Time goes by in the blink of an eye. It seems like yesterday that Jonas and I were gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes and saying “I do” in front of family and friends in Sonoma. This past weekend, we celebrated our 17-year anniversary with a bike ride on the banks of the Seine, along with our two sweet and delightfully mischievous children. When we took a break from riding, our youngest pretended to jump into the river just for kicks. (Hahaha! Moms love that!) Okay, it may sound a little unromantic to spend your entire anniversary with your kids, especially if you’ve been together non-stop for the last five months like we have, but it was actually really lovely. And don’t worry. Jonas and I were able to squeeze in some special alone time the very next day.
I know it’s going to sound like a joke, but believe me when I say we had an unforgettable date at the Hôpital Saint-Antoine. Jonas had an appointment for a hernia surgery consultation and a friend of ours graciously offered to watch the boys while we learned exactly how he’d be repaired and sewn up. We dropped the kids off at her place in the 11th arrondissement and started the 15-minute walk to the hospital. It was really nice outside. Sunny, but not too hot for August. It was the first time we’d been alone in a long time and we relished it. We held hands and chatted about n’importe-quoi (whatever). We passed a few Space Invaders on the way and that made me happy. We play a game called Flash Invaders, which allows you to “flash” (snap pictures of) mosaics in various cities for points, and I’m on a personal mission to catch up to a guy named Docteur Miel who has nearly 50,000 points!
When we arrived at the hospital, we could not figure out how to get in. We circled an entire city block and finally found an entrance. I must mention that some Parisian hospitals are like fortresses. They often have beautiful stone buildings encircling the property, and inside you’ll find what looks like a small city dedicated to health, with buildings, roads, car traffic, and some peaceful green spaces for visitors and staff to find some repose. There are always a few unfortunately-designed buildings, which were probably considered cool and modern at one time, but did not turn out to be timeless treasures like the exterior buildings. The insides of those newer buildings, as we came to learn, are even less appealing.
As it was our first time at this hospital, we had no idea where we were going. Thankfully someone approached us and asked if we needed directions. We arrived at our floor on time only to find that this part of the hospital was under construction. We eventually found a printed sign that told us to enter from a different building. Yet another stranger saw us struggling and showed us how to find the other entrance. We followed him down some stairs and a corridor, took an elevator up two floors and arrived at what looked like a scene from a horror movie. There was a long, narrow hallway, complete with flickering fluorescent lights and the sound of cackling coming from a room in the distance. People were scattered in the hallway, kind of forming a line, but not really. (The French are famous for not queuing up in any organized way.) There was no clear signage so we went into various rooms and inquired at desks until we figured out we were supposed to wait in that “line.” It was hot and stuffy in the hallway and our face masks were making it hard to breathe.
People were eventually helped by staff, moving us forward in line until we arrived at the room with the mysterious cackling sounds. Inside we saw four female nurses huddled around a small desk, each clutching small water bottles. As peals of laughter exited the room, Jonas asked, “Do you think they’re laughing at people’s hernia scans?” We waited patiently in the hallway and overheard another nurse apologize to a patient next to us, saying, “Sorry. One of the girls hasn’t slept and she has lost her marbles.” That last part is the best translation I can think of for “elle a pété un câble,” which literally means “she blew a fuse.” Then she turned to us and said, “Go in there,” gesturing towards the small room, “because they’re never going to come out and get you.” So we walked in and discovered, in addition to laughing nurses, there was a fridge in the corner and a small cart with several coffee cups and a jar of sugar on top. Apparently this was a newfangled break room/reception area.
A nurse took Jonas’ paperwork and started entering information on the computer while the short-circuited woman wiped tears from her eyes and tried to compose herself. A man in his 50s wearing mint green scrubs walked in and the nurse with our file said to him, “Ça c’est Monsieur Fischer.” He nodded at her, took the paperwork and walked out of the room without acknowledging we were even there. We were then told to wait in the hallway again. A few minutes later, the same guy in scrubs approached us and asked us to follow him into a room. I explained that I was just there to translate as my husband doesn’t speak French, adding if he spoke any English, my husband would appreciate it. He said he spoke a little but his vocabulary wasn’t “très riche.” I said I felt the same way about my vocabulary in French. He invited us to sit down and proceeded to prepare a huge file, placing stickers with Jonas’ info on multiple pages, saying, “okay,” over and over again. He left the room and Jonas and I looked at each other, wondering if this would be the extent of his English vocabulary.
Minutes later, a blond guy in scrubs entered the room and we learned that THIS would be the doctor performing the surgery. He examined Jonas, explained the upcoming surgery and possible complications, answered our questions, and then set a date for the hernia repair. He signed some forms for our insurance company and told us Didier, the male nurse we had met before and who was now standing behind us, would be taking it from there. Didier made himself comfortable at the doctor’s desk, organized some papers and handed them over. He asked Jonas a couple questions in English like, “Do you have painful?” and then switched to French because he wanted to explain some very important things to us.
He shared what Jonas would need to do the night before the surgery and what to bring the morning of. Then he said there was something positive we could look forward to. He paused for dramatic effect and then revealed, “He will become young again.” He had a twinkle in his eye and even though a mask was covering his face, I could tell he was smiling. I raised my eyebrows and said, “Ah bon?”, wondering what in the world this could possibly mean. He then pointed to a diagram of a man’s crotch and said the hair was going to be removed in this area, not with a razor, but with clippers, wax or hair removal cream. I turned to Jonas and said quickly in English, “You might get waxed!” and then returned my attention to the nurse. I learned that this was not done at the hospital but needed to be taken care of at home before the surgery. I verified in French, “Okay, so WE have to do this?” and he nodded his head, saying, “Yes, but absolutely not with a razor!”
When Didier left, I asked Jonas if he understood what was going on. He said, “I don’t understand a word anyone is saying but I get the gist.” I laid everything out for him and we giggled over the guy’s apparent enthusiasm for hair removal. We headed downstairs to the billing department and they said they’d mail us the bill. Then we somehow made our way to a separate billing department in another building to request an estimate for the upcoming surgery so we could submit it to our insurance company for approval. There were three employees in their early 20s working there – a young woman scrolling on her phone, a dude in a tracksuit and another with a long, curly brown ponytail. Jonas remarked, “They look chilled out.” We thought this was going to be an easy final step, but we were wrong.
Track suit boy said “Bonjour” first so we went to his window. I explained in French that we were in need of an estimate for an upcoming hernia surgery and passed a handwritten request for this from the doctor. Without looking at it, he said, “We don’t do estimates.” I told him that our insurance company required an estimate before approving to pay for a surgery and he replied, “We don’t work with private insurance companies.” I started again. “We don’t have social security or a carte vitale. We will pay for the surgery up front and then get reimbursed by our own insurance. We just need to know how much it will cost that day.” He said that was not possible. Flustered, I asked him about the chart next to us with a list of hospital fees. He looked at it as if he was seeing it for the first time and finally said those rates were for people staying overnight. Jonas was ready to give up but as I always tell our kids, “If you want something here, you have to be prepared to ask for it at least three times.”
I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t understand. You have prices for some services but not others?” He said they couldn’t possibly know what was going to happen at the hospital that day. I replied, “Actually they know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s a planned surgery for hernia repair, an anesthesiologist will be there and it’s an outpatient procedure.” He averted my gaze and then asked his colleague, “Hey, can we do estimates here?” Ponytail replied, “I don’t know. Ask Monsieur so-and-so.” He picked up the phone, pressed a button and asked again, “Hey, can we do estimates?” I heard a muffled, “Oui.” He asked to see our paperwork, provided the surgery code over the phone and then said we could sit down for a few minutes while his boss prepared the estimate. Ahhh, success.
We sat side by side in the waiting area and gave each other a celebratory kiss with our face masks on. (A first for us!) I told Jonas that I was glad my French level is decent, otherwise I would have given up on that situation fairly quickly and we would have walked out empty-handed. When I was taking high school French, I never imagined I’d need those skills to one day translate a surgery consultation and debate with a hospital employee! As soon as we secured the estimate, we went outside, ripped off our face masks, and took a minute to enjoy the fresh air and our surroundings. Then we exited the fortress of Hôpital Saint-Antoine hand in hand.