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Culture, Language and Posteriors

Sharon Revol: The French Medical Experience - Culture, Language and Posteriors

Sharon Revol
About the Author

Sharon Revol has been living in France for the last 14 years and is married to a Frenchman. Her daily experiences of life in France can be read at pigletinfrance.wordpress.com

If you were looking to experience new cultural experiences would you really expect to find them at the Doctors surgery?

Nearly everyone in the Western world is bound to hear about France’s extraordinary reputation for exemplary healthcare at some point in their lifetime. High standards come at a price though. It’s one of the causes of the country’s large deficit and the reason behind some of the additional taxes that the French have to pay, but very few people would expect going to the Doctors to be a cultural experience as well as a medical one.

Most new expatriates arriving in France are likely to be surprised by certain things in the French healthcare system and I can clearly remember my first experiences even though they were a long time ago now. Experiencing medical care in France is a lesson in language, being discreet and becoming comfortable with one’s body.

The majority of French doctors work independently as opposed to being part of large medical centre, meaning most of the Doctors and specialists work from apartments or houses often where, or nearby to where they live. Not quite what you would expect if you are used to clean, clinical looking medical centres with neutral decorations and plenty of mod cons. My current Doctor’s premises look like a throwback to the 1970’s complete with original wallpaper, furniture and plastic plants.

As a first experience this can be quite nerve wracking as there usually aren’t any receptionists. You just ring the doorbell and go in. You may think you’ve mistakenly entered someone’s home: My Otologist’s waiting room was just opposite the kitchen so I could often smell what her husband was cooking for dinner if my appointment was scheduled late afternoon.

The waiting rooms normally look like someone’s living room with scattered chairs and sometimes even a sofa or two. It is very likely that the room has been divided off from the consultation room, so expect the walls to be paper thin. So much so that you cannot expect to have any privacy and unfortunately you cannot avoid but overhearing everyone else’s ailments as you wait your turn. Many a times I’ve had to avoid eye contact with the departing patient, as I’d heard just a little bit too much information about his rashes or excessive sweating. You then have to remember to speak quietly when it’s your turn.

Embarrassing moments aren’t just limited to the waiting room and to the paper thin walls though. Language can be a problem also for Expatriates and one thing you should bear in mind is that French doctors do not expect you to be prudish.

Quite often they will ask you to strip down to your underwear for the slightest examination, with no screen or gowns to protect your privacy.

One time I went to the doctor and complained that my neck hurt. Knowing that they’re quite keen on examinations, I was only partly surprised when he told me to take my clothes off, but was even more surprised when he started bending down to take a closer look at my backside! Thinking my Doctor was some sort of pervert with a penchant for inspecting women’s posteriors, I repeated that my neck hurt and told him he was about to inspect the wrong place. My poor Doctor looked just as embarrassed as I felt as he looked up to see me desperately making frantic gestures indicating that it was my neck that was painful and not my derriere.

I learned that I had said that I had “mal au cul” an impolite way of saying pain in my derriere, instead of “mal au cou” pain in my neck! Just the slightest mispronunciation of a word can lead to the most embarrassing situations!

A trip to the Doctors can also mean picking up new vocabulary. I once learned a new word when my Doctor said he was going to ask his confrère for a second opinion. Literally translating his words, I was horrified that he had said that he was going to ask his stupid brother for his opinion. I didn’t particularly want a second opinion from him if my own Doctor considered him stupid; after all, it if the guy was stupid how clever would his opinion be? Only later on when I was recounting my experience to my husband did I learn that confrère wasn’t an insult at all and that actually it meant colleague!

So all in all, cultural experiences can be had in many areas, not necessarily where we would expect them, after all would you really expect a trip to the Doctor’s to be anything out of the ordinary?

Read Sharon's previous columns here

Sharon Revol has been living in France for the last 14 years, is married to a Frenchman and has written business columns in the UK as well as articles about French life for various publications. Her daily experiences of life in France can be read at pigletinfrance.wordpress.com

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