How to Be Sick

1. Getting Sick: A Romantic Trip to Paris

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Getting Sick


Paris ain’t much of a town.


AT THE END of August 2001, I was to begin my twentieth year as a law professor at the University of California at Davis. To celebrate and to treat ourselves, Tony and I decided to go on a special vacation. Surfing the Internet, I found a studio apartment in Paris for rent at a reasonable price. We were not world travelers: a trip to Paris was a big deal for us. For three weeks, we’d immerse ourselves in the life and culture of the City of Lights. We were going to have a great time.

At the airport things got off to an inauspicious start. As we sat in our seats on the United Airlines commuter flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, where we would change to a direct flight to Charles de Gaulle, we noticed the plane wasn’t backing away from the gate. Soon came the announcement that an equipment problem would be delaying our takeoff. Tony and I realized we weren’t going to make the Los Angeles flight to Paris if we continued to sit there.


While others onboard chatted about what was going on, we quickly got up, grabbed our carry-ons (all we ever take), and headed for the United Airlines check-in counter. Because we’d acted so swiftly, the agent was able to get us on a TWA flight about to depart for Saint Louis. From there, we could change to a nonstop TWA flight to Charles de Gaulle, arriving about the same time as we’d originally planned. Like characters on a TV commercial, we ran down the concourse to the TWA boarding gate, our carry-ons in tow. The flight had already boarded but they let us on.

Once off the ground, we praised ourselves. We’d been so much smarter than the other passengers. By the time we left the United Airlines counter with our TWA tickets in hand, those who’d been on the commuter flight had formed a long line behind us. Ah, pride. “Caution, caution,” the Buddha would have said, but at that moment we were so pleased with ourselves for deftly averting a disastrous beginning to our special vacation. Several doctors have told us that the odds are high that on one of these two TWA flights I picked up the virus from which I have never recovered.

We arrived at our studio apartment on the tiny rue du Vieux Colombier in the sixth arrondissement on the Left Bank. The apartment was much smaller than it had looked in the online pictures. It consisted of a bathroom and a kitchen, each of which could be comfortably occupied by only one person at a time, and a living room. It was furnished with a tiny table and two chairs, a love seat (a romantic euphemism for a couch that’s too small to lie down on), and a double bed in the corner. On the wall opposite the bed sat a bookshelf with a cabinet at the bottom. We found a tiny television set inside, but we had no intention of spending our time in Paris watching TV.

We wandered around that first day, waiting for nightfall so we could sleep and adjust to the new time zone. 5The next day, I didn’t feel well but assumed it was only jet lag. The day after that, I felt awful but, refusing to believe it could be anything other than lingering jet lag, I suggested we go to a movie. We picked an American film, Anniversary Party. Frankly, I just wanted to sit in the dark and try to assess what was going on in my body. While watching the movie, I began to realize that I was indeed sick.

Soon thereafter I developed typical flu symptoms and couldn’t get out of bed. After three days, Tony and I reached the same hopeful conclusion: “This is no big deal. We still have eighteen days left in Paris.”

After a week, it became “No big deal, we still have two weeks left in Paris.”

“. . . we still have ten days left in Paris.”

The “days left” dwindled and dwindled.

We developed a routine. In the morning, Tony would go to a brasserie and then walk the streets of Paris, returning around noon, always hoping for a change in my condition. Then he’d go out in the afternoon for more walking. Maybe he would take in a museum. He was not enjoying these solo excursions.

During the second week of our stay, I wanted so badly to keep Tony company that I decided one day to tough it out. I insisted we go to see the famous Impressionist collection at the Musée d’Orsay, which had been converted from a train station into a museum and is known for its soaring interior spaces. The line to get in went around the block. We would have returned to the apartment right then and there had I not done my research and known to buy museum passes at a Métro station. Under the assumption we’d be museum-hopping together, Tony had bought two passes on our second day in Paris. We were allowed inside immediately.

As soon as I entered the Impressionist gallery, the adrenaline I’d used to get myself there wore off — this excursion had been a mistake. I collapsed into one of the lovely wicker chairs that sit 6in rows in the middle of the bigger galleries and told Tony to go ahead and enjoy the paintings. He would periodically come back and check on me, asking if we should leave, but I kept telling him to go off and look for a while longer.

As I sat, my eyes lit on a large painting by Claude Monet, Essai de figure en plein-air: Femme à l’ombrelle tournée vers la droite. A woman stands in a field, her face shaded by her umbrella. It’s painted with a soft, muted palette, yet is somehow wonderfully luminous. I was vaguely aware of musical wicker chairs going on around me — people would sit for a few minutes, get up, and be quickly replaced by someone who had been waiting to take the first free chair. I just sat, bathed in the colors and the composition on Monet’s canvas. I felt as if he’d painted this young woman in a field to watch over me so I could let Tony experience the museum. But my attempt at keeping him company had failed.

Except to see a doctor, that was the end of going out. My days were spent in bed. Too sick to read, I thought I’d try the little television after all. I was shocked at the poor quality of French programming: every channel had the worst kind of quiz show, featuring contestants who’d been coached to scream on cue, loud-mouthed obnoxious hosts, and the gaudiest of sets. In my naïveté, I was expecting high French culture to emanate from the tube. I gave up in frustration, but as the hours wore on, and I was still bored and restless, I tried TV again. I heard familiar theme music, actors were running around pushing a gurney, and on the screen the word Emerges appeared. Even with my poor French, I knew this was ER. I settled in for some televised comfort food, only to find it was dubbed into French. Movies in English were also dubbed instead of subtitled. “So much for TV,” I thought, as I turned it off and closed the cabinet doors.

I spent most of each day and many a night when I was too sick to sleep listening to the BBC on a shortwave radio Tony bought 7for me when it was clear I’d be in bed for a while. The BBC had a wonderful array of programs, including clever and funny quiz shows. It became my introduction to our own National Public Radio (NPR), which I began listening to every day soon after returning to Davis and finding myself bedbound. When I’m listening to NPR’s broadcast of the BBC News and I hear the plummy tones of the very same British voice that came over the shortwave radio in our Paris apartment announcing, “You’re listening to the BBC World Service,” a tinge of sadness passes over me. I’m briefly transported back to that bed on the Left Bank where it all began.

A few days after the trip to the Musée d’Orsay, we decided I should see a doctor. I looked in the yellow pages and found an entry for the “American Hospital.” Even though the name suggested home and a refuge for me, the person who answered the phone was just plain rude. When I described my symptoms, she gruffly said, “Well, what do you want us to do about it?” It was a harbinger of things to come back in California.

Next I tried the entry for the “British Hospital.” The woman who answered the phone only spoke French, but I heard concern and kindness in her voice. She put me on hold while she found a nurse who spoke English. She told me to come right in.

I still shake my head in disbelief when I think of the unnecessary stress we subjected ourselves to getting from our apartment on the Left Bank to the British hospital in a northern suburb of Paris, and thereafter to a pharmacy in central Paris, and then finally back to the Left Bank. Whew! Typical Californians, we never considered taking a cab. We weren’t being cheap; it just didn’t cross our minds. We think of cabs as something New Yorkers use. Foolishly, we walked from our apartment to the nearest Métro stop. Two transfers and several staircases later, we found ourselves above ground in an altogether different sort 8of Paris — the suburbs. Walking along with our map in hand, we made agonizingly slow progress. Even this small excursion was wearing me out.

The doctor thought I simply had the flu. She wrote down my diagnosis as grippe — a word that made me think of the rhyme for “postnasal drip” in Miss Adelaide’s song from Guys and Dolls. She wanted to be sure it didn’t turn into a bacterial infection that would ruin our whole vacation, so she gave me a prescription for antibiotics. We trekked back to the Métro and, after another transfer and more stairs, surfaced above ground at the only open pharmacy between the northern suburb and our Left Bank apartment, since it was one of those European days off intriguingly called a bank holiday.

The hospital and pharmacy ordeal is a haze in my mind, although a few vivid memories remain. I recall the hospital staff repeatedly apologizing because, since it was a bank holiday, they had to charge us for the appointment — a whopping fifteen dollars when converted from francs to dollars. I recall surfacing from the Métro to go to the pharmacy and finding myself face to face with a postcard-picture view of the Arc de Triomphe, the tiniest flash of the Paris we’d hoped to be seeing for three weeks. I also remember the agony I felt as I leaned against the wall in the Métro stairwells, using both hands on the banister to pull my body up step after step. Tony told me, years later, that when he saw me dragging my body up the stairs, he realized how sick I was. That’s his vivid memory of that day.

Our last week in Paris, I turned on the TV again and discovered that the French Open was on all day long. Language didn’t matter in tennis; even I could figure out that égalité meant “deuce.” I made a bed for myself on the floor, close enough to the TV to be able to see the ball being hit over the net, and a love affair was born. I still watch a lot of tennis. I can recite the names of players 9from all over the world. I love how international tennis is. I love the aesthetics of the game — complexity within seeming simplicity. All a player has to do is get the ball over the net, inside the lines. But within that seeming simplicity lies an array of strategies — physical and mental — that has the feel of a chess game: aces, lobs, volleys, passing shots. As I lay there learning to love watching tennis, it seemed I might be getting better. I was deeply disappointed that our vacation had been ruined, but I was hopeful.

The day before we were scheduled to fly home, I felt I was on the road to recovery.

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