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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Making of a Child Psychiatrist: (14) France

Once you got there, the flat was spacious, and having recovered from the climb, it was always a pleasure to be greeted by Madame, who seemed to view me as a figure of much amusement. I guess I was, with my protruding ears, ‘short back and sides’ haircut, my plumpness and always being out of breath. Every day she went to the local market, and tried to find things that might interest me, and seemed to scale the four flights of stairs with consummate ease; she was never out of breath.
So, I was introduced to French Onion Soup, and came to actually like thin slivers of horsemeat steak (without even knowing their origin). I came to like a cross between cheese and yoghurt called ‘Petit Suisse’ which duly appeared at the end of every meal, with a fresh fruit of some variety. The process of the meal, of course, was totally different with courses spread across an hour. Initially this was a bit alien, but I later came to enjoy the discussions (even if things had to be repeated or relayed for translation via Jacques). I must have listened carefully to the accent, and changed my own pronunciation, because in later years, when travelling through France, I was accused of being from Paris (a mammoth compliment of course). I also began a journey of appreciation of food with pauses and conversation between courses to allay indigestion.
Monsieur Veyssiere was a city policeman, and his beat seemed to be permanent night shift, and some naughty place with lots of petty crime called Place Pigalle (now famous from the film ‘Moulin Rouge’). The most exciting thing was the fact that he carried a revolver, the first thing to be shed when he got home. When emptied, I got to hold it on one occasion - a surprisingly heavy small object. I was intrigued, and slightly overawed. We were promised a tour of his beat at some later stage.
Jacques and I were to become firm friends. He was a year older, but keen to learn English, keen to teach me French words and pronunciation, and even happy to share his bedroom and his parents. He helped with my attempts at reading French, and would also translate bits from the black and white television, if something took my attention. He introduced me to Goscinny’s wonderful books about ‘Asterix the Gaul’ and, again, was happy to translate when I got stuck.
The flat was midway between the Metro stations of Porte de la Chapelle and Marx Dormoy, so it was easy to get around Paris and see a range of sights, and renew my acquaintance with dispensing machines.
We roamed. We went to markets (Les Halles) and to cafés where the scent of Gitanes was almost as thick as the coffee.
Jacques later came to England for a week, and an extra bed was put into my room. I think he struggled with the language even though his English was probably better than my French. But he settled in well, and we explored the delights of a Westgate that was in the full flood of the holiday season - which meant beach, and ogling as many girls in bikinis as possible. The small two storey semi-detached house must have been strange, as must the food and its presentation of course. But he was adaptable, friendly, never complained. We did picnics, and then a trip into Canterbury to visit Roman Pavement remains, and the Cathedral with its history reaching back to Thomas a Beckett. We visited Dreamland Amusement Park and tried out as many ‘shilling sickers’ as we could pack into a day.
I think overall it was fun. Certainly his parents seemed pleased with the whole process, and invited me back the following summer for the whole summer holiday to be spent on their small farm in Correze, in the Massif Centrale. Again, this was too good an opportunity to miss, and was to become a highlight of my young life.
My parents took me down to Dover, to board a ferry, but from there I travelled alone, which is a great achievement for a 15 year old. The train took me to Gare du Nord in Paris where Jacques and his mother met me. And then overnight in Rue de la Chapelle, that now familiar environment. The next morning, on a bright sunny day, we drove south out of Paris, stopping only for a loo stop along the road (slightly behind a tree), a common practice in those times, and something you cannot imagine in rule bound Britain or Australia.
We were not tourists, so Monsieur et Madame did not stop to show off the sights, or visit Chateaux or wineries. From memory the only stop was for baguette and jambon and cheese, accompanied by some vin ordinaire (a bit watered down for me). I think we tried conversation, but there were longish silences and occasional sleeps. Nonards, south of Tulle, is the kind of village you can miss, if you blink. It is more of an area than anything, covering 11square kilometres and with a mainly farming population of less than 400 souls, even these days. The Veyssiere property, a small walnut grove with an old house and attached barn, stretched back from a main route going south (D940). There was one farm with an enormous black barn almost across the road, but little else between us and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne about 6Kms to the south. It was summer, so my memory is of long languid sunny days with temperatures in the 20s.
Jacques was a cycling wannabe with aspirations to do the Tour de France, so he had a setup in a cool corridor which allowed him to fix the frame of his new drop handlebar racing bike, the wheels rotating on rollers – all very cool. Understandably he was loath to let me try his fairly new machine, but the family had retained his previous bike, somewhat older, slightly beaten up with fewer gears, but serviceable for a tubby English boy.
We roamed the backroads, with me trailing way behind, much to Jacque’s delight. But I gradually improved over the weeks with rides to various towns, down to the river Dordogne, and races along the long flat shimmering, and almost always empty, main road. Towards the end of the stay we cycled to Rocamadour, a hilltop walled town, some 45 Kms away. Fabulous old place, and rich in its history with links back to the Knights Templar. Sadly, I am not sure this meant very much to a hot tired and out of breath 15 year old trying to keep up with his mad French pen friend. We toured the streets, admired the view, ate some lunch and headed for home relishing the steep downhill run. Sadly, relish turned to regret as I tried once more to keep up with proto-champ. Going round a curve at speed, even with the brakes partially on, I slid on accumulated gravel right across the road in front of a large tractor huffing up the hill. Lucky for me it was a tractor and not a fast car. The driver stopped to pick me up and investigate the damage – a grazed knee and quite severely grazed right elbow, but no broken bones. The bike had survived.

Jacques parents were contacted, and I was picked up by car and taken to the local doctor’s surgery, where the nurse cleaned up the wounds of competition and applied antiseptic and dressings. The doctor then decided I needed a preventative antibiotic. No, not an injection, or a tablet to be taken three times a day – a suppository inserted into my rectum with no ‘by your leave’. I was embarrassed in the extreme, but fascinated at the same time. “Why would you do that?” I thought. Presumably because it worked. Welcome to the world of French medicine, pauvre petit Anglais.

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