Thursday, May 29, 2008

Le Foulard - Part III

“I wanted to discuss…well you see, I was thinking maybe…,” I began, cursing how ill-adapted my colloquial French is to more formal situations, such as pap smears.

Docteur Le Foulard watched me, expectantly.

“The thing is, you see, I’m thinking of perhaps having a third child.”

Docteur Le Foulard frowned slightly.

I panicked. Had I addressed him with “tu” instead of “vous” by mistake? I had been known to do this before in formal situations and there was nothing that threw off the French quite like it; I did not want to throw off the man who would soon be giving me an internal.

Et alors?” He prompted.

“Well. For one thing, I’m 34 and I’ll be 35 in October. Is that too old?”

He didn’t smile exactly, but his ice blue eyes crinkled un petit peu. “Thirty-five hardly makes one a biblical figure.”

I contemplated this nugget of wisdom for a time. “So it’s not too old?” I said, just to get things straight.


All this time Franck had been sitting patiently in a matching rattan chair beside me, clearly trying to figure out a way to charm the gynecologist into being a bit less aloof.

“She’s had two Casearians,” Franck offered. I was dismayed to realize that my husband, a man who on an off day could charm a Bedouin into buying sand, seemed to be at an utter loss with Docteur Le Foulard.

Docteur Le Foulard seemed a teeny fraction more interested. “And why was that?”

"My first daughter was set to come out feet first," I explained with a laugh at the crap-shoot that is childbirth. “And my second one horizontally.”

Ah,” was all he said, looking about as amused as an existentialist, and let out a tragic sigh.

I tried to decipher whether the sigh meant that he found these particularly good reasons to have a caesarian, or particularly bad reasons, or whether he was simply contemplating the foie gras his wife was going to serve for dinner. Before I had the chance to draw any conclusions he waved me imperiously towards a little room off his examining room and requested that I undress - using the “vous” form, of course.

Barrel through, Laura, I chanted to myself. Just barrel through...

To be continued...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Le Foulard - Part II

The urge to bolt was overwhelming, but I reminded myself that I had chosen Docteur Le Foulard for a reason. As a veteran of two C-sections, I was aware that any hypothetical third baby would be requiring the assistance of a surgeon to get out of my body.

The pickings in such a small town were slim, and Docteur Le Foulard was reputed to be the most experienced and fine-fingered surgeon in Beaune, not to mention a veteran of who knows how many thousand C-sections. I cannot stress how important this seems when toying with the prospect of having someone slice open your abdomen.

Besides, I tried to rationalize, for all I knew maybe a foulard was de rigueur for all French gynecologists.

I was hit by an acute longing for my doctor back in Canada. She was a no-nonsense mother of four boys who breezed into the examining room on the day of my yearly physical with the same demeanor that she no doubt refined over years of sewing back on her sons’ fingers after experiments with the lawnmower had gone awry.

“Lucky you! Time for every woman’s favorite day of the year!” she would sing, scanning my chart while selecting a speculum.

Her brisk multi-tasking diverted my attention from the fact that I was lying on an exam table wrapped only in a paper sheet. I was pretty sure a man who wore a silk neck scarf wouldn’t possess the same edifying maternal attitude.

When Docteur le Foulard called my name Franck also stood up. He had some questions too, notably will you please talk my wife out of this crazy idea of having a third child?

Docteur Le Foulard eyed him warily. I realized belatedly that maybe French men didn't generally accompany their wives to gynecological appointments. However, in light of the neck scarf I wasn’t going to back down; I needed Franck for moral support.

We were ushered into a stylish office with rattan chairs and an immaculate glass desk behind which Docteur Le Foulard lowered himself. He eyed us down aquiline nose attached to a head that would have undoubtedly been lopped off by a guillotine if he had lived during the Revolution.

“And what can I do pour vous Madame Germain?”

The formal “vous” form is, of course, the way doctors and patients address each other here in France. This is a stark contrast to the relative informality of Canadian doctors which allows me to float through medical exams deluding myself that it is just a unique form of coffee klatch.

Docteur Le Foulard’s stringent manners, compounded with the neck scarf, just drove home the point that even if I stretched my imagination to its absolute limit there was no way I could delude myself; a complete stranger would soon be seeing me completely naked.

To be continued...

Le Foulard - Part I

Of all the things putting me off the idea of getting pregnant, I never would have imagined a silk foulard would be among them.

Like most women, my annual gynecological exam is not a cause for celebration. I have an irksome tendency to get pathologically anxious in medical situations, and being mostly naked doesn’t exactly alleviate the problem.

I had also been informed by my French girlfriends that the gynecologist I was about to see was an aristocrat of sorts; the proof was in his last name which began with the prefix “Le”. I was determined, nevertheless, not to let this add to my stress level. This was post-Revolutionary France, after all, and we were all children of Rebublic. Liberté, égalité, fraternité and all that. Besides, I reasoned, he may be one of those fun, quirky, down-to-earth types of aristocrat.

As I sat beside Franck in the waiting room mindlessly thumbing through an issue of Paris Match, it dawned on me that being in France added a hitherto unexplored dimension of stress to a gynecological appointment. Over the years in Canada I had become familiar with the standard procedure. Here in France I had no idea what to expect. I'm not the kind of person who particularly likes having no idea what to expect, especially when again, the chances of me being naked when the unexpected occurred were unarguably on the high side.

Erratic heartbeat. Check. Burning crimson patches on face. Check. Blood pulsing behind eyeballs…wait a second, that was an entirely new symptom of extreme anxiety to add to my repertoire...I was firmly in a state where the slightest little thing could put me off. So when my French gynecologist glided out of his office wearing a foulard artfully tied around his neck, I felt like I had been jammed with an electric cattle prod.

Dorothy, I said to myself, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Interview - Part III

“It’s true that we stopped doing exchanges with the French clubs several years ago, and for good reason,” the Grand Poobah sniffed. “But there has been interest expressed on their part to get involved in the program again, and so it’s been decided that we’ll send one student on a trial basis this year.”

“Actually I really had my heart set on Belgium,” I said, trying to sound firm, but not too desperate. I wasn’t going to be anyone’s guinea pig.

The Grand Poo-Bah eyed me a bit peevishly. “Well Laura the truth of the matter is this year we have far more applicants for French-speaking Belgium than we do available postings, so there is a good chance you may be sent to the Flemish-speaking part. At least with France you’ll be sure to learn French. You’ve really conveyed how important that is to you.”

The back of my kneecaps began to sweat. The Polyester Pants had me over a barrel. I wondered wildly what Dale Carnegie would do, but couldn’t remember him writing about any situations like this.

“And you seem very mature and capable, and, er…able to deal with the unexpected,” the Grand Poo-bah said. “That will be important in France.” Yeah, like when no-one shows up to pick you up at the airport.

I’m not that mature! I wanted to cry out. But where would that land me? I reasoned. Flanders?

Five pairs of eyes turned to me, all waiting for an answer.

The Grand Poo-Bah cleared his throat. “So Laura, I for one believe France is the best option for you. Do you agree?"

“France,” I echoed weakly, but if it was between France and Flanders...“I really had my heart set on Belgium," I answered, at last. "But France...sure, I guess I can give France a try."

With that, The Grand Poo-Bah smiled and closed my file with a triumphant slap of manila. To this day I still wonder how it could be that my whole life turning on its hinges made no noise at all.

And I also wish I could remember the Grand Poo-Bah's real name, so I could track him down and say merci.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Interview - Part II

One of the Rotarians in particular seemed to be in charge of the interview. He happened to look a bit like Mr. Cunningham from “Happy Days”, and reminded me of one of my favorite episodes when Mr. Cunningham dons his “Grand Poobah” hat in preparation for a Leopard Lodge meeting.

The Grand Poobah, as I couldn’t help but think of him now, glanced down at my file again, his forehead creasing like an accordion. This was a bit worrisome, as there was nothing in there that should have been any cause for surprise or concern.

“Can you share with us your reasons for picking Belgium as your host country?” The Grand Poobah looked up at me, but seemed preoccupied.

I took a deep breath, as I knew the answer which I had already trotted out at a myriad of previous interviews bordered on the verbose. “It is very important to me to learn a foreign language during my year away, and I feel that as a Canadian it is very important that I learn French, so that's why I chose Belgium. French is our nation’s second language, after all, and as I am planning on pursuing a career in International Law, becoming fluent in French would be a great advantage."

“What if you’re posted to the other part of Belgium? The part that speaks…um…” Caught in the trap of his question, the Grand Poobah looked to his colleagues for help. It was not in the offing.

"You mean the Flemish part?” I prompted.

He tried to look as though he’d known the answer all along and had just been testing me. “That’s it.” He nodded. “The Flemish part.”

Luckily I’d been coached by the Incomings not to be swayed on my choice of host country. Walk the fine line between being diplomatic and being a pushover, they counseled. Or you could end up being sent to Timbuktu.

“I’d certainly be happy to have the opportunity to learn any second language,” I answered. “But French would of course be my first choice, and would without a doubt be the most useful for my future career on my return to Canada.”

The whir of the fan filled the room as my words were absorbed.

Another one of the Polyester Pants picked up my file. “So learning French is very important to you?”

“Yes, very important.”

There was no need to tell them about how I had dropped French the year before because it was the bane of my existence and was dragging down my whole GPA, or for them to learn about how I had bounded out of my final French exam, shouting to my gaggle of girlfriends in the quad, Thank God! I am NEVER going to have to speak French again in my life!

Really what I wanted was to be sent somewhere in Continental Europe, and the only choices proposed to us Rotary students were Germany and Belgium. I had never liked the Teutonic type of man and vastly preferred wine to beer, so Belgium fit the bill. The irony of having to pretend to love the French language was not lost on me, but I had a very well-developed sense of expediency.

“What about France?” The Grand Poobah said.

“What?” My polite façade slipped.

“France,” he repeated, studying my file.

“I thought the Rotary didn’t do exchanges with France anymore.”

Rumour had it that some poor Rotary student had showed up at the airport in Paris and waited for hours, but no-one came to meet him. Apparently between the time he left Canada and the time he arrived on French soil all of his host families had changed their minds about wanting him; he ended up with no place to stay and was put on the plane back home the next day. As far as the North American Rotarians were concerned, this was the final straw.

I could hardly blame them. Their French counterparts had proved themselves to be capricious, and the last thing I wanted was for my year abroad to be in the hands of a nattily dressed, womanizing French Rotarian who drove a flashy sports car in which he may or may not pick me up at the airport, depending on his mood. I vastly preferred the staid Polyester Pant variety of Rotarian, who could always be counted on to follow through with their promises.

I contemplated the horror of having to come back home with my tail between my legs and my dreams of a year abroad in dust before anything had even begun. No way. I wasn't going to let them sway me into goign to France. There was no way I would risk such humiliation.

To be continued...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Interview Part I

If I was to go all the way back to the very beginning, I guess you could argue that my French pregnancy really started with the fifteen minutes I spent in a stuffy Canadian hotel room with five elderly Rotarians.

They were all men, they all had a file on me in front of them, and they were all peppering me with questions. This was it - the panel interview at the annual District Rotary Conference - otherwise known as the final hurdle before being sent off to Belgium for a year as a Rotary Youth Scholar.

I’d been duly informed by last year’s students, known as “The Incoming’s”, that this interview was somewhat of a formality. The truly inappropriate candidates should have been weeded out already, so unless I made a huge debacle of it I basically had my exchange to Belgium in the bag.

I remember pretty much everything about that moment when my life swung on its axis, like the fact that all the men were wearing polyester pants. I was the last interview of the day and the hotel room was stuffy, probably more from the sweat of all the candidates who had been grilled before me than the unseasonably warm Spring weather. I reflected that polyester, which I knew from working at a women’s clothing store all through high school didn’t breathe, would be getting rather itchy by now.

The Rotarians had scrounged up a fan from the hotel staff, but it was old and noisy and didn’t seem to be cooling things down much. There was a lot of squirming in chairs.

They had begun with the easy stuff – hobbies, my academic record, what I had enjoyed about the Rotary conference thusfar - but then they began to throw the hard balls. "So what were your motivations for wanting to be a Rotary Youth Scholar?” A bespectacled Polyester Pant wiped his brow.

The truth ran fleetingly through my mind; finding a way to get to Europe, where I could drink lots of wine and fall in love with a European man. But this isn’t what I told the Polyester Pants. I was a child who had been introduced to Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” at age 9, so I did what I had been taught to do; told the Rotarians exactly what I knew they wanted to hear.

“I have always been interested in other cultures,” I began my prepared speech with judiciously calibrated enthusiasm. “I would just love the opportunity to go to a foreign country and learn everything I can about a different way of living. Also, I have always liked meeting new people. I am very proud of being a Canadian I would relish the opportunity to educate them about Canada.”

They Polyester Pants bobbed their heads, seemingly quite satisfied with my answer, or perhaps nodding off to sleep.

As for me, my thoughts meandered over to the subject of European men again. I was sure that they had to be more promising than the boys in my high school, who across the board seemed to display a shocking lack of appreciation for the voluptuous, intellectual type of girl; in other words, me.

To be continued...