Chapter 16: Week 14: Result! I’m officially ill!

14.5 out of 20 for my exam at the end of last term, which I was very pleased with indeed, third in the class behind David, who’s a waiter-turned-cook working in a posh restaurant north-east of Avignon, and Beatrice, the Belgian owner of a very smart local chambre d’hôte bed-and-breakfast. And then Philippe our teacher let slip that he’s marked us down ‘very severely’ and that for our proper CAP exam we could expect to do a few marks better than the scores he’d given us. Result indeed, that’s gotta be a good 18 or 19 out of 20 for the real thing. I was let down by my ‘commercial presentation’ – talking about the dish I’d prepared. I misunderstood the question asked, and chatted about the ingredients and techniques I’d used as if I were talking about it to my chef de cuisine. In fact, I’d been asked to present it to a customer who would want only general details and to be told how delicious the dish is. Lesson learned.
But that’s the only good news today because I’m feeling very, very poorly indeed and got Delphine to drive me to school this morning because I was feeling so bad. It’s a flare-up of a condition I’ve been suffering from on and off since 1997, when we first started looking for a house in France. Then, we were staying in a B&B just west of Nimes and I was feeling fluey, which I put down to a long drive from London and just general tiredness. I woke up at about three in the morning dying of thirst and completely disorientated, and fell out of bed. I was trying to get up and go to the bathroom but was so badly disoriented and confused that I actually couldn’t work out which way was ‘down’ in order to push myself upright, and had to be physically dragged back into bed.
By the time the doctor came in the morning I wasn’t feeling too bad, and he took blood samples and sent them off for tests but couldn’t find anything. I was worried I’d been bitten by something – the day before we’d been to the Camargue and I was worried that a malaria-laden mosquito had bitten and infected me. Which is rubbish, of course, the Camarguais mosquitos live a few thousand kilometres north of their malarial cousins in Africa. Still. There are poisonous spiders in the vines, everyone said. Scorpions. And I was definitely suffering a bite, my leg had swollen up to three times its normal size and hurt like mad.
So this morning at school I can feel the symptoms recurring, as they have done just about every year since 1997: flu-like feelings, leg swelling and soon I’ll get the shivers and shakes so violent that I can’t stand up, so I excuse myself at 10 am and go home for a lie down.
Before I leave Chef gives me the recipes for today, black forest gateau and paupiettes of merlan (whiting) which I promise to do later this week.
And then I go home and spend 24 hours in bed, shivering and shaking, before the doctor comes to see me. She does lots of tests which, I tell her, will be useless; I’ve seen lots of doctors and specialists over the past nine years and none has ever found a solution.
But French medicine, supporting as it does the Best Health Service in the World, diagnoses my problem. I have, it turns out, an ‘erisipel’, a blood infection. I have – have always had, since my early childhood – athlete’s foot which comes and goes and I control with topical creams to kill the ‘champignons’, the ‘mushrooms’ as the French so delightfully call the fungi. Every now and then they get into my bloodstream via a cut or break in the skin on my foot and infect my whole body – my leg swells up as it’s nearest the site of infection.
My doctor says I need to go to hospital immediately since this is a very serious problem and I could die if I don’t get it sorted out. Ha! Has she never heard of the Cook’s Code of Conduct? Rule 1: Always Go To Work, No Matter What. Rule 2: See rule 1.
See, the restaurant is officially closed at the moment, but I’m working with the Chef on a few passing groups and our resident group of Gendarmes (groups of CRS Gendarmes, the French riot police, are regularly stationed away from home all over the country and we have a permanent group staying in the hotel). So as it’s just me and him there’s no question of me leaving him to work alone so I tell her to find another solution.
Hmm. Well, says the doctor, you could take this, and this, and this and use this cream and this special soap and lie in bed at home and a nurse will come round and give you twice-daily injections in the stomach to try to stem the infection. Eight prescriptions? I must be poorly. In France, others judge your real level of illness by how many items you’re prescribed – one or two and you’re clearly faking it. Three or four and yes, well, OK, you might be a bit sick but it’s not serious. Five or six items and you’re definitely poorly, take the day off. Eight items, plus a nurse coming round morning and evening to give you an injection? Now you’re definitely sick, lie down straight away.
So I go with this option, except the only nurse I can find in the yellow pages who will take me on doesn’t do home visits so far away from home (she’s a five minute walk from my flat) so I have to schlepp round there twice a day. Me, who’s supposedly so ill I should be on a drip in hospital.
Anyway. So I do that and continue going in to work too, collapsing in bed as soon as I get home. Delphine is working at the moment but, sterling trooper that she is, manages to drive me to and from work most days and I get the bus the rest of the time rather than taking my bike – I’m really not up to cycling the five kilometres to the restaurant.

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