We used to go to France a lot, we live near the coast so we used to visit regularly, often just for a shopping weekend. Before my trip just gone, our last visit was June 2015. The stroke then happened in February 2016.
While I stopped learning French after high school, our repeated visits encouraged me to keep up with the language. But my familiar environments were things like shops, restaurants, hotels, typical tourist traps. Good enough to go to non-English-speaking areas and survive. I’d get every other word, and build a “gist”. And we visited many lovely parts of France as a result. I’d best describe myself as “above average” with the language, for an English-speaker.
The stroke happened, I haven’t travelled, so for five years I’ve not spoken it. I found a few French-language Facebook groups, so I saw some written French, but nothing spoken. So this last trip was my first time in five years.
I was surprised how rusty it felt. I was fine in the one or two restaurants we visited but I was surprised just how stale I felt overall. Particularly in one area:
Before I went, I knew I had to have a COVID test while there. For a test in the UK, I can look on the web and find any number of licensed testers. I can book them online, and everything bar the actual swab is electronic. Great, gives my dodgy eyes a chance to read slowly, to enlarge text where necessary etc, just so I feel 100% clear on what I am reading. Even in English, these days. But France?
The French government maintains a static site, just name and phone numbers of testers. There were just four or five near to where I stayed in Normandy, medical practises, none of whom had web sites to just reserve a test. So, I needed to phone around before the trip. I wanted something close to where we stayed – I was going to be reliant on other people to drive me to this test, and I wanted this to eat into as little of their time as possible. I thought I was already imposing by piggy-backing onto their family vacation.
French telephone systems are no different to the rest of us. The first thing you are faced with is a menu system. French-language, so straight away I was taxed and got lost. In the most-of-the-day I spent researching numbers, I never got to speak to another human.
I despaired. No test, no coming home. I tried to pull out of the trip altogether. At this late stage, I’d have lost everything I’d already shelled out. Not surprisingly, my friends were pissed at me. They, too, had incurred expenses.
They persuaded me to travel in the end, without having a test booked. It felt like such an enormous risk, far bigger than it would have been before. undoubtedly a result of the stroke. My friends did not understand. Don’t get me wrong – there was an absolute willingness to help me out – if anything I was the only one concerned about how much of a pain-in-the-ass I was – but not really an understanding of why I am how I am. But who can blame them? Ten years ago, I would not have understood. In any case, if I want to get by in general society, it is down to me to make the extra effort required. In the end, that was what convinced me to travel. I’m either going to have to push myself to do these things or I’m going to sit on my ass the rest of my life, reliving old memories.
The test itself? We drove to one of the surgeries straight off the ferry. One I had tried to call the day before and got nowhere. We walked in and asked for a test. Their page said “by appointment only” but we booked for the next day. More putting my friends out, but at this stage I just had to trust that when they said “no problem”, they actually meant it. The thing I hate most about the stroke is that I end up having to rely on other people.
And, my rusty French parachuted straight into a doctor’s office? Uncomfortable? You betcha! And how embarrassing – I can’t write since the stroke so pretty much the first one-on-one words I said to the woman were “would you mind writing this down, please?” as the receptionist demanded my name and address. I hate not being an equal.
If anybody is still reading, there’s probably a good indicator there – the single thing that disabled people hate most is having to ask for help, to put people out, to not be self-reliant. I’m sure I can’t be alone in thinking that.