Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Down and Out in Marseilles: Katja's Student Abroad Tale

A medieval hospital in France

[Preface: Excerpted from a speech titled “My Favorite Year” by Katja L. to the Contemporary Club, Cincinnati, Jan. 23, 2012]

Dear George, 
After meeting my two friends in Geneva [in August, 1958], we began our travels by hitchhiking and hostelling along the Riviera – learning that being a student tourist is hard work. Our plans involved going from Nice to Marseille and then on to Spain. We arrived in Marseille, the third largest city in France.  It appeared to be a drab, dirty, sprawling seaport of a town. After finding a hostel where we could park our luggage, we set out to find the tourist sight that we all agreed was absolutely at the top of our “to see and to do” list – take the harbor ride to the Chateau d’If – Devil’s Island- the supposed prison where the Count of Monte Cristo had been incarcerated for almost twenty  years.  What absolute folly! This search can best be described as the idiocy akin to the search for Sherlock Holmes’ Baker St. home or the search for Harry Potter’s room at Hogwart’s Academy.

What a silly bunch of girls we were! There were signs all over the wharves advertising trips to the fabled Chateau d’If. We walked around the wharves, looking for the best deal in motor boat rides to an island a mere mile and a half away. When we finally found our ride, we soon realized that this was nothing more than a tourist trap and that the real Devil’s Island was far off in the Indian ocean and that this so-called island in Marseille’s harbor was nothing more than a nesting and resting station for seagulls.

It had been a long day and we were all exhausted as the motor boat turned back to shore. As we approached land, it suddenly became very cold and rain poured down. By the time we scrambled onto shore, I was feeling sick, nauseated, and feverish. We went back to our hostel and within an hour the fever had skyrocketed and I was barely able to walk. The hostel owner hailed a taxi for us, and my friends asked him to take me to a hospital. The driver said he would take us to L’Hopital de la Crucifixione.  He explained that L’Hopital de la Crucifixione was the general hospital in Marseille, and he dropped us off at the main entrance.

At this point, a description of the building is important for an understanding of the situation in which we found ourselves. L’Hopital de la Crucifixione was a large, two story building. The first story consisted of a series of open air arcades that extended all around the four sides of the building. The second story was really the first floor of the hospital, and luckily the patients were housed on that floor. The building took up a square block. It had been built during the Napoleonic era (1815), and I was to learn later that I was the first American to be admitted to L’Hopital de la Crucifixione since 1941! It was during the admission process that we learned the word hopital in French referred to a public hospital where people went as a last resource, whereas clinique signified  a private hospital where one went when one was sick and had money .

Luckily, the admitting staff realized the gravity of my condition and admitted me  immediately. My friends left me with a nurse and promised to return the next day.
The nurse put me in a private room and said something about Typhus, at which point I passed out and remembered nothing.

I was awakened in the dark by the sound of scampering, scratchy noises. I felt light drop-ping sounds on my sheets and blankets – as if rice was being thrown around the room and on my bed. I leapt out of bed and flicked on the light. To my horror I saw the cause of the sounds. The entire room – ceiling, floor and walls were covered in a moving carpet of cockroaches. I screamed. A nurse came running. She took one look at the situation and pointed at the light switch. I did not understand enough French or comprehend her repeated gestures with the light switch. I was too sick and scared by the hypnotic waves of roaches. Finally, I realized that she was telling me that as long as there was light, the roaches would retreat. As soon as the light was off, back they would come. In bright light, the rolling waves of insects scurried off into invisible escape passages.  From that moment, the light never went off or out in that room.

I learned a great deal about the French health care system during the eight days I spent in L’Hopital de la Crucifixione. It turned out that the blood tests they had taken did not come back from their lab for a week and by that time they decided I did not have Typhus. Since I had been hiking and hostelling along the Riviera, they felt I had caught some kind of “bug” from the ice I had insisted on having in my Coca-Cola in Nice.  Although they didn’t believe I had Typhus, they treated me as if I did which meant for eight days I was fed boiled potatoes and apricot jam. I later learned from my mother (a therapeutic dietitian) that this was probably the best treatment I could have received.  However, at the time, the menu seemed hugely unimaginative and tiresome.

I learned that my hospital had one private room (in which I slept) and several public rooms. These huge rooms were more like giant dormitories with twenty beds in each room – ten beds on each side of a wide aisle, with a chair next to each bed.

Most of the patients were immigrants from North Africa: Algeria; Tunisia; Libya and Morocco. They were very sick and their families brought them food and drink. The small kitchen across the hall from my room was manned by a cook who shared her space with Kamikaze cockroaches. As she prepared individual orders for those patients who had no family, the cockroaches would jump into the flames – making popping noises and causing the flames to shoot up and out. 

Being the first American since 1941 to come to this hospital, I became somewhat of a curiosity to the medical staff. They would arrive every morning in two groups of six, introduce themselves, thump on my stomach, practice their English, confer with each other in rapid-fire French and exit – smiling. They seemed happy with my progress and would say encouraging things like “Soon. Soon!” 

As mentioned previously, the hospital was built on a series of open air arcades. Around the fourth or fifth day of my stay, a volunteer arrived at my room. She was the equivalent of a “ candy-striper” in the states . I was surprised to learn that she “worked” in the arcades. By day, she pushed her cart around the hospital selling things like candy and cigarettes to the diabetics and heart patients in the large, dormitory style rooms. At night she plied her trade as a “lady of the evening” in the arcades under the hospital. Soon, I met several other friends of that original candy-striper. They were fascinated by the story of how I, as an American, had ended up in their hospital. They were amused by my account of our search for the Chateau d’If  and our confusion about the difference between the clinique and l’hopital. These women were so warm hearted and generous that when my stay in the hospital ended, they insisted on taking me to the railroad station and put me on the train for Barcelona.

When I was discharged from the hospital after eight days, I was told the bill would be sent to my parents in Philadelphia.  The hospital informed me that they had contacted the American consulate in Marseille to let them know that an American was in their hospital . In turn, the consulate had called my parents to reassure them that their daughter was not lost nor had she been sold into the white slave trade.  I was allowed to call home using the consulate telephone, and my parents were so excited about getting an overseas phone call that most of the three minutes allotted were squandered with useless phrases like ”Are you Ok? Are you sure? “ and “Come home soon”. I gave them my itinerary and told them to write in care of the American Express office in Barcelona, Madrid, Segovia, and Paris….

After a recent stay in the hospital. I found myself wondering if the Hopital de la Crucifixione remained standing in Marseille and if healthcare services in France still included candy-stripers who moonlighted as prostitutes. When Cincinnati was named the bedbug capital of the nation, I wondered if my old hospital had conquered its cockroach problems or whether they still continued to keep on the lights as their primary remedy.

As touchstones, these memories are vivid, but more importantly, they are the events which formed my character and continue to influence the choices and behaviors of my life – and oh! by the way – remember that hospital bill that was sent home after my discharge ? – the total cost for eight days came to twenty four dollars!

G-mail Comments
-Ami G (7-10):  This is such a well written and heart felt tale.  And, what did it do for your character?
Thanks.  Love.   Ami

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