center.
While she did not seem to have any real idea as to what was wrong, she did manage to damn all of American healthcare—our practice of overprescribing medication, high costs for care, etc.—none of which I disagreed with, though she did criticize my husband for taking medication for high cholesterol.
23 euros for a visit, it’s not bad, right? she said to us.
We nodded and laughed. She was right, though the experience had felt a bit like we were animals being herded around by feisty cattle dog doctors. She was horrified when I told her what a typical doctor visit in the states would cost out of pocket. I think she actually gasped and put her hand over her mouth. It was quite dramatic. I loved it!
We really got her going when I told her we were on our honeymoon and Rich mentioned that our rental car had been broken into.
I think she wouldn’t have prescribed any medication had I not interjected to tell my husband to inform her that he hadn’t slept in two nights. She seemed to think that because he could move his arm in all directions, things were not so serious after all.
But you are not sleeping? She asked. That is serious then.
Um, yeah. That’s why we came to a doctor.
We continued the herding experience at the next center for santé (health), where we took a ticket for radiologie sans RDV (without an appointment) and waited once more. This time, the waiting room felt a bit less plagued save for one young woman who intermittently emitted a deep, rasping sound reminiscent of what I could only imagine might be bronchitis or whooping cough. I was hoping for the former.
When our number was called, we were told that we could come back the following day at noon for an x-ray.
I was cranky from lack of coffee or breakfast, but I insisted we go to the pharmacie before eating. The pharmacie was tiny, and everything we needed seemed to cost 9 euros and change. There was no wait time for the prescription, however, and le collier (neck brace) was much snazzier than the large white one I was anticipating.
Things don’t seem to happen too quickly in French medical care, I muttered as we left.
But they are getting done, my husband replied, and without too much expense.
Things looked up after I had an expresso and a large bowl of French onion soup (just called onion soup in Paris) and several pieces of fresh bread.
The x-ray experience the following day was fairly straightforward. I was not allowed in because of the radiation, which made sense, so I took full advantage of being situated near a toilet (they are not always easy to find in Paris or desirable when you do find them). I had been pleasantly surprised by the number of helpfully located clean public toilets supplied with toilet paper during our travels around the country prior to our arrival in Paris. There seemed to be a pull off from the highway every few miles. Aire de x, y, and z, they were called.
But in Paris, you have to make use of every possible pit stop. At least, I seem to need to.
We paid 50 euros with our American HSA card (the first center claimed they could only take credit cards with chips in them…tant pis). We were then instructed to wait another 45 minutes for the x-rays to be developed. No digital images in France, I suppose.
I was not excited to dilly dally around for another 45 minutes, but what else could we do? An hour later, we finally received the x-rays. They came in a white folder with a piece of white paper. Written on the paper was a short paragraph in French (of course) explaining my husband’s condition, which I did my best to analyze, though my command of the language does not truly extend to medical speak, which I can barely understand in English either.
And that was it. My husband emailed the photos of the image to a family member, who suggested he invest in a different system for carrying his heavy camera lens around.
The rest of our time in Paris was spent eating, drinking a lot of red wine, and walking around.
During our 22-day voyage de noces in France, we managed to visit several regions of the country (more, apparently, than many Parisiens see, we were told by a Parisien), four dear friends and their families, the gendarmerie, window replacement garage, and experience the French health care system.
All in all, it was a experience overflowing with culture, gastronomie, and the most important part…love.