When you live long-term in another country, you need services that tourists don’t require. Short-term travellers generally do not have to seek out doctors, tailors, printers, haircuts, nail parlours or car washes; for the vast majority, they wait until they return home. For us, these everyday services present comical challenges.
Take for instance, my need for a doctor in the French medical system. I delayed this visit for some weeks in the hope my chronic pain would subside rather than drop my pants for a strange doctor in a strange land. Eventually in extremis I asked my neighbour how to find a doctor and he directed me to the Maison de Santé, an encouraging name which literally means “House of Health”, sounding much nicer than the austere “medical clinic”.
In reception I asked for an “appointment” with a “docteur”, which met with blank stares. The mobile translation app told me I should have asked for a “rendezvous” with a “médecin”. Mentally rehearsing days of the week in readiness for scheduling the appointment, I was much relieved when the rendezvous was made “maintenant”, and I was directed to the waiting room.
I was about to rendezvous with a Dr Friekout, a most unfortunate name, which in French is the much nicer, “Free-Koo”. The bursitis in my hips had flared after all the country lanes I’d been trekking, and I desperately needed cortisone injections. So while not truly intimate, I was nevertheless steeling myself to lower my jeans for a strange man while trying to remember if I’d worn my best undies, not being prepared for “maintenant”.
When the door opened, there stood a tall, well-built, distinguished, good-looking man of about 55, looking for me. I was getting ready to swoon when he opened his mouth and asked for Madame Bradley in his deep, radio-voice baritone. Right there, I fell. I am a sucker for voices. Ready, willing and able to drop my daks, I hastened inside, explained my problem, which I’d neatly typed into the translate app in readiness, and he listened without wincing too much then told me I’d need an ultrasound.
My heart sank. I’d expected this. Back home this was big bucks, weeks of waiting for appointments, long delays. Not in France. He indicated the room next door, I popped up on the table, having surreptitiously unzipped my jeans to find my undies did not disappoint, and he performed two ultrasounds right then and there. I really like “maintenant”. “Now” means “now”, in France.
Sent away with a prescription to buy two doses of cortisone and a rendezvous three days hence, my heart sank again, thinking the drugs would be where the costs lay. No. €5.11 for the prescription.
The end of this adventure saw three visits to Dr Friekout, plus four ultrasounds and two doses of cortisone for under €100, ($AU160). And the cortisone must be stronger here because I have not had any pain since and I have no more reason to see my gorgeous doctor. Shame. The ONLY blemish with him was learning he drove an Audi, not a Mercedes.
We’ve leased a diesel Renault Duster. Never having had a diesel before, we didn’t know what to expect, and it turns out we didn’t know quite a lot of other things either. For two Car-People, this was very sad.
In France, there’s a carbon-emissions reduction scheme in play that requires you to load up any diesel car with “blue” at regular intervals. Ad-Blue is a liquid you pour into the tank next to the diesel tank, found under the same flap. It mixes with the exhaust to lower the carbon somehow. Great green idea. We were warned not only was it illegal to not top up your blue tank, but if you failed to do so, the car would fail you. Lights would come on, alarms would blare and the car would refuse to budge. Huge fines would be levied too. I think our Renault delivery man, standing on a bleak dock in Calais in biting sub-zero winds, was exaggerating a bit. Like me, he just wanted to retreat back inside but had to make a BIG impression about the confounded Blue.
After 3,000 kilometres, we decided it was time to “blue” the car. Keith went to the service station and asked for one litre of le Bleu please. He was told it doesn’t come in one litre bottles. OK – so he brought home five litres of the stuff with warnings it was highly corrosive. Sacrebleu!
We had no idea how much of this liquid from Hell to pour in, much less anything to pour it in with. Thinking it was probably not a good idea to use the house’s kitchen funnel, which we couldn’t find anyway, (Bruce – the house needs a funnel!), we returned to the servo to buy a funnel suitable for delivering Blue Hell. She patiently explained via mime that if we opened the lid of the five litre container, we would find a funnel for inserting blue on the reverse of the cap. I will leave her mimings to your imagination.
After that, we consulted Google to learn the Duster’s blue tank held 18 litres. Now better equipped with knowledge and tools, we donned gloves, filled water bottles and dampened old rags ready for a stray splash from this major operation. Avoiding touching the heinous stuff, the funnel lid got carefully screwed on, Keith tipped up the heavy five litre container and inserted the funnel into the car’s blue-tank. It immediately backwashed, pouring over my boots. I ran screaming into the house yelling “it burns, it burns”, while Keith chased after me most perturbed. It didn’t. I was hamming.
Success in adding just three litres on that first occasion left us concerned some weeks later when a blue light appeared on the dashboard. Along with that light was a yellow arrow pointing up. These days, they don’t give you service books for new cars; you are expected to download them. We hadn’t. Yet. Once we did, Keith combed the manual, then that fail-safe, Google, looking for the meaning of these lights. Did the blue mean more blue was needed? It made sense. What did the arrow mean?
We retrieved our remaining blue and poured in another two litres, this time feeling quite light-hearted about our hands or boots. The blue light remained. So did the arrow. Subsequent combing of the manual proved that, ashamed to say, the blue light was simply a warning the engine had not yet warmed up – advising you not to floor it until the light disappeared – and the yellow arrow was an indication to shift to a higher gear.
Shifting gears … Keith regularly washes the car, especially these days after pouring blue. Just like back home, the idea is to beat the washing mechanism, inserting as few euro coins as possible before it stops working. As a consequence, we are often found in a half-washed Renault Duster, but it least now the blue is topped up and the lights are known.
Needing a printer for some signing pages, I searched, you guessed it, Google and was surprised when it located Imprimerie du Progrès, right here in Belvès. Who would’a thought? Expecting a laser printer in someone’s front lounge room, I walked up the hill to find a modern print shop near the Mairie with a vast machine capable of churning out text books at 10,000 per hour, staffed by the affable Gilbert.
I wished I’d prepared my request in advance as I did for my doctor. Asking for four pages printed from my USB was going to be a challenge. I knew quatre, but not “pages” nor “USB”. While he most pleasantly waited, I looked up on my app how to phrase my request. It was quatre pages de USB, svp.
We’ve learned on multiple occasions if you cannot quickly find a French word, use the English equivalent and say it with a heavy French accent. Chances are, it will be the same word, as it was on this occasion, although Keith sounds like Inspector Clouseau while I am Michelle from ‘Allo ‘Allo. Securing my four pages, which he printed maintenant, I scurried home having paid him one euro, gratefully 20 cents more than the 80 centimes price.
On another visit, however, when we needed 15 pages printed for signing our next car contract, he asked if we could wait a few hours or preferably à demain (until tomorrow). The machine was occupé. What print job we wondered, could be so large as to bring the entire town’s printing services to a halt when people needed their work maintenant? It amused us that the village had just one printing machine, so that all other commercial printing must cease when one large job arrived. As on other occasions in France, you are made to wait, and that’s not a bad thing, to slow one down after an obsessive life-time of wanting it maintenant.
Later we discovered it was printing dosssards (yes, this word has three esses) for the Belvès Cent, the 43 year old, 100 kilometre run through the Périgord that Belvès annually hosts. This footrace, on the second Saturday in April, brings not just the printer but the whole town to a halt. Suddenly there are camper vans in the camper van parking lot, rubbish in the bins, huge white marquees erected in the town’s only parking lot, road deviation signs in place, women cutting bread for over 1500 runners, start/finish line inflatables pumped up, music pumped through the centre of town, (I feel Janis Joplin’s Bobby McGee jars somewhat with a 13th century medieval marketplace), a huge pasta party scheduled, but no printing services.
I’m sure this will be a wonderful fête and we fully intend to participate, though not as athletes on this occasion, by wandering down to watch the runners eating their carbohydrates after our Friday night at the Café de Paris. I am sure it is very beautiful on the television, too, as the runners thunder past some of the grandest chateaux in the world, skip alongside the divine Dordogne and stagger up the steep pavé streets of nearby towns. Like Le Tour de France, this breath-taking landscape is completely wasted on the completion-focussed, pain-wracked runners, but the spectators will love it.
I have had occasion to get my nails done twice now. They are known as ongles and one has to learn words like remplissage which I’d carefully rehearsed and requested, to refresh my existing nails rather than replace them. Enlightened, I learned the locals call it rempli. The alternative was to endure la pose complète (chablons). This sounded like some people I know after drinking wine.
I learned a chablon is a piece of stiff cellophane, sticky on one side, to which a thin, fake, gel nail is stuck. The shaped cellophane is inserted under one’s own nail, placing the new gel nail over the top. Hard to describe; fascinating to watch. When the chablon is removed, one possesses a new nail, much thinner than an ordinary old tip back home, and able to function as a real finger nail should, not a thick gel nail that is hopeless for purposes such as being used as a screwdriver, opening pull-top cans and sliding new keys onto a key ring.
Nail parlours are operated by real French ladies. No one here greets you with, “Come in-si-down, you choose corrour”. Not that that’s a bad thing. Some of my best friends….
I’ve had my hair cut and coloured twice so far. I met the talented and super-skilled Michel this way who turned my overly-yellow hair red, and razored it short. He owns two hair parlours in Belvès and Bouissons where he employs his sister, her daughter, a cousin, his son, a second aunt and the cousin’s mother. There is no thought any of them would work outside the family business or follow a different career.
Having once spent seven years working in Toulouse, Michel avowedly hates city life and retreated to the Perigòrd countryside of his heart and ancestors. His son will inherit his business but has to go up to Brantôme to do his apprenticeship and attend school. It’s 60 kilometres away and Michel is heart-broken his son will be absent until he qualifies and can return home. I asked his son, who was washing my hair, if he had travelled much outside France. Oui he replied, in French, “I went twice to Barcelona”.
I am reminded yet again that the simple rural life these people know, the family values they exhibit and the contentment they find in working and living in such a small universe, is something quite enviable. We have lost this in Australia, where we live largely anonymously in huge cities striving to be noticed, known and validated. Perhaps that’s not necessary if your community provides you with love and belonging.
Conversely to needing my pants taken down, Keith needed his new trousers taken up. This time Google failed us in searching for a tailor or seamstress in Belvès. What does one do next? One asks the only dry cleaner in town, of course, on Rue Jacques Manchotte, where to go.
A visit to this purveyor of information informed us of many things. Firstly, we were looking for a couturier (I thought that this profession only made bespoke, ultra-expensive garments in Paris on Avenue de Montaigne?) but there was none in Belvès. He could have the trousers sent out to be hemmed, but I would have to pin them myself, and it would take three days. As I was pretty sure I was right out of dressmaker pins, (Bruce, the house needs dressmaker-pins; while you’re at it, a sewing machine, dressmaker dummy and long table could be useful), I was heartened to hear a couturier named Nadine resided in Le Bugue, only 17 kilometres away. He waved his arms in exaggeration of her skills and convinced us no other couturier could hem Keith’s trousers as well as she. Whereabouts in Le Bugue? À gauche, Madame; on the left. May I know the address? Pas de necessaire! À gauche, Madame.
Thus armed with all we needed to wander a foreign town in search of a seamstress called Nadine, we drove to Le Bugue.
Le Bugue is just like all other small towns in Dordogne. It possesses breathtakingly beautiful medieval houses, narrow cobble-stoned streets, an ancient church/ abbey/ cathedral/ basilica/ convent built in the 12th/13th /14th Century, destroyed during the Hundred Years War/Wars of Religion/French Revolution and restored, and a super-narrow one way system lined with unbending wooden/steel/concrete bollards and fixed flower boxes.
Entering Le Bugue, so intent were we on identifying anything on the left that looked like a couturier’s house with a resident seamstress called Nadine, that we must have missed the signs that said déviation. Only later did we discover there were no signs that said déviation. The locals just knew the local ancient church was having its pavement restored that day and workmen’s trucks would be closing the street.
Nine car lengths into the one-way main street, the truck in front suddenly put on its reverse lights, engaged gears and began bleeping backwards, way too fast for us to do similarly. A short horn honk from us (illegal in France except to avoid an accident, which this behaviour clearly justified), caused a momentary cessation, then he continued to roll backwards. Not arguing, we engaged reverse and did likewise. The domino effect had begun. The guy behind us started to inch backwards and the one behind him followed/led.
We have past experience with unbending wooden/steel/concrete bollards and fixed flower boxes and the damage they cause to new rental cars. We don’t argue with them, so took our time remaining straight on the line, ably assisted by most of the town directing us à gauche or à droite with wildly spinning gesticulations to turn the wheel.
Further back, some stubborn mule refused to budge. The majority of drivers, all passengers, most passersby and all shopkeepers, individually visited his car to explain the necessities of street unblocking.
Given so much attention and arm-waving, the mule obligingly opened the bottle at the neck, and we eventually reversed into the roundabout guided by the shopkeepers. None of them, however, was called Nadine; this was definitely a masculine domain.
Forced to navigate to the top end of town, at the other end of the one kilometre, one-way system, we despaired of finding Nadine’s house on the left, but nevertheless parked (in our acquired French way we no longer pay to park), and resolved to walk back the street’s length to locate her.
However, only four paces into the street, à gauche, we saw a shop marked “Couturier”. Upon enquiry, I learned her name was “Tatiana”, she was definitely a Russian, and someone who had never heard of Nadine. Instead, she offered to hem Keith’s trousers, maintenant, to save us a return trip to Belvès, 17 kilometres away. Such service! Such competition with the local French-woman! Bien sûr, we acquiesced. I’ve had great tailoring from Russians in Collins Street; it must be a national skill.
This gave us time to explore the ancient church/abbey/cathedral/basilica/convent built in the 12th/13th/ 14th Century. In this case, it was a lovely church with its very new concrete pavement being washed. We also had coffee, bought a baguette and wandered the length of Le Bugue just to say we’d been there. At the other end of the town, I found a shop à gauche marked “Couturier”. It was easy to find. It was on the left.
“Is Nadine here?”, I asked in French, not knowing what to say had she been.
“No, Madame, she could not work today as the street was closed”, was the reply.
Happily exonerated, within 45 minutes, we returned to Tatiana, our new favourite couturier, to collect Keith’s trousers. They were perfect.
As in all the little labours we’ve bought here, we remember them because our needs loom large, and we must rehearse our requests. Without exception, the local providers are craftspeople, proud of their standards, determined to provide their best, living according to their clocks, not ours. When you want it now, you must needs wait. When you expect to wait, they deliver maintenant.
I am happy to abide by the unexpected.