For some reason I grew up shockingly naïve of social stereotypes and clichés. This could explain my interest in discussing them here. My friend Mark used to collect jokes at Hebrew School, and then dutifully recount them to me, his little Lutheran friend, in our 6th grade homeroom class. Many of the jokes relied on stereotypes about Jews. I almost never got them. He’d go on and on and then come to an (to me) anti-climatic punch line. “I don’t get it,” I’d admit. “Jeez, think about it. Jews are supposed to be tight with their money…” he’d coach.
I moved to France years ago with a single, explicit cliché about the French. Just one. I’ll write about it now. You can always comment and tell me that it is indeed a cliché, and that there is nothing to it. Or you can tell me that there is a cultural or historical explanation for my observations. Tell me anything to make me think more complexly about this cliché. I am open to it.
Here it is: The French are hypocondriacal.
"Tamalous" (from t’as mal où ?) is a French teenagers’ term for old people. It means, “Where does it hurt?” -- a poke at the elderly’s tendency to discuss infirmity. But what I find amazing is just how much younger French people (okay, not teens, but adults who are not receiving pensions), eux aussi, ils ont souvent mal. They often seem to be sick or at least discussing sickness as a reason for something done or left undone. Then they wrap a scarf around their neck for effect. Tell me I am missing something here and that all young people the world over say, “J’allais pas bien” and the conversation stops as if a real explanation has just been offered. “I wasn’t doing well?” Did I say J’allais pas bien to my professors in graduate school when trying to explain why I wasn’t around for the past month? Tell me I did and I’ll just end this whole post right here.
But FYI, I never missed a month of classes or meetings. Or even a week. And enough about me. Other students only missed months of graduate school when they were actually in the hospital. And they didn’t want to be in the hospital.
My favorite youthful French illness is the dos bloqué. I thought that backs were thrown out on a regular basis (let’s say one out of every ten people you talk to during the week) in really, really old people. Mostly really old male people. Until I moved to France, I never realized that many young women also threw out their backs.
Is the dos bloqué a thing? It is in France. Tell me I am wrong and I will listen.
People who live around me in the US claim once in a while that their kids were sick “a lot” last winter. No, they weren’t. Nope. Sorry. Sick “a lot” is getting virulent stomach flu several times a year that rushes through the house like a herd of wild bulls, knocking out everyone in its path. Sick “a lot” is having many dos bloqués and then repeated bouts of l’angine (a throat infection that seems not to refer to anything specific).
My friend Mollie, who is a doctor, came unglued when I told her I might have l’angine when I was in the US on sabbatical for a year 6 years ago. “What is une angine?” she snorted at the time. I wasn’t sure about the translation. Talking about illness in a foreign language is like talking about fish: There isn’t any reason to learn an exact translation, you just have to attach a label to your somatic or perceptual experience, as the case may be. For example, I don’t know what a Rouget is in English but I don’t think we catch those fish around here anyway, so what is the use of finding out?
To return to Mollie, I looked up une angine for her and translated the definition. “It is just a throat infection accompanied by fever,” I said. “That can’t be,” Mollie replied swiftly. “It has to be a kind of infection. I can’t just treat you for a generic throat infection.” Then she beamed at me. Then she snorted again. And then she broke down laughing. I hadn’t set up my health insurance yet, so I just kept quiet for a while.
My fascination with French interest in and use of illness is only rivaled by my fascination with their beliefs about the ways to cure what ails them. I mentioned a few things in my post, “Gesundheit!” However, I failed to mention the cures that are the most difficult for me to wrap my scientific head around. Naturally, every country has its fair share of people grasping for interesting, cheap, or natural cures. But I am always impressed by the belief of thinking, educated, French people -- people in my social environment -- in undocumented medical interventions.
Take for instance, the practice of enlever le feu. Friends of mine, who have advanced degrees and otherwise seem to rely on data, or at least real arguments to accept a premise, believe that certain “talented” individual have the ability to take the fire away from a burn. You get burned. The enleveurs (or coupeurs) de feu touch your burn. Their touch takes away the pain. The burn even heals fast. No need for modern medical practices.
And then there is the micro-kiné. Basically, you go to the micro-kiné when things ne vont pas. Things aren’t going well. Certain vague pains and stresses and forms of depression send people to the micro-kiné. The micro-kiné touches you and discovers all sorts of parts of you besides your back that are bloqué. By touching those tensed up areas, he or she relieves you of all of what ails you. Usually the blockages are due to some childhood trauma. You pay, the procedure is not reimbursed, and then you go back very soon.
All these things fit together into my hypocondriacal cliché. But really, they are just perceptions turned into a superficial story. Just like Jews are allowed to tell Jewish jokes (a la Seinfeld), though, only the French are allowed to tell French jokes (about complaining about sickness). And they do. But I am not French. So I’ll shut up now.