Jeremy Clarke

The joy of French hospital food

I sat outside in my pyjamas with my double café creme and my croissant and oh là là did I enjoy them

The joy of French hospital food
[Photo: Christopher Ames]
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After checking me in, the receptionist, who was wearing an overcoat, said: ‘There is no heating in the hotel. The unit is broken. But it is not cold today so you should be fine.’ Room 357 was cold. Hoping to raise the temperature by a degree, I filled the sink with hot water, turned on all the lights, and switched on the massive telly.

It showed drug squad officers busting dealers in a poor northern French town. After combing through a suspect’s text messages, they bashed down his or her front door and arrested everybody and seized their drugs and cash. Most often it was hashish in small amounts and the drug dealers were in bed. It was poor whites busting other poor whites. The programme was three hours long. One bust after another. Not having watched a television for several months, I was rapt. Afterwards, vowing to take more care in future about the content of my text messages, I took a pill and turned in early.

At six-thirty the next morning I walked through the already busy Marseille streets to the hospital and checked in to a ward on the sixth floor. Here I was shown a nicer, warmer room and told to undress. Was I fasting as instructed? Yes, I said. Then I lay on a trolley and was wheeled to an operating room and rendered unconscious. When I came to, I was wheeled back up to my nice warm room and transferred to the bed.

‘Can I go to the toilet?’ I said to the nurse. I was busting. ‘By all means,’ she said. ‘Let me help you.’ She was elderly and alarmingly breathless but a nurse to her very fingertips. The lavatory was en-suite. She helped me push aside the disposable surgical wear and I stood over the bowl. It was all blood and I could neither control nor direct it. Afterwards there was blood up the walls and across the floor. Even the little vanity mirror above the sink was spotted with it.

‘I’m ever so sorry,’ I said as I smeared a bloodstain with a paper towel. ‘What do you think I am?’ she panted. ‘A florist? I’m a nurse. Out of the way.’

Later she came back to remove the cannula that was taped to the back of my hand. In the process, the vein tore. Claret everywhere: sheets, pillow, bed table. ‘It’s like a battlefield in here,’ she gasped.

A doctor came in: a young chap, perky and brisk. He spoke English. I was glad of a respite from straining every mental fibre to make sense of machine-gun Marseille French. ‘The procedure has been unsuccessful,’ he said. ‘Your kidney isn’t draining as it should. So we are going to keep you here tonight. And you must continue to fast, I’m afraid. We may decide to repeat the operation tomorrow.’

So I repacked my bag and a nurse led me on foot to a ward four floors down. Here I was shown a large, sunny two-bed room and a huge-bellied man lying on the other bed. He looked up from his phone as we entered and bellowed some sort of lascivious raillery at the nurse. I unpacked and lay down. My room mate introduced himself as Joseph. Was I tested for Covid, he said? It’s compulsory, I said. We talked about Covid. Last year his brother had died of it.

A nurse came in and took our blood pressures. Mine was better than hers, she said. Joseph’s was an appalling 150/110. He asked the nurse for a kiss and received a surprisingly enthusiastic one smack on the mouth.

‘Guess how old I am?’ Joseph said to me when she’d gone. ‘Sixty,’ I said. ‘Seventy-five,’ he said proudly.

His brother had died and diabetes was killing him but he was invincibly cheerful. ‘What can one do except laugh?’ he said. That was his catchphrase. He appended it to almost everything he said.

By now I was hollow with hunger. I was allowed water until midnight, however.

Joseph had been there ten days. The nurses, cleaners and dinner ladies adored him. When the night nurse came in at ten o’clock, she sprinted silently across the room and flung herself on top of him and smothered his beaming face with kisses.

At five o’clock in the morning, she came in again to ask me if I was in pain. I said no. She stuck a needle in my arm and withdrew some blood. At eight o’clock I was sent in my pyjamas down to the imagery department for an X-ray. And at ten the perky young doctor came in. The kidney appeared to be draining and I could go home, he said. Still in pyjamas, I went immediately downstairs to the hospital café and bought a double café crème, a croissant and a quiche Lorraine and went outside and sat with the sun on my face, and oh là là did I enjoy them.