Monday, October 12, 2015

The Kindness of the French, by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard #Paris essay

The following personal essay is part of the anthology, Portal: Gateway to Adventure (Studio5, 2015) edited by Marily Orosa. This book was just released and is available from Studio 5 or email

The Kindness of the French


Cecilia Manguerra Brainard
Copyright 2015 by Cecilia Brainard

           IN THE SPRING  of 2013, something happened to me in Paris — it had to do with my perception of that city, of my husband, and of myself.
            May 2013, my husband, Lauren, and I flew to Paris with the intention of spending three nights there. One evening was set aside to have dinner with our friends Max and Christine who come from Lyon but would be in Paris just to see us. After our short visit to Paris, we’d rent a car and drive north to Belgium and Normandy. Lauren had it all mapped out: flight, hotels, rental car. He loved planning trips. We enjoyed travelling, although visiting France made me a bit wary. During my prior visits there, I found that the clich├ęs said about the French being rude, arrogant and condescending seemed true. Parisians answered in French even when I spoke to them in English. In addition, I had discovered that some vendors and taxi drivers had been dishonest with me, all petty matters, but annoying.

According to plan, we arrived in Paris and took the Air France bus that stopped near the Arc de Triomphe. We got off and wheeled our luggage a block to get to the Hotel Cecilia. This was a new hotel for us; we usually stayed at another near the Notre Dame. My husband had deliberately chosen this hotel because it’s my namesake. Our room at the Hotel Cecilia was not bad and even had a view of the Arc de Triomphe. That afternoon we rested then walked to the Arc de Triomphe, after which we ate at a restaurant near our hotel, Italian, with very good pizza and a chatty owner.

            The next day, despite our jet lag, we woke up early. Paris was unusually cold then; apparently it was the coldest May in a hundred years. Bundled up as best as we could, we started our adventure. After breakfast, we were at the nearby metro station to figure how to get to the Eiffel Tower.   
We were happy. Spring is a popular time to visit Paris and despite the chill, the City of Lights was glorious, with flowers blooming, and gray winter days giving way to optimistic sunshine. I remember the boughs of purple flowers hanging from the jacaranda trees near the Eiffel Tower. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the Tower framed by those flowers.
            I did not expect Paris to be crowded with tourists at that time of year, and I was surprised at the long line to get up to the Eiffel Tower. Eventually, we made it to the second floor where we had a view of the glamorous city. Paris is interestingly laid out. It’s not a grid, like most cities, but spirals out with the oldest section at the very center. The Louvre, Royal Palace, and Tuileries Garden are in the first Arrondissement or district. Notre Dame is in Arrondissement 4. The Eiffel Tower is in Arrondissement 7, the Champs Elysee, and Arc de Triomphe are in Arrondissement 8. Lauren pinpointed the various landmarks, and we marveled at the beauty of Paris.
From the Eiffel Tower, we walked to the Marais area so I could buy some cans of foie gras. My husband was ribbing me about my love for this dish, asking what the difference was between it and potted liver. A world of difference, I went on, foie gras is made from the liver of duck or goose while the other was made from chicken liver.

            On to Notre Dame we went, still in high spirits. After praying and touring the Gothic church, we admired the exterior flying buttresses and whimsical gargoyles. From the Notre Dame, we made our way to the less-known small royal chapel, Sainte-Chappelle with its fabulous thirteenth century stained glass windows. There was a long queue as well, and I stood in line, while my husband went to the front to make sure we were in the right place.
            And then it happened.
            Lauren turned, his foot caught on a metal barrier, and he fell. There he was on the ground. All this happened as if in slow motion. Still flashing my holiday smile, I left my place to help him. To my horror, he couldn’t get up. Lauren stands 6’5” and weighs around 240 lbs. He’s a big man. Two other people helped me get him up to a sidewalk bench. A woman told me she spoke English and could help, but at this point I didn’t realize the gravity of our situation. Still smiling, I thanked her and told her he’d be all right. I thought he just needed time to catch his breath and he’d bounce back to his feet. When he did try to get up, his right leg was weak and he crumpled back down to the bench. He tried several times, unsuccessfully, and I suggested asking for help. He told me to wait a while, and he continued with his futile attempts. Finally I approached the guard of Sainte-Chapelle, and not speaking French at all, I pointed at Lauren and said, “Emergency…. hopital?”
            The guard glanced at Lauren and back at me. He spoke rapidly in French and motioned for me to wait. I returned to the bench and reported to Lauren what was going on. He looked gray and was now in pain.
            An ambulance soon appeared, and three young paramedics brought him inside the ambulance to determine how bad off he was. They decided he had to go to a hospital. After I filled out a few simple forms (in English), they placed him on a gurney, asked me to sit beside him, and off we went, with the ambulance blaring that sing-song siren, just like in the movies.
            By this time I was quite stressed. Lauren, surprisingly, was calm and even bantered with the paramedics about the route we were taking.
            They brought us to Hopital Cochin where I was sent to the waiting room while Lauren stayed in the Urgent Care section. By this time, he was strapped prone in a hospital bed. There was a long wait, during which time I tried to pray and stay calm. I was trying to understand all these happenings and also trying to think clearly.
After two or so hours, I was called to join Lauren in a hospital room. The doctors said they had taken an X-ray, which didn’t show any break in his bones. They assumed he had a sprain. They gave him strong pain killers and indicated that as soon as he felt better, we could leave.
            We waited, but the pain did not subside. Neither could Lauren support his weight, even with crutches. In the meantime, the hospital staff seemed anxious to get us out of there because they had other patients waiting. Someone even suggested sending Lauren back to our hotel in an ambulance, which in my opinion was a dumb idea because what in heaven’s name would an immobile patient do in a hotel room?  I vetoed this suggestion. Fortunately, a smart doctor ordered a scan, based on the premise that Lauren was experiencing too much pain for him to merely have a sprain. And then, there it was – a fracture in the femur where it fit into to pelvis. We were told to wait some more.
            Once Lauren and I had this information, we knew we had to scrap our travel plans. The car trip to Belgium and Normandy, the reservations with the car agency and hotels, all had to be cancelled. All our documents were back in the hotel, and we called one of our sons in California, told him what happened, and asked him to cancel what he could.
            When the doctors returned, they said Lauren needed surgery as soon as possible. This was a surprise; I thought if further treatment was needed, the French doctors could stabilize him, and he could return to California for medical treatment. The French doctors were insistent that the fracture had to be dealt with before the bones separated.

They did not have a room at the Hopital Cochin, and Lauren had to be transferred to another facility, the Clinique Blomet. We had to take another ambulance ride. It was nighttime by this time, and the ambulance took us to the back entrance of a dimly lit old building that frankly looked scary. I paid the men the ambulance fee – they had requested this, although all the expenses of the Hopital Cochin and later at the Clinique Blomet would be billed to our HMO, Kaiser Permanente.
            The men had to struggle to move Lauren’s gurney from the ambulance into a narrow elevator, and finally to his hospital room. He had a private room in a rather old hospital. He had his own bathroom, and a window that overlooked a garden. When he was settled that night, I had to catch a taxi to get back to Hotel Cecilia, which wasn’t easy at that time. The nurse in charge, a man, helped me. He negotiated with the driver, 10 euro to take me from the Clinique Blomet to the Hotel Cecilia.  I recall seeing the Eiffel Tower three times; the driver had taken me on a tour. When I got to the hotel, the taxi meter read 15 euro.  I opened the taxi door, got out, handed him 12 euro, and walked into the hotel.
            I told the hotel receptionist about Lauren’s accident and asked if we could extend our stay until we knew what was going on. She accommodated me, and in fact was so touched by our predicament, she was teary eyed.
            It was past midnight, my husband was in the hospital with a broken leg, but my day was not over. I had lengthy conversations with our three sons who were unraveling. They were extremely worried about their father’s condition. The oldest offered to fly to Paris the next day. They were in a dither. I realized I couldn’t fall apart either. I remembered deciding that I had to be strong or at least sound strong. With the firmest voice I could muster, I told them their Dad would be fine, and I’d make sure of it. 
            In fact, I wasn’t sure of anything. While it was decided that Lauren needed surgery, I was worried that the French doctors would not be as good as the American doctors. The Clinique Blomet looked like a small clinic, not a big hospital, and while the building had an old world charm, what sort of equipment did it have, I asked myself. And what about the doctor? Would he be competent?  And after the surgery, how would I get a big man like my husband into an airplane and back home? How much time did Lauren need to heal to be able to travel? Did he have to stay in Paris while he was healing? If so, I would have to find an apartment in Paris …. on and on my mind went. I did not sleep that night.
            When morning came and I was downstairs for a quick breakfast, most hotel staff had heard about what had happened to Lauren, and to my surprise, many offered kind words to me. “Madam, we are very sorry,” they said with tragic expressions. The woman at the desk taught me how to take the metro to the Clinique Blomet. I gathered some things for Lauren in a bag and set off. Taking the metro was something of a challenge because I had always been with Lauren when we took it. Now I had to figure out things on my own, including the transfers. I was surprised I made it to the hospital by nine in the morning. Lauren informed me that earlier he’d talked to the doctor who said he would perform surgery mid-morning.
I was stunned at how quickly things were moving. To add to the commotion, our French friend, Max, showed up and acted as our interpreter. Soon Lauren was wheeled to the operating room, and I was tactfully told to come back later.

            The Clinique Blomet, which I discovered specializes in trauma and fractures, had been a nunnery and near the entrance stood a small chapel, Neo-Gothic in style, with huge stained glass windows. Max invited me to lunch, but I begged off and spent an hour in that chapel praying. Dear God, I prayed, let the surgery go well, let Lauren be all right.
It is one thing to have accidents such as this one happen in your own turf, and another when it occurs in a foreign country where you do not even speak the language, and where you are virtually alone. To be honest I was scared and found myself weeping helplessly in that chapel. What if … the surgery went bad? What if the leg did not heal properly?  What if …? I felt at a loss, but I knew I couldn’t fall apart, that I was the only one Lauren had in Paris. Dear God, I added, give me the strength and the clarity of mind now.
            I returned to the hotel, emailed my report to children and friends, and was back in the hospital in the afternoon. There Lauren was, in bed, with two stainless steel pins in his leg to hold the bones together. He had fun telling me, “I got screwed by the French.”
His doctor appeared to inform us that the surgery went well. He was funny and ebullient and he lightened the weight of the tragedy we found ourselves in. At some point Lauren told him, “We’re supposed to be in Brugge today, Doctor.”
“Oh, pooh, Brugge is always cloudy anyway,” he said, dismissingly, even while the Paris sky outside was heavy with clouds.
But even though the surgery went well, Lauren was not mobile. He had to pull himself up with some overhead contraption to get upright. He was weak and needed time to heal.
            It was during this time when my opinion about the French changed. The ones I dealt with in this time of crises were very sympathetic. Our French friends did their best to make sure Lauren was fine, and they invited us to their home in Lyon so Lauren could rest after surgery. His doctor and other hospital staff were very kind and accommodating. Lauren could have been discharged on Saturday, but they kept him until Monday knowing he would get better care at the hospital than in a hotel.
            I even had a laugh when one night, I went to the Italian restaurant near the hotel to order pizza to go. The owner remembered me and asked about my husband. I told him about Lauren’s accident. The restaurateur expressed his regrets. I stepped outside to wait for the pizza to be ready. When I later re-entered, some men at the restaurant expressed their sympathies to me — the restaurant owner had told them what had happened.

            Lauren was in the hospital for a just few days, but it seemed longer. The experience seemed intense. All my senses were alert; all my cells awake. My mind was ticking constantly. I felt as if I were on survival mode. There was the period of concern over his surgery, and his ability to move. There was the uncertainty of what to do after his discharge. What helped me were the moments of prayer at the chapel at the Clinique Blomet. I would sit and stare at the colorful stained glass windows showing images of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and like a child beg for help. One afternoon, I was able to visit the Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal at the Rue du Bac, and there I also prayed. I have found that prayer calms me down; it helps clarify my mind. And sometimes miracles happen with prayer.           
            As the days passed, things became clear: the hospital would discharge him on Monday. Our friend Max would pick us up on Tuesday, drive us four hours to the City of Lyon, where we would visit him and his wife Christine. This would give Lauren time to rest and heal. After a few days, Max would drive us back to Paris, and we could fly back home. American Airlines would provide wheelchair service and assign us seats with legroom to accommodate Lauren.

            Things pretty much happened that way.
            On May 26, almost two weeks after we arrived Paris, we were back home in California and Lauren was in his own bed.
            Lauren’s had to do physical therapy and he needed another procedure, arthroscopy, to clean out some loose cartilage, but he’s fine.
            Now and then I think of what had happened in Paris that spring. It was a sudden event that upended our plans. It made me reflect about how tenuous the plans we make are. We pretend we’re in control with our lives, but we’re really not.
The incident also made me realize that I have more strength than I think I possess; it was good to know that I have that reserve after all.
It was also enlightening to realize the kindness of the French. Had I misjudged them to start with? Or did they change? Or perhaps it was I who had changed?  I am not sure, but I saw their kindness and generosity to us, total strangers in Paris, that May, and I remain grateful to them.  
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