THERE’S a moment when – to one’s horror or maybe just the merest thrill – one realises one is 100% French. Not in most things, of course; that would be impossible unless reared on the creme fraiche of the home pastures and anointed with pink garlic at birth while clutching the knitting needles of the revolution.
Nope, knowing all the words to the Marseillaise doesn’t swing it; neither does learning how to tie a scarf 1001 ways, even without a proper neck.
Having cheese before pudding is simply a culinary thing, not a mark of Gallic inbuilt superiority and knowledge. Although of course they would disagree with that.
And all those Brits clutching their newly acquired French passports and saying at every opportunity: “We French …” are, pah, mere pretenders. Claiming the mayor as your best friend and her offspring your other family may elevate you in the eyes of your visiting friends but it don’t cut the Dijon around here, matey. Oh no.
Of course before the moment of full awareness I’d had intimations of my new status over the past year in particular. But it was the new respect in Miriam’s eyes when she entered the house the other day, having collected a prescription for me.
Undoing the bundle, she said: “In your drawer you will find pills in a blue box that you were given a year ago for times like this.
“You should have plenty left and you must start taking them immediately because of everything else you have to take this week. They’ll protect your stomach.”
We opened the other sign of my new French soul – the medical drawer in the kitchen.
“No, no blue box; can’t see anything like that,” I told her, rummaging through the stashed medicines.
She sighed. “They will be there but you can look later. They’re bound to be there. No question about it.” (Indeed later I discovered they were.)
The pharmacist – the grey-haired one with the beard who loves to make me say “pneumologiste” over and over – was certain.
“Did the younger partner say anything?” I asked as we kept rummaging – an aside, really.
“He said you definitely had them and to give you his best.”
And that was the light bulb moment. J’etais arrive – I had arrived.
Believe me, the chemist’s is the touchstone for one’s true position in village society. I may not be invited to the houses of those who call themselves expats any more but I care not, for I am treasured – treasured, I tell you – in this sparkling emporium.
I’m now ashamed of the years I spent sighing and fidgeting behind the queue of those chatting away to my new best friends, ignoring all behind them. I usually just wanted a bloody box of aspirin; come on, come on, trot on.
Now, I sweep in, a welcome guest. Heads look up from behind the counter, faces light up (really) in greeting and even a hand is raised in a little wave.
Once at my berth, I tell all that’s been happening since the last time we met – medically, naturally – and we groan or laugh in unison and he or she agrees or disagrees that’s been a good or not so good thing.
My prescription is studied and my computer file brought up on screen. If he/ she frowns I’m quick to quiz. “What? What?” and in at least three instances we’ve agreed that maybe the doctor didn’t quite mean that.
“Funny you should say that,” I whisper, head closer. “I looked it up on Google before I came and I wouldn’t prescribe that with that.”
We each raise an eyebrow in complicity. “I could phone him,” suggests the chemist. “Mmm, maybe not,” I reply, not wanting to fall out with my other best friend.
“Well, I’ll give it to you but …” His/ her head dips and the eyes flash a meaningful glance that I recognise. “Understood,” I say.
Meanwhile behind me, like cows awaiting the milking stall, the queue grows but there is only passive acceptance that it is my moment.
I’m still not quite French enough not to care about them so I make my excuses and leave. Usually before I get to the door one of them will say: “Madame Cook?”
I turn. “Say ‘pneumologiste’ … Go on.” Oh OK. Oh, how we laugh. Words, of which there are few thank God, beginning “pneu” are the hardest to pronounce, involving speaking down through the nose and scrunching one’s mouth at the same time.
I am the Benny Hill – a French favourite, even today – of the area.
I can see it’s a request my best friends will never get tired of and I am happy to oblige time after time. Oh, how we crave some form of acceptance, no matter our proud stance as an indifferent outsider. Somehow it is hard-wired into us.
The confirmation of my 100% Frenchness came further when telling my English friend D all of this. In hindsight my joy was too obvious.
“Jesus, Fidelma,” she said, mouth agape. “You’ve become one of the nutters I stand behind. You’ll demand a carrier bag for your drugs next.”
I have. I will. Merci.