Breezes and gusts are deathly for the French. They fear drafts. As soon as the temperature dips and the wind rises, out come the wraps and scarves.
The French still believe that “courants d’air” cause colds, sore throats and who knows what other upper-respiratory maladies. They don’t want to hear that viruses cause colds. Even at a time when a pandemic is threatening the world, people still insist that they can become ill from a little bit of moving air.
My friend Pierre showed up one night positively swathed in scarves, since he believed he was coming down with a cold because of a cool breeze that brushed over him from a subway tunnel earlier that day. I said someone sick probably coughed on him or that he had touched something that someone with a cold had touched. No, he insisted: ”C’était l’air froid du métro.” When you talk health with certain Parisians who should know better you get a dose of stubborn folk beliefs.
That said, if you happen to fall ill in France, you are likely to be treated well, without having to mortgage your home. Several years ago, when I was visiting friends who had rented a summer place in a small town in the Alpes-Maritimes, I bumped my knee badly during the night, hitting it against a fountain in a little courtyard. I was afraid I’d broken something, and my hosts managed to get me an appointment with the local doctor, who charged me €25 for the visit, apologizing for the amount, since I wasn’t part of the national health system. That was less than my copay.
One of my sisters fractured a tibia a few years ago during a visit to Paris when she fell trying to navigate a narrow, curved staircase at her hotel. At the recommendation of the hotel’s concierge, her husband took her to the American Hospital in Paris – where many of the doctors speak English, and where her leg was set. My brother-in-law told me that before my sister could be treated the doctor felt he had to let them know the price of the procedure, since the hospital didn’t honor American health insurance.
“It will be expensive,” the doctor said in an almost-sheepish way. “It doesn’t matter,” my brother-in-law said. “Eh bien,” the doctor said, “it will cost you €180.” That would barely cover the price of a Band-Aid at U.S. hospitals. “I think we can afford it,” my brother-in-law said, shaking his head at what was considered expensive in France. It’s a matter of perspective.
A doctor’s office in France looks nothing like what you’d see in America. No receptionist. No nurse. No trappings of the big business of medicine. Once you’re buzzed in, you’ll likely find a bare-bones waiting room that could be anywhere (like many waiting rooms, actually). You assume your appointment has been registered somewhere, since you’ve been buzzed in, though no one greets you.
Eventually, a doctor, dressed casually as if settling down to watch television after a long workday, will pop out from behind a door, speak your name and ask you in. You have your examination in his office – which looks more like a college professor’s than a doctor’s – you pay your €25 (usually in cash) and you’re sent on your way.
It’s all very civilized and low-key. Maybe that accounts for the persistent beliefs about falling ill: there’s nothing remotely clinical about your general practitioner, and even though the French national healthcare system is among the world’s best, the French still hold onto old ways of thinking about falling ill.
Not everyone believes that drafts cause sickness, of course, but those who do are often immovable. My French tutor Bernard told me that one hot summer day after he’d managed to wrestle open a window on a stifling hot commuter rail line, a woman seated on the aisle, away from the window, insisted he close it again. “Je ne veux pas attraper froid,” she told him. She didn’t want to catch a cold. He asked her if she’d prefer to die of heat. “Vous préférez mourir de chaleur?” She shrugged at him, he said.
The French are always cold, too, by the way. So heat wouldn’t get to her. There’s even a word for someone who’s cold, frileur or frileuse (the celebrated French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon created a work, “La Frileuse,” showing an old woman who embodies this). So, even if this woman didn’t care about being hot, she was still wary of catching cold from an open window in summertime. Bernard knew there’d be no convincing her otherwise about the reality of deadly courants d’air.