I’ve been having some problems with an old injury that was stirred up by a recent fall. This meant that I was going to have to see our doctor, a thought that filled me with dread. This is not because Dr. Sattern isn’t a nice chap. On the contrary, he is very pleasant. The difficulties lie elsewhere.
We live in a rural part of France and either our doctor is very popular, or there aren’t very many of them about. I’m not sure which is correct, but it takes an awfully long time to get to see him. The appointment process itself is extremely quick and, if necessary, almost immediate, but the subsequent time spent in the surgery waiting room can often cause one to lose the will to live. An emotion that is quite ironic in the circumstances.
For some unknown reason it’s not uncommon to hang around for two hours or more after the original appointment time. This has, on more than one occasion, caused my husband Jack to comment that there’s really no point in having a schedule at all. He may be quite right there.
Jack has a characteristic aversion to doctors. I remember the time when we were living in Britain and our surgery closed down. We had to transfer to a new doctor and, in order to register, every patient was required to go in for a quick medical check. The paperwork could then be completed. For Jack this was anathema. His time was at a premium anyway, but that wasn’t all. As a healthy person he couldn’t see the point of sitting in a roomful of people, many of whom were likely to be carriers of various diseases. He’s never particularly enjoyed human company anyway, and this presented a perfect logic to absent himself from a procedure that he considered to be flawed.
After many letters and phone calls from the surgery Jack eventually spoke with our new doctor. To his credit he agreed with everything Jack said, and arranged to see him out of hours. Jack duly went along at 8pm one evening when the surgery was empty. Apparently he had a thoroughly pleasant chat with the doctor about golf, and the trials of having to team up with one’s wife. He may even have had his pulse taken – that I couldn’t be sure about, but at least he was now registered.
Therefore, as far as my husband is concerned, he has to be half-dead before he’s prepared to contemplate a move in our French doctor’s direction. I, on the other hand, needed to go. I made the call to his receptionist and asked for an appointment. My natural optimism fleetingly got the better of me when I foolishly asked for a period which was the calmest. “Hah!” came the harsh cry from the fatigued assistant. She told me that there were never any calm periods, but I could take my pick from a number of slots that had not been taken. Unfortunately I couldn’t make any of these, so asked what his diary was like for the next morning. “But madame there are no scheduled appointments tomorrow morning. The surgery opens at 8.30am and you must arrive and wait your turn.”
“Parfait,” I replied. This was the obvious way to deal with the problems of hanging around for hours. I would simply arrive very early and get to see him first. Perhaps I should have taken more notice of her “bon chance” after I shared my strategy with the lady but, in my enthusiasm, I failed to register its subtle significance.
The next morning I got up bright and early and began my journey to our surgery. And it’s just as well I did because I very quickly caught up with a farmer driving his car between 25 and 30kph (yes, that’s kilometres). Sadly, this is not unusual. We haven’t quite worked out why some of them drive so slowly. It could be because their battered old cars are past the sell-by date and simply have a top speed of around 30kph. It may be because they’re conserving fuel. Then there are those who indulge in the peculiarly European tradition of driving a ‘Voiture sans Permis’.
Literally translated as ‘Car without Licence’ these vehicles are legally defined as a four-wheel vehicle with an unladen weight not exceeding 350kg, a maximum speed not more than 45kph, and maximum power less than or equal to 4kW (5.6hp ). They are treated as mopeds and can be driven with or without a licence. Even if exercised to the full, their theoretical top speed is exactly half the normal single carriageway speed limit. But driving at full speed seems to be a rare event.
I couldn’t be sure why we were travelling so slowly but, in the absence of a passing lane, there was no possibility of overtaking the sedate old gentleman in front of me. This turned my 15 minute drive into 30, but it shouldn’t have mattered. Fortunately time was on my side and I was still very early.
It was market day in the town and quite busy already, it was also very hot. I squashed my car into one of the few remaining spaces, breezed confidently into the surgery, and stopped in my tracks. The place was already seething with people and it wasn’t even 8.15am – I couldn’t believe it. What a dirty trick! It must have been the cleaner who’d let them all in. I looked at the assembled company and said my obligatory “bonjour messieurs dames” which was greeted by a series of croaks and one extremely loud sneeze. I then looked towards the receptionist’s desk and saw the pile of health-service cards which were already stacked high. These would determine the order of play. I had half a mind to slot mine gently in the lower part of the tower, but one look from the rheumy-eyed patient on card-duty put me off straight away. Instead I dutifully popped it on top and sat down on the remaining horizontal surface, the children’s toy box. Incidentally this is another of Jack’s pet hates. He views the lids of these boxes with great suspicion, convinced that they are dangerously contagious objects having been fiddled with by small ill children.
8.30am came and went and every time the door opened, as a group, we all looked up expectantly, hoping that it would be our doctor. Sadly not. I remonstrated with myself for my naivety at forgetting that he is never on time, ever. Dr. Sattern is something of a local celebrity around our parts owing to his willingness to volunteer for just about everything. Fire brigade, neighbourhood police, relief hospital medic, you name it, he’s stuck his hand up. I think his public-spirited behaviour is quite laudable, but Jack thinks he’s just a public-spirited egomaniac. Whatever the truth, his numerous extra-mural activities often cause him to be very late.
Happily Madame Colcutt, the receptionist did arrive on time, barked a “bonjour” at us all and glowered at the mass of cards. She then reconnected the phone from night answer machine mode which caused the receiver to explode with noise, and become alive with flashing lights. This lasted most of the morning for the over-worked lady.
Finally at 9.34am Dr. Sattern strolled in looking perfectly relaxed and not at all as though he had just left the emergency helicopter outside. Those of us who had watches stared at them, others glanced at the wall clock, which was clearly missing a battery. A groundswell of grumpy mutters was followed by a few hacking coughs. There was a moment of innate solidarity – none of us was happy that he was so late, but relieved that the proceedings could at last begin. A further period of tension ensued while we waited for our doctor to strap on his stethoscope and call the first patient. Furtive glances flickered around the room, each of us trying to guess who would be the first to go in.
“Madame Sarget,” boomed Dr. Sattern, his stethoscope swinging dangerously from side to side, threatening to whack an old chap on the beret. We all stared fixedly at this lady, willing her to get a move on, but this was unlikely to happen. Poor old Madame Sarget was desperately elderly and, by the look of things, on her last legs. In retrospect, it was probably just as well that she did go first. Anyway, we were up and running and the strain in the room visibly eased. People began to chat among themselves, read waiting room magazines which, as Jack would point out, had all previously been soiled by other patients, or play with their mobile phones. However, after about half an hour our collective spirits were dampening. Madame Sarget was still in there, and there were still over 20 of us left in the waiting room. It didn’t take a mathematician to work out that if we all took that long it would be tomorrow before the end of the list was reached. Things were not going at all well.
Finally, after about 35 minutes, she hobbled out. Well, at least she was still alive. The next three or four patients only took around 15 minutes each so it was safe to believe that we might now be on a roll. We relaxed and later on looked with a mixture of pity and smugness at a new group who arrived and had to line up against the wall (standing room only now). Dr. Sattern duly reappeared having dispensed with another ‘done’ patient, but to our utter dismay, called three of the newcomers in. This caused collective outrage. Two of the patients immediately strode up to the receptionist to complain. In part this was an unwise move because it enabled one of the standers to slide into a now-vacant seat.
The initial thrust of the complaints committee was somewhat thwarted because their attentions were waved aside by Madame Colcutt, who’s phone was still welded to her ear and threatening to catch fire with overuse. She finally barked a “ne quittez pas s'il vous plait” (hold please) at the receiver, stabbed a button and stared defiantly at the angry mob. I couldn’t hear what was said, but it seemed that our deputation wasn’t entirely successful. There was much head wagging, pointing of fingers and a slam of the desk diary by madame. Our contingent returned to wedge themselves onto the now full couch, and explained the situation. It seems that these people (who didn’t seem to speak French), had arrived very early, started off the card pile, and then gone off to have a relaxed mooch around the market. Genius! Their return timing was nothing short of impeccable. They were, in fact, blameless.
Time wore on and I was beginning to wish that I had brought a cushion. As each new patient was called in we started to eye one another with suspicion. Was there any possibility of queue-fixing? It was difficult to say. The other problem was the heat. The air conditioning unit was in a similar state to the wall clock. It didn’t work. With temperatures rising steadily it would have been around 32 degrees centigrade outside by now, and not much less inside. I’m afraid this took its toll on the assembled company, some of whom began to perspire and smell rather ripe. Those with coughs and colds became noisier. I was certain that the air was thick with a colourful mix of infections, which were now being wafted around by several ladies using rank looking dog-eared magazines for fans. Blood pressures were collectively rising. This was a thoroughly bad combination, but at least we were in the right place in the event of an impromptu health disaster. Then, as if matters could get any worse, in came a screaming child with its mother.
It wasn’t immediately clear which of the two was the patient. The mother looked absolutely exhausted and the child yelled in a most energetic fashion. Sadly they made a bee-line for me, but it wasn’t my company they sought, the child wanted to get at the toys. I got up stiffly and waited my turn for the musical chairs moment when one might become vacant. I must say that, at times like these when there’s the possibility of a seat to be won, it’s amazing how agile the otherwise infirm can be. Unfortunately it was breathing room only, so I stood next to the mother and the child, who was now busy shredding toys.
This part of my morning was probably the lowest. The unfortunate little boy, who was around four years old, had a streaming cold but hadn’t yet acquired the skills needed to manage the stuff that was running out of his various orifices. His mother avoided any attempt to help him with his general hygiene, and completely ignored the bawling snivels and rivulets of liquid running down his face into his mouth. Instead, she busied herself by sending text messages. I watched, grotesquely fascinated, as he carefully excavated each nostril and smeared the contents of his gunky nasal passages onto his shorts and the toy box lid. Evidently of the opinion that something was not quite right, he then took out a bag of tiny sweets and proceeded to stuff one or two up the empty passages. Oddly enough these got stuck and caused immediate irritation. He then let out a gusty sneeze, causing all sorts of unsavoury fluids to fly across the room, and one of the sweets to fire out of his nostril like a pellet. This sent it skimming across the floor. Where would it end up? I was gripped. It eventually skipped over a small clod of mud and came to rest on an old lady’s stocking. Luckily, and despite it being bright orange, she didn’t notice.
I was so transfixed, wondering what was going to happen next, that I didn’t notice the activity going on around me. Dr. Sattern, stethoscope swinging pendulously, had reappeared and was calling my name! Faces stared accusingly as I wasted precious time by scrambling about trying to re-pack the contents of my bag, which I’d managed to drop on the floor in all the excitement. I gathered them up as quickly as possible, minced around the knobbly knees, the walking sticks and the suspicious splats on the floor, and I was in.
At this stage all I wanted to do was get my minor problem sorted and out of the way, but it’s never really that easy with Dr. Sattern. Aside from the fact that he is quite a chatter, he also loves to test out his linguistic skills. He was still extremely relaxed, apparently oblivious to the worsening health conditions he was causing his patients in the next room. He spoke in pidgin English and started regaling me with amusing anecdotes which had occurred during an over-the-garden-fence conversation he’d with his English neighbour. During this I made the fatal mistake of correcting one of his mis-used words.
Me: “I think you mean duG, rather than duGGED Dr. Sattern.”
Dr. S: “As yes, it is the dug, I see thank you.”
Me: “That’s a pleasure, your English is excellent.”
Dr. S: “Ah you flattering me too much.”
Me: “Certainly not, it’s the truth. And that’s a very good word to use.”
Dr. S: “Yes, an old French word.”
Me: “Ah, I think you’ll find that it is an English word.”
Mistake! Dr. Sattern sprang into action. He swept aside heaps of patient records and medical tomes and started ferreting around with the mountain of books on the floor. No luck there. He then went to his computer, pressed the delete button and hit Google.fr. After a moment or two of frantic keying he clicked on a website and let out a whoop of triumph.
Dr. S: “Here it is – the definition. It is for sure the word very French.”
With that he swung the screen towards me with such ferocity that it knocked the plastic spine and rib cage clean off the shelf, sending them clattering across the floor. There were vertebrae everywhere.
Me: “Ah yes, I do apologise, it’s seems that I might be wrong.”
Dr. S: “You are! All the best words, they are the ones French.”
Now that he’d sorted out yet another linguistic challenge to his personal satisfaction he abandoned the rest of his story, his bones, and stared fixedly at me.
Dr. S: “So, what is wrong?”
By this stage it was nearly 1pm and quite honestly I could barely remember why I’d gone in the first place. I blundered through an explanation of my minor medical problem which, to his credit, he took very seriously. After a thorough examination and prescription to sort it out, we said our goodbyes and he steered me back to the lions’ den.
I knew I had been in there for almost half an hour, but there hadn’t been much I could do about it. However, no excuse would have been acceptable to the remaining occupants of the waiting room who stared belligerently and sniffed intermittently as I scurried by. As I made for the door I passed the receptionist’s desk. She had escaped to lunch leaving her phone flashing like a manic 1970’s disco ball. Who could blame her?
My journey back was very short, leaving me just enough time to fret about my appointment and those poor patients still waiting to be seen. Today had been a new record, one that had beaten the socks of our usual two hours. I had started off at 8am and didn’t reach home until 1.30pm.
As I walked into the house my ever-loving Jack greeted me with, “Poor darling! You must be fed up.” I reached forward to give him a kiss, but he raised his hand in warning. “BUT,” he continued, “please don’t touch me or give us any food until you’ve washed your hands. You’ve been in that virus incubation chamber for a complete morning. In fact, better still, you go shower and I’ll make lunch. Safer all round really.”
So, there we have it – a morning that was nothing short of ridiculous. But, here in our little corner of France, where life often moves very slowly, it’s something that is generally accepted. In my case, not always with good grace, in Jack’s case – never. But the truth is I’d never want to trade it, any of it.
And at least I got out of the cooking!