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Authors: Peter Mayle

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BOOK: Toujours Provence
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“Tell him I’m allergic to most antibiotics. He should call my brother in Brooklyn.”

“Comment?”

I explained the problem. Did the doctor by any chance have the wonder drug in his bag? Now. We looked at each other around Benson’s bare buttocks. They jerked as Benson coughed painfully. The doctor said he must be given something to reduce the inflammation, and that side effects from this particular shot were extremely rare. I passed the news on to Benson.

“Well … OK.” He bent over, and the doctor injected with a flourish, like a matador going in over the horns.
“Voilà!”

While Benson waited for allergic reactions to send him reeling, the doctor told me that he would arrange for a nurse to come twice a day to give further injections, and that the test results would be in on Saturday. As soon as he had them, he would make out the necessary prescriptions. He wished us a
bonne soirée
. Benson communed noisily with his handkerchief. I thought a
bonne soirée
was unlikely.

The nurse came and went, the test results came through, and the doctor reappeared on Saturday evening as promised. The young Monsieur had been correct. It was
mononucléose
, but we would conquer it with the resources of French medicine. The doctor began to scribble like a poet in heat. As prescription after prescription flowed from his pen, it seemed as though every single resource was going to be called into action. He passed over a wad of hieroglyphics, and wished us a
bon weekend
. That too was unlikely.

The Sunday of a holiday weekend in rural France is not the easiest time to find a pharmacy open for business, and the only one for miles around was the
pharmacie de garde
on the outskirts of Cavaillon. I was there at 8:30, and joined a man clutching a wad of prescriptions almost as thick as mine.
Together we read the notice taped to the glass door: Opening time was not until 10:00.

The man sighed, and looked me up and down.

“Are you an emergency?”

No. It was for a friend.

He nodded. He himself had an important
arthrose
in his shoulder, and also some malign fungus of the feet. He was not going to stand for an hour and a half in the sun to wait for the pharmacy to open. He sat down on the pavement next to the door and started to read chapter one of his prescriptions. I decided to go and have breakfast.

“Come back well before ten,” he said. “There will be many people today.”

How did he know? Was a Sunday morning visit to the pharmacy a regular prelunch treat? I thanked him and ignored his advice, killing time with an old copy of
Le Provençal
in a café.

When I returned to the pharmacy just before ten, it looked as though
le tout Cavaillon
had gathered outside. There were dozens of them standing with their voluminous prescriptions, swapping symptoms in the manner of an angler describing a prize fish. Monsieur
Angine
boasted about his sore throat. Madame
Varices
countered with the history of her varicose veins. The halt and the maimed chattered away cheerfully, consulting their watches and pressing ever closer to the still-locked door. At last, to a murmured accompaniment of
enfin
and
elle arrive
, a girl appeared from the back of the pharmacy, opened up, and stepped smartly aside as the stampede jostled through. Not for the first time, I realized that the Anglo-Saxon custom of the orderly queue has no place in French life.

I must have been there for half an hour before I was able
to take advantage of a gap in the mêlée and give my documents to the pharmacist. She produced a plastic shopping bag and started to fill it with boxes and bottles, rubber-stamping each prescription as she worked her way through the pile, a copy for her, a copy for me. With the bag at bursting point, one prescription remained. After disappearing for five minutes, the pharmacist admitted defeat; she was out of stock of whatever it was, and I would have to get it from another pharmacy. However, it was not grave, because the important medication was all there in the bag. Enough, it seemed to me, to bring a regiment back from the dead.

Benson sucked and gargled and inhaled his way through the menu. By the next morning he had emerged from the shadow of the grave and was feeling sufficiently recovered to join us on a trip to the Ménerbes pharmacy in search of the last prescription.

One of the village elders was there when we arrived, perched on a stool while his shopping bag was being stuffed full of nostrums. Curious about what exotic disease the foreigners might have, he remained seated while our prescription was being filled, leaning forward to see what was in the packet as it was put on the counter.

The pharmacist opened the packet and took out a foil-wrapped object the size of a fat Alka-Seltzer tablet. She held it up to Benson.

“Deux fois par jour,”
she said.

Benson shook his head and put his hand to his throat.

“Too big,” he said. “I couldn’t swallow anything that size.”

We translated for the pharmacist, but before she could reply the old man collapsed with laughter, rocking perilously on his stool and wiping his eyes with the back of a knobbly hand.

The pharmacist smiled, and made delicate upward motions with the foil-wrapped lump.
“C’est un suppositoire.”

Benson looked bewildered. The old man, still laughing, hopped down from his stool and took the suppository from the pharmacist.

“Regardez,”
he said to Benson.
“On fait comme ça.”

He moved away from the counter to give himself space, bent forward, holding the suppository above his head, and then, with a flowing backwards swoop of his arm, applied the suppository firmly to the seat of his trousers.
“Tok!”
said the old man. He looked up at Benson.
“Vous voyez?”

“Up the
ass
?” Benson shook his head again. “Hey, that’s weird. Jesus.” He put on his sunglasses and moved a couple of paces backwards. “We don’t do that where I come from.”

We tried to explain that it was a very efficient method of getting medication into the bloodstream, but he wasn’t convinced. And when we said that it wouldn’t give him a sore throat either, he wasn’t amused. I often wonder what he told his brother the doctor back in Brooklyn.

Shortly afterward, I met my neighbor Massot in the forest and told him about the suppository lesson. It was droll, he thought, but for a truly
dramatique
episode there was nothing to touch the story of the man who had gone into the hospital to have his appendix out and had woken up with his left leg amputated.
Beh oui
.

I said it couldn’t be true, but Massot insisted that it was.

“If I am ever ill,” he said, “I go to the vet. You know where you are with vets. I don’t trust doctors.”

Fortunately, Massot’s view of the French medical profession is as unlikely to reflect reality as most of his views. There may be doctors with a taste for amputation in Provence, but we have never met them. In fact, apart from our brush with
mononucleosis, we’ve only seen the doctor once, and that was to combat an attack of bureaucracy.

It was the climax of months of paper shuffling that we had gone through in order to get our
cartes de séjour
—the identity cards that are issued to foreign residents of France. We had been to the
Mairie
, to the
Préfecture
, to the
Bureau des Impôts
, and back again to the
Mairie
. Everywhere we went, we were told that another form was required which,
naturellement
, could only be obtained somewhere else. In the end, when we were convinced that we had a full set of certificates, attestations, declarations, photographs, and vital statistics, we made what we thought would be our last triumphal visit to the
Mairie
.

Our dossiers were examined carefully. Everything seemed to be in order. We were not going to be a drain on the state. We had no criminal record. We were not seeking to steal employment from French workers.
Bon
. The dossiers were closed. At last we were going to be official.

The secretary of the
Mairie
smiled nicely and passed over two more forms. It was necessary, she said, to have a medical examination to prove that we were of sound mind and body. Doctor Fenelon in Bonnieux would be pleased to examine us. Off to Bonnieux we went.

Doctor Fenelon was charming and brisk as he X-rayed us and took us through the fine print of a short questionnaire. Were we mad? No. Epileptic? No. Addicted to drugs? Alcoholic? Prone to fainting? I was half-expecting to be interrogated about bowel movements in case we might be adding to the constipated sector of the French population, but that didn’t seem to be a concern of the immigration authorities. We signed the forms. Doctor Fenelon signed the forms. Then he opened a drawer and produced two more forms.

He was apologetic.
“Bien sûr, vous n’avez pas le problème, mais …”
he shrugged, and explained that we must take the forms into Cavaillon and have a blood test before he could give us our
certificats sanitaires
.

Was there anything special that we were being tested for?

“Ah, oui.”
He looked even more apologetic.
“La syphilis.”

The English
Écrevisse

“Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” That was Flaubert’s opinion, and it is a fair expression of the way it feels if you choose to spend your working days putting words down on pieces of paper.

For most of the time, it’s a solitary, monotonous business. There is the occasional reward of a good sentence—or rather, what you think is a good sentence, since there’s nobody else to tell you. There are long, unproductive stretches when you consider taking up some form of regular and useful employment like chartered accountancy. There is constant doubt that anyone will want to read what you’re writing, panic at missing deadlines that you have imposed on yourself, and the deflating realization that those deadlines couldn’t matter less to the rest of the world. A thousand words a day, or nothing; it makes no difference to anyone else but you. That part of writing is undoubtedly a dog’s life.

What makes it worth living is the happy shock of discovering that you have managed to give a few hours of entertainment to people you’ve never met. And if some of them
should write to tell you, the pleasure of receiving their letters is like applause. It makes up for all the grind. You abandon thoughts of a career in accountancy and make tentative plans for another book.

My first letter arrived shortly after the publication in April of
A Year in Provence
. It came from Luxembourg, polite and complimentary, and I kept looking at it all day. The next week a man wrote asking how to grow truffles in New Zealand. Then the letters began to arrive in a steady trickle—from London, from Beijing, from Queensland, from Her Majesty’s Prison at Wormwood Scrubs, from the expatriate community on the Riviera, from the wilds of Wiltshire and the Surrey hills—some on embossed, true-blue, toff’s writing paper, others on pages torn from exercise books, one on the back of a map of the London Underground. The addresses were often so vague that the Post Office had to perform small marvels of deduction:
“Les Anglais
, Bonnieux” found us, despite the fact that we don’t live in Bonnieux. So did my favorite: “
L’Écrevisse Anglais
, Ménerbes, Provence.”

The letters were friendly and encouraging, and whenever there was an address to reply to, I replied, thinking that would be the end of it. But often it wasn’t. Before long we found ourselves in the undeserved position of resident advisers on every aspect of Provençal life from buying a house to finding a baby-sitter. A woman telephoned from Memphis to ask about the burglary rate in the Vaucluse. A photographer from Essex wanted to know if he could make a living taking pictures in the Lubéron. Couples thinking about moving to Provence wrote pages of questions. Would their children fit in in the local schools? How high was the cost of living? What about doctors? What about income tax? Was it lonely? Would they be happy? We answered as best we could, but it was
slightly uncomfortable to be involved in the personal decisions of total strangers.

And then, as summer set in, what had been dropping through the mailbox started coming up the drive. Letters turned into people.

It was hot and dry, and I was doing some Provençal weeding in the bone-hard ground with a pickax when a car arrived and the driver emerged with a broad smile, waving a copy of my book at me.

“Tracked you down!” he said. “Did a little detective work in the village. No trouble at all.”

I signed the book and felt like a real author, and when my wife came back from Cavaillon she was properly impressed. “A fan,” she said. “You should have taken a photograph. How amazing that someone should bother.”

She was less impressed a few days later when we were leaving the house to go out to dinner and found a pretty blonde lurking behind the cypress tree in the front garden.

BOOK: Toujours Provence
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