Monday, 14 March 2011

Illness the French Way

Back in the middle of winter, a French friend of mine announced that he was suffering from "une bronchite".

Being the kind, caring friend that I am, my first question was, "Do you mean a French bronchite or an English bronchite?"

Given that he had been going to work all week, I was pretty sure it was the former and made him a cup of herbal tea with honey. Had it been the latter, I would have driven him to the hospital.

This is not to undermine my friend's suffering or accuse him of malingering. It's just a cultural and linguistic difference that I find interesting. Where the French have bronchitis, the British have a cough. What we call a tummy bug, they call "la gastro" (une gastro-entérite). We have a temperature; they have fever. We have sore throats, they have angina.

I don't think this is purely an example of common Latin-based French words sounding impressive to Anglophone ears. The French really do take their illnesses seriously. Sometimes I look at the quantities of prescription medicines that they consume and imagine the superbugs that they must be breeding by regular use of antibiotics and I think it's wasteful. But sometimes I think of their longevity and the quality of life here and I wonder if there isn't a positive side to it too. If I had a serious health problem, I'd certainly rather be in France than anywhere else. What do you think?

As a footnote, it was my turn to be ill last week. As I emerged from the bathroom on Thursday morning having just thrown up all of the night before's dinner, Understanding Frenchman looked at me in concern and said, "Do you need me to call a Doctor?"

"No," I replied. "I just need to phone my boss and tell her I'll be late for work this morning."

Perhaps I need to get over my Anglo-Saxon work ethic and become a little bit more French.


  1. I completely agree with you. Day two of my little winter colds I have friends saying "have you seen a doctor? you should see a doctor? you could have la grippe!" I've got a large box of meds that I'll end up throwing out.

    Do you think you get more tummy bugs here? I've been struck down for the last couple of months on and off. I had to go back to the Dr last week because nothing would work. I don't ever remember getting so many tummy bugs in NZ.

    I do wonder if the French are overmedicated? In NZ you just sort of get on with it and if you are so sick you can barely get out of bed, then its time to see the Dr! Maybe its because we have to pay.

    I have a Welsh friend who is currently having cancer treatment in France. I think I'll ask him about his perception of the healthcare he is receiving at the moment. I think if I was seriously ill I'd rather be here than in NZ.

  2. Too funny. I've had a simple "gastro" in France and was immediately prescribed antibiotics whereas in Canada I would just let myself spew (from both ends, lol) until it was out of my system. Does that mean that the French are wussies???? LOL!

  3. When I lived in France I was fascinated by the way people went pharmacy shopping, in much the same way as supermarket shopping! Large brown paper bags later....

  4. I hardly ever get tummy bugs but my friend was visiting the other weekend and she had it too, so it must be doing the rounds.

    I think the reason the French take so many medicines is that they feel like they pay for them (through their mutuelles) but at the same time they don't feel the sting of paying for each individual prescription.

    Oneika, diplomacy prevents me from calling the French wussies :-P but I don't actually think the all the meds help them get better any quicker. Sometimes you just have to spew until it's gone!

  5. You hit the nail on the head. Everything is amplified here. Sure, you have to go to the pharmacy to buy your meds (whereas in Toronto we could get quite a lot over the counter without having to speak to a pharmacist) but I think it just ramps things up. A cough is instantly cause for concern and here, let me prescribe you five different meds! I guess it keeps the economy going.